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Sex in the Sub-City
Thailand Diary

Russ reports back from Thailand

Writing about Thailand is like, well, like dancing about architecture, or bicycling about fishing, or something. There's no way to really do it justice. The place is a sensual feast, all sights, sounds, tastes and smells, and the only way to really experience it is to live it. So I'm not even going to try. Instead, I'm simply including some of my diary entries I wrote while over there. They're pretty basic and bare-bones, but will hopefully give you a general idea about what going to Thailand is like, or at least what I found it to be like. Once again, the only way to really know the place is to go there, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Enjoy.

Day 1

Arrive in Bangkok at one in the morning, tired, sore, weak-limbed and excited as hell. Befriend a loud, gregarious Israeli at the money exchange, and the two of us share a cab to Ko San Road, the infamous backpacker's ghetto. I tell the driver the name of the guesthouse I'd made a reservation at, assuming he'll take me there, but instead he simply pulls over next to Ko San and tells me its nearby. "Where?" I ask him. "Close, not far," is all he says, before driving away. Not knowing where to go, I follow the Israeli to his hostel, a lively, almost stereotypical backpacker place called the Greenhouse. If I was a few years younger, or had never been abroad I would have loved it - pool tables, loud music, beer, pot, girls - but I've had my share of hostels and just want to get a good night's rest. So I ask around if anyone knows where my guesthouse is, but only receive shrugged shoulders and bemused looks.

A friendly Thai girl, who may or may not be a prostitute, offers to call them for me, so I fumble in my bag for my reservation confirmation and hand it to her. When she calls it's busy, so again I try to find anyone who can help to no avail; I'm on my own. Still absently wearing my sweater and jacket, which are making me sweat so hard in the heat I can feel it dribbling down my ass crack, I pick up my bags and walk back to Ko San, where I promptly hail a cab. I tell the driver the name of my guesthouse, and he repeats the name and nods, which in my naivety makes me think he actually knows where it is.

After driving in circles for maybe fifteen minutes I demand he pull over. Instead, to pacify me he calls his dispatcher. They talk for a while, then he hands the phone over to me. Unsure of what to say I simply repeat the name of my guesthouse over and over. I give the driver back the phone, he listens, nods, and then drives off. At first I am hopeful, but after a few minutes it is obvious he still has no idea where he's going. By now I'm screaming at him, so he pulls the car over and I get out. Looking around, I realize I'm right where he had first picked me up. Eighty baht (two dollars) poorer, I wander the streets, looking for anyone who can help me. I only encounter more Thai girls, who may or may not be prostitutes, and a few drunken backpackers stumbling home from God knows where.

Eventually I find the police station, where a very nice officer draws me a map of the surrounding area, with a big "X" where my guesthouse is. His directions are spot-on, and soon I find myself at the hotel. Yahtzee! Again, I am to learn a valuable lesson: sometimes planning too much can do more harm than good. My room is a tiny, windowless box with a noisy fan on the wall. I try to upgrade to an air-conditioned room, or at least something with a window, but the cost is nearly double, and I have a budget to keep. So I do my best to sleep, but the stifling room, the clicking fan, the strangeness of my surroundings, keeps me up all night. Welcome to Thailand.

Day 2

Promptly find another place to stay, a lovely place with big, airy rooms with windows and silent ceiling fans. The bed is enormous, and the sheets are the best part, depicting a map of Asia. I spend the afternoon at the Grand Palace, home of the king, which is hard to take in, in part because of its grandeur, in part because of the intense heat, but mainly because today happens to be the king's birthday, so the place is packed with loyal Thais. The Thai people adore their king, and there are depictions of him everywhere: on the money, on posters, calendars, jigsaw puzzles, etc. He is revered like no one I've ever seen, and all the adoration is offered up willingly. He is truly loved, and not one person I meet speaks badly of him.

And because he's such a good guy, today, on his birthday, admission is free. Saving the two bucks is nice, but I still have to pay a dollar to "rent" a shirt to cover my bare arms, which are considered too offensive to enter the grounds unadorned. If it is easy to spot the westerners in the crowd, towering over the tiny Thais, it is much more so now, all of us walking around in jarring, too-tight Hawaiian shirts.

Later I walk to Wat Po, a large religious complex just south of the palace. After gawking at the massive Reclining Buddha, I decide to get a famous Thai massage from the massage school on the grounds, which does wonders. The only downside is that when the guy works on me I keep thinking about the fact that you're not supposed to shake Thai people's left hands, because they use them to clean themselves after going to the toilet. Toilet paper never found its way here, and after learning this the hard way a few times, I made a point to always carry some with me. So while I enjoy the massage immensely, I keep thinking about his left hand, what it's doing and where it's been. I only hope he has wonderful hygiene.

Day 3

Somehow "find" myself in the red light district, which is merely two streets named Patpong 1 and Patpong 2. Upon entry I am bombarded by men trying to sell me girls, massages and strip shows, pointing to all manner of seedy establishments. And while I am curious about what goes on in these places, particularly all the stories I've heard about the girls and their agile vaginas, who "use them to do everything under the sun except make babies" - Spalding Gray, I am really here for the dance clubs. The next street over from the Patpongs, Soi 4, is supposed to house the cream of Bangkok's clubs. Perhaps I have arrived too early, because nothing is really going on.

So I walk back to the sleazepit streets, which are nothing but row upon row of bars and restaurants. And at all of these sit several "hostesses," young, pretty things who call me "bigboy" and "honey" as I walk past. At their sides sit a plethora of loud, fat geezers, who look to be having the time of their lives. I take a quick look around and beat a hasty retreat.

Not wanting to get in another cab I opt for a tuk-tuk, these little three-wheeled mini-taxis that are all over Bangkok. But after I tell the driver my destination he says: "No, you don't want to go there. Too early. I know a good place you want to go. You like massage?" So I tell him never mind and hail another one. This time my driver is more explicit: "First we go meet some nice girls, yes? You like to meet nice girls?" So I opt for the bus. It takes nearly an hour to arrive, and because of the abominable Bangkok traffic, which never seems to let up, it takes another hour to get home.

On the way I watch as cars and motorcycles and scooters and tuk-tuks ride side-by-side at alarming speeds, always in unison, always expertly interpreting each other's moves, only inches away and never connecting. It is like witnessing a giant flock of mechanical birds. When I finally arrive at my guesthouse I sleep soundly, so soundly that when I awake there is a big drool stain covering most of Malaysia.

Day 6

Take a bus to Trat, a small town a few hours south of Bangkok, that is mainly used by travelers as launching point for Cambodia, or for Ko Chang, Thailand's second-largest island, which is where I am headed. Trat is pleasant enough, all wood shacks, friendly people and stray dogs, but I don't stay long enough to really explore it. Instead I take yet another form of Thai transportation, a songtheaw, which is basically a pickup truck villagers use as taxis, to the pier. The woman who sells me my boat ticket points at my pack and says: "Big, bag, eh? How long you travel for, one year?" I laugh with her, even though the bankteller said the same thing this morning, and so did a woman at breakfast. But she's cute, so I simply smile and jokingly ask for her number, telling her that I'll call her when I return from my trip.

"No, you gone too long," she says, laughing. "I cannot wait. By then I already be married with kids."

On the boat I befriend two dreadlocked dudes from Minnesota, and we make plans to meet up later on in the week. When we get in another songtheaw takes me to my guesthouse, and again I am met with disappointment. While my room is very nice - a large, clean, concrete bungalow close to the beach - it is almost TOO nice. The rest of the guests are all couples, some much older than me, and many are comprised of the old Western fart/hot young Thai girl combo. I see so many of these that I want to cry. Each time I pass one I give the guy a look of scorn and the girl a look of sympathy, oftentimes having to rapidly change back and forth so they don't confuse the two. The last thing I want to do is make these guys feel good about buying sex, about buying youth and beauty, essentially paying out hard cash to receive what at home they could never dream of getting.

That night, while sitting outside my bungalow, I suddenly hear a strange, chirping noise, that sounds like either a tone-deaf bird or an amazingly large cricket. I follow the sound to just above my doorway, and find an enormous lizard straddling the arch, crying into the night. While I have seen plenty of lizards since arriving, geckos mainly, tiny, harmless little things, this is nothing of the sort. For starters it is at least a foot long, and never have I heard such a sound from a gecko.

All night it sings, for what purpose I have no idea. But just in case it's calling some kind of lizard meeting I stay put until morning.

Day 7

While I have come to Thailand to "get away from it all," in search of isolation and serenity, my old patterns are still strong. So I decide to head to the northernmost beach on the island, which, while the most upmarket and commercial, also has the most bars and restaurants. But the island is much bigger than I realize, and it takes almost two hours to get there. When I arrive, tired and sweaty, what I find there makes me almost immediately regret coming: loud western girls lounging at cafes and restaurants; aggressive Thais wandering the beach, selling everything from necklaces to Coca Cola; trance and techno blaring from the beachside bars; young Thai girls manning a series of stalls, hawking snorkeling trips, baggy Thai clothing, hammocks and the like. It is like a small city right on the beach, and suddenly I find myself missing my quiet bungalow. Not wanting to walk all the way back, I approach several songtheaw drivers for a lift, but none of them will take me back for less than a small fortune. Apparently after dark the rates skyrocket.

So I start walking back, cursing. On the way a particularly cute bargirl calls me to come over, and I hesitatingly oblige her. I tell her my troubles, and she says that she'll happily drive me back on her motorbike. I thank her profusely, but am confused when I hop on her bike and not she but a small Thai boy climbs on before me.

"My boyfriend," she says, grinning. "He take you, but his English not so good, so you just tell him when you want get off, okay?"

"Okay, thanks," I say, shaking her hand, making sure it's her right one. My next thought: 'What if someone is left-handed? What then?' I try to quickly put out of my mind.

The ride takes about fifteen minutes, and when I get off the boy holds out his hand for money.

"How much?" I ask.

"100 baht," he says, to my shock.

"Uh, that's a little more than I was expecting," I say, fumbling in my pockets. "How 'bout this?"

I hand him two twenties and a ten, and leave before he can make any objections.

Day 8

Spend the morning relaxing on the beach, which is practically empty. At first it is blissful, soaking up the sun without another soul in sight, but after a while my feeling of isolation takes over, so I decide to explore the beaches to the south. Not wanting to walk again for hours I rent a motorbike. I haven't ridden one in years, and at first have a little trouble getting the hang of it. The key is to accelerate very slowly, and to gradually increase the speed, but I keep jumping the gun and it jerks uncontrollably beneath me, threatening to leave me behind. And once I get the hang of this, there is still another problem: the Thais drive on the left side of the road, and it takes every ounce of my concentration to remember this. Several times I instinctively take off on the right side, curious as to why the asshole before me is gunning at me. Each time I have to make a last-minute correction to avoid a collision.

Eventually I find the beach my dreadlocked friends have gone to, and now I can see why. It is all tattoos, topless girls and modern hippies, funky people from far and wide carousing on the beach. In fact, it is "The Beach." If Leo suddenly showed up with a French hottie he wouldn't be out of place. It is here where I spend most of the week, even though each night on the way back I take my life in my own hands. There are no streetlights, no traffic lights, and often very wild Thai truckdrivers taking up both sides of the road. Every night is an adventure, and I'm happy to say I make it each and every time.

Day 11

After biking to a waterfall and swimming in the cold, clear water, I meet my friends at the Jah Bar, a large, loungey place located high above the beach. Tonight they're having a party, and the place is swarming with revelers. The music is alternative lite: Chemical Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Doors, etc., but the crowd is fun and the drinks are cheap and plentiful. There is also a steady flow of joints, and after one too many I can barely stand. In fact, I can't even sit down. Instead, I find a hammock and close my eyes, just for a second.

When I wake up, hours have passed, my friends are gone and one of my contacts is missing. I search for it for seemingly forever but it shows no signs of surfacing. By now the pot has worn off, and so has the booze, so the only obstacle in my getting home - aside from the black streets and the crazy truckdrivers - is the use of only one eye. But somehow, miraculously, driving like an old, blind man - which is not far from the truth - I do it.

Day 12

Pack up and head back to Bangkok. Make friends with a guy from Senegal in my guesthouse, who tells me he needs my help with something. Unsure of what exactly this is I hesitantly oblige him, and follow him to an Internet café. There he tells me he wants me to read to him a very important e-mail, which he can't understand because his English isn't very good. The e-mail is very strange, and has something to do with safety deposit boxes, safes and money. The letterhead makes it look like it's from the U.S. government, but there are all sorts of typos and misspelled words, so whatever it is it's completely hackneyed. At one point I get to a particularly strange passage about how getting a blowdryer is a good idea to keep the money dry. That's when I suddenly remember I have to do something important and get the hell out of there.

I escape from the wannabe counterfeiter to Ko San, which by day is a place to shop and by night a place to party. It is swarming with backpackers, Thai teenagers, hilltribe women selling feathered hats and beads and food vendors selling everything possible, including fried crickets, maggots and scorpions, all for pennies (not that I would try any of them). Instead I buy a plate of pad thai, some kind of pork dish and a few pieces of skewered chicken, all for the amazingly low price of two dollars, and take a seat outside one of the many clubs blaring live music.

A pack of curvaceous Israeli girls soars by, followed by a group of lean, long Germans, laughing hysterically about something (what do Germans find amusing anyway?). Next comes a team of ladyboys, perfectly made-up and gorgeous, throwing winks and air kisses in all directions. I wonder if I wasn't from New York and was used to seeing transvestites, or if I was drunk enough, would I fall for their act? Not that I would even try; my girlfriend would be arriving soon and I had no plans to fool around with anyone, whether girl or ladyboy.

After taking in more of the passing spectacle, loving where I am but secretly wishing I was back on the beach, I head back to my hotel to crash. Luckily the strange Senegalese is nowhere to be found.

Day 13

Take a train to Laem Ngop, a small port town in the south, and then a boat to Ko Pha Ngan, home of the famous Full Moon Parties, every backpacker's wet dream. On the boat ride over, not having slept much in the last couple days, I end up passing out. A few hours later a fellow backpacker shakes me out of sleep.

"We're here dude," he says, in a distinctly American accent. "Wake up. It's party time."

And with that I get up, strap on my pack and leave the boat.

To be continued…

--Russ Josephs

E-mail: [email protected]

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[email protected] | February 2003 | Issue 35
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