home economics 101: domesticating Bangkok

I’m staring at one of my passport visa pages. It’s been over a month since we moved to Bangkok.

We’ve been busy. Literally 14 hours after our plane touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport we signed a one-year lease and put money down on a townhouse in the area of the city where Jessie will be working. The house came with no furnishings. And in Thailand ‘no furnishings’ means exactly what it says.

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We started with walls, floors, sinks, toilets and a water pump. You can rent furnished apartments here, but they’re generally 2~3 times the cost so we thought we might as well just buy our own stuff. For weeks I sat on cold tile, writing code for my new website pictureperker.com. I’ve put in many 12-hour, no-time-to-stop-to-eat days. I’m pretty sure I’ve done long term damage to my already ridiculously poor posture.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to see that the house sort of fits us. What I mean is that Jessie and I have been living a minimal, nomadic lifestyle for the past six years. We’ve lived happily (for the most part) on what we could fit into our backpacks and what we could scrounge together of castoffs on the street or from friends. We’ve enjoyed reusing this stuff and not feeling attached to it. We’ve loved the mental ease of having “ownership” for a brief time and then passing it on freely to the next person. We want to own and have around us only what is necessary and what gives us bliss. Part of living minimally is using our things for multiple purposes. I found that the most versatile things we owned for the first month were our sarongs. They quadrupled as shower towels, beach towels, bed sheets and curtains. I’m really starting to think that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could be a legitimate travel companion based on this experience alone. (If you didn’t understand the last sentence click here.)

Settling into Bangkok has been different. We’re intending to live here for awhile, and renting this barren townhouse has been a new experience. We’ve had some things graciously given or lent to us, but the simple fact is that dumpster diving in Bangkok is just not the same as in Seoul. Any couch you find on the street in Bangkok is most definitely not something you want to have in your home. Thus, the atmosphere in our place was, well, downright depressing. And then I bought a chair. Everyone, meet my new best friend: “Easy Chair Nice Orange.”

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Easy Chair was the first step in making this house feel human. I could sit with my feet up. I could put my laptop where it’s meant to go: on my lap. Together with the aid of an 80-cent pillow from the flea market down the road, Easy began to dissipate my routine neck stiffness. Both psychologically and physically, Easy Chair repaired me.

I’ve realized that I had some huge misconceptions about Bangkok, though, especially in the notion that everything is cheap here. It’s not. You have to figure out what is and what isn’t. Still, I’m continually dumbfounded by the range of costs. Why is it that we can take a taxi from one side of the city to the other  for $6, about a 45-minute drive in normal traffic conditions (which by the way only happens from about 1 until 4 in the morning), but to buy a fan that looks like it might even have a chance of holding up a year it runs at least $30? Why can we jump onto a songthaew (a truck with benches and an overhead cover added onto the bed) and take it to the mall or the supermarket 15 minutes away for 20 cents, but if we were to buy the most basic, flimsy, tacky drapes and window curtains to cover three windows and a sliding door it would cost us over $90? Why can we walk 50 paces to the market directly behind our house, choose several handfuls from the mounds of fresh vegetables that line the tables, and walk away with a giant bag full of produce for under $2, but a tiny refrigerator puts us out $150? We bought a queen-size mattress for only $70 but a 1/2-inch thick, no-frills mattress pad costs $65. We can sit at any restaurant around our house and get full for $1, but a cheap little plastic unit where we can store a couple articles of clothing would run us $30. I just find the disparity in pricing weird!

After several meltdowns (on both of our accounts), we found ourselves waist deep in the sickie, clean cut ornaments of cheap-Swedish renown. That’s right; Bangkok has an IKEA. We felt Tyler Durden‘s disdain as we followed the winding path through the labyrinth of office, bedroom, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, patio, electrical, wall covering and storage furnishings. Jessie kept musing over why so many people seem to revel in a stroll around IKEA while for us we were filled with anxiety. Still, after a month of living like squatters we weren’t leaving without some creature comforts. We aren’t crazy about having a home full of particle-board-manufactured-to-look-pretty chairs, but the reality is that $250 has really started to make this place into a home.

So if you’re wondering how I’m doing these days, let me tell you: I’m content as a Swede with a tube of caviar as I sit here on my ‘SOLSTA Ransta dark grey two-person sofa that readily converts into a bed’ with my feet propped up on our ‘LACK white 90x55cm easy to assemble light weight coffee table’ looking out the window past the ‘POÄNG rocking-chair frame birch effect veneer with Alme black armchair cushion’ and ‘Easy Chair Nice Orange.’

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4 thoughts on “home economics 101: domesticating Bangkok

  1. I, too, find myself anxious when approached by the necessity to go to places like Ikea. However, I understand the appeal of the disguised, middle class look, which is bought at working working class prices by browsing through the 3-dimensional, life-size, interactive catalog that they call a store. It’s why their business model is so effective. People like to look, they like to touch, and they like to believe they’re ahead of the game when they think they’re saving money. Sometimes they are saving money, but ahead of the game? Certainly not. The store is ahead of the game. If the customers were winning this battle, Ikea wouldn’t have hundreds of worldwide locations, including those in developing countries like Thailand. This is why I hate the IDEA of IKEA, but like you, I have also ventured into the place in search of a shortcut to starting over.

    As for wild price ranges, this is our fault. And by ‘us’ I mean westerners. Our globalization means that products are available all over the world to virtually anyone with the means to obtain them. However, when compared to the price of goods and services produced in a developing nation, goods and services produced elsewhere are relatively very expensive. At first, when expats arrive in their new destination, they complain that their comfort goods are unavailable or difficult to find. After time, when the goods become available or they find out how to get them, they begin to complain that they’re too expensive. I’ve also done it many times and I’ll do it again. It’s the life we chose, but we’re not quite sure how to live it. Our culture taught us how to live at home, but it didn’t teach us how to leave. This is something we have to learn by ourselves.

    Charlie

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    • You’re so right Mr. Kneecorn! It is mostly imported things that are expensive. And the funny thing is that it’s really all relative. If we were in London getting drapes for $90 would feel like a steal, but because so many other things are ridiculously cheap here it FEELS like a rip-off.

      Here’s a clear case in point: yesterday Jessie and I decided to take the bus home instead of the BTS because it costs about 1/4 of the price of the ‘exorbitant’ $1 ticket. But that’s not all. We were about to board a bus when I felt a wave of cold air blast by us. Oh no! We weren’t going to pay for the fancy air conditioned bus! We were going to ‘win’. So we waited for the next bus and sat in that hot bus the better part of an hour through unmoving BKK traffic. The reality is that by choosing to sweat our faces off we saved 18 cents.

      I should also mention that we were riding home from Villa Market where we’d just spent $30 on foreign food.

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  2. Ha ha ha! Very descriptive…I could feel and picture every word and I love how you use the proper weird names for all your furniture. Very funny to read and I smirked as I shared your pain as you look back at how silly life can be sometimes. And yet, after all that, what a homey looking room you created! I hope to be able to enjoy it with you someday.

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