“Bangkok is not an easy city to understand.” Those are the first words that preface a book written by Kenneth Barrett, a journalist who has been on assignment in over 60 countries but who has chosen Thailand as his home. One rain drenched afternoon in 2014, in a bookshop on Sukhumvit Road, I came across his then newly published guide entitled “22 Walks in Bangkok”. For a Thai person who thought he knew his city well, I quickly came to the realisation I still had much to learn.
Exploring this city by foot has often been a solitary activity for me. Of course I’ve taken friends around but usually to areas I had already previously familiarised myself. It is the OCD in me wanting everything to be just right when I’m with someone else, that strangely never afflicts me when I’m on my own. I happily explore solo blindly — I do my homework first before taking others. It was with homework in mind that brought me to Mr. Barrett’s book that day.
I should perhaps do a little preface of my own by stating that although I am Thai and speak the language fluently, my Thai reading skills are fairly basic — having been born and educated almost entirely abroad. Street signs, directions and menu items? Not a problem. Thai newspapers? Let’s just say they’re a challenge. So at the time, if there were any Thai books on walking in Bangkok I wouldn’t have been able to properly read them. As luck would have it, back in 2014 “22 Walks in Bangkok” was fresh off the presses and I devoured Mr. Barrett’s hybrid publication — part city history, part exploration guide — like a first-year at Hogwarts. At the time, I wondered why his was the only book available on walking in Bangkok, even Mr. Barrett questioned himself in his preface as to why such a guide hadn’t been tried before.
There’s a very simple answer to that. Thais don’t walk. Or I should say, we don’t go for walks. Abroad, certainly. At home, certainly not. I know that is a sweeping generalisation but for a large portion of the people living in this city, it is not an inaccurate one. Bangkok is hot, it is humid, and its sidewalks are haphazard to say the least. To most tourists it can seem insurmountably bewildering by foot. This is a city founded by boats and now existing largely for cars. The general mindset is, why walk when you can drive or be driven down the Soi? Walking here is a matter of necessity, not a willing choice of leisure.
I on the other hand, have been known to say, “I just walked from the Grand Palace to the Oriental.” Much to the shock, quickly followed by the question of “Why?” from most of my friends.
Perhaps as a result of having been born abroad and having lived most of my then younger adult life overseas, Bangkok has always captured my interest the way an outsider might look at it — I brought home with me a sense of wonder and curiosity that I feel some of my fellow Bangkokians don’t make room for in their imagination. As Mr. Barrett reveals in his book, beyond the obvious attractions of the palaces, the storied avenues and well trodden tourist areas, there exists a rich and nuanced sense of place to the varied parts of this city. Some of it sadly disappearing due to gentrification and the unyielding tides of commerce. These pockets of history and culture may have noticeably less shine than the other gleaming attractions, but they are no less interesting.
As I read Mr. Barrett’s book I felt doors opening and back stories being revealed about people and places, stories detailing the complex and often interwoven context through which a community or a building can best be understood. His book is not a conventional walking guide. There are no arrows on maps telling you which way to go, there are no blurbs or visual guide bubbles indicating highlights — his narrative is your guide. Points of interest in relation to his text are numbered on maps, but “22 Walks in Bangkok” is a book for readers, not skimmers — one that affords many rewards for those who take the time. His chapters read like a historical novel and Mr. Barrett’s research of local knowledge combined with adept storytelling is his gift to the reader.
It is with no small sense of irony that I am a Thai man who learned more about his hometown from a British ex-pat, than I ever did from any Thai source. But I embrace that irony. Over the years I have given the book as a gift to many people and I still reread it on occasion, especially if I’m headed back to any particular area he describes in his chapters. I even have an E-Book version which I purchased online while I was living for a time in Australia because I missed Bangkok and I wanted to remind myself of the kind of walks that simply didn’t exist in Sydney or Adelaide. Mr. Barrett clearly loves his adopted hometown and anyone who reads his books will also grow to understand it better, if not love it as well, possibly even more. I certainly have.
A few final footnotes: I have never met the author. I have however, completed all twenty-two walks, repeatedly. Mr. Barrett’s book remains the only definitive guide to this city’s streets that I know of.
“22 Walks in Bangkok” by Kenneth Barrett, published by TUTTLE
Currently available in most major bookshops carrying English language publications in Bangkok
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