What follows is an excerpt from my email travelogue, which I send every week or two while I’m on the road. To subscribe to the mailing list, follow this link. This installment was originally sent out on January 11, 2015.
Dear Travelogue Readers —
For the last month I have been living in a hotel called Viraporn’s Place, here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Late at night I squirt my arms and ankles with pungent bug spray and sit in the courtyard to think, or write, or smoke a cigarette. Many nights Viraporn, who I know from the days when she ran a restaurant in Fort Bragg, will bring me grapes on a paper towel, or rose apples on a platter with a knife, or soybeans in a flimsy paper bowl. Yesterday she gave me a section of durian in a plastic sleeve, which I managed to finish even though it smelled like a heap of dirty socks set out to compost and tasted somewhere between minestrone soup and cantaloupe. But it’s not for the beggar to choose, and I was happy for the novelty — and also for the feeling of being cared for, of being in some way at home.
Aside from late-night fruit, my life here is deliberately bland. I wake up, put myself together, tidy the room, and head to a cafe just across the street from the hotel. Here I drink espressos and sometimes eat croissants with butter and marmalade while I tap away on my computer for four hours or so. Till the computer battery dies. I eat a late lunch, usually pad thai, at a restaurant called “The Chef.” The proprietors’ five-year-old daughter watches educational videos to learn English. Characters sing at the supermarket, or they sing about their families. Back at Viraporn’s I write till eight or nine. Over a dinner of khao soi I read my book, which is presently If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Before bed I write and read; sometimes I watch a movie.
It’s not tourism or even travel, not in any meaningful sense, and it rarely offers up an adventure worth chronicling in these travelogues. Rather I’m consumed by my work — work I want to be doing.
Yet there are occasional moments of transcendence. Probably these occur with no greater frequency than in my life up to now, but the overriding blandness of most days means that when they do come, they burst forth with stark clarity and blinding beauty. When this happens I’m reduced to laughter or even tears as my heart thumpthumps and my senses tingle with a freshness and alertness I’d like to bring to every last experience, even the most trivial. And perhaps I am getting better at prolonging this state. In this installment of my travelogue I’ll chronicle three of these transcendent moments, along with the surrounding flow of time. I hope you enjoy it.
12 December 2015
Chiang Mai, Thailand
28 November 2015. The Black House, Chiang Rai
Driving in Thailand is a fundamentally bad idea. Thai people are more than three times as likely to perish in a car crash than people in the U.S. are. This is the fourth-worst rate of all nations in the world, barely safer than Libya but considerably more dangerous than Iraq. The perils of driving here apply equally to farang(“persons of white race” according to the Thai government definition), who ride the backs of motorbikes in Chiang Mai with their crutches raised like empty flagpoles, who wander the streets wearing specially-breathable mesh slings on their arms and sticking plaster on their head wounds. If everyone weren’t smiling the idiot grins of those just returned from dawn yoga classes or three-day meditation retreats or “humane” elephant preserves, you might think Thermopylae had just let out. Well, it’s not quite that bad. But close!
A few days after arriving in Chiang Mai, my friend Asa puts me in touch with Li, who is living here for the year studying massage. We get coffee, reminisce about old times (we both lived in the same room our senior years in the Co-op), and with an almost-crazy generosity she invites me on a road trip she and a friend are taking two days later. I agree, and shortly thereafter I’m behind the wheel of a rented economy car, screaming down the left side of the road, terrified. At first I use my horn liberally, imagining I’m still in China, where people drive like maniacs but at least notify each other about it. In short order, though, Li points out the looks of demonic intensity that other drivers are giving me. No one else is honking. No one in the whole damn country honks — even when they’re about to crash into each other or run a pedestrian over! It’s rude to honk. Rather death than offend someone.
We arrive at the immense Singha hobby farm, an immaculately manicured estate that brings glory to the beer co-monopolist. There’s a free music festival tonight called, “Farmfest#4.” As we park the car we see five hot air balloons slowly drifting above the fields. One has the Singha logo and colors; another is in the shape of a pink pig. We eat greasy fried kale and blah green curry at the vanity restaurant. Then we dance and drink with countless young northerners as a procession of Thai Ke$has and Thai Drakes and Thai Psys prance around the stage.
The next morning arrives bright and loud with club music. It’s 7AM. Our tent is right next to the starting line for today’s mountain bike races. The sight of all these fit cyclists warming up and stretching notably worsens my hangover. We eventually make it to the city of Chiang Rai where we visit a tourist attraction called The White Temple. The vanity project of a Thai artist named Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, it’s a distressingly superwhite mess. It’s so much Gaudí-esque whimsy in the general form of a traditional Thai temple. Ornate plasterwork demons, gargoyles, bas-reliefs, and sculptures cover the temple and its bridges. They’re all equally, glaringly white, accented with shards of mirror. A voice from a loudspeaker yells at the throngs of tourists to keep moving. Inside the main temple the walls are painted with an iconographic progression from dark/evil to light/enlightenment. Light is personified at the far end by a mural of the Buddha. Dark is represented on this end by a postmodern pastiche of comic book heroes, Harry Potter, R2-D2, and the burning Twin Towers, which are encircled by two demon-serpents. The other end of one serpent is a gas nozzle. It makes me feel ill — I hate it — but the imagery is also fascinating in its way. Li and I stand there, pointing out different instances of pop culture that stand in for evil in this twisted pantheon, until an attendant asks us to leave.
Li and her friend, who is also, distressingly, named Li, get massages while I write in my journal and eat french fries for the first time in months. Then we drive out to the Black House, which everyone calls the Black Temple for obvious reasons of symmetry and tourist marketing. The complex predates and possibly inspired the White Temple. It’s the project of another famous Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee, and I love this place. The main hall is a giant Thai-style audience hall. The walls aren’t covered with frescoes but have big window openings. The rafters stretch up seemingly forever, but the space is dark and cool, with a light breeze. Ornately carved wooden screens divide the space into quadrants, each dominated by a long, narrow table. Each table has a complete crocodile skin covering its length. Some also have python skins complete with head. Giant seashells. The pelts of wild cats. Strange paintings. Folk-art phalli. Posts adorned with antelope horns and elk racks and sculptures of the Buddha.
Around each table — and throughout the whole complex — are peculiar chairs. They’re beautiful and strange: assembled from eight or ten or fourteen swamp buffalo horns, with a leather seat. Mr. Duchanee must have acquired thousands of these horns. Some of the chairs have the height and regality of thrones, with decoratively swooping backs. Others are more low-slung, but each chair looks like just the thing a Cthulhu cultist would sit in.
After the main hall we wander through some of the other structures in the complex. We find giant woven baskets; ancient canoes; posts hung with deer skulls, antlers still on and cradling an old rifle above the skull. When I get tired, I sit at the edge of a small lawn with a black horse picketed in the center. Behind me I can see Mr. Duchanee’s private residence, which also looks like a temple. It’s surrounded by lush plant life and a small pond. In the pond three black swans float and preen, then waddle out of the water and turn up the landscaping. They are strangely iridescent creatures — no white swan has ever looked half so good. I call my friends over and we watch them, entranced.
Just before the complex closes for the evening, Li and I take a quick tour of its many other structures. Some are ancient huts rebuilt here, others tastefully modernist cabins. By the stream there’s a windowless concrete egg that looks like a Martian colonist’s pod. Most of these are closed off to visitors, but we stare through windows at a bear-pelt bedspread; a room with seashells geometrically arrayed on the floor, surrounded by a circle of scary-thrilling horn chairs; the most ornate mother-of-pearl inlaid table I can imagine; a tall-ceilinged room with skulls and horns of every species and size, pillars lined with shark jaws, all arrayed around one great horn throne. This last could be Satan’s audience chamber, if he had a really good interior decorator.
We come across a traditional raised Thai house, built on stilts. The cramped area underneath the house has been filled with heavy dinner tables, each surrounded by a dozen black-horn chairs. The placesettings have odd spoons and horn goblets along with large crystals, polished rocks, and small skulls. A shiver of aesthetic bliss runs down my spine. I imagine the madness that would be a feast at this table, either cultists or a crazy biker gang or poets from a different age. I stand for a long time, staring and dreaming.
A security guard chases us out of the place. We agree to return the next morning before driving to Pai — we need to spend more time at the Black House. But then we screw up counting how many days we’ve rented the car for, and we decide impulsively to drive to Pai that very night. We sleep in our tent on the side of the road. The next morning I come down with debilitating flu, and I barely leave bed for the next week. Misfortune falls on my two tripmates as well. Much later, Li tells me that she had a dream involving a triangle and when she woke up she knew that we had erred in not returning to the Black Temple. I’m sure she’s right.
23 December 2015. The Courtyard at Viraporn’s Place, Chiang Mai
Last night another wave of depression crashes onto my back and holds me down, breath held, as I look through picture after picture of days past. Classic self-harm. Like with spicy food, I just keep eating, each new photo promising at least temporary relief. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs. I sleep like a drowned man and stay in bed past noon. This afternoon I can’t write anything except for an angsty journal entry on the uselessness of writing. I need stronger antidepressants than nicotine and espresso. It’s time for the hard stuff: a trip to the bookstore.
The medicine takes immediate effect. Bookstores keep dozens of your favorite friends on shelves, in alphabetic order! After a long browse I settle on three books:Quartet by Jean Rhys, Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Before I launch in, though, I need to finish my present book, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Over lunch I read its last pages, including Clarissa’s meditation on suicide as a means of preserving and remaining in the experience of profound beauty, which otherwise can be so fleeting. (I’m appending this paragraph for interested readers .) Of course Woolf ended her own life in a sad echo of this passage. I am no fan of suicide, no. But Mrs. Dalloway’s soliloquy by the window — the way she is so flooded with joy or maybe something closer to equanimity or pan-perceptiveness — it’s a glorious and true-singing evocation of the euphoric feeling of transcendence. The topic of this travelogue! The reason why we love, why we keep on going. Also, for some of us at least, the reason we read and write. Virginia Woolf nails it.
Back at Viraporn’s Place I watch a movie and then head outside to dive into Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. When I was seventeen I read the first half of this book, but then I got stuck. The cover of my old copy has the title and the author’s name scrawled in brushy black ink over a sepia field interrupted by thin black lines radiating from a point beyond the rectangle of the book. The edition I’ve just bought features instead the front-end of a classic car rendered in matte white, matte black, and glossy black. It’s a sexy book. The sexiness of books as objects is important and underappreciated, though more about this another time. Before diving into the novel itself (I’ve decided to recommence on page 270), I explore the front and end matter, as one does. In the back I find a compendium of Bolaño quotations, an incomplete list of his other works, dozens of snippets lauding him, and the publishers have also reproduced here a manifesto that he wrote in 1976, twenty-two years before the publication of this novel. Titled “Leave Everything, Again” and translated by David Shook, it fills seven pages. I decide to read the manifesto first.
First infrarealist manifesto
“To the outskirts of the solar system there are four light-hours; to the closest star, four light-years. An unmeasured ocean of emptiness. But are we really certain that there is just an emptiness? We only know that in that space there are no luminous stars; by existing, would they be visible? And what if non-luminous or dark bodies exist? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, as on those of earth, that the star-cities are marked and the star-towns aren’t?”
-Soviet science fiction writers scratching their foreheads at midnight.
-The infrasuns (Drummond would say the joyful proletariat boys).
-Peguero and Boris alone in a shanty room, presentient of the wonder beyond the door.
The first and second thoughts I had were coterminous: This isn’t how you write a manifesto, and This is exactly how you write manifesto. It’s all inscrutable and provocative and strange. It features Soviet science fiction. I’m hooked.
A few lines later I find the first suggestions for action: “(Search, not just museums house shit) (A process of individual museumification) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed) (Fear to discover) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances).” An exhortation to displace culture from official edifices onto the poet’s own self, no matter the consequences. The manifesto charges on and on, emphatic and confused, self-assured. Sometimes it exults, “-Complex reality, you dizzy us!” At other times it becomes bloody-minded and revolutionary, if also funny: “Like Saint-Just told me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of the aristocrats can serve us as weapons.”
What really gets me, though, is the youthful wildness that runs through the poem — a sense of excitement about poetry’s power combined with the desire to create anew and so revitalize what has become old, rigid, and stale.
-A new lyricism, which begins to grow in Latin America, to sustain itself in modes that don’t cease to astonish us. The entry into substance is already the entry into adventure: the poem as a trip and the poet as a hero developer of heroes. Tenderness as an exercise of velocity. Respiration and heat. Disparate experience, structures that devour themselves, crazy contradictions.
If the poet is mixed up, the reader will have to mix himself up.
“misspelled erotic books”
You can see here the shift from poetic mission to the poetry-reader’s response to a new and heightened awareness of poetry in unexpected places. If there’s a single belief underpinning this manifesto, it’s a certainty in poetry’s power — that a true poem shifts the way you experience the world. I share this belief. Poems have changed my life on several major and countless minor occasions. But it’s easy also to forget about poems, especially in these distracted days, to forget about their power, forget to read them, forget to write them. A manifesto is a way of reminding, of remembering.
As I reach the end of Bolaño’s manifesto, I’ve been charged by so many resonant lines — “-Poets, let your hair down (if you have it) / -Burn your crap and begin to love until you arrive at incalculable poems / -We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets,” — and filled with this burning energy of ambitious, burn-it-all-down youth that I’m laughing and reading in great gulps. The act of writing seems as exciting and dangerous and filled with possibility as it always has been, only I’d forgotten.
Here is the last handful of lines:
-May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.
-We dreamed of utopia and we woke up screaming.
-A poor solitary cowboy that returns to his home, which is wonder.
To make new sensations appear—To subvert the everyday.
LEAVE EVERYTHING, AGAIN
HIT THE ROAD
It’s a recipe not for happiness but for poetry. And, as the young Roberto Bolaño generously, crazily reminds me, poetry matters.
The next day, Christmas Eve, I write my own manifesto, “Fuck Off We’re Working.”
1 January 2016, Rooftop Bars at Maya Shopping Mall, Chiang Mai
The New Year is greeted on a dark street in Chiang Mai by a knot of French and English speakers. William predicted hours earlier that we would end up celebrating it in a parking lot between his shared house and the mall. So we did. The francophones kiss each other on both cheeks and give each other wishes for 2016. The Americans kiss on the lips, but chastely, if that’s possible. When the French and the Americans embrace it’s awkward for everyone.
We continue into the unpleasant multiverse that is a contemporary nightclub. Strobing lights, lasers, thumps of sound, strangerfaces. To the south a half-moon rises like a bowl of café au lait, floating and not spilling on the table of the horizon because we’re so near the equator. I miss the jaunty angle it takes in higher latitudes. Further up in the sky, a drone banks back and forth, up and down, its camera ravenous and lonely. Drunk Thai people and drunk farang mix and separate. No one dances to the incoherent club-hop. I drink more. Someone in our group gets a Chinese lantern, and we light the pitchy ring of fuel. Before the lantern achieves adequate lift, we drop it off the side of the building. It lands on a catwalk and fire eats the thin paper. Someone pours the end of a beer onto it — it’s going to be a helluva year.
At some point I stand alone at the base of a low concrete amphitheater. I’m standing where a stage would be, but the light-towers are behind me, the beams roving brightly over the clusters of people sitting or standing in the amphitheater. I stand there watching three scenes.
1. Two men stand at an oblique angle to each other, gesticulating with their beers. One is carrying is carrying a long monologue. He wears a carefully shaped gruff of facial hair that I associate with the brogrammers who here term themselves “digital nomads.” The other is clean-shaven and blandly cute — he tries hard to listen over the throb of sound.
2. A white guy in his thirties looms over a Thai girl whose tight red dress clings to her large breasts and slim posterior like saran wrap. They seem to be in the middle of a negotiation. Probably sexual, possibly fiscal. She says something and points at the exit with her plastic cup, but when he takes her arm and tries to walk there with her, she stops him. She’s in control here.
3. Seated on one of the concrete shelves are a chubby-buff Thai guy and a white boy with the haze of a few days’ beard. Their legs touch, and they’re evidently involved in intimate conversation. At one point the Thai guy takes out a cigarette and goes to light it, but he notices the approbating look of his partner and puts the lighter away. The white cigarette stays in his hand like a prop — he gestures with it, folds his fingers around it in different configurations, forgets about it, remembers. They share a quick kiss and lapse into contented silence.
2. The woman in the red dress is now explaining something at great length to the man, who has bent over to put his ear near her mouth. He shakes his head in a sign of confusion, and she keeps talking. She holds a rectangular black clutch hard against her right wrist. The man straightens up and looks confused or perhaps a little disappointed.
1. The brogrammer is still talking at the other guy, who now looks a little bored, a little anxious to escape. He has turned to face the crowd below and runs his eyes from face to face. The brogrammer doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He keeps talking.
3. The Thai boy has lit his cigarette and blows the smoke out in a narrow, careful cone. He’s smoking like an actress from the ’50s. His partner is leaning back on his elbows and watching carefully.
2. The white guy says something and reaches out to draw the Thai lady towards him for a kiss. She pulls away ever so slightly, tipping her head back and to the side so that her neck shows. A coquettish refusal. The man also pulls back. She smiles with what looks to be actual pleasure. They recommence their negotiation, or conversation, or whatever it is they’re talking about over the loud strobes of sound and light.
This all unfolds as I stand there, watching this diorama, trying to remember each gesture, each face, the shiver and thrill of these strange people with their unfathomed lives and mysterious smiles. Their hidden stories that you could almost reach out and touch. Almost.
The prime factors of 2016 are 25, 32, and 7. In my opinion, these don’t have anything on the crazy numerological power of 2015, which reduces to just 5, 13, and 31. But all indications are that it will be a good year for creeping on people.
Most of our group leaves the club and heads to a party in a different brogrammer’s big, tasteless house. On the third floor people sit around a TV singing karaoke. I flee to the rooftop balcony and swig wine from an open bottle, steal a pack of cigarettes off the table. I fill a comically tall glass of box wine and then abandon it. Soon Amélie and I leave the party and walk back to William’s house, where her motorbike and my backpack are. The place is locked up, though, and no one’s picking up their phones, so I put myself to sleep on the front porch. I wake at five — cold, half-drunk, half-hung-over. I decide to give up. As soon as I get going down the street back to the old city I run into William and company coming the other way. He lets me into his house. I take my bag and walk back to the old city past monks doing their morning ablutions, trash men emptying the last few bins, and a few of the wretched, like me, who are greeting the new year with bleary eyes and dreams of bed, which I eventually reach.
I’d like to thank Li for taking the picture of me at Baan Dam and letting me share it here — and for being my Chiang Mai friend and taking me on this adventure to Chiang Rai and Pai.