[537] Bangkok Days – Lawrence Osborne

bangkok

“Our innocent pleasure gardens are no longer in Europe or America. The sun kisses us at the equator, among images of Buddha and Shiva. Innocent, you say? Bangkok, innocent? Yes. It is far more innocent than Torremolinos, Mykonos, or Miami. Far more innocent than Atlantic City or Catalina or Las Vegas, or even than Malta. After all, what is the idea behind those places now? We feel choked in them. Whereas, I am sorry, but I simply don’t feel that here. Perhaps the West is just a shithole now and there’s nothing we can do.” (Soi 33, p.173)

It’s been said that anyone who has been reported missing will somehow be sighted in San Francisco, as per Tales of the City. Well, Bangkok could measure up no less. Capital of the land of smile, the city of angels, and the only country in Southeast Asia remains uncolonized by the Europeans, Bangkok, or its anonymity, is where foreigners choose to disappear in and to escape from the trouble home. Osborne nails this psyche: Westerners pick Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it—from the culture brimming with contradictions to the variation of written Sanscrit in Thai language. It’s this ignorance that comforts the farang. However conversant in Thai culture, he will never get close to the bottom of it.

Lawrence Osborne is among those who comes because he has no prospects. A journalist covering psychiatry and science for American magazines, he lives from paycheck to paycheck. The city, full of decayed temples, sleazy bars, exotic foodstuff, incessant human stream, and most of all its hospitality, is the natural habitat for a man like him, who is on the lam. He at first comes for the cheap dentistry, and ends up staying when he realizes he can live off just a few dollars a day. Bangkok through his eyes is a city little known to the average tourist, a place caught on the chasm between its religion and the desire for modernization.

It is constantly remarked that the Thais are rather formal and proper in their day-to-day lives, a conservatism summed up in the phrase rob rioy. But it could be said that it is this very surface reticence which frees the deeper, more private self to be sexually anarchic. . . . It is the tension between the calm, reticent surface and the adventurous core which arouses me more than the reverse. (Thang Lor, p.137)

As Osborne trawls through forgotten neighborhoods, exploring the off-the-beaten-path Bangkok and its eclectic offerings to satisfy human needs, we see a place that is more than its commercial hedonism and false grandiosity. The inveterate Buddhist beliefs have a tight rope on the Thais, rendering them tolerant of homosexuals and pleasure seekers. The pliable sense of sexual morality and the belief that anyone could be a man, woman, or kathoey in the previous life are magnets to visitors.

Bangkok Days at times reads like fiction; indeed, I once suspect Osborne tried to frame this heartsick tale of being adrift in Bangkok as fiction. He himself is the doomed, romantic type that I’ve been familiar with reading post-colonial authors. A keen observer and a sort of nocturnal sensualist who experiences Bangkok through his nostrils and tongues, he never loses sight of the allure and the sadness of lotus land. This book is a fascinating view of Thailand but it never intended to dissect the hidden layers of its culture.

271 pp. Vintage UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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7 Responses

  1. Well your review has me mesmerized. I’ve never really even given Bangkok two moments’ thought…I guess that is the point isn’t it? Now I have made a mental note that if I have to escape and disappear, that is exactly where I need to go.

    • Bangkok is exotic! Like many big cities, Bangkok has its share of problems: congestion, pollution, and prostitution. But what keeps bringing me back to the Thai capital is the forbearing spirit and hospitality. This book takes readers off the beaten path as Lawrence Osbourne shows us how locals live.

  2. I love this review! I especially love the excerpt you chose. Hooked me!

  3. I’m going to look for this. Osborne wrote a novel this year that was one of my favorite books for the year, THE FORGIVEN. I think he’s a really good writer! Thanks for telling us about this one.

  4. [...] observer Bangkok is an enigma, in a way that has been echoed in Lawrence Osbourne’s memoir, Bangkok Days (I read it recently, in Thailand!). Bangkok is a place of great physical presence and complexity. [...]

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