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A few years ago I lived in a neighborhood called Wang Lang. From where I sit now, watching trains cross to Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge, my river balcony in Bangkok seems like a patch of paradise forever lost. Disassembled and stowed away in a hopeless corner of the mind, where it's bound to rot. At this very hour, when New York seems filled with threatening drama and artificial colors, the Chao Phraya River is filled with gentle monks bobbing around on water taxis. The two cities couldn't be more different. There, saffron is the color of dusk. The river brings peace. The monks got off at Wang Lang pier with their umbrellas and mala rosaries, which traditionally contain 108 beads for the 108 passions of men enumerated by Avalokiteshvara. They looked up at the farang drinking his gin and tonic on the balcony, and that look contained both amusement and distance as it asked, "Is that a lonely man?" The look of Buddha as he extends protection with his left hand raised, abhaya.
I preferred nights there. The days were too hot and I like heat only when there's no sun. I was a night walker. It is a loneliness which has been chosen and indeed calculated. I spent the small hours on the streets, marauding like a raccoon. I grew to like the atmosphere of stale basil and exhausted marijuana which Bangkok seemed to breathe out of invisible nostrils; I liked the girls who spin past you in the dark with the words "Bai nai?" like coins that have been flipped in a bar. I liked the furious rot.
I woke up from a siesta in a small white room in the apartment complex called Primrose Apartments. I didn't keep much there. A cut-price Buddha from the Chatuchak market, a bookshelf. I had a carpet from India, too. When you are broke, life is simple. I made myself a gin and tonic on the balcony and waved to the monks. The days were empty by design. I didn't have a job; I was on the lam, as old American gangsters had it. A perfect phrase. The lam. It means "headlong flight," according to my Webster's dictionary. Lamming, to run away.
Across the hallway lived an Englishman called McGinnis. I wondered if that was a real name, or whether it was a borrowed one. He had an air of upper-class twittery, with his polelike physique stripped of muscle and his linen whites which had missed their era by a wide mark. McGinnis sold air-conditioning systems to Bangkok conference centers and hotels, a profitable business in sweltering Bangkok, and afterhours he said he was compiling an encyclopedia of bars to enrich the lives of others. He looked like a dirty cat at that hour, and I'd see him sitting on his balcony, slowly drinking a Singha mixed with some kind of fruit cordial and eating olives. He looked me in the eye and smiled, as if stroking a cat as well as being one. On the other side was a Spaniard called Helix. Helix—not Felix? I thought I'd heard him correctly. Helix the painter, who painted frescoes behind bars in Bangkok conference centers and hotels. They were typical of the profound, talented men you find in Bangkok.
There were others. On the ground floor lived another expat, an older Scot called Farlo who ran a holiday lodge which he had built himself for adventurous types, in Cambodia. He was a former British Army paratrooper from Dundee, and he wore a beret on the side of his head. Inside that head was lodged a piece of shrapnel from the war in Angola. Cuban shrapnel. You didn't want to cross him drunk in the corridor at night. He'd grab your arm and say, "It's time for a wank, son."
At six every night I went down to the street, feeling very much like John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, perfumed from a cold shower. The Primrose opened directly into the street, the way that an elevator opens directly into a penthouse.
Wang Lang is a pandemonious place in a pandemonious city. Its main drag is so narrow you can feel both sides of it brushing against your hips as you walk through it. As I went sweating between the open kitchens, I was followed by children jeering, "Yak farang, yak farang!" (foreign giant). I was the largest human there, a phenomenon in their eyes, and perhaps worse than that, a genetic accident which couldn't be reversed.
It was a hospitable place for a man who has done nothing, and who will probably never do anything. For someone with no career, with no prospects, permanently broke, it was the perfect asylum. Its gold-tinted eggs and its bags of oolong tea were virtually free. One could graze continuously on delicasies one had never heard of and still be in pocket. It was well suited to a lazy cunt, in other words, and a natural habitat for a man on the lam who had no objective in his day-to-day life but an inquisitive loitering, a selfless promenading for its own sake. A man who has turned into a ruminant, a goat.
In Wang Lang I perfected that Thai style of eating on the run called khong kin len, where you pile different ingredients onto a banana leaf as you sail along, walking and pondering at the same time, never losing balance. The streets are culde-sacs, so there is no point in having a direction. They all end in little theaters and cafés by the water.
And so I found myself walking up and down, eating those gilded eggs and bits of dried squid, and as night fell the air went ash-gray and the nostrils opened to greet something indefinable, the pungency of "mouse shit" chilies being tossed in hot oil and tamarind paste, and I began to sink like a stone into my own well. The city is nothing more than a protocol for this sinking. Because Bangkok is where some people go when they feel that they can no longer be loved, when they give up.
It was also true of the other tenants. Broken, disappointed, rejected, they had headed east. During my first nights in Wang Lang I played chess with them in the common room, interested by their dazed, suntanned faces. My most favored, however, was McGinnis. He was a man with no past, a character in a Simenon novel who walks out of his house one day, gets on a train, and kills someone in a distant city. He was from Newhaven. "There's nothing in Newhaven," McGinnis would say, "except sea fortifications," and his face was like that of a pleasant hoodlum who has just shot down a kite. Sea fortifications, I would think: but that's a lot. His head was shaved like a soldier's, like Farlo's, but he was nothing of the sort, with his willowy, elongated frame. He was an engineer with a degree in air-conditioning. It's a subject you can get a degree in. He had acquired his in Sheffield.
McGinnis was six foot seven. He towered in doorways, in hotel lobbies, in the light of streetlamps. There was something wonderfully sinister there, and I love sinister men. A sinister man doesn't just walk down a street, he rolls down it like a superior ball bearing. A sinister man cannot be amiable, but he can be good company. Despite his association with the science of air-conditioning, McGinnis was also subtly aristocratic and refined, while doing nothing better with his life than selling mass-produced cooling units. It was okay with him. There are aristocrats of the spirit who are mundane in their daily lives. Everything about him was happily self-contained, replete. Is this what made him sinister?
It was hotter than usual around Christmastime. In the supermarkets, choirs of girls in red velvet dresses swung brass bells in fur-trimmed hats and chimed out the words to "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells." The tofu bars had sprigs of plastic holly on them and yuletide slogans crisscrossed the steaming skycrapers of a Buddhist city. The days were windless, our river surged past the Primrose, sloppy and violent, the color of pea soup into which a baby has puked. Its surface was thickened by strands of aquatic weed, and on the far bank the city temples rose like huge stalagmites, or legumes with bristling skins. Somerset Maugham, one of the few Western writers to describe Bangkok in detail, says somewhere that one should be grateful that "something so fantastical exists."
Something stirred within me whenever I took my coffee on the balcony in the morning and inhaled the river stench of gasoline and mud. As if a dead leaf on the floor of me were suddenly being lifted and flipped with a small sound, a scratching of dead matter coming to life again. A pricking of the inner lining of the gut. I watched the rice barges crashing toward Klong Tuey port, the gossiping monks with their umbrellas and briefcases ferrying back and forth from those same temples strung out along the river. And behind them the four gold towers of the Royal Palace and, more distantly, Wat Arun sparkling with reflections from a million fragments of glass and ceramic rosebuds, with the sugary ornament of the Italian craftsmen who fashioned them two and a half centuries ago. Monks and schoolchildren in navy blazers, and the men operating the boats blowing ear-splitting whistles as they swept up to the pier. As the tires slung along the boat struck the rotting wood, there was a delicious sound: phuck.
From here I saw McGinnis doing yoga on his balcony in a jumpsuit, his body elongated to its full length and a trickle of Khmer music coming out of the sliding doors. It was impossible to avoid the other renters at the Primrose because we were always thrust together by the lack of space. He stayed in his yoga position and called over, in his long-exiled accent, "I hear a Spanish guy moved in downstairs the same time as you. He says his name's Helix. Not Felix, Helix." And he laughed scornfully.
Before long, McGinnis was taking me downriver on the water taxis to the Oriental Hotel. He dressed up for these river rides, a straw hat and two-tone Loake shoes with steel caps. The Death in Venice look. He spoke to schoolgirls in appalling, salacious Thai. The hotel has its own pier, and we jumped off there with all the fat tourists.
"I can understand," he said, "you not having a salary and all."
One sometimes starts explaining oneself immediately to someone one has just met. I seem to have the knack for triggering this reaction. I started coming to Bangkok, I said, in order to get dental care, because I couldn't afford the insurance in New York. It was as simple as that. Fourteen cavities and a root canal cost me $450 in Bangkok, which was a fraction of my yearly insurance premium. Even with the airfare and a month's rent at the Primrose, I was in pocket. My whole rationale for being there, in fact, was financial. It was money that governed my temporary exile, for the math was clear-cut: the West was now far too expensive. With time, I was coming closer to the idea that I might have to find somewhere like this to live on a permanent basis. In Thailand, I was in pocket most of the time.
"Is that what you say? In pocket?"
"Did you have your teeth done this time?"
"I am waiting for a check."
"Oh, you're waiting for a check!"
McGinnis took me to the Bamboo Bar. He took out a mechanical toy and placed it on the bar. It was a Brazilian tree frog made of wood, and it chattered on a spring if you pushed a button. He left it there. "Sooner or later," he said, "some beautiful woman always comes up and asks me what the frog is. And then I tell her."
"What is it?"
"I'll tell you later."
The decor of the Bamboo is rattan and lacquer, for the word "colonial" has nothing but positive connotations in Asia these days, and everything colonial is deemed handsome, stylish. The Bamboo Bar is the most touristy bar in the city, so touristy that it seems to wink at itself, so it is also the most colonial. But since everything is touristy anyway why not direct yourself to the wellhead of the poison and enjoy?
When I came here with McGinnis we were always surrounded by commotion. People came up to him and kissed him, shook my hand, and announced themselves as members of the professions that dominate Bangkok: fashion, design, finance, and food. When I came alone, however, the place always seemed to be empty and I passed hours watching farang women doing laps in the swimming pool.
When I was alone, I wandered the hotel. There was usually a string quartet in a lobby that was animated without being animate. Too many of the rich, scurrying about with their hands full, too many bellhops, too many Japanese matrons in white gloves playing cards.
I took the underground corridors deep inside the hotel where you could see streams bubbling over beds of pebbles, past the windows of Burberry. In the Authors Wing there was a white summerhouse atrium and a staircase leading up to the suites named after the writers that all Asian hotel suites are named after: Conrad, Maugham, Agatha Christie.
There was no Jeffrey Archer suite yet, but in the library there was a portrait of the great novelist as Lord of Westonsuper-Mare. I sat by the grandfather clock and read Evelyn Waugh's A Tourist in Africa. "No one ever made a servant of a Masai," Waugh wrote of his journey through Kenya in 1959. It's a mysterious sentence. To walk for the sake of walking—the most aimless thing of all—reminds us why the Masai cannot be servants: they are nomads.
McGinnis stopped his chattering frog and said, "Long before you came here I was in the same predicament. I wanted a place I could wander about in and where nothing would add up. European cities were too familiar. American cities were too like European ones. I wanted a city with no streets. A script I couldn't read. Total oblivion."
One night recently, he said, he had heard a curious sound coming from the Spaniard's apartment. When he turned off the radio and went down the stairs to investigate, he could tell that it was the Spaniard's voice. It repeated a single word over and over, and it was almost in a scream.
"He was shouting mierda, mierda!"
"What do you make of that?"
He went to the window of the Spaniard's apartment, which wasn't in the least curtained or shuttered. You could look right in.
"The Spaniard was in his underpants in front of a large canvas slathered with glue. He held a dead pigeon in one hand, which he appeared to be in the act of hurling at the canvas. I noticed at once that there were other dead pigeons already pinned to its surface. I realized then that he must have collected them from the streets nearby, which, as I am sure you have noticed, are fairly awash with dead birds of all descriptions. Pigeons, macaws, crows. I have even seen the occasional parrot. In any case, he had decided to make art out of everyday life."
"Isn't that the definition of mierda?"
"Yes. And it would be better not to make anything at all. To just go walking."
"I walk at night," I reminded him. "I go everywhere."
"I'll bet you haven't been to the Woodlands Inn."
When a foreigner moves into a city he doesn't understand, he prides himself on acquiring an esoteric knowledge of its hidden crannies. He thinks he is the only one to know a certain tiny bar or an ancient mango tree standing by a canal hidden behind a laundry. Why do these things matter so much to him? Does he really think he is the only one who has noticed them?
Next to the Oriental runs the oldest road in Bangkok, Charung Krung, which of course means "New Road" in Thai. It used to be an elephant track running parallel to the river, but for McGinnis, it was a horizontal greased rope along which he could slither after twenty drinks at the Bamboo Bar. There were no whores, no massage parlors, but there was a disreputable motel frequented by Indian doctors where we could get a Cambodian brandy, and they had a Ping-Pong table.
Woodlands Inn was on Charung Soi 32, with 300-bahtan-hour rooms and an Indian restaurant full of cow-eyed crooks. It smelled of condoms and ghee. And who, I wondered, ran the Dr. Manoj Clinic and the Memon Clinic next to it, all those dingy abortion clinics assembled inside the same courtyard as the Woodlands? Who used this corner of a city of ten million, darting in and out of its cubicles? The Indians were all playing backgammon. There was no Cambodian brandy.
"But I had it last time!" the Englishman shouted.
"It is not existing. Royal Stag Indian whiskey we are having."
They began to play some sad Calcutta music, and the old men sang along, their eyes croony and wet. It was a mood. We sat outside on a bench, surrounded by the hollow music of cicadas hanging from the telephone cables, and McGinnis said, "Those cables. Have you noticed that every street has these masses of tangled cables? It's because the telephone company never replaces or takes down cables that have ceased functioning. They simply add new ones, ad nauseam. Eventually the cables will take over the city. I think of them as a life-form, possibly predatory."
At the corner of Charung Krung, the cables were bunched into ancient clusters that were beginning to droop downward to head level, like an infestation of metal wisteria. The city's infuriating topography isn't a rational system at all, it isn't European, it isn't anything one can seize. Near Soi 32—soi is the Thai word for a small street—Chinese jewelers and antiquarians sweltered below the cables, Yoo Lim and Thong Thai, and after them came landmarks that my eye had learned to pick out after seeing them a couple of times: the slim neoclassical building housing the Express Light company with its sooted Corinthian capitals, a bright sign for A.A. Philatelic. But it was all flattened in the eye.
McGinnis got up. His immense size caused the Indians to fall silent. The heat made his face glisten and his hair stuck up in greasy tufts. His Gulati suit was now wrinkled and he said he wanted to show me something beautiful, "something beautiful," as he said, "in an ugly city."
Excerpted from BANGKOK DAYS by Lawrence Osborne
Copyright © 2009 by Lawrence Osborne
Published in 2009 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.