Love letter to: The bang in Bangkok

By Simon Grigg

As NZ Music Month closes, music writer, broadcaster and DJ, Simon Grigg, writes about his adopted city
Simon Grigg feels energised and motivated in Bangkok.
Simon Grigg feels energised and motivated in Bangkok.

Given my physical location, I'm sometimes asked how I describe myself - where am I mentally, if you will. The closest I can get in a few words seems to be "a pan-Asian New Zealander". It's crude but probably appropriate to the place I've found myself in since Brigid and I took the jump and moved to Bali in 2005. We lasted four-and-a-half years on that small island before we worked out we didn't want to live there anymore. And so, almost by happy accident, we found ourselves in Bangkok - and have been here, sometimes on and off, and despite the substantial political and social upheavals, ever since, largely still loving the city and the country. We don't want to be elsewhere.

Bangkok is a city of external misconceptions. I mention BKK (as everyone here calls it) to people in my homeland who don't know me and I'm instantly tagged by the city's predetermined reputation. Immigration guys in Auckland say "Thai wife" and wink knowingly (so I know what they get up to when they head north on holiday).

I don't live in that city - I've never actually been into one of "those" places.

Never. I wouldn't know where to go if I did and certainly didn't decide to live here to immerse myself in what is a tiny, ugly part of this thrilling, innovative, massive, exhilarating, sophisticated and modern metropolis of close to 15 million people.

It's hard and easy to answer "why" we live here. The harder part is explaining the feeling that you are always surrounded by a positive energy. I'm down? I walk out the door and that's largely sorted.

BKK exists in layers, and what you see when you first walk down the stairway from the BTS (the raised trainline that sweeps effortlessly across the city) constantly changes - the office kids, Gucci dames and the old cab drivers perched together at the street food stall consuming fiery broths; buses that look like they were taped together in 1960 next to some heir in his Maserati; shops selling pretty much everything imaginable (one department store in Chinatown carries exclusively 60s stock); bemused tourists trying to work it all out; and an ever-changing mass of humanity that just flows largely harmoniously together. This city, like most East Asian cities, is incredibly safe day and night - New Zealand could learn a thing or two here, as long as you avoid the overly exuberant Antipodeans and learn how to cross the roads.

Simon Grigg feels energised and motivated in Bangkok.
Simon Grigg feels energised and motivated in Bangkok.

One of my great joys is taking a train to a random suburban stop and just walking. I walk for miles, camera in hand, in the heat (which you soon learn to love), snapping, smiling and exploring. And you discover the most extraordinary things - a vast, open warehouse filled with collectable cars from the 1940s, 50s and 60s just sitting there; old Chinese funeral houses with stacked carved elaborate caskets awaiting residents; streets of wood-block printers, making business cards and letterheads as they have for centuries - and all this coexists with 21st century digitally driven Bangkok with ease.

I love the anonymity of the city - you chose when you want not to be - in a town that bustles 24/7. For some reason, I get an odd thrill from Sunday night gridlock traffic or sitting in the back of one of the black semi-limos that Uber use here, with a book or an iPad taking a break from it all, waiting for the traffic to move.

I love the food - every cuisine imaginable is mostly done better than pretty much anywhere else I've ever been - from the restaurants that make the annual lists of the planet's finest, to the street-side cafes that allow the two of us to have a five-course feast (with beer) for $15.

I love the design and the incredible eye that young Thai designers and architects have for the cutting edge - and the fact they are encouraged and allowed to create all this on scale.

I love the fact it's open (Auckland take note) all the time. The streets have endless life and it encourages a hefty sense of community and every part of the social strata mingles - without tension - day and night.

I love the river - the Chao Phraya is one of the world's great waterways, pulling goods and people from up country in an endless stream of boats, ferries and huge, huge barges.

For all that, I've never managed to leave my homeland behind. My work here is primarily documenting and working on the culture that allowed me live this life. I created and oversee a site about the New Zealand music I love so much, and I wrote a book about it recently.

In an odd way Bangkok gave me the freedom to do both. I can corral my thoughts and work without interruption, largely, often achieving far more in a day than I can in a week in New Zealand. I guess I'm winning.

Simon Grigg is creative director of AudioCulture and author of How Bizarre, a biography of Pauly Fuemana.

- Weekend magazine

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