Pico Iyer Journeys

The City of Angels at 3:00 A.M.

The night in Bangkok is like nowhere else. The smell of mint, of jasmine and perfume as I step outside the airport a little before midnight. Stalls still lining the streets, fragrant with lemongrass and tangerines. Long-legged ladies stepping over streets turned into rivers by the night’s downpour, as dainty as duchesses about to be presented to the Queen. On the Chao Phraya River, the day’s last rice-barges drifting between temples like illuminated dreams while river-cruisers whoosh past, leaving disco tunes and flashes of light in their wake.

As I negotiate my way into town, through an Escher-like labyrinth of overpasses and freeways, I see three 7-Elevens open on a single block, next to them wonky, lamp-lit family places that might have been here when Somerset Maugham was staying at the Oriental Hotel. The beauty of Bangkok is that the new does not so much obliterate the old as know how to turn it to dazzling advantage. Everywhere the city is buzzing with fun and commerce, and its inimitably stylish gift for turning fun into commerce.

I sometimes think that you could make up a global calendar, with each of its hours given over to one of the world’s great cities. To New York I would assign noon, its great avenues choked with streams of yellow taxis, from out of which pour the dance-tunes of Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa, Lahore. London these days has claimed 10:00 p.m., on the far, long-forgotten side of the Thames, from which, as you sit in the sleek new Wagamama noodle bar, you can see the great bridges and Houses of Parliament lit up across the water. Paris is its pristine self in the hour after dawn, when the bakeries are just beginning to tickle the corners of the streets, and not a footstep can be heard on the cobbled lanes. Kyoto I tell my friends to visit in the hour after nightfall, when white-faced figures in kimono step out of their wooden houses and into smoothly purring black taxis.

Bangkok by contrast is the queen of 3:00 a.m., the spiritual home of those hours that are dead in most places in the world but lit up with a gaiety, a brightness, a carnival intensity in a city of professional charmers thtat has long known that it can best get what it wants by giving visitors everything that they want. The rulers of the land of the free (as “Thailand” literally means) have always been of two minds about the fact that their country’s great source of tourist revenue (the “one night in Bangkok” mystique) is also its great source of shame. So as I flew into the eastern city of angels, on roughly my 50th trip in the last 22 years, I decided to explore it in its native habitat, the temporal microclimate known as 3:00 a.m.

I dropped off my bags at my hotel, and, as soon as I stepped out of it, at 1:45 a.m., I counted more than 50 lit-up taxis jamming the little one-lane length of Convent Road. Bangkok is alive with Night Markets in every corner of the city, and in the one beloved of tourists, near the Patpong alleyways, demure young women were still nonchalantly peddling almost-designer sunglasses, Osama bin Laden t-shirts, DVDs of movies not even showing yet in California and fake Rolexes in three different categories (cheap, moderate and actually quite expensive). “Free Pool All Night Long,” a sign announced, and just around the corner from a tapas-cafe jazz bar, a tattoo removal joint seemed to be doing roaring business. In the nearest all-night pharmacy, long lines of customers were buying soft drinks, snacks and Prozac in both over-the-counter and generic form.

Night is obviously the best time for examining the city’s subconscious, as it were, charting the mechanisms that have helped it to become the world’s supplier of dreams, fantasies and the sensation of not quite being awake (even when Maugham was here eighty years ago, a man was approaching him from the shadows and whispering, “Oh, gentleman, sir, Miss Pretty Girl welcome you Sultan Turkish Bath, gentle polite massage, put you in dreamland”). But the night is also the ideal time for navigating a city notorious for its traffic jams, and sullen daytime monsoonal skies. Bangkok is a city of transformations (those outrageously feminine characters flouncing down Patpong 2 on high heels are only males with a “fee” attached), and at night every other rain-worn little building is reborn as a gaudy playground. Spas as large as Las Vegas casinos take up whole blocks and even the Government Savings Bank, I once read, had remade itself in gold and pink (gold for grace, the bank’s governor-general had declared, and pink for liveliness).

The natural place to observe one side of this often pious Buddhist city at 3:00 a.m. is the underground landmark that has stood at the center of the Bangkok night for decades, the Grace Hotel. Around it, in Soi Nana, as the little street is called, an elephant was standing blearily, awaiting tourist cameras, and another Night Market was peddling laser-pointed mini-keychain lighters and “magic,” two-sided wallets. Inside, at 3:05 on a rainy Wednesday morning, more than 100 people were milling around a lobby worthy of Dubai. Indians just flown in from the Gulf, sheikhs (as they seemed), their black-veiled ladies by their sides (shy glances from huge, kohl-rimmed eyes), two Eastern European women I took at first to be back-packers, what might have been one of the local Nigerian druglords who moonlight by selling false passports and send mules around the world with heroin in their stomachs.

Those who take Bangkok to be a cutting-edge Gomorrah, the most evilly red-lit paradise in Dante’s hell, could easily do their field work at the Grace. And yet the confounding thing about Bangkok, what sets it apart from anywhere else, is that it bends every rule with a sweetness, a charm and a natural sense of flair that disarms one’s every preconception. Nine of the ten bowling-alleys in the Grace’s lobby were being put to cheerful use at 3:30 a.m., and all four bowling alleys were clattering with laughter and falling pins. Furious games of ping-pong were taking place next to signs that said, “No Sit or Sleep on a Table Tennis” and in the Arabian Nights club down the hallway, Arab men in desert robes were twirling their arms around on the dance floor like intoxicated dervishes.

On the counter of Disco Travel, across from the security desk, three visitors were seated cross-legged, shoes placed neatly on the floor below them. Across from them, a shop selling expensive Cambodian antiques was still open for business. Down some stairs two stalls were flogging giant teddy bears under a clock that showed the time in Bahrain. I might almost have been in some Middle Eastern souq on Eid, the day after Ramadan ends.

Part of the special allure of Bangkok is that it marries exoticism to efficiency, serves up the faraway in a form that every visitor can claim as his own. Here are all the conveniences of Japan, say (iris-reading machines at the airport, more than 1300 7-Elevens across the city, tickets on the Sky Train mass transportation system as glossy as corporate credit cards), yet served up with a panache that Japan seldom musters. At the latest place of the moment, the Bed Supperclub, waiters in spotless “I AM NOT TRYING TO SEDUCE YOU” t-shirts (the eastern equivalent of the Cretan liar) offer up crab meat in chilled guava/melon soup with walnut oil and green-tea pindan cake with strawberries and basil in a drop-dead white-on-white interior that would make Tokyo blush.

The second grace of Bangkok, especially visible at the dead of night, is that it is supple and accommodating enough to make itself over in the image of every foreign need. Even as the Grace had turned into a giant bazaar of the illicit (the Thai ladies there sporting hennaed hair and billowing harem pants), across town, in Soi Thaniya, young women in Singapore Airlines costumes were bowing sweetly, and in perfect Japanese ushering salarymen out of buildings filled with the Excite Club, Charmy Nights and U-Smile. Around the corner one Dr. Smile can give you clean white teeth in one hour in his Smile Zone.

This natural, evergreen complaisance is the side that Bangkok shows the world. But even in those parts where foreigners seldom stray, the sense of enterprise is sleepless. I get into a taxi just before 4:00 a.m.–Tammy Wynette huskily enjoins me to “Stand By Your Man” on the radio–and, driving across town to the Khao San Road, the back-packers’ Mecca, I see block after long block in an otherwise deserted area full of stalls that sell Che Guevara t-shirts to local students and orchids to shopkeepers (or to Russians who send them on the next plane back to Moscow). On Sukhumvit Road, a row of figures is seated next to tiny candles under the awnings of closed shops with cards beside them that read, “FORTUNE TELLER. WORK MONEY LOVE LIFE.” Outside an all-night department-store, ten Thais are huddled around an elaborate sheet pushing down banknotes in a furious version of Thai roulette.

The city remains, of course, the center of a country that is often impoverished and still developing: a rat is scuttling along busy Sukhumvit at 4:15 a.m., and a blind woman taps her way among the all-night food-stalls singing a tuneless melody and holding up a sign that asks for money, in English. Need is one factor in the city’s eager seductions. But still there is a sense that more and more Thais can also enjoy the fruits of global production in their wildly eclectic city (a small hotel I look in on at 4:25 is putting out trays for its buffet breakfast: baked beans, tropical fruit, French pastries, stir-fried vegetables and (itals) Thai curry.

Since it is time for lunch, according to my stomach (4:30 a.m. in Bangkok is 2:30 p.m. in California, where I woke up), I stop off at the nearest restaurant I can find, and enjoy a celestial ravioli (dished up from a central kitchen down the street that is also serving up steak frites, tacos and teriyaki). Next to me, what seems to be a Vietnam veteran is dispensing what sounds like Buddhist advice on his cell phone. “Your vessel just grows lighter. Don’t think about it. Just look at it. Neutralize it. Just stay with it, and–you know what?– it dissolves.” Dissolutions are very much the order of the night.

Tiramisu licked clean, I stop off at the nearest Internet cafe to check in with my bosses on the far side of the world. Tucked into an alleyway next to a massage parlor, the seven-seat place greets me with a sign that (wonderfully mistransliterating the Thai unit of currency, the baht), announces, “1 MINS–1 BATH. MINIMUM CHARGE–20 BATHS.” Every other terminal in the place is taken up by falling angels from the nearby bars gleefully video-conferencing their faraway foreign amours. As I take the last remaining seat and thrash out fine points of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism with an editor in New York, all six screens around me light up with shirtless men in Edinburgh, Vienna, Paris, while my fellow customers loudly confer on whether they should type, “You take my heart away” or “I want your body now.”

As the sky begins to pale, I go out again and take a taxi to the river, and then a ferry across to the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun. Around me, in the back-canals, monks in spotless orange robes are paddling from water-house to water-house, women at each stop bending down to hand them bowls of vegetables and rice. Secretaries are stepping out of broken shacks in immaculate skirts, off to their jobs in the high-rises, and schoolchildren in crisp white-shirted uniforms with crests on them are sashaying off to class.

The final grace of Bangkok is that every night is washed away by the regular ablutions of the dawn. The sun is glinting off the gold-leaf in the temples now, and birds are singing from the eaves. A cock is crowing across the water, and stalls are already set up next to the landing where I exit from a water-taxi, serving up pork with chilis, beef and jackfruit and spicy noodles. Fresh loaves of bread are set up along the windowsills of shuttered shops. And when I look in on the Internet cafe I had visited before–a final question from New York–I see that all six customers are still there as the light fills the sky, exporting Bangkok at 3:00 a.m. around the world.

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