The Astronomical Cost of Clean Air in Bangkok

"Almost Everything in Bangkok Eventually Becomes Smoke"

By  Pitchaya Sudbanthad

The condo salespeople like to point out that the higher you live, the whiter your lungs. They’ll tell you that less tainted air here sweeps freely above the smog that keeps Bangkok in a perpetual haze. Up this high, you can look forward to breathtaking views of color-saturated sunsets. The way the sunsets are described makes you think of ones seen after terrific volcanic eruptions. That view. Not every hundred years. Not even every decade. Champagne-worthy sunsets are yours every evening.

These are spectacular times for those who value great heights; you’ve looked it up. In the mid-1980s, the tallest building in Bangkok reached 33 floors; the tallest one now—just over thirty years later—has 70, with a 125-floor tower slated for completion by 2025.

The urge to build higher never abates, because the worshipful pray skyward. Before modern times, each pagoda built must be bigger and more awe-striking than before, and so must the new towers, reaching higher beyond the earthbound sky, past the heavenly strata where the devas dwell—higher and higher—until the occupants of such towers exceed the possibilities offered by mere nirvana and arrive at the most holy realm of capital.

The air is so much purer here, those of this realm will remind you. They will, if it happens to be a clear enough day, invite you to take a break from the crisp A/C air and step out to the balcony, where they will take a big breath and express disappointment if you don’t do the same.

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Depending on the weather, the view from the balcony might even resemble its digitally simulated depiction in the tower’s sales brochure. The color of the sky doesn’t look very far off from the gradient of sacred blue belonging to both night and day. Here, you’re simultaneously waking up and falling asleep. You’re like Vishnu dreaming the universe. Live in this tower, and the Gaussian-blurred city below is yours.

Almost everything in Bangkok eventually becomes smoke.

The depiction you saw in the sales collateral, however, had omitted the other buildings in the vicinity and erased the colonies of long-necked cranes turning and dipping everywhere. There were no other emergent towers shrouded in dust screen as if Bangkok is a colony of mega-art projects, nobody doing calisthenics exercises at a balcony across from you, and no one to watch you until it was your turn to watch them too. Rather, staring at the brochure, you were made to believe in the verdant spread of trees between low-rise buildings and shophouses, so that you might’ve wondered whether the condo building is in Bangkok at all or among a lost civilization’s yet discovered ruins in a tropical jungle.

Perhaps, standing at the actual balcony, you’ll think more about that lost civilization, and you’ll start to wonder about its people. Who are they? How do they make their lives? You swear you can faintly hear them. They’re alive in the bursts of car horns and the whooshing from the nearby highway. You hear them in the cries of scattered sparrows. You remember their impatience. They want to arrive everywhere as quickly as they can, and to do so, they’ll work to collapse time itself and everything along with it.

You know the outcome. What the people of this civilization instead live with is time stretched farther and farther, so that, stuck waiting to resume their motion along the grand roads and avenues they’ve paved across land and water, a minute comes to feel like hours.

You know what that’s like. There are now almost 10 million cars and motorcycles in Bangkok. It took you an hour in traffic to get to the condo building. You passed the time thumb-scrolling on your phone through updates from friends and family you haven’t seen in a while, because it would take hours to visit them across the city. At least you weren’t riding a bus—one of those with permanently open windows that only bring in hot, smoky air. By virtue of hermetic privilege, you rode to the condo building in a taxicab, while motorcycle and scooter drivers breathing through surgical masks wove past your window. The city’s pharmacists dispense allergy medication like candy. Every day, you check an app for the day’s Air Quality Index. You know about a 2017 World Health Organization study of air pollution in Thailand; every one of the 14 cities monitored exceeded acceptable safety standards, with an estimated 50,000 premature deaths each year attributable to breathing to stay alive. Bangkok’s average concentration of particles smaller than 2.5 microns was three times higher than the organization’s safety limits. What can you do?

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Almost everything in Bangkok eventually becomes smoke. You and your family learn to live with it: the fume clouds from cars and buses and scooters but also the delicious clouds from skewered meats blackening on a clay charcoal grill, like the kind your grandmother used to cook; the pulpy smoke drifting across the pavement from where an old amah has squatted down to burn afterlife money to those gone; the gray wisp billowing out of a crematorium chimneys towering over the temple ground.

At night, the citywide canopy of smoke and mist reflects the light of busy life. The sky glows like a dim lantern. There are no stars. The only constellations you see are made of high-rise windows twinkling blue and gold.

For most in the city, there’s little hope of escaping high above to look out at the hot haze while breathing cool, filtered air.

Soon, you return to gaze at these celestial bodies from below. You leave the sanctity of the building complex driveway and re-enter circulation as a ground-walker. The heat is near unbearable, even after the sun has receded. The whole day’s sunlight, trapped underfoot, makes it ascendant return from the hard concrete that seems to cover every square meter of the city. Where tall buildings form mountainous ridges, the heat’s return is thwarted, and so it curls back to the earth, caught in tormented limbo. Balcony air-condition units whirl over the heads of those lingering outside, who are topping up their data plan at the mobile phone shop or eating pickled mango at the curb or leaning, exhausted, against the bus shelter in their white and blue school uniform–some fanning themselves with any suitable object, be it a folded newspaper or their own cupped hand.

For most in the city, there’s little hope of escaping high above to look out at the hot haze while breathing cool, filtered air. You do the math in your head, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rent out the condo unit so that it’d pay for itself. The mortgage payments would amount to twice the likely market rent, which is already astronomical, considering the average salaries of even those jobs considered respectable in Bangkok. The gap only seems to continue to widen; relatives have suggested that you can always flip a unit for worthwhile profit in a year or two. In Bangkok, like in so many cities dead set on the track of infinite growth, a condo is not just a home; it’s also a store of the unreal. Money is everyone’s unspoken housemate.

You swipe the back of a hand across your forehead. The beads of sweat at your eyebrows save you from thinking anymore about money. Rather, the heat makes you think of the day in April marking the beginning of the new year and rice planting season, when almost everyone young is out on the sidewalk with buckets of water, waiting to splash or get splashed. Pick-up trucks rove the street transporting platoons armed with water bazookas and plastic bathing bowls. There are hardly any rice fields left in the city anymore, and the cleanliness of the water is usually very questionable, but you’d pay good money to get haplessly splattered right about now. You do feel yourself getting drenched—by your own sweat. Your clothes begin to stick to your shoulders and underarms. You wave your arms in wide, frantic arcs, trying to hail a taxi, but you’re in central Bangkok and don’t look like a tourist and easy mark. Each taxi passes by you, empty, the drivers shaking their heads or not even acknowledging that you’re there. You at least head in the direction of a Skytrain stop. You’re walking, or more rather, wading through gelatinous, watery air that feels like it’s about to boil.

In Bangkok, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between air and water and whatever lingering gases.

Is it possible to drown on land? To drown is to be deprived of life-giving oxygen by its replacement with a fluid matter—water, of course, but why not also fumes? In Bangkok, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between air and water and whatever lingering gases. The city’s all a soup really— spicy on the nose and acidly sour with a hint of char; it’s a taste that forces you to acquire it. You’re again reminded of Thai Buddhist cosmology: the underworld you were told of, as a child, where the sinful are made to endure a boiling in copper cauldrons. What have you done to deserve this punishment? What has anyone done but be reborn into this age? Here, water and smoke hold dominion. You’re afforded no illusion of escape, unlike those in the sky.

Not long ago, in 2011, you saw what could happen when everything went wrong. The water’s coming, everyone in Bangkok said helplessly, and it did, viciously—perhaps vengefully—washing over anything in its path. The airports shut down. Car manufacturing parks sunk. Entire neighborhoods turned into an unnatural sea. You stood outside your house and eyed with wariness the thin film of water that’s covered the road. Your toilet backed up, brimming with who knew what, and you had to pee into a bottle to avoid flushing. You kept the TV on all day and night for updates from parts of the city already overwhelmed. Who knew what could’ve happened even after you’d prayed for the higher entities and land spirits to keep the water from reaching you? Next thing, you could be watching the wall of sandbags you’d built prove entirely useless or maybe joining with neighbors to pry open a water gate you believed was keeping your home inundated to the second floor. You were either dry or drowned. It all seemed random, but you also hoped you lived close enough to central Bangkok, with all its important HiSo addresses and billion-baht buildings, for the water to magically flow elsewhere.

They’ve since told you that kind of catastrophe won’t happen again. Measures have been taken. New barriers and drainage were built, and canals dredged. Next flood, no problem. You can trust them, you want to think. You can ignore observations that the streets still very often turn into canals and after only a day’s rain. You can deny that the weight of all the newly built towers is helping to press the city downward, tugged even lower by subsidence from excessive use of groundwater underneath. Bangkok’s sinking anywhere from 2-3 centimeters a year, as you’ve read scientists estimate in the papers. And no, the sea isn’t rising, you say to yourself. The tides will let any flooding empty into the ocean. The water won’t come again.

A taxi cab finally stops for you. You happily hop in and let the air-conditioned air pummel your face. It’s arctic cold.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is available now from Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK). He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn.





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