Like a well-made B52 (which is what I have imbibed too many of before writing this post) the heart of Bangkok is a stratified city, both spatially and spiritually.
Up in the high gleaming glass towers, umbilicalled together by the sky train, the air is rare, air-conditioned and perfumed with the smell of conspicuous wealth. Up above the traffic and the garlands of dusty black power lines, above the stink of the klongs (canals) and the packs of abandoned mangy dogs, there is the quiet whisper of elevator doors that are forever sweeping open upon myopic views of a grand city. Proof of emerging modernity during the day, and a field of jewels by night.
Up here, the spiritual compromises that might be made are bloodless, semenless, and sweatless. A factory may shut, a piece of real estate changes hands. Someone has gambled on stocks or foreign currencies and their ruin stares up at them on the neat bottom line of a bank statement that lies on a lovely mahogany desk.
On the street, the heat melts the rubber residue of a million cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks into the asphalt. Beneath the snaking shade of the gargantuan sky train, Sukhumvit road runs for miles in a river of never-ending, always crawling traffic. The murk of its exhaust staining every surface dusty gray.
Everyone is going somewhere and selling something, from the street vendor offering western porn beneath his plywood counter, to the East Indian tailors who will rush a suit for you in 24 hours. Don’t even think about what that means to the poor machinist working in the hovel above the store – windows open to vent the heat. Your rush is his exhaustion, but also his tenuous livelihood. The food stalls flavour the diesel fumes with the smell of grilling meat. By eleven in the evening, the exhortations to buy get desperate. No one can afford to throw away a kilo of pork.
At night, the fortunetellers spread their rugs and foretell the future of melancholy ladyboys who demand to hear that someone handsome and caring and rich will come to take them away from all of this. The seers are only a step away from what is making the ladyboys miserable. They know their clients, and they deliver the goods. Hope is the fuel that moves everyone onwards.
The monks move along the sois with their begging bowls. Everyone gives. No one can afford to miss an opportunity to buy back a little karma. Their place in this world, here at street level, depends on it.
Beneath the street lies the subway. Damp tunnels – black and suffocating – run under a city only inches above sea level. Each day, millions of denizens are transported invisibly from dwelling to labour and back again through these airless arteries. Like it, the underwater world of the spiritually compromised is forever lit with artificial fleshlight. Girls and boys arrive skinny from the impoverished north, to be sucked down into this world. Dressed and schooled on how to move their hips in cartoon parodies of the sex act.
After dark, the elephant mahouts and the monks go down to Patpong, the spiritual equivalent of the subway. No one gives more generously than sex workers. Feeling themselves to be the most spiritually compromised of all Bangkok’s citizens, they feed the elephants and the begging bowls with an enthusiasm that confounds belief. Then, feeling that they’ve restored some balance, go off to ply their trade in dark, cacophonous clubs with little plastic numbers pinned to their underwear.
Here, on the sex sois, there are little altars everywhere, overflowing with gifts to the Buddha. Bottles of strawberry pop, packs of cigarettes, and jasmine chains. The incense hangs heavy in the still, humid air and the night trade begins.
Here the boys are sexy women, and the women have been pushed beyond any semblance of the libidinal and into the walking equivalent of Second Life skins. Their parts on show, to be inspected, assessed and purchased. There is sex here, but no lust.
The women eject ping-pong balls from their vaginas at high velocity, and the boys perform a semblance of fellatio in temporary showers. No one is getting off, but they are all dreaming of getting out, getting up, to the rare air of the gleaming towers. Of whispering elevator doors that will open for them, onto the vista of the glittering, layered city.