Bangkok, says Lawrence Osborne, “is kind of a slog.” Even Osborne can’t quite explain what makes it so hard to describe Bangkok in writing.
“It’s a weird place. It’s one of the most visited cities in the world, and yet it’s quite a difficult city to get to know. First of all, you have to speak some Thai. And secondly, you have to live there for a couple years. It’s not a romantic, pretty, beautiful city. It’s a tough place in many ways. I think it has a great deal of charm and gentleness here and there. But I’m sure if you looked at books on Istanbul or Paris you’d find tons of that stuff, because those are much more attractive places to live. Bangkok is more like work. It’s kind of a slog. It wasn’t the easiest place to do this stuff. Doubtless there are other reasons, but I don’t really know what they are. Maybe because Bangkok doesn’t attract a high culture crowd. I don’t really know.” (WorldHum, May 27 2009)
“Bangkok Days” is part personal journal and part travel. It’s also a model of sharp observation and keen writing. The view is from the streets, the alleys, the canals, the sidewalks. The cover says it all, the twists and turns of the no-grid, meandering streets that comprise Bangkok’s core.
I visited Bangkok once as a tourist. I missed it all. I skimmed the surface, took a look around. Maybe I did better than the average ‘farang.’ A guide showed us around, took us down some off-beat roads and out to some restaurants favored by locals. I got a taste, yes. I saw enough to have images in my head as I read this book (which I consumed while on vacation, conveniently sitting on a beach in another foreign country and not exploring the local culture as much as I could have, should have). Osborne is a writer who knows how to stay with a subject and dig deep because he lives it.
“Bangkok Days” is a view of Bangkok inside out. There is romance-free. The tales are soaked a bit in booze as Osborne and his assortment of companions explore various parts of the city or re-explore familiar ones. You will gain a insight into the class divisions that led to the recent protests, glean some brief spiritual Thai history and have a few myths exploded, most notably a terrific section about the “King and I” and Yul Brynner.
“Bangkok Days” is an explanation of the city precisely because it sets out not to be an explanation of the city. The book is essentially a series of broad brush strokes with occasional flashes of poetry. Look hard and you won’t find one sweeping description of the city, just incremental shards of information that form the whole.
A sample: “The restaurant was on the second floor, an Ayurvedic buffet with cumin-sprinkled boiled eggs thrown in to appease the frustrated carnivores. The idea behind the spa was to control one’s intake of calories to a bare minimum determined on the day of one’s arrival by the in-house nutritionist. Fortunately, the guy had fled to Bangkok and the buffet therefore seemed morally aimless. The waiters lit a candle for us; the windows rattled and whined. Lionel and McGinnis, against all odds, had dressed in jackets and ties, paradoxically appropriate in this spare, high-minded décor, and we broke open a bottle of Evian while speaking in whispers, as one often does in a totally empty space.”
The sub-title of “Bangkok Days” is “A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure” and Osborne fully captures the attitude shift that allows the skin commerce to flourish. But in the end “Bangkok Days” is a mood put to words, an attempt to capture the deep and unusual vibe of that city–its food, colors, smells, humanity, religion, challenges and delights.
The last scene is a beauty—memorable.
Never been to Bangkok? Osborne has posted some key shots on his Web site via flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37716214@N06/