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Bangkok Nights

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Photo: Cedric Angeles

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.

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