From my travel diary – written on June 13, 2011.
Today was the luxe day, if yesterday was the day of public transport.
Siam Square, three large malls knitted around the Skytrain, and some of the most luxurious hectares of mallness I have seen in my life. If yesterday was all about Croatia and coastalness, today is about a certain kind of capitalism.
I was going to see muay thai, but changed my mind and went to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, because it wouldn’t have been open tomorrow. It was excellent. Thai art is meant to be very good, and the Centre was certainly fantastic. It’s decked out as a sort of arts mall, with individual small spaces given over to individual businesses or artists (galleries, art projects), which is a novel idea in my book, and a great one on top. Of course, there is a cart making coffee, right there on the fourth floor, and an art project in the shape of a cakery and ice-cream parlour. There were little children running everywhere, and a wrap-around mural. Sittichai’s exhibit for the Tourist Festival, a celebration of traditional Thai ceramics, was organised as a small garden, with pop music blaring, and pots and clay statues neatly arranged among the plants. One of the exhibits, a set of rectangular zebras, was meant to be sat on. Kids again, everywhere. What I like about this (and I like it a lot) is that fun is integral to the way art is arranged in Thailand, but in a way that’s natural, rather than designed to ‘develop audience’ – you can tell from the way it is uncoordinated, not unified in design. Pop music and zebra benches. You can tell from the way children run around all that Art and Culture. It’s an approach that Croatia won’t understand in a million years, us with our sour seriousness when confronted with things cultural. But I have left Croatia too early to be infected with this particular sourness, so I ate a green grass conceptual brownie and then wandered around malls for a whole evening.
I have put away my Dubravka Ugresic, and returned to the second book on my list, which is Said’s Orientalism: it is more relevant right now.
There is something incredibly exciting about this 3-D urbanism here: it seems to be an assemblage of the following: multi-storey shopping malls, elevated public transport, overhead pedestrian walkways (necessary to traverse gigantic roads), and a culture of stalls (by which I mean, simply, that I cannot imagine that it takes a lot of bureaucratic endeavour to put up a stall on the side of the road here). It is immensely exciting. It creates volume of public space, rather than lines thereof, but in a way that only, really, multiplies vertically what already exists at street level, which is a sort of surface of commercial activity, rather than line.
Barrie Shelton, in his book Learning from the Japanese City, suggests that the entire urbanism of Japan is radically different from the Western urbanism because of the difference in their writing systems, and that one understands composition through area, whereas the other builds it through line. I see what he means, and it indeed applies to Bangkok, too. But it troubles me because of its strong orientalism, because the forceful dichotomy seems to create huge and incorrect generalisations on both Asia and Europe.
The medieval European city certainly works as commercial surface, rather than a set of lines, as do most Mediterranean cities in all periods. I’ve found it very difficult, and counter-intuitive, to arrange my spatial orientation in lines – and I’ve encountered this problem both in Anglo-Saxon cities and in Central Europe (Zagreb, for example). Certainly, a system of rectilinear streets and regular-sized blocks is more logical, in the sense that it’s easier to transpose into another, separate system (a spreadsheet, a map), but what an area-based orientation loses in translatability, it gains in feeling. It’s much easier to feel your way through an area that is somewhat uniformly organised, than it is in an urban fabric where being two streets down from where you’re supposed to be gives you completely different urban character. I am convinced that all these places are congruent in quite a simple way, that there is no particular East-West dichotomy here. How else to explain the fact that, on my first day alone in Bangkok, I’ve been walking around at perfect ease without a map, something that I’m still unable to do in London, despite having been there 5-6 times? In London (or Melbourne, or Zagreb), the uniformity of the street stretches too far for me, and the fact that the same district, traversed two streets further north or south, will be a completely different place, just unnerves me. Bangkok is easy: the suburbs are sequences of turns, the centre traversable and composite.
This morning, the local canal flooded, and it drenched our shoes, which we left outside the door on the patio. It’s alright – Venice was the same. ‘Bang’, says Sittichai, means floodplain. Many districts of Bangkok have it in their names: our suburb, for example, Bang Na.
On the Skytrain to the city, in wet shoes, I see my first foreigners, traceable back almost to their local council. The skinny blonde woman dressed in extremely plain beige and black, who looks like she never had satisfactory sex in her life, is as clearly North-American as the blonde girl in bright pink dress with inappropriate cleavage is from the Gold Coast. Then there are men in khaki shorts and backpacks, Anglos trying to look incredibly purposeful when all they’re going to be doing for the day is stroll around town. That annoying, joyless work ethic which ruins their holidays, and is not dissimilar from the impulse to establish an outpost of the empire once you’re here, just to be seen doing something.
On the main tourist road, where I sit to watch the tourists and drink Singha, a French couple is having a furious argument; to be precise, the woman is pouring a barrage of small-sounding reprimands at her noodle-munching boyfriend; the intimacy is all of a sexual relationship. I have never travelled in company, and I see no reason to start now. The day is beautiful. It seems Bangkok attracts two kinds of tourists: single older men, and couples. They easily form larger, homogeneous groups. Harem pants and henna tattoos. I wonder what a couple could argue about on such a fine Sunday. I wonder why people travel to Thailand. There are no single white women except me visible in all of Bangkok. I wonder who drags the couples here: the man or the woman?
Today I am hugely reminded of Lisbon, and I spend the day trying to figure out whether it’s something simple, like being in a foreign place that’s warmer than home. To some extent it certainly is. (I realise I’m an aspirational tourist, always going to more expensive, more developed places, and those tend to have a cooler climate.) But there are other, small things: the malls, the reliance on taxis, the super-modern train. The infrastructure. Both places manifest an absence of mid-scale infrastructure: there is the public and XXL, and the private and XXS. Enormous roads, malls and public transport projects; tiny stalls, taxis, restaurants. In between, nothing. The airport is beautiful but dysfunctional, pure architecture, clearly built with one decision-maker only. This absence of the middle scale, which seems to have generated the 3-D vibrancy (the stalls and the malls), seems to stand for long-term centralised rule, or only a short history of participatory democracy, or a totalitarian history. There is no linear progression through scales, which would be gradual empowerment of the middle class made tangible, visible. In a sense, there is no difference in landscape effect between the top-down droppings of dams and highways in communism, and malls in capitalism.
I am enjoying myself beyond all expectations, here. I’ve found young Bangkokian designers, and hip hairdressers (who gave me an Asian haircut: same as before, but more angular and more hairsprayed). There’s a Kinokuniya and a Muji. In the luxe malls, I’ve finally found those kids who come to study in Australia, and their parents. The wealthy, wealthy ones. I keep thinking that Carl would like it here – the combination of unruliness and fine design. I certainly like the promise of exciting work and exciting play. I wonder if the young Thais are already at the point where they get passionate about and protective of their vernacular culture (stalls, tuktuks, chaos), enjoying it while already irretrievably not part of it anymore. I see that in both Croatia and Portugal, a mythologisation of the country’s own present-receding-into-past, and it seems to me like a clear sign of something dying. But meanwhile, it’s like an entire country undergoing gentrification, and all things gentrifying are magnificently vibrant.
One thing I haven’t mentioned: the money confuses me. Not so much the conversion rate, not in absolute terms, but conversion in relative terms. The differences between prices are staggering. A skewer of something from a stall might be 10 baht; a dish in a restaurant might be 200 baht. A taxi ride is about 100 baht, but a leg wax was 500. My haircut was 500, too; but an ordinary top at Muji was over 2,000 baht. My breakfast yoghurt is 16 baht. A simple bus ticket costs 24 baht. But a ferry ride was 3,5 baht only (up until that moment I didn’t even know that bahts have cents). The spread is huge. Clearly, the range between the rich and the poor here is enormous, but it doesn’t feel polarised, I cannot locate the dividing line.
And the way they smile, even the beggars, to the point where it’s hard to take their pleas for money seriously. At 7pm, a boy was sitting on the stairs to the Skytrain, with a plastic cup. It was hard to tell whether he was begging, or just having a great time.
My taxi driver today at first seemed blind: he seemed to be feeling for things before he found them. But he drove well, and I was happy to assume he had a very acute sixth sense. But then I noticed a pattern in his movements (very quick sequence of rubbing his knee, patting his belly or scratching his crotch, tapping the gear stick, then gently banging on the taximeter twice), and I assumed instead a magic ritual, sn incantation. The only form of transport I am yet to try is motorcycle taxi. Sittichai said it’s not so safe. ‘And besides, it would look inappropriate. Your skirt is too short.’ Two limitations on me due to unwomanliness and decorum. Bless him.