It's late afternoon on a strip of Middle Sukhumvit. I'm out for a day of shopping-- looking through discount paperbacks at a used bookshop and glossy coffee table books I can't afford at Kinokuniya, idling over a cup of tea, ogling the expensive liquor selection at Villa.
The solitary walker in Bangkok will occasionally encounter sections of utter loveliness-- there are the rotting old canalside neighborhoods near near the river, the procession of white bridges with spilling bougainvilleas over the Khlong Prem Prachakon, the broad, tree-lined plaisances of Ratchadamnoen Nok and Phaya Thai, the old hyper-specific neighborhoods-- districts of luthiers and tanners, flower markets and Afghan jewellers, that dot the more antique sections of the city.
But there are also countless neighborhoods that make your skin crawl. A neighborhood like that around the Phrom Phong metro stop seems fine in the evening-- the shop windows are brightly lit, the bars and restaurants are just starting to fill up, and you might be a bit drunk yourself, you might be on your way to meet friends, you might have a date.
It's in late afternoon, during the smoggy, saffron-colored stage an hour or two before sunset, that it is at both its most horrifying and its most pathetic. The sois are exhaust-choked canyons lined with '60s shophouses, some of them left to rot, carrying the scars of typhoons, car crashes, smashed windows. Others bear garish renovations-- there is nothing more uniquely atrocious and tasteless than plaster Corinthian columns framing blue tinted-glass windows. Tourist restaurants-- the sign says THAIFOOD WESTERN FOOD VERY CHEAP-- serve up watery curries and thin, limp cheeseburgers with wilted lettuce. And above all else, there is the omnipresence of the sexualized industries-- whether as direct as strip clubs, or as indirect as sports bars with waitresses in skin-tight dresses advertising Beer Chang. And for the clannish Japanese businessmen that make their homes in this neighborhood, cracked signs indicate karaoke bars where Thai girls in bunny ears and schoolgirl outfits get felt up by Johnny Walker-soaked keiretsu functionaries.
The architecture and the commerce of the area are mirrored by the denizens. A sickly red wet-season twilight sets in. Stringy backpackers with serious suntans and filthy t-shirts cross the intersection in swift-moving twos and threes. A small group of heavily made-up young women in lacy white dresses have just finished doing a promotion for a brand of skin cream and they sit down, exhausted from having spent the day standing and smiling in four-inch heels. Toadlike white men, sweating through their shirts and their buzz cuts, mill about, led on invisible leashes by squat, flat-nosed Northeastern Thai wives with rusted complexions and knockoff Gucci bags. The beggars go out of their way to degrade themselves for extra pity. Aiming squarely for the tourist market, the legless drag themselves on their bellies across the rough pavement, and the armless wave their stumps like flags at a parade.
I often tell my friends in more northerly climes that the character of Thailand is rather Mediterranean-- Vespas and great food, coups and messily parked cars, ancient civilizations and primary colors, guitarists and prizefighters. But in the humid, sighing, late afternoon around here, Bangkok reminds me more of Weimar-era Berlin-- likewise a decadent society in perennial economic and political chaos, a furious nightlife catering to those rich enough to be insulated from this chaos, its streets filled with disfigured panhandlers and cackling streetwalkers.
And for this very reason, I've felt powerfully drawn, lately, to the expressionists and their fellow travelers.
The leering faces make up the carnival masks of James Ensor.
Half the amphetamine-riddled faces I see on the street could be in Egon Schiele paintings.
And the slum children, the old ladies, the hunchbacks, inhabit the woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz.
It should be said that this sense of decadence and decrepitude is by no means unique to Bangkok-- plenty of places from Rome to New Orleans to Prague to Shanghai to Buenos Aires have similar reputations. But I've rarely been any place that has the same sense of innate rot, a flagging ferroconcrete sigh of a place sinking into the salt marshes.
I sometimes find the proximity of horror in Bangkok to have a certain comforting quality-- stare the devil in the face every day and blow him a raspberry. I can claim that I'm living comfortably in a contradiction, willing to confront the miseries that define the lives of vast numbers of working people haunted by the specter of capitalism, living without first-world blinders. I can maintain my world-weary edge, and posit myself as not one of those foreigners in Thailand, the mindless horde who refuse to face themselves or their place in the world. And while there is at least a grain of truth in these stances, they are also postures of self-deception. I construct a narrative for myself in an attempt to justify my own uncertainties, insecurities, and instabilities.
All of which leads me to something of a dead end. Now, I'm sitting here in front of a coffee, feeling glum. The sun has finally fallen behind the rain clouds, leaving only a smudge of light on the far horizon.
This neighborhood at night seems jet-black at times. Certain roads are lined with brightly lit white towers, while others project a rather jankety but homey street carnival mood with their food stalls and machinists' shops. But this stretch of Sukhumvit right now is only empty restaurants and dirty signage, the steely glare of emptied office buildings and an architecture that, after sunset, absorbs the blackness of night into its steel and masonry armature.
But some stories, I'm afraid, have no resolution in real life. No matter what stories I try to weave about where I am and where I am going and why I am here, I'm left with more questions than answers. The city yields nothing. No theme, no plot, and no real sense of character, but the streetlights do line up to form an ellipsis in the soft rain.