“Bangkok Wakes to Rain” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Rain

Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s story of Bangkok is the most complete and engrossing tale of this megacity of fifteen million souls ever portrayed in a single publication. His debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much an ode to the metropolis’s extremes as it is to the wide-ranging and singular characters that animate its streets and sois.

All of the characters of this novel connect with Bangkok, or what Bangkok once was, in a meaningful way. Some of Pitchaya’s uprooted individuals are displaced from a physical locality—others from traditions and histories that defined earlier versions of themselves and their communities. Those rituals they perform, some of them spiritual and some of them diurnal, are a way to connect themselves to a remembered past. Bangkok itself is an apt exemplar, as the town was born as a refuge after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Much of early Bangkok was designed in remembrance of that former international trading port and royal house farther up the Chao Phraya River. Pitchaya artfully intertwines the fate of Bangkok—and what he later imagines as New Bangkok after a terrible flooding—with the main characters’ longing for things past.

The book contains many separate stories of different characters so that the chapters flow back and forth between different centuries and disparate individuals. The distinct stories begin to merge as the narrative progresses, so that the city of Bangkok itself becomes a common touchstone. Some of these characters include a doctor and an engineer working for a 19th-century Christian mission, a student lover lost in the 1976 October massacre at Thammasat University, an American jazz pianist relocated to a postwar Bangkok, a Thai photographer wandering the globe, an upper-class family at the Thai embassy in London, and a couple of school-aged friends, who are now too grown old to do much else aside from discuss the peculiarities of a technologically advanced future where former citizens of Bangkok must call the new settlements along the mountains that border Myanmar and Thailand their home. The breadth and scope of these incongruous tales end up making sense together in the end, like waves rolling into each other to create a greater whole.

 

Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Riverhead, Sceptre, February 2019)
Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Riverhead, Sceptre, February 2019)

The characters must contend with their own versions of dislodgement. Each confronts what it means, if but for a moment, to become closer to events or locales long-lost to the rising tides.

Pitchaya’s imagery of rain and river—of water’s destructive power to recast a modern metropolis—is visceral. The end of the book illustrates the fear of many for Bangkok’s inevitable future. A medical worker makes her rounds in a long-tailed boat of old Bangkok to help those too poor, or simply unwilling, to escape to higher ground:

 

It’s deeper here, nearly all the two- and three-story shophouses have gone under, their roof visible as rectangular tracts of mud through the murky water. Only above four or five stories do buildings remain above water, for who knows how long. Anything has a way of disappearing. Every once in a while, we wake to trembling floorboards accompanied by a horrific sound, like hundreds of food cans being crushed, and in the morning someone will report that Uncle W or Uncle Hilton had toppled over, a few kilometers away.

 

After the medical worker’s house call, she asks the boys steering the boat to visit a section of Bangkok from her childhood. She thinks “it would be nice to bring back a photo” before she returns to “New Krungthep”. The boys are familiar with the area:

 

… a dense valley of buildings in different stages of decrepitude. Some are leaning, some have crumbled. Wriggly vines often cover them, erasing telltale floors, so that from a distance they look like ancient cliffs risen out of the sea. The light shines strangely there, passing through gouged floors and the remnants of glass facades. Not the most hospitable part of Krung Nak, if you ask us. The only ones who go there are the swifts’ nest harvesters, who are secretive about their sites and not very friendly. They sometimes shoot before warning.

 

She heeds the boys’ warning and is returned to dry land. Such is Bangkok in the future.

 

Unlike Thai authors such as Prabda Yoon or Veeraporn Nitiprapha—recent examples of writers whose stories have been translated into English for an international audience—Pitchaya composes in English, not in Thai. Though originally a native of Thailand, Pitchaya has spent much of his life honing his craft aboard. He currently divides his time between Brooklyn and Bangkok. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is as much a story global in perspective as it is unique to Thailand.

Delightfully haunting and compelling, Bangkok Wakes to Rain depicts the way both locals and foreigners have come to love Bangkok. The novel may be a warning of probable extirpation for the megalopolis, but it is also a reminder that Krungthep, like Ayutthaya before it, will be always remembered as one of our great cities.


T F Rhoden, PhD, has been a resident of Southeast Asia for fifteen years and currently works in international aid and relief. His most recent book is Karen Language Phrasebook: Basics of Sgaw Dialect (White Lotus Press, 2015).