Amongst its colours, smells and noises, Bangkok is an incredibly provocative and humbling city for writers; so much so that it’s inspired a slew of novels, poems and essays over the years from writers both famous and not.
The Sukhumvit Book Club is an attempt to celebrate writing, in all its forms, on Bangkok and Thailand at large – we’ll be reviewing novels, guide books, essays, literary maps, poems and essentially any writing that pertains to dear old Siam.
Whether it’s a newly published tome or Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, we’ll be reading it and writing about it.
If you’ve written something on Bangkok, published or unpublished, and would like us to review it, please email email@example.com.
Anyway, on to our first book of this series…
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne
I’m writing this review in a Sukhumvit branch of the Au Bon Pain franchise; it’s comfortable, if hopelessly over air-conditioned, but pretty sterile. I could be in any city on earth eating a ham and cream cheese bagel while mindlessly checking Facebook.
This here is really the complete antithesis to the spirit of Osborne’s book, Bangkok Days, which is inherently murky, dirty, poetic, and unquestionably Bangkok.
While the edition I’m reading sports quirky, childish cover art – all cartoonish illustrations and splashes of bright colour – the writing itself is intelligent and thought-provoking. The hipster cover certainly belies the depth and darkness of the material within.
Part-memoir and part-travel diary, Bangkok Days documents Osborne’s observations on the people and cultures he comes across, the places he goes and the essence of the city itself – all set over a few periods of his life when he finds himself living in Bangkok. There are recurring characters, but no real plotline – each chapter is quite self-contained, revolving around a certain event, location or subject.
Osborne is peripatetic, a serial wanderer – and I get the impression that’s true for his life as a whole – and his walks through the city’s neighbourhoods are the constant that weave together his stories and wry, occasionally self-indulgent, often cynical, never pretentious, observations.
We follow him from a stay in a grubby Wang Lang apartment to the Shangri-La, the British Club, Bumrungrad Hospital, Thonglor, Hua Hin, the Klong Toey slum, and the infamous Eden Club, amongst others.
The topics he touches upon in his musings are almost as wide as the ground he covers.
Probably the most recurring theme throughout Bangkok Days is what it is to be an expat, and what brings so many foreigners to exile themselves in Bangkok.
Some of my favourite well-aimed snippets, which chime with both my own ego and articulate what I’ve sensed in others–
Bangkok is an asylum for those who have lapsed into dilettantism
Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it
In Bangkok it was imperative to have habits or you quickly went crazy… You were a sinking ship and you had to keep bailing yourself out.
…it’s the habit we have of thinking that much of the world is a reproduction of ourselves, of America, when it is obviously nothing of the sort.
Analysing deeply why many older, western men come here, he says (through another character)
…what Bangkok offered to the aging human was a culture of complete physicality. It was tactile, humans pressing against each other in healing heat: the massage, the bath, the foot therapy, the handjob, you name it. The physical isolation and sterility of Western life, its physical boredom, was unimaginable.
He also examines the core of what so many find appealing and arousing in the unique Thai character:
It is constantly remarked that the Thais are rather formal and proper in their day-to-day lives, a conservatism summed up in the phrase ‘rab rioy’. But it could be said that it is this very surface reticence which frees the deeper, more private self to be sexually anarchic. In this respect, one might venture to add, they are the inverse of Americans and Britishers, who are so often flaunting their supposed freedom in your face but who are invariably easy to offend. It is the tension between the calm, reticent surface and the adventurous core which arouses me more than the reverse.
Another prevailing theme in Bangkok Days is the mind of Osborne himself, in whom there will be some very recognisable thoughts and insecurities for many an expat. He doesn’t present as the hero, but is likeable and relatable in his foibles and honesty.
One is sometimes capable of astonishingly shameful acts of cowardice.
He is complex and contradictory, at once both admiring and scornful towards the varying degrees of pathetic characters he meets in the city. Clearly enamoured with Thai culture and Bangkok, he is nevertheless aware and vocal of its flaws, specifically that of engineered pretence:
…the Thai cult of beauty, mannered, like the art of puppetry.
…at night at least the bottom layers of this palimpsest [Bangkok] could be felt again. The daytime city fell away and the past seeped back up to the surface.
Literary quotes and references are littered throughout Bangkok Days, inferring both Osborne’s own views on the power of Bangkok and how it holds so many foreigners in its grip.
Quite aptly, he quotes the 19th century Greek poet CP Cavafy, who described the city of Alexandria thus:
You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea.
To a city lovelier far than this
Could ever have been or hoped to be–
Where every step now tightens the noose…
Bangkok Days is first and foremost an exploration of one man’s relationship with Bangkok and all that she is. If you’re looking for a tight plotline or, conversely, a how-to guide to Bangkok, this book is probably not going to tickle your pickle. I’ve seen criticism levied against Osborne for misspelling various romanised Thai words – while that may be true, that’s entirely missing the point.
However, if you enjoy reading the musings and observations of another on a city like Bangkok, Bangkok Days will certainly hit the mark. It’s insightful, relatable and very readable – witty, poignant, sometimes literary, occasionally less so. The fast pace and technicolour descriptions mean that you should be able to polish it off in a few sittings.
Have you read Bangkok Days? Let us know your thoughts on it.
Featured image is by Andy Roberts and is used under a Creative Commons licence