Book-Crawling in Bangkok

by B. Somnouk Thao Worra

"Welcome to Thailand!" my enthusiastic taxi driver said to me as we roared down the concrete streets of Bangkok. "We have everything here, simply everything," he announced with a helpful smile. "If you want, I can give you a special tour and show you around. Where would you like to go first?"

"Have you got a bookstore?" I asked.

He stared at me through his rearview as if I just told him I was from Mars.

"You want a pretty girl? Lots of pretty girls," he counter-offered.

"Who are your best poets in Thailand?" I asked.

That earned me the Mars look again.

It soon became clear that among the many vices of the East, the reader's vices were the hardest met.

First off, I dare anyone who touches down at the Bangkok International Airport to last 30 minutes before they're scammed, short-changed, swindled or snookered. Forget soccer and muay thai. The con is the true national sport in this country.

The old hands there tell me a farang gets taken every five minutes in Asia's City of Angels, and they're working around the clock to shave it down to two. I have it on good authority that P.T. Barnum and Mr. Ripley were reincarnated here. It's not a place for puritans or pilgrims by any stretch of the imagination.

Still, a dollar goes a long way in Bangkok, and for writers like yours truly, that makes up for a lot of ethical shortcomings that abound in the last real monarchy of the Golden Triangle.

Now, travelers are likely to find themselves in one of two areas: Sukhomvit Road or the notorious Khaosan Road. Sukhomvit Road is Adam Smith's wet dream, seriously over-compensating for the lack of (official) free markets in the majority of Asia. The section known as Siam Square in particular takes the Mall of America like a destitute Amish waif and buggers it in the back alley: Nearly a half-dozen seven-story Megamalls loom there, winking at the hapless tourists seductively. The only thing that's missing is the theme park. (But you just need to take a tuk-tuk three-wheeled motortaxi for that last effect.) Granted, everyone and their mother is selling about the same thing from stall to stall and the principles of profit here are as cryptic as a Sanskrit sutra on accounting, but hey, go figure.

By and large, the more adventurous can loiter in Khaosan Road, which makes Obi Wan's Mos Eisley look like Lake Woebegone. Asking around, getting a lot of the Mars look in the process, I eventually tracked down a good lead for the inveterate book-worm. Naturally, it just had to be Khaosan Road.

There, backpackers, tourists and hard-luckers turn a brisk trade dumping off airport novels and mass-market tree-killers for fistfuls of baht, the local coin of choice next to good old greenbacks. God only knows why travelers pack half these books in the first place. But you have your choice of venues, from flimsy card-tables on the sidewalk to Chinese-style open-storefronts to somewhat more "upscale" stores with western-style doors and air-conditioning.

Down here, it's not unusual to find some desperate, wild-eyed farang trying to get some change for their tattered copies of "Let's Go" or "Lonely Planet," walking up and down the flophouses approaching anyone who looks like they speak even a hint of English. It's a dice-roll what you'll find. In most of these shops, the forensic evidence points to a horde of hookah-puffing hippies and wannabe Jim Morrisons who dumped their hemp knapsacks out on their way to trip the light fantastic. And don't bother to expect a good price if you're fobbing books on the Buddha. They've got enough already. After all, this is the same country where there are more statues of the Buddha than people who've ever lived here.

If you're fluent in Blade Runner's mishmash vernacular of Cityspeak, you should fit right in bartering with the various street merchants. Fortunately for the rest of us, most negotiations are carried out via calculator and a deft game of counteroffer. But just remember, no one ever beats the house in Vegas, and no one ever gets the very best deal in Bangkok. But you'll feel like it for a few moments, until you reach the next stall. As fair warning, don't cross the Thai Mafia here on Khaosan Road, and never, EVER accept a "free" lesson in gambling. "Accidents" happen, and you don't want to end up a fresh exhibit at the grotesque Songkran Miyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum behind the Siriraj Hospital.

If you're looking for newer books or stuff from the locals, you're pretty much stuck with Asia Books, which is basically Borders, Barnes and Noble and a publishing company all rolled into one, without the coffee shops. Usually, a branch is poured into the space of a B. Dalton and the staff, while friendly enough, is better left alone if you seriously want to find something. Bangkok merchants just aren't counting on the lit crowd to come by here, when there are so many other vices to ply.

Asia Books' in-house publications can usually be found in various gift shops and groceries and usually lean towards pulp fiction and farang narratives like "No Money, No Honey!" (True title.)

If you're looking for poetry out here, good luck. There's a surfeit of titles like Thai for Lovers for the rice-chasers, street maps, and big-print picture books to take you to all of the best tourist traps you can find there. But poetry? That's like asking Exxon to support solar power. There's a small cabal of poets in Bangkok trying to change that, but it's tough competition in such a media-saturated city. You can hook up with them at, however, and if your timing is right (about once every 6 weeks) you can even catch a Thai-style poetry slam.

At the time of this story, a group of crazed ex-pats down there had finally gotten around to producing their own tongue-in-cheek magazine, "Farang," just for the likes of us, and more often than not, it's had a more accurate low-down on the local scene than rags like the Bangkok Post. It'll probably be only a matter of months before it gets co-opted or goes belly-up, but for now "Farang" is worth keeping an eye out for, just for the laughs it affords.

That said, Bangkok's still a great jewel of the East that's not to be missed in a lifetime. Though if you're looking for something to read, you're probably much better off writing it yourself.

And a final word to whatever sick wag decided to organize the international Boy Scout Jamboree on the outskirts of Bangkok: You're a wicked, wicked man.

Copyright 2003 by B. Somnouk Thao Worra. All rights reserved.