No other city in the world evokes the 2019 dystopian Los Angeles of Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner better than Bangkok, especially the city as it is right now in 2019. As of today, I’ve been back in BKK for a week, the usual breaking-in period of hallucinatory jet lag euphoria, fish sauce, high-tech information cyberpunkia, and hyperhidrosis. I expected it—to the extent that one can expect anything like that.
I’ve been thinking a lot of the opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Even on a nice day, when a midnight lightning storm has scrubbed the morning blue, you still get an overwhelming sense of urban sprawl, the actual sky only a faint suggestion beyond the gordian freeway exchanges, layered concrete bridges, sky trains, and 120-floor office towers. The adjustment period when moving back to Bangkok isn’t just about a foreign culture; it’s about science fiction.
A lot has already happened. This week, I’ve eaten some epic breakfasts, keeping me from taking on the usual dazed and untethered look of a westerner slowly poaching in the 90% humidity. I’ve already seen a dog get hit by a speeding taxi and then heard him mourned by other street dogs for blocks around. I’ve already visited Books Kinokuniya, one of the greatest bookstore chains in the world, where I bought a Japanese novel I’ve wanted for years. And I’ve come very close to passing out from dirty air as I waited on a train platform. None of these things are especially remarkable in BKK, but they are to me.
Bangkok isn’t always fun, but it’s never, ever boring. This can be a very healthy place, but you have to work at wellness the way you work at everything here. The city can be fairly dangerous. Life and death are tightly wound. But Bangkok loves it when you make an effort. Do nothing to improve your wellbeing and you’ll soon find yourself laid low. Join a gym and you’ll soon have a personal trainer, named Tommy or Ricky, who stays up at night thinking about ways he can turn you into an athlete.
It’s a place of transformations. This week has reminded me how changeability will always be the city’s foremost defining characteristic. The Thais love interpretation, novelty, impermanence. It squares with their dominant religious aesthetic. It resonates with the weather, with their the media sensibilities, with the way their restaurants and shops will spring up, be intensely popular, and then vanish in less than a year. It’s how you’re going to live if you want to survive. Some people can’t deal with that. Some couldn’t live any other way.
I like to flatter myself into thinking I’m a survivor. I came here with one job in mind, and now I have a different, better one on my radar. I thought I’d be living in one place, now I’m looking at others. You need to be flexible in BKK, especially if you’re a farang, a foreigner. You need to be able to sense the rhythm of the place and go with it in all aspects of life. There’s no settling in. There’s only the ebb and flow of what you expected versus what you may discover day to day.
It’s always stressful, but it’s not always bad. The reality can often be even better than the expectation. That’s the astounding secret here. If you can stay awake and aware, surrendering to the demands of the moment, you can have some amazing experiences. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere. But it certainly feels that way as soon as the electricity of Bangkok rises up through the soles of your feet and you realize there is no other place like it on earth.
If you’re a sensitive person, as opposed to a drone living the same automatic life you’d live anywhere, Bangkok will haunt you. You’ll have conversations with people you’d never have imagined. You’ll sip ginger tea and watch the endless stream of Gunpla aficionados attending a convention dedicated to the lore and construction of plastic robots. You’ll watch hardback art book collectors stare contemplatively at a wall of Banksy volumes in Thai and Japanese. You’ll get used to the raw chilis and you’ll train yourself to smile at strangers.
Today, I rode in a tuk-tuk with a real estate agent at high speeds through the city center, sucking in fumes, surrounded by enormous vehicles. Our driver did a U-turn in the middle of the expressway. It was dangerous. I loved it.
37 floors up, I looked at a condo, entirely covered in plastic drop cloths, that had never been rented to anyone. It felt like a crypt and smelled like a new car, everything black and chrome. 15% of all high-end apartments and condos in the city are unoccupied, the fallout from a real estate bubble that burst and never recovered. It’s not uncommon to be a first renter. From the condo, I could see ant-sized children shooting hoops down on a basketball court presided over by a golden bodhisattva.
I asked the realtor what the name of the school was and she shrugged. “It’s just a school. Lots of schools in Bangkok.”
We blinked at each other. Then we smiled.