A Waking City

I arrived in Bangkok this morning. To be precise I arrived in Bangkok at 5.45am this morning.

I was not dropped in the bus station, but in the middle of a random street in a random part of the city. I hate it when buses do this, and inevitably, they always do it early in the morning, when you are half asleep and unable to think clearly.

This time, I was ready for it, and instead of taking a tuktuk to another random place in the city, I decided that I would wander the streets until I found a nice place for a coffee.

This being Asia, coffee shops are often few and far between and I knew that I could be wandering for sometime before I found one. However, I don’t have my big bag with me today (as I left it in Chiang Mai), so it was a good opportunity to enjoy the freedom that comes from not carrying much.

I love being awake as the city wakes, and though it took me two hours before I found a place for coffee (for some reason coffee shops in Asia are also often late opening, it being more popular to drink coffee in the afternoon than the morning here), I thoroughly enjoyed walking around and observing the city coming to life.

One of the strangest things about being in a city you don’t know, is that you never know what kind of area you are in. Is it a nice area, a rough area or something in between? Of course there are clues, but in a place like Bangkok when the shops are mostly closed it can be difficult to tell.

As I wandered there were men sitting on the curbside, hanging on to the last remnants of the night time as the sun rose and empty streets began to fill again. They were not drinking at that moment but clearly had been. There were also several men passed out, lying spreadeagled and often face down on the pavement next to street sellers setting up their breakfast stall. Monks walked past in their bright orange robes with bare feet and baskets to collect their morning alms.

I walked past a school, already open at 6.30am. Students piling out of tuktuks in their neat uniforms, all the girls in white shirts and blue skirts and the boys in shorts. Next to the school the road had a paved island and what seemed to be a homeless community living on it.

There were several makeshift beds made with blankets on the pavement and a little boy, maybe 6 years old lying under the covers still sleeping. In the centre of the small island, there were small bushes planted and shaped as ornamental decorations but commandeered for a more practical use, that of drying clothes. A middle-aged woman in a brightly coloured skirt was plucking lice out of another, younger lady’s hair. A group of men were sitting, laughing, in a circle on makeshift stools.

I walked past them and they shouted a hello, so I said “Sawadee-ka” and “Wai-ed” them back again (both hands pressed in prayer position in front of your chest and a small bow, a greeting and sign of respect).

I continued walking and watching as the world around me woke up and went to work.

Countless motorbikes wove in and out of the standstill traffic and I wondered why anyone bothered to drive at all when it must take so long to get anywhere. My feet began to hurt in flipflops that are broken and already too big for me.

I walked past a shop selling Buddhist offerings; garlands of orange flowers, gold platters heaped high with gifts and huge larger-than-life-size-statues of Buddha and other figures outside the door. The owner, an older man, I guess in his fifties or sixties, was stood in the doorway of his shop doing what looked like a morning exercise routine. He was swinging his arms around, squatting and bending.

Across the street, a man rode his motorbike along the pavement, beeped his horn loudly and only just stopped in time not to hit a pedestrian walking towards him. At first I thought, “What a horrible man!” and then the man riding the motorbike embraced the pedestrian and both were laughing hard.

Eventually I found a small coffee shop, where I sat to watch some more. It was almost entirely grey inside with concrete walls and furniture made of silver, burnished metal. It stood in stark contrast to the colourful street stalls, with multicoloured plastic stools gathered around knee-height tables but here, set back from the business of the street outside, I could hide out for a little while and wake up slowly.

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