Wet With Light

January 30th, 2007

Bangkok — Every time I land in Bangkok, it’s like coming home. To a somewhat dreamlike home, where an occasional door might lead to a blank wall and some of the furniture might be glued to the ceiling, but home nonetheless.

It’s a home I enter by stages. First, of course, is the big, abrupt, wrenching stage: 16-18 hours in an airplane. Humans were not designed to travel this way: Wave goodbye to my wife and dog in California, spend an eternity trying to fall asleep in a seat that barely reclines enough to roll a ball down the back, and then – stiff, creaky, fuddled, and dryer than a ship’s biscuit – clamber out of the air conditioned dimness of the plane directly into The World of Light and Heat.

That’s what I experience first: light and heat.

With the equatorial sun pretty much directly overhead, blue-sky Bangkok is brilliantly bright. Reflections – off automobile chrome, the polished corner of a curved roof, the colored tiles on a temple façade – gather the light, condense it, and beam it at you like a welder’s arc, more comfortably viewed through blackened glass. Light saturates the rural landscape around the airport as it fades away into the distance, bleaching it to a green that’s almost white. The land seems to be wet with light.

While I’m screwing up my eyes to deal with the brightness, the heat attacks. It plasters itself against me like Jell-o at the boil, wet, heavy, absolutely unavoidable. In the 45 seconds it takes to get to the end of the jetway I’ve worked up a sweat. Then I’m plunged into the penguin environment of the airport, air conditioned to a point where beef could be hung in it for weeks, until immigration and luggage collection are over and I pass through the automatic doors and back into the blast furnace of the day.

So, okay, light and heat. And an extraordinary dislocation in time. It’s 11 AM in Bangkok and 8 PM in California. Put all these things together – the heat, the light, the time displacement – and you have a state of mind that would have been quite expensive in the Sixties. One floats through the world in a bubble, and at a surprising altitude.

But then, from the back of the taxi, I begin to see the familiar landmarks: the airport hotel, a few tuk-tuks putt-putting by on their three wheels, the ramp onto the expressway, the airport hotel. (Or did I already see that?) And I realize that the taxi itself is a familiar landmark, with its thoughtfully placed box of Kleenex inside the rear window, the amulets and Buddha figures on the dash, the garland of flowers hanging from the rear-view mirror. At this point, I’m about a third of the way home.

After closing my eyes for just a second, I open them half an hour later and find myself on Rama IV Road, and all the things I haven’t seen in months are right there, where they’ve been all along. The older women with the broad hats who sweep the streets and sidewalks with hand-made straw brooms. The cops in their tight brown uniforms that never, ever pull apart in between the buttons (even on the fat cops) because the buttons are phony and there’s a hidden zipper running up the front. Young boys dawdling along together, unselfconsciously holding hands, young girls holding hands with young girls. The dazzle of sun on long, clean black hair. Spotless, unwrinkled white blouses on schoolgirls. A teenage girl on the sidewalk laughs so hard she drops into a crouch. I’m two-thirds of the way home.

Then comes the world’s longest stoplight – long enough that I’ve seen drivers trapped at it turn off their engines to save gas – and we’re on Silom Road. The whole spectrum of urban Thai commerce is on display here, from the tiniest sidewalk stand to the gleaming new department stores. I look for, and find, a store window where the mannequins assume a pose you never see in Western store windows: one arm loosely extended, palm down, fingers curved slightly under. This is the universal Southeast Asian way of calling you over, beckoning you in. It says, come here. It says, hello and welcome. It seems like a welcome to me, and I’m almost all the way home.

I tote the bags into my apartment, turn on the air conditioner, hang up whatever I have to hang up, and head back down to the street to stock the refrigerator and buy some flowers. (Flowers are ridiculously cheap.) Then I carry everything back upstairs, put it away, and try to find a way to stay awake all day so I can go to bed that night with half a chance of actually sleeping through until morning.

And the next day I tote my laptop to Coffee World or the TipTop Restaurant and get huge smiles of welcome from the staff, who begin to funnel me a continuing and endless flow of black coffee. I haul my laptop out of its bag, open it, and start writing about Thailand, and when I look up I see Thai faces, and when I listen I hear the Thai language. And I know I’m one hundred percent home.

2 Responses to “Wet With Light”

  1. Stefan Hammond Says:

    This might be the single best description of reentry-to-Planet-Bangkok I’ve ever read. The sensory stimuli thrums in this short piece, Tim.

    The spine of this piece hinges on embracement of The Other as something you regard as “home.” The irony here is someone who had grown up in this environment might regard it as a base-case standard. Of course you fry pork on the sidewalk, where else? And of course fresh, handmade jasmine garlands cost ten baht.

    But for us, decompression comes in stages. When we reach neutral buoyancy, and realize that we are in fact HOME, there’s something quite magical about it relative to the logic used decades back, when the “Far East” was Kurosawa flicks with subtitles, or whatever.

    When I was living back in Bangkok, I once had lunch with a pal who was moving back to his native Vancouver after nine years running a creative arts business in Bangkok. We were the only customers in the coffeeshop of a hotel on Soi 11. We woke up the waitress sleeping behind the counter and placed our orders. After she gave them to the kitchen, she turned on the TV (customers need entertainment) and went back to her nap.

    I looked at the TV. My pal looked at the TV. Then, he stood up, walked over to it, and turned it off.

    He walked back, sat down, and looked me in the eye. “You know, I’m in trouble. Where I’m going, I won’t be able to do that anymore.”

  2. Jessie Says:

    Jessie…

    Cool, I’m writing a book about Thailand right now so this info’s been really useful. Cheers….

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