An American Abroad

Rimbaud Speaks of Bangkok

I’ve been struggling to understand why I didn’t take photos in Bangkok, why I can’t even seem to write much about it. Something about the too-muchness of that city shuts me down. Then in one of those weird coincidences of literature, I found an answer.

I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations on and off for awhile now. Today I came upon this:


Seen enough. The vision was encountered in every kind of place.

Had enough. City uproar, in the evening, in the sunlight, and forever.

Known enough. The interruptions of life. —Oh uproar and visions!

Departure in the midst of new involvements, new sounds!

Rimbaud knew a thing or two about excess. Here, even he seems incapable of describing what he saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelled. There are no concrete nouns, no metaphors or similes. If even he could be shut down by the sensory overload of city life, then maybe I can forgive myself for not being able to commit Bangkok to words and pictures.

I was feeling wiped out after my trip to the Similan Islands yesterday. Spent most of the day in my hotel, just trying to get my digestion and temperature regulation and energy levels back to normal. A friend suggested that I had “overwhelmed my immune system.” Perhaps. But that phrase stuck with me as I considered Bangkok. After all the travel I’ve done in the last 20 months, I do feel pretty much immune to the ways that new places can assault my senses. But Bangkok seems to be an exception. I’m not immune to it yet. It infects me and stops me up.

Someday I’ll go back and figure out how and why.

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.

Bangkok 10

I walk out of the Ever Rich Inn (which has turned out to be a great place to stay, by the way) for the last time at 5:45 on the morning after Christmas and am amazed that the party is still going on. Sukumvit Road at that hour is just like I first found it, with the floating sidewalk cafes still doing a brisk business. I guess they keep going til the morning pushcart vendors come to claim the turf as their own. As for me, I hail a cab. Three hours later, I’m flying back to China.

I loved Bangkok, but not for the reasons I expected. I came with a list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do and I didn’t see or do half of them. I spent most of my three days there just walking up and down Sukumvit Road and the sois (side-streets) that intersect it, hopping into shops, bars and restaurants at a whim, and just relaxing.
I didn’t see anything particularly beautiful and I didn’t take many pictures; I just basked in the strangeness of it all.
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I felt more culture shock than I ever have before, and that’s probably because I came to Thailand after six months in China. There’s an old joke about the differences between various countries. To adapt and paraphrase, in China everything is forbidden, including that which is expressly permitted. In Thailand, however, everything is permitted, including that which is expressly prohibited. I understand this in terms of respiration. In China, it feels like the people are holding their breath; it’s a tightly governed conservative society. In Thailand, though, people seem to breathe easily.

(Back to Bangkok 9)

Bangkok 9

On Christmas eve, I catch a tuk-tuk to Khaosan Road. Anyone who’s seen or read The Beach knows that street as the place where Richard is first given the mysterious map to the island. It’s backpacker central. In Bangkok Eight, Burdett questions whether it is really part of Thailand at all. I arrive at 8:30 at night and the street seems crowded, but by 10:00 it’s almost impossible to move.

There are bars and inexpensive restaurants, street musicians, travel agents hawking packages to Phuket, stalls offering the latest in tie-dye clothing, Bob Marley paraphernalia, bookstores (in one, I bought what turned out to be a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh), cheap guesthouses and hostels. There are storefronts advertising in Hebrew, catering to the young Israelis who’ve just been discharged from the IDF and are now on their almost mandatory round-the-world treks. There are young people everywhere. I’ve been on many streets like this, though not for quite a while. To tell the truth, it’s good to be back. It’s easy to sneer at hippie travelers, but even after all this time it still feels like these are my people.

(Ahead to Bangkok 10)

(Back to Bangkok 8)

Bangkok 8

Two blocks from my hotel a group of ladyboy hookers congregate on the sidewalk. They’re identifiable by their impossibly pneumatic chests and too-thick wrists. I don’t get the attraction to them, much less the desire to become one. But as I try to imagine their lives, I conclude that they are the bravest people I’ve ever seen.

(Ahead to Bangkok 9)

(Back to Bangkok 7)

Bangkok 7

Back near my hotel and in need of a rest, I flop into a British pub. I try to settle into my Burdett (which is better than any guidebook) at a bar facing the street, but am interrupted twice by seatmates who want to chat.
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The first is Vincent, a Londoner who lives in Bangkok and teaches kindergarten. He is sullen, rude, and very drunk, almost past coherent speech. After a few exchanges I return to my book. A young Thai woman is on the other side of him, flattering him with words and touches. I glance up from the pages in time to see one of her arms amorously encircling his neck while the other reaches carefully into his back pocket. She deftly extracts a few bills from his wallet. He’s too far gone to notice. She looks over his shoulder and sees me watching her. I smile conspiratorially. They leave shortly thereafter.

Second up is Paul, an older Welshman who has settled in Singapore with his Thai wife and is back to visit. He stands me a beer after I sing the Swansea football song, which he is surprised I know. He’s actually interesting to talk to: an expat who has no intention of ever returning to the west. He proudly shows me pictures of his four year old son. Then his mobile rings. It’s his wife. I can’t understand what he says, but I can see it’s not good. He hangs up, shaken. “Everything all right at home?” I ask gently. “No,” he says. “My wife found a bottle of Viagra in my kit bag and wants to know what it’s doing there.” “Uh-oh,” I say. “And it’s stupid, because it wasn’t even mine—I was holding it for a friend,” says Paul. “Even I don’t believe that,” I say. He pays his bill and flees.

(Ahead to Bangkok 8)

(Back to Bangkok 6)

Bangkok 6

Further down Sukumvit is the Rachada strip, a district of enormous luxury hotels and gigantic high-end malls. Nothing there is of human scale and everything there is way out of my price range. I’m reading John Burdett’s novel Bangkok Eight right now. A few hours earlier, I came to the part where his Thai detective hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is abducted and forced to sully his Buddhist purity in the company of three prostitutes. The scene takes place in Rachada; now I understand why. Anyway, in contrast to the area around my much more modest hotel, there are few tourists out on the street, even though some of the hotels here must have in excess of 1,000 rooms. Maybe they are in the malls, in private cars, or in enclosed restaurants.
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I also pass by Bangkok police headquarters, and it is here that I see evidence of the recent political disturbances. In addition to the permanent wrought iron fence around the police compound, there are now rolls of razor wire just inside the fence and policemen decked out in riot gear every twenty meters. There are also empty trucks designed for carrying people parked all over the compound, though whether these are for transporting police or detainees is unclear to me.
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(Ahead to Bangkok 7)

(Back to Bangkok 5)

Bangkok 5

Sukumvit Road is supposed to be one of the longest streets in the world. I doubt that, but it’s long enough to pass through many worlds. My hotel is at the nexus of several of these. It’s located at the edge of the Arab tourist quarter. There are Omani, Persian, Lebanese and Iraqi restaurants. There are hotels with names out of the 1001 Nights. There are many shops with Arabic signage. But most incongruously are the Arab women dressed in full black niqabs, through which only the eyes are visible. Watching one of them pass by a ladyboy prostitute, who is wearing a tight low-cut minidress and high-heeled boots, I wonder what is going through both of their minds. Do they disapprove of each other? Feel threatened by each other? Envy each other? Attempt to blot the other out of their memories?

Another direction out my hotel door leads quickly to an Indian district, where I indulge my major weakness for Indian food. Sikh tailors stand in the doorways to their shops, offering to cut the best suits for me at bargain prices.

The sidewalks are jammed with people and market stalls. T-shirts, beard trimmers, pirated DVDs, sex toys, placemats, realistic replicas of popular guns, jewelry, postcards, Viagra, baby clothes, phony high-end watches, electronic accessories, wooden elephants, cigarette lighters, martial arts paraphernalia, Buddhas, and hijabs are all on offer.
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At one corner by the golden arches, Ronald McDonald welcomes the hungry with his palms pressed together in a traditional wai.
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(Ahead to Bangkok 6)

(Back to Bangkok 4)

Bangkok 4

There are a lot of roundeyes here–farangs, in the local parlance. Many are tall and blond. It takes me a whole day to stop being astonished when I see them. I now understand the behavior of the Shenzhen group at the Kunming airport a little better. I hear Scandinavian tongues, German, and Aussie-accented English. And I soon conceive a distaste for my fellow travelers. They’re too tall, too hairy, too fat, too old, too numerous, too rich. Many of the guys have their arms draped over the shoulders of Thai women. I’m no prude; my resentment isn’t rooted in moral scruples. These temporary-girlfriend relationships are mutually exploitive, and so what? No, it’s the aesthetics I object to. Thai women are indeed beautiful, graceful, and sexy. The western men tend toward the lumpy. It’s like seeing a beautiful painting in a cheap and ugly frame.

(Ahead to Bangkok 5)

(Back to Bangkok 3)

Bangkok 3

First wakeful impression on hitting the streets: familiarity. It’s the opposite of what I expected.

There are the logos: Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, Au Bon Pain, Shell, Subway. (I have a surprisingly sentimental reaction to the old Goodyear winged-boot trademark.)

Next comes ethos: comfortable coffee houses, well-stocked bookstores, and restaurants offering cuisine from four continents.

And finally, pathos: amputee beggars pleading for loose change or small bills.

Yeah, it’s almost like being back in the States. In another mindset, I might have been disappointed by that, but after six months in China, I am surprised by how good the familiar feels.

(Ahead to Bangkok 4)

(Back to Bangkok 2)