Interview With Lawrence Osborne: ‘Bangkok Days’
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks the author about why Thailand is so hard to capture in words and why its sex trade isn't really about sex
05.27.09 | 11:10 AM ET
Not far from the apartment where my wife and I lived in Bangkok, there was a narrow canal that wound through the city. One night, we laid awake listening as the rain fell in thick sheets. By morning, the canal had swollen over and flooded the streets. All that day, we trudged across the city in water up to our knees, while things we couldn’t see brushed against our legs and got caught in our toes.
In a way, this is what Bangkok always feels like: an opaque place where you can never quite see beneath the surface. Few outsiders understand it, and there is very little good writing on it. But now, Lawrence Osborne, author of The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall, has given Thailand’s City of Angels the book it deserves. Bangkok Days: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure is a wistful, vivid account of the time he has spent in the capital among the drifting souls that wash up there. I talked to him by phone about the elusive quality of Thai culture, loneliness and why Bangkok’s sex trade isn’t really about sex.
World Hum: Why is Thai society—like a lot of Asian societies—so hard for outsiders to penetrate?
Lawrence Osborne: It’s impossible, I think. That’s why I decided to write about expats, and not to write too much about Thais themselves. Whenever Westerners have done that, they’ve gotten into trouble because it’s very hard to know what is going on. I wanted to write about Bangkok as a destination for global travelers and exiles and dropouts. I think it serves that function. And I think it’s one of the reasons why the city is what it is. It’s not a Thai city. In a weird sort of way it’s as much our city as theirs. We created it together. It’s a genuinely globalized phenomenon, and it’s a very new kind of city.
Do you know how many foreigners are there?
In Bangkok? It’s a lot. I believe there are something like 100,000 Japanese alone. It’s a city of around 10 million people, so probably half a million. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s ever counted them. And it’s impossible to count them because there are so many vagrant people just there for three months who leave and come back and leave. Hundreds of thousands for sure.
You write that Somerset Maugham was one of the few writers to describe Bangkok in detail.
I may be wrong. I may not be very well read.
I don’t think you’re wrong. I did a story a while back for [the defunct] Book Magazine. I looked everywhere, and couldn’t find a single thing.
Bizarre, isn’t it? It’s a strange thing. I mean obviously John Burdett has come in with Bangkok 8, which I think is a very good book. Its perception about how the two cultures collide is very good. But when I started to do this book, I was expecting there to be a vast amount of material I would have to plow through. It turns out there was almost nothing. There is very little material to fall back on, in terms of literary archival stuff. I used to go to the national archives and sit there all day and look at the old maps and read the histories in French or English. And that was quite useful, but there was not a lot available outside the archives and I couldn’t take any of it out of the archives. In the bookstores there wasn’t much. And as for travelogues, books like mine, I didn’t find anything at all.
Any thoughts on why that is? Is it because, as you write, “Bangkok is an asylum for those who have lapsed into dilettantism”?
That’s one reason. It’s a weird place. It’s one of the most visited cities in the world, and yet it’s quite a difficult city to get to know. First of all, you have to speak some Thai. And secondly, you have to live there for a couple years. It’s not a romantic, pretty, beautiful city. It’s a tough place in many ways. I think it has a great deal of charm and gentleness here and there. But I’m sure if you looked at books on Istanbul or Paris you’d find tons of that stuff, because those are much more attractive places to live. Bangkok is more like work. It’s kind of a slog. It wasn’t the easiest place to do this stuff. Doubtless there are other reasons, but I don’t really know what they are. Maybe because Bangkok doesn’t attract a high culture crowd. I don’t really know.
When did you first go there?
In 1990. I was writing a book for a publisher in England about Asian art, a book which miserably failed, actually. And after that I tried to go back as much as I could on and off. Then in 2005 and 2006 I spent an extended time there, and I wrote the book there.
You write about the isolation of living there.
It’s a very convivial city, but I think people are very isolated because there’s no social glue to connect people. If you’re a foreigner living there, you don’t have any social reason to meet other people, unless you’re working for a bank, or a newspaper or something. And I wanted to write about these guys, because they’re all retired or f—ed up or whatever. There are drifters, and they may not be significant, but I think they’re more symptomatic of the kind of people who end up in Bangkok. It’s quite sad. And that sadness is very important.
I thought about that when I was living there and would see these kind of socially awkward guys walking with their new girlfriends or new wives or whatever. It was hard for me to come down hard on that, because I know how lonely America can be. There are a lot of books coming out about what a big social problem loneliness is in Western countries.
Yes. We are living in an age of loneliness, which is maybe even the principal reason behind this book. To write about loneliness in the urban landscape. It’s an old theme, of course. But maybe, as you say, it’s becoming more acute now, because of the internet and all these things that keep us essentially enclosed. And maybe people are attracted to Bangkok because it has street life. You can be alone but you can still immerse yourself in the street, with its food and sex companionship. You have this tumult of life that makes you feel less lifeless and alone.
And if you take the alternative for these guys, what would it be? Living in an old people’s home? Living in some God-awful suburb in Sydney? There could be worse places than Bangkok.There’s a flight from loneliness in some ways in what they’re doing. Loneliness is my subject here, I think, far more than the sex trade. But the sex trade is about loneliness, too. It’s part of the same thing. I don’t think these guys who live there are obsessed with sex, because I don’t think human beings are obsessed with sex in that way. We’re all obsessed with sex, but not to the point where we just determine our whole life around it. I think that’s a myth. It’s more complicated than that. It has to do with how you deal with solitude, which gets worse as you get older. When you’re young, in your 20s, you don’t worry so much about loneliness. But in your 40s and 50s and 60s, you really worry about it. It starts to become a kind of critical thing.
Yeah, it is. It seems to me like there are two forces in particular that isolate people more than others: money and technology. The more money you have, the more isolated you can be.
And at the same time, there must be some human drive to be isolated—to have privacy, to control your environment. But technology adds a certain fatal level to all that. Through Twitter and Facebook you can communicate with people all day and feel like you’re not alone. But you are. Physically, you’re alone. And loneliness isn’t just mental, it’s physical. It’s a physical thing. I think one of the things about Bangkok is that you can be touched. It’s a tactile experience. I don’t mean in the crass, go-go bar way. I mean having a foot massage, or all these other things. Western life is so physically isolating. Unless you’re married or something, you’re sitting by yourself. You don’t have any physical contact with anybody or anything.
Especially if you work at home.
Yes. You’re very alone. Anyway, I think that’s one of the attractions of Bangkok. It’s not just f—king. It’s just the fact that you’re in contact with other people. And yet, the paradox of Bangkok is that it’s also very lonely. You see people who live in these towers and apartment blocks. And if you’re not Thai, you are isolated. But the street makes you feel like you’re back in the human race, and alive again. Last night I went for the first time to the store called Whole Foods in Union Square. And there was this enormous line and it was like 1984. Every line was being called out by number in this soft automated female voice. It felt like being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste. It was so horrifyingly anonymous. And I was standing in this line thinking, I don’t like this. I wish I could be back in Bangkok and be treated like a human being.
Yes, I know the feeling. Oh, and one more thing I almost forgot: How many nights does it take to make a hard man humble?
(Laughs) Well, one night is all it takes, really. But who knows? There are different levels of humility. Some people find it takes hundred and hundreds of nights. But I’m a terrible romantic. I wasn’t a hard man to begin with.