Lost in Bangkok
By the end of June 2016, I left Switzerland where I used to live to begin the greatest trip of my life, the one that would change everything: I was about to fly to Australia for one year, alone. On my way, I stopped in Bangkok for a couple of days, for a stopover that turned out to be much more eventful than expected. This memory left a big mark on me, at the point that I decided to tell the story of it in the first chapter of the book I started to write in 2021. At the moment when I’m publishing this article in March 2023, I’m about to fly back to Australia for a few more months, with another two-day stopover in Bangkok. I still haven’t finished writing the book I began two years ago, but I wanted to share this introduction chapter, as a memory of the very first hours of that trip that was going to change my life forever.
It’s not even 11am yet, but the modern entrance hall of the Suvarnabhumi airport of Bangkok in Thailand is already full of activity. Loud announcements in Thai and English follow one another, partially covered and made inaudible by the continual hubbub. A colorful and heterogeneous crowd mixes, intertwines, sometimes jostles, in a disorderly effervescence: Asian business men in suit and tie fighting their way to their boarding gate through a group of loud young Europeans on holidays, dissipated and overexcited children watched out of the corner of the eye by their parents waiting to check in their luggage, crew members in uniform leaving a plane that has just landed, pushing through the crowd with a superior air; wealthy tourists with luxury watches, laid back travellers in shorts and hawaiian shirts, backpackers almost hidden by their huge backpacks, men in turbans and veiled women…
In the midst of this tumult, indifferent to the bustle around me, I am prostrate on a bench, alone. My senses are attacked by the discomfort of my seat, by the constant noise of flashy advertising screens and by the greasy and oily smell that emanates from the nearby fast food restaurant. The day before, I started a trip that will take me to Australia where I plan to stay for a year, with a two-day stopover in Bangkok on my way. It’s been over an hour and a half since I landed on Thai soil, but I still haven’t left the terminal. I am curled up on myself, unable to move, taking refuge in a bubble where time seems to have stopped. What could have led me to such a situation, when my journey began less than twenty-four hours ago and still more than seven thousand kilometers away from my destination?
My heart was pounding as I left Europe and boarded a one-way flight to Australia on that late June afternoon. I had tears in my eyes, my emotions were running high, in the grip of intense excitement, immense melancholy and crippling stress. I had been dreading this moment for weeks as much as I was looking forward to it. Now that I was so close to the departure, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of everything that lay ahead, but it was too late to back down. It was only once on board of the plane that I began to gradually regain my composure. I had tried to sleep but without much success, I had watched several movies, listened to music and read to pass the time, and then early in the morning on Bangkok time, the captain announced that we were beginning the approach maneuvers.
It was around 9 a.m. when the wheels of the Airbus A340 in which I was sitting touched the runway of Suvarnabhumi Airport. I had been assigned seat 17K, window side, and my eyes were glued to the outside. My brain was running a little slow; there is a five-hour time difference between Thailand and France, and if the day started in Bangkok, for me it was four in the morning and I was coming out of an almost sleepless night. But the fatigue was bearable and I felt ready to put aside all the negative emotions that had invaded me at the departure. Little by little, my anxiety disappeared, replaced by the growing impatience to discover this city of a bubbling reputation.
Customs went smoothly, and a few moments later I arrived at the baggage claim, waiting for the large blue backpack I had checked in to appear. Those few moments turned into minutes, then into too long minutes. Something was wrong. Around me, the other passengers took turns grabbing their luggages and heading for the exit while the carousel continued to turn tirelessly, gradually emptying of its load. After a while, it became clear that no more bags were coming. The carousel made another rotation or two, conveying only one last orphan gray suitcase, then stopped. I was alone waiting, the last passenger on the flight who had not yet left the airport, and I had to face the fact: my backpack wasn’t there.
It is estimated that approximately twenty-five million pieces of luggage are misplaced worldwide each year. This is a considerable figure, but which ultimately represents less than one percent of the more than four billion suitcases, parcels and bags passing through the planet’s airports. It’s the kind of thing that “only happens to others”, but that day, the other was me.
Rarely have I felt so lost as at this precise moment. The fragile beginning of confidence that I had managed to recreate during the flight had just been shattered, leaving me completely distraught. My year-long journey had started barely twelve hours ago, and I had already lost almost all of my belongings: a more calamitous departure could hardly have been imagined! As I realized the magnitude of this twist of fate, the exhaustion of the journey won over me, while my level of anxiety raised again. I managed to keep myself under control for a few more minutes, the time to explain my situation in bad English to the staff of the airport, to fill out a form and to write down the phone number to call to track my complaint, then I left the place and collapsed on the first bench that I found in the entrance hall.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, lying curled up on the bench, indifferent to the few curious people glancing over me. There was no one to help me, no safety net, nothing. All the relatives I could count on were thousands of miles away. That morning in Bangkok, it was still night time in France and I couldn’t even consider calling a friend or my parents to reassure me. I was absolutely alone, and that thought terrified me. All kinds of feelings blended inside me, including two questions that kept coming up: did I make the right decision in choosing to leave? Didn’t I make a terrible mistake? If someone had come to offer me a ticket for a return flight about to leave, I would have followed him without hesitation. But luckily, it didn’t turn out that way.
After a fairly long time, I managed to calm myself down and regain control of my emotions, thinking more calmly and logically again. There was nothing else I could do. I had reported my bag missing, and I could only wait now and hope that the airport staff would contact me soon. Not everything was lost however: I still had my wallet and my carry-on suitcase with me, which contained my main valuables (a small laptop and a camera) as well as a change of clothes. It was enough for the two days I had planned to spend in Bangkok.
I had only two options: stand there feeling sorry for myself, or face the situation and move on. Coming to this conclusion, I finally straightened up, taking a few moments to get used to the bustle around me, then I left the bench and launched myself.
Moist, stifling heat. It was the very first sensation that hit me as I left the air-conditioned atmosphere of the airport behind me. After half an hour by metro, I arrived in the middle of Bangkok where I went looking for the hotel I had booked, near the main train station. It was a small establishment with a faded facade, badly soundproofed, but luckily the rooms were air-conditioned. At the reception, I explained my luggage problem to an old man, toothless and sweating profusely despite the antique electric fan painfully stirring a little air behind him. He was obviously eager to help me but didn’t speak any English at all; fortunately, another employee around my age (possibly his son) was also present and I quickly managed to make him understand the situation. He very kindly offered to call the airport on my behalf to find out if there was anything new concerning my backpack, and promised to let me know as soon as he would know more. I left my suitcase in my room, and somewhat relieved by this friendly and unexpected help, I set out to explore the city.
After suffering from the heat on the way to the hotel, my body quickly got used to these unusual weather conditions; as for my mind, still a little clouded by all these adventures, it also gradually cleared up to focus on everything around me. The images, the sounds, the smells then overwhelmed me: the uninterrupted ballet of cars, vans, motorcycles launched loudly and at full speed on the road but managing in an almost permanent miracle to slip away at the last moment, the unimaginably rich gildings of the Grand Palace contrasting with the tangle of electric cables on every street corner, the hubbub of the crowd everywhere in town, the smell sometimes captivating of spices in the markets and incense in the temples, sometimes repulsive in places where the rubbish piled up. Time seemed to live in accelerated here, in a profusion of colours, sensations, and life.
How to summarize Bangkok? I had the feeling of having been parachuted into the heart of a fabulous disorder, in the middle of a huge mess, in a joyful nonsense. A motley mix of Westerners, street vendors, Buddhist monks, policemen or soldiers in uniform, drivers (or should I say pilots) of tuk-tuks, very pleasant at first sight but whose faces instantly closed as soon as I declined their services. It would take a lifetime to experience every aspect of this city, and the shock of this discovery was too brutal for me to absorb in one go. These two days of visit barely allowed me to glimpse what makes Bangkok so special; I only stayed on the surface, not daring to dip more than the tip of my toe in the bubbling of this place so different from the well-ordered calm of Switzerland I had just left. It was too early for me to completely step out of my comfort zone, but at least I had no difficulty blending in with the crowd. The incongruous is on trend in Bangkok, and my rather banal presence went completely unnoticed.
During this first day, I went to the temple of Wat Pho, one of the largest of Thailand. It is famous for its huge and fabulous statue of Buddha, representing him lying on his deathbed, his left arm along his body and his right arm supporting his head with half-closed eyes. I was struck by the kind and soothed expression of his face which oddly comforted me, as if his simple silent presence assured me that everything would be fine. I felt that the weight I had on my chest since losing my bag that morning was beginning to fade as I slowly regained my confidence.
As I walked around the temple grounds, I was surprised by a violent and sudden monsoon shower, characteristic of the rain season in this tropical region of the planet. Instead of cooling the air, it only increased the humidity, and when I got back to my hotel that night I was sticky with sweat, exhausted, but happy with my day.
As soon as I entered the reception of the hotel, the young employee who had helped me at lunchtime rushed towards me: “Mister Matthias! Your luggage has been found!” he told me in English with a broad and frank smile. Only slight inconvenience, it was not in Thailand; it hadn’t even left Europe, since it was at that precise moment in… Vienna (had an airline employee confused Austria with Australia?), more than nine thousands kilometers away. Still with the support of the young man, I immediately called the airport where I was assured that my bag would make the trip to Bangkok the next day, and that it would be brought to me immediately. I gave the adress of the hotel where I was going to spend my second night, hoping that they were telling the truth and that it would be delivered to me before my flight to Australia scheduled for the following morning. Warmly thanking my makeshift interpreter, I thought back with a smile to the strange sensation of comfort I had felt in front of the reclining Buddha. For the first time since I left, I felt optimistic and determined again.
After a restful night, I woke up refreshed, ready to resume my explorations of Bangkok. I had planned to visit the Grand Palace, but rather than going there directly, I decided first to cross Chinatown, located very close to my hotel.
It was my very first stroll away from the most popular tourist spots, in the middle of one of the beating hearts of this metropolis where more than twenty millions of people live. Until then, I never really left the beaten tracks during my previous travels, and I still remained timidly in the background during this brief incursion, impressed by the tumult of the place, making me small and not daring to take out my camera. I only took a few pictures “on the fly” with my mobile phone, but which when I look at them today seem to perfectly transcribe the atmosphere of Chinatown. Most of these pictures are a little blurry, not very well framed, the light is bad, but they are a bit like this neighborhood: chaotic, swirling, and at the same time so alive.
I had no specific goal and wandered randomly among the crowd, along narrow alleys lined with countless stalls, sometimes having to step aside to let a loudly honking scooter pass to clear its way. You can find literally everything in Chinatown: incense vendors, Buddha statues, colorful spices in huge jars, cans and bowls of unidentified products, cheap t-shirts (but not necessarily good looking…), spare parts for all types of vehicles, exotic fruits, luxury items at unbeatable prices (leaving some doubts about their origin), smelly fried fish and hundreds of other things. At every street corner, electrical wires tangled with each other in an inextricable chaos, while most of the facades showed significant signs of wear. And then suddenly, at the bend of a crowded alley, the almost anachronistic calm of a temple offered a soothing oasis in the middle of this incessant tingling. I had discovered a part of the soul of Bangkok, far from the much smoother modern districts, and this first glimpse had given me a furious desire to taste it again.
I spent most of the afternoon visiting the immense Grand Palace, marveling at the richness of its temples, its frescoes, its decorations, then it was time to head to my second hotel. The next morning, my flight was departing from Don Muang airport, north of Bangkok, and not from Suvarnabhumi to the east from where I had arrived. For the sake of comfort and to avoid getting up at dawn, I had chosen to spend the night in a slightly more expensive establishment (although still very cheap compared to the European rates I was used to) but very close to the airport, and I had decided to go there by train.
Even more than my morning wanderings in Chinatown, this trip was a real dive into the daily life of thousands of Bangkok inhabitants. I was the only European in the crowded carriage, feeling slightly uncomfortable and out of place, but no one seemed to mind my presence. It was the end of the day, people were leaving their workplaces in the city centre to return to their homes in the huge suburbs stretching for miles around. The train was always full: at each stop, dozens of people got off the carriage, immediately replaced by dozens of others. Through the window, I saw residential buildings with walls worn by time and lack of maintenance, a few temples with sloping roofs, old colonial-style facades and above all an incalculable number of haphazardly low houses. The lack of means of those living in these poor neighborhoods was obvious, making me realize even more clearly how much I came from a privileged environment, even if I had chosen to leave it to go to the other end of the world.
It was also the praises of slowness: about an hour to cover the twenty kilometers separating the central station from the airport, with a dozen of stops on the way. However, based on the endless lines of vehicles waiting at each level crossing, I’m not sure that a taxi would have much faster! I saw an open-air market with colorful stalls along the tracks; here, a few children were playing football, not paying attention to the train passing right by them; there, the garbage piled up in huge heaps. Once again, I didn’t dare to take any photos, but the memories of this journey remained imprinted on me.
I eventually reached my hotel, where a good surprise was waiting for me: my bag was ahead of me this time! It had been delivered only a few minutes before my arrival, and the girl at the reception had taken care to put it aside. It was a huge relief. I could leave Thailand with peace of mind, happy to have been able to make the most of my brief stay. This twist of fate had been a hard ordeal to overcome, but I had successfully proved myself that I was capable of facing this kind of situation alone, which would certainly come up again for the next twelve months.
A last memory of these two days in Bangkok comes back to me. I had planned for this final evening to have dinner in a restaurant close to my hotel, but the monsoon decided otherwise. The pouring rain made it clearly impossible to go out! I made do with the frozen dishes offered by the members of the family running the establishment, perhaps in anticipation of this kind of situation. They were obviously very surprised to see me prefer to stay for dinner at the table next to the one they occupied in the vast dining room on the ground floor, certainly expecting to see me go up to my room with my dish. Apart from them, the room was empty and I was the only foreign presence, arousing their curiosity. After a few attempts to communicate made difficult by the language barrier, they had called for help the young girl at the reception who spoke some basic English, and she served as an interpreter as best she could.
Thailand is sometimes referred to with a touch of condescension as the “Land of Smiles”; my own experience was too brief to attest to it, but this prologue ends with the image of this family laughing out loud at my clumsy attempts to pronounce a few words in Thai, leaving me with many imperishable memories and a deep desire to return to Bangkok one day. But first, let’s go to Australia.