One Week in River City

Every few weeks I get exhausted by the constant packing and logistics of travel.  So in Bangkok I found a place to stop for a week and try to catch my breath, a cheap room in the center of ageing blocks of jewelry shops.  Unless you’re buying jewelry there’s really no point to be there, but I picked it because it bordered the river.  Unfortunately with houses and shops going right to the river’s edge it was impossible to see the river.  But it was clean and decorated with hippy art and a pink polka dot rhino head so I felt at home.

I quickly settled in to a routine: slept late, read, then took a short walk.  Every day on my walk I’d pass a man in the lobby.  I don’t know why, but he was slowly building a wall of bricks against the hotel dining room wall.  Along the street I’d pass friendly taxi drivers standing around all day across from a hotel, passing up small trips for a chance to go to the airport and charge four times the normal rate.  There was abandoned construction and closed shops, a man offering private river tours in his Thai long-boat, a row of Tuk Tuks lined up like peacocks, and finally River City Mall.

Taxis near Bangkok's River City Mall
Taxis near Bangkok’s River City Mall

The mall, a new multistory river dock, part of some revitalization plan, stood like a deserted island in the middle of my barren neighborhood.  Aside from the people working there I was the only one in the building.  On the ground floor stalls offered gelato, souvenirs, and boat tickets to empty halls.  An unmoving guard on the dock stared at the river; purposeless without people or boats to protect.  Upstairs three floors of high end antique shops held ancient golden Buddhas sitting patiently behind locked doors and staring at empty hallways.  I went to the coffee shop, it was the perfect quiet place to work on photos, except for the sappy English love songs that played endlessly on the PA.

Lonely Guard at River City Watching a Long Boat
Lonely Guard at River City Watching a Long Boat

After a few hours of silence I heard voices, looked up and was surprised to see that hundreds of people had flowed in to every crack of the mall.  The guard and shop attendants were all suddenly animated and moving with mechanical purpose.  The halls echoed with dozens of languages, tourists jostled to view antiques, and children smiled over gelato.  Tour groups moved chaotically to illuminated luxury dinner boats that had magically stopped at the docks.  And just as quickly as they appeared the crowds were gone to some new future up the river and River City fell back in to stasis.

Antique Stores and Empty Halls at River City
Antique Stores and Empty Halls at River City

My next few days were identical: read, a few more bricks, ‘taxi sir’, ‘I have a long boat’, ‘Tuk Tuk’.  Bricks, taxi, tuk tuk.  The exact same drivers, the exact same Tuk Tuks.  I began to think of the drivers as my friends, but realized they’d forgotten me from the day before.  I wasn’t part of their lives, just another tourist passing through.  At River City: coffee, photos, love songs, the ebb and flow of noisy crowds, and silence.  I realized I’d stopped on a tourist route, a place that exists only to pass through, a place no outsider is meant to stay.  I was witnessing the dull frozen moments behind a pattern I didn’t belong to.  But I enjoyed living in River City’s secret silence, it’s slow lonely waiting.

Time to Get on the Dinner Cruise
Time to Get on the Dinner Cruise

The week of repetition and silence was just what I needed to restore my energy and my longing for variety.  I grabbed a taxi to the airport, said goodbye to my rhino, and gave up the promise of the river for one of air.  I’m sure the same taxi drivers are still there, a man’s long boat waits in the river, and tour groups get on glistening boats on their way upstream.  I wonder if the brick wall is finished.

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