Sunday, January 24, 2016

Goodbye, Huai Kwang

Huai Kwang is not a lovely section of Bangkok except for the few trees that are found near its streets. Sprawled behind the condos and entertainment centers of Rachada, it is populated with residents from the many low-income housing apartments that have sprouted in clumps several stories high with outdoor hallways that serve as verandahs running down the full length of their fronts. Each apartment opens onto this hallway, which takes the place of the ubiquitous Thai balcony, that private pocket-sized space where residents hang out their laundry and put a plant or two. There’s little privacy in these grey rectangular hutches; most of the light and ventilation that comes into their apartments enters through the doors that face what is essentially a public thoroughfare. People have their meals on the floor near the open doorway as their neighbors pass by, and some stop to lean on the railing of the pseudo-verandah for a cozy little chat. This is housing that is as public as it can possibly get, without a trace of hominess to soften its basic function. It provides shelter in the blandest, most utilitarian fashion in a way that seems designed to obliterate the imagination of anyone who lives there.

But Thai people are more resourceful than that and the streets of Huai Kwang testify to that truth. On the sidewalks surrounding these grim buildings is a life and energy that is the soul of this neighborhood. For blocks on end, people sell fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, cooked food, cheap clothing, and flowers from ramshackle stalls that blossom into activity every day except on the one that is the city-mandated hiatus, and draw shoppers to them well into the night. The fish are so fresh that they still twitch on the counter, the chicken has no hint of gaminess in its odor, and the produce is the kind that upscale stateside supermarkets can only dream of. Flowers turn street corners into gardens and everywhere people are pushing, shopping, gossiping. The Huai Kwang market is the front yard of a neighborhood that has no other.

If I look beyond the stalls at the cracked sidewalks, the mottled concrete buildings, the canal that’s filled with household garbage, this part of Bangkok is depressing beyond all measure. But I never have. I’ve spent hours wandering through this place, mentally constructing meals from the food that is on display, buying cheap polyester sheets in improbable colors and kitchen crockery to furnish yet another apartment, bringing home more rambutan than I could eat in a week that I end up sharing with friends and little bags of kaffir limes that I treasure for their fragrance alone, finding teeshirts with bizarre English phrases to take back to the states as gifts. I buy orange juice that was squeezed minutes before at a stall that is mounded with fragrant peels and if I’m lucky, I’ll find crisp, molten kanom krok that are a cross between a pancake and a sandwich, filled with coconut cream. Once I found a Buddha amulet that called to me from a stall that sold many of those images. When I was crass enough to bargain for it, the vendor gave it to me and I burst into tears.

This is one of my favorite places in the world and for decades it has been a place I go to for nourishment that has not so much to do with food. Two days ago it showed up in my twitter feed. It will soon be dismantled by the junta and the city government, who seem to believe that clearing Bangkok’s sidewalks is a sacred mission.

The buildings of the official public market will remain in place, where in dark hallways people dismantle animal carcasses and stand in the heat, selling wholesale to purchasers who back their vehicles up to loading docks and carry food away to other parts of the city. They will find it easy to drive their purchases away from Huai Kwang because the streets will be empty.

The crazy entrepreneurial spirit of Bangkok’s streets is being systematically erased and with it goes the life of the city. The slums of Huai Kwang are of course prime real estate, close to the subway and not too far from the central business district. The nearby arterial of Ratchadapisek Road is being filled with buildings that offer all modern conveniences to office workers looking for chic little city residences with swimming pools, fitness centers, little kitchens with microwaves and separate bedrooms in condominium units. They want the same shopping palazzos that downtown Bangkok has: clean, comfortable, filled with franchised goods and food, stretching through buildings that are the size of football fields. And they will get exactly what they want because providing these creature comforts are the way that business tycoons increase their sizable fortunes.

My heart breaks a little bit more for a city that I only thought was mine, in a country that I knew never could be but that I’ve loved for twenty years. Bangkok memories come to me now in the company of a dull, persistent ache and when I think of what I used to know there, I breathe in the shallow gasps that presage panic attacks. Even if the junta leaves, their legacy will never go away, their dismantling of one of the most vibrant cities on earth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Living to Read, Reading to Live

When I left my Chinatown apartment, I packed my books first and that was a huge mistake. For the past two weeks I felt bereft and last night when I pulled one from my new bookcase and began to read, I could feel a hole was being filled. The internet, as useful as it is, doesn’t replace what books do for me, and when I read from a screen before I made the final move to my new home, I felt as though I were satisfying a cramping hunger with Cheetos.

I have 140 books, every one of them kept only because I can reread each with pleasure. Although in everyday life, I usually look at them as a cabinet of mementos, and complain that there’s nothing in the house to read, that’s a distortion of truth, an addict’s excuse for going out and getting more. I realized that when I looked at my new bookcase filled with old books. Each one of them was enticing after our separation period and I began to read with a very real delight.

It’s a strange and lovely coincidence that my new bookcase holds every book I own with room for no more than that. It means that if I buy a new book, I either have to give it away after I read or give up one that I already own. In my room there is no space for another bookcase and that pleases me. I love ownership but I hate greed.

One of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited was a studio apartment furnished almost completely with bookcases. All of them were full. Books had been piled high on a little table and were stacked neatly on the floor. The smell of dying paper was palpable and sad. There were more books than any one person could ever hope to read in a lifetime, let alone reread. I could only spend a few minutes in that place without wanting to retch.

There will be other books that I’ll bring home, and I may fudge the issue of giving and keeping by deciding that the cookbooks will have to find a space somewhere in the kitchen. But overall I’ll stick to my buy-one-give-one policy. Claustrophobia will trump avarice every time and my room is extremely compact.

But even stronger than the issue of space is the memory of six paperback books on a shelf made from rough lumber in a room that was mine when I was fifteen. Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories by Salinger, East of Eden, China Court, a Louis Untermeyer anthology of 20th Century poetry, a copy of the Tao Te Ching: there were many other books in our house but these were mine, chosen and cherished, read and reread. Then there were my childhood books on another shelf, ones that I rarely opened at this stage of my life but were impossible for me to give away, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, the Brothers Grimm, Treasure Island, King Arthur retold by Sydney Lanier, worn-out copies of Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, An Episode of Sparrows.

All told I kept less than twenty books over the course of my life at home. When I finally went to New York to live with my grandmother, I wasn’t horrified to see that her collection was even smaller than my own. It was easy to understand that; she lived in a city with branch libraries in every neighborhood and soon I was a regular patron of four of them. I would come home with as many books as I could carry, gobble them up, and then go back for more. It was bliss.

The saddest thing for me in this new century is the state of library books, which are so disgusting that I can no longer borrow them. Nothing is more appalling than turning pages that are stained with mysterious fluids—or worse yet identifiable ones. Since the books belong to everybody, they belong to nobody, and the stern dragon-faced librarians of the past, whom I was certain examined every book I ever returned and would confiscate my library card if they found one that I’d besmirched, are dead and gone, replaced by social workers. The libraries themselves are filled with people who have nowhere to go, no place where they can take care of themselves or be cared for. In the 21st century we can pride ourselves that we have no workhouses, no lunatic asylums; we don’t need them. We’ve replaced them with libraries and we are all the poorer for that.

In Seattle we have built a library designed by Rem Koolhas, a building so innovative that it even filled pages in an architecture magazine published in Bangkok. I couldn’t wait to go there when I finally returned to the states but I don’t think I’ve visited it more than six times in the past four years. When I walk past it in the morning before it opens, a small crowd waits outside its doors. The emergency shelters close for the day, the occupants take to the streets, and then to the libraries. All over the city people surf the internet, sleep in corners, and often rave to themselves in public libraries.

When I visited my sister in a small South Carolina town a couple of years ago, we did a small tour of the local libraries. They were the refuges of my youth: quiet, with not an indigent to be seen within their walls. It was both soothing and terrifying—where did the street people go? But then come to think of it, I saw no street people. I don’t think they were allowed past the Mason-Dixon Line; I’m sure they haven’t all been sent to Seattle but there are days when it feels that way.

In a city where encampments are supposedly only official ones, tents are turning the entire city into an impromptu Hooverville. Welcome to the New Third World, where libraries become refuges for the poor and the mad, and used bookstores are where readers go to enter the repositories of books from the past.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Break Up

In Alaska, break up means a prelude to spring, when the river ice begins to thaw into big chunks and water starts to flow again. This used to often be a violent time when the water-born ice took out bridges, and a hopeful one that spawned the Nenana Ice Pool, when people would bet on the day and time that the ice would break.

I keep reminding myself that breaking up means change, motion, and renewal, and I've had do that a lot recently. My latest trip to Bangkok ended a 20-year love affair with that city and when I returned home, I began to separate myself from the Chinatown neighborhood where I have lived since 2004--with a hiatus of several years when I moved briefly back to Bangkok.

I believe that the day I stop changing my life in some significant manner is the day that I begin to die. Loss means a new beginning. Finding something new to love, to explore, to inhabit is a crucial process for me and I look for a chance to do that every few years. But it, up until now, has always been a matter of my own choice.

Leaving Chinatown became inevitable with my last rent increase but I was lucky to find a new spot to call my own in an area that is still relatively ungentrified, thanks to an old friend with a vacant guest room. Right now my days are schizoid ones--setting up a new space while dismantling the one in which I still live. The act of moving could easily be done in several journeys by taxi; the act of letting go is significantly more difficult. I tell myself I'm a quick 10-minute walk away from this place that I've loved. This is true but soon I won't be walking through a generous sprinkling of neon to get home at night.

Bangkok? I knew I'd find changes there on my first visit since the Junta took over but I had to see that for myself. Coups have come and gone in Thailand as a matter of routine in the past hundred years or so, but life on a daily level has gone unchanged. Not this time, not in Bangkok. Market by market, the city is being erased, and personal freedom is disappearing with it. It hurt me every day of the month that I was there, and for the first time ever I was happy to return to Hong Kong on my journey homeward.

I still can't write about the city that I've lost, not yet. Instead I focus on putting objects into bags, assembling furniture from Ikea at the new house, finding new facets of the neighborhood that will soon be mine.

It's Break Up time. Bridges will be broken, but not burned,

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Because of the Monkey

On mornings when I woke up early in Bangkok, dawn arrived with gleams of pale black shining at the edge of my eastern view, slowly becoming glazed with lavish streaks of gold and pink. Then came the sun, already in full blaze at six. By eight o’clock, its heat had ratcheted up to a full-voiced wake-up call.

Where I live now, in Seattle, the sky doesn't brighten until after seven a.m., slowly becoming an opalescent grey, and then a hue of bright eggshell with a barely visible, tentative back-layer of faded pale blue. The spruce trees that edge the freeway are black cut-outs silhouetted behind the squares of brick buildings, illuminated by golden headlights that never stop moving. Slowly the seagulls move in to see what the garbage trucks might have dropped the night before, and their raucous cries break the morning stillness.

By mid-November everyone gets up in the dark and faces nightfall before five in the afternoon. After Christmas we watch our daylight slowly increase by a few minutes every day. Until that renewal of light begins to really count, happy hour is a well-observed ritual in Seattle, as people fend off the reality of early twilight with cocktails.

For people who remain in one geographic area all of their lives, the end of the day is as it has always been and holds no sense of wonder. In Bangkok, nighttime is when the air cools, the food carts hit the streets, and meals take on a leisurely pace at the end of a workday; every sunset begins a new little festival. In Seattle, the difference between the gloom of day and night becomes miniscule; winter is flatline time when heavy drinkers perfect their skills and the rest of the city goes to bed early. For each of these corners of the world, this is the way it goes. This is the way to live.

When I’m in Bangkok, I sometimes wish for a chilled storm to sweep through the city and give the steamy air the fresh crispness of an autumn apple. In Seattle, I want a barrage of heat lightning that will tear the night sky into rapid flashes of brightness and sheets of fire. My desires are confused, greedy, and laden with too much personal knowledge of disparate weather and patterns of daylight.

Eight a.m. in Seattle and the light is ashen; at the same moment on the other side of the planet, Bangkok at ten p.m. is still eating. My day now begins at a time when a few years ago it was just winding down. Schizoid with the weird gift of having lived in more than one place, I yearn for both, for the ability to toggle between one and the other like windows on a computer screen.

But I can’t have both. I’ve learned there are many different kinds of darkness and at least one of them can’t be transformed by the softened glow that comes after drinking a couple of cocktails.

Today I woke up missing Nakhon Phanom, a small Thai city that I once explored for two weeks. I stayed in a hotel that was frozen in time back to the 1960s, walked for miles along the Mekong River, took sunset rides on an old river ferry that a local entrepreneur had turned into a basic tour boat, drank wonderful coffee every morning at a little corner cafe, and enjoyed cakes and crepes at a lovely refuge owned by a woman whom I had met when she had left Nakhon Phanom to live in Seattle. I spent hours learning the dusty, colorful streets of my friend’s hometown, and I do not know it at all. I'm an observer, not an analyst.

And that's a good thing, because so many foreign analysts who bring their microscopes to bear upon the many landscapes of Thailand are horribly, laughably wrong in their assessments. The foreigners, the farang, whom I respect are the ones who watch quietly and keep their counsel. I do my best to emulate them.

My private opinions have been formed by where I've spent time. In Bangkok, the neighborhood that I lived in for years is Thai, not an expat enclave, and within it I've seen a cross-section of the multileveled nature of Thai society. Living there taught me that many people in the capital city are not so different from their rural counterparts, except they labor under a much higher cost of living. From conversations held in and out of a classroom, usually with middle-class people who are widely traveled and bilingual, I have learned that all throughout Thailand, official dogma, repeated throughout years of education, not infrequently replaces debate or discussion.

As for truly wealthy people in Bangkok, I have no idea of how they live. But once I gave English lessons to a middle-class man in the suburbs who had five cars in his garage, which included two Mercedes-Benz and a Jeep Cherokee. He could have easily driven an 18-wheeled Kenworth truck up the main staircase of his house, which had the gleam of highly polished teak, and his wife, who taught at the local primary school, had a lighted walk-in closet filled with the deep glow of silk cocktail dresses. She gave me an ice-blue sleeveless sheath to keep when I admired it and told me it was made of Shinawatra silk from Chiang Mai, fabric that came from the family that would soon launch the country’s most controversial prime ministers. In Thailand even the silk has a pedigree, and political undertones can be found in closets.

I did find out how people in Bangkok live when they are hungry because my middle-aged body lost fifteen pounds in three months after the baht plummeted in value and triggered the Asian financial crisis in 1997. The people I worked with lost weight too; we all banded together, Thai and farang. We shared. We took care of each other. It was Thai people who taught us foreigners how to do that and I will never forget those lessons.

These are things that are engraved on my bones and I know they are true. But don't ask me who burned parts of Bangkok in 2010. Or who hired the snipers who killed people who took refuge in a temple. Or who the Men in Black were during those protests and in ones of more recent years. I don't know—and anyone who says that they do, especially if they are foreigners with a limited knowledge of the Thai language, is a dupe, if not a liar.

I was in Hong Kong during the terrible weeks of 2010, when red-shirted crowds took to Bangkok’s streets in force, but their numbers had been gathering in sporadic bursts of unrest and dissent long before I’d returned to live in Thailand in 2008. The years since then had been troubling ones, and deeply sad, with Thai people in red and Thai people who wore yellow shirts doing their best to kill each other. Yellow-shirted people had marched upon both Bangkok’s international and regional airports, took possession of them and paralyzed transportation not only in Thailand but in neighboring countries. Red-shirted people had shut down an ASEAN conference that Thailand had taken great pride in hosting, forcing prime ministers from countries as close by as Cambodia and as distant as Australia to return home with nothing accomplished.

What was most disturbing to me was that these events, along with the deaths at political protests  during Songkran, the Thai New Year that was normally a joyful celebration, occurred and then faded into obscurity without consequence or public discourse. All of this turmoil, disruption, and death seemed to be accepted in the same way as were the yearly floods that wreaked damage in the country and then disappeared. But for me, the lack of public reaction toward the annual unease and violence ate away at my feelings for a place I had loved for years, like a silent and deadly malignancy. It seemed eerie that people who felt strongly enough to die, and to kill, for their beliefs would be calm for most of the year, then explode, then fall into utter silence again. It was like watching a chess game played by psychotics.

Years before this, the Thai man I loved would discuss politics with me up to a point. Although the climate was much less volatile back in those days, these conversations usually ended with him telling me, “Write it all down in your little book and then forget about it.” Other Thai friends would say “Don’t think too much,” but he knew me better than to offer that catchphrase. Now he lived in another country and I found only one other person who would talk about what was going on, but this man did it tangentially, with a weary sadness. The burden of his remarks dwelt upon the outgrowth of the monarchy. A generous bounty of offspring from a past king had carved up and taken over the power structures of the kingdom after their father’s death. Their descendants were still in control and they intended to keep it that way.

We both were tentative in our discussions. Lese majeste laws in Thailand are draconic and have quite effectively created a barrier of silence concerning anything about any feature of the Chakri dynasty, the present-day monarchy, or the question of royal succession. Early in my Bangkok years, a group of university students had come to me for a conversation class. We began to chat about Thai history and I asked “Has Thailand ever had a queen?” An outspoken girl from the South replied, “No, but perhaps we will,” and then looked terror-stricken, glancing at the closest window in a gesture that was as involuntary as a sneeze. One of her friends grabbed her hand and said gently, “There are no police here.”

After that evening, I’d learned that mentioning Thailand’s monarchy in any political context was an act that was as unspeakable as breaking wind at a dinner party. Even when I traveled in other countries, if the king or any member of his family came up in conversation, my first reaction was to immediately change the subject.

Among Thai people, there was an equally swift response when the monarch himself was mentioned, a reflex akin to devout Catholics crossing themselves with holy water upon entering a church. It was a fervent and unsettling statement: “I would die for him.”

This began to change by the middle of 2010. As Bangkok smoldered in the silent aftermath of violence, some of my friends repeated rumors that the king’s picture was being removed from households in the Northeast, a region which the rest of the country regarded as the hotbed of dissent. “Those people do not love our king,” people told me and the unexpected venom in their voices made me shudder, as though I were listening to the future slogan of a holy war.

Earlier in the year, before this all reached its flashpoint at a bridge not far from the Grand Palace, Government House, and other symbols of entrenched authority, the revolution was already brewing. Shortly before I left for a long stay in Hong Kong, Rodney’s silly but irresistible boyfriend had demanded that we go with him to a street market that was close to the scene of the latest protest gatherings. We went, we shopped, and when Rod began to drive back home, we found that all of the arterial streets were blocked by men who were wearing red.

They were a jovial group that night, clustering around the sawhorses that they had put into the roads to serve as barriers. They made jokes and smiled as they turned us back, and suddenly I thought of the old parental admonition, “It’s all fun and games, until somebody gets hurt.”

At last Rod’s fluency in Thai and his talent at constructing a persuasive sales pitch gave us an exit point and we slept in our own beds that night, instead of camping out in his car at the side of a barricaded street. But I had seen power where I never had before, and a week or two later, when I sat in a Hong Kong hotel room and watched a night of horror unfold through the messages being posted on a Twitter feed, I remembered those smiles with their undercurrent of rage.

The next morning I went out to get coffee and returned carrying newspapers, their headlines echoing what I’d learned from Twitter the night before. As I walked down the hallway, a young man appeared. He was speaking Thai to someone inside his room as he closed the door and when he walked toward me, he smiled in greeting. I asked him in Thai, “Have you read this,” and he stopped to stand beside me.

I handed him a copy of the South China Morning Post and his smile faded. “It’s bad,” he said in English, “very bad for my country.” He lowered his voice and looked at me intently. “You know Thailand?” he asked.

“I love Thailand,” I replied. I felt the pressure of tears gathering near the bridge of my nose, and turned my head away.

The man put the newspaper back into my hand, as he said, “All this. You know why? It’s because of the monkey.”

I stared at him as the meaning of his words slowly began to make sense. I felt a surge of fear, but we were in Hong Kong, not Thailand.

“The monkey? Oh god, I know what you mean. Of course that’s why.”

“Yes,” he said and a woman’s voice suddenly called out from the room he had just left.

“My girlfriend,” he said, “She wants me to come back to our room now.”

I never saw him again, but as Bangkok’s streets became clogged with protesters and impromptu fortresses made from old tires, as the air was pervaded with the smell of burning rubber and the thick poisonous stench of torched buildings, as people took refuge at a downtown temple and were killed on holy ground, his words stayed with me. And each time I thought “It’s because of the monkey,” my skin turned cold and my stomach tightened with the understanding of why all of this went unspoken while it tore the country’s fabric into shreds.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

More Than I Can Say


For the first time in my life, I'm counting down the days before I leave Bangkok. The question of this week is which of us has changed the most?

It all began with the Skytrain and its comfortable, anonymous, rapid transit. Then came the MRT, with no sense of place at all. Now if you take a bus, or a riverboat, you can plainly see that Bangkok is being erased. A chaotic, wonderful, horizontal city is becoming a franchised, sterile, vertical one. When I saw the pseudo-colonial shopping mall (complete with Starbucks) that has replaced the dark sprawl of old ugly buildings that used to border Pak Khlong Talad's market, my heart splintered. 

Fifty new shopping malls are scheduled to be built in Bangkok over the next year. Since I arrived last month, at least two more market areas have been removed. Bring on the air-conditioned brave new world.


Bangkok in an Altered State


I almost didn't buy a newspaper yesterday. This should-be-simple-activity involves a long bus or taxi ride to the skytrain, a frigid ride to Silom Complex, and a trip to the third floor of a place I used to enjoy but that is now just another pretentious shopping experience. However it's the closest place I know that carries the Bangkok Post, which is invisible in my neighborhood of Ratburana, so off I went, as I have almost every day since I arrived in this city.

My bus was slow and I took pictures from its open window, realizing that what I was looking at will be gone in ten years or less. Old rice warehouses, small orchards, miles of streetfood vendors, all to be replaced by Bangkok progress--McDonalds, Starbucks, S&P.


Two days earlier I was whipped into depression by the sight of empty sidewalks in the Nana neighborhood. I have had a love-hate relationship with that part of Sukhumvit ever since I first came to Bangkok. The sidewalks were always so clogged with vendors that shoppers and other pedestrians moved at a pace that a toddler would sneer at. But it was an area that was wildly alive, attracting people from all over the world with a spirited interaction between sellers and purchasers. Ugly it was, and the people who sold things there every day were certain to perish a painful, lingering death from the horrible, exhaust-laden air, but it was a perfect antidote to the sterility of the city's shopping malls. Now the sidewalk vendors were gone, replaced with clean little shops selling things like baby clothes.

"The vendors come at seven o'clock now," an Indian tailor told me, and a long-time resident later said "Yes, they have three hours of selling time. They can stay until midnight but nobody shops there much past ten."

So much of what made Bangkok a city that I loved was disappearing fast. Even the fruit carts that used to be everywhere were dwindling, replaced by people who sold little plastic bags of fruit chunks, held tightly shut by a rubber band to ferment in the heat. Earlier I'd stopped at a cart near the skytrain and watched the vendor cut pineapple into bite-sized pieces for me. The fruit was sweet and sharp, as it never is anywhere else but Thailand, and soon may be not even here.

When the skytrain left me at Silom, I walked past franchised coffee stands and places that sold baked goods. Then I heard it--the clear, unmistakable music from a saxophone.

For years I'd heard this music at this place, played by a man whose eyesight was badly impaired, if not completely gone. His saxophone had always been part of my landscape, until this time, when he seemed to have vanished. I hurried down the staircase to the sidewalk and there he was, playing in the same spot, with a white hand towel draped over his head to help ward off the heat.

I watched him as my mood lightened. He is part of my history in this place and he is still here. I tucked 100 baht into his shirt pocket and moved up to the steps of the shopping mall to watch and listen.

He stopped playing for a moment and picked up a handful of bills from a receptacle. They were all twenty baht notes and he separated my pink bill from those green ones. He looked off in my direction with his clouded eyes and began to play Doe, A Deer from the Sound of Music.


A young woman walked by and put another pink bill in his fingers. Clearly he was part of many people's history, and that made me very happy. I stood and listened to a song that I usually detest, went back down the steps and slipped another pink banknote into his pocket, knowing that what he had given me over the years was worth more than I could ever pay.


Profile in Squeamishness

It is still there, waiting for the Rat Pack to fill its torn white naugahyde banquettes, pull the potted plants from the stage, and croon into a microphone.

In 1968 you could get an ultra-modern room there for 16.00. It had a swimming pool and a tourist shopping arcade. At 13.26 meters, the pool was the largest in Bangkok then. In 2006 it was photographed, still elegant, as is the hotel, although it needs a lot of TLC at this point as it approaches its half-century mark.

Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp by the golden door (okay it's not golden but oh well). The lobby is big enough to double as a ballroom with gigantic portholes in the wall that separates the restrooms from the reception area. The staircase is early industrial chic, imposing and metal among the profusion of wood that trims its surroundings.

The coffee shop/dining room is cavernous and the tables and chairs are solid hardwood, weighty in classic 1960s style. Banquettes large enough to hold a dozen people easily sweep in horseshoe shapes against the wall. It's the sort of room that makes you want to order a martini and a pack of Lucky Strikes. Rumor has it that the Khmer Rouge filled it during the 80s when they came to do business in Bangkok. It seems as though that was probably true as I sit there now with a good friend, drinking Heineken that has a faint aftertaste of Scotch. We both can taste it, a ghostly flavor but very distinct.

The waiter shoos us off before 10 pm in a kindly fashion and I approach the reception clerk, asking how much it would be to stay here. A room is over 20 USD a night and hovers around 540 US for a month. I say that's too much and she asks me if I would like to look at one of the rooms.

My friend and I crowd into the world's tiniest elevator with a staff member who might have been a bellboy in former times. The elevator just barely contains the three of us but manages to take us to the fifth floor.

The room we are shown is huge--quite possibly the size of the condo I'm staying in now. There is a deep bathtub and a lot of wooden drawers and doors on one wall. They look fragile and I gasp when my friend tries to open one, without success but also without breaking it. A big window looks out toward the lights of Pradiphat Road and a bottle of Mekong waits with two glasses beside the double bed.

It is a room with history and I want to stay there when I return to Bangkok. Actually I wish I could stay there right this minute. It's in one of my favorite parts of the city, a place where a shop still sells both the NYT and the Bangkok Post, where Abu Ibrahim still flourishes under the hospitable ownership of a man from Bombay, and food and fresh flowers are always for sale on the street. Next year...if I can wait that long.

I don't know why I have to set up little dares for myself, but I always have. "Dare you to walk on the underpinninngs of that bridge." "Dare you to have that extra shot of Scotch." "Dare you to live in Thailand." For a girl/woman/old broad who is bookish and unathletic to the extreme, this weird penchant for self-challenges seems completely out of character, even to me.

The Liberty Garden Hotel became one of those little dares this week. I'd been there a couple of times for post-dinner beer with my friend Don and we both were intrigued by its aura of decay and past elegance. It's in a neighborhood that is vibrant and unchanged over the past twenty years, which is unusual in present-day, rapidly transforming Bangkok, and that's why I decided I needed a night at the Liberty.

I had looked at one of the rooms, which at night after two beers, seemed romantically decrepit. Don pointed out the wifi password painted on the wall of the hallway---Ninja1234. It was all very noir and charming so I went back a couple of days later to reserve and prepay for a room.

I should have asked to look at it in daylight. Certainly the outer courtyard and the hotel lobby both looked vastly different when not softened by nightfall and a little tinge of disquiet began to color thoughts of this excursion. But I had dared myself, with a small caveat--"If there are bedbugs, you can always get a taxi back to the condo by the river."

Yesterday I was in the Liberty's miniscule elevator with the bellboy. The gaping hole in the wood veneer of its wall seemed less atmospheric and more creepy than it had when I had been in the elevator with both the bellboy and Don a week earlier. I entered a room and immediately smelled the odor of very old bedding. The window was large and overlooked the swimming pool. As I walked over and looked at it, I wished immediately for another view. The pool was lacking many tiles that gave it a diseased and blackened appearance in the spots where it wasn't blue. It was completely vacant and that wasn't surprising at all.

When the bellboy left, I peeled back the bottom sheet to examine the mattress. It was so mottled with spots that it was impossible to see if any of them had been left by bedbugs. The pillows were similarly ancient in appearance, but the bed linens looked fine. I went to the windows; both were old casement windows that opened outward and both were open. I could only close one of them.

"The window in my room won't close. I want another room," I told the desk clerk. She looked at me blankly. "The window won't close. There will be mosquitoes."

"We have no mosquitoes," she said and I tried not to snort. "My room is right above the swimming pool. Of course there will be mosquitoes."

She shrugged and beckoned for the bellboy. Together we went back up to the sixth floor where he tugged the window shut. He left in an eloquent silence and I sat on one of the heavy wooden chairs, looking at where I would spend the night. The floor was clean, when I went into the bathroom, it was clean. I'd stayed in places before that were as old as this room. But only in this room did I feel that it was very hard to breathe.

I picked up the bag I'd filled with everything I needed for a night away from Ratburana and walked into the hall. I left the key at the reception desk, saying, "I'm going out." Then I walked back to the skytrain and began my trip back to the world of Chapter One, Modern Dutch.

Sometimes dares aren't going to be taken. There was something in that room, in that hotel that wasn't for me. I'm going to chalk it up to the stale odor that greeted me when I walked in and the knowledge that the glow of the swimming pool at night would be much more Blue Velvet than I care to look at.


Here's why most people wouldn't want to travel with me--this is how I like to spend a day in Bangkok--made friends with a little cat while drinking a blended lime drink and picking my way through a dish I dislike but apparently managed to order anyway. Clarified matters and made friends with the people who own the food stall. Booked a room in a Bangkok hotel with a colorful history for one night next week. Walked a lot. Ate fantastic noodles with green curry (kanom jeen nom ya) at another street stall. Bought a huge bundle of roses from an old man without bargaining, came home and ineptly arranged them in a big glass salad bowl. Now kicking back with a beer and some salted nuts, ready to read. Not exciting but really nice.

It is a Puzzlement...

Starbucks at Senafest on Charoen Nakhorn has a pastry called Spelt Charcoal Raisin Walnut. No, I wasn't tempted but I am curious. Spelt I know about. Charcoal? (It is black.) Explain, somebody?

Nothing kicks off a morning like having a 36-hour-old manicure peel away from your fingernails in chunks. Unfortunately incompletely--I'd console myself by saying it looks punk but I'm in a country that's never embraced that aesthetic.

No soi to my condo, a boulevard of trees instead. Right or wrong? (Please discuss.)

Things I've Noticed Since Returning to Bangkok--

  1. It is impossible to buy a Bangkok Post in most areas of the city unless you go to a shopping mall or grab one of the very few that are delivered to Faster Books at a skytrain station. Hello, Single Portal.
  2. English in general is worse than ever in its written form. Seen yesterday on a sign "Thailand got's talent." Hello, ASEAN.
  3. There's a lot more made-in-China stuff for sale in cheap markets. Hello, inflation.
  4. Although Thai fruit is incomparable, Korean fruit is chic. Hello Paragon, Emporium, Em Quartier.
  5. Thai people are still wonderfully kind. Hello Skytrain passengers who give your seats to the elderly (including me--thank you!) Hello bus conductresses who are much nicer than they ever were when I was young.
  6. Despite regulation, Bangkok still does what it always has. Hello vendors on the newly-emptied Silom Road, who put their goods on the ledges of buildings during lunch-time rush hours.
  7. Food is still a paramount occupation. Hello tables on the sidewalks at 5 pm--I have missed you more than I can say.