Photograph by Sam Sherratt
Sometime during the Eocene Era, India collided into Asia, hurling the Himalayas high into the sky, lifting up the Tibetan plateau, and giving birth to an unruly spirit called monsoon.
Fifty million years later, I arrived exhausted in Bangkok, the City of Angels. I was met at the airport by a muscular white man with the face of Tin Tin, the cartoon character, and ferried by minibus to the Grand President Hotel, where I would stay while I looked for an apartment.
I’d taken an evening flight from Amsterdam. There were a dozen or twenty empty rows at the back of the plane, which passengers colonised so we could stretch out. When I woke, light was seeping in around the window blinds. I lifted one to peep outside, and was dazzled; we’d flown into the oncoming dawn, and below I could see a desert of dry brown hills, stretching endlessly away – Northern Pakistan or Afghanistan, I wondered. The arid heart, at any rate, of a continent on which I had never set foot.
It was a long flight. I’d taken off in 2007 but landed in 2550, in the heart of the glittering metropolis of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, City of Royal Palaces, Seat of the King, Home of Gods Incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest in the Chao Phraya river delta in Central Siam. Bangkok: heat, humidity, jet-lag. I staggered through what was left of the day. After dark, the rain came, dazzling and electric. I kept the curtains open. Monsoon took me to its bosom and rocked me all sleepless night in a dream of thunder and lightning.
I appeared to have stepped out of reality onto a film set. Not just any film set: specifically the Warner Brothers backlot at Burbank, where Ridley Scott created the street sets for Blade Runner, filming always at night and always in rain. Bangkok was bright in the daytime, dazzling at night; which came early, truncating the days. I felt an acceleration, the days spinning by too fast.
Darkness, rain; five hundred and eighty-one mighty illuminated phalli reaching into the sky. A city of levels – the upper world with its skytrains, walkways and bridges, rooftop swimming pools and panoramic restaurants, white-uniformed guards saluting you through corporate doors into dizzying atriums. Glass elevators and huge slow-moving escalators lift you; you stand and let the world scroll past. At street level the dream dissolves in the teeming black economy, the hawking and trading and haggling. One day these worlds will separate, someone said – they’re getting further and further apart. Schizophrenic, split-level Bangkok. Intense, layered Bangkok.
It was like stepping into a gleaming, messy, cyberpunk future. In the eighth tallest city in the world I spiralled down a helter-skelter of slippery days, and landed in the Age of Artificiality. The streets were full of fakes and rip-offs: fake brands, fake watches, fake pharmaceuticals; replica guns and plastic dildos. In the bars, Philippino cover bands playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ note for note, better than the ersatz original. Carousels of girls, fake smiles selling fake fun, and some of them were fake girls. Try keeping it real, in Bangkok. Are you the Blade Runner, falling for a fake? And can you tell the fakes from the fake fakes?
I don’t like getting soaked to the skin any more than anyone else, though I prefer it in Bangkok to a freezing downpour in Amsterdam. Popping down to the bank on a mo-sai, I get caught. One minute is enough. I walk into the bank like I’ve just been pulled from the river, dripping all over the carpet. Someone hands me a towel as I stand in line.
You can’t fight the monsoon, so you just have to be flexible. When it starts, you stay where you are. If you’re at home, light a spliff, take a nap. If you’re on the street, stand under awnings and wait, or duck into a bar. All the taxis get snapped up as soon as it starts. You’re not going anywhere.
It’s something, though. Intense, at least: hot and wet. It knows what it is, unlike the rain in England, the dithering grey drizzle so passive-aggressive, creeping in and staying for days. Monsoon, by contrast, is a larger than life character. It blasts in, stirs things up, picks an argument, stays for a passionate hour and then goes. Afterwards the streets and the air are cleaner.
But that’s not why I like the rain.
The school was unlike anything I was used to; bureaucratic in character, its administrators bristling with ‘mission statements’, ‘learner profiles’ and ‘collaborative strategies’. The faculty was a ‘professional learning community’, the philosophy ‘inquiry-based’, ‘student-centred’, ‘constructivist’. None of it, I eventually worked out, was actually sincere – as a teacher the last thing they wanted you to do was take them literally – but hey, you’ve got to have shiny new language to go with the shiny new computers, or people will see through you straight away.
I called it a ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’, making a few colleagues smile. It sounded funny even to the ones who didn’t know their Kafka. In retrospect, Baudrillard would be a better referent. Kafka’s a little too noir – this nightmare was too nicely lit, designed for light and air, and oh so transparent, with walls and walls of glass. Jean Baudrillard is the French sociologist who became famous as a kind of prophet of simulation, fetishising and popularising the word simulacrum as any object which simulates or copies another object. He categorised simulacra in four orders: the first three are the order of sacraments, the order of malefice, the order of sorcery. The order of sacraments comprises works of art, where the simulacrum defers to and honours the original. In the next two orders, the original gets progressively destroyed or replaced by the simulation. This is what he called ‘the murderous capacity of images’. Once you get to the fourth order, simulation is no longer tied to an original at all; it no longer belongs to the order of appearances. He calls this ‘hyper-reality’ — a reality entirely composed of simulations.
The international school struck me as the epitome of the hyperreal, or right on the cusp, at least – a few patches of reality were still being mopped up here and there: the soccer pitch, puddled throughout the rainy season; the old workshops tucked away behind the music department, where I went to smoke, the junk-stacked alley behind the old gym, where a cat nursed a secret litter of kittens under a stack of surplus classroom furniture. All of this had to go, to be replaced by astroturf and the gleam of expensive minimalism.
As for the teachers, a maximum two-year renewable contract made it easy to weed out those who were a little too real for the ‘vision of excellence’ projected by the school. Longterm survival was rare, with barely a handful on the faculty who had been there for more than ten years. The school was in the process of digitising its whole curriculum, and standardising its teaching methods (though ‘teaching’ was pretty much a dirty word, deemed too redolent of a domineering patriarchy whose time was up).
The students carried tablet computers with them wherever they went. The new secondary block was wired for everything, with excellent wifi in every room, ambient amplification systems for teachers with weak voices or deaf students, computer-synced smart-boards, movement-activated cameras on the corridors. The students, children of elite Thais, corporate Japanese and Koreans and diplomatic neo-Europeans, were quiet and curiously abstracted, well-behaved but vacant, uncreative rule-followers for the most part, or at least that was my first impression. Only the Sikhs and Jains and the occasional bemused, out-of-place American seemed interested in even looking around, never mind questioning anything.
The school was a medium without content, its arc-lit pyramid logo shining out over the stinking canal and the ghetto beyond: Brave New International School, IB World School, UN-related, educating for the future.
Or as Baudrillard put it, ‘A hell of simulation, which is no longer one of torture, but of subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning…’
In Amsterdam, there’s a taxi firm which doesn’t take you anywhere. You call up and ask for a car at your address. It draws up outside and you get in. Inside is a Turkish guy, who drives you round the block while you discreetly do the deal below the dashboard. Then he drops you off a couple of streets away and you walk home with two or three wraps in your pocketed hand. The deal doesn’t vary; quality and quantity are consistent. If these guys are delayed by traffic, they even call you up and apologise. I never once had to wait more than an hour.
Amsterdam was where I discovered coked-up sex, and a succession of girlfriends who liked it too. Coke with weed, in a nice combo, to balance each other… Marching Powder and Isaac Haze, and you can go on almost forever, fixated in an trance state, an enchantment of sex, with whisky and porn and music and more lines and smokes and fatigue flickering at the edges of vision, you can make sex a weekend trip, from Friday night until Sunday lunchtime. Then sleep till Monday. But remember to save yourself a line for Monday morning.
My best coke-friend was Lara from Colorado, sexy and pleasure-driven and oh so talkative, but there were ways of shutting her up. And she didn’t care if I was seeing someone else or not. And vice versa, babes. No ‘open relationship’ theory behind it, we were just doing what we were doing, and other people had to work around that.
And then Julie came through, after three years of waiting, and for the first time Lara was out of the picture. I’d known Julie in England; married to my best friend at the time, she headed for Amsterdam the moment she’d separated from him – she’d wanted me for a long time, and the feeling was mutual. We’d been waiting, and the first time she came for the weekend she saw very little of the town.
It was horrible the way it ended, after eighteen passionate months. I didn’t want that baby to die, Julie. Once I knew how much you wanted it, I shut my mouth – remember? I didn’t want it – but I didn’t want it to die.
Coke is an evil drug. It gives you bad ideas. You need a good friend to share them with or they can fester in your brain and make you crazy. It narrows you down, reducing your consciousness to an intense beam that burns whatever it touches.
In the end, once my thing with Julie had hit those horrible rocks, high and dry and in deepening debt, I decided I had to leave. I needed a better pay-day to balance the books, and South-East Asia was the place to find it. I’d been on the sniff for two years at least. I needed to straighten myself out.
And so, in the Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, I paid off my debts. It took less than a year. I was experiencing for the first time the life of an expatriate in the East. What they’d told me was right – I was making plenty.
I had a girlfriend, a Thai who worked at the school as a teaching assistant. Her name meant ‘Angel’. She loved the finer things in life, and I had more disposable income than ever before, and everything was fine. We ate in rooftop restaurants, on poolside terraces and river cruises. I moved out of my condo into a corner house with a little strip of garden of two sides of it. She bought plants and made that narrow garden explode into life.
I hadn’t come to Bangkok just looking for money. I was showing that I still had some life in me by starting again, a long way away. It felt good to have done it. A stranger in a strange land, I felt new.
But I blew it. I turned it down. Apsara the beautiful, the unfortunate, had a ragged hole torn in her life — the loss of her children, kidnapped from her by her ex-husband and disappeared, apparently, off the face of the planet. She’d been searching for them for years, without success. Whenever she had a new idea, she threw herself back into the fruitless search. Every night and every morning, she prayed to the framed photographs of her children which stood on her night table. She was brave, always maintaining her zest for life, but I knew that every single day required her courage. We had good times, a lot of innocent fun in our little house, a lot of chilled evenings at the Sheraton or Long Table. She could draw well, and spent time designing dresses she would make, and a beautiful house for her parents, who were still living in a three-sided barn in the village in Isaan. I helped her with that project by lending her money, which her family always paid back as soon as they had the cash from their latest sugar crop. I gave her all the distractions I could, and she gave me her brilliant smile and infectious laughter. I loved that woman’s laugh, but could never forget what a miracle it was that she could smile at all.
I didn’t like the school, but I worked hard for two years and got a new contract. I was one of the saved, looking out from a rooftop terrace at this vast city in the company of other fortunate souls and fashionable faces. But I grew restless. Helplessness in the face of someone else’s pain is a heavy thing. I needed life to get in my face, one way or the other, slap me around and shake me until I forgot what had happened in Amsterdam, and that wasn’t happening. If only I could shake it off and leave it all behind in airport lockers and hotel lobbies.
So vertigo knew where to find me. I’ve always had a self-destructive, self-sabotaging undertow. No one explains me better than Milan Kundera.
“What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
He nails it. The voice of the emptiness below us.
I ended the relationship, which suddenly felt too respectable, too domestic, too married.
Don’t you love an empty house? Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the feeling of an empty house.
I never went with prostitutes in Amsterdam – didn’t need to, with my succession of coke-happy girlfriends more than willing to make themselves available in the yawning space between Friday evenings and Sunday lunchtimes. That doorway scene, girls behind windows clicking their rings on the glass, never attracted me, even with the reflections of red lights gently rocking in the canals.
In Bangkok you won’t be hungry for long. Barbecue smoke curls from every soi, and girls are everywhere. In the red light districts of Pat Pong, Nana and Soi Cowboy, you’ll find swarms of girls and pseudo-girls, poverty creating abundance, an epic surplus of nubile bodies. Chicken and fish stalls, dried squid, plastic bags of noodles, fresh-cut mango and watermelon, trays of baked grasshoppers and dry-roasted grubs. And these crowded stages and carousels, like overflowing crates of fish, or the teeming lobster tanks outside restaurants.
At first it’s a whole lot of fun and you gorge yourself. The problem is, paid sex is not sex; it’s simulation, and your girl is a simulacrum. She is having sex with you not because she wants you, not because you turn her on; she is only getting laid to get paid. You may be having fun, but she’s working.
But find a girl who likes drugs, and it’s different. Now you’re both enjoying it. Now you’re giving her something she wants, too, something she can’t get enough of. And vertigo is rushing in your ears. You’ve missed that sound.
For a while I was going to Soi Africa, near Soi Nana, where tall Nigerians stand at the mouth of the sub-soi doing nothing. You walk up, and the one who notices you first says, ‘What are you looking for, my friend?’
He holds your hand and walks you down the soi. He laces his fingers in yours. This one’s mine. Everybody in the soi is tall and black. There are a few Thai women around, but you are the only white guy in sight. He takes you into a bar sut soi, sits you down and shouts up some drinks.
I must have gone there a dozen or two times. My Nigerian passed me on to his younger brother. This guy wasn’t quite so careful. He would often do the deal in the middle of the street, passing me a cigarette packet as I slipped him the folded notes. And then one day he held out the pack, which I took with my right hand, tucking it into my shirt pocket and simultaneous extracting the folded notes for him, but he didn’t take the money. We were only a few yards into the soi and my back was to the main road to shield what we were doing. I looked at little brother and he had frozen – standing immobilised, like a statue.
‘Here,’ I said. Still he didn’t take it. He was looking past my shoulder to where the traffic stood gridlocked on Soi 3. Threading their way through four lanes of cars and taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes were two built black guys, bodies relaxed but faces fixed on the sub-soi where we stood – fixed on little brother, it seemed. I slotted the money into his shirt pocket, turned and got out of there, walking fast and not looking back.
After that little fright I decided to rein things in. I stopped going out late at night, spent more time reading – there were good English language bookshops in the malls. I found a band that needed a singer. We jammed a lot, smoked a lot of weed, and once in a while played in a bar somewhere, but I’ve always preferred jamming to gigging.
Weekday evenings I’d chill, reading, listening to music, watching movies online. I started writing again. In Amsterdam I’d had an idea, and started writing it – it was going to be a loosely-linked series of essays and stories which started with de Sade and ended with MK-Ultra… but then coke had come crashing in like the panting dog it turns you into and messed up all my papers. I started sifting through the chaos, making cuts, rewriting, looking for a sequence.
You know when the rain is coming from the stiff riffling of banana leaves outside your window. Something knocking on the roof. A hiss that could be tyres on the road. Then ka-boom! and the load-bays open. A surge of static, a treble pinch. Rolling avalanches of bass on a wide, slow pan. Soon the power goes down, the internet cuts out.
You’re not going anywhere. So light some candles, slice another jay off that tiger’s arse, and settle in. Nothing to do but write.
But that’s not why I like the rain.
Bangkok is very deep pond, with levels beneath levels going all the way down into the dark. You ripple around on top of it like an insect trapped by the surface tension, peering down into the murk. Even what you can see is enough to give you vertigo. What creatures swim around down there? The surface of the water is the glass floor of an elevator, a glass-bottomed gondola floating on darkness, a hundred storeys up. The ground is so far down that it’s lost in haze.
Night goes on beyond dawn in Cowboy, Nana and Pat Pong, and the night-fuel is amphetamines. How else could these girls keep smiling and dancing and feigning pleasure in short-time hotels, night after night after night? Not all, of course. With many or most, a few drinks are enough to keep them smiling and joking, and they do a wonderful job, and sleep all day. They make friends and laugh and take care of each other. In competition every night, they still maintain a certain togetherness and support. When a girl gets bar-fined, after she’s dressed and is ready to leave, her friends will hold out their hands, circling index fingers and thumbs, and your girl will stick her index fingers into the holes, once, twice, then turn up her palms for a low five, and she’s all yours.
There’s a limit to their solidarity, though. One rule: if you’re crying, don’t expect other girls to put their arms round you. If you cry, they’ll laugh in your face. You’ve got to keep smiling. Because if you cry you’ll make them cry too.
I’d be no good in that land of smiles. My aspect is often serious, and my face betrays emotion – sometimes, emotions other than the ones I’m consciously feeling. My face has a mind of its own. And I wasn’t hitting the bars for laughs, I was looking for driven pleasure, which is a different thing.
‘Think too much!’ they’d say to me. ‘Why you too serious?’ the girls would ask me. ‘If you be serious, we be serious too.’
And you don’t want to see that, said Wan.
To avoid the dreaded seriousness, the girls use yaa-baa, or ‘crazy drug’, an amphetamine pill you can swallow or chase in tinfoil; better, they smoke meth when they can afford it. Ice warms them to their tasks. The police come along Soi Cowboy every few weeks and go from bar to bar, checking IDs and doing urine tests. The street has an efficient phone-tree early warning system, and when the lights flash off and on the girls scream and jump down from the stage in darkness, running upstairs to the ramshackle floors above. There are hiding places, and ways to get from building to building. A designated group of standbys hops up on to the stage, wearing bikinis as per the rules. When the lights come back on, a moment before a uniformed arm parts the curtains, the bar is sparsely populated, customers suddenly alone in the pews and looking at each other thinking, ‘What just happened?’
Wan texts me: Oh, I think I like this police. He very handsome.
The police here are known as ‘dogs’. Thai Dogs, in their skintight brown monkey-suits, pot-bellied criminals in uniform: their income comes primarily from bribes, and so they are always sniffing around, shaking down tourists and bargirls. If you have money, most things can be negotiated — even murder. If you don’t, you look for someone to protect you. With no safety nets to catch you if you fall, family is all-important. If you’ve run away or been sent from the village, your urban family is all you’ve got.
The bar scene hangs together to protect itself. In Soi Cowboy, the ‘entertainment plaza’ running between Sois 19 and 23, efficient telephone trees warn the whole street about impending problems, whether from police or over-oiled farangs. I was in a bar once where a two or three tattooed roid-heads started messing with the girls, getting up on stage, raucously acting up. I was just looking round for the waitress so I could pay my bill and leave, when the lights went on and I saw that at least two dozen men in black T-shirts had silently appeared all around the periphery of the venue, as if they’d come through the walls. Where had they appeared from? Was there a secret room where these guys sit around playing cards until they are needed? No – this was a convocation of security from every bar on the street, converging on a problem – and the problem was quickly solved.
Everything around the prostitution scene is kept casual and light-hearted until somebody pushes it too far, and then it can get ugly very quickly. There’s plenty of serious an inch behind the smile, if you insist on seeing it. Wan told me about a farang in a ladyboy bar in Pat Pong, who did or said something, I don’t know what, that infuriated the kathoeys. Whatever it was pissed them off so much that they ushered everyone else out, locked the doors and took off their high heels, suddenly more boy than lady. Half an hour later the guy is staggering naked down the soi, weeping aloud and streaming blood from a hundred neat holes and hanging chads all over his body. The stiletto heel is named after a weapon, after all.
I lived at the top of Soi 23, near the university. I would walk through the campus to the canal and get the boat to work in the mornings. In the other direction, I was no more than a couple of hundred yards from Soi Cowboy, the original red light street for foreigners, founded after the Vietnam war by a GI whose nickname was Cowboy. I could work all evening on school stuff and then wander down the road, if I felt like it, for a little something before bedtime. And that’s how I met Wan.
I was sitting in a pew in the Dollhouse, waiting for Am, one of my regulars. On stage, a naked girl with the face of a cute monkey and dyed blonde hair in corn-rows caught my eye for a second, asking the question. I guess my face was enough to show I was already catered for, and she made an elegantly dismissive gesture. At that moment Am joined me with her clothes on, and seeing me looking at this girl asked me if I wanted to bring her too. They were friends, she said. So I said, sure.
I paid two bar-fines and Wan got dressed. We went and sat at the Dutch bar on the corner to have a drink and make a plan. Wan seemed a little different. She had more English than most – though at first I wasn’t sure what language she was speaking as she jabbered away incomprehensibly with her little monkey-mouth. Her face, too, was different, yellowish and freckled around the nose. Kind of ugly-cute. Half Chinese, half Cambodian, she told me.
With her blonde corn-rows and black fingernails, she had some kind of punk-bohemian thing going on, so I asked her if she liked to smoke weed. She said no. In fact weed was not at all a popular drug for the girls. Too awakening, perhaps. Not tunnel-visioned enough. And, more crucially, everybody knows what you’re doing, because of the smell, and that’s not safe. You shouldn’t trust people any more than you have to, not in Bangkok — someone could set the police on you for a kick-back. Later I would learn that the Dogs had many informants, people they’d caught and set loose to catch others.
‘So what do you like?’ I asked.
‘I,’ she said.
At the time I didn’t know what that was. ‘You want to try?’ So we talked money and made a plan. Am was up for it. Wan made a call. A ‘service’ – that is, a waitress – from another bar would provide. We waited where we were, and while we were sitting there, who should come loping along the soi than my music friend Joe, looking a bit crazed. He sat down and we told him the plan. Soon we were joined by a trim girl in her service uniform, and the five of us wandered up Soi 23 to the Taipei hotel, a somewhat famous establishment in these parts.
In the room we rented, the service went to work assembling a bong out of readily available materials. A glass baby-food jar with a screw-top lid, in which she punctured two holes using a penknife. Straws. Tape. Cotton buds. Aluminium foil. Mints. Most important of all, a thermometer from the pharmacy. First break the thermometer and wash out the mercury. Taking a straw with a crimped bend in it she taped it securely to the glass tube, and inserted the other end into one of the holes and into the water. Tape around the join. The other straw goes in the other hole and hangs in air. The water is sweetened with a peppermint. The glass tube of the thermometer is held horizontal. A straw cut diagonally forms a little scoop, to dip into the bag of ice and carefully, carefully transfer a few fragments into the tube.
But first, the lighter. Ice is highly volatile. It has to be heated just enough. Too much and it will skitter and skid, fly away and disappear into the air or the water. The plastic stick of a cotton bud is hollow. Cut the buds off. Rip off the metal guard on a standard lighter, and you will see a tiny nozzle where the gas comes out. The end of the hollow stick fits perfectly around the nozzle. Press the sprung lever without spinning the flintlock, use another lighter to make a spark and a tiny flame will dance on the end of the stick. First you need to make a little protector for the end of the stick, or it will melt and close up. A little foil from a cigarette packet does the trick, tightly rolled around a needle, inserted and pulled back. Probe the aperture with the pin to make it clear. Now you can make the tiny dancer that will melt the ice…
Make a few passes under the glass. Melt the crystal, but don’t let it boil. Take the flame away and let it gel. You want it spread out in a film, sticking to the glass. Now it’s ready. The magician’s assistant presents you the bong. Wan takes the lighter. You convey the teat into your mouth. She holds the tiny flame under the glass, stroking it back and forth before settling on a spot. The tube fills with white vapour, suddenly, from nowhere.
‘OK,’ she says.
You know you do. Gently, gently. You suck long, slow, and deep.
Inside the tube, tiny ribbons of white appear, flail around for a moment and start to stream, rippling over the terrain like a stream over a rocky bed. In the chamber a vortex spins. Tiny spits of smoke in the rhythm of the bubble.
Your lungs full, you relinquish your kiss of the straw and pull back. You open your mouth and out comes something huge, a white plume which goes on and on, growing before it disappears, consuming itself in the air. Like the endless silk scarf a magician pulls from his sleeve, the smoke pours from your mouth. You look at it in amazement – how did all that come out of me? An apparition, a phantasm; seeded cloud.
Kneeling with her tiny flame, nucleated clouds passing over her sleek head, she smiles up at you, as you breathe out a big, hungry ghost through a tiny mouth.
Tom had to take it home to his girlfriend around midnight, and Am had got a bit freaked out by the way I was with Wan, and disappeared around two or three in the morning. Around six Wan and I left the hotel to find some breakfast, locking the bong and other bits and pieces in the room’s safe. When we returned, we found we couldn’t open the damned thing. Oh well, that’s the last time we come to this hotel, we laughed.
We made a date for that night and I went home, thinking to get a couple of hours’ sleep. It doesn’t come easy. I lie around, reliving implausible scenes.
Rain comes in the afternoon, with clattering and shushing. It curtains the house, cutting it off from city sounds. I doze for a while.
You’ll know when it’s stopped. A million frogs will tell you, revving up like a biker rally, tuning up a raucous anthem, a prehistoric call to prayer. Low honks and hoots, chattering and grinding, electronic chirps and whistles. The sheer musicality of it is astounding – if you’re into serial music, that is. Each frog bellows or sings the name of one of the nine planets, in a rhythm calibrated to its orbit. The rhythms change slowly, slowly as the spheres turn in a groundswell of richly layered noise, like a soundscape by Philip Glass.
But that’s not why I like the rain.
In early October, for reasons best known to itself, the monsoon loitered for an unduly long time in the Bay of Benghal, and the unusually late downpours in Thailand, combined with the effects of a tropical depression, led to flash floods in North-East and Central Thailand. Within weeks, El Nino rains had brought flooding to the South.
The crisis built slowly. Soon, the Chao Praya river overflowed low-lying districts where the two river branches meet. Embankments were hastily erected, sluices opened or closed to move water around. It got political. Government agencies were steering the waters away from business and international areas in Bangkok. There were protests and fights at sluices and embankments. Sukhumvit, where I lived, was one of the favoured areas. Rumour had it that water was being pumped out into surrounding areas where they were already chest-deep in filth. There was little confidence that these defences would hold, however, and we were told that if or when they gave way, authorities would sound the alarm with five big flares. Even if we didn’t see them, we would hear five loud bangs.
The school closed. The faculty spent a day lugging furniture and equipment upstairs from the ground floor. I enjoyed it: it felt like honest work. Arrangements were made for us to continue supervising our classes online. Then we were sent away, and told we could leave town if we wanted.
I stayed where I was for the time being. I moved a few things upstairs in my house, made sure everything was unplugged downstairs when I went to bed. There were already stories about death by electrocution going around.
The canals were suddenly full of big river fish. In crocodile farms in the provinces, hundreds of reptiles swam to freedom over the fences as the water levels rose. The news reported a number of escaped green mambos, too, extremely dangerous aquatic snakes. A man claimed to have been savaged by a crocodile in the dark, in a flooded area of Bangkok, though the hospital said his injuries were more consistent with entanglement with a metallic object such as a shopping trolley.
I woke in the middle of the night, limbs heavy, iced with sleep. I heard five loud bangs. Shit, I thought, here it comes; but I couldn’t move, and went back to sleep, expecting to wake in the morning with a stinking brown lake in my house.
In the morning it was still dry, but I thought it was best to leave, so I called Wan, and we got a taxi and headed for Pattaya, the famous party town on the coast, a couple of hours from Bangkok. Wan had friends there. I was badly tired, with that lead-heavy exhaustion familiar to amphetamine users. Once we arrived, and found the hotel, Wan called around for some ice.
‘Where are you?’ texted Joe.
‘With meth-whore in Pattaya,’ I replied.
And relaxed into a nice little week at the seaside, thanks to the waters sluicing around Bangkok.
But that’s not why I like the rain.
You know how if you stay awake all night, working to a deadline or something, by mid-afternoon you feel you’re slightly losing your grip. Things are starting to slip. Out of the corner of your eye you’re vaguely sensing things that are not firmly rooted in waking reality. Awake for two nights in a row, you feel like you’re about to start hallucinating. Any more than that, and you do. Oh, you do.
A deal of meth costs you three thousand baht: a tiny bag of crystals that you will turn into a vast cumulus of smoke. That’s a twenty-four hour party for two. You must take care to save some for a pick-me-up before you have to go out into the world. And if you change your mind about that excursion, so much the better. You still have a hit to keep you patient while you wait for your dealer to come back with another bag.
‘Baby?’ she says, when the ice begins to bubble. And you lower your lips to sip. Kneeling with her tiny flame, she smiles up at you.
All hard drugs are really about sex, and, in my experience, meth is the best. If you’ve never had sex on meth, best keep it like that, if you want to retain any control over your life. One night on the bubble at the Taipei Hotel, and you’re gone. Years of your life lost to a Faustian deal. You’ll be lucky if you ever come back, and even if you do, with your soul in tatters, your substance drained and your body emaciated, you will never be free of nostalgia for those glittering entertainments.
It occurred to me that what I was embarking on was effectively a kind of assisted suicide. And there was no shortage of assistants. Wan would call others in, girls that she knew were safe. They would drop in before work, or come afterwards and stay. The party was at my house. Wan didn’t go in to work much these days. I paid her bar-fines at a discounted rate, ten days of Sodom at a time.
Our dealer was a smooth-skinned, athletic-looking lad called Du. He was probably in his late twenties, but could pass for a lot younger. My soi was always mobbed with school-kids and students in the afternoon, as the university and a local school discharged at the same time. A multitude of food vendors would open their pavement stalls to catch their custom, and stay open into the evening. Sometimes Du would turn up at our place in a pressed white shirt, blue shorts and knee-socks, indistinguishable from the schoolies. He was a pro, always alert and careful, with good intelligence about police activities. Sometimes we’d have to wait two or three hours for him because there were checkpoints between Huai Kwang, where many of the girls and dealers lived, and Sukhumvit, where the foreigner bars were. Sometimes he’d set out and have to turn back. The wait could be annoying, two, three or four hours sometimes. Wan allowed no construction of bongs or lighters until he arrived – an addict’s superstition. Still, the anticipation was pleasurable in itself, in the knowledge that I’d soon be lost to myself, climbing that world-tree of nerve endings that spread its fingers into the conductive, metallic sky and its toes deep into the earth.
It was dry season. The floods had receded. Lost in artificial clouds, I’d forgotten all about the rain. It was months since I’d heard the thunder or the thousand frogs tuning up. And then one day I heard the banana leaves rattling and the first splatters knocking on the roof, the spirit of monsoon announcing his return. In the soi, the vendors were packing up.
Wan called Du. I was bleached and jaded, needing the pick-me-up that would fly me through the weekend.
‘What time do you think he’ll come?’ I asked.
‘Half hour,’ said Wan.
‘I’ve heard that before.’
‘Ting ting! Half hour, baby.’
There was a huge crash of thunder.
‘Maybe twenty minutes,’ she said.
‘Come on, he’s never that quick.’
She was enjoying being bearer of good news.
‘Twenty minutes! Sure!’
‘Why’re you so sure?’
‘Because rain, baby! When have rain, dogs disappear! You don’t know that?’
‘What?’ There were many soi-dogs around these streets, especially a number that hung around just outside the university campus. I’d never known them to cause any problem. Usually they were just sleeping, oblivious on the sidewalks. I couldn’t see the relevance of dogs to Du’s ability to quickly meet our needs.
‘Dogs, baby. They go count they money. They go see they kiks. When have rain, dogs all disappear! You don’t know that, baby?’
“Oh! You mean the dogs!”
The Dogs. Thai Dogs. Police. When the monsoon comes, they go see their girlfriends, they sit in a bar and count their bribes. No checkpoints. Now fine compassionate young men like Du can move freely about the city, fulfilling their humanitarian mission.
And Wan cracks up, the way she does.
When the rain comes, the Dogs all disappear.
And that’s why I like the rain.