Tuesday, January 22, 2019

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Ayutthaya

Once we were aboard the train heading north from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the recent days slowly receded, subsumed by the langorous rhythm of the railroad. I’d spent the past week among the sex tourists, myself included in that category, at the Malaysia Hotel, where I was staying in Bangkok, and in the bars of the nearby Patphong district. Now, I was travelling with a friend of mine from Vancouver, Dan Gawthrop, a writer in his thirties who was living and working in Bangkok as a copy editor at an English-language newspaper, and his boyfriend Daeng, a young man in his early twenties whom Dan had met a few months ago at DJ Station, one of the discos frequented by young Thai gays and foreigners. The two of them were currently living together in a suburban apartment complex near the paper where Dan worked.

I’d taken an immediate liking to Daeng, having spent a couple of evenings with him and Dan in the Balcony bar in town, but the train trip was my first extended time with the two of them. Although on the surface Daeng seemed to typify the "Land of Smiles," as Thailand advertised itself, Dan had suggested there was a more sombre side to him. In any case, the prospect of being with them for the weekend interested me, in the sense of getting an idea of what relationships between Thais and foreigners might be like, ones that were more complex than the sexual encounters available in the bars, and that interest was added to the anticipation of seeing Ayutthaya.

Although an Australian language student I’d met in the hotel insisted that the ruins of Sukhothai, the ancient thirteenth century capital of the Thai kingdom, were far superior to those at Ayutthaya, the latter had the advantage of being only a couple of hours from Bangkok, whereas Sukhothai was a day’s journey north. Once a powerful city of a million people, the centre of a kingdom that lasted some four centuries (1350-1750, roughly) until it was overrun by the Burmese, Ayutthaya, according to those I talked to, was now an ordinary, dusty, up-river town whose mangy broad boulevards were filled with motorbikes and motorized cabs (known as tuk-tuks).

But that didn’t matter. Just as I love cities, I’m equally drawn to the ruins and palimpsests of former metropolises. I even seek out "invisible cities," as Italo Calvino calls them–Candide’s El Dorado, the Emerald City of Oz, cursed Sodom. I tend to see cities, whether real, imaginary, or in ruins, as large-scale games, in the sense that the Argentine writer Borges uses that idea–as enormously complex relationships of people, buildings and space, each of which is markedly unique, thus giving a point to my wandering from one city to another, since there’s always something new to experience. In the first days in a new city, I’m enveloped by a rush of information, by the physicality of different faces and bodies, traffic patterns, smells, crowded streets, exotic architectures. My basic strategy is to refrain, as much as possible, from imposing premature conclusions; instead, I like to let the "character" of the city slowly emerge from the force of its immediate sensorium, and in that emergence I often get new ideas about myself or the world. But all cities, whether the "invisible" ones you construct out of readings and anecdotes you’ve heard, or the actual ones you experience, are imaginary. There is no singular, true description of any city but rather, as a Thai novelist of the 1920s I’d been reading that week said, "If you write about Bangkok, you’ll be writing about your relationship to Bangkok."

At Ayutthaya, the Chao Phraya River that also runs through Bangkok meets the smaller Pa Sak and Lopburi rivers. With a bit of engineering and canal building, the Thais had strategically utilized the confluence of the rivers to turn their capital into a temple-fortress island. From the train station, we took a tuk-tuk to a guest house on the river that sounded good in the guide book we were using. The slight anxiety of arrival gave way to the pleasure of sitting on the riverfront veranda of the guest house, being served drinks by the proprietor, a small late-middle-aged woman named Noi. In the subtle ways she attended to the three of us–immediately showing us to rooms that were clean and safe, settling us on the veranda with its view of the placid river, and answering our questions in a comic tangle of different languages as I riffed through my Thai pocket phrasebook–she made me feel that I’d known her for years. I suppose it’s just one of the reassuring tricks of the innkeeping trade, but it worked.

After a drink, and a few minutes to wash off the traveller’s dust, we found ourselves seamlessly orchestrated into a narrow, motorized, canvas-covered boat–the three of us and two other tourist couples–piloted from the stern by a plump, strong, competent woman in a long flower-patterned skirt. Through the afternoon, we circumnavigated the city, making three or four stops at important temple sites (known in Thai as wats), where we were allowed to disembark and wander about. At Wat Panan Choeng, there’s a fourteenth century monastery and still functioning temple that features a twenty-metre-high gilded Buddha who fills one chapel all the way to the concave vaulted ceiling. Daeng led us through the crowds of local worshippers who were burning incense, prostrating themselves, offering lotus flowers and lighting candles. Daeng paused before the Buddha to kneel and to light a swatch of incense sticks which he placed in one of the available incense holders.

The pace was leisurely–a stop to wander among spiralling conical tombs that once contained royal remains, another stretch of boating on the river, then a site of nested courtyards in a former monastery, with rows of Buddha statues sheltered under the arcades, or a dark narrow tower, the floor littered with bat droppings, then the river again. At one place, there was a site with a sculpture of an elephant, a favourite animal in both Buddhist and Hindu cultures. I posed in front of it, clutching one of my earlobes, while Dan took a photo. I had the curious idea that Thais might favourably see us as resembling elephants, especially me, with my Western trunk-like snout (compared to their sexy, snub noses), large flappy ears, bald head, and lumbering body.

After the last stop, with the sun going down, there was a long ride back to the guest house. The textile-like surface of the river moved in the slight breeze, like the diaphanous yellow cloths that are draped on the Buddha statues, so that they appear to be breathing when the air ripples the fabric. I’d had the notion, in going to Thailand, that as one became older, it was important to journey "further up the river," further from the scenes of one’s youth. The idea was fuzzy, but the centre of it was the thought that I should detach myself from everything that was familiar to me in order to prepare for death. Now, as the boat approached the dockside guest house in the dark, I had the feeling of being at least some way up that stream of my diminishing life.

Once again, there was a seamless transition. I’d read that there was some sort of fairgrounds festival that night, with an historical sound and light show. We’d arrived back just in time to head off to Wat Phro Si Samphet, the largest of the old temple sites in Ayutthaya, where the pageant was being held. Suddenly, we shifted from the sedate twilight river journey to the frantic, crowded night. The grounds were jammed with the roar of motorbikes, cars and busses, churning up the dusty parking lots, and crowds of show-goers moving toward the outdoor performance area, strolling past lighted food and souvenir stands. There was even the occasional elephant, available for tourists to ride. The show was an historical, patriotic spectacle played out among the temple towers: laser beam lights, music, fireworks, several hundred people in various period costumes, charging elephants for re-enactments of hand-to-hand princely combat, and a loudspeaker from which flowed a sonorous deep-as-doom voice providing the narrative, which contained frequent reminders about the depredations of the Burmese, the Thais’ traditional enemy.

We got back to the guest house late, after our long day filled with images of a lost city. The lights were out, but Noi was up, and agreed to cook us a late supper of fried rice and chicken. Daeng refused to join us. Dan had mentioned to me that he was often inexplicably moody and, I’d noticed, when the two of them came to the Malaysia Hotel that morning to pick me up, that while Dan came into the hotel restaurant to have coffee with me, Daeng had stubbornly remained in the lobby. Dan treated his boyfriend’s eccentricities with innocent puzzlement, as one of those gaps between cultures. Daeng now demanded that Dan give him some money so that he could go off on his own to a restaurant or bar, and seemed peeved at the amount Dan handed him. He was soon back–everything was predictably closed. I tried to persuade him once more to join us on the veranda, but Daeng was in a sulk, some dark psychic storm-cloud enveloping his mind. Eventually, he stomped off to bed, alone.

I don’t mean to disingenuously appear as more psychologically obtuse than I am, but even if the obvious reading of the situation was that Daeng was jealous of my presence as an old friend diverting Dan’s attention from him, neither the manner nor the motivation of Daeng’s dramatic display made much sense. First, since one of the underlying purposes of the trip was to show me around, it was in Daeng’s self-interest, simply in terms of his relation with Dan, to play the part of a good host. Second, making a scene ran against the cultural grain, since Thai culture put considerable emphasis on a show of public harmony–hence, all those charming smiles–and to lose control of one’s emotions in public was to incur a loss of "face," another significant value of the culture. Of course, jealousy, even of the non-sexual kind, is irrational, and Daeng was, after all, a young man in his twenties.

Dan was puzzled, too. He thought the cause of his boyfriend’s temper tantrum was that Daeng felt that Dan was paying insufficient attention to him–but the amount of attention Daeng sought, Dan said, was really impossible to provide, more than he could afford without encroaching on his own sense of himself. Dan and I stayed up late, sitting on the veranda above the now invisible river, talking in the dark about writing, politics (mainly the Thai fiscal crash of three years ago in 1997), and our various initiations in life.

In the morning, I drank coffee and wrote in my notebook, a waking-up ritual I’ve followed for many years. Sometimes, in the process of reentering the syntax of sentences from the disordered dream images of the night, some nagging unformed thought will coalesce into an idea; at other times, I simply record the events and impressions of the previous day, as a rough sketch that might prove useful for some later piece of writing. Here, in Ayutthaya, with the white glare of early morning sunshine outside my hotel room window, I saw my journal-keeping as somehow corresponding to the observances to the Buddha figures I’d watched in the temples the day before, a habit of devotion.

Dan and I decided to see a couple more temples before catching the afternoon train back to Bangkok. Daeng was still in a snit, and refused to accompany us. He was sitting in a chair in the lobby, darkly brooding, as we went onto the road and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us around. We shrugged, slightly puzzled, and got into the canvas-covered open vehicle. But a few hundred metres along the road, I looked back and noticed a motorcycle weaving through traffic, catching up to our taxi, with Daeng riding behind the driver. The two vehicles stopped by the side of the road, and Daeng joined us.

Once we were together and underway again, Daeng said defeatedly, "No want be alone." It was just a mysterious hint, suggesting the complicated dimensions of the relationship between the two of them. Although there was a temptation to come up with what would inevitably be a simplistic psychological interpretation to fill the gap of the mystery, I’m one of those people who is resistant to convenient explanations. Again, it’s not that I’m utterly dumb, but the refusal to jump to conclusions, to assume that what I might feel is what the other person feels, has the advantage of allowing me to more accurately see the available phenomena. We don’t, finally, know the other person, or even the passing scene as the motorized cab weaves through the traffic toward its arbitrary destination. What’s going on is, in that sense, not "me," it’s "them" or "it." As I say, I had an interest in what relationships between foreigners and Thais might be like, and that curiosity was unexpectedly, if oddly, satisfied in this tiny incomplete domestic drama, but that doesn’t mean that the fulfillment of my interest means that I understand what’s going on. You have to go a long ways up the river to understand that it’s just a river.

Daeng seemed to gradually recover from whatever had been afflicting him. When we got to the wat we were looking for, Daeng walked us around, actually a bit talkative now as we passed a series of photographs of orange-robed monks, explaining the story of the restoration of the temple. Later, there was lunch at a riverside restaurant, a quick stop at the guest house to pick up luggage and say our farewells to Noi, and the train ride back to Bangkok. Daeng was once more sunny and friendly as I plied him with questions about the Thai pronunciation of various words, his stormy night and morning seemingly dispelled.

Back in the city, Dan and Daeng went off. By evening, I was in one of the sex bars in Patphong, where a large number of handsome young men in white underwear posed on a small lighted stage, advertising their availability.

B

Bangkok

(The entry for "Bangkok" will appear under the title "Sex Tourist Sutra" in the fall 2001 issue of Geist, and in a German translation in the fall 2001 issue of Lettre International.)

September 3rd, 2001 2246 w.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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