Bangkok – Tuesday, Feb. 18, 9 p.m. (9 a.m. EST in DC)
Striding across the roof deck of Heaven’s Gate, located on the 67th floor of a bank building near the Chao Phraya River, Jesse Martin weighed which was worse—the unexpected call he had received or the restaurant’s location. His wife Joanna, bronzed from pool-side sunbathing and all dressed up in her flowy dress, bounded ahead of him. Dining al fresco in the sky had been her idea, and he didn’t want to disappoint her—they were supposed to be on vacation, after all.
Joanna passed the Italianate fountain that the tourists were using as a backdrop for their selfies, right up to the waist-high Plexiglas barrier on the edge. Leaning over, she looked down and reached out, as if she could touch the ground. She laughed out loud, her perfectly highlighted hair swirling in the wind.
Bangkok’s lights glittered to the horizon—far more skyscrapers than 30 years ago. It was literally breathtaking. Stuffed into his navy-blue suit, Jesse wheezed, as the renewed realization of their place up in the air punched him in the gut. At six-and-a-half feet tall and over 300 pounds, his oversized body, calibrated for the frigid winters and scorching summers of America’s Great Plains, betrayed him here. As his stomach turned, his skin acquired an unhealthy khaki cast. He imagined Joanna blowing away, although he knew she wouldn’t abide such a thing. His woman might be light as a quail feather but she was also fearless as a mama cougar.
Joanna brushed her delicate hand by his ear, along the side of his crew cut. “Do you want to leave?”
“I’ll be OK. You have your fun.”
At the center of the rooftop patio, Jesse kept his fear at bay. By the time they finished their entrees, however, his stomach rebelled again, and he excused himself to visit the restroom. Upon his return, Joanna relieved him of his suffering.
“Let’s go meet Ko,” she said. “Right now.”
“Wouldn’t you like dessert?” he asked.
“Come on, dear, it’s written all over your face. You need to get down from here—you’re like a bull in a tree. Plus, you’re anxious to see what he wants. His call was irregular, and now you’re worried.”
Jesse bit his lip. There was no use lying.
“Ask for the check,” she said. “It’s fine. I’ll order dessert at Ko’s.”
“If you insist,” Jesse said.
In a matter of minutes, Jesse had settled the check and slipped a tip to the attendant to maneuver a ride down without the usual wait. As soon as he set foot on the ground, he was restored. He had to wonder—would he be as uncomfortable in the real heaven?
Jesse guided Joanna down a marble hallway to a row of taxis under a portico. The bellman, wearing a black-and-gold uniform and cap with white gloves, hailed the next car. He asked Jesse their destination in English, wrote it down on a pad and handed the driver a slip of paper with the address written in Thai. The driver presented a different piece of paper to Jesse—information about taxi safety in Bangkok, also in English, including a warning about a legal requirement for the driver to turn on the meter. The attendant opened and shut the door for Joanna. Jesse walked around to the other side.
Once in the cab, windows closed and AC cranking, Jesse leaned forward. The meter was off. Addressing the driver in Thai, he negotiated a fare and described the route to Ko’s hotel. The driver offered a cheap price and compliments on Jesse’s language skills. Jesse leaned back, pleased.
Traveling on the left side of the road, as per Thailand’s British-style traffic rules, they crawled toward the Taksin Bridge, and Jesse drank in the big city of his childhood. They passed shops selling everything from electronics to fruit to clothes and Buddha statues. The roads were narrow and lights bright. He observed a vendor selling noodle soup, another with kebabs. In an alley, a group of people were sitting and laughing. A bowl of pinkish shells on the table revealed they had been eating shrimp. Further down, a girl was doing homework in the back of a shop. Electrical and telecoms lines drooped from poles and were tacked along walls in thick bundles—some as low as waist-level. Metal gates protected a mansion, sandwiched between other structures, crumbling on one side.
The taxi came to a stop at a traffic light. Slowly a sea of scooters and mopeds engulfed them, headlights beaming. One by one they pushed to the front of the intersection to wait—as if the cars were boulders, stationary objects to be circumnavigated. The motorbike drivers crab-crawled along the pavement to maneuver tight turns around idling cars. Once the light turned green, their engines roared and poofed out a cloud of black soot.
Flood lights reflected on the gold roof of a Buddhist temple, illuminating the night sky. Dilapidated two-and-three story row homes decorated with fancy ironwork and shutters reflected faded colonial French influence. Sleek new high-rises cried out to the country’s burgeoning middle class.
Joanna broke the silence. “Oh!” she chirped. “Look at those buildings. Some of their windows are missing. It’s like they’re abandoned. Kind of apocalyptic.”
“They are. Abandoned, that is. They’re called ghost towers,” Jesse said. “Vertical scrap heaps.”
“Some people even climb them,” he said above the roar of a couple of tuk tuks, which raced by over the center line. “At least the advertising agencies have the sense to project images and unfurl giant banners on them. Nobody wants to pay for demolition.”
“There are so many—once you notice them,” she said.
“Developers went broke, after the collapse of the baht back in ’97,” he said. “An agonizing reminder—and a warning.”
“It could happen again.”
“You know how it is. Crashes come and go, like tornadoes and ethnic conflicts. Eventually there’s another big one.”
A vehicle that looked like a pick-up truck with benches installed long ways in the back pulled up next to them. It was filled with women.
Jesse saw Joanna staring at it. “It’s called a songthaew. Works like a bus,” he said.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Jesse clenched his teeth. The image of the abandoned towers stuck in his mind. Financial crises, storms, battles, what’s the difference, he thought. All were subject to the same cycles of destruction and rebirth. Some areas—destined to recover, others to fester. Sad to think Bangkok might never rid itself of these wrecks. Would they crumble and take their squatters with them?
When they crossed the bridge, Jesse looked upriver. A water taxi zipped past a container ship. A million lights reflected in the water—midnight blue, red, yellow and white. How different from the browns, golds and greens of the Great Plains.
Suddenly, the taxi was pulling into a drive.
“We’re there,” Jesse said. “Ko’s hotel. Let’s find out what the hell is so urgent.”
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