If you take a taxi to Bang Khun Thian, Bangkok’s southernmost district, and wander along the dusty roads for an hour or two in the searing heat, and accept a lift from a teen on a motorbike who may or may not understand where you’re trying to get to, and wander a little further past a giant crab with its pincers raised into the muggy sky, and loop back on yourself again, until you find a place where two roads meet against a marshy waterway, you might be able to book yourself a table at the restaurant at the end of the world.
But before you get there, let’s talk about where you came from.
Bangkok is a city living in the moment. The raised BTS metro line, built in the 1990s to relieve the city’s infamous congestion, has been extended past its original terminus at On Nut, and fed by this vascular expansion, the city is undergoing another wave of building fever. From my apartment balcony on the eighth floor I can see tin and breezeblock shanties amid the jungly scrub run up against the iridescent blue roof tiles of two storey villas, speaking of the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood. Beyond them, endless concrete towers are jut into the humid sky.
A tip for those flat-hunting in On Nut: buy the highest apartment you can afford. The entire city is scheduled be underwater in thirty years.
Bangkok’s delta apron, already washed annually by the monsoon rains channelled here as floodwater from the northern counties, is sagging under the weight of all this new construction. The architects pump groundwater out of soggy foundations and the land settles further still, and all the time the warm seas of the Thai gulf are rising. The city currently rests two metres below sea level.
Who in their right mind would finance a building boom in a city that expects to hit full Ballard by the middle of the century? Maybe the answer lies in the Thai language itself, which — according to popular myth — has no tense but the present tense. (There’s a little truth in this story, as Thai verbs don’t conjugate like English ones do. Instead, Thai uses ‘time markers’ to signal whether they’re talking about the past, present or future). As if to collaborate that phenomenon, during my stay I find that clocks are held in scant regard: a “five minute” wait for a taxi can easily stretch to half an hour; trains set off and arrive as they please. Western friends who live here know all too well this approximate form of timekeeping; “Thai time,” they shrug.
Which makes me wonder, how much does language influence our ability to plan for the future? The English have a word for “tomorrow”, but our term for the day after, overmorrow, fell out of usage. The Germans held on to that with übermorgen, but use a literal count, vierzehn Tage, for fortnight. Financial calendars taught us to speak about the “quarter”. Fixed limits on political terms gave Mexicans the sexenio and the French quinquenat. The Indonesians had a word for eight years, windu, sadly no longer in common use. The Chinese calendar system has ten, twelve, and sixty year cycles, and a reputation for long-sighted plans to match.
Can a culture be future-keen or future-averse, and if so, what strategies are on offer to expand our vocabulary for dealing with the future? The Long Now Foundation campaigns for the adoption of the five digit year: 02013, to urge us to think in spans an order of magnitude longer than we typically do. Would rekindling English’s love affair with overmorrow help us conceptualise our two-day future better? Would words for five, eight, or twelve year periods encourage thinking in the future tense?
Consider all this as you travel to the swampy heat of Bang Khun Thian, where you can find Bangkok’s past and future are written out in stone. The 28th Marker, a stone pillar some five feet high, was originally placed at the south-easterly limits of the city. Today, it is only accessible by the boat which ferries customers from the redrawn coastline to the modestly-named Sea View Restaurant. Both marker and restaurant stand on stretched legs, separated from the mainland by a kilometre of salty water. The intervening space has been forfeited by land that disintegrated after it was cleared of mangrove forests. Earthen banks built to halt the relentless advance of the sea were stamped into pieces by local fisherman, upset that their fishing ponds were no longer being restocked by the wash of the tide. And so, every year, the coastline creeps a little further north.
To visit the marker, you must boat gingerly through channels that were once streets, mindful of the past’s debris that scraps against the hull on slack tides. The forgotten geographies of the town are mapped out by lines of dead telephone poles and lampposts that rise out of brown water, a ghost city superimposed on an estuary. All around are the black stumps of fishermen’s raised huts, long since removed. From bamboo terraces of the restaurant, you can look south over brown water to the Thai gulf, a thin blue line on the horizon, and turn in your seat to look north, where the crowns of Bangkok’s high rises shimmer in the heat.
Since the high tides first lapped against it, the Bang Khun Thian city marker has become an iconic forebear of what Mother Nature has planned for Bangkok: the future illustrated by the present. If Bangkok’s citizens really did lack the words to discuss the future, the 28th Marker would be a damn good substitute.