Brink of the Clouds

Two days after Christmas, I finished some internet business at the McBen Coffeehouse on Sukhumvit Soi 8, but I didn’t yet feel like heading back to Khoasan Road. Instead I took the sky train to Siam Square and walked over the Khlong Saen Saep canal to the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, which, as it proudly proclaims to anyone who will listen, is the tallest hotel in the world. Not building, mind you, I believe that honor goes to the Taipei 101 in Taiwan. The Baiyoke Sky is the tallest hotel.

It can claim the tallest building in Bangkok though and indeed all of Thailand. It stands a singularly massive, circular structure jutting up into the Bangkok sky and looking up at it from the bridge over the canal gave me a mild feeling of vertigo, something that has always happened to me when gazing up at some great height. Strange but I have always experienced vertigo looking up at heights, never looking down from them.

The Baiyoke Sky Hotel is circular and the revolving observation deck on the eighty-seventh floor slowly swivels around at a soaring height of three hundred meters and, though the Empire State building is taller than the Baiyoke (by eighty one meters), is not as dramatic from the top. The Baiyoke has sheer, architecturally unbroken sides, when you lean out you look straight down and, unlike the Empire State building which is surrounded by other high rises, the Baiyoke massively dwarfs everything else in the area, which makes it seem much higher than the Empire State Building.

However, for me, the most amazing thing about the Baiyoke Sky Hotel is the elevator. Somehow, seemingly by bending the rules of physics, LG has managed to construct an elevator that ascends nearly three hundred meters in forty seconds and produces almost no discernible sense of motion. Not only is that faster than any elevator I’ve ever ridden in, but even while watching the city lights shrink toward my feet, I still could not convince myself that I was moving.

The sensation was almost creepy, as if the movement were staged, the elevator motionless and a fake background rolling by. My ears popping at the rapid change in height were the only tangible sense of motion I could feel. It was such an extraordinary experience that before I left I rode it twice more up and down, just to make sure that my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.

The physics defying ride exited on the eighty-fifth floor . From there I made my way up two flights of stairs to the observation deck. The Bangkok nightscape stretched out beneath me like radioactive paint flung on a black felt canvas.

It was impossible to pick out individual people below. Even cars on the highways and overpasses were just streaks, red taillights smearing the night, with dirty yellow-white headlights the color of angel wings too long in the smoggy air. There were no roads, just one continuous river of light flowing among the glittering black rock of buildings. The deck rotated, creaking as it turned, and the occasional thumps and bumps of the mismatched joints beneath the steel top were the only sound as I glided around the hotel. It gave me the sensation of standing on a ballerina’s shoulder as she turned a slow, continuous pirouette round the clouds.

In those moments when the mechanisms of turning fell silent, the faint sounds of the city could be heard rising from below, nothing distinct, more like the hum of a computer when you walk in the room, or the white noise of your refrigerator droning that you don’t notice until you’re sitting there late at night in the silence of a sleeping house where suddenly the sound of the coils and Freon become an almost deafening noise. The sound of Bangkok from a great height was similar. The apparently the metal grating, around the outside, which makes a nice brace for long exposure night shots, is the result of a team of Norwegians who base jumped from the deck in 2000. I tried to find out if anyone had ever jumped from the deck, but no one would give me an answer.

After having my fill of the heights I wandered down to the bar area two floors below the deck where supposedly the elevator ticket was good for a free drink, descending as I did into a candlelit darkness. Everyone seemed to be clearing out just as I arrived, but isn’t that the way it always seems?

I took a seat in one of the red vinyl chairs near the entrance just in front of a baluster that seemed to be imitating a telescope, starting small at the base and progressively growing out toward the ceiling, little circular shelves, a perfect matchbox race track complete with tubular florescent road lights that wound around, beads of blue light driving up the tiny path toward the ceiling. The tiny blue lights and a few candles were the only light in the bar.

The darkness was occasionally punctuated by the lightning flashes of snap happy tourists at the window in front of the elevator, apparently unaware of the limited range of such bulbs. Sitting next to the window, staring out at the city below, the combined effect of the height and flashes of light gave me the feeling of sitting in some great stationary thunderhead, as if at any moment the wind might kick up and carry us westward dumping torrents of rain over the neighborhoods until finally we would dissipate over the South China Sea.

As I sat in the lounge sipping whiskey from a crystal cordial glass which somewhat contrasted with the otherwise futuristic decor, I tried to calculate how long you would fall from this height. I’m not real great at math, but think you have about 12 seconds to regret your choice, or if you’re Norwegian, to open your chute.

“The city is a cathedral” writes James Salter, “its scent is dreams.” We humans love our replica hives, built perhaps from memories embedded in our DNA; we feel safety in numbers, a desire to be close to one another, yet seek to find our own honey in the comb. Cities become our collective cathedrals, redolent with our most venerable dreams reflected out of the darkness of our fears and nightmares. Perhaps this is why night in the city is so compelling — this mixture of dualities, the one place where we can see everything together and mingling.

I always feel younger in cities, something about the city at night makes everything seem possible, the sound of the wheels on the concrete, the determined and purposeful stride of strangers around you on the sidewalks, everything seems to have its place in the city, it grows out of the darkness of night to bring light.

Even in Bangkok as I walked back from the Baiyoke Hotel I found myself thinking of New York and how much I miss it, particularly the sound of the wheels on Sixth Avenue in the rain, that wet hiss punctuated with splashes and the rain muted sound of horns. In October when it starts to turn cold and all you want to do is get off the street into somewhere warm with friends, but something makes you linger there watching the endless glitter of lights and windows reflecting and refracting in some perpetual bouncing circle so that you can feel earth turning, as if the energy of its core were right beneath you.


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