I’ve been to Bangkok around seven times. I usually peruse the red light districts of Bangkok while there, but I’m just a window shopper. Bangkok in general is lovely. I love that it fully caters to my needs as a USAmerican while retaining its own culture vibrantly. Thailand has never been colonized, and that fact rings proudly in the air of its people.
I haven’t had much of a glimpse of Thai culture from behind the glass. My Thai friends seem to keep it on the surface. I know what I know of the city from observation. I hesitate to use the word “playground”.
Mess of tangled wires, hot, gritty.
My best friend who is one of my brothers in life lives in Bangkok. Therefore, I usually see it through the eyes of his expat community in Sukhumvit. A bunch of internationals that love to party. Shortcuts through air conditioned malls. Drugs are always thoroughly available. Drinking is regular. Usually at rooftop bar happy hours. There’s always someone with a Thai girlfriend who can get us into local scenes, often in the red light districts of Bangkok.
I am obsessed with the humor and pragmatism of Mechai Viravaidya, who I think represents Thailand so gracefully. There is something hidden. Regal. Something not for foreigners.
Sex for sale is so radically different across culture.
Even in Thailand, where it is to me the most normal of any industry of its kind, each Bangkok red light district is its own microcosm: Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, Patpong, and my personal favorite, Soi Twilight.
Thai prostitution isn’t as disturbing to me as it is in most other cultures. Probably it’s my cultural bias.
There seems less stigma, more play, and less suffering involved in the industry. At least, this is from what I can see as a passerby on the street. Who knows what it’s like on the inside. I don’t have direct contact with any of the players. I don’t engage with sex for money.
There’s a great documentary on this called Whore’s Glory. The movie explains the relative lack of stigma in Thailand as compared to many other places with a sex industry. One contributing factor is Theravada Buddhism and its attitude towards gender and sexuality. The worst anyone can really say is that a person is a sex worker becuase of their karma.
I’ve heard the Thai see sex as a necessary part of hygiene – for men. For women it is something different and more complicated. I did see more sisterhood and comradery amongst the female sex workers in Thai red light districts than I am used to seeing elsewhere.
It’s the customers that are gross. Fat Farang.
So it’s onto the water taxi and make sure I don’t get the tourist rate, should be just a few cents to see Bangkok by its network of canals and rivers.
Get some top rate dentistry or other services. Hear the resounding phrase of “Kapun-ka” spoken by so many Thai women with a prayer posture and a bow of the head. Always makes me cry at first.
Most of Thai culture makes me feel bumbling and humble. Just shy of humiliation, humility.
Learn that this is the toothbrush that the queen uses, so of course I’ll take that one. Wonder what they think of me coming to the other side of the planet to have two people work on my teeth for half the price and double the quality that it would be where I am from.
Or maybe it’s a massage, again, for less than a third of the price I’d pay in the US. Herbal balls boiling hot and reeking of lemongrass smacked all across the back of me by Thai women with strong bodies that put Western people to shame. Pure muscle and able to deep squat.
Bangkok feels an experience of gratitude. Being a guest in someone’s home. I can’t count the times I’ve made some dumb mistake and dropped a passport or credit card only to have it returned by someone Thai, at great effort, with a smile.
And always to the rooftops. Looking out through the haze. The sellers of street food with their sidewalk kitchens, scrubbed clean at the end of the day and poured down the drain funnels and away to said waterways that taxi me through the city.
These tiny traditional sellers, and other tiny traditions, all live in the shadows of the skyscrapers and malls that rise above the roaring, growing, snarling, living, stretching city.
The strange, free, organic city under the 3-pronged spectre of authoritarianism – monarchy, oligarchy, military. All running through what looks to me like chaos at a higher level of efficiency than those cities not up against the perceived confusion.
Bangkok is efficient, not orderly.
It is full of beauty and uniqueness. Golden temples and reclining Buddhas, venomous snakes and anti-venom, monitor lizards and and stories of a third gender so old they were written on banana leaves.
And that one time me and a Saudi went to a shooting range, which turned out to be on Thai military grounds. Next door they kept their horses, which seemed an odd choice for a shooting range and stable configuration. The Saudi was able to recognize many things about the horses. We bonded over ATM fees and hatred of the infamous and odious tourist street: Khao San Road.
The last time I did MDMA was in Bangkok on my honeymoon in a fancy (free) suite in the Millenium Hilton Bangkok. It was music and bonding in a safe, quiet environment where I was sure that service would be at the forefront, and that my direction for no interruptions would be respected.
Like most cities, I suppose, Bangkok can be like that. Isolated at the top of the tower, ignorant of those sleeping in the streets below.
Speaking of tower tops, The next day we ascend the newly opened Mahanakhon, now the tallest building in Thailand. Free drinks with your purchase. The crowd is mostly Thai and we give up our shoes for soft booties to walk on the glass floor of a balcony that spans the city below. Here I lie face down. Face up. Making angels on the glass above the city.
And then a ride in a tuk tuk or a taxi with a monk’s blessing painted on the inside roof before getting lost in the alleys, past homes, shops, homes that are shops, shops that are homes, pets, incense, cleaning dishes, clothes, motorbikes, cars, cooking….
Thai food. One of the few places I have been in the world where occasionally I cannot finish a meal. Have to put the fork down between bites. It’s the salads. The chilis, raw, and the dressing with vinegar that soaks in the chilis. Ay ay ay, caliente.
Fresh food and karma.
The weed is shitty and expensive. My buddy gets it from the Russian mafia. I smoke too much and spend my time there in a haze, but it keeps me from drinking and is perfect for watching the fights from the cheap seats at the Muay Thai stadium, where I’m the only woman surrounded by men gambling loudly in Thai.
Strange battles. Half prayer, half fighting.
Next day it’s down to the market in Chinatown, sprawling across so many square blocks, where I buy a wallet for $3, which I know is a foreigner rip-off price, but hey, I can’t justify haggling in this here and now where that occurs to me as cheap and my life is what it is.
Sip a Thai Iced Tea which never seems to go down slowly. Found a good place that will do them without sugar but the milk itself still makes it sweet enough to slide through my system faster than I’d like. Still can’t resist the high, and even after it’s gone a plastic cup full of ice cubes is a nice treat in the Bangkok heat.
As is durian or passion fruit, both easily available and in such a range of quality and price. I never quite learn to buy them as affordably as I’d like for the quality my snobbery demands, even when I live in Bangkok for a month. But then my friend’s wife teaches me that buying fruit in Bangkok is a deepening skill. Massive competition from those who commute into the city to sell their products. Broad range. And so fruit in Bangkok is always a surprise, often differently sourced from the same seller.
I learn to cook with lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime, and young green peppercorns.
I get used to freezing during the National anthem, played in public places twice daily, and the King’s anthem, played before movies in the theaters. It’s a small price to pay for freedom.
On my honeymoon my sweetie and I take a walk one night and I realize that Bangkok is the only city in the world that actually gets me to spend money buying things from street sellers. Usually I avoid, or I look, but don’t touch or buy. I’m only there to see what’s sold.
I’m a strange customer. Very hard to appeal to. Part of what I love about Bangkok is that usually when people say “there’s something for everyone”, it doesn’t include me. Here it does, I realize, as I return home with a bong, some fresh lemongrass, Singha soda water, and a sex toy.
Stories about the big city:
2: Los Angeles
4: Las Vegas