13 Months Alone in Bangkok
Jessica Mack is a women’s rights consultant living in Bangkok.
So: how did you get here?
In a nutshell, I’m in Bangkok because my life sort of fell apart. I ended a 7-year relationship and I moved out of my apartment, leaving my cat and car and all my stuff — and I was staying with a friend, and then I got into a bad bike accident. Mentally and emotionally and physically, I was just done.
So I kind of took the opportunity to stop working for awhile — with my arm in a cast it was hard to type. I gave myself permission to drop out of that part of my life for a few weeks, and I started thinking about Asia. I had been to Bangkok the year before to visit friends, and I felt like it was a good place for me, and maybe I needed to go. At the time I wasn’t sure what I needed except that I needed to go.
And I got my birth chart read, which is something I wouldn’t normally do, but I was totally collapsed and I was just looking for a way to understand my life in any way I could. In the aftermath, I saw a shaman, an astrocartographer, a life coach, a therapist.
Which was the most helpful?
Having really wonderful friends was the best thing of all. But with the astrocartographer, what they do is they read your birth chart and then identify places in the world that are better and worse for you, analyzing the meridians that are running all over. And I gave him places that were significant for me, and he told me that he’d found that southeast Asia was really good for me. “Don’t go to Nairobi, go to Bali.” So this plan started to form in my head to go to Asia by the end of the summer.
So he was confirming a feeling you’d already had. What was it about Bangkok that made you feel like it was a good match for you, previously?
Oh, this amazing combination of energy and chaos, but also lightness. People were just warm, laughing more. It’s hard to explain, but I loved it.
So then, serendipitously, I applied for and got a job in Bangkok.
The same sort of work you’d done before?
Yes. I was working with the UN on gender-based violence projects. So that happened in a week or two, and I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok leaving 9 days after I bought it. I just jumped off. I was there for a six-month contract consultancy, so I thought, okay, a few months.
What did you do right when you got there? Were your friends from the previous year still there?
They were, but when I landed they were out of the country in Europe for two weeks. So I booked myself into a hotel and said, “I’m going to find an apartment in two days.”
And I did, through colleagues. Yeah, it was really early on a Thursday morning when I landed, and I actually went to work that day and got caught in a monsoon, and then I found my apartment.
A monsoon! Holy shit. Okay, what’s your apartment like? Do you live by yourself?
Yeah, a furnished one bedroom. I just found it, and it was the first time I’d ever lived by myself, actually, and I got settled while my friends were still out of town. A week after I arrived, I had my birthday all alone, which was kind of perfect after everything that had happened.
What was your state of mind right when you got there?
I think I was little incredulous about what I’d done. I was pretty sad, too. I spent a lot of time crying by myself, which felt not even sad but necessary. It was a very extreme feeling of intense alone-ness, but in that way it was also exciting.
What was it like getting to know the city?
People here are really friendly to foreigners, so for being alone and nursing a heartbreak, this is a wonderful place to be. I just started walking around the neighborhood, getting to know the various food carts, street vendors, stores.
What does your neighborhood look like?
People say it’s like the Williamsburg of Bangkok, but I don’t even know what that means! I guess it’s supposedly a cool, bohemian, artist hipster area. It’s pretty bustling, tree-lined, big apartments and small little houses. There are a lot of wealthier young Thai people here, not as many foreigners. So it’s got a good mix of cool bars and restaurants but also just nitty-gritty street stalls. My favorite all-time street vendor is this woman who sells pork satay: a dollar for 10 sticks.
What is the cost of living like?
Relatively low for expat standards and for an urban environment. I live in a furnished one bedroom for $600 a month, in the sort of building that has a gym and a pool. This kind of place in New York would cost four or five times as much, for sure.
You can get very fancy here — there are lots of big high rises, and people have full service apartments with maids. Every service you can imagine, you can probably have it done. It’s a pretty surreal environment to live in if you’re not used to that.
Do you hang out with mostly expats? Friends with your coworkers?
I mostly work from home now, but I started off working at the UN building and met people through that. With the expat crowd here, you have the development sector folks, the people who work in hospitality, the journalists, the teachers. But my friend group is sort of scattered in terms of any uniting quality — they’re mostly expats, although I do have some Thai friends.
The only real common thing is that everyone has lived abroad elsewhere. Living internationally, traveling, existing in other cultures is part of everyone’s life who you meet here — and that’s a really wonderful connection. The friends that I have here, I haven’t known them for that long but I feel intensely close to them. I trust them. It’s sort of like meeting at summer camp.
You’ve got such an interesting job — can you tell me more?
I’ve been working as a women’s rights and reproductive health consultant for about three years.
How did you get into that?
I actually did my graduate work in Buddhism, and wanted to be a professor of Buddhist studies. But then I had this really formative experience in northern India working with Tibetan Buddhist nuns — the most rad women, living extremely remote parts of the Himalayas — and I was like, “I can’t be in academia, I want to be in the real world.”
So I started working with Planned Parenthood in New York City, and then I got burned out and moved to Seattle with my then-boyfriend, and just was lucky to continue to get projects, these various combinations of research and writing.
What are these women’s issues like in Bangkok?
I’ve mostly been focusing on violence against women, which is a big problem in this region. What’s particularly interesting is the stereotype that there’s a passivity to Asian culture — this idea that it’s like, “Oh, no, we’d never hit our women,” when the reality is also sometimes “unless they burn the food.” So, in this region, governments are just starting to admit that there’s a problem; in Laos, it was just a few years ago that the government ever addressed it, and people here don’t talk about it.
Bangkok is a very interesting place to be a Western feminist. A lot of people think sex tourism when they think of this city — and there’s definitely some element of that here, but it’s way more complicated. On the one hand, Thai culture seems really open in terms of sex and gender, more so than American culture. There are a lot of people openly transgressing gender boundaries in the way they act and dress, and there is a pretty strong trans community here. I find that so inspiring, and so refreshing.
But at the same time, it’s all underpinned by what seems to be, still a very strict and binary patriarchy. “Women are like this, men are like that.” Women are feminine and not that powerful, and men are in charge and can do what they want. That’s the sort of entrenched attitude that makes violence here so pervasive. While I do think it’s an open place for trans people, or gender-queer people, it’s not a utopia. Violence and intolerance still happen and there’s discomfort with the in-between.
Do people make exceptions for you because you’re American?
Well, it’s funny. I have short hair, and the other day I got in a taxi, wearing jeans and a tank top and short hair and glasses, and my taxi driver asked me if I was a ladyboy — there’s that term katoey, used for cis men who dress and live as women.
I really didn’t mind, but I was taken aback. First that he would ask me that, and second that I would appear like that to him, but also I knew I just didn’t register as what he thought a woman would look and dress like.
So by now you’ve stayed past your original work assignment.
Yeah. I didn’t feel ready to go when the six months was up. I’d felt so lost in the life I’d had in Seattle, and being here and creating something that was completely new that was my own — it was great, restorative, really wonderful. Everything was fun. I told myself I’d stay until I had a reason to go back, and now I do — I’ve got a job in Seattle.
Was it ever tempting to you to just keep moving?
Yeah, I’ve always been open to that. If the right job had come up in Ethiopia or Cambodia, I 100% would consider it, would do it. But I care so much about my work, so I sort of let myself follow that. And I know I don’t have to stay in Seattle if I don’t want to. I can come back.
You’ve traveled all over while you were there — you mentioned Japan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Kenya.
Yeah, I sort of just never said no. That’s how I want to spend my money and my time. I’m lucky that my work is flexible.
What images come to mind from these trips?
Thailand — the green mountains, the rice paddies in the north. Also the beaches, that “Is this really real” feeling, when you think about those times you were in frigid winter wind and you can’t imagine. And I went to Japan twice and spent some time in Tokyo and Osaka — that was amazing, those streets, that mix of sophistication and ridiculousness. I think about staring out of a lot of windows, eating new things.
Any foods that you would have not expected to find yourself eating?
In Vietnam, I was on a snorkeling trip, and they fished out a sea urchin from deep water, cut them open, and we ate them.
What was that like?
A delicious paste that tasted like wind and water! Oh, man, it’s really just the quality of the food, not the weirdness — the ridiculous Kobe beef in Japan, things I would never order in the States, because I’m still like a child when it comes to cooking and eating. I’ve eaten lots of really, really spicy things. Fried bugs.
What do you think makes you such a flexible traveler?
In terms of personal traits, I think being a good listener and good observer. You can’t help but stick out in a new environment — you are a foreigner, there’s so much you’re not going to know — but I just sit back and take things in. I’m not a big planner, I don’t think about how I want a trip to be. I also try not to be in my own world. I care about connecting with people: I don’t want to miss responding to anyone, to the woman who sweeps the street who’s going to stop what she’s doing and say hello.
On a practical level, I always have earplugs and an eye mask and eye drops to take the edge off of any environmental things.
Is Bangkok really polluted?
Yeah. I get sinus infections a lot. Actually, once I had a sinus infection and went to buy a Neti pot and my nostril were too big for it. Cultural nostril profiling!
Do most people in the city speak English?
Most people do learn it in school, but fewer speak it comfortably. I’ll speak English in a hotel environment or something, but I almost always try to speak Thai, whatever Thai I can.
Did you start learning the language as soon as you got there?
Yeah. Answering “how tall are you” in Thai was one of the first things I learned (“185 centimeters” is my answer). I have a friend who’s fluent in Thai and I’d ask him what things meant, and then I had a Thai tutor for several months. It’s been really fun. People laugh at you a lot for everything but it never feels hostile, never makes you feel shy. And the level of connection just goes up exponentially.
How would you describe Bangkok at large?
Eclectic chaos. There’s stuff to buy everywhere, every street corner, shopping malls and food carts and total sensory overload. And the nightlife — the very famous hardcore red light districts, crazy clubs, staying up till 8 or 9 AM. It’s a place where anything seems possible. The weather is amazing, it’s super bright and colorful — the normal taxi color is bright fuchsia, the other is bright yellow — the whole city is just pulsating.
I love to ride motorcycle taxis, some of my favorite memories are at 60 kilometers per hour on the back of a motorcycle. And here, you go out, you meet people, you get invited places. It’s open and unpredictable. Of course, it’s also smoggy and there’s crazy traffic and the bad experiences you’ll have anywhere.
Basically, Bangkok reminds me of NYC if everyone was super high on life. The Thai New Year, in April, is this three-day countrywide water fight and it’s the most fun I’ve had in my whole life.
I also once saw Snoop Dogg.
Yeah. At the end, he was like, “It’s time to smoke a fucking J,” and just lit up this giant blunt onstage. Bangkok is very strict on drugs, as strict as they are lenient on prostitution, so it was really, really funny to see Snoop be Snoop.
These are very inspirational details you are giving me. And now you are leaving! Do you feel like being here has cleared out your head the way you wanted?
I don’t know that I’ve cleared my head out completely, but it’s okay. We’re all in a lifelong process of clearing our heads out. And this has been such a ridiculously transformative year for me, such a hard and fun adventure. I feel like I’ve been in this snow globe, an isolation chamber that’s been awesome. And now, I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m going back to, but I know this experience will continue to serve me in ways I haven’t anticipated yet, and ways I didn’t anticipate when I sort of dropped the mic on my old life.
I’m going to miss — well — the motorcycle rides — the pork skewers — and just that feeling of possibility. I’ve been lucky to travel so many places in my life — three months here and there, India, countries in Africa. And it’s so different when you really live somewhere. To commit to a home that’s so far from your real home, and then have it become your real home — it’s magic, in some way.
Previously: “Six Weeks Alone on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Trail”