I’m Not Imagining Things
March 23, 2014
The streets of Bangkok welcomed me like a lost child come home. As I stepped out of my hotel onto the quiet, narrow soi (street) a tuk-tuk driver called to me from beside a small soup stand where a handful of Thai patrons sat on low stools slurping noodles. It was late in the day. I imagined he couldn’t have had a lot of business today. I haven’t seen as many tourists as I’ve always been accustomed to seeing. I waved him off with a smile. He smiled back and raised his hand in recognition. I turned the corner onto the busy street and slipped inside the massage parlor for a $9 Thai massage. The price had gone up since my last visit. I used to pay about $6.50. Was I to complain about paying 300 baht for an hour of relaxation under a petite Thai woman’s uncannily strong hands and arms? I think not.
Upon my arrival in Bangkok I immediately took notice of the unusually paltry number of tourists I was always accustomed to wading through. I always seemed to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Westerners from the airport to the hotel to the massage parlors to the temples to Khao San Road. I asked myself if it was the time of year or the recent protests throughout Bangkok that made international news that contributed to this. It didn’t matter. Tourists aside, Bangkok had obviously, at least in its city center, not shown signs of a significant economic slump, just the opposite. Young, smartly dressed Thai’s plied the streets and socialized in throngs at the sidewalk cafes and central shopping areas, the sky train was packed as it whirred above Thanon Sukhumvit and Rama IX, and some of the shopping malls received an apparent facelift since my last trip here in 2010. If the tourists weren’t spending their money, someone else was.
Thailand’s becoming a middle class economy, if it hasn’t already. Its contrast from Yangon and Myanmar is striking. Healthcare, education, social reform, rule of law, democratic institutions, free and fair elections, and a strong national identity: Myanmar is no match. For all its change in recent years, Myanmar continues to lag statistically in nearly every category behind its neighbors to the east. The contrast between rich and poor, have’s and have not’s, is striking in Myanmar. Million dollar mansions rise up next to hovels and piles of trash. I could never understand that contradiction so widespread in the developing world. In the western world owning and gaining value on real estate is all about location, location, location. Location be damned in Myanmar and so many other places. It’s as though the space outside one’s walled compound doesn’t exist at all. The other day I saw a man in a large polished black car leave his posh compound. Just outside the gate he tossed a large handful of trash to the wind. Inside his compound a servant probably makes no more than $100 a month sweeping the ground, tending to the garden, mopping the floors and cleaning his toilet. Outside his walls everything else be damned, eh?
I was greeted by two beautiful Thai women at the entrance to the massage parlor. In Thai tradition, they greeted me by folding their hands at their breasts, bowing gently and saying, “Sawadee Ka.” I replied with the same gesture, “Sawadee Krup.” Their smiles warmed me.
I took the stairs up to the vaulted walkways over Siam Square. I had to find the sushi restaurant that was my usual stop whenever I came to Bangkok.
The shopping mall at the Siam Square Discovery Center had received a significant facelift. It rivaled any mall I had seen anywhere in the world. Practically any brand name you could think of was stacked in six floors of brightly lit compartments inside a neon exterior. On the sixth floor I found an Outback Steakhouse and an Asian-chain hotpot restaurant. My sushi dream would have to wait. My disappointment evaporated by the warm and welcoming greeting I was given by a young man and woman at the hotpot restaurant. Here you order your raw platter of vegetables and meat, then they bring a large metal pot of seasoned broth, turn on the flame in the hole at the center of the table and you cook your own meal. I wasn’t sure how it all worked at first, but the young woman enthusiastically demonstrated, as well as concocted a special sauce for me at an adjacent area that looked like a sauce version of a salad bar.
I thought I had hopped on the wrong sky train to Pat Pong. I got off after the first stop and searched slowly for a map that I hoped would help me reroute myself. I couldn’t find one. I asked a neatly dressed man who looked like he spoke English if this was the rail line to Sala Daeng. He smiled and told me it was. I wasn’t wrong after all. He instructed me to wait in the single file line behind the yellow painted strip at the end of the platform. A single file line in Asia? You’ve got to be kidding me! No one queues up in Asia! But there it was. As far as I could see down the platform one single file line after another waiting for the train to arrive. And when it did the people from inside the train exited between the rows first before the lines of on-waiters filed in. I was flabbergasted. What had come to pass that caused such British-like order in a region where I’m accustomed to being pushed and shoved, not by any mal intent, but simply by custom.
As I rode the sky train to Sala Daeng I started to ponder all the smiles and warm welcomes I had received in my first 8 hours here – so unlike Rakhine State in Myanmar. Whenever I visit our IDP camps I must either walk or be driven in the Township Administrators truck through town under police escort to the camps at the end of the village. Mostly the populace scowls or ignores my presence altogether. I was never once greeted with a friendly face by anyone other than my staff that live and work there. The village has the air of one of those creepy Hollywood B movies where Uncle John took a wrong turn and ended up in a town with a dark secret. Here, there is no secret, but it’s equally as dark. The Rakhine and Muslims hate each other. They hacked and brutalized each other and burnt down an entire section of the community in ethnic fighting in late 2012. The Muslim population of about 3,000 persons lives essentially in an internment camp type of situation while the Rakhine community has successfully pushed them from their schools, rice paddies and fishing livelihoods. Now the Rakhine want them out altogether. They resent the international community who has come to provide them emergency assistance. They obstruct our efforts in any way possible. I feel their resentment every time I visit.
Life inside an internment camp in Myebon
As I descended the sky train stairs at Sala Daeng I entered a strangely quiet night market in Pat Pong. I have memories of coming here with my wife to shop for shirts, shorts and gifts at the endless row after row of stalls that line the main street and the narrower corridors that invite the sex tourists from around the world. This is Sin City’s capitol of the world. Seedy men tug at your sleeve outside bars, parlors, and narrow stairways leading to ensnaring sex shows where women and men perform sex acts that seem hardly possible. Here it’s obvious that ‘art’ imitates life. One’s wildest sexual imaginings come to life on the stage just 20 steps up a dingy set of stairs.
Street-side, just beyond shoulder’s length from the stalls of knock-off Polo shirts, Louis Vuitton purses and junky tourist trinkets dance hall doors are rolled open to display topless Thai beauties in bikinis rolling their hips around a jungle of stainless steel bars on an elevated stage above a bar counter. I was always accustomed to seeing the bar stools lined with foreigners drinking beers and shots of tequila and lime while golden skinned Aphrodites with their seductive curves turn their tricks on beer-bellied, unshaven old men with greasy hair and fetid thoughts. My wife and I on occasion would sit at these same bars, mostly undisturbed, and marvel over the machinations of this sub-culture. Tonight, as a single man, I knew what would follow if I sat at that same bar. I’d be surrounded by topless temptresses who would seek my favor with a brush of their hand on my chest or inner thigh, offer generous compliments to an aging man, ask me to pay for an expensive 400 baht drink that ended up just being soda water and then offer me 30 minutes of nirvana in a rented room down the street.
I chose a small circular bar near the end of the neon-lit street. I thought this place safe from the temptations of the dancing girls whose charms I feared. I ordered a tequila and lime. Only when I downed the shot did I consider that I myself was perhaps one of those pot-bellied grinders who come to Thailand to fuck a beautiful young Thai woman for days on end. But no, I just wanted to be left alone. I felt better with that thought. I came to shop. No, I also came to satisfy my prurient interests. Yes, I wanted to look. These women are so beautiful. What is it that invites the image of vestal virgin, of innocence?
Before I was able to brush my lime with salt and pinch it between my teeth a tall, thin Thai woman pulled up a stool beside me. She asked where I was from. I told her. I expected the usual reply and received it. The reply “United States” has always been received with a big smile and other exclamations anywhere I’ve traveled in Southeast Asia. This evening was no different. She wanted to play a dice game that was sitting on the bar. I knew what was coming. I feigned not knowing how to play. I asked how much I would have to pay if I lost. She told me I wouldn’t have to pay. But after the first game ended she asked for a drink. I bought her one – one of those expensive soda waters – and the female bar tender took her usual cut from my change. I finished a second tequila and a couple more short games of dice. I told her I had to go. I got up from my stool. She tugged at my sleeve.
“Come on, you look nice in that white shirt. You nice and thin.” she said softly and with a look that would make any single man want to reconsider.
“I really have to go. Someone’s waiting.”
“Oh, you have a girlfriend?” she replied with disappointment.
“No.” I couldn’t think of more to say. I started to turn away.
She wrapped her hand around my upper arm. “You’re handsome man. What you think?”
I raised my shoulders, nodded and smiled a tight closed-lipped grin. The bar tender sneered at me. The young woman loosened her grip. I started to walk away. She let go.
“You come back?” she called after me.
I walked slowly down the quiet street. It was only 10 PM, but already the thin crowds were thinning even more. I was mostly alone with the hawkers outside the strip clubs and bars.
They all approached me with their wooden boards in-hand showing prices of drinks and a list of the various performances I’d be able to enjoy inside. Some of those acts included ping pong balls, others Coca Cola, and more yet darts and balloons. What drives people to make a living in such ways? I think I have some answers. It’s quite complex and yet it’s quite simple. Most of where those answers lead me takes me into long discussions of poverty, organized crime, child prostitution, and yes, even some who just enjoy it and want to do it.
I counted at least three pharmacies and a couple of fast-food restaurants selling fried and unwholesome foods. Their clientele’s the unfortunate sex tourist and the young men and women who ply their trade on these streets every night. I started to imagine the sex workers eating a greasy fish sandwich and French fries at three in the morning while a small plastic bag of antibiotics and condoms sits on the table beside them. I envisioned a sex tourist waking up one morning with green phlegm dripping from the end of his penis cursing his luck and blaming the ‘whore’ who gave it to him. His curses give no consideration for his part in any of it.
My mind’s drifted from Myanmar at the moment. I have much to write about it, but I can’t bring myself to do it quite yet. Bear with me; I’ll take you there if you wish to hear – perhaps tomorrow or the next day. I seem to still need some distance from it, at least for now.
At the moment I need a stool at a street-side noodle stand and a glass of beer. Until soon.
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