Why I'm leaving Bangkok....

I almost ignored an old lady’s request for help the other day. I like to think of myself as an empathetic person but this incident has made me ponder the person I’ve become in this place.

When you live in a city like Bangkok, you learn to tune-out. If you allowed your ears to hear every barking street dog, every motorbike revving its engine, every sky train scraping along the metal tracks…if you allowed your eyes to see every child existing in squalor, every blind beggar walking down the street holding a bucket for donations, every mangy rat running through the morning market…if you allowed your nose to smell every putrid sewerage pipe, every toxic plume of car exhaust, every pile of roadside rotting rubbish…your sanity would suffer.

So you create a bubble of numbness for yourself and hope nothing pops it as you step out onto the hectic streets. You let the ugliness of the city become a blurry fuzz that you can walk through, or past, without feeling too sad. You let the overwhelming noise become a low hum in the background of the soundtrack to your day. You do your best to cover your face and breathe through your mouth when the stench hits. And by the time you return to your apartment, you’re utterly exhausted from the effort of defending your senses against the penetrative powers of such a heaving metropolis.

A few days ago, as a tried to tune-out a particularly chaotic part of town  (where men sell sex toys and Viagra pills, where tailors shout at you to “Buy suit inside my store today!” and where young women sit with newborn babies in their laps asking for coins to fill their cups) I came across an old woman, face covered in a black veil, standing at the edge of the pavement. As I got closer, she reached both hands out to me. 

Was she a beggar? Should I keep walking? Was this a scam? A voice inside my head told me to turn away and continue down the footpath but for some reason, on this particular day, I reached through my bubble’s protective walls and put my hands out towards her. 

With very unsteady feet she held onto me and hauled herself up onto the footpath. She had been waiting for someone to help her navigate the incline – afraid, and too frail, to do it on her own.

I felt a sudden rush of pride in helping an old woman. And then shame. I was so close to ignoring her. How many others, in need, had I tuned-out as I walked the streets of this city? 

I’ve been listening to Eckhart Tolle lately. He talks a lot about the importance of being in the ‘now’ in terms of achieving inner peace. About the stress caused, to yourself and those around you, when you are ‘here’ but you want to be ‘there’. Every time I hit the streets of Bangkok I feel like I’m holding my breath and hoping I don’t have to inhale any of the city until I reach my destination. It’s no way to live.

There was a time when I truly adored living in Bangkok. When the buzzing chaos made me feel alive. I guess I imagined, when I returned years later, that this love affair would pick up where it left off. The city hasn’t changed that much. But I have. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. All I know is that it’s no longer the place for me.


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