'Bangkok Days' rests on capital's opacity

  • Article by: FRANK BURES , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2009 - 3:34 PM

A meandering, slightly melancholy journey through Bangkok, written by one who understands the complicated city.

Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne

A few years ago, my wife and I were living in Bangkok, Thailand's capital. Near our apartment was an old, narrow canal that wound through the city. One night, we lay awake listening to the rain fall in sheets. By morning, the canal had swollen over and flooded the city. All that day, we trudged through the streets with water up to our knees, with things we couldn't see brushing against our legs and getting caught in our toes.

That is kind of what Bangkok always feels like: an opaque place where you can never quite see beneath the surface. Few outsiders understand it, and very little good has been written on it by non-Thais. Finally, Lawrence Osborne has given the City of Angels the book it deserves.

"Bangkok Days: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure" is Osborne's account of his years spent in the city, which he has visited on and off again for the better part of two decades, and which he lived in for several years. He explores slaughterhouses and shipyards, lands in a hospital near death, and wanders after dark, when Bangkok's red lights come on.

But even more than his description of the city, "Bangkok Days" also tells the tales of the wanderers and vagrant souls that end up there, and of how they make their lives in one of the world's most beguiling and troubling metropolises. "It's urban Tahiti," Osborne writes, "and these are the seedy English sailors who have washed up on her shores."

There's "McGinnis," the witty Brit of dubious employment; "Dennis" the lonely Australian widower; "Fritzy" the doomed German in his hospital room, and others who Osborne befriends and sometimes follows into Bangkok's underworld. As a kind of fellow global drifter, he hears their stories and, in the end, comes to see how they have chosen Bangkok precisely because they will never understand it and will always remain happily apart from it. It's as if they are in a kind of exile both from their countries and themselves.

"Bangkok Days" is a vivid profile of one of the world's most exciting and fun-filled cities. Yet there also is something melancholic that runs through it, just under the surface. It's a familiar feeling for the foreigner walking through its markets, its red-light districts and its shopping malls -- a feeling akin to loneliness, born of isolation, but also of not quite fitting into the world anymore. "Bangkok is where some people go," Osborne writes, "when they feel that they can no longer be loved."

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at the Travel Channel's WorldHum.com. He lives in Minneapolis.

  • BANGKOK DAYS

    By: Lawrence Osborne.

    Publisher: North Point Press, 288 pages, $25.

    Review: Osborne's account of his years in Bangkok explores slaughterhouses and shipyards and introduces us to drifters and travelers who have washed up on its shore.

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