An American Abroad

Floating in Bangkok

From the laid-back hospitality of Sri Lanka, I hop across the Bay of Bengal to Bangkok, a city that seems designed to overwhelm all five senses. It’s loud, dirty, corrupt, sensual, ugly, beautiful, frenetic, crazy, and delightful. After less than a day of that, I decide to go to the opposite extreme and, for the first time, try a sensory deprivation experience at the Bangkok Float Center.

The float center is maybe 30 km from the central part of Bangkok where I’m staying. The taxi driver who took me there was crestfallen; while he’ll make a good fare going out there, he’ll never find someone on the city outskirts looking for a lift back into town. He offers to wait. I decline. He waits anyway. I tip him well.

I walk into a building with a suburban office feel, doff my shoes and socks, and sign a waiver agreeing to pay megabaht if I contaminate the float pod with “urine, vomit, blood, or fecal matter.” The place is run by a thoroughly Americanized Thai guy named, appropriately, Donovan. He’d lived for years in Texas and gotten into the whole sensory deprivation/flotation racket there, and then moved back to Thailand to set up shop.

D leads me up three flights into a room whose only features are a large egg-shaped pod, a rectangular pumping unit, and a little shelf for clothes. He explains the drill to me, which is essentially to relax and let go. Though I’d taken a shower just before leaving the hotel, D insists that I take another. He leaves me on my own then. There’s a bathroom adjacent to the pod room and I dutifully strip down and rinse off.

The water in the pod is glowing with a nice blue light. I screw in some earplugs and climb inside. The water is skin temperature and contains about 1200 pounds of dissolved epsom salts. I am so buoyant it takes some getting used to, but eventually I position myself so I’m floating on my back. I reach up and grab the handle and pull the top half of the egg closed, press a button to kill the lights, and think to myself this is going to be the most boring ninety minutes of my life.

Music starts. Asian flutes. At first, I hold my neck stiff, not trusting the buoyancy of my own head. This makes my neck and shoulders ache. I remember what Donovan said about this and force my muscles to relax. My head leans back further into the water, but I do not sink. At first, there’s a distracting sting from a site on my left upper arm where some sort of nasty insect bit me back in Tunisia and left a little wound. But that fades with the music after about ten minutes. Now I am in quiet darkness. My body feels weightless, though I still can’t get my head just right. It makes no difference whether my eyes are open or shut. I can’t hear anything except my own breathing. I’m not touching anything solid. I’m not completely sure of the points where a horizon of water must gird my body.

D told me that for the first half hour, my mind would be active. Veteran floaters and meditationists take less time to turn off the mind. I start to notice occasional blank spots the progress of thoughts that runs through my brain, as if a film was being shown and some of the frames had been blacked out. I am conscious, I think. I keep going back to a dream/fantasy of me walking into a richly appointed saloon and being welcomed. Over and over.

I was thinking that I’d been floating for maybe 25 minutes when the music comes on again to signal the end of 90 minutes. Had I slept? It’s hard to know. I think it was more like being in that twilight space between wakefulness and sleep. It makes me wonder what sleep is. Clearly I had lost my ability to judge time.

I hit the light switch, push open the eggshell door, force my all-too-buoyant legs down so my feet are on the pod floor, and climb out. I head directly to the shower. There are white salt streaks where I had splashed myself with the water from the bod.

I dress and go downstairs and am debriefed by Donovan, who seems pleased with my report.

One way to look at this is to say that I just paid a guy $60 US to take a ninety minute nap. Maybe that’s all it is. On the other hand, that state of being between consciousness and sleep is an interesting place to be.


  1. No pictures. How disappointing! I guess I am getting spoiled by having the privilege of seeing the world through your eyes, Jim. Thanks.

  2. Cathie Kelly says:

    How long did the white streaks endure? Did your hands “prune up”? I wonder how someone with claustrophobia would fare in a pod.

    • The white streaks were just places on my body that were above the water line (e.g., my chest) but that got splashed a bit. The water evaporated leaving white epsom salts behind, which washed off easily in the shower. I was expecting my hands to prune up, but that didn’t happen. I am not sure why. Probably has something to do with the epsom salts. I don’t know about how claustrophobes were fare in a tank. On the one hand, you are enclosed in a small space. On the other, you can’t see or feel anything, so you could just as well be in outer space. If you’re not aware via your senses of how small the enclosure is, would claustrophobia be an issue? I can’t answer that.

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