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Bangkok, Thailand — February 2005

February 22nd, 2005

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The first noble truth in Buddhism is dukkha [wikipedia.org], which means suffering — mental and physical. Bangkok is filled with dukkha. Bangkok is the dirtiest city I have ever been to. The streets are filled with smells of decaying trash and unwashed bodies, broken intermittently by the smell of cooking food sold by street vendors. The street vendors cook the food and then set it out on their stalls for the fly’s to eat. Even if I was not a vegetarian I would not eat the grilled meat covered with whatever comes off the fly’s feet.

Bangkok was caught in the middle of uncontrolled expansion in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis stuck. Bangkok was the epicenter of the crisis and the wounds still show. Half finished skyscrapers stand like skeletons amid the, mostly older, buildings. Rusting out cranes dot the skyline, I hear one fell down recently and killed some people. It wouldn’t surprise me if it killed a lot of people. All the land around these half-finished monuments to economic growth is covered with shanties. Hundreds of thousands of them, made from corrugated steal and plastic tarps. I think most of the population of Bangkok actually lives in shanties. Traveling by train from the central station is like a journey into the ads for Christian Children’s Fund [christianchildrensfund.org]. All along the tracks people live and work amid the shanties. Children really do play in trash heaps — in the shade of a dumpster.

Here amid the row after row of shanties the smells are overpowering. The canals that once won Bangkok the nickname ‘Venice of the East’ are little more then black water pools of trash festering with who knows what undiscovered disease. Many of the houses are built on stilts to span small canals and the rivers of trash that line their banks. In many places chicken peck at the trash for food, dogs rummage amid the plastic bags and cats sleep in the shadows.

But Bangkok has not lost all charm. Get lost a little bit near China town in all the no name wat‘s and the markets and you can still see the faces of people who gave Bangkok it’s other nickname; the city of smiles. The bigger wat‘s are filled with bus loads of tourists but along the smaller back roads you still see many saffron robed monks out begging for their daily bread.

Filled with tuk-tuk‘s and taxis Bangkok is a noisy, crowded, polluted city hiding it’s charm amid poverty, prostitution and profiteering. But hidden away amid the cheep fakes for sale on every street corner and the flashy tourist dives filled with prostitutes there is still some charm left.

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