Monday, April 30, 2012

Bangkok Revisited: Nightlife

Which brings us, inevitably, to the first and foremost reason why most people go to Thailand. It's everywhere once the sun goes down (notionally; it's everywhere and all the time, but emerges into its own in the dark) and the city lights its neon lamps, opens its bottles, and takes off its clothes in the humid, sweaty nights. 

Sex. It finances most of Thailand's tourism economy, bulldozes aside its pre-Vietnam-war social traditions and lifestyle, and eats alive, chews up, and spits out vast swathes of the country's youth over and over again. Across massage parlors, bars, karaoke, soaplands, dance bars, and yes, streets and localities as well, you'll find are suddenly populated with women and kathoeys, of every imaginable type. 
Photography is discouraged - and in any case, showing off an expensive smartphone or camera when you're drunk, outnumbered, and in the middle of a red-light district is just asking for trouble, so sorry, no pics except this. If you're upset, Google Images (safesearch off) awaits. 

Don't miss the halo.

Your journey begins as soon as you step out of the hotel and into a cab; all cabs have a little bundle of highly x-rated catalogues in the driverside car pocket, which he will produce with a flourish and wave at you, and find out the extent of your adventurousness (Sex show? Massage? Sucky-fucky?
Resist the temptation to agree, because the best cab commissions come from the (usually illegal or in-trouble) brothels; know where you want to go and insist on it repeatedly. We got taken to a dark house down the back alley of a deserted street and had our doors opened by 2 guys while 3 more stood at the entrance; the only indication we had of where we were was a single female silhouette swaying inside the door. Took a lot of convincing to leave and head for somewhere a little more, ah, healthy. 

Which, as it turn out, is Nana Plaza. A collection of bars, strip joints, and more, arrayed in a multi-storey square surrounded by restaurants and shops. It's a little seedy, a little grimy, a little low-end; the floors are cracked cement, the curtains on the doors are frayed, and the blast-chiller whammy roaring out of the industrial-strength ACs can't completely overpower the dark, faintly organic scent of sweat, skin, and desperate dreams. 

Nights In White Satin plays in a dark, cool club, threadbare purple curtains, peeling plaster, and black light glowing off the shiny black-and-white lingerie of a pair of tall dancers doing a simulated lesbian session on a tatty couch on the center. The tall ones always get the star billing; shorties get the background dancing; and the terminally plump serve the drinks around the edges. And everyone has bad teeth, meth mouths - ya ba keeps them going through the nights and takes away the reality of the life, while the reason they're in it pulls them forward like a locomotive; but any dream will always look brighter and brighter if the world grows dark, until it dazzles and blinds you, and you blink, look away, and eyes streaming, can't bear to look back it anymore. 

The Soi Cowboy is a more upscale spot; there's where the girls are taller and better looking, the ambience is more sparkly and clean, drinks are more expensive and clientele more obviously affluent and non-thai. Here's where you'll get the transparent ceilings that are the dance floors of a three-level club, the sparkly and more well-kept and imaginative costumes, and the bouncers are bigger, but less obviously crazy. The Baccara and Suzy Wong's is worth dropping by for. 
Tip for the newcomers - eye contact means tips. N finds this out the hard way when he stares a little too hard and too long, and suddenly there's a small, blank-faced-stoned, dead-eyed girl with a shark smile sliding into his lap as he freezes in terror. Mutely, terrified, he looks at us for help. In perfect understanding, both of us congratulate him and zip out of the door in a blink. He catches us thirty seconds later, a hundred baht lighter, sweating, shaking, and cursing us while we stagger around laughing fit to burst. 

Watch the customers. The thai men have a very meh look on their faces; the Euros tend to be relaxed, comfortable, sometimes boisterous but usually sporting and polite... they'll be mostly backpackers - but the Indians, man. It's... sickening. They have this avid, hungry, disbelieving look on their faces, like this is some manna from heaven, a meat feast suddenly bestowed on them as the result of some cosmic oversight and that can be snatched away at any time. They're also the same people who'll be sitting in the Patpong bars watching the dancers with the same expression, while the wives roam around doing the shopping outside, somehow completely ignoring the greeters, the signs, the music, and the girls surrounding them. 

Yet there's also some endearing little things, small things, heartbreaking in the sheer incongruity of ancient ways of life forging a coexistence with the new realities. The way the girls pray briefly before the tiny, ubiquitous shrine in every establishment before each dance; how each bottle of alcohol is blessed before being served; how the hostesses will glower like dragons but scrupulously pass the tips along. 

It's amazing how the Thai have come to terms with being the center of the world's sex tourism industry - but there's also an undercurrent of anger. It's there in the speed the cabs drive, the hard bargains and sky-high prices, and the constant, deadening high that everyone's on... it's a society that at some deep level resents what history's made them, but also one that makes the best of the situation and flourishes in it.

But you always wonder what would have been, if things had gone a little differently a long time ago... 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bangkok, Revisited

This time, there were 2 thousand assorted sales & marketing personnel from dozens of countries, bodies being herded into conferences and meetings while the spirit wandered wild and free in the streets... and once you add that most were drinking their entire year's quota in these 4 days, it was literally and S&M summit.

Since we literally did only these four things - eat&drink, attend conferences, shop, and - er, warmed our eyes - I'm not going to be doing much talk about how awesome Bangkok is as a tourist destination.

One of the things that'll also strike you is how people look. Thais tend to be small, not particularly thin or fat, just a little... childlike. The whites are either expansive, ragged, and rangy, or beefy, red-faced, and sweaty. Indian, though, are almost always portly. And for some reason, slightly oily. 

The Whirlwind One-Day Tour: Temples and TukTuks.
Since the first day is always kept free to allow for delays and staggered arrivals, I was lucky enough to arrive in the morning and had the day free, so did a little round of the city. There's going to be enough time for the other stuff later; right now, let's do the de rigeur Wats, temples, palaces and get it out of our system.
Immediately, find an innovative new system in place between business owners hungry for footfalls and tuktuk operators.

Tell the tuktuk guy where you want to go, and he will take you for a fixed (bargained) fee - but if you also agree to go to 2 more places, that he chooses, he'll discount the trip down to half, and collect the difference as fuel vouchers from the shops. Works out pretty cheap, so we give it a try. The two he picked were a jewellery factory / souvenir shop, and a suitmaker / tailor / souvenir shop. 
In fact, there are very few places in Bangkok that aren't souvenir shops, including the taxis, the brothels, and the government buildings.

The jewellery place was ok - we'd seen warning signs plastered all over the airport warning us not to listen to anyone offering to sell jewellery. Not that we were likely candidates - 2 guys with cameras and completely bemused expressions, confronted with rows and rows of shelves of garnets, opals, jade, ad colored glass. A tiny dominatrix-channeling Thai guide gave us the once-over, sighed in resignation, and bustled us through the shopfloor in seconds and straight to the gift shop filled with badly-made wooden elephants and plastic horrors. There were some nice vintage cars parked outside, though, so got some decent shots. 

 Jade statues, vintage cars, tiny asian people... this is just waiting for an Indy cameo

The second place - the tailor - actually made sense because we were much more likely to wear clothes than jewellery, and this was immediately grasped by the five large, mustachioed, thuggish-looking middle eastern gentlemen who appeared to run the establishment. We were treated to a dazzling array of fabrics, cuts, styles, garments, and pictures of garments, all of which we steadfastly refused and they grew increasingly irritated, finally reaching the point of 'This one?' (glare). 'No? This one?' (glare). 'You know English?' (disgusted glare) and so on. We were finally shoved in disgust to the gift shop. Bought a fridge magnet just to avoid getting killed for kidneys and moved on, to - 

A Random Temple

All I could think was 'Someone needs to climb up and polish that daily...'

Pillared Temple

A giant Standing Buddha

Some very nice pillar decorations

Chinatown - Every city has one

Decorated Palaces

Assorted statues of Thai lions looking surprised

The Leaning Spires of Bangkok

The Golden Mount

Bang a gong

Weird Alien Tree

Bunches of Prayer Flags stuck into the ground as a pair of giant puffy pink balls

Guardian Doors: Demonic life-size warrior paintings guard the portals

Somehow he looks like a reject from Pirates Of The Caribbean: Stranger Tides more and more

An angrezon ke zamaanein ke statue

Have no clue what this is, but it shows assorted cops laughing a lot, so scares me horribly

One highlight which you should see - did a visit to the Giant Golden Reclining Buddha in the Wat Pho who's two stories high lying on his side, and several train coaches long. The hall is huge, and a ceiling that size unfortunately has to be held up with pillars, so you can't see any place where the Buddha is fully visible except for near the head or feet... but the really interesting thing was behind the statue. As you go round, you're supposed to drop alms into a hundred and eight little bronze pots lined up along the back, indicating the 108 auspicious characters of the Buddha; the hall is filled with a continuous white-noise metallic susurrus of the world's only copper waterfall. 



The 108 bronze jars of donations

And so ended a day of touristy stuff. With lots of photos taken. 

Insert clever caption here. Prizes offered. 

Shopping: malls and markets
Ah, the shopping. People make sustainable business models centered around Bangkok shopping, they dream about it, they talk about it, and when they're here, they do very little else... but somehow, this time, I found it very monochrome. 
Bangkok seems to be going through the throes of an Angry Birds retail orgasm. They're literally everywhere - on iPad covers, bags, USB drives, speakers, keychains, t-shirts, cakes, stripper tattoos, you name it, it's there. Makes you feel like you're living inside a phone. 
Second, the blatant assumption that everyone is a tourist and all tourists want touristy things... so I didn't get a sense of what Bangkok or Thailand's about, but instead, got tons of miscellaneous knick-knacks from everywhere, mostly cheap-looking and crappy.
That said - 
Everyone goes to MBK. It's right there in the middle, it's famous, and it's full of overpriced crap because it's right there and in the middle. It's crowded, the merchants are arrogant, and it's iPad/iPod Central. Don't bother going here, it's a waste of time. 
Pantip Plaza is pretty good for all those hard-to-find computer accessories and components you'd been looking for back home; but make sure you know exactly what you want before walking in, or you'll be confused as shit and waste days going around in circles. It's Lamington Road in a mall. 
Patpong is another stretch of street shops - obviously for tourists, but there's some interesting stuff here, and you can bargain; so in a relatively small space, you'll get clothes, knockoff watches, assorted ironmongery ;) and decorative stuff - it's classic Thailand touristy shopping, and like MBK, sooner or later everyone ends up here. Nice place to quickly pick up the last-minute gifts. 
Some interesting experiences you get as well - the stalls are in the middle of what used to be a broad road, lined on both sides by pubs & dance bars (is there a difference? Not here, at least) so if you look remotely tired, thirsty, or bored (or, for that matter, male) you will be often literally grabbed by the bar's 'greeters' aggressively pushing you towards the door with 'You want Beer! You want Girls!' and sure enough, right at the door, there they both are - the girls in thongs dancing on the center stage, the chilled beer dripping condensation along the bar.

The center stalls tend to be run mostly by little old ladies and children, all of them quick as a whip, with a razor tongue and even sharper fiscal sense. They can judge a potential buyer / non-buyer, what he wants, and what he's prepared to pay, within the first three seconds of eye contact. The rest is just politeness or entertainment; and if they don't like you, trust me, you'll be rudely dismissed without a backward glance. Amuse them, though, and you could get something interesting to take back at a discount, and an infectious, beaming, ear-to-ear grin that switches on and off like a camera flash, gone in an instant but you walk away feeling warm for a while. 

N moves from watch stall to watch stall in a hypnotized daze, fingers flittering over Cartiers, Ferregamos, Patek Phillippes, Tags, all for the cost of a low-end Fastrack. Eyes follow him wherever he goes - this is a good mark. He needs to be physically hauled away from more than one place...
A tries to bargain for a pair of shorts and gets told 'You will not get for BABY in that much' as the twelve-year-old shopkeeper walks away in disgust...
J bumps into a stall and is horrified when a brown, wrinkled, hard-as-iron hand emerges from under the sheets draping the table and gives him two stinging slaps across the leg, followed by a vociferously-abusing thai grandmother emerging from underneath...

The Conference. 
Deep drowsiness thanks to a superchilled AC, roaming around till the wee hours, copious alcohol and minimal sleep. The actual event consisted of a lot of indoctrination - observe any corporate-trainer-organized ritual, and try and identify what are the features taken directly from the military - the loud thumping music, the group exercises and shouts, the constant reiteration of a slogan and a catchphrase... 

Not pictured: bone-chilling AC

The Welcome Committee

But the around-the-city spots where they organized the outings were pretty ok - while mostly created to introduce Thai culture to foreigners, the trip through a village mockup was pretty interesting. 

In strange waters

Did a little visit to a traditional thai village display 

All dressed and costumed up for us

With pretty lighting

Rigid poses that mix welcome and obliviousness

Including the puppetmaster

drawing his incredibly detailed colorful creations
to put up in a game of shadows
morbid displays

traditional dances with frozen smiles
more dramatic dances
even more dramatic dances

ok now you're just kidding me, giant parrot lady

a river cruise 

While we're on the subject of river cruises - ever tried getting a cruise organized for a gang for two thousand people, most of whom would rather be somewhere else or actually are? It's a complete comedy of errors. People show up for the wrong boat, at the wrong time, in the wrong jetty, and are very aggrieved when they find the boat has left - sometimes deeply hurt - and this translates into a riot on some boats, on verge of sinking with the overload, while others are ghost ships with half-a-dozen people being wined and dined by a dozen waiters, a band, and a live thai singer who has memorized by-heart a recent Bollywood number and will goddamn sing it whatever you might say - 
Sorry. So as you've guessed, I was on one of the empty boats, so it was a fairly peaceful ride, with us taking over the mike and singing old sad heartbroken hindi songs as we floated incongruously through Asia's Sin City, the heart of the capital of negotiable affection. 

Continues in Bangkok Revisited: Nightlife



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