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Bangkok Anew

Bangkok’s image as a city for sex, knife fights, and cobras is burnished to a shine. A trip home finds some of that, but mostly it’s ghosts—real ones—and they’re not quiet.

To capture the attention of anyone Thai, start telling your best ghost story. The months after the tsunami killed over 8,200 people in the southern beaches, Thai television and newspapers could not satisfy the public’s appetite for hard-hitting phantasmagoric reporting. Taxi drivers in Phuket reported having picked up Westerners who asked to go to the airport and then disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Fisherman claimed to have seen mysterious orbs of light drifting along beaches. Invisible boomboxes blasted party music to the cheer of invisible revelers, so say some locals. The president of Phuket’s tourism association had to publicly ask the press to stop running anymore ghost stories, for fear of their negative impact on the island’s image.

The Prah Khanong neighborhood of Bangkok where I grew up is known for its ghosts. The creek behind my grandmother’s house runs past a mosque and then southward to the diminutive Phra Khanong River a kilometer away. On the river sits Wat Mahabut, the Buddhist temple where, according to the legend, a man named Mak sought refuge from his possessive wife, who was dead, and his baby son, who was also dead (both from childbirth complications while Mak was away fighting a war). The Mae Nak Phra Khanong story is a famous one, an early rite of passage for many Thais. Parents tell the story to their children, who tell it to young relatives or friends, who then transfer the fear to other initiates, ensuring that generations henceforth have intimate, contagious knowledge of the way Mae Nak dispatched neighbors trying to warn her husband that he had returned to a ghostly family. Three movies and an opera have already been made from this unquiet domestic drama.

Bangkok, if you believe it, is a city with as many ghosts as there are people. Go to almost any Bangkok backyard and you’ll find a spirit house, a miniature wood or plaster Thai-style house with a steep roof and a porch. Inside, statuettes representing spirits that live on the land repose on a raised platform. When my grandmother misplaces something, she makes an offering to the house in hopes the spirits will help her find it. Sometimes they even make personal visits. I can point to you the spot just outside our kitchen where my grandmother claimed a land spirit appeared to her one night to complain about the lack of offerings. I can also point to you other places within my grandmother’s house where more ghosts have appeared to other family members, sometimes for no particular reason than to make themselves known. I can show you the once-empty lot nearby where a group of white-shrouded ghosts reputedly hangs out, like dope dealers staking out their corner.

People meet familiar, untimely ends because of familiar decisions. Ghosts live out their afterlife as a warning system to the living.My mother knows many more haunted sites than me. Bangkok hospitals are notorious. Hotels, temples, schools, dormitories, office buildings, and various palaces and historic residences fill out the list. It’s not uncommon for Bangkok citizens to mention a new job or school or vacation spot to friends, only to hear: “They say that place is way haunted.”

What also haunts Bangkok is memory. It’s a city that lives with what it can’t yet put in its past, or afford to change. The haunted curve on a highway becomes a way of saying this was a sloppily engineered road. The relative hauntedness of hospitals signals the quality of care given. Eerie, unearthly skeletons of high-rises stand unfinished as reminders of the currency crisis 10 years ago. People meet familiar, untimely ends because of familiar decisions. Ghosts live out their afterlife as a warning system to the living. You shall not forget.


* * *

The stretch of Bangkok I know best looks identical to almost any of the city’s other major thoroughfare, but when I return to Bangkok each year, it’s how I know I’m back. Just over two decades ago, after my family’s return from my father’s post in Saudi Arabia, I enrolled at a British-style school not too far away from my grandmother’s house. Soot-darkened four-story row houses still line both sides of the route to and from this school through Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng roads. The corner restaurant near a masajid school serves up my favorite Hunan-style chicken and rice. Across the street is the shop where I used to rent videos of Hong Kong martial arts serials and nearby are newsstands where I bought translated manga. Go further past the intersection with Pattanakarn road and soon you’ll see a shopping center, simply called the Mall. Close to New Year’s, workers from the Mall decorate the road in front of it—usually a mishmash of giant-sized Christmas ornaments, assorted Japanese cartoon characters, and artificial flora. These made up the greater part of my childhood scenery.

Then and now, if I were to instead make a turn at Pattanakarn, I’d be on Petchburi Road, and for a while, I’d pass through a different Bangkok. You rarely escaped the valleys of row houses, but now taller buildings spring up every few hundred yards—buildings with names on their signage like Cleopatra, Mona Lisa, and Nancy. Giant billboards painted with shapely women hang from their facade; the words Bath-Sauna-Massage appear in that particular order somewhere on the signage. Then you cross another major intersection, and you wouldn’t see any more of these places. Each time I return to Bangkok, I see fewer of them on Petchburi Road, but I have also seen tall buildings with blackened windows rise up elsewhere in compensation.

I recently watched a Nicholas Cage movie called Bangkok Dangerous and read Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. This is the Bangkok I don’t know, full of brothels, knife fights, and cobras; it’s also the Bangkok that comes up the most everywhere else I go. On learning where I’m from, drunk people at parties will sing a line from, “One night in Bangkok.” All I can do is politely laugh, because I can neither confirm nor deny the song’s factuality. This happens more than a few times a year.

In some heavy monsoon seasons, the streets revert back to their previous life. The city is and will be water.For me, what’s dirtiest and most dangerous about Bangkok still largely means my uncomfortable reacquaintance with the heat, the viscous traffic, and airborne carbonate matter that darken blown tissues. In Bangkok, I’m shuffled from relative to relative, from restaurants to shopping centers to temples to more of the same, thoroughly fed and mollycoddled, until I’m back on a flight to New York. Along the way, I often find myself again on that familiar stretch of Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng, and I’ll stop by the Hunan chicken and rice joint, I’ll hear prayers I used to hear sung from the nearby mosque’s minaret. I left a country in childhood—when I return, I’m deposited back in a timeline I left behind. I am 10 again.

But over many returns, I’ve become a collector of glimpses; I see further into the hidden, whirligig movements of a place I used to call home. Some small girl will run up to my father’s car window at a red light and beg for us to buy bootleg CDs, and I’ll shake my head and watch the poor thing dart to another car. Ghosts haunt another one of my dreams, and every few years tanks pay a midday surprise visit to the city streets. Each time in the city, I collect another piece.


* * *

The name Bangkok describes wild palms that used to grow in the lowlands that existed before the city. Few Thais ever call the city Bangkok. Its Thai name is Krung Thep, or more in full, Krung Thep Mahanakhon, or, the Great City of Angels. It’s a city defensively positioned, protected on one side by the Chao Phraya River and on the other by a muddy, swampy plain. Bangkok didn’t begin as a capital city. It inherited the honor after the old capital Ayuttaya was ravaged in the Burmese wars in the 1760s and after the next capital Thonburi lost its importance in the aftermath of a king’s execution (detail: he was beaten to death in a velvet sack so no royal blood would touch the ground). Chinese traders arrived and settled. So did the Dutch, Portuguese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Muslims, Christians, and all varieties of people whose purpose could be met by a city that served everyone. A French missionary, the bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix wrote in Description du royaume Thai ou Siam that Bangkok “makes for a very picturesque sight; ships and a multitude of flag-bedecked junks cluster in rows at the edge of two banks; golden spires, cupolas and beautifully constructed lofty pyraminds, embellished with designs of multi-coloured porcelain which soar into the air. The tiered roofs of the pagodas, ornamented with gold and covered with varnished tile, glitter as they reflect the rays of the sun.”

You’ll still find golden pagodas all over, but what rises higher and shines more brightly in sunlight are new office towers and condominiums wrapped by expressways and elevated sky-train rails. You’ll find large, walled-in mansions near tin-roofed slums; fashionable modernist cafes steps from sidewalk stalls where dishes are washed, if they are, by a hose and bucket. According to United Nations Population Division figures, 3.8 million people lived in Bangkok in 1975; by 2007 there were 6.7 million. Since these estimates don’t include unregistered residents, the true number is likely much higher. What used to be rice fields in the outskirts of Bangkok have been made over by developers, so the masses who rush into the city from the countryside, and everyone else who had once clawed or methodically schemed their way out of piss poor beginnings, can have their own piece, too.

But more buildings mean more weight added to already sinking lowlands. More people mean more cars to turn commutes into book-ending, half-day affairs. The streets of present-day Bangkok follow the contours of the old canals that once made the city Asia’s Venice; this city was built with deference to the vortex of water that empties out to the Gulf of Siam. It’s why there are few streets that follow a straight line for very long. In some heavy monsoon seasons—the worst I remember was in 1981—the streets revert back to their previous life. The city is and will be water.


* * *

Sometimes I feel most people arrive in Bangkok already knowing their fate. Tourists likely find whatever they’ve come to find. Some have come to snap cameras in front of golden temples and ride on tuk-tuks and pay 10 dollars for a two-hour massage. Others come to forestall other fates in their home world and trade comforts for jobs teaching remedial English in sweltering classrooms for a year or two. Some tourists come wanting more sensual escape. Some become voids themselves. Drugs will be dropped into drinks, wallets and passports will be taken, biological souvenirs will be exchanged in hotel rooms. The unluckiest fall in love.

Every few months, some heartbroken farang leapt from a condo balcony. A drunk woman got in the wrong taxi late at night. A man flashed too many gold-wrapped Buddha amulets worn for holy protection.Whether they know it or not, farangs—what a Thai calls Western foreigners—are just joining the swirl of Bangkok’s ongoing social choreography. The wealthy and middle class have their patterns of rise and fall. The poor come to be richer, and there are only so many ways of getting there. For the most part, Bangkok welcomes those with entrepreneurial will. They’re the ones who set up noodlestands or hair salons or auto repair shops in the first floor of row houses. Some are willing to trade far greater. The teenage girls arriving from the countryside don’t often stray from well-trampled paths. Rookie traffic cops begin their climb up the ranks by shaking down motorcyclists at checkpoints underneath expressways. Social welfare join hands with institutionalized gambling, and the blind and crippled roll out grass mats on the sidewalk to hawk lottery tickets to anyone hoping to redeem their luck.

So says Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar: “As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but the sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.”

I know this because I read the Bangkok tabloid dailies in the summers I returned from the U.S. My grandmother would lie down on the nice, cool wood floor to read them, and I picked up the sections she finished. Every few months, some heartbroken farang leapt from a condo balcony. National holidays came and went, leaving a confetti of wreckage tracked by daily highway death counts in bold, 40-point headline fonts. The same stories appeared again and again. Somebody in a circle of laborers drinking Mekong whiskey looked at another person way too long in the eye. A drunk woman got in the wrong taxi late at night. A man flashed too many gold-wrapped Buddha amulets worn for holy protection.

In Bangkok, you simply enjoy a much shorter waiting time between cause and effect, desire and satisfaction—between certitude and its expectable unraveling. All of the universe’s jokes can play out immediately at any given time. The logic of so many Bangkok phenomena just takes a bit of time to figure out, and if you can’t figure it out, then you leave it to the supernatural.


* * *

Let’s talk again about ghosts. What most of Bangkok’s ghosts seem to want is alms. It’s traditionally believed their ghostly anatomies are hungry or they need to save up on merits in order to move beyond where they’re stuck in the afterlife. The racketeering meets cross-existential Western Union scheme works this way: First you’re unfortunate enough to come across desperate ghosts. They make themselves known to you in your waking hours or dreams, and then you go to a temple to pray and make offerings of merit that will hopefully prevent future scares. With nods to Buddhist, Hindu, and other animist traditions, this belief implies a huge karmic operation in which the living and the dead carry out transactions that are duly processed and fulfilled. Debts and excesses of transgressions and merits are accounted for, and every soul continually make adjustments to a spiritual balance sheet that can affect future incarnations, not only of themselves, but others, as well.

For many Bangkok citizens, especially those who have not been so fortunate with their circumstances, this arrangement can offer a satisfactory explanation of their condition. In his book Poor People, William T. Vollmann asks a woman in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum why she thought some people are poor and other rich. “She grasped at the air and said: we believe in the Buddhist way. Some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life. What they gave gets returned in this life.”

In Bangkok, some people consider themselves ghosts, and some ghosts are as good as people. Either way, they are stuck in a place that has moved past them.


* * *

The Bangkok along Sukhumvit 71 and Ramkhamhaeng roads, to which I go back and find things as they were, is slowly fading into a city less recognizable to me. Each time I visit, the old neighborhood strays. Some of the old shops have closed, replaced by new players of the entrepreneurial game, now with air-conditioning. Several street names have changed for reasons unknown. Even my family has become at once familiar and alien. My parents, younger cousins, aunts and uncles: they grow older and become different people. Because I can only visit them once or twice a year, I see them in punctuated intervals, as if I’m looking at them through a life-sized zoetrope cylinder in which they age through strobes of time. Bangkok is not the same city I knew from childhood, and it’s not as entirely lascivious and corrupt as what has become its depiction in popular entertainment. What I’ve collected of Bangkok are just fragments; my knowledge of the city remains incomplete. Most likely I’ve been too Westernized to see beyond the privileged view I’ve enjoyed as a foreigner native. Bangkok is a city that I can only know by intimate inference, and so I proceed with the going-ons that are expected of me, the momentarily returned son. I accept the boundaries of what’s there for me to see.

The unknowable city, though, has a way of letting me know it’s there, shifting behind the veil. One sunny day during a holiday visit a few years ago, my mother and I went to buy groceries for my grandmother at a supermarket a few kilometers from her house. It usually took us an hour to get there, because of traffic, but that day there were hardly any cars on the road. We arrived in half an hour. It felt like one of those holiday weekends when Bangkok empties into the countryside and deflates back to its proper capacity. “Traffic’s fantastic today,” my mother said to one of the employees helping us load groceries from the cart. “Is there some special event going on?” The boy, no more than 16, kept on lifting up bags of groceries. “Just a rumor there’s going to be a coup,” he muttered.


* * *

Sometimes my mother calls me from Bangkok to tell me that animals have been released in my name. Every year around my birthday she does this, and around New Year’s, when I go back to Bangkok for the holidays, she takes me to do it in person. We go to one of the open-air markets and find a fishmonger. Out of the plastic tubs filled with gaping eels, catfish, and frogs, we select a propitious number of them to be scooped into a rubber-band-sealed plastic bag, the same way you buy guppies for an aquarium.

Some people consider themselves ghosts, and some ghosts are as good as people. Either way, they are stuck in a place that has moved past them.We drive out to the city’s periphery; my mother worries that too close to the city, the water is too dirty for our pardoned captives. We find a temple by a canal. I open the bags and let the contents leap into the water. Some years, we also go buy coffins. There’s an organization called Ruamkatanyu that collects bodies from accidents and crime scenes. If nobody claims the bodies, they’re put into our donated coffins and given proper funerals. For my mother and many Thais, all this animal liberation and gifts of final dignity can help build merits and affect the invisible algorithm that figures out your karmic credit score. It’s a way of warding off a Bangkok they don’t know.

After we’re done, we go listen to saffron-robed monks pray. We pick up a silver bottle from a side table in the temple. From the bottle, we pour water over an outstretched finger into a collecting bowl. As the water trickles down, we are supposed to wish that our newly earned merits be passed on to the spirits—of dead relatives and of the land, and spirits of those we’ve harmed, to whom we owe incalculable debts, and poor spirits, wandering and hungry, and spirits who protect us, should they think we are good people. And so we feed the grand contraption. When we are done, my mother tells me to take the filled bowl outside, beyond the shade of the building, as tradition dictates. Preferably near the root of a large auspicious tree, I am to pour the water to the ground.

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