‘Redolent with tamarind and chilli, fried fish and coconut milk’ – Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne

Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, London – one of the best bookshops in the world – specialises in travel literature; if you’re planning a trip abroad, pay it a visit for novels and non-fiction set in the country of your choice. I do not like reading books set in the places I visit while I am visiting – if that makes sense. In Thailand, I prefer to read an Arnaldur Indriðason novel; in Iceland, I would go for something by Wilson Harris or a Naguib Mahfouz. I like the contrast. But I’ve seen those who like to immerse themselves in a book in the place of the book’s setting – so Alex Garland’s The Beach on Koh Samui, a Carl Hiaasen on the sands of Miami, or a Paul Theroux while riding the rails of India.

Travel writer – probably on most people’s lists of favourite jobs. However, it is not easy to get right. Few are any good at it. The abovementioned Paul Theroux is one, his The Great Railway Bazaar ranks among my favourite books alongside Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey, William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu, and VS Naipaul’s The Writer and the World, not to mention the works of Bill Bryson, Paco Iyer, Jonathan Raban, Ryszard Kapuściński, and the brilliant Bruce Chatwin. After reading, Bangkok Days, I can now add the name of Lawrence Osborne to those followers of Homer and Marco Polo.

Cities are like Heraclitus’ river – each time we step out from our home, the city changes, cities are never the same – this is more true of cities like Tokyo and Bangkok where history is not important, where buildings disappear, rivers are re-routed, where time is about now and not about then. Bangkok to me will not be Bangkok to you. Osborne’s Bangkok is not my Bangkok but it is a recognisable Bangkok redolent with tamarind and chilli, fried fish and coconut milk. The sights of baby elephants, reflectors tied to their tails, walking the sois, their mahouts selling fruits and vegetables for you to buy and the elephant to eat. Bangkok is noisy and noisesome, hot and sweaty, the Thais friendly and rather conservative in a city which is far from. People say Tokyo is like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner but Bangkok is more so – walk down Sukhumvit Road under the Skytrain at 2am amidst the food stalls, massage parlours, and the bars set up out of the back of vans, grab a drink alongside the Thai and Russian prostitutes, the Iranian gangsters, the ladyboys and tell me you don’t feel a little like Rick Deckard – especially if it’s raining. Incidentally, Bangkok is also Krung Thep – City of Angels.

Mention Bangkok to most people and they won’t think of Wat Phra Kaew (The Emerald Buddha) or the outdoor prawn restaurants in Chinatown, they will think sex tourism and ping-pong shows, Kathoeys and girly bars, they will think sad men looking for sex. Osborne does not flinch from showing us this side of Bangkok, taking us on a night out in the infamous Eden Club. He does not moralise, he explains. The men he meets on his night walks around the city are there for many reasons, sex being only one of them. He writes of the history of sex in the city, the Vietnam War, the Buddhist attitude to the body, and the LBFMs (I’ll let you work out that particular acronym) he and his friends encounter in the bars and hotels.

Osborne’s Bangkok is one of unexpected beauty and unrelenting poverty, of hospitals with bars selling alcohol, of Buddhist monks and drug addicts, of bar girls called Bum and Cartoon. Osborne’s writing has a buzz and an energy about it, rather like the city itself. Using this as a guide rather than a Lonely Planet might get you into parts of the city you would not normally see but it would be worth it. Bangkok has its share of anonymous yet gaudy shopping malls, it also has sinister side streets and exotic bars – I know which I would rather explore. Osborne is that rarest of guides, allowing us to see all matter of sexual, social, political, and religious practices and sights. Go visit and take him along.

Any Cop?: A ruminative Houellebecq.

Steve Finbow

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