We arrived in Bangkok in a flash. One moment we were sleepwalking down the sky liner lined avenues of Hong Kong, 27 hours without slumber, the next we'd descended into the Thai capital. Instantly, we could taste the heat. Scorching humidity that tickled your skin and dried out your throat. The taxis here were yellow and green, more conventional than the video game streetcars of China. We hustled into one, and then we were on the road, hurtling towards the epicentre of Bangkok - a place I'd heard completely mixed things about. A rat race, they'd said. Dirty, smelly and a haven for scam artists. But the thrill of it is inescapable.
One thing you come to realise as you travel the globe is that cities seem to correlate. Some are fruitful with beauty, some are run with ruin, yet all bear that unmistakable urban energy. Frenzied. Forceful. Fucking mad.
Bangkok was no different. Stalls selling bags of fresh herbs and unidentifiable meats. "Tuk tuk, tuk tuk" coming from withered lips hanging under quicksand eyes. The Grand Palace desecrated by endless whirlpools of tourist vanity. Selfie sticks blocking out the sacred monuments. I can't say I warmed incredibly to it, but perhaps that's because I was yearning for calm, a peace eclipsed momentarily by men with worn-down teeth attempting to prey on our naivety.
No. Thank you. A shake of the head. A downturn of the eyes, navigating the city from the gnarled rocks underfoot. A kind of smoke hung in the air, like a grey veil. Not the same kind of smog as Hong Kong, but something more raw, more roadside mechanics than the grandiose churning of industry. Arrogant aromas of food and filth saturating the air. Arresting, they were.
But we found calm eventually, on an Orange Flag boat we took to Nonthaburi (beware of the tourist traps here, this boat costs only 15 baht/ 30p each). In the sun, out of the city. An hour each way with only the flicker of riverside residences to dot my roving thoughts. The boat filled up, then out they floated, to luxury hotels for some, to local establishments for others. Last stop, he called in his mother tongue. A tuk tuk ride later, and we found ourselves in the midst of green. Of pagoda lined lakes. Of a glimpse into the Chao Phraya, but not too deep of one -- it's best left a mystery what she carries within her womb, I'll tell you that. We sat for a while, enjoying the coolness that comes with the brewing of a storm, with only the occasional interruption by the sight of a fire ant. Their sting feels like burning apparently, but luckily we came not to experience it. Collectively, we exhaled.
Other moments like this came at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho and the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, borne from being humbled by such artistry and faith elapsing from the chiselled walls of these religious palaces. White and serene. The refreshment of ice to the scalding of fire.
Khao San Road is the place where people go to dance with the flames. Street massages, sneaky salesmen, an alluring neon vibrancy that will make you forget yourself if only for a minute. Lost in the haze. People watching there is truly brilliant, and the drinks flow like a cola coloured waterfall. Oftentimes into the gutter.
We stayed 15 minutes or so from there in a hostel, away from the noise but not from the buzz. Over the road from us was Thip Samai, Bangkok's most famous Pad Thai restaurant. "Life changing!" "The best in Thailand!" the signs inside loudly professed. And yes, I guess it was. We went twice during our four nights and five days (a long time to stay in the capital, we know) and found ourselves mesmerised by the fire show. Chefs cooking different parts of the gourmet equation, embers lapping up bright and bold, and a queue winding round the corner, night after night.
Fierce, fiery, without being flagrantly crafted, that's what Bangkok was to me. An education. An insight. A place I couldn't stay in for too long, but somewhere that provided a crackling beginning to the rest of our trip.