BANGKOK: CROWDED, LOUD, FUNKY, FANTASTIC
by RJ Furth (March, 2012)
I can understand why some people do not like Bangkok. It is always hot and humid. The city is loud with buzzing tuk tuks (3-wheel scooter taxis) and polluted. You rarely see blue sky through the smog. The traffic is atrocious. (I don’t want to hear people in Denver whining about traffic. That’s like complaining about a hangnail to a double amputee.) It has one of the most extensive, sleazy bargirl and sex scenes on earth. Yet in spite of all this, Bangkok is one of my favorite cities. Sandy and I are attending an educational conference (actually, Sandy is attending) with over a thousand teachers, counselors and administrators. This is a well-traveled bunch and it seems like each and every one is thrilled to be in Bangkok. Some love the shopping, others the food, some the rowdy night life. There’s something for everyone. Paris is the City of Lights, famous for art and food and culture, but if you want a gritty, exciting urban experience, one that leaves an indelible impression, nothing beats Bangkok.
Tony Wheeler wrote his first Lonely Planet guidebook in 1973. His second book, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, written in 1975, was my guide through Southeast Asia in 1976. (I wish I had that book, a collector’s item, but I gave it away in India to somebody heading east, since I was heading west.) The book had proved useful for three months on four different Indonesian islands, in Penang, Malaysia, and got me by train to Bangkok, where I checked into the Lonely Planet’s recommended Hotel Malaysia. It sounded exotically weird, and it was. There was a big pool, one of the first I’d used in Asia after months of beaches; an air-conditioned room, perhaps my first in Asia; and lots of bargirls in the lobby. I’m not attracted to bargirls, but it seemed exciting and naughty to sit by the pool with Thai hookers during their down time. I remember Bangkok’s traffic and noise, and finding peace and quiet at Wat Pho, the amazing reclining Buddha which I’ve returned to many times. This Buddha is about 45 feet high, 140 feet long, and has mother-of-pearl scriptures inlayed in the soles of its feet. The grounds of Wat Pho are clean and quiet, full of wandering monks in saffron robes. The soothing time at Wat Pho provided a stark contrast to my evenings which were mostly spent at Patpong Road, a truly seedy experience.
Patpong is the most famous location for Thailand’s extensive sex trade. An explanation is in order, especially for those who finds this type of thing unsavory, which it undoubtedly is. Most people who visit Patpong (or its smaller, less well known cousins, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy) do not go there for sex. It’s sort of like going to a boxing match or mixed martial arts. You don’t go to get slugged, but rather for the thrill of watching combat. Patpong is similar. You go to watch women strip and do usual things with their vaginas. (I won’t go into detail. Ask somebody’s who’s been there or use your imagination.) There are also live sex shows which are as exciting as watching somebody paint a fence. So why do people go there? I’m not a shrink so I won’t venture a guess, but these places are enormously popular, and not just with randy men. I’ve seen tour buses pull up and disgorge fifty old tourists, men and women, couples, who enter the larger establishments and watch Thai couples go through a dozen different sexual positions. The performers looked bored, the viewers looked perplexed or mildly amused, though definitely not aroused. I’ve been to Patpong and Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. I’ve downed a lot of beer and had my manhood squeezed by a very attractive transvestite. (Bangkok must have the world’s largest transvestite population.) I haven’t been to any of these places for a dozen years and I don’t see myself going in the future, but I had many an amusing evening there.
My amusements now run more to visiting wats (Buddhist temples), of which Bangkok has hundreds, each with unique Buddhas or architecture. The Royal Palace, with its brilliant colors and inlayed mirrors, is worth visiting once a decade. When you go, by the way, you must wear long pants out of respect for the royal family. I wore shorts in 1976 and 1983 and was turned away both times. I finally was allowed to enter sometime in the early 90s. Bangkok is a shoppers’ paradise, as I’ve been told by dozens of women who praise the silk, ceramics, bronze and antiques. (I’m a bit weak on the shopping subject.) Bangkok also offers an awesome variety of food. Outside the royal palace there is often a cart that sells dozens of different types of fried bugs, including scorpions and slugs. (I’ve never tried any.) The Thai, Chinese and Indian food is among the best in the world, and the western food is also excellent. I could (though I won’t) write an essay solely about the fruit. Besides the usual tropical fruits (the sweetest pineapple, mango and banana you’ve ever eaten; papaya and guava, mangosteen and fragrant durian) there are a dozen fruits you’ve never seen before. Last night Sandy and I went to China town, the largest Chinatown I’ve ever seen, and unlike Chinatowns in London and San Francisco and New York, tourists make up a fraction of the people who throng the streets. We ate half of a succulent duck, a dish of prawns and vegetables in oyster sauce, fluffy rice and (for me) a tall bottle of Singha beer. For dessert went to a stall on the street and ordered two portions of mango and sticky rice to take back to the hotel room. It was excellent.
As always, Bangkok was brutally hot and humid this trip. It always is. It was loud and the traffic was horrendous, in spite of the introduction of a modern elevated light rail system. I tired of haggling with taxi and tuk tuk drivers when we were tired and eager to get back to the hotel. (They know they can stick it to you when traffic is the worst or it’s raining or late at night or if you look particularly drained.) I’m ready to leave and I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll make it back. Bangkok, for all of it’s faults and ugliness, will always remain one of my favorite cities.