My Bangkok: City of Spirits

But everyone who lives here knows that next time might not be so innocent. The August 2015 bombing of the Erawan shrine killed 20 people, though interestingly the bomber may have had connections to both Uighur militants in China and underground networks in Turkey. Unperturbed, Thais are fatalistic and stoic — an absence of hysteria that contrasts favorably with Westerners.

It’s maybe this calm fatalism that I like in my new environment. It arouses lofty contempt in many Westerners, an exasperated rational impatience, but not in me. These things are matters of temperament. Even under the military curfew in 2014 the people in my neighborhood disobeyed the law with a cool insouciance and carried on doing what they always do. Thais treat entire laws like we treat dietary guidelines.


Teens of Thailand, which the author says makes the best gin and tonics in the city.

David Terrazas for The New York Times

More recently, after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, the bars on Cowboy were ordered shut during a period of mourning in which everyone was asked to wear black. I walked down there the day after and found that, sure enough, the lights were all turned off. But the bars themselves were all open and filled with the usual suspects. I asked one of the girls — now dancing on darkened stages in somber black bikinis — if they were closed. “Yes,” she said. But were they open too? Again, the dazzling smile: “Yes. Open and closed same time. Everyone happy.”

Every night I walk down Soi 31 under the dark trees to the Eugenia hotel and press on to the beginning of Soi 23 that intersects it. I go to a place called Hanamori — and drink two glasses of sake with some yakitori to practice my Japanese and then walk on down 31 until it veers to the left past makeshift grills where salted pla kapong (sea bass) lie in tin foil wrappers. Sukhumvit is not known for street food; for that, one heads to areas like Mahachai and Chinatown, since it’s essentially an invention of immigrants from southern China. But even so I have my sweet spots: here late night by the 7-Eleven on Soi 31 and on the quieter stretches of 23 where gwaytio nuea naam noodle soup and gai yang marinated grilled chicken appear unpredictably at dusk. Sometimes vendors wheel by with coconut ice cream, or bua loy, a Thai dessert made of rice balls filled with black sesame and afloat on a light ginger or coconut broth. There’s a lot to be said for eating while walking, a venerable human tradition, and bua loy makes for a refined calmative after an enormous amount of sake.

I go on down Soi 39, past immense condo towers with fan palms that rear above the walls, and on to Soi 33 where the bars are themed around dead European artists. A Dalí, a Renoir, a Manet. At the top of this jungly street, I make my way to a side street where I find my favorite whiskey bar in the city, an unsigned speakeasy called Hailiang buried behind a small garden with a secret door that opens into a 12-seat Japanese cave filled with hundreds of bottles of rare Scotch and bourbon.

Here is my asylum, and the place where, around or after midnight, I usually end up unraveling the day’s mental stresses. The owner is from Osaka and like me is an exile who has no idea if he can or will ever return to the land of his birth. Foreigners thrown together by a city form the most satisfying alliances, and there is something about rare aged Karuizawa whisky that makes me open even a half-empty wallet and not care. When I leave, however, and the bar is closing, the alley outside filled with leprous cats, the quiet walk home with a long cigar is what I most look forward to. Because it’s only late at night that Bangkok becomes the unfathomable and endless place that every great city has to be. The cascades of yellow cassia flowers glow brighter at night and suddenly, passing waste lots filled with sugar palms, you feel the whole city has slipped back into the forest that it was only 100 years ago.

I’m often asked what it’s like living under military rule and the lèse-majesté laws that are ferociously enforced. But societies can be paradoxical. The most democratic are not necessarily those that provide all the personal liberties that matter — or which make you happy — and vice versa. In Bangkok, if you are a foreigner, you are largely left alone, unless you feel impelled to venture out one night and throw a can of paint at a picture of the late king. It’s a perfect city for a foreign writer. Additionally, a farang is only semivisible here, a “ghost” of a different kind. We have stepped out of one world and into a different one; one that we neither understand nor which understands us. Bangkok is practically the only capital city that was never the heart of a colony, and so it has never changed its core in order to adapt to an outside power. Even our name for it doesn’t exist in Thai. Krung Thep Mahanakhon is an entirely interior name.

Which is another reason I am attracted to it. And it’s why, when I sometimes reel home tipsy at 4 a.m., trailing a couple of shy stray dogs, I am sure that I can see the suicidal patriarch among the flowering trees planted by the swimming pool, quietly pruning them with a pair of shears. In the East, as was once famously said, no one ever dies — they are merely cremated and put into spirit houses. You can say that’s a superstitious idea, but it’s also a subtle and durable one that the present century hasn’t yet abolished.

Correction: March 12, 2017

An article last Sunday about Bangkok misstated the location of a Foodland supermarket in the city. It is on Sukhumvit Soi 5, not Sukhumvit Soi 11.

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