Woe to a hairy man in the world’s hottest city. Bangkok: where the three so-called seasons—Hot, Wet, and Why are you doing this to me?—are a furball’s primordial nightmare. Here I am on a busy street (is there another kind in Bangkok?), my eyes blinded shut with perspiration, my shirt a monsoon of salt and desperation, my fine arm hairs thick and clumped and ragged, a halo of condensed humidity following me around like the rainy cloud in a child’s drawing. Everywhere food vendors smile at the drenched, staggering, hairy farang. With great cunning and a little Thai sing-along, each one liberates me from about 50 baht ($1.60). A drunk guy points out his gap-toothed comrade, who gives me a sublime pork sausage on a stick. An old woman sells me a tentacle tasting of sweetness and the sea. A still older woman feeds me pigeon-egg omelets charged with soy sauce. By a wobbly ferry pier I munch on chicken and oyster mushrooms tossed with Thai ginger from an overworked chef who, in the States, would win a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, but in Bangkok is just another grandma with a wok. She slings some red curry into a plastic bag. Leaving a wet trail behind me, I make my way to Lak Muang, Bangkok’s golden municipal phallus, where young women, their pretty features rendered prettier by sadness and hope, pray for fertility. I open my plastic curry bag and let the smell of chili peppers wend their way into my giant white nose, so that I may surrender completely to the basic nature of the city around me. The average human being is composed of 62 percent water. But here in Bangkok, both from within and without, I am nothing but pure heat.
“I’m hot! I speak Wall Street English,” a young woman informs me from a billboard advertising a language school, in one of Bangkok’s SkyTrain stations. Most cities in the developing world are at least several cities at once: palimpsests of colonialist remnants jutting up against past stabs at modernity and gleaming attempts at wholesale globalism. But with the opening of the SkyTrain in 1999, and the even-more-futuristic Singapore-style underground system in 2004, Bangkok can now be handily divided into two cities. To paraphrase Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters: “You’re either on the train, or you’re off the train.” The fare, about a buck, is beyond the reach of many locals, so taking the SkyTrain puts you into an air-conditioned middle-class cocoon far from the Technicolor madness of a typical Bangkok street, yet infused with a Thai sense of reverence and hierarchy: a monitor showing Christina Aguilera’s latest video hangs over a sign admonishing, Please Offer this Seat to Monks.
Bangkok, as seen from the SkyTrain, appears a jumble of oxidized hovels, clotheslines, and satellite dishes, above which gathers a typically ruined Third World sky, while in the far and middle distances, a new postmodern cityscape of luxurious condominiums has seemingly been airlifted from Miami’s Brickell Avenue. “The Residence. The Lifestyle. The Address,” boasts the tagline for a 71-story Gargantua to be called the River. The SkyTrain is certainly a part of that lifestyle. Running along the seemingly endless restaurant-, club-, and mall-studded Sukhumvit Road, it dangles the fantasy of an arctic-cool future Bangkok. After the gaudy 1990’s investment boom covered the skyline with gilded schlock, a recent design frenzy has left parts of the city looking like one vast boutique hotel, all teak and matte and clean white surfaces that barely acknowledge your reflection. The Dubai-class opulence of the Siam Paragon mall off Siam Square left me as befuddled as the sweltering streets of the city’s center. Here, golf carts whiz across oceanic expanses of marble, and a silent Lamborghini dealership sits above a crowded KFC. Glazed-eyed Thai youngsters flash by, looking like they’ve spent days wandering the premises in search of their new selves. I know how they feel. It took me hours to get out of Siam Paragon, too. I kept getting shunted into other, lesser malls, and during one anxious moment almost drowned in a koi pond. Somewhere along the way a new kind of Zen saying plastered to an elevator explained the reality of today’s Asia: “The more you shop,” it read in English, “the more you get.”
I meet Am, the lovely daughter of a Thai admiral and an employee of a Western oil company, who epitomizes the new Bangkok. Her nickname (Thais go by nicknames instead of their complicated full names) stands for Ambition. She takes me to a mall (since closed) where the main restaurant features a dish that has conquered the aspirational classes from Russia to Peru: miso-crusted salmon on braised fennel. As I digest the ho-hum salmon, my belly aching for an assault of local chilies, I am endlessly charmed by the elegance of Am and her friend Oh. They’re not doing anything special, just passing around the plates, dishing out the food, making jokes at the expense of my friend Gabe, a hefty American ex-marine and quietly brilliant novelist. But it’s their economy of movement, the perfect wattage of their toothy smiles, and the good spirits of the Thai dining table that make me want to understand the complex country around me, not to mention deposit Oh and Am at the next Brooklyn dinner party, which inevitably awaits my return.