Wednesday, August 28, 2013



I don't normally preface my writing, but felt I should let you know that I'm talking about a controversial subject in a rather non-controversial way. The following contains explicit content.





THAILAND DID NOT GRAB HOLD OF US AS PROMISED. It wasn't the so-called Land of Smiles, as indicated in national ad campaigns and tourist packets. In fact, smiles from locals were rare and, when offered, felt forced and rather insincere. It wasn't until we arrived in its capital, three weeks into our trip, that we began to see its charms. It took more than twenty days to find the place we belonged, one we will quite likely return to throughout our lives. Because Bangkok is special. And uncomfortable. It challenges you in ways Westerners aren't quite accustomed.

This city hits you in the face. First with its impressive airport, then with its terrible traffic, and often with its regular waves of sewer stench, which one cannot become immune to, despite having spent months in places where such smells are commonplace. It's a city which presents itself, warts and all, with easy confidence and a lazy shrug, as if to say: "What were you expecting?" It's imperative you leave all Western-world expectations at the door.

Bangkok would mark our first experience in a developing nation's metropolis. In the same steaming city block you'll find modern glass skyscrapers, a luxury shopping centre, and a private home constructed of corrugated steel, replete with a vibrating sea of rats consuming the food scraps that surround it. Flashy European cars fight for space alongside dilapidated tuktuks and barefoot locals schlepping baskets on their heads. Just a few meters above the congestion and chaos of the streets, a spotlessly-clean public transit network darts impressively, making Toronto's paltry excuse look worse than we thought. Stylish 30-somethings commute to work while traditionally dressed women, with ancient, craggy faces, tuck under your arm for a spot on the train.

Amidst the truly overwhelming hustle and bustle, people nap midday, curled gymnastically on their mopeds or twisted into a hammock in the cool shade of their storefront. They'll groggily sell you something, if they must, but work comes second to rest at the height of the day's heat. As the temperature rises quickly after breakfast, streets empty into air conditioned malls, of which there are a surprising many. Only tourists are ill-informed enough to flood temples at high noon, ourselves included. But the tricky part about Bangkok is managing your time; while it's much too hot to do anything during the day, you were up too late the night before to wake at dawn to take in the sites.

And so you find yourself meandering through Chatuchak Market, sweating angrily, while trying to  enjoy its thirty-five acres of counterfeit clothes and cages stacked high with flying squirrels or puppies so perfect you expect a robotic chirp and the stilted walk of a wind-up toy. Temple tours and river cruises, which should be fun and interesting, feel something akin to torture, so you retreat to your hotel for a swim and a nap before tentatively setting out again for dinner.




AND AS IF YOU'VE STEPPED INTO SOME SEEDY LAND OF OZ, EVERYTHING FEELS DIFFERENT WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN IN BANGKOK. Locals wake from their naps and systematically turn sidewalks into markets, hundreds of stalls formed from clangy tubes of aluminum and tarpaulins. Shabby restaurants with cart-as-kitchen crop up in the narrowest spaces between buildings and steps leading to business towers are converted into vast shoe displays. Worn-out tourists wander haplessly and prepare for the other part of Bangkok, the part that exists more subtly during daylight hours but is always there, just beneath the surface. Girls whining "Masssaaaaaage!" from darkened shop windows, or men mumbling "You want boom boom? I have for you. Beautiful ladies, big tits," as you amble past them on your way to air conditioning. If you look one way, you'll find a Gucci store, if you look another, there are sure to be girls of questionable-maturity offering "spa services". All of this is amplified as the air cools and the neon lights buzz and crackle into full colour. 

Perhaps the most famous street in Bangkok's extensive network of sexual recesses is Patpong. An electric strip of fuchsia with a night market running down its middle, this double-wide alley is pedestrian-only, and features many "world famous" ping pong shows. Pop culture runs amok with the idea of zany Thai prostitutes firing hollow white balls from their bodies, and, well, they exist in much the way you would imagine. Nebbishy little trolls sidle-up to you when you're within a half-mile of the street, promising a great show, a laminated card in their hands outlining the featured performances.

1. Pussy Ping Pong
2. Pussy Cut Banana
3. Pussy Shoot Balloon
4. Pussy Smoke Cigarette

I'll spare you the sixteen each-more-riveting-than-the-last segments, but rest assured: You had no idea the female anatomy was capable of such feats. While oddly intriguing, this street had nothing of interest for us outside grey-market Lacoste polos and some rather convincing designer sunglasses. Wandering past the most-garish of Patpong's clubs, Super Pussy, one could peer inside the open door to catch lacklustre faces stomp around a long, raised catwalk, leaving very little to the imagination. If your eye lingered too long one of the club's henchmen would pull your arm, promising all your boom boom dreams realized if you would just come inside. It shared the tone of your average summer carnival, though with a decidedly sinister slant and somehow-worse teeth.




OUR BANGKOK EXPERIENCE WAS LARGELY GUIDED BY OUR FRIEND JOE, who'd come to meet us on Koh Samui a week earlier. After beaching ourselves and quietly catching up with him, the three of us ventured to the city where (as he's wont to do) Joe made friends with a motley crew: a sweet pair of Egyptians, a gregarious Lebanese pop singer, and a jarringly aggressive oil rigger from the sands of Alberta. He preferred his men fat, old, and white. "Unfortunately guys like that come to Thailand for the fuckin' twinky Asians," he'd growl only moments after meeting, "So I'm shit outta fuckin' luck!"

Joe met these characters at his hotel, Babylon, a high-end bathhouse with a buffet breakfast located near the city centre. When in Rome.

At each stop on this trip, we've dipped a toe into the local gay scene. And while Jeff and I aren't aficionados, we have visited our fair share of drag bars, strip clubs, and cabarets in various cities. So after shopping and picking our jaws up off of Patpong, our cabal headed to the section of Silom which features gay-owned restaurants, bars, and sex clubs. Bobby, the Lebanese pop star, had recently moved to Bangkok and seemed to know everyone in the vicinity, from tuktuk drivers to hotel doormen who hurried onto the street to greet him excitedly. We had a distinct advantage traveling with him, the perfect guide to this bizarre subculture. He'd introduce us to a place called Tawan, a cabaret and brothel more than 25 years old, specializing in muscle men.

On first blush the clubs in Bangkok are something of a cabaret-stripjoint-whorehouse combo, on a hit of acid with patently low production values. Laid out like your average small town dinner theatre, Tawan features a semicircle of chairs and low tables facing a half-moon stage. Mirrors line the walls, lighting is low, and the place is lousy with underwear-clad "dancers". In May (Bangkok's hottest month and lowest in terms of tourism) the place carries an intimidating 8:1 ratio, talent to patrons. I immediately notice the numbers dangling from their hips, the Dewey Decimal System of dick, an easy way to order-up what you might desire. "A number 56 with a side of fries, please."


WITH BOBBY, WE WERE USHERED TO THE FRONT ROW WHERE A BOTTLE OF WHISKY AND ALL NECESSARY ACCOUTREMENTS ARRIVED QUICKLY. Our guide gave us the lowdown: The vast majority of the dancers (ie. prostitutes) at Tawan were straight, often married with kids at home. Rates started at 20USD (625 Thai baht) for the night. Older white tourists (pharangs) were the main demo in Tawan, but in Bangkok there's a club for everyone; some cater to Japanese businessmen, Westerners, even the occasional local woman frequents a place like this. Before the programme begins, the models/dancers/prostitutes preen about, offering their wares and mingling with patrons. Often they linger in dark corners flexing their muscles absent-mindedly or lifting weights at the inexplicable gym set up beside the bar. Occasionally talent will be snatched up early, a good position I'd think, as you get to sit and drink with your investor and skip the choreographed dance routine.

In the interest of entertainment, these sex shows typically begin with a protracted ladyboy show. Any sexual tension that had mounted quickly dissolves as the lights drop and a familiar fanfare erupts. As the trumpets rise to their finish, I'm stuck wondering what the 20th Century Fox people would think of this doggedly illegal usage. Doe-eyed and statuesque, a gaggle of ladyboys appears from a hidden panel on-stage. 

Modeled after some kind of alternate-universe Disney Princess, they spin erratic circles on stage, their toes creeping over the ends of too-small strappy sandals. Choreography is second to personal expression and I can't help but notice large hands and Adam's apples, though their physicality is impressively feminine, all boneless, waving fingers and loose wrists. They have clearly worked hard to embody the characteristics of a certain kind of femininity, vacillating between sexy Barbie and grotesque clown. Some have impressive fake breasts and fine jawlines with slim shoulders and their hips wideset; these are the tell-tale signs of an early hormone regimen, a good surgeon, or both. With faces spackled into a sickly shade of chicken-fat-yellow and lips both bold and glossy, the notion of "a little goes a long way" was lost on these faces. 

We'd been taking in as many ladyboy shows as we could while in Thailand. A bizarro mix of full-camp-drag and earnest-showgirl, it's critical to watch these shows like you might a performance in Las Vegas. They are not drag queens, but rather transgendered women, in various states of transition. The youngest among this group looked startlingly female, impossible to tell. She was all of 16 years old and somehow ended up here, opening a show which would soon feature acrobatic anal sex between a straight fitness model-cum-prostitute and an impossibly vacant guy whose only purpose was receiving end

After the slew of ladyboys scattered to the wings, the real show began with an alarming crack. Styled after the orgy scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, masked men flooded the stage in capes and masks in various shades of red velvet. They whipped their submissive counterparts (bedecked in dog collars and harnesses) while music blared and cheap strobes blinded the rather confused audience. While the commitment to storytelling was impressive, the production was jarring and kind of scary. At some point the faux-violent domination scene abruptly transitioned into a slow-jam dick sucking set to Trisha Yearwood's mid/late-90's hit "How Do I Live?" (I wish I were kidding. At least we could laugh through our discomfort.)

And I didn't feel particularly bad for these guys. While the sex trade in general conjures images of at-risk youth being thrust into a dangerous world, these muscle dudes were older, some in their early-40s, and generally strong and virile. They did not appear to be in any danger whatsoever. Without discounting the presumed emotional turmoil they suffer, I wasn't concerned for their safety. But after this rather earnest (and shocking) 30 minute performance, we left Tawan and visited another street in the district. Here we found neon lights screaming BOYS BOYS BOYS! FRESH BOYS! and the tone changed a bit.


HERE WE SAT STAGE-SIDE FOR ANOTHER KIND OF SHOW. While similarly acrobatic, this one involved guys with slight frames and young faces. Some appeared to be 14 years old. Of course we felt conflicted about even being here, as they preened down the runway en masse. With only 20 people in the bar, there were at least twice that on-stage.

At some point in the week, I decided I wanted to talk to these boys, to try to understand, get a sense of what propelled them into this world. But, you see, it's not exactly an open book. These clubs are owned by the police and without doing some legwork and procuring a translator, it would be difficult. And it was our last night in Bangkok by the time I got the guts to ask.

Spurred on by Joe, I flagged down a server and requested one of the guys join us at our seats. I felt like a creep, obviously, but hoped this would take the sweet-faced kid who'd been flirting with us out of the running before someone more committed got hold of him. His name, he said, was Music, and he was 19, though it's amazing how perfectly serviceable English vanishes when the question of age comes up. Suddenly he wasn't sure what year he was born.

I asked if he liked working at the club. He said no, but that he was paying for chef school. I decided to believe him. I still do. I asked where he was from, originally, and he said the island of Ko Phi Phi. Having just visited, I felt instantly connected to Music. He said his dad died in the 2005 tsunami, which hit the island hard, and that his mom still lives here. We sat together for those 20 minutes, chatting awkwardly between performances on-stage, our language and my obvious concern creating a barrier between us. He did his job, gently caressing my leg, and I countered with thoughtful questions about his well-being and compensation. (Both questionable.) Soon the lights started to come up and I said good bye. In my head I was already planning the trip back to dig deeper into this world.

We stumbled onto the glaring alley still teeming with sex and dubious decision making. Music, dressed like any other college kid in jeans and a t-shirt with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, hopped out of the club as if he was finishing up at any other part-time job. He smiled when he saw us and joined our group. I told him to stay safe and that if we came back to Bangkok we'd find him at whatever restaurant he would surely soon be working. I stuffed 500 baht into his hands, ensuring the bouncers could not see and take their cut, and he kissed me square on the lips. The as-promised smiles we'd sought out all across this country were finally coming through.


(I didn't take any photos, and none inside the clubs for obvious reasons, so the multi-talented Kevin Okorn created this illustration which perfectly depicts the bright lights/creep-city of Bangkok's sex district. Many thanks to him, and follow him on Twitter, too.)




BANGKOK BULLETPOINTS

1) Cabs are remarkably cheap in Bangkok; you can get clear across town for $2. But you must demand a metered cab ride, rather than negotiate a flat-rate. Drivers can be shady about this (and shady in general) but be firm, or just get out of the car and get another. One driver turned off the meter midway through my ride, then told me he wanted what would amount to three times more. I got extremely firm and even opened the car door threatening to leave the car. He then agreed to the price I was willing to pay. 

2) A note on tuktuks: They are fun and quick, but don't fall for their shenanigans. Thankfully we heard of this before arriving, so were prepared for it. Drivers will often quote a very cheap price, "with one stop". They'll then take you to a friend's shop and you'll be strong-armed into shopping. "No stops! Straight there!" If you're firm they will agree and won't mess around. Also make sure to carry the business card of your hotel to expedite your journey. They won't otherwise know how to get there.

3) You must visit the Chatuchak Market. You can get there via taxi or metro. It's a wild experience - more than 15 000 stores and stalls, they sell absolutely everything. From birds and lizards to t-shirts, this place is so neat. Open only on weekends.

4) We should be doing a better job of noting "gay-friendliness" on our trip. While we've stayed in a variety of places (those which specify gay-friendliness, and those that do not) we haven't noted which have made us feel generally comfortable. I'm happy to report we haven't had any issues in this regard, and almost always ask for rooms "with one bed". Nobody has hesitated or given us so much as "a look", which is very comforting. 


CURRENTLY
LOCATION: London, England, The United Kingdom
DATE AND TIME: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 6:00PM British Summer Time/Wednesday, August 28, 2013 1:00PM EST


10-SECOND REVIEWS 
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
We bounced around a little bit during our week in Bangkok, staying at three different hotels.


Accommodation: Babylon Bed and Breakfast 
Our friend Joe enjoyed a night here before meeting us in Koh Samui, so we headed back there with him. While it's a fun and scandalous place for singles, it wasn't really for us. After one night in the "Barracks" style room (a shared gym-style bathroom at the end of the hall, ie. a sex chamber) we left Joe to enjoy the debauchery while we found a new hotel. Don't get me wrong: The place is clean, the service is good, and the amenities are... ahem...plentiful, it just wasn't our scene. There's a great pool, gym, sauna, and a bar and restaurant. But the whole place is really just a semi-luxury bathhouse. Obviously very gay-friendly.


Accommodation: The Oaks Bangkok Sathorn 
The Oaks is the sister hotel to the Anantara, which is twice as fancy, but right next door. They share all hotel amenities, which include a gorgeous - and huge - outdoor pool, gym, and several restaurants. But The Oaks is considerably cheaper, very nice, and we were able to get a great, very large room for $60 a night - Remember we're in low-season. This hotel would easily cost four times that in Toronto or New York. It included a "kitchen" with a toaster and kettle, which we used, and a table and chairs. 

On an extended trip like this, I can't stress how nice it is to have a bit more space once in a while. We've found we enjoy larger spaces when we're in urban areas, whereas we can function with less in a more-rural environment. Because the hotel is also a luxury condominium, we had access to a laundry room, which is great for people traveling like us. Good location and excellent service. This was definitely one of the nicest hotels we've stayed in on this trip. Downfall: Wifi was free in the common spaces, but cost $10 a day for in-room access. This is so far out of line with the service level of the hotel and with current standards it almost blew our minds. But other aspects made up for it.
Tips: We only booked a couple of nights here, but then extended our stay in Bangkok. Unfortunately we couldn't get the same rate online, and the hotel couldn't offer it in-person, so we had to move on to keep things within budget. 


Accommodation: Sathorn Grace Executive Service Apartments 
This hotel was like the older, less-fancy version of The Oaks. A similar apartment-style layout. In the same neighbourhood. A great rooftop pool was a highlight. Service was fine, though not notable.




 RATING OUT OF FOUR BASED ON OVERALL EXPERIENCE.





* Names have been changed. Except for Music. He already changed that.



8 comments:

  1. A very important, beautiful piece of writing.

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  2. So interesting! Uncomfortable to read, but important. Thanks for writing it out.

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  3. Wow - a thoughtful and powerful post Jason. Thank you for writing and sharing.

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  4. Hi, no posts in a while-hope all is ok!?

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  5. Hey, love, love, love your blog. You are an excellent writer.
    What happened? Dying to hear about the rest of the trip. Next post, please.

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  6. Agree with Leslie! Love your blog but have been left hanging. :-/

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  7. Thanks friends.
    Will try to get back to it. I appreciate your notes.

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  8. We miss you! Please blog again soon.

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