Bangkok is sultry, congested and, at times, poetic.
Friends of mine in their 50’s spoke of the early 70’s in Thailand like some lost paradise. Maybe everyone feels like that about their early days but still I wished I’d seen it 30 years before. To have arrived in Asia when a Westerner could as well have been an alien for all anyone knew about him. Before they understood that we are as corrupt and self-centred as any, perhaps more.
Still, arriving in Bangkok for the first time it was impossible to be immune to the charm and character of the Thais. No one outside the tourist areas seemed to speak English and listening to Thai was like being bathed in rather nasal bird song. The people were all small with beautiful faces and jet black hair. They ambled around in shorts and vests, forever eating something or laughing.
They wash at least twice a day and scrub their bodies when they do. They snack at least ten times a day on sticky, slimy, spicy street food. They never lose their tempers and tell you to keep a cool heart when you do. They can smile in any situation no matter how they feel. The big shock after living in India is to see how much self-respect they have. They walk like warriors but aren’t aggressive. Whilst their culture is heavily hierarchical, class-conscious and chauvinist, they have an inner dignity and kindness that leaves you feeling humble; my first day there I saw a baby bird that had fallen into the river. A young Thai man stripped down to his shorts and dived in after it. My first thought was that he would take it for lunch but no, he was just being Buddhist.
Bangkok itself is big and sprawling with heavy built-up concrete buildings everywhere. No breezes reach the streets and you walk around in a sweat the whole time, picking your way through the relentless traffic. The streets are lined with clothes stalls, sweet stalls, soup stalls, cosmetic stalls – even stalls selling goldfish at midnight.
Metal shell buses shunt around ceaselessly. A Thai girl approaches you for your ticket with an exhausted smile and a metal money box that she snaps open and shut all the time like a crocodile’s mouth. Out of the window you see the scooters and motorbikes cutting their way through the traffic on a death wish. The mirrors angled so that the driver can comb his hair and squeeze the occasional spot.
In the park down by the river at dawn the tropics come to life like a dream. Old men shadow boxing, throwing punches that wouldn’t dent a paper bag. Later mothers and students bouncing up and down to the free aerobics session led by an instructor on a portable wooden stage. At the end all join their palms and wadi their gratitude before applauding. Then the kids turn up for a juggling and circus workshop. Maybe they hustle all day to sell cigarettes in the streets but at dusk they come to spin plates on sticks and spin batons.
Walk over to the tourist zone of Khao San Road and collide with vulgar consumer travel. Thousands of drunk Brits, paranoid backpackers and mercenary Thais will to sell whatever anyone wants to buy. The bars competing for the violent drunks around whose necks the go-go girls will wrap their arms and call “You buy me drink, handsome man?” A swirl of cultures, coarse and raw; something like I always imagined a sailor’s port to be. A place to be charmed, bewildered, robbed.
Behind calm eyes the Thais watch this tinsel town fair; these fat, pink, hairy farangs who sometimes go a day without washing and wear yesterday’s clothes. Look how they grow hair on their arms, their legs – even on their faces like a dog. They shout, argue and think they are kings. But their hearts are hot.
It’s hotter than you can ever remember and some nights even a sheet is unbearable. Sleepless you switch on the lights and watch the geckos getting fat on your fly screen. Every few seconds they scramble a few centimetres and gorge on another mosquito. Your allies these lizards. A torrential rain and in your cardboard hotel room you could as well be in a berth on the Arc.
If the rain hits during the day everyone scrambles for shelter. A few seconds too late and there’s no point in running any more. Then the clouds shift and the sun pours out once again like some Asian torture. In seconds it’s so sultry that you’re sweating in your rain-soaked clothes.
Ex-pats mark themselves apart from the travellers by virtue of their shirts, trousers and shoes that they wear to teach English or write copy in some office. They learnt long ago that Thailand is more conservative than the cultures they left behind. But they submit to this gladly, just for the opportunity to live here.
A Mercedes swishes by and you don’t need the frosted windows to be rolled down to know that a Chinese is at the wheel. Whilst the Thais live and enjoy, the immigrant Chinese work and thrive. They build up and consolidate and plot construction and profit all over the city. One day they’ll cover all of Asia with their concrete dreams.
I cross a bridge and beneath me is a woman oblivious to which century we’re in. She stands on a fragile bamboo boat fanning a fire inside the boat on which rests an enormous iron cauldron of steaming water. She fans the flames that send embers into the water and the boats spins as she shifts her weight.
Bangkok used to be a city of canals. The Venice of the East and other such tired clichés. No one but tourists are interested in the past and then only a packaged past they can understand. But ghosts are alive in Thailand. Everyone carries amulets for protection against them and with each new construction spirits must be appeased with incense and gifts. Restless souls of the dead are easily bought it would seem.
Gravity can not be so easily pacified though. The city sinks 5cm each year and is only a metre and a half above sea level to begin with. 30 years ago the population was only 2 million and today it’s over 12 million. The city got to be too heavy. Ask a Thai what he thinks and expect a smile.