Thursday, June 11, 2009
Weekend in Bangkok
Two weekends ago my roomie and I went to Bangkok for a few days. She was meeting a friend at the airport, and I was going to get some emergency fundage from my bank (still no wallet). Battambang is only two hours from the Thai border, four hours to Bangkok, then sometimes another two hours into the city, depending on traffic. I had never been to Asia before coming to Cambodia, and in a way Cambodia fit my perception of what Southeast Asia was like a lot better than Thailand did. I wasn’t expecting there to be such significant differences between the two countries. Actually, that’s not totally accurate. I wasn’t expecting to be so affected by the differences. I’ll give some examples.
Border crossings and customs offer a nice little paradigm for how the country and government as a whole function. On the Cambodian side, the customs agents sit on dated furniture and seem a little bit sleepy and/or bored with the whole situation. The whole thing seems fairly informal, given that it is a border-crossing. The Thai side of the border is like a completely new world. There were a few differences that caught my eye as soon as I walked into the Thai customs office. It was clean; gone was the thin layer of grime that seems to coat everything in Cambodia. And it was bright; all the lights seemed to be working. As I sat down I suddenly noticed I felt something I hadn’t felt since the moment I arrived in Cambodia… I was cool. A/C! The whole customs process seemed more orderly, though the customs agents still seemed somewhat indifferent to the whole thing.
I had only been in Cambodia for a little cover two weeks, yet I still had worse culture shock going from Cambodia to Thailand than I did coming from Canada into Cambodia. We boarded a Thai minibus that would take us the rest of the way to Bangkok. The first thing I noticed when the driver pulled out: he signaled! You almost never see this in Cambodia. Second thing I noticed: the road has lanes! And what’s more, the driver uses them! When I first got to Cambodia, it took me two days to even figure out what side of the road you are supposed to drive on (it’s the right) and even so, it’s more of a guideline than a strict rule. The third thing I marveled at was the traffic lights. There was nothing special about them; it was the mere fact that they existed that amazed me. I don’t think there is a single set of traffic lights in Battambang. I was actually surprised the other day when I saw a stop sign in Battambang, but not surprised to see that it was totally ignored. In Cambodia when you need to cross a busy street, the typical procedure is as follows. You wait until there is a solid group of other vehicles (three or four motos and a bike is a good general rule of thumb) pulled up beside you. You wait until there is a break in the traffic (or not) then one brave soul takes the plunge and makes the first move to dart in the street, and the rest of the group follows. Oncoming traffic will wait if the group is too dense to get through, or if there is a truck coming through, but if the group is too sparse, the motos will usually just weave around you. Whenever I try to cross the street, I get a picture in my head of a lemming, who will follow his fellow lemmings as they run off a cliff to certain death. Anyways, from the brief glimpse I got of Thailand, it’s a bit different. Though that’s not to say that the driving didn’t get a little hairy at times- our driver made some turns and attempted to pass a few times that left me feeling a little queasy.
One of the first things we did when we got into the city was go to the 7/11 to get a drink. Battambang doesn’t have a 7/11 or equivalent. If you want a drink or bags of chips or something, you go to a tiny, family owned store. There are hundreds of these little shops that line the streets, with pink and red petrol in 1 liter glass Pepsi bottles for sale out front. The shops are usually very small, dimly lit, kind of grimy, and incredibly cluttered. In the morning you see the ice-men standing at their carts outside these shops, sawing huge blocks of ice with rusty old saws. The shop owners buy the ice to put in coolers- this is the only way to have cold drinks. It’s really hard to describe how I felt when I walked into the 7/11 on Khao San road in Bangkok. It was sensory perception overload. It was bright, SO bright, the floors and walls were so white and clean, with everything lined up in neat little rows, and there was so much selection, I could get whatever I wanted! I just wandered around the store, touching all the packages of chips and chocolate bars, picking them up and putting them back down, opening the fridge doors and feeling the cold air, then closing them again. I was in there for probably thirty minutes, and ended up leaving without buying a thing. It was overwhelming to say the least. My roommate put it best: “I feel like a little girl who has never left the village coming to the big city for the first time.” Exactly on point.
Bangkok really is a city unlike any other. It has a funny mix of all the things you’d expect to find in a developing world city- a huge informal economy, slums on the outskirts, bribery and corruption, lax laws- combined with all the things you would normally associate with a developed country- a successful formal economy driven by pure capitalism, many fancy bars and restaurants, and (I know this sounds odd) sidewalks! It creates the perfect conditions for a thriving party/travel city. Bars are open till the early a.m. and you can get pretty much anything you want at any time of the day or night.
I don’t want to say too much about Bangkok because we stayed in the heart of the main tourist district, and I wasn’t there long enough to get out and really see the rest of the city. In that way my view of Bangkok may be slightly skewed. We pretty much spent two days shopping, eating, and drinking. We didn’t really party (I know, its like blasphemy to go to Bangkok and not party) but after two days I started to get a little claustrophobic, being constantly surrounded by (usually very drunk) people who were just in Bangkok to consume, consume, consume. Two days was enough of the Bangkok scene for me. I got my cash and was happy to get back to Battambang.