Bangkok Days: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure
North Point, 2009
288 pp., $25.00 hardcover
Compare this book to the durian fruit, whose celestial flavor is enhanced, for some connoisseurs, by its gutterlike scent. “Bangkok Days” is a toast to the louche life, a tender, beautifully written travel memoir. It must be read; for even if, like a durian, you finally judge it unpalatable, it may have lead you to review comfortable moral positions. The book centers on aging white male Western expatriates finding reprieve from the burden of mortality in two-dollar generic Viagra hits and sex with willing women who also ask for money. These nowhere men—failures, fantasists all— wander the clubs of Bangkok and its streets, caressed by Lawrence Osborne’s heavenly language. Geoff Dyer’s travel writings and the detective novels of John Burdett cover some of the same territory, but Osborne is the subtler, more exquisite writer.
The book opens with the author sitting on his balcony, having a drink and observing a passing group of monks. He wonders if they can see his loneliness, his lostness, and his failure. This happened “a few years ago,” when the author went to Bangkok for some inexpensive dental work. He soon introduces three other Western expats—fellow denizens of the Primrose apartment complex—and Porntip, the nubile freelance prostitute they all share. Osborne-as-narrator becomes “Miss Lalant,” a corruption of “Mr. Lawrence” as pronounced by Thai female lips. Miss Lalant claims, rather coyly, to be “on the lam.”
The book traces his love affair with Bangkok over many years. It seems to hover at the borderline of fiction—not quite a novel, yet not nonfiction either. With its blurring of time and purpose, and the author’s recasting of himself as a nicknamed character, it partakes of what Osborne calls Thailand’s cosmology: “undependable, plastic, ever-shifting, mysterious.” Here expatriates come to reinvent themselves, to enjoy pleasures and services that would be unaffordable or otherwise unattainable in what Osborne deems their sterile, isolated home cultures. In Bangkok, not everything you hear from a British man should be believed. (Osborne is British, by the way).
Alone and with friends, by day and night, Miss Lalant crisscrosses the city. “We walked for a mile. Under shady trees like those of a European boulevard, down crooked Soi Tarntawan, where the smoke of roasting corn fills the air, past the Solid Club and doorways of half-sleeping girls….” One feels immersed and yearns to retrace the journeys—which would be doable, since the addresses are all given. Miss Lalant lags behind his confreres in consumption of female flesh, yet his eroticism is generalized. At one point, he claims that his “Roger the Dodger” responds to street cuisine, and drives him to eat a fried water beetle. He shows us hidden palaces and mosques; seduces and steals from a Japanese tourist; accompanies a friend to buy insecticidelaced drugs in the Khlong Tuey slum; ducks into glitzy malls; and nearly dies in ritzy Bumrungrad Hospital. Through it all, he is lonely and ecstatic in this city, with its inscrutable alphabet and “comedy of misunderstanding between East and West [that] arouses Western men so much.”
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