Jennifer Gampell
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Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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May 23-24, 2003


Wong's Place Was the Epitome of Bangkok Cool
By Jennifer Gampell

Bangkok -- Is it strange to kneel near a gilded white coffin holding an incense stick, talking to the person lying inside? To some, perhaps. But I've enjoyed going to Wat Hualumphong each evening and chatting to my friend Paitoon "Wong" Kittidachanubhap as he lies on a bier in Sala Four. It helped reconcile me to the notion that the owner of my favorite bar in Bangkok is no more.

Wong died on Monday, May 12 of a lung cancer that metastasized rapidly from the three centimeter patch the doctors found on his lungs in January. He was 47, and the 10th of 12 children. His younger brother Sam, who looks and talks uncannily like him, encouraged me to talk to Wong in his coffin. Hearing is the last of our senses to go when we die, he explained, and Wong could still hear everything I said.

So for the five days leading up to the cremation on Saturday, I knelt below the coffin and talked to Wong. I told him I'd been to a new Soi 4 bar last Friday where gin and tonics cost 140 baht ($3.33) instead of 45 baht at his place. And how I listened to an OK live band of aging hippies with day jobs, but no way did their old classics compare to Wong's vast collection of music videos. When I finished talking I put the incense stick in a container. Each afternoon I felt a tingle throughout my body. I sincerely believe Wong got the message.

Each evening at 7 p.m., Sam knocked three times on Wong's coffin and then joined the other family members below the dais on which four saffron-robed monks sat in lotus position. During the 40-minute ceremony, cars drove between the two adjacent salas clunk-clunking on the metal gratings. Announcements blared out from somewhere on the huge temple compound. Lottery ticket vendors wandered about flogging their wares. Mobile phones rang. After two short rounds of chanting, a small snack was served and a final blessing chanted.

I wish every country had five-day funerals. It's so cathartic to reminisce about a dead person you loved with others who feel the same way. On Monday night, Wong's younger sister Lek (No. 12 in the Paitoon hierarchy) described his death. Few of his customers even knew he'd been hospitalized since March 18, and Wong adamantly refused to let people witness his rapid deterioration.

Just before 1 a.m. on Monday morning, Lek came back from buying Wong a jasmine garland. She placed it on his chest and held his hand. Music was playing and he was tapping out the beat on her hand. (He hadn't spoken for days because the cancer constricted his throat.) Tears ran out from his eyes, he smiled, and died. I adore the image of music playing Wong out of this life.

Maybe I didn't go to Wong's often enough to qualify as one of his serious regulars, but the dingy rectangular room on Sri Bhumphen has been like home ever since I first read about it in 1994 and sought it out. Nine years is longer than I've gone regularly to any bar in Bangkok -- or anywhere else I've ever lived. In a town as flukey and fluxy as this one, it's rare to find somewhere that consistently looks and feels the same.

Lek worked at Wong's when it first opened 16 years ago. Back then it was more a restaurant than a bar, albeit one that screened music videos. According to Lek, it was the breakfast venue of choice for all sorts of farangs, or foreigners, from derelict backpackers to the staff from nearby embassies. When the original cook left after five years, Wong started focusing less on food. While the Wong's of my time could hardly be termed a gourmet restaurant, over the years I did notice that several fellow eccentrics ate nightly meals there.

The Wong's I frequented for nine years was a one-person establishment. Wong was bar man, video operator, waiter, busboy, cashier, impromptu psychologist, schmoozer and resident guitar player. Completely oblivious to fashion (he wore shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops) or interior design (the walls just got dingier and dingier), Wong embodied the notion that "hip" isn't about clothes or trendy decor.

No matter how much Wong drank -- and apart from his few rides on the wagon he drank a lot -- he kept perfect track of your tab, whether you were three people or 30. Counting the number of beer bottles sitting on a table is easy, but he kept good track of everyone's mixed drink orders too. (Not that he ever served anything other than gin- or whiskey-based drinks.)

On particularly busy nights, or he when was very drunk, or when he just felt
like it, Wong plonked a bottle of gin on our table and told us to pour our own. When we'd finally insist on leaving (though he tried to entice us into staying longer by offering free drinks), he'd gather up his leather money belt from "his" table next to the metal refrigerator and tot it all up. At 45 baht for a beer or mixed drink, and never more than 80 baht for food, the bills were always embarrassingly low. But Wong categorically refused tips. "Mr. Wong never cared about money," Lek told me as we reminisced on Tuesday night. "He cared that you felt good being there."

My most memorable night at Wong's? That's a hard one since every night there was simultaneously utterly ordinary and extremely special. Does being part of a large and supportive family mean you take for granted the happy nurtured feeling you get at "home?" I wouldn't know because my family was small and bitter. But I imagine that's what happy families are about. And at least that's how I felt whenever I went to Wong's, be it four times in one month or one time in four months.

My all-time best moments in Bangkok -- or possibly anywhere -- were at Wong's. I danced my tail off to Kate Bush, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, CSNY, CCR and countless other singers and bands. We'd just shove a few chairs back and dance near the entrance. I even spent an officially alcohol-free night during a Bangkok gubernatorial election drinking G&Ts out of a coffee mug and listening to an unusually eclectic mixture featuring Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti & Friends and Serge Gainsbourg.

I keep reminding myself that Wong definitely would not have wanted us to get all maudlin over his passing. "Hey man," he would have said, "No big deal." But he was the coolest family I had in this city.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2003 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell