Kuala Lumpur and the Curse of Not Bangkok

Kuala LumpurIn an early episode of the Simpsons, Kent Brockman, the resident news anchor, is seen reviewing the news before having to dispense it to the good people of Springfield. He mumbles to himself, “One-hundred-and-twenty dead in a tidal wave in Koo—ah—lah-lah-laaah . . .” gives up, scratches out the confounding words and, instead, with an air of satisfaction and accomplishment, writes in, “France.”

As we soon learn, the city that had so frustrated Brockman was Kuala Lumpur. It’s a funny joke but, to me—and I was apparently a staggeringly ignorant sixteen-year-old at the time of my first viewing of that particular episode—that city name seemed so strange that I wasn’t entirely certain the Simpsons writers hadn’t made it up. From then on, “Kuala Lumpur” became my place holder for any location too exotic and faraway to imagine, let alone visit.

And so, it was with this in mind that I wandered the streets of Kuala Lumpur, that symbol of distant lands and fascinating differences. Of course, between watching Kent Brockman fail so spectacularly at his job and landing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I had been through quite a lot, including a year living in Bangkok. That, it turns out, made all the difference.

KL is a fine city. It’s an ever-growing, ever-changing metropolis bristling with spectacular skyscrapers and dotted with carefully manicured green spaces. It sports lively markets frequented by locals and visitors alike. Its Chinatown is a bustling space crammed with redolently steaming food stalls. It benefits from a fierce multiculturalism that shapes and fuels its inimitable character and energy.

KL is a fine city.

But it’s not Bangkok.

KL’s futuristic mega-buildings—the Petronas Towers chief among them—are undeniably impressive, and those parks are genuinely lovely, but they feel a tad too put together, like a woman wearing too much makeup or a man with conspicuously tended stubble. They simply can’t compare to the messily lived-in warrens of side-streets and alleys that ensnares the base of even the tallest, most avant-garde building in Bangkok. KL’s markets are plenty lively, but they’re positively somnolent when compared to the cheerfully frenetic markets of Bangkok. KL’s Chinatown is quaint and features fine food but, c’mon, in a fight to the death with Bangkok’s Chinatown, KL’s would be left crumpled and broken, it’s final breath carried within a bubble of arterial blood.

Face it, Kuala Lumpur is a fine city but it is decidedly not Bangkok.

And this, I have recently discovered, is a problem for me. I mean, hell, we all know comparison is the thief of joy and all that, but, man, seems I just can’t help myself. Every time I set foot in a large Southeast Asian city, it eventually hits me: this place—whether KL or Singapore or Yangon—is simply not Bangkok.

Obviously, it’s entirely a matter of taste. Some people straight up hate Bangkok, and I’ve certainly met plenty of people who absolutely adore KL or Singapore (haven’t yet met anyone who adores Yangon but I’m sure they’re out there). Bangkok just seems to be my thing, my taste, my speed. I love its energy, its character, its charming edge. I love the way you can dodge traffic across a busy street lined with sky-cracking buildings, only to stumble into a soi that looks and sounds and smells and feels like some tiny village miles from any big city. I love how, when it comes to delicious street food and friendly people and just plain weird shit, the real challenge in Bangkok is avoiding all that—but then why would you want to?

Honestly, every time I leave Bangkok for another big city, I feel like some poor heartbroken schlub who just can’t get over an ex.

And, yeah, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because I don’t intend to stay here in Bangkok forever. Hell, the fact I’m staying a second year is already a change of plans. Originally, I was only going to stay a year then move on, re-establish myself elsewhere. Now, I’ll be waiting till year three rather than two to find a new home.

But . . . what if I can’t find a new home?

This year, I’ll be visiting a few other large cities in the region, including Hanoi and Phnom Penh and possibly Ho Chi Minh. What if they all disappoint? What if they all lack character and energy and great food and pleasant people and weird shit? What if they’re all Not Bangkok?

Well, I’ll move to one of them anyway.

I’m overstating my concern here. I’m not actually worried about it and know that all these cities do in fact have wonderful things to offer, that I’ll learn to love and appreciate those things no matter where I end up. Just as I’ve loved several women in my life, I’ve always managed to love again. Thankfully, it’s not that hard.

But, I am surprised at the impact Bangkok has had on me. And this happened early on, after just a couple weeks, which is when I first left the city to visit Singapore. Again, Singapore is a fine city (and country). But, I remember quite clearly, when I returned from Singapore and found myself once again in Bangkok I actually grinned and heaved a deep sigh, glad to be back, glad to be home.

Singapore is a fine city but it is not Bangkok.

Seems that for me every other city will simply and forever be that: Not Bangkok.

I’m fine with that. It’s as it should be.