Letter from Thailand

by Matt Phipps


Bangkok is a city of contrast.

If you look up, you see the future; if you look down, you see the past. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Bangkok’s tallest building was a mere 12 stories high. Fast forward 20 years, and now there are hundreds of skyscrapers that grace the city’s skyline. The buildings have extravagant trimmings, elaborate designs akin to the Art Deco period of the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s like being in a New York of sorts, without the limitations of a peninsula. There are buildings shooting towards the sky all over the city, not just the downtown or central business district. New companies are popping up all over and the economy is  thriving. You see many Americans, Australians, Germans, and other Europeans here, all getting all sorts of work.

On the flip side, If you were to look down into the neighborhoods, you would see some of the same scenes from the last 50–100 years. Street vendors sell every kind of fruit and meat that you can imagine and cook traditional Thai dishes all hours of the day and for a fair price. Small alleys or sois sprawl all throughout the cities behind the towering buildings and back off of the main streets. Every neighborhood still has three or four locally owned shops, despite the country having an extremely high number of 7-Elevens. Many bars, laundry facilities, tailor shops, family-owned restaurants, and other kinds of shops line these small sois with apartments and houses on top and behind them.

My neighborhood looks kind of weird to the untrained eye at first. Many street dogs, metal buildings, and shitty speed bumps line the street, but there are some of the nicest houses and the finest selection of luxury cars coming down the soi at any given moment. Some of the sois are no wider than one car and could easily have five or six motorbike taxis passing at a time. There is always a commotion going on in the street. On one side of my apartment is a Muslim cemetery and on the other is a Buddhist cemetery. There is a mosque a couple of blocks down and you can hear prayer calls a few times a day. Another tradition they have is playing Thailand’s national anthem at eight in the morning and six in the evening. No matter what you are doing, you stop and listen while it plays through its few short verses. Then back to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.

The mindset here is much more laid back than in most parts of the United States. They call it “Thai Time.” Nobody is in a rush, unless you’re part of the morning commute on the light rail with all of the young, talented work force occupying all of these new high rises. But inside the neighborhoods you’ll find a quiet, relaxed pace of life.