If asked to describe the city I live in I would say it resembles a great beehive, each little chamber like a secret place ensconced in the great construction of concrete, metal and wires. Bangkok is not a city made for walking, even if one is brave enough to fight the heat and slide through the crowded sidewalks, dodging the peddlers and the pots of food without their lids on, the uneven paving in places and the noisy tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis coming from all sides.
Strangely enough, there was none of that as I arrived at the Neilson Hays Library, located in one of the city’s busiest areas but mercifully enough on a side street that was almost deserted last Sunday morning. The building itself reminded me of the ones at home, in the area we call “the old city”, as it stood white and elegant and so very different from the other constructions I was used to, that it had the air of a familiar oasis in the harsh desert. The poster at the entrance announced “Bangkok Literary Festival” and I thought with a smile that I couldn’t have picked a more perfect day for my first visit.
I made my way inside, to the interior “garden” which was almost entirely occupied by stands of books for sale, and immediately to my right found the entrance to the library building and went in. A feeling of homesickness came over me as I saw the book cabinets crammed full of books, and I walked around for a while, recognizing an author here and there and finding a few interesting new ones whose works looked promising.
Right in the middle of the library there was a space arranged with chairs and a smiling little Asian man was talking about “The Art of Cook Book Writing”. I sat down at the edge of one chair and opened my booklet with the program for the day. The speaker was Ken Hom, a celebrity chef, whose love for food led to several books and a BBC tv series in 1984. The lecture was interesting even if a tiny bit pompous for my taste but enjoyable nevertheless. He spoke about his love for food, the traditional way of presenting it – “food cut up in squares or coming out of tubes is not my thing” (something along those lines – and I couldn’t agree more) and the importance of testing your food several times before you actually commit it to a book. He said another thing that stuck with me – if someone likes one of your recipes you’ve got a fan for life – and I remembered my friend Maggie who introduced me to Christmas cookies last December which ignited in me a passion for baking.
After the lecture I went into the Rotunda Gallery, a small circular room with paintings on the walls and an inscription right above the door. When I came out another lecture was about to start, and the speaker was a writer whose books I’ve seen in the local bookstores but somehow never felt inclined to buy: Stephen Leather. I spent another few minutes going around the shelves, taking pictures, looking at some of the magazines on the tables, and just enjoying myself.
I left with a pang of regret but also happy that I discovered a nice little refuge in the great hot beehive that is Bangkok, one that I would definitely go back to every now and then.
*Click on the photos to enlarge.