The name alone is a killer.
It means The City of Angels, the Great City, the Immortal Magnificent Jeweled City of Great Indra, the Great Impregnable Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, The Royal City of Happiness Abounding in Royal Palaces, the Great Place, the Immortal Abode of the Gods, the Residence of the Incarnate Deity, the City Given by Indra and Built by Vishnu.
The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the longest place name in the world. For short we call it Bangkok, which has the slightly less grandiose meaning, “Village of Hog-Plums.”
Of course, it’s no longer a village, and good luck trying to lind any hog-plums popping out of the concrete.
We also give it other names: the City of Angels, the Venice 01 the East, Fun City, the Big Mango.
But whatever you call it, no name is adequate to encapsulate the infinite glories of the premier city of the Orient, beloved (tild extolled by all who are fortunate enough to dwell in it. Confronted by the challenge of describing the kaleidoscopic variety of this seething microcosm of life’s rid] I)( age; tilt, my brain seizes up and my computer goes into convulsion as,
Weighty Socio-Anthropological Observations
Bangkok at the beginning of the 21st century was iitot than midway through its passage from a sleepy village on a ( :hat) Phraya mudflat, populated by smiling natives who passed t hcii (lays crafting nielloware, and their evenings dancing beneath copper moon . . . to a smog-choked urban nightmare packed with high-rises and condominiums, where the natives all have M BAs, all conversation is conducted by cellphone, and the traffic never moves.
Fortunately we have not yet reached the latter end of the continuum, but it’s getting close.
Bangkok is a dynamic fusion of traditional Thai charm with soulless urbanization imported from the West. Admittedly, the urbanization threatens to bulldoze the charm into oblivion; but it’s the mix that gives Bangkok its special character. If ever the charm were to be lost, buried beneath tons of concrete, Bangkok would no longer be Bangkok.
The city nurtures within its warm and capacious bosom a host of contradictions spun from the eternal interplay olvii/ and ,yang. And that’s good, because consistency is boring and contradictions keep you awake.
Indeed, if a single picture sums up Bangkok, it is this: in the heart of the business district, a massive skyscraper, all shining glass and steel and concrete, soaring to the heavens and blotting out the sun with its immensity—and at its base, a tiny spirit house.
In the eighties, the city was awash in a sea of greed, its people lusting for condominiums, Benzes, cellphones, and all the other trappings of yuppiedom—and yet they elected as their mayor an ascetic army general who ate one vegetarian meal a day, slept on a mat on the floor, and didn’t even have sex with his wife.
In the nineties, powerful politicians and wealthy tycoons would wend their way in cavalcades of limousines to the provincial town of Korat, there to prostrate themselves and beseech the favor of a wizened, cheroot-smoking old monk who would bless them by giving them a rap on the head with a rolled-up newspaper.
It took almost thirty years to build a skytrain to relieve Bangkok’s horrendous traffic congestion; and when it was finished, some Bangkokians looked at it, shook their heads sadly, and said, “It’s not beautiful. We should tear it down.”
Thai intellectuals bemoan the proliferation of materialism and the decay of Thai culture, and sometimes they blame it on the West. The one question they never ask is “If materialism is such a bad thing, why is everybody rushing to embrace it?”
Bangkok is a great place for men who never grew up, men who don’t want to grow up, and men who grew up but later regretted it. There are more happy old foreign men on Soi Cowboy and in the Nana Plaza than any other place in the world.
This isn’t to say they’ll stay happy for long—especially not after those gorgeous little honeys have systematically fleeced them of every cent they possess, and tossed away their shattered remains.
“But she loved me!” he’ll wail.
Correction: she loved your money, pal. And since she’s already seized possession of that highly regarded commodity, you’re of no more value to her than a cast-off banana peel.
But this phenomenon—the fleecing of the foolish foreigner—has one salutary effect. It makes a man grow up real fast.
Me Great Teakwood Table Mystery
One anecdote will tell you a lot about Bangkok and its people. At the establishment where I work, the central administration building has a credit union on the first floor, where the employees dl have bank accounts. Until recently, there were no tables where you could fill out deposit and withdrawal slips before going up to the counter to do your business. Everybody had to crowd up to the counter and fill out their slips right there; and it was a very narrow counter. Consequently, there was always big (11 ish of people battling for writing space.
Once, I complained about this to a Thai colleague, and she was quick with an explanation. “You see, the first floor of the administration building is a showcase. We have beautiful teakwood walls and a marble floor. We also have a stairway with a red carpet leading up to the second floor, where, from outside the building, people can see a large portrait of our founder. If we were to put tables out, it would destroy the beautiful view people get from outside.”
From this I drew a valuable lesson: beauty, image, a pleasing external appearance, is more important to Thais than efficiency. End of story?
Every time you think you’ve got things figured out in this country, they throw a curve ball at you that puts you right back to square one.
One fine day, a magnificent teakwood table appeared on the first floor of the administration building. It was a Chinese-style table, sumptuously designed, with a black lacquer finish and intricate inlays of mother-of pearl.
“Ah,” I thought, “this is progress. Somebody realized the inefficiency of having all the people crowding around the counter, and installed this table to alleviate the crush. But, true to the Thai tradition of insisting that everything be beautiful, they got the glitziest table they could find.” End of story? Not yet. As I said, every time you think you’ve got things figured out. . . .
A friend told me the real story behind the table. “They wanted to move it upstairs to put it in the room with the portrait of the founder, but it was too big to get up the stairs. So they left it on the first floor.”
What is the point of all this?
There isn’t any point. And that’s just the point. It’s pointless to be looking for points in Thailand. And whenever you think you’ve found one, it’s usually wrong. Including this one.
Shortly after writing the above, I checked out the table and discovered that my friend had made a mistake. It wasn’t too big to get up the stairs after all. So they had put it downstairs to alleviate the crush around the counter, and my original conclusion about it had been correct.
Or was it?
A few weeks ago, the table disappeared.
I had no idea what had happened to it, or why it had been put there in the first place.
When I asked my Thai colleague about this, she gave me The Look. The Look conveys a message. It says, “You are an idiot and an imbecile, and possibly also a moron.” I get The Look all the time in Thailand, and especially from this particular colleague.
“Who told you they planned to put the table upstairs?” she asked.
“A friend,” I answered.
“Thai or foreign?”
“You see,” she said, “that’s the problem around here. Foreigners are always jumping to conclusions and spreading
A CITY FOR ALL SEASONS
rumors. There was never any intention of putting the table in the room with the portrait of the founder. That room already has a table in it, if you’d just take the time to look.
“Instead, they planned to put the table in the conference room right next to the credit union. But the conference room was being renovated, so they had to leave it in the credit union. When the renovations were finished, they moved the table. If you take a look in the conference room, you’ll see it sitting there right now.”
Abashed, chagrined, and defeated, I retretited to my office. Reflecting on the experience, I realized dim eve! y time I
thought I had everything figured out, I turned out to wt c )1 In the end, the only lesson I learned was how dumb I 411H And that may be the most valuable lesson of all.
But I still think they should have left the table in the credit union.
A Fistful of Aphorisms (most of them wrong)
Bangkok is a moral crucible.
In Thailand, things are seldom what they seem.
You never can be sure that something is going to happen in Thailand until it actually happens, and maybe not even then. It might happen and then they might decide to cancel it.
Mahamaya is alive and well in Bangkok. (Scholarly note: Hinduism, Mahamaya is the cosmic illusionist.)
“The nightlife will destroy you.”
You might get frustrated by the traffic, you ‘night go deaf from the noise, you might be asphyxiated by the pollution—but you’ll never be bored.
“I love it and I hate it and I never could live anywhere else.”
“Home is where the heart is. This is home.”
“It may be home to you, but you still need a visa. Five hundred baht, please.” (Immigration official.)