Readers' Submissions

The Art Of People Watching

  • Written by Ben Tzu
  • October 2nd, 2003
  • 10 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok



One thing I love is watching tourists interact in Thailand. I’m not talking about individuals traveling together who know one another, but punters in the go-gos; freaks on KSR, or ‘travelers’ on the BKK-Surat Party express.

Their conversations inevitably move towards what they do when they travel, which only makes sense. Certainly nothing wrong with that. What doesn’t make sense to me is why sex tourists try so hard to hide what they are, when the guy they are talking to is the SAME! Or how about the guy next to you sitting one bar stool too close that is quite obviously making up his life even as he details it to you over a couple of Singhas. Who are you trying to impress? We’ve only known each other for 15 seconds and in 3 minutes, you, my idiot friend, are a memory.

I love watching tourists in Thailand. Some are great. Some I could talk to all day. Sometimes I just sit unobtrusively at a bar and pretend to read the paper for the 100th time, when what I am really doing is eavesdropping on the conversations around me. Every time you think you have seen or heard it all, somebody comes along and proves you haven’t. It’s probably one of the reasons I keep going back.

It seems to me that there are distinctive tourist types, ones we all know. I shall list those here:

1. Single White Male Sex tourist ­ most of you reading this.
2. Expat wannabe – obvious by his conspicuous attempt to be ‘Thai’
3. Neo/Pseudo Hippy Freak ­ dreads, drugs, and dirt.
4. Legitimate Hippy Freak – #3 plus the ability to see beyond your own self-righteousness.
5. Party Boy/Girl – it seems college age Brits & Aussies make LOS a ‘right-of-passage’ type of thing after a tough years’ schooling.
6. Introspective, culturally sensitive type – This probably best described me in my first decade of travel.
7. Families ­ bring your kids to LOS? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m an American, damn it, we let the public schools do the corrupting.
8. Homosexuals ­ I’m just going to leave this one alone except to say that I bet if you went through their stuff there would be a map with a red line drawn from their hotel to Patpong Soi 2.
9. Fat, Old men with gold chains and speedo trunks ­ see #1.

What’s interesting about the above types is that with the exception of #9, most all use backpacks, even some families. Given the human propensity to categorize and pigeon-hole information in order to internalize it, I can’t help but believe that Thais see us the way most whites see blacks and vice versa ­ it’s us and them, and THEY are all the same. Here is the same list as above, but from a Thai perspective:

1. Loud, obnoxious, overpaid, disrespectful, overvalued idiots with no concept of family obligation or spirit reverence that sometimes behave in a fashion that suggests they have jai dee but more frequently just screw my women/sisters, make completely inappropriate and unrealistic demands, embarrassingly assert their ‘individual rights’, and throw around more money in a day then I make in a month. It’s a good thing I’m a Buddhist or I’d just kick your ass right here and now.

Here are some perhaps less known but still relevant categories:

1. Female sex tourists ­ yeah! And they pick up farang or Thai men.
2. FLBs ­ (Farang Ladyboys) – farang trannies that come to LOS to take advantage of cheap cost of surgery.
3. Terrorists- not the least bit funny, but if the news is to be believed there are MANY JI and other Islamic extremists in Thailand plotting who knows what. They aren’t farang, and they aren’t exactly ‘tourists’ but it’s worth noting they are there.
4. NGO participants ­ what can I say? Get a fucking job and quit living off money the truly poor could be using.
5. Felon-on-the-run – Worst part about this category is, every single one I have ever met was from America.
6. Adventure seeker ­ This is the guy/gal that hikes, rock climbs, goes to the truly ‘unfarang’ places, cycles across Vietnam, etc. I have a lot of respect for these people.

It seems to me most farang come to Thailand for one of three reasons:

1. Sex
2. Traveling & Sex
3. Partying & Sex

Perhaps it’s just me, or me being influenced by the content of this site, but it really seems that any single male you meet is on the prowl, in one way or another. On the prowl for drugs, parties, chicks, boys, trannies, danger… whatever. We are all looking for something, or else we wouldn’t be here. I keep thinking about something Stick wrote in an Opinion/Opening Rant piece: “If you kept on asking why an expat was in Thailand, and kept on asking why until you got through all the bullshit, most will eventually admit it is the cheap, available supply of pussy.” This is not an exact quote, but it is the gist of the statement. I think it applies to many, many tourists as well. More so then is readily admitted. Non-sex tourists can spot a sex tourist from across a crowded BTS platform through heavy Bangkok pollution. They dress better while on vacation than they do for work back in Farangland. They smell like som tom, yesterday’s beer, Thai disinfectant, and cheap perfume. Am I right or wrong?

Why do I love people watching? Consider the anecdote below.

I met a guy on KSR in ’95. He was a Brit and a hell of a nice guy. We were discussing the night’s possible destinations and he said, “Just not Patpong, I’ve seen naked women before and I didn’t come all the way over here to see more of them.” This was at Nat guesthouse, and maybe it was between movies or something but I swear, the whole room got quiet.

Back then there was a disco on the 12th floor of a building at the western end of KSR. I don’t know if the building is still there, but the club was literally on the roof, open to the night with big wire mesh fence to keep intoxicated farang from leaping to their deaths. In the early 90’s hookers hung out on Thanon Khao San at night. A LOT of hookers. The Hello guesthouse, which I believe now is the Hello Internet Emporium and FreakHouse, especially had hookers in the ground floor bar. Anyway, later that night I was up at this disco, and me and this Brit and a few other farang we met sat outside drinking Carlsburgs and watching the action. There was this Australian, and I DO like Australians, mind you. Frankly, I have to believe Aussies are among the hardiest partiers among farang in the Kingdom. I have yet to drink one under the table. This Aussie had a katoey on his lap and, while vociferously enjoying the company of his friends who were companionless, was allowing his hand to explore (and I assume it was the first time) everything his soon-to-be-sexual-conquest had to offer. The whole time he’s rubbing this trannie’s tits and ass, he/she/it (I’ll stick to ‘it’) was kissing this bloke’s face and rubbing his meat whistle. The poor farang let his hand wonder up between the legs of this little vixen and all of a sudden, what he was saying to his friends didn’t seem so important. He stopped mid-sentence.

He pushed the katoey off his lap while his friends looked on with drunken confusion. It hit the ground hard, right on its arse; no breaking the fall with the hands or anything. Just PLUMP! It was precisely at this point that I ordered another round of beers.

It got up, now no longer startled but not in the bests of moods, which only turned worse when the Australian (quite a large fellow, actually) put The Question to it very loudly:

“Are you a man?” he demanded.

“Am I man? Are YOU man?” it snarled as it sliced his right cheek open neatly in 2 places with its long fingernails. Precision. I mean surgical fuckin’ precision. Cheek to lip, this guy is pouring blood. He put his hand to his face tentatively, then his expression turned from anger to pure wonder as he stared at his crimson palm. His friends, evidently not seeing his wound from their side of the table, thought it had just slapped him, and that that was simply the funniest thing they had even seen. Poor guy is standing there bleeding like a hemophiliac and his mates are just laughing and carrying on like its Drunken Idiot Hour.

Our beers arrived. I took a long pull while it was still ice-box cold. As a rule, I don’t get down with the whole ‘ice in my beer’ thing; although, if the situation warrants, I am certainly not above it.

I turn to my friends. “Now you’re gonna see some shit,” I smiled.

The katoey was still glaring nastily at Mr. I’m-Too-Shocked-To-React. Then it hits him. No, not the ladyboy, I mean the revelation. I could actually pinpoint the exact moment in time the little peanut in his brain sprouted a leaf, as clearly as if a light bulb had actually flashed over his head. It went something like this:

Fact: It has a dick (empirical evidence supports this claim)
Fact: If it has a dick, it is male
Corollary: If it is male, it is not female
Thesis: If it is not female, than I can freely stomp the ever loving shit out of it.

And that’s exactly what he did. Now, that’s what I call free entertainment.

Some of my best experiences traveling were in the Realm of Involvement; situations were I was actively participating in my environment. I won’t go into them because I know it will all come out as a bunch of “I’m a big world traveler” kind of bullshit and people like that really get on my nerves. “I have more death defying experiences than you do” kind of crap. I love these 20 year old kids that tell me they have been traveling the world solo for 6 years, have seen 35 countries, and came this close |—-| to getting killed in each one through their ‘clever, daring’ exploits. I must be getting old.

But many of my fondest memories of traveling were not in the Realm of Involvement. They were in the realm of sitting back on my keester with a pack of Camels and a cold beer perfecting what I like to call “The Art of People Watching.” I once spent an entire evening at a sidewalk cafe in Istanbul just watching the fights among the Turks resulting from a rather un-negotiable traffic circle. Turks are tough MFers, let me tell you.

It really is an art, you know. Like all great art, one must project into the piece what one wishes to take from it. Personally, I took from this experience at the KSR disco the oath to always check the label before buying. Of course, that was a long time ago. You don’t need to worry about the price or the quality if you’re no longer in the market for the product.

I’m not better then anyone, let’s be clear about that. I just love to people watch in Nana, KSR etc. Thailand is one of the greatest destinations on the entire plant for people watching. I’m convinced I could put together a travel brochure (and I just might do this for kicks) advertising the extensive entertainment value of People Watching in the Land Of Smiles. It could list the different farang and Thai stereotypes that you could mark off as you spot them, like birdwatchers do. “Ok, I’ve got the poor English teacher and the fat, bald sex tourist, now I just need a ladyboy and I can go home!”

Oddly enough, it’s not always just the Thais that make Thailand so interesting. It’s just as frequently the farang. If you were on camera while vacationing in LOS, and had to watch yourself afterwards, would you be laughing? Well, someone’s got you on tape, and they sure are.

Stickman says:

Great stuff.