Saturday, October 15, 2011

THE MYSTERIES OF BANGKOK

I arrived in Bangkok last July in a state of slight panic and confusion. There was no way I was even going to try to tackle Thai (it's not only a different language but a different alphabet, too!), and would I ever be able to tell the difference between Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi whatever, much less negotiate my way through the auto and human traffic? I've gotten better at both, but I'm still no expert on the mean streets of Bangkok. If one out every two cab drivers can't find the way back to my hotel, what hope have I?

"Do you know the way to the Anantara in Sathorn?"

It's the most common question to come out of my mouth since I've begun calling the hotel/apartment complex home. But it's hardly the only one (question, not hotel/apartment complex in Bangkok).

1. Where are all the movie posters? One of my favorite memories of living in New York City is entering the subway station on my way to work and spotting a new poster for a coming attraction when it was still in mint condition before inevitably being defaced by hoodlums with no respect for the fine art of cinema. I almost missed the subway once or twice because I was so engrossed in the one for The Hours, pondering the above-the-title billing: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, which, in my mind at the time, was the reverse order of why people would want to see it. (This was pre-commercially resurgent/The Devil Wears Prada Streep, and Moore was still Oscar bait.)

And how dare they mention Madeleine Stowe (always one of my actress pets, and, mark my words, a shoo-in for a 2012 Emmy for her new role in Revenge) in the TV ads for The General's Daughter but not put her above the title with John Travolta on the poster?! The movie billboards were fewer in Buenos Aires, and in Spanish, too, so the effect wasn't always quite right: ¿Qué Pasó Ayer? just didn't have the same ring as The Hangover. And don't get me started on Secretos Intimos instead of Little Children. But at least there were posters. In all my time in Bangkok, aside from one ad for, of all things, No Strings Attached, and one for The Hangover Part II in Lebua, the hotel where some of its scenes were filmed, I don't think I've seen a single movie poster on any road or soi. I guess Justin Timberlake really is a movie star now!

2. Do people here sweat? Within minutes of venturing outside, the waterworks begin, and I'm practically drenched. I look around me, and everyone else is completely dry, seemingly unaffected by the high humidity levels. Is it nature or nurture? Were they born this way, with inactive sweat glands that save them from the ignominy of sweaty armpits, or have years spent under the blistering summer sun helped them adapt to the heat and beat it without even trying?

3. Will there ever be another day without rain? Shortly after my first arrival in Melbourne last year, my friend Marcus shared with me a famous Melburnian saying about the city's famously temperamental climate: "If you don't like the weather in Melbourne, wait a few minutes. It'll change." One can say the same thing about rainy monsoon season in Thailand. It's not unusual to wake up to the rhythm of gently falling rain and have clear blue skies by noon that give way to thunder, lightning and torrential downpours by sunset. At least the view of storm clouds rolling in from my 14th-floor balcony is one of the most spectacular things I've seen in the entire country.

4. What's with the sandbags? Hundreds of people have died since July due to flooding in the north of Thailand, and all week, as more land becomes inundated, I've been inundated with news reports that the water is flowing our way. Thankfully, Bangkok's business district, where I live, is expected to be spared, but just in case, there are sand bags everywhere. My question is this: What exactly will these bags of sand do to protect us from a surge of water that rises several meters above the ground? That would be one view from above that I can live without, and if I get to, it will be a mixed blessing. The tragic loss of lives up north will probably make me feel more than a little bit guilty about my neighborhood being unscathed.

5. Food and drinks are so cheap, but why are gym memberships so expensive? When I was calling around looking into joining a gym on a short-term monthly basis, I couldn't believe the prices they were quoting, with what I presumed must have been straight faces. My two-week trial membership at Fitness First set me back about $50 (each subsequent visit would be close to $20, unless I paid for a $100-plus-per-month membership -- I passed on both), which is comparable to what you'd have to pay in the developed Western world. But when you can get a $4 five-star meal on Silom Road at 4 in the morning, you have to wonder, why do they make it so expensive to work off the food the next day?

Maybe it's a conspiracy: Load them up with delicious food, then make them have to pay dearly to work it off. Are the street vendors taking a cut of the gyms' profits? It's out there for sure, but more far-fetched things -- like cockroaches as a popular late-night snack -- have turned out to be true. I wonder how much time you'd have to spend on the treadmill to work off a platter of that!
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