My Bangkok: City of spirits
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BANGKOK, March 5 — In 2012, while travelling from my new home in Istanbul to a remote temple in Cambodia for research into Khmer archaeology, I stopped in Bangkok to change planes, lie comatose in a hotel for a night or two, and reimmerse myself in a city where I had lived several years earlier. I had left New York after 20 years in 2011 after my mother died. Without much of a plan, I had drifted to Istanbul for a change of mind and heart, or maybe just to escape hedge-fund-driven rents and a city grown stale to my eye.
But in Istanbul I had not reckoned with Turkey’s growing crisis. Protests against Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then Turkey’s prime minister) were gathering momentum, as were violent crackdowns — harbingers of the eventual attempted coup d'état in 2016 and, in a more general sense, the terror and disorder that has subsequently swept across the country. The city seemed claustrophobic, anxious.
One night as I sat in the Foodland supermarket on Sukhumvit Soi 11 in Bangkok, drinking a cocktail at a streetside bar amid a delectable chaos of vendors grilling gai yang chicken, men puffing on shisha pipes and young dreadlocked women dancing in the rain (I had already reflected that it was a scene no Istanbul supermarket could offer at 2am), a Thai friend called me and asked if I might be looking for an apartment in Bangkok. Did I want to come home?
There are moments when pure chance can flick a switch and change the direction of your internal electrical circuit. My friend told me to go to a tiny street behind Srinakharinwirot University in a residential area near the Khlong Saen Saep canal in Asoke — an affluent, central area of condo towers and hanging gardens where, nevertheless, a labyrinth of village-like lanes lie hidden behind the neon lights among patches of jungle, ruined tobacco warehouses and mysterious Japanese hostess clubs (essentially glorified karaoke bars).
My new prospective home was a fortress-like tower with four blue Disney-esque roofs and a vast lobby not unlike the grandiose John Portman hotel atriums of the 1980s. It was called the Kiarti Thanee, and there was a moat along its front wall. A charming agent showed me to the 15th floor to a vast apartment of 2,000 square feet with a deck that overlooked the deranged towers and spires of the 21st century’s greatest Buddhist metropolis. It was dusk and the villas and gardens below were lit up with 100 spirit houses, the little shrines where the souls of the dead are housed and fed offerings of fruits. The chorus was of koel birds and wild peacocks and a tropical moon stood in the sky.
Within 30 minutes, I had taken possession of the kind of place every depression-burdened writer with no trust fund should award themselves: a fairy castle with a gate staffed by men in coffee-colored uniforms. There was even a half-size Olympic pool shaded by frangipani trees, and all for the same price as a garage apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Yes,” the lady conceded as we exchanged a handshake that constituted a contract, “but I just want to say that the building is haunted.”
“But it’s Bangkok,” I said. “Isn’t everything haunted?”
Even if a ghost had been standing right there in the room, I would have taken it. In Bangkok exorcisms are cheap, and ghosts — phi in Thai — are woven into the fabric of daily life.
But whether my apartment building was haunted or not — and the question to this day is moot — it was nothing like the Bangkok I had known before. The building was buried deep at the very end of a lane where students from Srinakharinwirot lived in gated dorms. They sat outside at the food stalls and cafes day and night in their black and white uniforms, delicately aloof teenagers wearing unwrinkled white shirts in the heat; the shrines by the roadside were painted with gold leaf and filled with little models of zebras (for some reason Thais are obsessed with zebras, perhaps because many of them have never seen a real one). Some of the trees that arched over the lane were belted with coloured ribbons indicating that spirits lived inside them; walking along it at night, I could have been in a remote country village hundreds of miles from one of the world’s biggest cities.
To the right lay the university’s campus from where the sound of drum rehearsals and sorority chanting rose after twilight, and farther down, past a crossroads, lay the dark ribbon of Soi 31. And yet after a mere 100 yards it exploded into nocturnal life: shisha bars, Japanese karaoke palaces with nostalgic names like Gion and courtyards filled with lanterns, Hokkaido robatayaki barbecue restaurants, late-night sake dens with women in satin dresses and salarymen in black suits lifted straight from the streets of Ginza. But then, since I live in a largely Japanese area, such scenes are not entirely surprising.
After a few weeks I learned that the Kiarti Thanee belonged to a wealthy Thai-Chinese family. The family owned the penthouse, which, standing in the darkened atrium corridors, I could see by looking up the whole height of the building to the roof. The rumour among the staff, and among Bangkok socialites, was that the patriarch had had an argument with his daughter one night and blown his brains out while lying in his bed. His ghost, therefore, was reckoned by the superstitious staff at the building to roam the corridors at night. I had no idea if any of this was true, but they related these sombre events of both the physical and the supernatural worlds with expressions of affable certainty that proved to be alarmingly infectious.
Every morning I went down to the pool, which was usually empty, and swam for an hour in the sweetness of the heat and sun, and a subtle paranoia lay in the back of my mind. I can’t deny that I enjoyed it. I began to think, as I swam, that people — or ghosts — were watching me from the high dusty windows above. During monsoon season, which lasts from May to November, the sudden violent storms and the brilliant liquid skies that followed them gave the neighbourhood archaic moods: the cicadas roaring in the stupendous trees, the immaculately dressed society girls in the back of tuk-tuks on their way to rendezvous in the rain, the drum fires of the motorcycle taxi guys where they drank rum to mor lam country music when the stand was closed. Not difficult to recall that Wong Kar-wai shot much of In the Mood for Love in Bangkok in order to recapture the Hong Kong of the Sixties.
It’s maybe this calm fatalism that I like in my new environment. It arouses lofty contempt in many Westerners, an exasperated rational impatience, but not in me. These things are matters of temperament. Even under the military curfew in 2014 the people in my neighbourhood disobeyed the law with a cool insouciance and carried on doing what they always do. Thais treat entire laws like we treat dietary guidelines.
More recently, after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, the bars on Cowboy were ordered shut during a period of mourning in which everyone was asked to wear black. I walked down there the day after and found that, sure enough, the lights were all turned off. But the bars themselves were all open and filled with the usual suspects. I asked one of the girls — now dancing on darkened stages in sombre black bikinis — if they were closed. “Yes,” she said. But were they open too? Again, the dazzling smile: “Yes. Open and closed same time. Everyone happy.”
Every night I walk down Soi 31 under the dark trees to the Eugenia hotel and press on to the beginning of Soi 23 that intersects it. I go to a place called Hanamori — and drink two glasses of sake with some yakitori to practise my Japanese and then walk on down 31 until it veers to the left past makeshift grills where salted pla kapong (sea bass) lie in tin foil wrappers. Sukhumvit is not known for street food; for that, one heads to areas like Mahachai and Chinatown, since it’s essentially an invention of immigrants from southern China. But even so I have my sweet spots: here late night by the 7-Eleven on Soi 31 and on the quieter stretches of 23 where gwaytio nuea naam noodle soup and gai yang marinated grilled chicken appear unpredictably at dusk. Sometimes vendors wheel by with coconut ice cream, or bua loy, a Thai dessert made of rice balls filled with black sesame and afloat on a light ginger or coconut broth. There’s a lot to be said for eating while walking, a venerable human tradition, and bua loy makes for a refined calmative after an enormous amount of sake.
I go on down Soi 39, past immense condo towers with fan palms that rear above the walls, and on to Soi 33 where the bars are themed around dead European artists. A Dalí, a Renoir, a Manet. At the top of this jungly street, I make my way to a side street where I find my favorite whiskey bar in the city, an unsigned speak-easy called Hailiang buried behind a small garden with a secret door that opens into a 12-seat Japanese cave filled with hundreds of bottles of rare Scotch and bourbon.
Here is my asylum, and the place where, around or after midnight, I usually end up unravelling the day’s mental stresses. The owner is from Osaka and like me is an exile who has no idea if he can or will ever return to the land of his birth. Foreigners thrown together by a city form the most satisfying alliances, and there is something about rare aged Karuizawa whisky that makes me open even a half-empty wallet and not care. When I leave, however, and the bar is closing, the alley outside filled with leprous cats, the quiet walk home with a long cigar is what I most look forward to. Because it’s only late at night that Bangkok becomes the unfathomable and endless place that every great city has to be. The cascades of yellow cassia flowers glow brighter at night and suddenly, passing waste lots filled with sugar palms, you feel the whole city has slipped back into the forest that it was only 100 years ago. — The New York Times