For a few, the direction of movement is inwards; these cities are shrinking. They may simply have run out of energy and be deflating like an old balloon that has no puff. Or hatred based on religion or race may have dealt them a mortal injury; their residents flee from ruined homes and office blocks as bombs and gunfire cauterise municipal wounds. Cities in this much pain take generations to heal.
But most human cities are still growing; they’re getting thicker, deeper and higher. Below, a teeming broth throws up central spires of glass and peaks of steel. These cities are coming to a head; they rise up like tectonic hills of concrete with a base whose capacity to support them is untested. Will these pyramids of human enterprise prove stable? Will the base sustain the apex? There has to be a limit, but fashion and competition dictate we haven’t reached it yet.
Those crusty spots that don’t equate greatness with height—those perhaps in unrestricted locations—expand along the ground. Like fungi in the lawn, these cities push out their searching hyphae along whatever lines of weakness they can find—motorways, trunk roads, old tracks in the forest or footpaths through the valley. They spread like frost on a windowpane, outwards from the centre, expanding the mass. What was yesterday a leafy lane today has become two rows of shops ending with a landfill dump. The road goes nowhere today, but tomorrow it will. Meanwhile the rows of shops behind are being pulled down and replaced with higher rents, buildings more appropriate for the expanding core.
Any city will send up spores. Small packets of people are projected outwards beyond the advance like seeds from an exploding pod. They take root beyond the city limits and enjoy their moment of rural tranquility in the belief that stasis has been achieved. But however powerful the charge, the human cannonballs always land too close. What is countryside when they come to earth soon becomes a satellite and then suburbia. Before long, the tendrils of the city are at the end of the street, its sweaty fingers probing the open spaces, feeling the cool country air, sensing an opportunity for a housing development, a new shopping complex or a multistorey car park.
Pattaya is a city that fits this last description. In a developing country like Thailand you have to expect development, but nothing prepares you for the speed of advance. It can be unsettling to leave town even for a week. When we return there’s another convenience store in our street, a Tesco or a 7-Eleven; another row of shop-houses has appeared, as if fabricated elsewhere and merely craned into position overnight. What was there before? I can never remember. A laundry? A restaurant? An orchid seller? When the past is built over, memories too are erased. One day these new shop units will be forgotten. There’s just enough time for a family to move in, dream up some business and scrape a living from the concrete cube before someone else comes with a wrecking ball and a better idea for making money from the same land.
When we moved to Pattaya, we had misgivings about settling in the east of the city. The Sukhumvit Road, that long and ancient highway that connects Bangkok with Cambodia, seemed to cut us off from the city’s heart. We should have known that Pattaya couldn’t be contained that easily. With the sea holding it in on the west, there was no hope for the east. The Sukhumvit Road wasn’t the barrier we thought it was. The once-rural lanes of Siam Country Club, Khao Noi and Khao Talo have succumbed to the energetic rush of commerce from downtown Pattaya.
There are plans now at the city’s three main junctions with the Sukhumvit Road to lower the highway into a cutting, allowing the North, Central and South Roads to flow over the top like a spilt drink. If this ever happens it will represent a change in gear for Pattaya’s expansion. Before, development washed up our road like surf that could be breasted. But when the Sukhumvit Road is breached, it will release a tsunami, a tidal wave of building that will swamp everything we know, and then continue out into the countryside beyond. We started on the edge of town; when we come up for air we shall find ourselves in the new expanded downtown. Pattaya will engulf us.
Whether we welcome this is irrelevant. In a city where no-one knows your name, you embrace what it throws at you or you ship out.
Pattaya has a transient population. The mystery is that we have maternity departments in our hospitals, yet no-one is born here. Everyone comes from somewhere else. Western newcomers are known as farangs, foreigners, yet in reality everyone here is a foreigner. Where do you come from? Where were you born? Isaan, usually, though it could be the North, or the South, Bangkok even. These multitudes, un-numbered in city statistics, are drawn to Pattaya jobs like water swirling in a drain. As they get close, they move slow and straight. When they reach the gravitational centre of Thailand’s eastern seaboard, they start to accelerate and spin down into its maw.
Pattaya didn’t invite me to come and stay; and when I’ve gone, the city will not mourn. No marker stone will show the place I lived. This is a town without a history; its birth occurred without chronicles; its development had something to do with the Vietnam war, but this disreputable past is no longer remembered in any detail.
So it will be in days to come. Buildings and roads will be swept away and replaced; people too. Just as we can’t remember what stood where a new department store has been built, so we will forget who lived in a particular house. What happened to that couple? Perhaps they returned to the North, to the South. Perhaps they died. Who knows?