Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lawrence Osborne – Bangkok Days (2009)

For a country which has been a Mecca for tourism, it’s surprising how little literary travel writing there is about Thailand (particularly on the part of Australians, for whom Bangkok is a likely stopover on the way to, gosh, nearly anywhere else). But perhaps that relates to the reasons many go to the country (sex tourism, backpacker parties or beaches), or to the cultural capital that it holds in Western discourse (very little in comparison to France or Tuscany). While the shelves hold Bangkok Babylons and jail memoirs, quality travel writing on Thailand remains a niche crying out to be explored – as I found when I became interested in the topic. Lawrence Osborne’s work bears an interesting relationship to this subject – his prose is accessible and not always a triumph of style (though on the other hand, he avoids floridity, a frequent danger in travel writing), but at the same time he has a gift for the arresting and original image or metaphor which elevates the work above its already-mentioned peers, while still dealing with salacious material – sex, drugs, and the expat life.

Osborne arrived in Bangkok in pursuit of affordable dental treatment, and, beguiled by the city, ended up drifting around for long enough that he eventually made it his home. Essentially a flâneur, it is his melancholy relationship with the city and its seamier denizens, Thai and farang, which form the nucleus of the work. Like Osborne himself, the narrative drifts from subject to subject, but this aimlessness reflects the expat life and the interaction Osborne has with his adopted home – if he can decide whether, indeed, this is his relationship to Bangkok. While there are evocative descriptions of the city, the book is better considered as a reflection on the West and the Orientalist image of the East (although this is generally reflected, rather than reflectively considered, in the text) – Osborne has few if any meaningful interactions with Thai people, and doesn’t give deep consideration to their perspective. Rather, it is the ageing farang’s place in (usually) his own culture, and the way that that shapes the relationship with Thailand as a cut-price pleasure garden combined with an understrata of poverty and desperation, which is the central issue in focus (Osborne's lack of knowledge of Buddhism, given the use that he tries to make of it as a theme of analysis, is also problematic).

While these points are certainly worth criticising – in particular, there is little consideration of the systemic dynamics and personal empowerment, or lack thereof, of Thai sex workers and the trade, but rather a typically Western valorization of a culture of sexual freedom and lack of shame (combined with an unfortunate anti-feminist rant) – the question of intercultural understanding per se is, in any case, not really the focus of a work which is more concerned with surfaces and with introspection. Osborne alternates between detached observer and hedonistic participant in the tawdry or kitschy bacchanalia on offer, and this combination also lends interest to his book. A flawed but fascinating exploration – literally and metaphorically – of a labyrinthine and contradictory metropolis.

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