Donald Quist just moved to Bangkok, oh, a few months ago after graduating with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, making a new home and giving NC a chance to add a fascinating new city/country our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays. These essays have been part of the NC package from the beginning, adding a wonderfully human and personal aspect to what the magazine offers (which is, well, human and personal anyway). Take time to look through the whole list and then think about where you live, how beautiful it can be just stepping out your door.
Start at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)
Climb the large stone steps to the center tower. Careful. The stairs from the second landing are steep. The rock is smooth and it’s easy to slip with sweating hands. There is a single metal rail, rusted red, wrapped in rope. It offers some grip. Pull yourself onto the next level. There are more steps but the incline is too dangerous for visitors. Large strips of pink tarp hug the base of the tower like a castle moat. It prevents you from trying to go any higher.
Look up. The temple prang is a cone tapering to the sky, a tower covered in thousands of seashells and pieces of colored porcelain. There is a row of clay warriors, their shinning eyes and armor made from tiny tiles. The spire seems to rest on their backs and arms. Circle around the base, clockwise, stopping four times to trace the designs on ceramic flowers with your thumb. They feel like warm dinner plates. Imagine the hands that built these flowers turning into dust.
Look over the monastery from 150 feet. Watch the monks stroll the temple grounds. Their orange robes are bright against the grey footpaths and green shrubs. Listen. Somewhere monks are chanting. Their voices pour from horn loudspeakers posted throughout the complex. It’s clearer at this height. Listen. It’s a steady tone and rhythm, a stream of soft vowels. It’s gapless. Their words are a river. You’re swimming without water. Had you noticed it before?
Take the Ferry
The east side of Wat Arun runs along the Chao Phraya. There is a dock where you can catch a long-tail boat into the city. The boat rocks against the gentle current. The breeze off the water smells like salt and iron and dirt. Breathe it in. The river is dense and strong. It is a pillar. On the approaching shore, in the shadow of high-rises, are mossy forts and remnants of river trading posts. There is the Grand Palace spackled with flakes of gold, glittering.
Imagine the Palace last night, covered in lights to commemorate Loi Krathong. All over the city there is singing and music, and fireworks bursting like cannon fire. Sky lanterns rise into the night like blooms of flying jellyfish. Thousands walk down to the river. Imagine you follow them, caught in the wave of a new kind of intimacy. Imagine. You feel their sweat on your naked arms. Together, under the Rama VIII Bridge, you light candles and make wishes and sail them down stream on flowery crowns of banana leaves and coconut husks. You notice a group of boys a few meters south, wading through the muddy water. They are fishing krathongs from the river, blowing-out the candles and selling them to others waiting on the shore. Pray to the river goddess that your real hopes will float.
Follow the floodwater lines running along the bottom of buildings. Sidestep garbage bags and puddles from dripping A/C window units above the street. The air is heavy, like a dank basement. It carries an angry rot. Get lost in the buzzing of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws.
Take a right, now, onto an unnamed soi. It is too narrow for a car. The small road is lined with morning street-food vendors tucked under rows of evergreen patio umbrellas. They sell porridge and pastries, soup and dim sum.
Nod to people as you pass. Smile. They smile back.
Make a left on the next street. Follow the webs of telephone wire past a dozen convenience stores. The buildings share a similar architecture. Squat balconies with fat columns, decorative moldings and cornices like a Roman basilica. Patches of black mold stain the paint and facades.
Cross a short bridge arching over a canal. Hua Lamphong Railway Station is on the horizon.
Take the Subway at Hua Lamphong
Walk around the front entrance to find an escalator leading down to a long tunnel, trapping the humidity from the city above. The walls are sweating. The high ceiling echoes a hundred sandals slapping the floor. The tunnel ends at a ticket counter. Purchase a fare to Thanon Sukhumvit and then take two more sets of escalators, down, down, to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit platform.
The train is arriving. It rolls to a stop, lining-up with the yellow directional arrows painted on the lip of the platform. There is a loud hiss as the doors spring open. A blast of cold air slaps your forehead as you push your way on. It fills quickly. Pinned by a mass of people against the back wall of the passenger car, you can barely lift your arms.
Exit at Sukhumvit (Terminal 21 Mall)
The stairs lead up from the subway to the ground-level entrance of a shopping complex designed like an airport terminal. The women at the info desk are dressed like flight attendants. The escalators are decorated like departure gates. Each floor is themed with a global city: Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood. You are in Rome. There are pillars, arches, faux frescoes and marble angels looking down on shoppers.
English is everywhere, and whether it is a spa promotion or a sale on high-heels, for a moment you are literate again. You understand more than bits and pieces of passing conversations. Two young men walk by wearing tank tops and folded bandana headbands. One of the boys has camouflage cargo pants, while the other has neon pink short-shorts. They are having an argument over which street market is bigger, JJ or Chatuchak. Don’t point out that JJ Market and Chatuchak Market are the same. Do not interject that many places in the city have more than one name in English, and the J sound and the Ch often get confused. Keep it to yourself. Knowing makes you feel like less of a tourist.
At the bottom of the stairs exiting Terminal 21 there is a man with one arm and no legs lying on his belly. He shakes the change in his paper cup. The back of his t-shirt reads, “I LOVE THE KING.” Give him 20 baht, and then turn right.
The hotels and office buildings block the sun. The tracks of the BTS Skytrain cast a shadow over the six lanes of traffic. It gives the impression of a stormy overcast. The Skytrain rumbles like thunder as it passes above.
Ignore the thumping club music from the already open go-go bars. Ignore the peddlers calling out to you. You may not know where you’re headed, or what you’re looking for, but you know it is something larger than a trinket or souvenir. It is something deeper than a watch, bong or bootleg DVD.
Thanon Sukhumvit turns into Thanon Phloen Chit. There is construction everywhere. Crews of laborers in hardhats and flip-flops are raising new luxury condominiums from the rubble of old luxury condominiums. Above the chorus of jackhammers and drills are the staccato blasts of car horns. The traffic crawls forward as motorists honk in frustration. The exhaust fumes mix with the smell of street vendors grilling pork. Layers of black dust hug the street. It’s harder to breathe. You taste smoke in the air. Somewhere people are chanting. It’s coming from a gated square, ahead on the right.
Watch the believers light incense. They circle the shrine clockwise laying wreaths of yellow flowers, bowing to the four faces of the Hindu god, Brahma. Some are on their knees, their eyes squeezed tight in prayer. A few feet away, shielded from the sun by an open gazebo, a female dance troupe sways to a chorus of Thai folk songs. They wear towering headpieces and traditional dresses with shimmering layers that wrap around them and drape over their shoulders. Their faith makes them impervious to the heat.
Scan the crowded square for another statue. Look for a depiction similar to the one at Wat Arun, protruding from the temple prang—Indra, the lord of heaven, riding Erawan, an elephant with three heads.
But there is no giant white elephant of the clouds, or his master. There is no Erawan at Erawan Shrine. Only Brahma.
You may never know why. There may always be some facet of this city that eludes your understanding, even its name. Is it Bangkok or Thonburi Si Mahasamut or Rattanakosin or Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit or just Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for short? Was the city named for its flowers or for its treasures gracing the ocean? The City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.
Move closer. Look. Listen. Follow the current circling the Shrine. Press your palms together and bow to something beyond your comprehension. Bow, in respect for what you don’t know.