Technically, this is part 3, part 2 was a shuttle ride and a long, deep sleep in a hotel by the airport, waiting for my flight to Myanmar. Part 3 is much more eventful.
Bangkok is chaos. You’ve seen the Hangover, Part 2? I wanted that, if only for a couple of hours. I was alone in Bangkok, I’d be remiss if I didn’t get into some kind of trouble.
Much of the following was written the afternoon after the events described occurred after sleeping until noon and barely checking out without being charged an extra fee. It is being published later than the rest of the Southeast Asia episodes for the purpose of thoroughness. 8/15/18
We check into the hotel. I check into the hotel. They bring the fluorescent orange Tang or whatever in a nice cocktail glass, as if to say “Welcome Aboard you dirty sailor, this’ll stave off the scurvy.” I imbibe eagerly as an older gentleman giggles with a young Asian woman in a short dress by the elevator. I finish the process and catch the next elevator up after them. I get to the hotel room, with sliding panels that keep out all the sunlight from the already screened and netted windows. The former protection was for bugs, I know that. The latter, I assumed, was for suicidal war vets. It is nine o’clock and I don my blue shirt, wrinkled from my week and a half on the road, and decide to venture out into Nana, one of Bangkok’s three renowned Red Light Districts.
Nana Plaza is, objectively, impressive. Imagine a square urban apartment complex, with each room consisting of its own nightclub, gogo bar, or strip club on three separate floors. Women with little on walk around everywhere trying to talk to you which, if you are me, feels rather lovely. I was told to see a ladyboy burlesque while in Bangkok, and since I was incapable of doing that I opted to pop into a ladyboy strip club first. At least I thought it was a strip club. I had not been briefed prior on the customs of Thai sex work, so when I bought a beer and sat down, I expected dancing or… something. Instead, over a dozen beautiful women (men) stared at me from the stage in the center, asking if I wanted to talk or buy them a drink. Allow me just to say, in my defense, that the Internet Age allows for one my age to maintain a certain nonchalance in my day-to-day life. I felt, at that point in my life, that I had seen everything, and was thus equipped to handle nearly all social situations with my extensive background as a traveler and Internet surfer. That said, ‘overwhelmed’ does not even begin to describe where my mind was at that moment in time. These wo(men) were hot. Very hot. Fiona, who first walked me into the bar from the front, was gesturing towards all of the ladyboys onstage, imploring me to take my pick. The only problem was, I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to pick for. Across the bar, the only other patrons were two Japanese (or more likely Chinese given the geography) businessmen in suits who had called over a couple of the girls to be with them. They seemed to be sinking into the seats, Baht in hand, while their ladyboys sat next to them and talked. In all my years I have never seen anyone so comfortable in their own skin. I was alone in Thailand, not a soul was around who I even remotely knew, and I was embarrassed and these wo(men) grabbed their junk and begged me to call on them. I’ve never felt more gay, and somehow more straight, than I did chugging down that beer. Two things are for sure: 1) I will never go back and 2) you could not pay me to go back with a friend, coworker, or any other man. In all, I can only say: what a confusing experience. I can only liken it to being in my early teens again and discovering sexuality for the first time, each minute more confusing than the last. Incredible.
Ok so I drank one beer in about 3 minutes. Now I needed more if I was going to survive the night. I walked down to the main courtyard and troubled an older barmaid for a 95-Baht beer at a bar called “London Calling.” I asked if I could bring it into the club behind her which had the same name, and she informed me that the drink prices inside were higher, so I could not. I figured the beer was a good enough deal to keep me in my seat, so my eyes meandered across the other frazzled male faces in the courtyard. A lady, perhaps of the boy variety, approached me, asked if I wanted a massage, and pressed her back against me, trying to get me to buy her a drink. Her dogged salesmanship style was utterly impressive, as I watched her pout and command a 2500-baht price tag for her services, which I politely (and nervously) turned down. She grabbed my hands, which I willingly gave hoping she might want to dance, but instead found my hands tucked between her legs. As she leaned back against me, she felt what was either my phone or my hotel key in my pocket, pressing up against her backside, and likely reasoned she was close to making a sale. She then turned around, asked “what is that???” and grabbed at my equivocating crotch. I tried to act like this was normal, and continued to refuse her advances, finished my beer and left. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit led on. Why wouldn’t she dance with me? An aspiring punky drifter-writer such as myself surely would have relished a free dance from a sex worker outside an Asian club called “London Calling.” She left to find another patron, and I finished my beer feeling both violated and as if I had just violated someone else. I asked myself if all the beer-condensation in Bangkok could wash the stripper glitter and massage oil from my hand.
In the bar from which I write this, the morning after, there are bunch of American ex-pats. Older dudes, many of them ex-military, that like the Bangkok way of doing things. A man in his thirties walks in and sits down, talking about how his wife didn’t want him to go to Bangkok, and complaining that the bar he was at last night overcharged him. $300 between the girls, and the drinks, and the girls’ drinks. I roll my eyes. I wonder why his wife didn’t want him to come back here.
My last night was different. I fled Nana plaza in search of something more tame. I found it in a bar with a shockingly good band, playing a mix of American, Thai, and Chinese hits. I sat alone, with a beer, so it didn’t take long for a well-dressed prostitute to come up to me and ask if I wanted another beer. Interesting, I thought the system was supposed to work the other way, where the proposed john would buy the lady a drink to get her to spend some time with him. I wanted to see how this played out. What if I could get her to buy me drinks? Anyway she ran the beer and money back and forth to the bar, for a moment unsure if she was just a prostitute who used the cover as barmaid to add to the subtlety of her business, or a legitimate barmaid who acted and dressed promiscuously for better tips. Either way, I was impressed by her business acumen, likely getting a small cut of the already cheap beers I was buying. A cursory google reveals that this practice of giving prostitutes a commission on te drinks they sell is actullay somewhat customary in Bangkok. Perhaps it is strange, but I do find the economics of sex work fascinating. It’s so simple, and yet so complex!
I bought her a drink or two, which was good because it helped me pace myself. I was only going to drink as fast as she was. She told me her name, but I didn’t remember it, or else didn’t hear it. Whenever she said something I nodded politely, sometimes either pretending to hear her and nodding non-commitally, or else pretending I could hear and and simply pretending I couldn’t. The truth is, and I am not sure if this makes me a bad person, I sort of liked having her around to drink with. In a sense that’ what soliciting a prostitute is, or is that not what I was doing? I still struggle with the moral implications, although my therapist says I’m in the clear. Whatever. I was getting drunker, so the music was getting better and more foreign, and it felt good to have what I suppose one could call a friend, even if it was predicated on the hope that I would have sex with her and paying a fee.
In the near-empty bar there were a couple of Indian-looking dudes, clearly in town on business and not knowing each other all that well opted for a PG-13 night out at a music club, and a white couple who presumably sought the same. Why would someone take their girlfriend, or business partner for that matter, to Bangkok? Especially that neighborhood of Bangkok? I do not know, but I started to enjoy the scene. As a single white man, I was the prime target for the ladies of the night and I, being the social butterfly I am, decided to let loose after a few drinks. My prostitute friend continuously would lean over and ask about my accomodations. Where was I staying? Was I here alone? Had I been to Bangkok before? I told her, or at least I think I told her, that it was my third time in Bangkok just that week, but I neglected to answer the clear attempts to bed me. Whenever she implied we should get out of there, I pretended to think she was asking if I wanted to dance, so I took her hand and twirled her around the floor for half a song. Each time her face grew red as her coworkers (?) on the street outside giggled at her attempts to close a sale. “I’ll do anything for two thousand Baht!” she called to me, unprompted, over a loud sing along of Brown Eyed Girl. I yelled back “Yeah, I really like this song a lot too!”
A strange, impossible thing happened in that moment: I really did like “Brown Eyed Girl.” There was solitude and lament, solace and something that could almost be classified as soul in that Thai man’s rendition that tugged delicately at my heart. An older white man came in with a very small hooker, and when he saw the time my lady and I were having, he decided to join in with us.
“Where are you from?” he called, twirling his friend.
“I am Swiss, but I’ve been here for like 20 years!”
I felt like we shared a strange kinship, this Swiss man and I. We were rebel souls, without a country, seeking adventure, or comfort, or maybe a bit of both in the urban jungles of Thailand. As the band played their last song, which my Swiss comrade told me was a traditional Chinese love song, I slow-danced with my dance partner in lament at the night’s being over. I sought out the Red Light District not to find a Roxanne, but to see the lights themselves, and perhaps to find the light within me.
* * *
Isn’t it dangerous, traveling alone? Wouldn’t I be safer at clubs in the United States, or in Canada, or somewhere the band wouldn’t actively roast me in Thai while I passionately drum drunkenly on the table until the bartender tells me to stop? Yes and yes. I would be physically safer at home. But where’s the fun? The challenge? The adventure? I had a great and unusual time in Bangkok, but it was time to go. To say thanks, I gave my dance partner 2000 Baht for the company, and for her time.
“When do you come to Bangkok again?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “It’s definitely going to be awhile.”
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.