Too jacked to sleep I lie on the bed on the 16th floor of my Bangkok hotel. The clock on my sideboard says it’s 0041. The clock in my head says it’s 0341. Which means it is something akin to 21 hours since my body was last catapulted from sleep in a Brisbane hostel. Hard to explain, then. But I got here not even an hour ago, and I’m still wide awake. So I take a shower. I muse at the opulence of the suite I have been given (seriously, how many mirrors can one guy use?) And then I stand with the lights out and my nose pressed to the glass overlooking Sukhumvit and watch the city, nearly one am on a Sunday morning, stubbornly refusing to rest. Just like me.
It’s been an unremarkable journey. I left Madang almost a week ago. A day in Moresby, then three more in Australia collecting my 1-year work permit for PNG. A welcome break. I got to the Brisbane terminal far too early this morning for an airport of its capacity and lingered listlessly in the limbo that is international air travel. A forgettable hop to Singapore. But it’s a long journey, and the day stretches out with the time-zones.
On the nocturnal Swiss flight from Singapore to Bangkok I sit next to a teenage Singaporean boy. He’s not ill, but he coughs repeatedly. Every sixty seconds or so he gives a single short cough. It sounds more like a sneeze, a sharp punch of air from the lungs, but it’s a cough. Regular enough to keep time. Subconcious in its precision. A nervous tick of some sort. Against my weary nerves it rubs until I am poised waiting for it to come, like listening to a dripping tap on a quiet night. A hundred and sixty single sharp coughs later, as we touch down in Bangkok, it’s me who has the nervous tick.
I don’t have a visa but I see the sign “Visa on Arrival”, which I assume will meet my needs. There is paperwork to fill. I attach a passport photo and sign on the dotted line. I hand in my form to the uniformed official who peers at it then staples my photo to it. He demands my passport. I pass it over, then watch in some dismay as, jabbering in Thai, he peels off the freshly-stapled photo and hands it back to me. I try and look nonplussed and wait for further explanation. Then, without a touch of humour in his eyes (and I was watching for it), he continues talking in Thai and rips my application form in half, then rips the halves again, and then a third time. Then he screws them up into a ball and passes me the wad of mashed paper. I feel a sinking in my stomach. It is nearly midnight, local time. I don’t have the energy after almost eighteen hours of travel to deal with irate bureaucrats.
I think he sees the brief flash of panic on my face, for he gives a grin and waves me away. I understand from a few shards of mangled English that I am free to pass through immigration on my passport without all the paperwork. My smile of relief is not feigned and I pay silent homage to the gods of red tape as I scurry to the next queue and hopefully end my journey. The immigration officer asks after my marital status and then determines enthusiastically that he wants to hook me up with local Thai girls. He requests my email address. I provide him with one that looks convincing but has a few key details missing.
My taxi driver hurtles through the sparse traffic of the expressway. He speaks one or two words more English than I do Thai, so our conversation is spotty at best, but we grin friendly toothy smiles at one another. As the sodium lights flicker past overhead he asks me, “Music?”, then flips on a Carlos Santana CD. Incongruous, maybe. But it beats the hell out of Celine Dion. He offers me a Fisherman’s Friend. I can’t tell if this is his Thai generosity, or some subtle reflection on my state of halitosis after a day’s worth of traveling and airline cuisine.
It’s been six years since I was last in Bangkok. Like Nairobi, I have a distinctly love-hate relationship with the city. It’s an overpopulated, grubby, smelly and often chaotic place, a violent clash of the worst of western consumeristic values and Asian overpopulation, overlaid with some of the dullest architecture south of the post-Soviet bloc. Yet at the same time it’s frenetic with life, and where it might be flawed in the macro, the sheer vibrancy of any one scene taken on its own is rich with sensory detail- intense colour, powerful (if not always pleasant) scents, jarring noise and an overwhelming sense of busy-ness and life that is exciting and, at times, overloading.
While I have long since forgotten the detail of many of the landmarks I might have recalled from my last trip, the flavour of Bangkok seems to have changed little over the last six years. We creep along the main road through Sukhumvit, overhung by the BTS skytrain atop its vast concrete pillars, while street-markets bustle and light of every colour spills from little shopfronts crammed tightly along the sidewalks. Traffic crawls. Police are out in force, pulling motorists aside to augment their wages. Western tourists- farang- mingle easily with hawkers and locals and young Thai women in skimpy Saturday-night outfits. Through the air-conditioning of the taxi I can smell nothing, and for that I realise that the scene loses a dimension, but perhaps not to its detriment.
If Ridley Scott were to remake the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, I think he would be hard-put to find a better locale for his apocalyptic view of the future Los Angeles than the colourful melting-pot that is Bangkok. Scenes from the film come back to me as the cab winds its way through the streaming traffic: a melting-pot of people jostling past one another in the multicoloured lights; the shadows of the great concrete viaduct above us, at once plain yet sinister in its blunt functionality; the skyscrapers that tower over us, beacons flashing red in the night, the skyline jagged and uneven against the smogged-out night sky. I catch glimpses of a new construction far above, largely unlit. It ends in a domed point, not unlike the core of a lotus flower without the petals. Orange sparks cascade down from some point forty stories above the street like a firework going off, the output of a welding operation. It is nearly midnight, but cranes swing back and forth above the spire, illuminated from beneath by coloured spots as if on display.
I dislike being cooped up so far off the ground. There’s no easy way out from the sixteenth floor. But at least the view is good. Wrapped in the linen bathrobe hanging behind the bathroom door (a novelty for me) I stand for some time longer, watching the city, feeling at once claustrophobic in my inability to escape my hutch, and agorophobic as the city maws out beneath the spreading plate-glass vista at my feet. My nose leaves a little smudge on the glass, rimed with condensation that quickly evaporates as I pull my face away. I watch the churning of traffic through Sukhumvit, all stalled tailights beneath the raised monorail. A train rumbles past on the tracks, smooth and steady like some enourmous illuminated grub. I stare at the blackened glass that fronts the countless coops stacked in apartment towers everywhere I look and wonder briefly at the lives that are perched within. At street level, the light and movement shows no sign of abating. The city is improbable in its manifestation of energy.
My eyes grow heavy. They have been exposed to long hours of dry air-conditioning in countless waiting lounges, queues and cabins and are finally ready to rest. My bed is soft. It has four pillows, which is two more than I can find good use for, but I am willing to be creative. I realise that despite my retiscence to rest, Bangkok will still be there in the morning- for better or for worse. But maybe, before I resign myself to the cool duvet and a sleep that is likely to be confused at best, I’ll go and stand at the window one last time…