Monday, October 8, 2007

One Night in Bangkok/My City Was Gone

Waking up in the torn and frayed 500 baht/night "Royal Hotel 28" just outside Bangkok's notorious Soi Cowboy sex alley at 10.30 Sunday morning I felt a bit like Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Like Sheen/Capt Willard I was alone, hungover, under a barely wheezing fan in a rat's nest, sweating and well, let me play on some of the Apocalypse dialog, though there was no ominous Doors' The End playing except in my aching head.

Mitchell, voiceover Bangkok ... shit; I'm still only in Bangkok ... Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in Boulder, or maybe Hong Kong, Lincoln, Nebraska or Shenzhen, I'm still here. I'm here a night now... waiting for a story assignment, maybe even a decent blog item ... getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute my editors and creditors squat in the bush, they get stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.

The walls were a real problem. Bad silver and red MC Escher cubes, the kind that if I'd been under the influence of anything stronger than beer would've driven me screaming off the 6-foot balcony to permanently disable - but not kill, unfortunately, myself. Instead I contented myself with phony kung fu moves, dancing around like a wobbling fool, breaking a glass, cutting myself and then wrapping myself in the dirty sheets, no, wait. No sheets. No glasses either. Whattaya what for 500 baht/night? Toilet paper, too?

Snatches of the night before were, uh, making me wish the squid fishing expedition I'd originally planned at an unspoiled fishing town about 25 klicks south of Hua Hin had succeeded, but weather had put the kabosh on that and I'd taken Plan B. Meet a coworker from HK who has been reassigned to Hua Hin, spend the night, hit some sleaze pits and go back to Hua Hin on Sunday afternoon. We'd contented ouselves with his Thai wife in tow at one fetish bar that catered to Japanese tourists who got their jollies gaping up through a clear plastic floor at exposed lower sections of Thai women in school girl dresses. Then to a live lesbian show and ... well, not much else to say. Fade to black.

Bangkok had changed a lot since I was a child, though I had enough time and one family-friendly, semi-culturally redeeming idea that didn't involve Japanese voyeur fetish tourists or lesbian stage encounters to play with. I'd learned that my Bangkok boyhood residential soi was within walking distance of Soi Cowboy and I was determined to see if anything I recalled circa 1963 or so remained.

I'd been braced for the worst. A couple people who'd been here previously and who had tried to find it had said nothing remotely residential remained. One had reported it was now a mega mall called Emporium. Another had been less specific but just as discouraging. I'd also learned that I'd mispronounced the address I'd thought I'd remembered so well and so had some hopes that something, anything might still be there.

The soi itself was there, about as wide as I recalled though the main road outside it seemed to have shrunk in width and grown in height as Bangkok's transit system SkyTrain now ran above it. The site of our old house was also there - Bahn Nung (House No. 1) though no trace of a home remained, only an enormous, gated sterile office complex of sorts called "Lighting Centre."

Looking down the soi I saw no homes but a posh Novitel hotel and plenty of restaurants and bars my parents would've given their passports to have dined in in 1963. Italian, Japanese, British ... "New Managment, New Girls!" said a sign outside one club. I remembered that our school teacher friend, a young, sophisticated, English fluent woman named Vitchitar had lived somewhere close to "New Management, New Girls," just down from other bars inexplicably named after artists: The Dali, the Monet, the Van Gogh-Go, the Goya... My late mother, an artist herself, would've laughed and then puked, though she could never abide Dali.

I misted up a bit still looking for something, anything that might've survived 40plus years when I found myself up a side soi along a route I thought might have led to the one western-style restaurant we favored at the time, a Filipino place called Nippa Hut. Kind of bamboo and log style building that I recalled was decorated with an enormous python skin nailed to a wall upstairs and some old entertainment posters. Good cheeseburgers, too. I stopped in front of a small Japanese restaurant, housed amid some newer apartments and so Japanese it had no English or Thai signs.

It was open, there were English menus and I ordered a ramen and pork lunch, a bottle of Asahi and began to look more carefully around. It was logs and bamboo. The layout was smaller than my Nippa Hut memories, but similar and amid the Japanese motifs were framed vintage posters for ancient US R&B acts such as Etta James at "Shirley's Orbit Room," Jimmy Reed, and Lowell Folsom and old movies, Law of the Tropics, Paris Underground ("Where a kiss can be more deadly than the sword!")and Hell in the Pacific. No snake skins, though.

I asked for toilet directions and was directed up some steep, rickety wooden stairs to a small closet toilet area amid what had been a dining room and was now storage for a staggering amount of old restaurant equipment and furniture. Then I saw it. Nailed a wall blocked by several stacked malfunctioning gurneys was a long, almost rotted-into-the wood, faded black and yellow boa or python skin. Not the 20-foot long, 4-foot wide wonder that my 10-year old memory had enshrined. It was about 5-feet long and a few inches wide. I walked quickly over and leaned almost painfully across the stacked gurneys to try and touch it without toppling them and alerting the bored wait-staff below. My fingertips brushed a few scales; virtually dust they crumbled and fell.

"Hello, again," I said to it. A foreign idiot talking to a decaying snake skin. "It's been a long time. Rest easy."


Peter said...

Justin - you're a sentimental old fool, but gotta love your stories :-)

Fred said...

Great story!


Justin said...

Many thanks, guys. Glad to get it out and that you enjoyed it.

sam said...


John said...

It would be the Williams Wayside in the Berthod for me. I bet they have the dusty old waitresses hanging on the wall there....