“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble”, Murray Head was singing in the mid 80’s. In the Thai capital city, I prefer the early mornings. I take advantage of the jetlag to rise before the sun, hop in on one of the BTS sky trains and go explore one of the city’s neighborhood. It is a pleasure to visit the Wat Pho temples at the opening, almost empty, and at the exit to encounter the hordes of tourists going through the gates and following their guides with their color flag raised. Another morning, as I was disembarking an express boat, the Chao Phraya River was overflowing and slowly percolating through the sand bags meant to protect from the flood. The neighborhood was waking up and running their first errands walking with their feet in the water or on wet planks.
During my last visit I went wandering in Khlong Toey market. That’s the wet food market that feeds the city and its restaurants. The fresh light from the rising sun was revealing the fruits, vegetables and spices stalls. The butchers were slicing beef and pork carcasses. Chickens and ducks, alive in their cages, are taken out and slaughtered in front of the buyers. Fishes, turtles and frogs wriggle in the water tub, waiting to be eviscerated by expert hands. The chili pepper seller prepares his mixtures. The porters with their hand trucks and their numbered jackets are selling their services to the restaurant owners doing their morning market. Monks in their orange robes are doing their rounds reciting a string of payers and a few sellers given them an obol in kind, bowing respectfully. Here and there someone stops to buy flowers.
This is Bangkok’s life, far from the glittering shopping malls and the backpackers’ attractions. Every market stall could maybe tell a story similar to those included in « Sightseeing » by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. I greatly enjoyed that collection of short stories which starts from daily life episodes, described with humor and tenderness, to sketch an attractive image of Thailand, but without complacency or clichés.
For example « Draft Day » tells how the selection for military service was organized in a neighborhood. A lottery is organized to decide who will serve for two years. In theory, the narrator could be called, but for him, there is no risk: his parents, well introduced with the officials, have made sure that his name would not come out. He attends the lottery and must face the looks of his friends who have no free pass.
« Priscilla the Cambodian » is a story taking place at the border separating a squalid camp for refugees from Cambodia and a just slightly better-off neighborhood inhabited by Thais. Like everywhere, refugees are perceived as threatening and hated by their neighbors: people are throwing stones at them, overturning their ramshackle shelters. Thai teenagers have fun terrorizing the Cambodian kids. But a young girl, Priscilla, is not scared and attracts one of the Thais’s attention.
« Cockfighter » is a novella, the longest story in the book. A father raises cocks to participate in cockfights. His recent successes went to his head and he loses himself in his passion, forgetting about his wife and daughter, sleeping in the chicken coop. He accepts a challenge in which he could win big – or lose everything- against the local mafia boss’ son, who is also making unwanted advances to Ladda, his daughter.
Lapcharoensap is a Thai author, writing in English and who was born and raised in part in Chicago. He is therefore well positioned to perceive the viewpoints of both the Thais and foreigners visiting the country. For example, in « Don’t let me die in this place », an American senior who is not self-sufficient anymore had to leave the Baltimore suburbs to live with his son and daughter-in-law. He is confronted with habits and meals he is not familiar with and with grand children who speak a language he doesn’t understand. Or in « Farangs », he singles out this post card sent by an American tourist who had a romantic encounter during her holidays with the hotel owner’s son. The card days that she would love to welcome him in the US, but carefully omits to include a contact address.