Second day and already things are starting to seem almost normal. The wide-eyed, stunned stare of the newly arrived has started to fade and we're already beginning to etch a tiny bit of routine into the fractal chaos of Bangkok. We've even begun using what rudimentary Thai that we've learned from our guidebooks and (of course) a recently purchased dictionary app: Sawasdee krap! Khap khun krap! Nam kheng saa at mai?
Leaving the hotel on a bustling Friday night and successfully navigating our way to Tomsam Nua in the heart of Siam Square gave us a tremendous amount of confidence. We rode the Sky Train, found the restaurant, ordered successfully — all with the help of smiles and hand gestures — and when we left, we were swept up into the magnificent excess and grime and sparkliness and decadence that is Bangkok. Thousands of people filing past street market stalls, laughing and eating. Thousands of people driving scooters and cars and taxis under the massive concrete columns supporting the Sky Train. Thousands of people dressed to the nines, wandering through shopping malls so extravagant that they seem out of science fiction. When I first entered the Paragon Center, I was so stunned and amazed that I forgot to take any pictures (which if you know me, is truly remarkable). Imagine the most enormous cruise ship, lined with every luxury store you can think of. Imagine a food court with everything from dim sum to ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, from high end Italian to deep fried whole fish, from McDonald's and Au Bon Pain to ramen joints, bibimbop, and Indian curries. Now add in an underground Sea World-type theme park and a Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum featuring the usual suspects — Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith — to the completely unrecognizable — little smirking Asian kid, stolid soccer player. Don't forget the ubiquitous couplings of old, fat white men and beautiful brown young people. Families, herds of uber-trendy Asians with anime hair, expatriates, euro trash, elaborately veiled women, and sunburnt, flip-flopped backpackers all caught up in the swirl and flow of a Bangkok weekend. Dancing fountains, video-feed stage shows, millions of lights, deafening noise.
By the time we returned to our hotel room, we were stuffed with food, wide-eyed with wonder, and I, at least, had fallen completely under Bangkok's spell.
The second day brought us to the famous Chatuchak weekend market, to the north of the city. Now old hats at navigating the Sky Train, we made it without incident and not sure what to expect. All of the guide books make it a point of saying that anything and everything can be found at the Chatuchak Market, but that does little to prepare you for the endless maze of stalls selling glass wares, silk,flowers, Buddhist sculptures, locally designed clothing, transformers, padlocks, furniture, vintage American shoes, jewelry, foot massages, spring rolls, leather bags, blue jeans, fine art, Havaianas, remote control cars, shwarma, belts, coconut water, popsicles, and crocheted hats. This is the looking glass version of the Paragon Center, just as overwhelming, just as over-the-top, just as beautiful.
After Chatuchak, we wandered around a nearby park. After the constant hustle of overheated human bodies, its wide open expanses and open planes felt grounding and delicious. Space, not easy access to global cuisine or Issey Miyake Bao Bao bags, is the true luxury in Bangkok.
From there, we were off to the Hua Lamphong train station to get our tickets to Chang Mai. Rather than the Sky Train, we took Bangkok's Subway, what the guidebooks call a “miracle” that no one believed would be built. Again, compared to the jam-packed chaos of Bangkok's streets and the Chatuchak market, the subway's clean, empty spaces felt idyllic and calm.