Photos by Liam Fitzpatrick / Black Bauhinia
I was cowering in a corner of my upstairs bedroom as the floodwaters stole into my yard, crept inch by inch up the driveway and then began to lap at my doorstep. I maintained a sad vigil at the window, knowing my new home was doomed. And when the first filthy fingers of the flood slid under my front door, I knew I had to go.
In the time it took to sling my hastily packed bags over my shoulders and unlock the front gate, the waters had already risen two inches and covered my floor. My wife and I had only just bought our house in Nontaburi province, a backwater to the capital’s north-west where villages nestle amid verdant rice fields and the klongs, or canals, flow with something approaching actual water, not the poisonous black ectoplasm that runs in the capital’s veins. We had moved in just three months ago. For weeks we had watched as a vast water table oozed inexorably towards us from the massive lake that had once been the ancient capital of Ayutthya. And now, all of a sudden, I was moving out. For how long, I knew not. Days? Weeks? Months? We were at the mercy of the waters.
In what used to be the front yard, I saw a baby snake cut sinuous arcs through the oily brown soup. A pink teddy bear floated past, with a red centipede coiled on its belly.
My home was one of the thousands sacrificed to keep Bangkok dry—as the center city slammed down the sluices and piled on the sandbags, the flood runoff pouring down from the north couldn’t find its way out to sea and so swelled like some slow-motion tsunami. After days of watching the water rise gradually, the speed with which it marked its final arrival was scary. As I slogged more than 3km to dry land, it rose from my knee to my thigh to almost my waist in places. I saw cars ruined, pets stranded, and homes submerged to their eaves. Most of all, I saw the spectre of creeping misery and crushing hardship descending even as my Thai neighbours affixed their customary smiles in the face of adversity. So forgive me if I’m not feeling too charitably disposed towards cities just now.
My three great love affairs and bitter bust-ups have been with Brisbane, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The former, home to my first two and a half decades of existence, the latter pair my primary places of residence for roughly ten years apiece. Each in its own way once had me smitten. All still exert a powerful pull, tugging me in different directions, summoning vivid memories of highs and lows. But in the end it mostly feels thin and sour, a bittersweet toast charged with the dregs, the lees of life. Christ, but the highs …
When I finally departed Australia in 1992 for the helter skelter of Hong Kong, it felt like the last plane out of Brisbane had almost left me behind. The urge to broaden my horizons had swelled to a kind of reverse vanishing point, a nagging fear that if I didn’t get out of suburban Brisbane and see the world soon, perhaps I never would.
It wasn’t that life was boring. By my mid-twenties I’d been a ballet dancer, a university student, a journalist, a surfer and a husband. I tried telling myself I was living the dream. My career at the daily newspaper was simmering along nicely. I had a beautiful wife. We had bought our first home, a quaint old worker’s cottage and renovator’s delight, upon which I unleashed my limited handyman skills. But something was missing.
Life went by in a blur of backyard barbeques, home improvements and sun-and-surf-soaked weekends at the beach. “Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next,’’ was the advertising slogan du jour, a boast based on the state’s unusually high average of sunny days per year. But as those dazzling crystalline days accrued into years they became brittle and fractured, as the first cracks in our marriage began to appear. I was beset by a dull and unfocused angst; a sense that I was rusting away. Gradually the rolling hills and pretty homes of Brisbane began to assume an oppressive menace. The manicured lawns became flypaper, pinning me down.
I threw myself into work and pretended all was well. We moved to a bigger house, as the dream dictated; an ‘Old Queenslander’ that was all rambling verandahs and crumbling charm. Its steady march towards entropy was a constant and accusing mirror held up to my life.
By night, I tossed and turned. Shafts of moonlight through our bedroom’s stained glass windows bathed my wife’s peaceful perfect features in a lambent glow while my mind roiled and raged. Was this all there was? A Stepford life? At least once, I wanted excitement and chaos, passion and danger. But underneath the seething unease, all this water flowing underground, a small voice was also whispering: Be careful what you wish for.
Hong Kong hit me like it was raining bricks. I was head-over-heels and boy, we had us some times. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, then I’m pretty sure I left an important part of my brain in some dark corner of Wan Chai.
Wan Chai is Hong Kong’s black hole; a place that exerts its own gravitational pull. Just as fraying galaxies at the edge of the universe cannot resist the absence of matter, so the average Hong Kong partier, absent of sense, is drawn to the dense centre of Lockhart Road. It was a neon-bathed netherworld of gang-bangers, glad-handers and chrome pole clutchers, brokers, bankers and other wankers, drunken sailors, broken poets, dai pai dongs and all night discos, wizened Vietnam War whores and pneumatic Brazilian hookers, chattering packs of maids on the make, rave parties and monster raving loonies, drug-fucked nutters, triple-trio triads and bus uncles who hawked smack in the shadows of basketball courts. At first, it was awesome.
But eventually the shine would wear off. You’d swear never again, and yet there you were in some fetid den sneaking furtive glances at your watch and counting off the diminishing hours still available for sleep as you got another round in. You’d wince as your credit card took another body blow, then you’d dust it off to go and do more blow. You’d cruise. You’d wander. You’d want to stop the madness and get off. But you couldn’t. You’d tell yourself you might get lucky, but you weren’t going to. Ever. You’d order another beer and a shot. You’d slope off to the Worst Toilet in Hong Kong, paddling through puddles of piss to clog your sinuses and fry your brain with another rail of crap coke. Then you’d look at your watch again and wonder how it could be five or six in the morning already.
Time behaves strangely the closer you get to a black hole. It compresses, distorts, folds in upon itself. You might as well be wearing one of those melted Dali timepieces. You would pat your pocket to see if you had remembered your sunglasses. You would know it was almost light outside, and you would also know that your shades were like a superhero’s cloak of invisibility.
Welcome to the wormhole; the non-event horizon. A smoke machine would hiss and through fits of strobe you’d discern sinister leering faces of people who were not your friends. You were simply in Wan Chai, adrift and alone. Again.
Bangkok was a different affair. More of a slow-burning simmer than love at first sight. After Hong Kong, from which I’d fled for my life, tail wedged between legs, Bangkok felt rough and primitive, clogged with traffic, beset by beggars, overwhelming you with its juxtapositions of lurid luxury and grinding poverty. But bit-by-bit I fell for its unexpected pockets of beauty, its hidden leafy lanes and polished teakwood homes, its unhurried attitude and its wide, ready smile.
Nor was the end of the affair brutal and short. As the City of Angels had slowly encircled my heart, so she gradually began to let it go again.
If there was one night where I fell out of love with Bangkok, it was probably my midnight visit to the vicious slums of Klong Toey in pursuit of a story about drugs. Bangkok was in the grip of a methamphetamine epidemic, a city on a bender, cranked up on candy-coloured pills called ‘yaba’, or ‘crazy medicine’. Klong Toey was Bangkok’s black hole, the drug trade’s Ground Zero.
Ramshackle huts perched over sludge and garbage strewn ponds, rats ran riot, and at times it was hard to discern whether the glittering eyes peering from the gloom were human, rodent or something in between. I remember the police officer I had persuaded with a handful of baht to be my guide turning to me and asking: ‘Can you smell it?’’
The acrid urine? The stench of rotting garbage? The cloying waft of poisoned klongs simmering in the relentless humidity? The dead dog beginning to decompose under a precarious catwalk of warped planks? Or the sickly turpentine tang of yaba, the faint but unmistakable top note of Klong Toey’s persistent perfume? “The smell,’’ he said with a cruel crocodile grin, “of fear.’’
Klong Toey counted its addicts in tens of thousands, from doddery senior citizens to emaciated, gimlet-eyed whores, from gangs of young thugs on tweaked motorcycles patrolling late night mean streets like werewolves to child junkies with wired smiles and old eyes. We came across a group of the latter in a dark and reeking alcove, cowering behind a pile of packing crates. Treacly strips of foil lay crumpled on the ground. Their eyes were wide and glazed. The cop aimed a vicious kick at one of the kids and connected just above his kidney. The kid barely flinched. I looked into his eyes, but there was no one home. No spark. No hope. No future. Something fundamental had checked out for good.
I’ve seen bad stuff as a journalist. Dead and mangled bodies. Assorted horrors. But something about the look in that kid’s eyes shook me. I didn’t chide the cop for his kick. I just turned and walked, and then ran, as hot tears welled, happy that I still knew how to cry.
I really don’t want to live in cities anymore. People are nicer outside their dizzy limits. The big smoke is just fumes and hot air. A cancer. The human condition doesn’t seem quite so fatal in more laid-back, thinly-spread locales. Folks just seem more interested. Engaged. But because of the flood, because of that selfish bitch Bangkok, it looks like I’m headed back there. At least until we can hose out the mud, scrub and scour, rebuild and repaint. For now, home will be another constrictive urban bolt-hole. Just when you think you are out, cities pull you back in.
It’s said that moments of crisis bring out the best and worst in people. As I trudged out of my village through the floods, I clocked the odd shifty scumbag or two with looting in their eyes. But mostly I saw resigned smiles and acts of kindness. Two chaps with a boat took our bags and ferried my wife and I over a kilometre. Wouldn’t hear of payment. In a minimart, a crinkly auntie gave me a free beer and a snaggle-toothed, we’re-in-this-together grin. We struck up easy conversations with people toting their som tam works or their dogs or their entire earthly possessions in little floating contraptions.
Amidst the mounting tragedy, there have been moments of high farce. Such as Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, scion of a Prussian-educated dynasty of rationalist bankers, presiding over an ill-advised ceremony to appease the Water Goddess Ka Kang. The excellent satirical website Not the Nation purported to have obtained a memo from the goddess, who was highly offended.
“Her Holiness The Water Goddess Ka Kang completely and without qualification rejects the appeal from the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority,” the story read, citing pollution, mismanagement, overfishing and years of abuse as the principle violations of the sacred pact she had with the Thai people. “Your appeal for salvation is that of the ant to the child whose flesh it has bitten,” the memo concluded. “And so shall you be trampled beneath the feet of vengeance that have displaced forever-lost innocence. Fuck you, Bangkok. The Water Goddess has spoken.”