Lawrence Osborne, Bangkok Days: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure (North Point Press, 2009)
Lawrence Osborne is not your mother’s travel writer. Ironically, he may be your grandmother’s. This is not to suggest that his new book, Bangkok Days: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure, is stodgy or uptight. Quite the opposite. Osborne is not above dabbling in the local methamphetamine of choice yaa maa, visiting sex clubs, dutifully accepting a line of expensive coke, and playing gigolo—for one unsuccessful night—for an aging Japanese woman.
There is an old-fashioned earnestness to Osborne that hearkens back to the Lost Generation. Save for a few pesky decades, he could fit right in with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Like his disillusioned forebearers, he is an expat looking for an escape. Paris no longer offers the chance to disappear that it once did. To truly get lost, Bangkok is the only viable option. A paralyzing mixture of ancient and ultra-modern, East and West, dignified and gaudy, traditional and cosmopolitan, Bangkok presents such a dizzying assault to every sense that it seems almost impossible not to lose oneself there.
In place of the expats of the 1920s are the so-called farangs (“foreign giants”)—middle-aged Englishmen, Australians, Scots, Spaniards, “lammers” looking for anonymity and an opportunity for self-invention. He writes, “Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it, for even the Thai script, that variation of written Sanskrit, is impossible to master. It’s this ignorance which comforts the farang. However conversant in Thai culture, he will never get close to the bottom of it.”
Osborne resists the dual impulses of the contemporary travel writer: to sentimentalize and to sensationalize. He has not come to Thailand on a spiritual quest—to eat, pray, love, as it were. Nor has he gone the Travel Channel route and sought the most beautiful beach, or the weirdest food, or the sexiest women. Granted, the sex and the weird foods are there. Osborne eats a giant waterbug, procured from a shady “insect pimp” who wraps it delicately in a pink paper napkin. He introduces a young prostitute named Porntip who is passed around the expat community like a highly-recommended novel at a book club. He meets Thai sex workers who dress as nuns and work only in pairs. Yet for a book subtitled A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure, Osborne deals with these subjects with surprising subtlety and discretion. We are spared the fluids, the motions, the sounds, the smells. Michel Houellebecq or Henry Miller, he is not.
Though Bangkok Days bursts with local color and historical context, the Thai and their perceived “exoticism” are not the central focus. It is the Western farang that is placed under the microscope for further inspection. Like these men, the book is equal parts heartbreak and humor. The travelers have accepted their fates as broken men, yet they do so with a kind of stubborn, good-natured resolve. These men are, above all else, lonely. But Osborne suggests that this loneliness is voluntary, brought on by the impulse to disappear completely. “No one ever truly appreciates how much Robinson Crusoe enjoyed his solitude,” he writes with a nod to Defoe’s lonely island dweller. He is a man alone, the city of millions his island.
Bangkok is a metropolis awash in stimuli—visual, aural, sexual—but Osborne sidesteps the rhapsodic, adjective-drunk prose of most travel writing. No “sun-drenched beaches,” “quaint cobblestone streets,” “picturesque vistas,” and “charming villages” for him. Yet when he allows himself to write sentimentally, his words take on a new grace and poignancy. His brief forays into the poetic seem earned and necessary, not frivolous or self-indulgent.
The Mae Nang shrine is draped with khanom garlands, submerged in incense smoke. Into the canal that runs beside it pilgrims liberate the eels and fish which they buy as karma-improving offerings from vendors nearby. It is lovely to watch them kneel by the water’s edge and pop open the plastic bags containing the animals, then watch them swim away—the latter startled, probably, and confused by their sudden good fortune.
We forgive him the infrequent tear in the eye because he has not spent the rest of the book weeping—over the beauty of a centuries-old temple, over the intrusion of American capitalism, over the irreparable damage that has come to a great city that has quietly accepted its role as the Las Vegas of the East.