Lawrence Osborne Bangkok Days

ISBN 13: 9780099535973

Bangkok Days

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9780099535973: Bangkok Days

Tourists come to Bangkok for many reasons: a night of love, a stay in a luxury hotel, or simply to disappear for a while. Lawrence Osborne comes for the cheap dentistry, and then stays when he finds he can live off just a few dollars a day. Osborne's Bangkok is a vibrant, instinctual city full of contradictions. He wanders the streets, dining on insects, trawling through forgotten neighbourhoods, decayed temples and sleazy bars. Far more than a travel book, Bangkok Days explores both the little-known, extraordinary city and the lives of a handful of doomed ex-patriates living there, 'as vivid a set of liars and losers as was ever invented by Graham Greene' (New York Times).

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About the Author:

Born in England, Lawrence Osborne is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Forgiven, The Ballad of a Small Player and Hunters in the Dark. His non-fiction ranges from memoir through travelogue to essays, including Bangkok Days, Paris Dreambook and The Wet and the Dry. His short story 'Volcano' was selected for Best American Short Stories 2012, and he has written for the New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, the New Yorker, Forbes, Harper's and other publications. He lives in Bangkok.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

 

Wang Lang

 

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. ...

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