Loose in Bangkok: Notes of a Disordered Mind

I love this place, and have for a long time. Some of the reason is memories. I first came through in the seventies, en route to Calcutta and Delhi from, I think, Phnom Penh. That may not quite be right. Things went fast then and places and times blur. I stayed in the Thai Song Greet on Rama IV, it probably was, a fifty-cent-a-night flop that would have outraged a New York alley cat: plank bed, ghastly john, hotter than a blown big-block and with no ventilation in the grisly heat of Southeast Asia.

The first floor was a noodle restaurant of sorts, meaning a small room open to the street with a mama-san and a wok in what looked like the sub-basement of a medieval prison. It wasn’t a place your mother would have recommended, but I was poor. Back then many of us were cutting our journalistic teeth, men some of whose names you might know, and did what we needed to. Anyway, guys are dirtballs.

In the restaurant I met an aging hooker while slurping noodles, unemployed since the drawdown had closed the American bases. She was sitting at a back table and drinking Mekong whiskey alone. Not a good sign. Lousy whiskey, too. I was maybe twenty-seven and thought forty-five was practically dead. Nice gal. I popped for another pint of Mekong as she was down on her luck and we talked. She wanted to attach herself to me, reasonable enough considering her alternatives. Next morning I left without saying goodbye. I hoped things would go well for her, but it wasn’t likely.

Today the city is bigger, clogged with traffic, buzzing and sputtering with motor scooters, the air loud with the wing-ding-ding of two-cycles and thick with pollution, and just flat wonderful. I don’t know why it’s wonderful. Most people hate it. Thais hate it. Seven out of every three cars in Asia are registered in Bangkok. Traffic doesn’t move. If glaciers ever come down from the north, they will overtake the clog and freeze passengers like those people buried in the ash of Pompeii. In places drivers have built houses and raised families while trying to out-wait the congestion. Some have developed new cultures and applied for sovereignty.

The Sky Train, Bangkok’s elevated train, is a godsend, and comparatively new. I hadn’t used it before. It is fast, air-conditioned, and runs across the city at an altitude of maybe thirty feet. In an emergency you could use it to airdrop food to people starving below in stalled traffic. It runs along two main drags, Silom and Sukhumvit, with convenient stops.

It is a wonderful place to admire young Thai women, who run strongly to willowy, well-dressed, and naturally classy. They are much of why men expatriate here. As a friend put it, “Beats hell out of cellulite, nine yards of attitude, and bad manners,” which is hardly fair to all American women but captures the trend.

These days on visits I stay with expat friends. The American expats here are different from those in Mexico. The latter are retired bureaucrats who really belong in Florida, much concerned with leash laws and turning the Mexicans into copies of themselves. The Thai guys are largely ex-military, many left over from the war, veterans of spook outfits like Air America. After years in Asia they didn’t want to become cubicle warts. It doesn’t compare with flying a chopper into Indian country under an Asian moon, running hot and black and waiting for little green sparks to arc toward you. Many have gone native, taking Thai wives, often upcountry, and blending in.

A curious expat network has sprung into being with assistance from the internet. It certainly helps me. Guys in Thailand who read the column wrote and said Hey Fred, let’s heist one if you come this way. An old Special Forces buddy from back then, now in LA, emailed me to say You ought to look up so-and-so, I’ll email her that you’re coming. Another reader is a friend I hadn’t seen for thirty years, when he ran UPI Saigon and I was a greenhorn stringer freshly loose on the world. We had lunch. Another is a guy I knew in Phnom Penh during the war who fell in love with the country and spends half his time there. I missed him this trip but won’t next time. The net makes it all possible.

Now, to most people Thailand means the sex trade. The assumption is that you are going to Thailand to get laid and that if you so much as breathe the air you will seroconvert, and most of the population is dying of AIDS. Mostly this is nonsense. Yes, there are massage parlors where a dozen women sit behind plate glass with numbers pinned to them (“Four, please.”), specialty houses for the S&M trade, and plenty of action for gay men. But all of this is available in any big American city. In Thailand it is just more open.

Thing is, few foreigners get beyond the three red-light districts: Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy. I usually hit all three in memory of youthful crime, but they aren’t likable places, being garish, loud with vile disco music, and generally disagreeable. And often full of katoys, Thailand’s famed transvestites.

The Thais are slender, delicate in appearance (though I wouldn’t want to dispute the issue with the Thai army), and have little body hair. The result is a convincing TV. Visiting gringos don’t always know about katoys. In Nana I saw a fiftyish Yank talking to a lissome Thai lovely, a tad tall for a local lass and keeping her chin down to hide her Adam’s apple. Welcome to the City of Surprises, I thought. In about an hour and a half. It wasn’t my problem.

Get away from Nana and Patpong, and the Thais are as likeable a people as you will find, being courteous, friendly and, while not puritanical, no looser than anyone else. As religions go, Buddhism is more civilized than most. The art and architecture are remarkable. This is a splendid country and, I think, a country with a future. There is an energy here that I don’t see south of the Rio Bravo, in Arab lands or sub-Saharan Africa.

I was going to tell you the story about the howling mathematician, but we’re out of space. Later. Meanwhile I’m going to ponder a cosmic mystery: Why did I buy a round-trip ticket? Something must be deeply wrong with me….

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