Bonkers in Bangkok

Youthful hopes and capitalism gone wild in Thailand's capital.

click to enlarge STREET EATS: We were advised not to eat "off the streets," but we did anyway, and it was always wonderful. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
STREET EATS: We were advised not to eat "off the streets," but we did anyway, and it was always wonderful.

Even a poet occasionally has what can be called a normal family life; thus it was that we found ourselves on the long flight to Bangkok, Thailand, to spend three weeks getting to know our new grandson, Tai Aoki Meinke, who you will be amazed to hear turned out to be a handsome and brilliant 1-month-old prodigy.

Tai's name, which means "big-hearted" in Japanese, is melodious to a poet's ears, being an example of trochaic trimeter: TAI-a/ O-ki/ MEIN-ke, a rare three-beat meter in English. (Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark" is a famous example: "LIKE a HIGH-born MAIDen/ IN a PALace/ TOWer")

In Bangkok, perhaps influenced by Tai, we felt we were seeing (feeling, smelling) the future. Bangkok is a portrait of capitalism gone bonkers, with all its virtues and vices nakedly displayed. It's a chaotic city of 9 million, surging with energy and youthful optimism. ATMs are everywhere, and everything's for sale. Gorgeous high-rise buildings rise randomly among shacks and sidewalks jammed with families cooking and selling fish balls, satay, fresh tangerine juice, hot watches, beautiful scarves — whatever you want. The streets throb with cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, motorbikes and tuk-tuks (tiny open-aired cabs) inching and honking along, loaded with cabbages, radios, tires — and children. It's appropriate that Bangkok's official name is "The City of Life."

A kind of unregulated democracy is unfolding on the streets. In our neighborhood, Bangrak, thousands of little entrepreneurs cluster around the imposing grandeur of the Shangri-la hotel like sucker fish on a shark (though visually it reminds me of old drawings of feudal European huts huddled outside the walls of the king's castle). In American cities, when you walk through poor areas you sense the inhabitants' anger or despair. Here, there's no evident begging or homelessness or drunkenness; everyone's working, and the vendors call out to you in their singsong language, Sawa-dee-ka — Hello, try this, taste this, have a sip, stop and talk for a minute. Well, I think that's what they're saying.

Bangkokians also seem to excel in activities that require both delicacy and chutzpah, such as surgery and pickpocketing. Patients come here for inexpensive and tricky transgender operations, and my favorite sign is one outside the Emerald Buddha and elsewhere: Beware of wily strangers! Always good advice. One theory I've heard is that the necessary intimacy of life here has resulted in a practical culture where the people are calm, polite and friendly. They seldom raise their voices. Thais are certainly more peaceful than their fiercer neighbors in Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam. Their coup two years ago was bloodless, overthrowing a corrupt prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra; also typical, they recently brought him back from exile, helicoptering him to the roof of the palatial Peninsula Hotel across the river from us, for "advice and consultation," according to the English-language Bangkok Post. "Let bygones be bygones," Shinawatra said.

Along this line, the Post, joining most foreign papers, expressed puzzlement about the Eliot Spitzer scandal. The Thais recognize Spitzer's sleazy hypocrisy; they just don't give it the magnitude of President Bush's "lies and distortions" that got us "involved in a war that has led to the death of over a million Iraqis, the displacement of 3 million more, the death of 4,000 Americans and the wounding of tens of thousands more." So saith the Bangkok Post.

Although the forces that split many nations are present here — rich vs. poor, country vs. city — the Thais universally love their king, Bhumibol Adulyade. Each morning we'd walk over to the Shangri-la to buy the International Herald Tribune, and once, when we bought some stamps, Jeanne asked if the face on the stamp was the king's. "Oh yes," our sweet-faced salesgirl gushed, "We love our king!" One problem looming with the U.S.-born monarch — the world's longest-serving head of state (since 1946) — is his age, 80. The hope here is that a growing middle-class intelligentsia, mostly in Bangkok, will be able to hold Thailand firmly on its peaceful course.

To live in Bangkok is to live in many cities at once, vast and uncentralized, joined by the Chao Phraya River that curves through it, and the speedy and comfortable sky-train that travels above it. We visited temples, markets, puppet shows and museums using one or the other, avoiding the congested streets. A ride on the public riverboat costs 15 bhats, about 50 cents. (The dollar dropped from 40 bhats to 30 while we were there!)

Thai food is terrific, and you can get any food in the world here, though the primary influences are English (Duke of Wellington Pub, for example), French (La Boulange) and American (Smiley Piggy Noodle Shop). When we got our shots to travel, we were advised not to eat "off the streets," but we did anyway, counseled by our son, and it was always wonderful (and so cheap to be almost free).

We of course don't know what will happen to this wildly burgeoning city. But during our stay, a high point of each morning was listening to the students singing at the Assumption School next door, their young voices rising above the din of the polluted streets like silver promises of possibility.

Peter and Jeanne Meinke have just returned from three weeks in Bangkok. His latest books are Unheard Music (stories) and The Contracted World: New & Collected Poems.

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