Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wet With Light

Every time I land in Bangkok, it’s like coming home. To a somewhat dreamlike home, where an occasional door might lead to a blank wall and some of the furniture might be glued to the ceiling, but home nonetheless.

It’s a home I enter by stages. First, of course, is the big, abrupt, wrenching stage: 16-18 hours in an airplane. Humans were not designed to travel this way: Wave goodbye to my wife and dog in California, spend an eternity trying to fall asleep in a seat that barely reclines enough to roll a ball down the back, and then – stiff, creaky, fuddled, and dryer than a ship’s biscuit – clamber out of the air conditioned dimness of the plane directly into The World of Light and Heat.

That’s what I experience first: light and heat.

With the equatorial sun pretty much directly overhead, blue-sky Bangkok is brilliantly bright. Reflections – off automobile chrome, the polished corner of a curved roof, the colored tiles on a temple façade – gather the light, condense it, and beam it at you like a welder’s arc, more comfortably viewed through blackened glass. Light saturates the rural landscape around the airport as it fades away into the distance, bleaching it to a green that’s almost white. The land seems to be wet with light.

While I’m screwing up my eyes to deal with the brightness, the heat attacks. It plasters itself against me like Jell-o at the boil, wet, heavy, absolutely unavoidable. In the 45 seconds it takes to get to the end of the jetway I’ve worked up a sweat. Then I’m plunged into the penguin environment of the airport, air conditioned to a point where beef could be hung in it for weeks, until immigration and luggage collection are over and I pass through the automatic doors and back into the blast furnace of the day.

So, okay, light and heat. And an extraordinary dislocation in time. It’s 11 AM in Bangkok and 8 PM in California. Put all these things together – the heat, the light, the time displacement – and you have a state of mind that would have been quite expensive in the Sixties. One floats through the world in a bubble, and at a surprising altitude.

But then, from the back of the taxi, I begin to see the familiar landmarks: the airport hotel, a few tuk-tuks putt-putting by on their three wheels, the ramp onto the expressway, the airport hotel. (Or did I already see that?) And I realize that the taxi itself is a familiar landmark, with its thoughtfully placed box of Kleenex inside the rear window, the amulets and Buddha figures on the dash, the garland of flowers hanging from the rear-view mirror. At this point, I’m about a third of the way home.

After closing my eyes for just a second, I open them half an hour later and find myself on Rama IV Road, and all the things I haven’t seen in months are right there, where they’ve been all along. The older women with the broad hats who sweep the streets and sidewalks with hand-made straw brooms. The cops in their tight brown uniforms that never, ever pull apart in between the buttons (even on the fat cops) because the buttons are phony and there’s a hidden zipper running up the front. Young boys dawdling along together, unselfconsciously holding hands, young girls holding hands with young girls. The dazzle of sun on long, clean black hair. Spotless, unwrinkled white blouses on schoolgirls. A teenage girl on the sidewalk laughs so hard she drops into a crouch. I’m two-thirds of the way home.

Then comes the world’s longest stoplight – long enough that I’ve seen drivers trapped at it turn off their engines to save gas – and we’re on Silom Road. The whole spectrum of urban Thai commerce is on display here, from the tiniest sidewalk stand to the gleaming new department stores. I look for, and find, a store window where the mannequins assume a pose you never see in Western store windows: one arm loosely extended, palm down, fingers curved slightly under. This is the universal Southeast Asian way of calling you over, beckoning you in. It says, come here. It says, hello and welcome. It seems like a welcome to me, and I’m almost all the way home.

I tote the bags into my apartment, turn on the air conditioner, hang up whatever I have to hang up, and head back down to the street to stock the refrigerator and buy some flowers. (Flowers are ridiculously cheap.) Then I carry everything back upstairs, put it away, and try to find a way to stay awake all day so I can go to bed that night with half a chance of actually sleeping through until morning.

And the next day I tote my laptop to Coffee World or the TipTop Restaurant and get huge smiles of welcome from the staff, who begin to funnel me a continuing and endless flow of black coffee. I haul my laptop out of its bag, open it, and start writing about Thailand, and when I look up I see Thai faces, and when I listen I hear the Thai language. And I know I’m one hundred percent home.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. What a delightful description, Tim. My memories of Bangkok all revolve around heat and humidity - and friendly people.

  2. How wonderful it must be for you to be back in Bangkok, discovering for yourself that life has gone on as usual.

    I'm sure you will memorize every moment of your time there.


  3. ". . . and you have a state of mind that would have been quite expensive in the Sixties."

    Actually, Tim, LSD wasn't all that expensive in the Sixties. Neither was pot, come to think of it. Thanks to Nixon's drug war, the price of both are now through the roof.

    Question: As you spend half of every year in Los Angeles and the other half in Bangkok, how many years did it take you to forget which city is your home away from home? Make that two questions: Does it make any difference?

    During my years as a long-haul trucker, L.A. was frequently on my itinerary, but I've never been to Bangkok. However, based on your descriptions of Bangkok and my experiences in L.A., I'm pretty sure I'd like Bangkok better. While it's unlikely that I'll ever visit Bangkok in person, I get to experience it vicariously through your writing (so keep these wonderful blog posts coming).

  4. PLEASE forgive me, everyone, for not having responded much, much earlier. I'm in pre-publication craziness, doing publicity, writing and producing a video promo, setting a tour, writing two books, and putting the first two volumes in my first series up as e-books, and it's been totally insane.

    Beth, I'm not in Bangkok -- this piece was pure wish fulfillment. Where I am, apparently permanently, is at my keyboard on my dining room table, working my way through a single-spaced To Do list that takes up four pages of a legal tablet.

    Stan -- Heat, humidity, and friendly people are all at the top of my list, too, but I'd have to add amazing food. I think Bangkok today may be the best restaurant city in the world.

    Phil, drug prices in the 60s were absurdly low, but since I'm no longer in the market I'm not keeping track any more. And I'm home in either city. (Actually, there are three, since I live in Phnom Penh, too.) The apartments have my clothes in the closets, my books on the walls, and they all feel like home. The only problem is the time change, which is 15 hours -- at midnight in LA, it's 3 PM in Bangkok.