I felt relief the first time I visited Bangkok, the kind of deep relief offered by muscle-relaxing drugs, or a great massage or even—this is not an exaggeration—a maternal caress from early childhood. I was working as a lawyer in Hong Kong at the time, which had been officially designated the most stressful city in the world after war-torn Beirut. To climb on a plane in Hong Kong and get off it in Bangkok two and a half hours later amounted to a religious experience: a mystical shift in consciousness from the hit-the-ground-running, grab-the-fast-buck-now mindset of that tremendous Sino-Britannic metropolis to something slower, easier, looser, more expressive of an ancient and compassionate wisdom. The first Thai phrase I learned was mai pen rai: never mind.
I was not rich, but I treated myself to two nights at the Oriental, where I basked in orchids and nostalgia. Maugham stayed here, when it was the new posh hotel in Siam, right on the Chao Phraya River where they shipped the opium to and from port; I could imagine him dancing expertly in the little ballroom, for he was quite a swell, they say. Had I been older, I might never have left the hotel, for it had everything the word Siam evoked, a gourmet breakfast overlooking the busy, roaring river, two staff per guest liveried in the electric silks Jim Thompson first marketed here through his Thai Silk company, an irresistible seafood buffet at lunch, jazz in the evening, bronze elephants, flowers everywhere, and even a fully equipped gym on the other side of the river if your work ethic insisted. I was young, though, and on leave. Bangkok nightlife was in a state of controlled and courteous abandon such as only Thais manage, and the bars were open 24/7 at that time.
I spent an hour sitting on a stool in Patpong while a beautiful girl chatted me up, before revealing she was a boy, or, rather, a transsexual or khatoey. The important part of the story was the laugh and smile with which s/he delivered the punch line: I am man, ha-ha. The ha-ha meant that it wasn’t so important what s/he was, in the scheme of things: that subtle caress, again, that mai-pen-rai, white-man-don’t-worry smile.
I was hooked. As soon as I had enough dough, I dumped the job and came to live here and write about it. Of course, the learning curve has been pretty steep. I had to discover that the vast majority of the people I deal with are in a sense as foreign as I am: the girls in the bars, the taxi-drivers, the cooked food vendors, the waiters, the clothes sellers—it seems much of visible Bangkok is actually Isan: people from the poor north who have traditionally had less status and connections here and for whom Thai is a second language. And I had to come to terms with the pollution and the police corruption. But love is blind, they say.
A few days ago a cop stopped my Isan girlfriend while she was driving me around in her pick-up truck. She’d taken a wrong turn under a bridge. I watched while she flirted a little with the cop, then got him to agree to a modest hundred baht ($3) bribe, which was a mere ten percent of the official fine. As he pocketed the banknote we all shared that mai-pen-rai smile in the smog under the bridge. As the Buddha said: tathagata: it is what it is. It’s the letting go that counts.
JOHN BURDETT practiced law in London and Hong Kong before he became a full-time novelist. He is the author of the Bangkok Trilogy (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts) and divides his time between France and Asia. He is currently working on the fourth novel in the series, provisionally entitled The Godfather of Siam.
Shop National Geographic