Published: March 2009
By Gary Shteyngart
Summer heat, red curry, and disco balls: <em>Gary Shteyngart</em> finds the white-hot center of Thailand’s booming capital city.
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.
Like all Bangkok residents, Am is a foodie (“Tom yum goong soup tastes better with coconut milk,” she declares in a way that will brook no dissent), so I happily follow her to one of her favorite restaurants, Som Tam Nua, on one of the sois, or side streets, that branch off from Siam Square. This humble place, with a fast-food sheen that could be at home in any L.A. strip mall, features Isan food, from Thailand’s northeast.
From raw mango to spicy pork salad, the dinner is a fiesta of strong chile and onions, everything moist and perfect, waiting to be sopped up with sticky rice. Every color, save violet, seems to be represented on our table. The natural acidity of Isan cuisine will help you digest the baskets of fried chicken, which are a must. It takes two to three hours to prepare poultry of this magnitude. The crisp goodness of the chicken is the result of an overnight marinade in fish sauce and pepper, as well as a skinny-dip in pineapple juice, which, Am joyfully informs me, tenderizes the bird. That detail does not surprise as much as the Isan version of chitterlings—as thick and deadly and glorious as anything the American South has ever produced—which crackle in the mouth and are perfect with a drop of jaew fish sauce, a riot of coriander, red onion, and lime.
Once you start down the spice road it’s hard to turn back. The next day my stomach demands more. I find myself sweating along a tiny soi off Sukhumvit Road in pursuit of the Arharn Pa Lerd Rod outdoor restaurant (no English sign, but it’s opposite the My Beauty spa). It’s a dump, with wash hung out to dry and stray cats in the background, but I feast royally on grilled blackened shrimp that cry out for a turn in the attendant Christmas-colored spice bath, and the find of a lifetime, fried frog with hot chiles (they seem to be out of the cobra today). Luxuriating in a mess of holy basil, born in the rivers and canals of the Thai capital, this is the most sophisticated amphibian I have tasted in my life. Unfortunately, it’s also full of toxins that nearly kill me—as I leave the restaurant my hand swells up to the size of a Butterball. But, as the Thais say, mai pen rai, or “never mind.” The tussle with death is well worth it, the spice producing a heat that spreads quickly down my mandibles and pulses into the temples, reminding me, ironically enough, of the slogan the municipality has hung from every street lamp—“Bangkok, city of life.”
As my hand deflates a little, i rush over to the annual Miss AC/DC pageant. Thais, elegant and subtle when needed, can be natural showboats as well, and none more than the khatoey “ladyboy” population. The all-Thai cast of the show lampoons the Miss Universe contest, with Miss Romania as the vampiest Dracula in the Far East, Miss Italy as a giant soccer ball, Miss France as the Mona Lisa (complete with canvas), and Miss Philippines as Imelda Marcos. The khatoey are hardly outcasts in this tolerant society. Many participants are students and nurses, and one is a professor at a prestigious local university. “Welcome, ladies and handsome mans,” one adorably shy performer croons to us. “My name is La Toya Jackson,” shouts a khatoey in an African loincloth, “and I am from the Con-go!” A Buddhist spirit of compassion prevails, mixed in with the never-ending Thai need of sanuk, or fun. Garlanded boys hand out condoms. Snacks of tiny live crabs are cheerfully conked on the head by one robust-looking ladyboy. Miss Japan is a dwarf who charges down the stage on a tiny motorcycle. Miss Egypt is unpacked from an elaborate pyramid. And Miss America, in her star-spangled cheerleader’s outfit—she will later win the crown—arrives onstage in a tank holding aloft a globe plastered with dollar bills. I sigh briefly, wondering if I will ever enjoy a transvestite cabaret in a tropical country without being reminded of my country’s foreign policy. Fortunately, Am is here to guide me to a nearby stand dispensing kanom krok, little morsels of coconut milk heated with sugar and a dash of salt, a combination of melting and crisp, and everything good besides.
The next day, with the frog nearly out of my system, I follow Am’s recommendation and head for Divana Massage & Spa, off Sukhumvit Road. In a quiet garden abode, with hi-so (high society) maidens chirping quietly on their cell phones while waiting for their appointments, I gulp down green tea with ginger and a mystery ingredient the staff claims to be pandan leaf, which makes me goofy and relaxed. I’m a simple man from a difficult place, so when a sweet young woman washes my feet with rose petals I almost start to cry. Seventy minutes later, my hirsute self duly rubbed, anointed with fragrance, and restored to humanity, I leave the room completely high and ready to suffer again.
Evening has gradually enveloped the relentless megalopolis, the temperature plunging into the high eighties, and I am anxious to experience Southeast Asia’s most fabled nightlife. Lately the city’s “Hello there, sailor!” reputation has taken a hit after the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration began enforcing a 1 a.m. closing time for the city’s clubs and bars, part of its paternalistic Social Order campaign. But then came the September 2006 coup (“a sweet coup,” according to Am), which sent the prime minister into exile in London, and the city’s party-mad denizens are hoping for a reversal of fortune. Tapas Room Club, with its friendly vibe, is a nice introduction to the lay of the land. Here, a disco ball is still a disco ball, and five dollars will buy you a whiskey, although one can only guess at the unknown variables circulating behind the smiles.
But the place of the moment, for about the time it will take you to finish this article, is Bed Supperclub, located on yet another soi off the all-purpose Sukhumvit Road. A tubular wonder seemingly composed of some kind of advanced polymer that may yet help us win the war on terror, Bed resembles, from different angles, a sleek flashlight, a robotic eye, or the beginning of a Martian invasion. Once past the bouncers, you are in a painfully minimalist white barn headed for outer space. The people here, it must be said, are truly beautiful, if in a coarse, monied way, running the gamut from clubby expatriates and showy hi-so girls in late-model jeans to women for sale with those patented $200 smiles and expensive orthodontia. True to the club’s name, you can lie down on a series of white, oddly comfy beds to watch a man giving a woman’s bottom a deep-tissue massage on the dance floor while a 300-pound lothario slaps his own butt in a frenzy of movement and sweat. “This is so Miami,” says Adrienne, on loan from Manhattan for a few weeks, as she sips her “Gay-a-licious Ice Tea,” heavy on rum and Fanta. She’s unimpressed, to be sure, but also unwilling to look away. It’s hard to look away in a city swathed in spectacle, sexuality, tight duds, and fake gold, the color of denial. A smile will always be returned here. And then some.
This story has a happy ending. On one of the most revered days of the Thai calendar—the birthday of King Bhumibol, much beloved by his subjects—my friend Adrienne and I dine at Ruen Mallika, which, with a menu as thick as the Talmud, is as much a restaurant as a veritable encyclopedia of Thai food. A traditional nobleman’s teak house, where overweight carp make the rounds of a peaceful outdoor pond, Ruen Mallika graces a poverty-stricken stretch of the Asoke neighborhood, which is being handed over to a spate of high-rises, a fragment of what’s been lost to development and questionable taste. We order deep-fried pagoda flowers, roses, Chinese chives, flowering cabbage—as crisp and light as anything in an Italian fritto misto. The tiny omelets floating in the fish stock of the spicy and sour shrimp curry prove that fish and eggs could indeed be kindred.
It is the Thai Father’s Day as well as the king’s birthday, and the beautiful sarong-clad waitress hands us a holiday card after our meal. It is an image of two elderly parents, who, she tells us, are begging their children to forgive them. “We’re old,” the card reads in Thai. “We’re in the house now but soon we will be leaving you. We won’t be around for much longer.” The waitress starts to tear up as she reads it to us. “I’m sorry,” she says, overcome by the card’s universal portent, abandoning us to our flowering cabbage. Meanwhile, the king’s motorcade speeds down the city’s ceremonial avenues. Trees are shot through with golden light. Searchlights fill the sky above the floodlit palaces. Hundreds of thousands are lining the road, chanting “Long live the king!” and weeping openly, a sea of yellow shirts with the royal insignia over the heart.
Earlier I was at the Wat Suthat, one of Bangkok’s most serene temples. A 26-foot-high Buddha sits snugly within Bangkok’s tallest vihara, or assembly hall, surrounded by murals that depict his life, murals as complex and elaborate as the city outside the temple’s walls. The Buddha’s gigantism is something out of myth and fairy tale; it amplifies and clarifies our place in the world. One focuses on less and less. A young man praying over a 20-baht note to be deposited into an alms box. Incense from joss sticks wafting over the fans. The trim long fingernails of the Buddha. The tired workingmen who have fallen asleep cross-legged. The aerials of the busy city peeking through the windows. And then, as the eyes will themselves shut, a foretaste of the final destination of the Buddhist cycle, the one element missing from Bangkok’s kaleidoscopic swirl. Nothingness.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.
When to Go
The ideal time to visit is from November to February. Avoid the sweltering summer rainy season.
Skip city traffic by using the SkyTrain, or BTS, which runs through Bangkok on two lines. The MRT (a new underground rail system) also makes central downtown stops.