It’s a Small (Farang) World
It's a world of laughter, A world of tears. It's a world of hopes, And a world of fears. There's so much that we share, That it's time we're aware,
It's a small world after all… “It’s a Small World,” Disneyland Theme Ride
I just finished reading Stephen Leather’s most recent novel, “Bangkok Bob and the Missing Mormon.” A number of times while I was reading I would say to myself, “I’ve been there. I know that spot.” This would seem par for the course for an expat living in the city or a long time visitor to the Kingdom. The reason it struck me as odd is that I have been to Thailand exactly once. I spent a little less than 3 weeks in December 2010 and only visited Bangkok and Phuket. After I finished the book, it struck me just how small Thailand really is for farang visitors and residents. Bangkok is a city of 12 to 15 million people that covers about 1500 square miles. Compare that to San Francisco, a fairly large U.S. city, which covers just 49 square miles, or my hometown of about 300 square miles and it starts to sink in. It seemed impossible to me that I would have recognized so many of the locales used in the novel. It got me thinking about just how small Farang-Bangkok really is.
Give us an example, MaiTaiTime, you say. Well here are a few. The first place I visited upon arrival in Bangkok was The Dubliner pub, stumbling upon it quite by accident. (I was walking to the Emporium from my Sukhumvit 18 hotel intent on buying a cell phone. Downed a few pints instead). The Dubliner is where Bob meets The Bear, a boiler room operator. I also checked out the Muay Thai school across the parking lot, looking into the cost of lessons. This is the school where the two kick boxers that Bob encounters trained. I had no idea this area was called Washington Square until I read it in Bangkok Bob. I have seen Washington Square referenced many times online, but had no idea that I had visited it.
I happened into The Londoner on the two-for-one day described by Leather and used as a meeting place for his farang English teachers. On that single visit it was early and not yet crowded. I had the opportunity to chat with two of the hostesses, Patty and Rocky. Patty had a great accent (sort of British meets Colonial as spoken by a Thai native) and seemed well educated. She gave me some tips on travel within Thailand based on places she had been with her American boyfriend. Fast forward to Dean Barrett’s recent blog and there I see photos of Patty and her now fiancé celebrating their betrothal at The Londoner. Now remember, this is in a city of 12 to 15 million people. I live in a city of about 1 million and I don’t think you would see the same hostess or remember her if you returned to a restaurant after a one year absence. (I did not, however, meet Mr. Barrett’s ubiquitous Khun Cheer but I’m sure I would have recognized her from the many photos posted on his site).
In Phuket, I stayed at the Duangjitt Resort in Patong. For those of you not familiar with it, it is a sprawling resort right on the corner of Beach road. They have security officers at the gate limiting access to the grounds, although my personal view is they are there only to ensure the 1000 baht “guest” fee is paid for any visitors to your room. While I was walking to the business center to print some documents I was approached by a 50 something guy with a strong East coast accent. (Think of the cast of Jersey Shore, or if not familiar with them, it’s the kind of accent where one would pronounce sandwich as sang-witch.) He introduced himself as Dean Mancuso and started into what I realized was becoming a long tale of woe. I quickly ascertained he was looking for a handout and shooed him away with some excuse. Imagine my surprise when I see an article about him in Stick’s weekly column. I had this guy on my one and only trip to Phuket, on the grounds of a supposedly secure resort at about ten in the morning. Not in a teeming market, not at some famous bar that every tourist visits. But in a corridor of a resort where it was just he and I. My confused Thai escort was also there, and although she spoke English, I don’t think she got the gist of what he was saying to me.
I have read other novels set in places I have visited and sometimes will recognize a place or two. Wenceslas Square in Prague, Lake Managua in Nicaragua, or even the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But these are famous landmarks places you’d expect to find referenced when reading a story set in an exotic locale. That said, I have yet to read a novel where a character hoisted a pint at Rocky O’Reilly’s, Prague’s own Irish pub and home to some of the most beautiful women you will ever lay eyes on. Nor have I seen mention of the Managua barrio aptly named demonios y diablos (demons and devils), a rather dangerous neighborhood as you’ve probably ascertained by the name. This is where I was told by my local guide, the uncle of my then girlfriend, that I should probably remove my fitted baseball cap, about a $30 item, as the inhabitants of this neighborhood would be willing to take my life to take my cap. Strangely, he waited to tell me this until we were well into the neighborhood on a quest to buy more ice for the party. Or for that matter, I cannot remember ever reading of a character enjoying a perfectly cooked piece of cow flesh at Tadich Grill in San Francisco’s Union Square. Drinking booze the old fashioned way, served simple and strong, while trying to resolve the Act 2 twist.
Hey, that gives me an idea for a story. Opening chapter, The Londoner, Bangkok, late…
It's an excellent point you make and it is true that the farang ghetto in Bangkok is very small indeed. So many foreigners not only gravitate towards, but spend much of their time in the small part of Bangkok along Sukhumvit Road that runs from The Emporium to the JW Marriott Hotel, a strip of only about 2 km or so!