In Bangkok there are no streets; there are only markets. The street is not a place you just pass through on your way to somewhere else, the street is where you live: where you buy and sell, where you eat and drink, where you meet people, where you spend your days munching the polluted air in the humid heat.
Bangkok is an amazing, mind-blowing mixture, shaken not stirred, of the old with the new, of traditional generic Asia and global modern Brandland. Rickshaws still squeak and asthmatic tuk-tuks still cough beside brand new shining luxury cars on multi-level motorways. At the base of huge glittering skyscrapers topped by logos of Gucci and Prada, old wrinkled women with conic straw hats keep hawking goods to and fro in the dreamy tropical mist. At the market, among the fog of vapours and the smell of meat sizzling over shining embers, throngs move through the stalls, pushing wheelbarrows, chatting, talking on last-gen mobile phones or struggling to chopstick into their mouths some red-hot spicy combination of meat and rice.
Mostly everywhere you go will be thronged, except for the very modern and horribly trendy malls for hardcore fashionistas, where all big international fashion brands flash big billboards. The throngs are, against all expectation, quite ok. It's easy (though slow) to move with them and through them, and people are generally very mindful of letting you through, not bumping into you and not stepping on your foot. They also seem to purposefully make more space for me, as I am, by their standards, big and bulky. Now that's a good joke. I've been a dwarf all my life, but now I'm in the land of the gnomes.
Amazed as I was at the beginning at the way circulation is carried out here (amazed that it worked at all and accidents were not happening constantly), now I find it thrilling and very inspiring. All this time I've spent in places where they not only drive on the wrong side of the road but also walk on it, I've been having those embarassing face-to-face encounters. You know, when you pass someone on the sidewalk and you lean right and he leans to his left, so you both stop face-to-face with a screech and do a silly dance for a while. That hasn't happened to me in Thailand once. People don't walk on the left or on the right, they just walk and avoid each other without bothering to stop to think about it. I think it's something to do with Personal Distance: that thing we have and they don't. We're used to avoid invading someone else's PD and to enforce our own, except when we're in a crowded public transport and we feel uncomfortable about it. Brushing against each other doesn't seem to bother anyone here. With so little space and so many people in it, I guess optimization is essential.
They do the same while driving. Throngs of motorcycles pack the street using all available space. Overtakings are usually carried out within 10cm of an accident. Though you're supposed to drive on the left, it's quite common to have motorcycles driving on the right, avoiding the cars that come head first, if that suits their destination better or their lane is full. All other traffic rules are flexible as well. Traffic lights are only green and red. Green light means "go on, avoiding the guys who jump their red light", and red means yellow. U-turns are feasible anywhere, anytime, whenever suits you better or makes you happier. The other vehicles will just avoid you or very patiently stop and wait. Pedestrian crossings are few and just for show. In practice, when you want to cross the road, you just do, blending in very naturally with the incoming traffic (and inwardly hoping Ganesh liked your last floral offer).
You can't walk 50m without seeing a very decorated shrine to one god or another. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, as the song would have it. A god with spillover in the arms department, if I'm any judge. Buddhism here is huge. There are big wats* all over and orange-clad monks are a common sight on the streets.
But even bigger than Buddhism is The King. I already knew this from my stopover here three months ago, but it keeps surprising me. It's just too much. I've seen his face so much already that I feel I know him personally.
Most often it's just a giant billboard of the king saluting and wearing the trademark Thai impassive face, and the queen smiling a lot and being very nice about something. But sometimes you find pearls like: the King impassively examining construction plans (tovarisch King and the working class), the King impassively playing the saxophone (!!!) or (my favourite) the King impassively trying to figure out how the hell a digital SLR camera works. Keep in mind that these are all huge billboards, sometimes covering whole buildings 30 stories high. The photos are always professional and somehow artistic, apparently trying to emphasize the impassivity of his face, the size of his glasses, or how high he can raise his hand while (impassively) saluting. Long live the Impassive King!
The funniest thing is that people seem to genuinely worship the guy. Even if you could avoid the street propaganda, the guy's face is still on clocks, calendars, and of course, on every respectable desk. Tic-tic, ils sont fous, ces thailandais.
* wat = Buddhist monastery