In Solidarity with Bangkok

By Osborne, Lawrence | Newsweek International, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview
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In Solidarity with Bangkok

Osborne, Lawrence, Newsweek International

Byline: Lawrence Osborne

With his beloved city inundated, our correspondent returns to his old haunts.

Awash in the worst floods in five decades, Bangkok seemed a very different city from the one I had lived in. I never vary my hotels when I am back. I check into the S15 on Sukhumvit or the Lebua in State Tower or the Dawin on Soi 4, where all the hedonism of the world seems to converge in a single point of time, and from these quite ordinary places (though refined by Thai attitudes), I venture out into streets that have changed only subtly at the edges. But this time I had to step over sandbags to use the ATM next to the S15 near Sukhumvit Soi 15, and this stretch of avenue, usually alive with little come-by-night mobile bars and street girls and deaf people selling Viagra and imitation Patek watches, was almost silent come midnight. On the news, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra could be seen assuring her national flock that the crisis hour had arrived, but that if people didn't "damage the dikes" around the city they would all pull through together and weather the massive inundation that now threatened the capital.

As I sat listening to this in a beer garden around the corner, surrounded by stoic white men who were prepared to risk waterborne diseases to get their daily (and nightly) fix of Bangkok street life, I wondered why people would casually damage dikes during a national flood emergency. But of course I then realized that this was mere rhetoric. Thais make reluctant vandals, unlike their better-off counterparts in the supposedly developed world, and no one here would really be sabotaging a dike.

Out on the street at 1 p.m. the daylight had become sour under low clouds, and a group of women were laying sandbags across the threshold of a little un-innocent massage parlor. They looked like waifs toiling during the London Blitz.

The street--it was Soi 19--had emptied out, and later I went for lunch at Isao, a small sushi bar. I was with a Bangkok friend, an American who has lived here for 10 years. The atmosphere, she remarked, was just like the recent days of civil strife. One didn't know what was going to happen, and there was (one couldn't deny) a small thrill in that fact. She herself had stayed, while all her friends had fled to Thailand's south. A country full of islands and spas is perfect for fleeing nature's wrath.

I thought back to the hurricane in New York over the summer. In local delis on Atlantic Avenue at Bond Street there had been lines of wimpy hipster househusbands stocking up on canned soup and plasticated bread, clearly secretly delighted at the upcoming disruption of their boring lives. Such types don't exist in Bangkok because Bangkok is not Brooklyn, and people here, generally speaking, never seem bored. A disaster in Bangkok isn't a welcome respite from ennui. It's an actual disaster.

I walked around half-delighted. If only all the mega-cities of the world could have their populations reduced by two thirds, they would actually be, once again, livable. The streets flowing with easy traffic instead of choked by mindless jams, the sidewalks breathing with the civility bred by space itself. A lot of stores were closed. Many of the insane street vendors who strangle the lower end of Sukhumvit had departed, leaving behind a strange intimation of the city of the past. The city as it was 50 years ago, perhaps, when half its streets were lazy canals and people boated to dinner by lantern light.

What would the city be like if the waters did arrive? But Bangkok has always had a precarious relation with water: it's built on it. In the 19th century it was the "Venice of the East," a city of canals, or klongs. Many streets are cemented-over canals. In 2006 I remember walking down to Sukhumvit to catch a taxi to the airport in a foot of fast-moving water. Heavy rain had turned the central city into a lake in a matter of hours.

As dusk fell, I wandered around the so-called back-sois, the snaking alleys that form a labyrinth behind the main streets.

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