When a man approaches you while you are standing on the sidewalk with a map of Bangkok in one hand and a bottle of freshly squeezed tangerine juice in the other, it is difficult to know what attitude to take. Perhaps he is, as he claims, just waiting for his girlfriend, and his only and most sincere intention is to be of assistance. On the other hand, he could be one of the con artists that the Lonely Planet guidebook calls out in their “How to Avoid Scams” section, just trying to figure out how easily — and for what reasons — you might be convinced to part with some money.
So when you ask if you can get to Wat Pho by walking through Chinatown, and he offers up a barely understandable ramble about how Chinatown is basically dead on Sunday and that it is a long walk to Wat Pho from here, you must decide; do you listen to him and allow him to modify your plans? Or do you just simplify your question, “how do we get to Chinatown?”
I decided upon the latter, thanked him with one of my three stock phrases, and crossed the bridge over one of Bangkok's murky green, fetid canals.
At first, the man seemed to be correct. There were no thronging crowds, no food carts sending acrid, delicious smoke into the hot air. Just a few people lounging around, talking and laughing, enjoying private lives in this most exposed of cities. But as we continued on, only half sure of where we were, trying to keep some solid hold on compass bearings in this maze of dead end streets and crooked alleys, things changed. What had been empty streets became a row of stalls. Rows of stalls thickened until the sidewalk became a tight one-way path. And eventually we emerged into one of the most ridiculous markets I have ever witnessed. One that made the Chatuchak seem positively prim.
Here, in Chinatown, was the most densely packed, vibrant, sweaty, and oppressive shopping experience one could ever hope to have. Millions of booths and stalls selling everything from Hello Kitty computer equipment to beaded bracelets, from fish cakes to shoelaces. The smell of heated cooking oil mixed with the smells of automobile exhaust and a deep, fertile humidity.
My memories of this experience are just tiny shards crystallized out of constant and unending motion. A little kid wearing a lime green Gangnam Style t-shirt. A stainless steel bowl full of ice and what seemed to be a tangle of black, gelatinous worms. A plate of chive dumplings, delicious with familiarity. Boxes of condoms decorated with a naked couple having sex while seated on a chair. A woman with a pole balanced on one shoulder, baskets of some kind of food dangling on either end, shouting her way through a crowd of people packed chest to back, face to neck, ankle to ankle. The rest is just adrenaline and haze and a sharp awareness of being somewhere I had never been before; somewhere that, until today, didn't even exist in my imagination.
After a while, we reached the edge of the market and found ourselves lost somewhere in Chinatown. Commerce retreated into storefronts and shopping malls, leaving streets full of tuk tuks, busses, scooters and automobiles. We wandered around some more, sagging with the heat and with stress-delayed hunger. Each block seemed to be devoted to a specific type of consumer good. We passed through another tightly packed sidewalk lined with various audio equipment. The cacophony seeded my brain. My brain blossomed into a headache.
And then, after a couple of heated conversations about where we were and how to get to Wat Pho, we found ourselves on a quiet street edged with white walls. After our extended meander through Chinatown, the quiet felt a physical thing, as refreshing and nurturing as a cold breeze touching a fevered brow. We ducked through an elaborately arched gate, paid 200 baht, and entered most sacred of spaces; Wat Pho: center of learning, home of the reclining Buddha, heart of traditional Thai medicine.
The man who tried to help us was right — it was a long and arduous walk from Hua Lamphong to Wat Pho — and he was wrong — Chinatown wasn't dead, it had just turned its back on tourists and had devoted itself to the needs and concerns of the locals. If we had listened to him, we might have had a more pleasant experience riding the boats linking the SkyTrain to Bangkok's historic old town. But if had, would Wat Pho have offered its blessings so clearly and precisely? For when does water reveal its divine simplicity if not when you are exhausted and hot and ready to falter?