19 February 2011


Bangkok, Thailand: Last night as I was walking back from dinner to my hotel, I spent perhaps 10 minutes admiring the sheer poetry in motion of a truly lovely, very passable katoey (transsexual) walking ahead of me in what had to be at least five or six inch heels. She was dressed in a slinky, dark red backless dress that perfectly framed the very dramatic black and white dragon tattooed on her back. The sidewalk along Sukhumvit here in Bangkok is pretty rough ground - uneven, cracked, patches of dirt and mud, a variety of surfaces - and yet she maneuvered her way along it better than I have ever seen anyone walk in such heels. She seemed intent on wherever it was that she was headed or I would have offered to buy her a drink.

Not long before I fell into step behind her, I was approached by another, much less spectacular in every way, katoey along the street. This one threw her arms around me then brought a rather large hand down onto the crotch of my pants and started rubbing me in a more than merely suggestive manner. She huskily whispered in my ear, "I want smoking. I want smoking, you." I have seen this trick before and the moment she threw her arms around me, one of my hands slapped itself down hard over the pocket where my wallet was and stayed there throughout the encounter. It was not all that easy to pry her hand off of my crotch with just my one hand, but I finally did manage. I quipped, "Smoking's bad for you," but I don't think she got it.

I'm having my doubts about Bangkok. Not because of these encounters, but possibly I have now been here too much over the past 30 years since I first showed up with my mother in 1981 on our way to Pakistan. (That visit was notable for my mom and I encountering a street walker near the Oriental Hotel. When I said to the woman, "this is my mother," her perfectly reasonable response was, "don't worry, I do mommy, too." That was good for a lot of laughs.) During the 11 years I lived in Asia, Bangkok was one of the places I came most often for work - at least four or five times every year.

In GRAVE IMPORTS I describe this city as being not unlike a cesspool with a number of beautiful lotus blossoms floating on its surface. That is still true. This afternoon a friend and I shared a pork larb and a green papaya salad from a street vendor on a back street. It was quiet, peaceful, the vendor and a friend and a taxi driver who was parked nearby had a gentle laughter filled conversation, it was cool under the umbrella set up on the sidewalk and the food was great, and remarkably cheap. It was a very pleasant moment, a respite. It was the sort of moment that crops up unexpectedly in Bangkok, and allows you to catch your breath and not be driven insane by everything else that assaults your senses at every turn.

But this time I'm finding fewer such moments than in the past. The stench of, of, I'm not quite sure exactly what - money? greed? uncertainty? rank commercialism? lust? - seems more pervasive than before.

It feels like everything and everybody here is for sale, and aggressively so in a way that they weren't in previous years. Maybe it's just my perception as a now infrequent visitor. (I was last here in 2005.) But after a while, walking around, I begin to see everybody as if in some way they are for sale, and then I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

There must be so many of this city's people who are not at all for sale, or rather rent, who are simply trying to live their lives and get by the best they can. I know that they're there, but I haven't come across many of them. For the first time ever I walk around and feel like everybody wants something from me and doesn't want to give me anything real in return.

I see the beefy, solitary, sunburnt whitemen moving along the streets in that jerking, rolling way that bodybuilders walk and I don't want to see myself as one of them. And I don't want other people to see me that way. But maybe they do. I'm sure we all look alike to most of the Thai people who see us - bulky, hairy, loud and large; attractive only in so far as our money holds out.

I want Ratch, the bargirl who I bought dinner for last night and who I had a long conversation with about reading and writing and telling stories and Thai politics and the justification or not of violence to know me and like me and respect me for who I am. And there's something pathetic and arrogant about that on my part. Why should she? When I took her back to the bar and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek goodnight, she seemed relieved as she turned back into the loud, sweaty, smoky, booze-filled room where other men would simply pay to paw her and not bother her with all their talk or wanting to know her or to have her know them.

Many of the men I see with the stereotypical small brown woman in near ass-baring short skirts or super tight jeans look somehow even more alone than the ones without a companion. It's especially sad when the women turn to make sure their men aren't looking, then flash me an expectant smile as if to say, 'maybe you're a better bet than this guy. What can you do for me?'

It was different when I had real purpose in being here. When I was a working journalist and interviewing government officials and businessmen and writing about the place. Now I walk the streets and wonder how much I'm like those other guys.

There are beautiful temples, great busy markets and the river full of lively traffic. But here's what it mostly really looks like:
And those are prettier pictures than the reality, because I deliberately waited for brightly colored vehicles to enter the frame, and my camera decided to super saturate the colors.

The reality is that colors are muted, dusty, filtered through a haze of smog and smoke and grit in the air.

Don't get me wrong. I love big, crowded, noisy, dirty cities with all their brutality and fierce humanity and complexity and confusion and disorientation. And there's elements of all that that I still like here in Bangkok, remnants of what drew me to the place in the past. But I'm also uneasy about it, squirrely in a way that I haven't felt here before.


Bill H said...

My Grandpa would say, It all ain't never the same".

mlevin said...

Yeah, I remember that look in your eye, seen it so many times, less jaded, more willing to accept the aesthetics of the street that says "yeah everything is for sale, even me!" And it wasn't an ethical dilemma. So this is how our return home affects us, listening to wolves in the woods outside a Lake Placid cabin. Maybe it's age, who knows? Who the fuck care? Wish it didn't matter. Mike