Southeast Asia / Thailand

Duality

It’s official. I have one week left in Bangkok before flying out to Delhi. I admit I’m feeling a little sad to leave.

It hit me last night after a long day. I had caught an early morning train north with friends to Ayutthaya. We swept through villages and rice fields on the train and for a few hours we wandered through ruins and temples from an ancient Thai kingdom on foot before returning home again. After hours of train rides and walking through ruins in the heat of the sun, my body was sore.

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That evening, I went to the first floor of my apartment building for one of Bangkok’s notorious Thai massages, less than $10 USD. Thai massages are pretty different from the oil massages you may know. In a Thai massage, you are fully clothed and the therapist alternates between applying concentrated pressure to muscles you didn’t know you had and facilitating assisted yoga stretches. I swear I feel like a new woman every time I go. I walk out the door at the end like I’m seeing colors and hearing sounds for the first time.

It was in this moment of post-massage clarity that I started to think about how much I’ve come to appreciate Thailand. Even as an unpaid intern, my quality of life here has been far and above what it would be in any US city. There is incredible, cheap food on nearly any street you see; public transportation on the sky rail, underground, and canals that can get you to temples, sky bars, and parks; and in a predominantly Buddhist country there are tons of resources and services to meditate with mind and body.

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Of course, Bangkok is not perfect. There’s darkness to be sure. For the most part I have stayed away from it, but I’ve heard stories about the shows that are almost unbearable to watch with young girls on display. I’ve seen American and European men who hire women as escorts and prostitutes. I saw the elephants at Ayutthaya chained at the necks while waiting to be used for elephant rides. I heard the stories in Chiang Mai about how people torture these peaceful animals and take them away from their children for a profit. Trafficking remains an issue here, like many places in the region and the world, though work is being done to address it. And, although I haven’t had many encounters myself, I know many women who have been harassed here. On the list of smaller issues, it bothers me how much time people spend looking at their phones rather than talking to one another. And the centrality of consumerism and consumption makes me sad. It’s hard to fathom the amount of plastic that is dumped into the oceans from Bangkok.

It’s kind of a long list when I think about Bangkok’s imperfections. But despite all of that, I have really come to like it here. I know part of the reason I like it is because of the particular life I’m living here as a middle-class American on an education trip. It’s not that way for everyone. I mostly stay in nice parts of the city and can even go to a fancy restaurant once in a while. More than that, I get to see all of the work government agencies are doing in partnership with the UN to improve the quality of life for all. I like it here partly because of those things my socio-economic status affords me, but I also really like the parts that don’t have to do with that: the diversity of people, the sweet fruits, the food, the traffic ballet, the express boats on the canals, the temples, the smell of fresh strung plumeria for making merit, the sleepy cats on uneven sidewalks, the committed public servants who just successfully rescued the first three boys trapped in a cave in Chiang Rai, and people simply looking up and smiling at each other in greeting and thanks.

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I love all of those things about Bangkok even though the bad stuff happens too. Maybe this can be the beginning of me re-acknowledging the duality, the dissonance, that exists in all places, all people, in everything. Especially as Americans, we so badly want to categorize everything into “good” and “bad.” I find myself  categorizing my own country into the latter these days and then struggling to see the good. But ultimately that categorization for any place or people is fruitless and dishonest. Nothing is just good or bad. Bangkok is like that too: complex, multifaceted. For that, a part of me will be sad when it’s time to go.

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