Eastern Hemisphere, Travel

how the city changes, and why I’d like to study it more

In Bangkok, I had a chance to do something I couldn’t do in any other city we visited in our Eastern Hemisphere travels – see how the city changed over time. When we settled back into the Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok on January 19, it was my fourth stay there over the course of two and a half months.

Beth and I have been here enough now that many of the staff recognize us. Yesterday when we arrived to check in, the three women who work in the restaurant area – I call them “the breakfast ladies” – all came running out of the building to greet us back to the hotel with wais. They’d never done that before. Strangely, the front desk receptionist, even though she recognized us, didn’t seem unusually happy. Not sad or gruff, just nothing out of the ordinary. I think she said “welcome back” but that’s about it.

So Much to Notice

One reason that it seems things change is that we just notice more and more. Bangkok from street level is very dense compared to our baseline of urban areas of medium-sized American cities. What I mean by that is that if you just stand on the sidewalk and glance at a building, you may or may not notice what kind of business goes on there. But as you learn what to look for, and spend a little more time, you see more and more going on behind that first business.

There are signs everywhere, and the eye is sometimes drawn to the biggest or brightest one at the expense of the others. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked past a given business and only on the six or seventh time actually noticed that there’s another business behind it through a tiny passageway, or on the second floor, or something like that.

I think part of this is just me being ignorant of the visual cues. For instance, when a business is closed here, there’s often a big security door that looks kinda like a garage door that the owner pulls down over the storefront. This covers up the windows so you can’t see that inside there is normally a sewing machine repair shop or wahtever. And the big garage doors often cover over the signs that would be another clue of what goes on there. But also it means that after hours you often can’t tell the difference between a store that is closed for the night and a vacant space.

In a post from several weeks ago, I was complaining about how hard it was for me to find a barber that would work on men in the neighborhood of our hotel. At the time, I imagined some sort of “rent a friend” service where you could hire a local guide who would help you find that sort of thing. And I still think that’s a good idea. In fact, an acquaintance of mine turned me on to the fact that there is already a website where you can find people like this. It’s called rentafriend.com. If I’d known about it on my first time to Bangkok, I probably would’ve used it to help out with some of this kind of thing.

But now that I’ve been here a little more, I’m starting to see where there are more shops of whatever kind I’m looking for, but they’re just not obvious at first glance. I remember asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel where to go to find that mythical men’s barber, and she gave some vague directions about walking down to the hospital, and then looking across the street. I spent an hour wandering around where she described, and never finding the barber shop. Now I realize she doesn’t actually know this neighborhood very well. She just works here, but doesn’t live here. And since the hotel is so new, she hasn’t actually even worked here for very long. So of course she wouldn’t know exactly where to find a men’s barber. She doesn’t spend any amount of time on foot walking around this area. When she’s done with work, she commutes to her home in some other part of the city, spending about as little time in this neighborhood as possible. And since she’s a woman, why would she ever really pay attention to where the men’s barber shop is located? Duh.

So there’s more than meets the eye when you’re walking around Bangkok. No big surprise there. But I don’t think that’s the only reason that it seems things in “our” neighborhood are changing.

Rapid Changes

The first time we stayed at Pas Cher hotel and walked around the area to find places to eat, we found about four or five options. That doesn’t include the restaurants that are in the shopping mall at the end of the street, since those are really obvious and easy to find because they’re clearly marked.

Four or five food stalls seemed like plenty, since they all had different stuff. We could just rotate through them and never get bored. Plus, if one or two turned out to be duds, it’s no big deal because there are others to choose from.

But since then, in only two and a half months, another half dozen food stalls have apparently sprung up from out of nowhere. There’s one right across the street from our hotel now that we haven’t tried, there are two just a couple doors down, there’s a Chinese place midway down the street, and so on.

Also, there are some food carts that have just appeared from out of nowhere. In November, if I wanted coffee, I’d have to walk to one of the coffee shops in the shopping mall or make my own Nescafe in our hotel room. Now, every morning there is a coffee cart in the street near our hotel. There’s also a fruit smoothie cart and a tea cart halfway to the shopping mall. The tea cart also makes coffee, I think. I’ve seen it listed on her menu, but haven’t tried it. More importantly I’ve discovered she makes magnificient chaa yen, what we think of as “Thai iced tea.”

Human Geography

I know this topic probably bores the hell out of most of you. But I have a big fascination with human geography, in particular how cities grow and shrink and change over time.

What forces would cause more food carts and stalls to open up in a short amount of time? Well, the hotel we’re staying in is one force right there. It’s only been open a few months. Some time ago, it was an apartment building, and then everyone moved out and it was remodeled to be a hotel. So I’m guessing that for a period there weren’t as many people in the area, and then suddenly there were more. In particular, there were foreign tourists who eat two or three meals out every day, and have the money to pay for them.

Or maybe these other food stalls were there the whole time but temporarily closed the first time we were here, due to the owners being on vacation in November. Is November a popular time for vacations in Thailand? I really don’t know. But I wish I could settle into a neighborhood of Bangkok for six months or a year and take notes and photos documenting how and why the neighborhood changes. My gut feeling is they change a lot faster than a neighborhood in Denver.

There’s only one problem. Who’s going to give me the money to do this urban geography study, when I have no training as a geographer and can’t speak Thai? Oh, and there’s another problem. I would probably die if I was here for six months. Make that two problems.

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