My Bangkok: City of spirits


In 2012, while traveling from my new home in Istanbul to a remote temple in Cambodia for research into Khmer archaeology, I stopped in Bangkok to change planes, lie comatose in a hotel for a night or two, and reimmerse myself in a city where I had lived several years earlier. I had left New York after 20 years in 2011 after my mother died. Without much of a plan, I had drifted to Istanbul for a change of mind and heart, or maybe just to escape hedge-fund-driven rents and a city grown stale to my eye. 

But in Istanbul I had not reckoned with Turkey’s growing crisis. Protests against Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then Turkey’s prime minister) were gathering momentum, as were violent crackdowns — harbingers of the eventual attempted coup d'état in 2016 and, in a more general sense, the terror and disorder that has subsequently swept across the country. The city seemed claustrophobic, anxious.  

One night as I sat in the Foodland supermarket on Sukhumvit Soi 11 in Bangkok, drinking a cocktail at a streetside bar amid a delectable chaos of vendors grilling gai yang chicken, men puffing on shisha pipes and young dreadlocked women dancing in the rain (I had already reflected that it was a scene no Istanbul supermarket could offer at 2 a.m.), a Thai friend called me and asked if I might be looking for an apartment in Bangkok. Did I want to come home?  

There are moments when pure chance can flick a switch and change the direction of your internal electrical circuit. My friend told me to go to a tiny street behind Srinakharinwirot University in a residential area near the Khlong Saen Saep canal in Asoke — an affluent, central area of condo towers and hanging gardens where, nevertheless, a labyrinth of villagelike lanes lie hidden behind the neon lights among patches of jungle, ruined tobacco warehouses and mysterious Japanese hostess clubs (essentially glorified karaoke bars).  

My new prospective home was a fortresslike tower with four blue Disney-esque roofs and a vast lobby not unlike the grandiose John Portman hotel atriums of the 1980s. It was called the Kiarti Thanee, and there was a moat along its front wall. A charming agent showed me to the 15th floor to a vast apartment of 2,000 square feet with a deck that overlooked the deranged towers and spires of the 21st century’s greatest Buddhist metropolis. It was dusk and the villas and gardens below were lit up with 100 spirit houses, the little shrines where the souls of the dead are housed and fed offerings of fruits. The chorus was of koel birds and wild peacocks and a tropical moon stood in the sky.  

Within 30 minutes I had taken possession of the kind of place every depression-burdened writer with no trust fund should award themselves: a fairy castle with a gate staffed by men in coffee-colored uniforms. There was even a half-size Olympic pool shaded by frangipani trees, and all for the same price as a garage apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Yes,” the lady conceded as we exchanged a handshake that constituted a contract, “but I just want to say that the building is haunted.”  

“But it’s Bangkok,” I said. “Isn’t everything haunted?”  

Even if a ghost had been standing right there in the room, I would have taken it. In Bangkok exorcisms are cheap, and ghosts — phi in Thai — are woven into the fabric of daily life.   

It is a city filled with haunted sites. On Soi Watcharapol stands an entire abandoned village called the Piyaporn Gated Community that, as urban legend has it, was built over a cemetery. But the developers forgot to appease the spirits of the dead. Three children were also said to have drowned in the lake there, and no Thai will go near the place to this day. The Wat Prasat temple in Nonthaburi is also famously haunted, as is the abandoned shoe factory at Bangpu where the owner reportedly shot himself.  

Haunted houses can be found everywhere, untouched since they burned down or the owners met an unfortunate end. A famous one can be found on Soi Rod Anand. There is even a haunted bus station, long desolate, and the First House hotel near me on Petchaburi Road is reliably said to be ghost-ridden: on New Year’s Day in 1988, the Singaporean singer Shi Ni burned to death here in the hotel’s nightclub. Chinese tourists sometimes stay in selected rooms in the morbid hope of seeing a phi.   

But whether my apartment building was haunted or not — and the question to this day is moot — it was nothing like the Bangkok I had known before. The building was buried deep at the very end of a lane where students from Srinakharinwirot lived in gated dorms. They sat outside at the food stalls and cafes day and night in their black and white uniforms, delicately aloof teenagers wearing unwrinkled white shirts in the heat; the shrines by the roadside were painted with gold leaf and filled with little models of zebras (for some reason Thais are obsessed with zebras, perhaps because many of them have never seen a real one). Some of the trees that arched over the lane were belted with colored ribbons indicating that spirits lived inside them; walking along it at night, I could have been in a remote country village hundreds of miles from one of the world’s biggest cities.  

To the right lay the university’s campus from where the sound of drum rehearsals and sorority chanting rose after twilight, and farther down, past a crossroads, lay the dark ribbon of Soi 31. And yet after a mere 100 yards it exploded into nocturnal life: shisha bars, Japanese karaoke palaces with nostalgic names like Gion and courtyards filled with lanterns, Hokkaido robatayaki barbecue restaurants, late-night sake dens with women in satin dresses and salarymen in black suits lifted straight from the streets of Ginza. But then, since I live in a largely Japanese area, such scenes are not entirely surprising.  

After a few weeks I learned that the Kiarti Thanee belonged to a wealthy Thai-Chinese family. The family owned the penthouse, which, standing in the darkened atrium corridors, I could see by looking up the whole height of the building to the roof. The rumor among the staff, and among Bangkok socialites, was that the patriarch had had an argument with his daughter one night and blown his brains out while lying in his bed. His ghost, therefore, was reckoned by the superstitious staff at the building to roam the corridors at night. I had no idea if any of this was true, but they related these somber events of both the physical and the supernatural worlds with expressions of affable certainty that proved to be alarmingly infectious.  

Every morning I went down to the pool, which was usually empty, and swam for an hour in the sweetness of the heat and sun, and a subtle paranoia lay in the back of my mind. I can’t deny that I enjoyed it. I began to think, as I swam, that people — or ghosts — were watching me from the high dusty windows above. During monsoon season, which lasts from May to November, the sudden violent storms and the brilliant liquid skies that followed them gave the neighborhood archaic moods: the cicadas roaring in the stupendous trees, the immaculately dressed society girls in the back of tuk-tuks on their way to rendezvous in the rain, the drum fires of the motorcycle taxi guys where they drank rum to mor lam country music when the stand was closed. Not difficult to recall that Wong Kar-wai shot much of “In the Mood for Love” in Bangkok in order to recapture the Hong Kong of the Sixties.   

What is it that lends happiness to our occupation of a place? It’s obviously not a rational matter. I couldn’t say why I had been happy in New York up to about age 40, but not thereafter; I had been happy in Istanbul, but not seduced by anything anarchic and, to use a Thai term, sanuk.

Loosely translated it means fun, pleasurable, transiently enjoyable. It’s a very Buddhist idea. Istanbul is melancholy and beautiful, but it’s hardly sanuk. There are just places that fit the mood of a given stage in life, and so there are cities that feel alive, and others that don’t.  

Consider, for example, the wheelie-bar, an institution in my neighborhood. When night falls, the neighborhood is transformed. Seemingly out of nowhere a horde of mobile bars on wheels are dragged into place behind motorbikes, each one equipped with fairy lights, a fully stocked range of vodkas and mixers and a girl in a short skirt with a shaker. They operate along the sidewalks until daybreak and then melt once again into thin air. They would give Erdogan, or even New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a heart attack. Sanuk.  

During my second year in Bangkok there was what amounted to a near-bloodless coup that saw the government of Yingluck Shinawatra deposed by orchestrated protests in which permanent stages were set up at strategic points in the city. One of these was the enormous intersection at Asoke near my home. There, right next to the notorious Soi Cowboy “entertainment plaza,” there were nightly rock concerts and fiery speeches by opponents of the government. These were mostly upper-middle-class and middle-class Bangkok residents enraged by the Shinawatra family with its political roots in the working-class and rural North. The girls of Cowboy, however, are mostly from the families of rice farmers in the North, and as the North-baiting speeches got underway, they spilled out to listen to them. They danced alongside the preppy protesters and then, with beautiful smiles, lifted their middle fingers. One night, during this mayhem, I took two visiting Istanbul friends to see these protests and they were thoroughly disgusted. “You call this a protest?” they cried in indignation. “Girls dancing in cone hats? This is a disco, not a protest. Where’s the tear gas?”  

But everyone who lives here knows that next time might not be so innocent. The August 2015 bombing of the Erawan shrine killed 20 people, though interestingly the bomber may have had connections to both Uighur militants in China and underground networks in Turkey. Unperturbed, Thais are fatalistic and stoic — an absence of hysteria that contrasts favorably with Westerners.  

It’s maybe this calm fatalism that I like in my new environment. It arouses lofty contempt in many Westerners, an exasperated rational impatience, but not in me. These things are matters of temperament. Even under the military curfew in 2014 the people in my neighborhood disobeyed the law with a cool insouciance and carried on doing what they always do. Thais treat entire laws like we treat dietary guidelines.  

More recently, after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, the bars on Cowboy were ordered shut during a period of mourning in which everyone was asked to wear black. I walked down there the day after and found that, sure enough, the lights were all turned off. But the bars themselves were all open and filled with the usual suspects. I asked one of the girls — now dancing on darkened stages in somber black bikinis — if they were closed. “Yes,” she said. But were they open too? Again, the dazzling smile: “Yes. Open and closed same time. Everyone happy.”  

Every night I walk down Soi 31 under the dark trees to the Eugenia hotel and press on to the beginning of Soi 23 that intersects it. I go to a place called Hanamori — and drink two glasses of sake with some yakitori to practice my Japanese and then walk on down 31 until it veers to the left past makeshift grills where salted pla kapong(sea bass) lie in tin foil wrappers. Sukhumvit is not known for street food; for that, one heads to areas like Mahachai and Chinatown, since it’s essentially an invention of immigrants from southern China. But even so I have my sweet spots: here late night by the 7-Eleven on Soi 31 and on the quieter stretches of 23 where gwaytio nuea naam noodle soup and gai yang marinated grilled chicken appear unpredictably at dusk. Sometimes vendors wheel by with coconut ice cream, or bua loy, a Thai dessert made of rice balls filled with black sesame and afloat on a light ginger or coconut broth. There’s a lot to be said for eating while walking, a venerable human tradition, and bua loy makes for a refined calmative after an enormous amount of sake.  

I go on down Soi 39, past immense condo towers with fan palms that rear above the walls, and on to Soi 33 where the bars are themed around dead European artists. A Dalí, a Renoir, a Manet. At the top of this jungly street, I make my way to a side street where I find my favorite whiskey bar in the city, an unsigned speak-easy called Hailiang buried behind a small garden with a secret door that opens into a 12-seat Japanese cave filled with hundreds of bottles of rare Scotch and bourbon. 

 

Here is my asylum, and the place where, around or after midnight, I usually end up unraveling the day’s mental stresses. The owner is from Osaka and like me is an exile who has no idea if he can or will ever return to the land of his birth. Foreigners thrown together by a city form the most satisfying alliances, and there is something about rare aged Karuizawa whisky that makes me open even a half-empty wallet and not care. When I leave, however, and the bar is closing, the alley outside filled with leprous cats, the quiet walk home with a long cigar is what I most look forward to. Because it’s only late at night that Bangkok becomes the unfathomable and endless place that every great city has to be. The cascades of yellow cassia flowers glow brighter at night and suddenly, passing waste lots filled with sugar palms, you feel the whole city has slipped back into the forest that it was only 100 years ago.   

I’m often asked what it’s like living under military rule and the lèse-majesté laws that are ferociously enforced. But societies can be paradoxical. The most democratic are not necessarily those that provide all the personal liberties that matter — or which make you happy — and vice versa. In Bangkok, if you are a foreigner, you are largely left alone, unless you feel impelled to venture out one night and throw a can of paint at a picture of the late king. It’s a perfect city for a foreign writer. Additionally, a farang is only semivisible here, a “ghost” of a different kind. We have stepped out of one world and into a different one; one that we neither understand nor which understands us. Bangkok is practically the only capital city that was never the heart of a colony, and so it has never changed its core in order to adapt to an outside power. Even our name for it doesn’t exist in Thai. Krung Thep Mahanakhon is an entirely interior name.  

Which is another reason I am attracted to it. And it’s why, when I sometimes reel home tipsy at 4 a.m., trailing a couple of shy stray dogs, I am sure that I can see the suicidal patriarch among the flowering trees planted by the swimming pool, quietly pruning them with a pair of shears. In the East, as was once famously said, no one ever dies — they are merely cremated and put into spirit houses. You can say that’s a superstitious idea, but it’s also a subtle and durable one that the present century hasn’t yet abolished.  

———  

At Home in Bangkok  

— Sustenance  

The Local(Soi 23, thelocalthaicuisine.com) serves contemporary Thai in a large and airy converted family house with its own outdoor cocktail bar. If it’s too hot, the indoor rooms are elegant and spacious; and if not, there is a breezy terrace with cushions.  

Sushi Juban (facebook.com/sushijuban), tucked away off Soi 23, is a high-end sushi and sake bar. A stylish, quiet jazz place with superb sushi, warayaki straw-grilled salmon, sashimi and a library of sake.  

Appia (Soi 31, appia-bangkok.com/menu) is one of the best Italian restaurants in Bangkok; it is run by Paolo Vitaletti and housed in an intimate space.  

Taling Pling (66-2-258-5308) is a Thai chain that you see in the luxury malls, but the main restaurant, in a splendid house on Sukhumvit Soi 34, is a different experience. The house is surrounded by gardens and filled with antiques. Not only is the food refined and authentic, it’s also affordable for the area.  

— Imbibing  

Hailiang, Bangkok’s best Japanese whiskey bar, is half hidden off Soi 33. Twelve seats, jazz, a genial host from Osaka who speaks English and every Scotch and bourbon you can think of (66-2-662-1576).  

Havana Social, off Soi 11 near Fraser Suites, is accessed by a private code that you obtain over the phone — 66-61-450-3750 — then punch into a little phone box on the street. Old Havana décor and great cocktails (facebook.com/havanasocialbkk).  

For a soothing late cocktail head to plush Q&A — off busy Asoke Road but secluded on a side street (qnabar.com).  

About Eatery at Ocean Tower II on the ground floor off Asoke Road (Soi 3 Asoke) is a haven of natural and bio wines and fine Mediterranean food in an elegant New York-style space (abouteatery.com).  

If you want to venture farther into the city, go to an area known as Talad Noi near Hualamphong Station near Chinatown. It’s now a vibrant night scene in a maze of old Chinese shophouses. The two best bars there are Tep Bar (69-71, Soi Yi Sip Song Karakadakhom 4, Pom Prap; 66-98-467-294) and Teens of Thailand (76 Khwaeng Pom Prap, 66-96-846-0506). Tep Bar has traditional Thai ranat music and infused yadong shots, while Teens makes the best gin and tonics in the city.  

— Coffee Beans and Afternoon Repose  

Iwane 1975 on Soi 23 serves excellent espresso and Japanese desserts (66-2-664-0350).  

TWG in the Emporium mall (there are two in both malls on either side of Sukhumvit) is a Singapore luxury tea importer: with a ground-floor location in the Emporium (66-9-2259-9510) and the EmQuartier branch, looking over the mall’s man-made waterfalls. Exotic teas with an afternoon tea service and desserts.  

— Massage  

At the end of a hot day head to Divana on Soi 25 for a massage in a delightful old house with a tropical garden filled with tree frogs (divanaspa.com/MassageAndSpa/Program.php).

----

Lawrence Osborne’s books include the memoir “Bangkok Days” and the novels “Hunters in the Dark” and “The Forgiven.”


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