Brian Spencer, This is Your Bangkok Life, Again

Baiyoke Tower Bangkok

The over-the-counter pharmacist, with whom I’ve done business for years at a Ratchaprasong pharmacy that shall remain nameless, said that he’s fresh out of Xanax. “Oh, no, no more. Finished,” he said, an impish smile spreading across his face. “Thailand not allow any more.” It’s not allowed anymore because there’d been problems in recent years with some abusing the pill’s hyper-strong Thai version in ways unrelated to sleep. I asked him if he might get any more and he said he wasn’t sure and I said, “okay, I’ll come back in a few weeks, khup khun khup,” and he nodded in such a way that said, “do check back, you never know, khup khun khup.”

An Australian woman pushes a few one-baht coins towards the cashier at Fruits Lover, a walk-up fresh-fruit stand at Platinum Fashion Mall that does a delish blend of passion fruit and pineapple, among others. “Is this enough? I don’t understand how much it is,” she squawked. The price for a blended juice, listed on the large English-language sign, was 79 baht. “No, ma’am. 79 baht. 79 baht, please.” He spoke in English clearly, in that sweet, patient way that Thais in Bangkok still, after all this time of dealing with all those irrational tourists, speak to such people. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. I don’t know how much this is. What’s the difference between a fruit juice and a blended juice? Can you…”

Don’t worry about that pack of black soi dogs on Phayathai who hang out with the security guards at Coco Walk. Maybe you know the ones? They were skinny and spry when they were pups many years ago, but now they’re fat, fat, so fucking fat and well-fed and lazy, just like the Coco Walk security guards have gotten over the years. The traffic gate is still manual.

Bangkok Thailand

The Phayathai soi dogs are still not yet as fat as Mr. Fats (my name for him), the beige-toned soi dog who camps out in front of one of the Seven-Elevens on Phetchaburi, near Ratchadamri. It’s good to see Mr. Fats, but it’s shocking to see that Mr. Fats has somehow packed on even more pounds since I lived nearby in 2011. I was happy to see him last year during a weekend visit, and walked up to him one night to pet him, saying “Oh, Mr. Fats, it’s good to…” At that moment a nearby vendor, frantic, shouted, “My dai! My dai! (Cannot! Cannot!),” and as I reached down to pat his fat little head he bared his teeth and snapped at me with rage flashing in his eyes and I pulled my hand back in just enough time. That was the first and last time I ever admired Mr. Fats as anything more than a random passerby.

There aren’t as many durian vendors on the Bangkok streets as there used to be. It seems like there are more vendors hawking fresh lime juice and fresh pomegranate juice, but fewer selling durian. Word on the street is that more and more of Thailand’s durian–which the Thais consider the best durian in Southeast Asia, of course–is being shipped off to China to satisfy growing Chinese demand, at the expense of Thai taste. “Because they know it’s very good, very healthy,” says my source, an old friend. “But Thai people know this for a very long time.”

My Chidlom phad thai vendor, the one with the big, toothy, cheerful smile, tells me that his wife is pregnant with their third child and asks if I have any children of my own yet. I say no, still thinking about that, and he suggests that we have him/her in Thailand, since I love Bangkok so much, and because… my Thai-language skills are deplorable and his English isn’t particularly nuanced either, so he has trouble conveying the second reason why my wife should give birth to a child in Thailand. He punches up his language translator app and shows me his screen, which displays the word “nationality.”

Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand

The rainy season has come, the glorious Bangkok rainy season. It’s a wonderful time of the year, though it’s also the time of year when all those “magic sidewalk tiles”–that is, loose tiles that when stepped upon yield magical geysers of filthy black water–are refilled. Walk carefully; dern diidii.

Walk carefully, dern diidii, up and down the street overpass stairways. Holy hell can they be steep, and inconsistent spacing between some stairs adds even more intrigue to the formerly simple task of ascending and descending stairs. I once tripped myself while going down the stairs in front of Pantip Plaza, moving into a nimble, desperate little tap dance to avoid tumbling down and cracking my head open on the magic-tiled sidewalk below.

An orange bus packed with commuters, blasting “Zombie” by The Cranberries, rumbles past on Charon Krung, in an area practically deserted at 8pm on a Thursday night. I slip into a taxi, “phom ja bai pratunam dai my khup?,” and it smells like pandan inside, and sinuous, hypnotic luk thung is on the radio, and all is right in the world.

I learned from a friend that, in Thailand, every day has a color. Thursday, for example, is orange, while Sunday is violet and Tuesday is pink; on Wednesday, it’s green during the day and grey at night.

Salmon, with her hands smooth like stone, still gives the best foot massage around; her happy little hole-in-the-wall massage shop, where family members and friends are usually gathered together on the floor, near the back, snacking and shooting the shit, is still one of the most strangely relaxing, peaceful little spots in Pratunam. I can barely make it through the 60-minute treat without dozing off.

Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand

A great joy in Bangkok life is sipping a tall can or sweating bottle of Chang Classic on the balcony at sunset, watching the swallows swoop and dive and glide and play in the large, open space–the airborne playground–between Amari Watergate and GLOW Pratunam, waiting for the lights to flicker on, listening to insane fucking traffic swell on Phetchaburi.

A Western woman, harried and sweating, maybe in her late-fifties/early-sixties, spots me, a fellow white person, sitting on the Pantip Plaza steps, eating chunks of charcoal-fired squid with a long wooden toothpick. She asks me if I have a guidebook since, you know, I’m white and in Bangkok and us tourists are all in it together in this cray-cray city. I admit that, after years of traveling and living in Asia, I’ve grown tiresome of the assumption that I’m here to help since I’m white and also a tourist who’s in over their head, so my first reaction, my first knee-jerk reaction, is uh-uh, it ain’t me babe. “No,” I say as impolitely as an asshole can say it. She seems incredulous and walks away, and 10 seconds later I’m ashamed of myself and get up to go find her and ask her if she needs help but she’s nowhere to be seen.

“Tuk-tuk, sir? Where are you going?” I like it best when the tuk-tuk drivers, harmless every one of them, suggest MBK and/or “Thai food, seafood.”

I don’t see as many defiant sexpats as I used to, which isn’t to say they aren’t still here. It feels like that old guard of sexpat–the sloppy Sukhumvit sexpat, mostly Brits in their late-forties to early-fifties–are being marginalized and replaced by heavily tattoed, thirtysomething cool guys who don’t realize they’re becoming sexpat 2.0. Bangkok can be whatever you want it to be, though some people seem to forget that a scumbag is a scumbag is a scumbag, no matter where you are.

Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand

Thais, generally the silliest, most casual, and genuinely friendly people I’ve encountered on this planet, still express consternation when faced with the prospect of sitting next to you or standing too close to you. My friend says it’s because he/she is nervous you will ask them something in English when they don’t speak it very well.

As I run through Lumpini Park, Thailand’s national anthem blares over loudspeakers at 6pm, and everybody stops and stands in place and waits for it to finish before carrying on. We all still rise in the movie theaters to pay our respects to the King before the film begins.

I see many Western tourists still “blend in” by dressing like Bozo the Clown on vacation. I assume Khao San Road is still filled with grisly-grisly backpackers who’ve been to more gritty-gritty places in Southeast Asia than you have, brah. Between spending a night in Khao San bars and swimming across Khlong Saen Saeb, I think I’d take the latter.

I recognize the vendor in front of Pantip Plaza who used to make the perfect orange juice, just a little salty, not too sour. At one point he switched to shaved ice, and then back to orange juice, and now he’s on to grilled meats. It’s really great to see him, though he’s forgotten me since my days of frequenting his orange juice stand when I lived a block away in 2008-09. That’s okay, I’m just another random farang, we all look the same.

Except some folks still recognize me immediately: a sushi lady at Isetan; a cashier at Isetan’s Sun Moulin bakery; servers at Tawandang German Brewery; a Big C pharmacist from whom I buy statins; this guy; the kindly guy who’s manned the vegetarian stand in the Platinum Food Hall since at least 2008. Mr. Fats definitely doesn’t recognize me.

Tears were shed when I left Bangkok against my will in mid-2009. I wasn’t ready to return to New York and to my full-time office job, as the way I saw it there really was no good reason to do so. (I was right about that, by the way.) My boss said that, no, they couldn’t extend my working-remotely arrangement for another three to five months, so I had to go back. I was so desperate to return to Bangkok that my then-girlfriend and I flew all the way back a few months later, just for a week or so, just to slip back into our everyday lives, even if just for a few minutes. At that time we resolved to make this city a permanent fixture in our lives, one way or the other.

We moved back less than two years later, for about six months; surprise, we weren’t ready to leave that time, either. We got married before we left, in an impromptu “ceremony” at Khet Pathumwan (essentially an administrative office), and promised each other that we’d get back soon. In 2012 we relocated to Singapore for various reasons, not the least of which was reducing transit to Bangkok from 20+ hours to around two.

It’s been almost a decade since I first stepped foot in Bangkok–I still remember that the first photo I took was of an elephantine road marker on a Thanon Phayathai bridge, one which today I’m sure I wouldn’t even notice–and today I find myself back here for a month or so, living in the same place I lived in 2008, trying to figure out how to extend my time, again, resolving to spend more time here, again.

Bangkok Thailand

Now, I’m tip-toeing towards forty instead of plunging into my thirties. The cushy full-time job is long gone, replaced by the uncertainty and liberation of the full-time freelancing life. Otherwise?

Life goes on in Bangkok, where Bangkok is Bangkok is Bangkok, and where every single day is still as precious as the last.

One Response

  1. Veronica June 24, 2015

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