February 14th, 2012: Nong Khai, Thailand
I flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok because there is no overland route through Burma into Thailand. You could quickly sum up the differences between Nepal and Thailand by their airports alone. I left Kathmandu from what looked like a dilapidated, regional West Virginian airstrip and landed in a megapolis of concrete and skyscrapers, blinding lights, wifi and air conditioning. Over the course of 4 airborne hours, I time traveled a century or more into the modern day. Sweltering Thailand.
Thailand has a fun history of overthrowing corrupt governments in exchange for new corrupt governments through their national pastime, the coup. Since 1932 there have been somewhere between 19 and 23 successful or attempted coups. There are multiple websites and intellectual discussions devoted to figuring out how many coups Thailand’s actually had because it’s that crazy and there have been that many. Even at a conservative 20 “political readjustments,” they are more frequent than US presidential elections. Instead of going to a ballot box, people storm government buildings, generals imprison large chunks of the legislature, or citizens pick up weapons and vote with bullets. Some have been revolutionary and flooded the streets with blood and chiles while others have been quiet and bloodless. To be fair, elections rarely offer anything more than the illusion of meaningful change, so the coup is Thailand’s preferred method. China and the US have had a hand in these from time to time, but to what extent is difficult to know. You can assume that they probably weren’t championing worker’s rights, environmental preservation, or meaningful reform. Someone should have told the Thai’s that the free market will dictate the law of the land, and more importantly, which select few people get all the money. Ahhhh.
So I’m in Thailand. A lot of people have talked wonders about this place and called it a paradise on earth – brimming with gorgeous women, amazing food, exquisite beaches, etc. To begin with, I won’t talk about the beaches because I have no interest in them. I can lay in the sand in a lot of places and I’m not particularly enamored with the idea of going around the world to see a spruced up Jersey Shore. The food and women I’ll get to later.
My friend Maggie, from high school, has been living in Bangkok for a year with her fiance, Cameron. She’s been teaching English and Cameron has been teaching creative writing while producing his own (he’s already published a book!). I contacted them when I arrived and they graciously showed me around their neighborhood. I followed along as we sampled food in an open air market across the street from where I stayed. They picked out foods not commonly available in the US like the Jackfruit. I ate some. It’s a weird fleshy fruit that has a texture similar to a decaying corpse but doesn’t quite have the plague inducing revulsion you’d imagine. Not bad really.
Nearby, we entered one of the ubiquitous malls in Bangkok’s cityscape. The mall culture here is most likely the wet dream of a teenage girl and probably devised by her as well. They are massive structures, sometimes 5 stories high, anchored into the streets and intravenously connected to the Sky Train with streams of tourists pumping through them like red blood cells, sucking up air conditioned oxygen and McDonalds. Bangkok has enough shopping malls that it feels like a condensed upper middle American suburb. These consumption stations have super markets, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and ice skating rinks in them in case you need another way to spend money. If toppling governments isn’t the national sport here, then shopping is.
We skirted past the one of the many McDonald’s on our way in. Thankfully, Bangkok has added the McDelivery to the fast food convenience experience so you can gorge on terrible food without the added shame of going outside. Up the escalator we went and I entered my first Thai shopping mall super market. At first glance, it looks like any other one I’ve been in. Bright fluorescent lights shine down, a women on the intercom saying something that I wouldn’t pay attention to even if it were in English, big signs trying to grab your attention with the promise of the lowest price in the hemisphere. It’s normal until I see the girls working the check out counter. They are all dressed like prepubescent school girls with knee high socks and pigtails, actively catering to a niche porno demographic. I double and triple take and shake my head. Cameron leads us deeper into this refined establishment, past unidentifiable creatures splayed out on butcher’s blocks. The bread section is nonexistent and in its place are rice bags stacked like WWI trenches. The rice department here could double as a grain silo.
The aisles lined with toiletries and lotions somehow seem even more poisonous than their American brethren. Face creams and moisturizers all advertise their properties and chemicals that will make you “white.” Like putting shoe polish on your face but succeeding in being more toxic and senseless. An Asian twist on the American obsession with appearance. I may sound disgusted with some of this, but I find it endlessly amusing. At least most aspects of it.
Bangkok is a giant, modern, “first world” city. After coming from Nepal, I almost expect to be confronted with constant power outages, inadequate infrastructure, and desperation. Instead, everything here runs smoothly. The Sky Train slides through the city, moving millions of people on elevated tracks in clean air conditioned cars. Every single person with fingers is jamming them into their phones like they’re carrying on some important business or saving the world (they’re not). And the white people! They’re everywhere. I haven’t seen so many since I was in Kansas. But instead of the normal tornado-dodging-gay-hatin’ Kansan, these ones are here for love. The love that you can buy cheap, young, and write off as a business expense.
I know that a lot of people come to Thailand for the beaches and other cultural draws that don’t involve the sex trade, but I like to paint with a broad brush since I’m just not inventive enough to come up with a reason why that attractive 20 year old Thai girl is holding hands with that over weight, 60 year old white guy. While wandering around the streets for hours, I saw more westerners with Thai girls than I saw alone (excluding actual families that were vacationing). It was enough to make a guy feel lonely and a little cheated. You can imagine how upset I was that I didn’t redeem my complimentary Thai girlfriend at the airport when I passed through immigration.
There are a lot of these unlikely couples walking the streets and riding elevators up to high priced penthouses. To some degree, I purposefully set out to see these interactions because I’m simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by it. Near a night market in Patpong, a section of the city deemed an “entertainment zone,” which is a nice way to say hooker warehouse, I saw the beginnings of the cattle auction. Small crowds of women stood in a line being picked over by some pasty white guys with polo shirts tucked into their cargo shorts, inspecting the quality of the goods. I’m a bit surprised about how open people are to the whole enterprise but it’s probably a combination of economics and culture since most of the Johns are domestic Thai men. If I were one of these street shoppers, I would be a little hesitant about the products being sold. For some unknown reason (to me, at least), Thailand has a lot of ladyboys. I’ve seen a number of them walking the streets, or had them pointed out to me by keen observers with an apparent radar device that allows them to distinguish “the fakes.” I’ve been warned by multiple people, including my hotel staff, that they are devious and that I have to be very careful, like they’re lecturing a young child. You’d think I’m dealing with magical trolls wearing lipstick and packing sausage. Anyway, since I’m not “in the market” as they say, I think of it as a fun surprise present for the unassuming pathetic customers. Unless these customers are overcompensating republican political candidates, in which case it’s probably an added bonus (I’m looking at you Rick Santorum, don’t hide it any longer). Though I don’t understand the ladyboy phenomenon, I know it isn’t a recent thing. My uncle has repeatedly told me stories of his days in ‘Nam and going on leave to Thailand where he was hoodwinked more than once by a “dick trick.”
Needless to say, the sex trade is pretty big in Thailand and, like the shopping malls, it’s all around and open for business. On my way to the bus station, my cab driver solicited me for some prostitutes. I don’t know if they hit me up because I’m a white guy traveling alone (I didn’t think I looked that lonely) or if it’s part of their Thai total customer service. He points at a billboard with some attractive women on it, “You want one? I can take you to a good place.” As terrible as the whole situation is, I have to laugh about it. He has some very glossy, professional brochures that he insisted I peruse for the rest of the ride so that I could “think about it.” My cabbie is an entrepreneur.
In addition to Bangkok’s overabundance of prostitutes, air conditioning, and shopping malls, you can add massage parlors. There’s probably a huge overlap with the sex trade in this category, but I didn’t see it. I chose a place on the main road I was staying on because it didn’t look dirty and an hour long massage was something like 7 dollars. I went in mostly out of curiosity and the fear that I’d miss out on one of the great Thai experiences. They gave me a menu and tried to explain the differences in the options but it was meaningless to me, so I just asked for whatever was the most common. The most common option happens to be the Thai massage. This would be a semi enjoyable hour for a sadomasochist with a penchant for awkward conversation. It starts out with a small Thai girl washing my feet while I sit on a curtained bed wearing what can only be described as a hospital gown. An old shirtless Thai man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and beer belly pushing out over his belt with a giant stupid grin pops his head in from time to time to say something unintelligible and laugh ridiculously loudly. He’s so happy I’m here.
My combination foot scrubber and massager is a tiny Thai girl. She smiles sheepishly at me and I lay there uncomfortably. I hear beer belly outside laughing for the whole world to hear and try to strike up a conversation. I have no idea how old this girl is or whether it’s rude to ask but I do anyway since it can’t get any more awkward. She tells me to guess, which I hate when people do that. We go back and forth and I’m miserably wrong; she’s not the young girl I thought she was but a 38 year old woman. I could have sworn she was about 22, which was apparently not a nice thing to say as evidenced by the gentle touch of her elbow trying to dislocate my shoulder. We talk for a bit, which is mostly me grunting while she tries to impale me with her knees. She has a 15 year old son and the dad skipped town when the boy was 8 months old. “Oh! Like America! Was he American? That happens a lot there.” She jams her elbow into my calf like she hates me. “That’s sad,” I continue. “It’s hard to grow up without a father. He’s probably better off though if he’s the kind of guy that would leave you.” She’s now walking on my back and I’m pretty sure she’s about to cannonball on my spine. The session ends before it comes to that and I hobble out of there thinking a street fight would have been cheaper.
At some point in Bangkok, it rained. It felt like it should have been raining the whole time with the humidity constantly at 100% and then it finally did. Hard. The streets of Bangkok flooded surprisingly quickly and people took refuge in the Sky Train stations and shopping malls. I hid out until the worst of it passed and waded through flooded streets trying to avoid the sludge that was regurgitated. Shop owners were out in full force with industrial bug spray, aiming it down holes in sewer grates to hold back the tide of cockroaches that were crawling up from the depths. Bangkok has suffered some severe flooding recently and it’s scary to imagine how easily the place could have been underwater if the storm had lasted a couple hours longer.
When the waters and cockroaches subsided, I continued exploring. I found a skipper to take me on a longtail boat through the Chao Phraya river of Bangkok. Skyscrapers, modern bridges, and ancient temples line its banks. Seeing the old and the new next to each other in a form of urban harmony gives Bangkok a cool feel. Some time later I wandered through the 24 hour flower market with its strong smells and vibrant colors. A really nice place to get lost in. I visited Khao San Road, a famous street in Bangkok and heavily populated by backpackers and tourists. I found it to be the most ugly, obnoxious street I’ve encountered since coming to Asia. I ate some food at an outdoor restaurant and listened to a British kid exclaim how he’s making 40 dollars an hour to teach English and how impressive he was while merchants walked up to my table and stuck silly trinkets in my face to buy. Across the street, 30 bro dudes were partying it up in some Irish pub, yelling over their 3 foot high beers and wearing visors with cutoff shirts. I didn’t stick around there too long.
My last act of business in Bangkok was the general boring stuff of visa paperwork and transportation arrangements. I got a picture for some passport photos for visa applications at a nearby mall. These are small square pictures, usually just a headshot and some of the upper torso. When I came back an hour later to retrieve mine, I found that they super imposed a suit onto me. I now look very professional for an unemployed, homeless traveler. With my business taken care of, I got on a night bus to Nong Khai, a town on the border of Laos. Three days after leaving Bangkok, a terrorist detonated bombs two stops down on Sukhumvit Road, the street I was staying on. I don’t know if anyone was killed.
The bus I ride to Nong Khai is more technologically advanced than American Airways’ entire fleet of planes. It has a personal TV to select movies, music, and games along with an electrical outlet for computers and other electronics. Even though I’m in a tropical climate capable of slow cooking a pot roast outside, they somehow manage to refrigerate the cabin so that you can suspend human animation. After 10 hours of hibernating on smooth roads and leather reclining chairs, I’m in a speck of a town called Nong Khai.
I spent a few days here, recharging. Nong Khai sits on the Mekong River, a lazy town that moves at a languid pace in the high heat and humidity. A boardwalk runs along the river with Thais, monks, and sex tourists strolling the water’s edge. I strolled the boardwalk myself, watching fisherman haul in catches and motorbikes cruise by. The food was hit or miss. Sometimes, when a menu existed, it would be all in Thai which doesn’t really help me. Talking slowly and loudly like an obnoxious tourist, I hoped I could make it clear that I just wanted some vegetables and noodles. I didn’t always come out successful in these exchanges. The plates put in front of me, straight from the Mekong, were like eating a nightmare. Picking around monstrous sea urchins and alien looking creatures. I ate the rice and tomatoes, pushing the rest around the plate like a spoiled 4 year old. That’s not to say that Thailand doesn’t have some amazing food. I ate a lot of that and managed to keep my lower organs in tact even though I suspect most food is cooked with riot grade pepper spray. But I won’t forget the monsters lurking underneath the noodles, staring at me with antennae hiding in seaweed.
During my time in Nong Khai, Valentine’s Day happened and I spent it by watching the sex trade in action along the boardwalk. Ironically, I was watching the purest, most perfect version of the holiday as fat old men bought love the same way you buy a ring. I could go on about this, but I already go on about too much to begin with, so I’ll leave it at that.
As it was, I was waiting for the light to improve for some photos and got hauled into a gathering of washed up men. I sat with some older guys at a patio bar because they were buying drinks. They ranged from their late 50′s to early 70′s and hailed from England and Australia and were accompanied by their girlfriends. The girls ranged from their early to mid 20′s and hailed from…Thailand. These elderly gentlemen were vulgar and straightforward with their intentions and made no bones about it. I wonder if they assumed that I, like them, had traveled here with a comparable intent (it seems everyone else has). This situation is hard to describe. They lavish money on these girls for sex (one guy bought his lady a bar) and the girls complete the transaction with open legs. I consider these men to be dirty perverts, but from what I can tell, their “girlfriends” enter into the ordeal by choice (other than what poverty necessitates). I want to call these guys scumbags. Then one guy tells me how his wife of 30 years died of cancer 6 years ago and here he is, a young girl by his side. I don’t know what to make of it. I guess I’m between disgust and pity. I don’t want to end up like that. I’m certain that the idea of going to Thailand to find a young girl is pathetic, though. On second thought, these guys are total scumbags and I don’t want to think about them anymore. Here’s some pictures of sunsets.
I rented a bike and road around town. A 30 minute ride outside of Nong Khai takes me to a sculpture park called Salakeawkoo. A park built by a Laotian artist with towering recreations of underworld visions and interpretations of Hindu and Buddhist gods and allegories. A sprinkling of western influence in the form of men with M16s mixes into sections of the grounds while scenes seemingly from Alice In Wonderland creep out of corners. The story goes that the artist was hiking in the mountains of northern Laos when he absentmindedly fell down a hole in the ground (not sure how that happens, but that’s what I’m told). He takes a tumble and ends up on the lap of a hermit who retreated to this hole in the ground. From the hermit, our hiking artist learns about Buddhism, mysticism, and the ancient underworld over the course of some years while in the hole. Eventually, he climbs out and begins focusing his artistic talents on representing the world he learned about using concrete as his medium. Some of these underworld recreations are astonishing and frightening in their colossal proportions. The park is surreal and amazing. I’m glad I stumbled upon it. With that, I made my way into Laos.
I crossed the Mekong over the Friendship Bridge into Laos. At the border, a friendly reminder not to import narcotics unless you’re really into executions was posted. That, and Thailand thinks that going to Laos to gamble is “probably not safe for your life and property.” Finally, I was entering my comfort zone.