Life in central Bangkok is far different from the tourist enclave of Banglamphu. Each day brings with it a new quirky adventure, some unexpected discovery. The new city oozes a bizarre manga-esque vibe which seems light-years away from the old city. Is this Japan, or have I been swept up into some psychedelic sci-fi cartoon?
Spiky-headed teens squeal and whine melodramatically into their mini-computer cell phones as the sky train roars by above. A Buddhist nun prices iPhones in the Apple store. A crowd of screaming fans screech and swoon over a group of stick-thin, singing supermodels gyrating on a stage. Beyond the crowd, a surreal, androgynous robot statue guards the path into a parallel world of air-conditioned malls.
Bypassing the fembot, we make our way through a series of elevated tubes and walkways to Central World, the largest mall in Southeast Asia. We hike through the artificial canyons of the labyrinthine structure to its central core, an immense atrium that reaches to the sky. I glance up to discover a web of elevators carrying people in all directions. Is the atrium magical like the tower of moving staircases in Hogwarts? Or is it monolithic and dehumanizing like a Borg cube? I can’t decide. Is this the future of Asia? Is the entire continent growing into one huge super-mall?
I think back to the first time I visited Bangkok in 1990. Where are the boat filled canals and the sarong clad locals? The throngs of orange-robed boys chanting in the monasteries have given way to crowds of cliquish fashionistas. Sometimes, I feel the shock of having stepped across centuries rather than borders. It’s devastating, and yet thrilling at the same time. The traveler in me wants to hate it – but, somehow, I find myself loving the chaos and the contradiction.