Suvarnabhumi airport is a rather clinical place, with enough unfinished concrete to be en vogue in post-bubble Japan. A living museum of immovable tenure, housing ephemeral waxy countenance of traveling anonymity set to the beat of a stark time signature. Eclecticism is guaranteed but lacks the immediacy necessary to be of any pungent consequence.
Driving away, confronted with ramp-side elephantoid billboards one’s sense of scale faces challenges to its established norm and stretches to accommodate a metropole after being away from one for a while. In Chiang Mai you’re never far from other people. Tuk-tuks offer a full body view of passengers. Hair and limbs suck wind.
The motorcycles are open-air beasts and even the Song Teaw, the ubiquitous red buses afford an unobstructed particle exchange between you and whoever is putting along beside you.
Sat in the sealed pod of an air-con taxi now however, assures the clinical mindset is carried through from the new airport into the city I know as a sweaty stinkhole, yet from here it appears almost polished. And quiet. A Vaudevillian hoax.
The highway is wide and clean and bland. Once you approach the city, the skyline of darting monolithic chess pieces feign evocative void. The people are all sealed in, and besides the blurry zip of fellow motorists, the isolation factor multiplies. It seems the skyline, devoid of life yawns a gap tooth yawn as nothing but a backdrop staged for your private contemplation as you drive in to town. There seem to be more and more of these mutant sprouts springing up all over. The concrete jungle is growing, pushing towards the sun. These rivet-sprigs of your stock portfolio heroes push on, housing their denizens and beckoning to the youth: Higher! Higher!
W.I.P green mesh ripples in the breeze, knotted posts of bamboo the only natural surface and this is what must pass for life as you search for some animate frame of reference. Are we underwater in a salmon farm?
It is both timeless and eternal if only for a few seconds. The green plastic that will not age. The passage of time is insignificant here.
Is this city abandoned or teeming? You cannot tell. It could be riotous, celebratory or vacant and no one would know driving that raised and tolled strip; the only thing breathing being yourself, and of course the driver, who is about to attempt an obscene price gouge. His skin seems treated with formaldehyde, he’s a wax dummy and this is a dream. The wraiths in other cars press on in a journey with no goal.
It’s only after a quick brake-pad snap from your automaton chauffeur, an about face off the Sukhumvit exit that Bangkok becomes immediate and fleshy and claustrophobic. You are a sticky fixture in the globulous landscape that now seems to seethe and breathe, as you teethe to the fact that moments ago the tops of these same oblongs inspired such cold detachment. The city wears different hats, but its coat is crisply pressed. A white-coated surgeon with a heart of hooker gold, it is…..
Money flows, and sex sells in a more invasive fashion than the faroffedness of an expressway billboard peddling model-touted scents to distract from the smog. This place is why Chiang Mai is full of plow-horses. The surgeon city toils to suckle its sycophants and painted facemask ladies. The pettiness of beauty is Bangkok- and we can’t stop the émigré.
The curses laid upon the beautiful are contagious, here aptly patroned by JW Marriott, who is no longer a man but more (and also less). His bodies are not flesh; they only facilitate its waste disposal and absorb the corpsy odours as inanimate memory.
You can see the high rises rising high all around, indifferent, snobby; but the tartar sauce smelling stopover hotels and the street urchin leprosy sweat, the toe jam sour mash are what make this jungle grow. You are the soil that spawns these elevated highways and it’s your birdie regurgie baht bile that nurtures the grey foliage along its squat rise to the prominence of the weightlessness above.
But that was always there.
The interesting aspect is this: If the soil were to erode (and in a sane and moral sense it began long ago), the rocky fruits of our labour would obstinately stick around, still connected with the cables of fibrous telephone ivy we’ve connected them with - Their attachment to time being much more understated, lackadaisical and staid than our own. We scurry under the their bolted branches of overpass welds (welts?) and piss against the perpendicular trees. Our soft bellies placate compatibility with the antithetical surge of weight and heft and our lecherous corporeality becomes host to pathology.
The buildings don’t move with us.
The legless man dragging himself facedown on the sidewalk, pushing a plastic alms tray forward between lunges can’t bear to look up anymore. Not at us, not at the hissyfit neon, not at what’s above that. Certainly not at The Paragon, whose name-dropping designer signage helps us forget he is there. That or marks his exhaust halo on a tourist map of the sewer system.
Landmines under the sidewalk wouldn’t hurt anyone here. Our birthright has been paved. The cellular stress and strain is tangible, and you wonder how it came to be that we convinced ourselves we wanted to be automated versions of ourselves to escape the fear of our automatic tendency to want to be someone else.
You attempt to revive your concern despite invasive blaring pop music and are disgusted with yourself when a modern masterpiece of suffering (played up or not); a skytrain platform pieta misses the emotional mark, even though the filthy child in mother’s arms indeed looks deader than a meat wagon Buonarroti Christ. You are aware of your detachment, and powerless to attempt compassion of any worth.
You can stare. But you can’t cry.
How will you get that back, that which you never knew you lost?
The tracks still grin their symmetrical grin, a grin incompatible with whimsy, borne of the same artifice as your stoic weeds of commercial exchange.
And they wait, happily.
They are that, too.
We made them, and they have no use for us.
These will be the powder sheds of the Olmecs when either we come to our senses or nature demands that we repent and flee. Our bits will be bitten by our ancient, patient watchdog, and our bytes will burst as our history is erased from this fixture of digital certitude that is nothing more than a sour pucker on the greatest timeline that will soon prove it has no use for our little games. We don’t control the microwaves, and we can’t unhinge celestial rotation.
I don’t feel much like repenting today.
But I must flee now, actually, the cabaret novelty starts soon.I know it will be crap, but I can’t help looking, I’m caught between two worlds, this peculiar state is the nadir of the modern psychosis: irreconcilable yet in cahoots.
klean mai khaw, klay mai oak.
I step out into the steam and clang, feeling the peoples huddled, bony protection of tarnished yet dimly shining souls, always on the look out for the form to give face to my vagabond, hovering love. I’ve sought her for years, and she’s not here either.
Such density can weigh heavily in the chest and on the mind. But I carry on; making sure the gnarled artifice and all the collected indifference is still capable of bringing me to tears.
It takes a while this time, I’m that much less sentient human and that much more Gurdjieffian robot.
It’s not who you are it’s who you know
by Dave Besseling
“It’s not who you are it’s who you know, and its not who they are but who they knew. And once they knew them they became who they are, and they don’t want to introduce you to who they know that made them who they are because that would mean that you are someone too, and that puts them at risk of not being anyone, just someone who once knew someone.
You want to meet the one who the someone knows even more than you want to know them (the someone) because they might be able to make you someone other than no one even quicker than the initial someone, who would see such a thing as pulling rank in the worst way. But it’s that kind of world we live in, that’s what it takes to make it in this cutthroat business. This is what we have to deal with, we tuk-tuk drivers.”
Or at least this is how you may imagine it works when you wonder how waiting tuk-tuk positions in front of the restaurants saddling the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai are jockeyed for. After all, this is the sweetest transport fare cherry in town. Gaggles of liquored and pished farangs stumble out of any of the main eateries on a Friday night and suddenly your exorbitant triple-priced fare is but a shrug and a few red bills away from reality.
They say not to give money to the beggars in India, they say not to let the East European gypsies annoy you into giving them what they want, they warn you about giving something to one and the many that will follow because you set the precedent that all tourists are suckers and corrupt the gaff quicker than the isolated grottos printed in the pages of a Lonely Planet; not so isolated anymore.
The jury hung themselves long ago on the riverside, where if you are not a tourist that hears ‘200 baht’ and immediately compares it to what a bargain the ride is compared to a London black taxi, your jaw may drop as the same tuk-tuk driver that drove you from Warorot market to Wat Prasing for 40 baht suddenly looks glassily at you when you protest his sudden fee of 200. You can bitch and wail, but chances are he won’t go for any haggling here, because in five minutes, two blond girls with flowers in their hair, each with a hulking arm from an American college refugee slung limply over them will two-step their way out and perform the above calculation- albeit a New York yellow cab will replace the London blackie. They, unaware of the massive gouge they’ve just been subjected to, perpetuate the vicious cycle of evil.
And if you, local expat, you who knows better, get to the point where you believe physical violence may be your next option, take hope in the fact that walking up to the bridge and catching a tuk-tuk en route that is not part of the mafia-like gangs of drivers clutching at the upward mobility of the illustrious and elite band of chauffeurs that is given clearance to fleece the entire tourist population of Chiang Mai will probably gladly take 50.
Leave the suckers back there, the rubes with the crap luck to be dragged to the Riverside and be subjected to John Denver covers sung phonetically with a revved up beat reminiscent of the theme song from Miami Vice. Good Riddance. Nuts to them anyway.
King of the Khlong
by Dave Besseling
When reading about the history of Bangkok, you may be surprised to hear the city being referred to as the Venice of the East. Amsterdam is known as the Venice of the North, and the proof is in the polders- the city centre is defined by three concentric canals known as the canal belt with hundreds of channels connecting them. When thinking of Bangkok, however, canal systems probably aren’t the first thing to crack the shell of associative traits. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault, most of the canals that acted as arterial waterways through the city have been filled in to make way for the much more romantic travel method of the paved road.
There are still a number of what the locals call khlongs snaking away form the Chao Phraya River, the river that dissects Bangkok in two, the river which for better or worse has never been referred to as the Seine of the East.
The relaxing meander through the remaining backwater channels of Bangkok is something well worth doing on a visit to the city, and longboats depart every 15 minutes from the Tha Chang Pier. If you’re lucky, you may have the entire craft to yourself, though this puts you even more on the spot when the floating concession stand rucks up and suggests you buy a beer for the driver as well as yourself. You know a bottle of Singha shouldn’t be 100 baht, but you don’t want to look bad in front of the driver, so you pass over two red bills and toast the man who is responsible for keeping you from swimming in the mucky waters.
You guessed it, the canals are filthy; though efforts have been made in the last few years to get the levels closer to just ‘scummy’ rather than ‘toxic’. And toxic is not an overindulgent adjective, either…
In 2003, a 21-year old pop singer crashed his car into a khlong. The near viscous liquid entered his wounds and he subsequently developed a fungal brain infection. Now that’s even worse than the foreigners that get dysentery from swimming in the Ganges. It took a wake-up call of a celebrity brain fungus to kick the government into gear, but at least the cogs began to yield grease. Today there are children splashing about at certain points of the canals, but you can’t help but shudder as you wave at them while the occasional waft of human waste effluvia swirls in your olfactory orifice.
The Chao Phraya, like all rivers with cities built up around them, were what got everyone congregated here in the first place. One of the most well known tourist sites along the River is found 80 km southwest of Bangkok proper, and is well worth it if you have the time. The earlier you arrive at the Damoen Saduak floating market the better, as crowds can get fierce as everyone clamours to snap photos of the local produce changing hands from boat to boat as it has since 1868, tourists recognizing idyllic scenes they may have seen in their travel brochures back home.
The Chao Phraya is also a great way to get to Ayutthaya. The former capital is reachable by River Express boats, which leave from Wat Ratchasingkorn Pier, just beside Krungthep Bridge. Along the way you’ll be able to get an idea of the ways of life lived along the river, and how the river is the source of life in many ways for the people living around it. This being all the more reason to keep the runnels as clean as possible so the life supporting waterway can continue to sustain its people, and not buckle at the expense of human progress carried out with no regard for the original source of life in Bangkok.
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