Bangkok is a bit like eating your favourite meal in a sauna full of sweaty men: Deliciously uncomfortable, invading all the senses.
From the moment you touch down and the sweat starts forming you are assailed from all sides: The air that lays heavy in your mouth as you breathe it in, its scent a mixture of exhaust fumes, humidity and spices; from the thatch rooved cafes that line the highways into the city, manned by tired looking women standing guard like votives, to the sea of shanty towns that stretch out before your eyes like spilled mercury, from row upon row of decadent facades to the benevolent, smiling Buddha, smiling serenely in his glowing surrounds, Bangkok is a constant contradiction.
Perhaps it is this juxtaposition that so captivates tourists and brings them to the city, and indeed the country, in droves. And I don’t know what it is about Thailand that seems to bring out everyone’s latent inner hippie. Its like wandering amongst extras of a Woodstock revival: Tie dyed shorts, sarongs, bare feet, wooden beads, (look ma no sleeves!), blissful smiles, long beards. All the technicolour taxis, buses and tuk tuks seem to have rubbed off onto the crowds .
The hour long bus ride in from the airport took me past barely standing shanty towns perched on the edge of the river. Their dreary facade had been brightened by hundreds of makeshift washing lines, colourful clothes flapping in the breeze. I was surrounded on all sides by scooters and motorbikes, pick up trucks with tired looking workers resting in the back, and brightly coloured buses home to giggling, waving school children. Of course if as a tourist the sight of all this poverty is too much you can always escape it by retreating to the decadent confines of the Grand Palace and temples.
Walking into the grounds after covering myself up with the heavy sarong provided I was dazzled by the display of wealth that lay before. Giant statues stood guard at the gilded doorway and off in the distance a giant, golden temple rose up, almost blinding in the sunshine. The rooves were heavy with coloured tiles and glass and everywhere there was golden monuments, jewel encrusted statues and beautifully painted doorways. Inside the temple locals prayed to a giant Buddha surrounded on all side by what was probably enough booty to make every worshipper in the room a rich person ten times over.
Faced with such glaringly obvious inequalities it got me thinking about what I learned on my travels. Firstly I think traveling teaches you tolerance. As special and interesting as we all may like to think we are, in reality we’re much more similar than our highly individualised society would have us believe. We’re all boring, interesting, smart, dumb, funny, fascinating, normal everyday people. Everyone from the richest person down to the poorest peasant farmer has dreams, ideas, wants, needs. And traveling opens your eyes to this and allows you to be more accepting of others.
But it also teaches you intolerance. Intolerance for the inequalities in the world that are staring us in the face. Inequalities between us the bugdget backpacker, half clean and hungry but still rich and free and the inhabitants of many of the countries we visit. From learning that we are all so similar it makes it even harder to accept the poverty that we are lucky enough to step over and escape. Our only memory of it coming from pictures and a hazy recollection.
I really hope that I can go on to do something to help, to give something back, to the countries and the people that gave me my wealth of experiences, taught me so much and inspired me. To me what I’ve seen and absorbed is worth more than any money I could ever earn.