My First Visit To Bangkok – Summer 1999
My First Visit To Bangkok – Summer Of 1999
The last time I ran away from home I was eleven years old and managed to hitchhike all the way from my parents’ home in suburban St. Louis to the airport. This was in the days before boarding passes, seating assignments, hijackers, metal detectors, alternative rock and many other ills which plague modern society. I hung around the gates until I saw a large group of kids my age on their way to summer camp in Colorado. I tried to board the plane with them – and would have made it too – had it not been for an alert stewardess who started asking questions when she noticed I wasn’t wearing the same uniform as my fellow pre-pubescent travellers. I was promptly escorted from the plane and taken to the airport’s security room.
A policeman frisked me and forced me to turn out my pockets. Eying my life savings of $2.59 and eighty-six Bazooka Bubble gum comics (I only needed fourteen more to get a free spy decoder ring) lying on his desk, the cop asked me how far I had expected to get.
I had to confess that I might not have done the most thorough job of planning.
While we waited for my mother to retrieve me, he gave me a root beer, an Eskimo pie and some advice. “When you run away you have to be a little bit more prepared, bring enough money and know how to blend in better so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Oh, and don’t try to stowaway either, because had you been discovered on the plane the pilot would have the right, in fact he would have the duty, to open the door and throw you out – and unless you’re packing a parachute it could have been a rather grim landing for you.”
Polishing off the extremely tasty Eskimo Pie, I briefly considered that he might be bluffing but dismissed it because he was a member of the police force – and from my vast experience with the constabulary (which consisted of watching every episode of Adam 12 and Dragnet) there was no way he could tell a lie. I was going to heed his counsel. The next time I ran away I would be prepared. So here I am on a Sunday morning in October some thirty-four years later leafing through The Los Angeles Times, with a wife who is on a perpetual diet and refuses to allow me to stock the freezer with Eskimo pies. My wife is yammering on about this week’s schedule and I’m only half-way paying attention until she gets to the part where she promised her friend Agatha that we would go Tuesday to a downtown gallery to see Agatha’s new piece of performance art. ‘Performance’ and ‘art’ are two innocuous words in and of themselves, respectively conjuring up visions of Mick Jagger and a portrait of some naked woman with fat thighs by some long dead European painter. However when these two words are strung together they become a weapon as potent as any Scud missile in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. As much as I hate former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani I find myself secretly agreeing with him – there is no way you can claim elephant shit, aborted fetuses or anything executed by Agatha is art.
Suddenly my old childhood thirst for adventure is coursing through my veins. I reach for the travel section and look for the first advertisement promising air travel anywhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Agatha’s art gallery.
I open the section and there it is in beautiful bold type:
Special Los Angeles-Bangkok roundtrip $495, no advance purchase required. Limited seats available. Call now!
I go through my memory banks and retrieve all stray information I have on Bangkok:
1. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, which used to be called Siam, and everyone knows it is the most strategic country to hold when playing Risk, because he who controls Siam controls the continent of Australia, which with its two-army reward is the
key to winning the game.
2. I have a close friend who used to work in a Thai restaurant.
3. The drummer from a heavy-metal band I know goes to Thailand regularly because there are a lot of prostitutes there. He always comes back smiling.
4. There are two movies about Thailand, the newer Jodie Foster flick, Anna and The King, and the old Rogers and Hammerstein warhorse, The King And I.
5. Thailand is so far away from here that there is no way, if I get on a plane tomorrow, that I can be back in time to attend Agatha’s show.
“I’m running away from home,” I interrupt my wife. “You’re what?” she gives me a nasty look like I had just asked for one of her kidneys.
Realizing that I live in a community property state, I rephrase my statement, “Didn’t I tell you I had a business trip scheduled for this week? I swear you never listen to a word I say.” No one can accuse me of being unprepared this time, I congratulate myself as I pop The King And I into the VCR. I was going to bone up for my trip to Thailand by going to the movie theater to see Anna & The King, but opted not to upon discovering the movie was three hours long. When is someone going to stand up to all those fatuous movie directors and explain the facts of life to them? No movie, and I mean absolutely no movie (unless it’s got lots of sex scenes between Angela Jolie and myself, and alas, despite my numerous attempts at submitting screenplays, that movie has yet to be made or even financed) can possibly be interesting after two hours. I fight my two golden retrievers for a place on the sofa. Recognizing the futility of this battle, I stretch out on the floor in front of the television to learn all there is to know about Thailand. It is only then that I notice The King And I is two hours thirteen minutes long.
I panic – but only momentarily. I have a remote control with a scan button on it and just as soon as I can extricate it from underneath one of the dogs, I’ll do what some editor should have done eons ago and fast forward through all the boring parts. I try to coax the dog off the couch, but he gives me an ‘I can be just as imperious as your wife – so I want what she got” look.
Thankfully bribing my dog is cheaper. Whereas his mistress cost me a Prada purse and matching pumps to accede to my travel plans (inflating the cost of my roundtrip ticket by four hundred percent – a feat I thought only the boys in the Pentagon could accomplish), moving the dog only requires a strategically tossed dog biscuit.
I grab the remote and fast forward through the credits. I could care less who the movie studio, director, producer, choreographer, or best boy is. Let them labor in obscurity, content that they were handsomely paid at the time for their toil. This knocks five minutes off the running time. The movie finally starts. By the time I manage to stop the forward progress of the VCR, Deborah Kerr, as Anna Leonowens, has had some sort of conversation which I missed with the ship’s captain, and for some unfathomable reason decides to burst into song. I hit the fast forward button and trim another two minutes. The Siamese prime minister arrives, and tells her, “In a foreign country it is best you like everyone until you leave.”
This pearl of wisdom cuts right to the crux, and I stop the movie and copy the line down in my notebook, content that I have come to the right place for my research on Thailand. The $1.99 of my hard earned money I shelled out at the video shop was worth it. I push a button and let the movie resume. Yul Brenner comes on screen as King Mongkut. Mongkut had thirty-nine wives (I wonder how many Prada purses it cost him every time he wanted to get out of seeing any of their friends) and eighty-two children who are presented during the sickeningly saccharine children’s choir number, 'Getting To Know You'. I’m just about to fast forward through it when my wife joins me in the den and prohibits me from any such action, because this turns out to be one of her favourite movies. Two hours later, after suffering through not only the entire film but also my wife’s off-key accompaniment to several of the songs, I examine my notebook. I have added the following observations to the Prime Minister’s quote:
1. Keep your head lower than the King’s.
2. Thai women don’t wear underwear.
3. Ask a Thai person anything and you better hold your ears because they’re going to answer with some trite melody.
4. Thailand might not be worth it. Check out Prada’s return policy.
I couldn’t pry the purse out of my wife’s hands, so there is no chance of a Prada refund. I have committed to the trip and am booked on a thirteen and one half hour Korean Airlines flight to Seoul. After a two hour layover, I have a connecting six hour flight to Bangkok. This has all the potential to be the most boring twenty-one hours of my life outside the time I was dragged to see a special preview showing of Titanic (which I was asked to leave for trying to lead a chant of “we want the iceberg” at the top of my lungs).
But thankfully I have packed my carry-on bag well and am prepared for any outbreak of ennui. I have purchased a guide to Thailand which, in addition to being chock full of information on temples, elephant rides, poisonous snake shows, botanical gardens, and markets to see in each city, has a bunch of handy phrases in the back (‘thong ruang, lae puad-thong maak’ means ‘I have diarrhea and a gripping pain in my abdomen’) which I can use in case no one understands English. More importantly I have 20 milligrams of Valium which I nicked from one of the rock and roll bands I work with, so I should be able to get some sleep.
Being that I hate to wait in airports any longer than absolutely necessary I have disregarded all the airline’s warnings to arrive a full two hours before departure. My extensive experience has taught me to arrive thirty minutes prior to departure when the queue has thinned out. The Korean Airlines ticket agent admonishes me for being late and tells me to hurry to the gate because they are just about to begin boarding.
As I saunter toward the gate, enjoying having beaten the system, I hear a boarding announcement for first class and those passengers traveling with small children. I arrive at the badly misnamed departure lounge (According to Webster’s dictionary a lounge is ‘a room…equipped with comfortable furniture for lounging.’ I’m almost certain Cole Porter never invited either his friends or fans to get dressed up in tuxedos and experience the sumptuous comfort of twelve rows of molded plastic seats covered with old copies of USA Today and empty Starbuck’s plastic coffee cups) and see only a few people waiting – they haven’t even called my row for boarding. I’m elated, it looks like the plane is going to be empty and I’ll be able to commandeer a few seats to stretch out and sleep.
My row is summoned and I walk down the gangway to a Boeing 767, where I am greeted by a stewardess, cabin attendant or whatever the politically correct word for ‘multi-talented waitress who in addition to serving incredibly bad food can point to which exit is best for egress after your plane crashes’ is. She examines my boarding pass and directs me to the back of the plane.
I walk down the aisle and, to my horror, notice a diabolical conspiracy at work. Every seat is occupied – and not because this plane is a continuance of a flight from somewhere else. No, every seat is taken by those enemies of all experienced travelers, Passengers Traveling With Small Children. I count at least forty kids as I squeeze into my seat between a cute four year old Oriental boy to my left and a woman clutching an infant of indeterminate sex to my right. As I reach into my bag for a Valium the four year old asks me something in an Asian language of unidentifiable origin. I swallow ten milligrams of tranquility and send a silent prayer, “Please Lord don’t let this kid sing 'Getting To Know You'.”
I open my guidebook and wait for the Valium to kick in. I read the chapter devoted to a short history of Thailand. Anna Leonowens turns out to have been a total fraud and to have had very little, if any, interaction with King Mongkut – meaning that everything I thought I knew about Thailand is most likely wrong. Thai women probably wear underwear. Within a few pages I have learned that Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, foreigners are called ‘farangs’ and for the last 53 years the country has been ruled by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, who is the most revered person in the land. The plane takes off as I’m reading the section on social customs. Thailand is a society of many social classes, and one’s social position can be ascertained by the Thais’ traditional form of greeting, a bowing gesture known as the ‘wai’. A wai is executed by clasping one’s hands in front of one’s nose while bowing. Whoever holds their hands the highest is evidently the underdog in the relationship and upper class Thais barely lift their arms at all, so by virtue of my unique ability to conserve energy (a talent which my wife consistently has failed to appreciate and quite unjustifiably has called ‘lazy’) I figure I might be in for some serious social climbing.
As we gain cruising altitude I’m engrossed in the chapter on rudeness. Perhaps it is due to my twenty-five years working in rock and roll, but whenever I see anything written about bad manners I feel inexorably compelled to check and see if anyone I know is mentioned by name (i.e. acting like Gene Simmons and wearing a bad hairpiece while rubbing one’s crotch and ogling a woman’s breasts is considered impolite in most cultures). Thankfully everything is anonymous, but I do learn that one should neither point one’s feet at anyone and that not smiling, and losing one’s temper, are both considered extremely rude.
So when the four year old grabs the book from my hands I smile serenely and, without pointing my feet, ask if he might like to go play outside.
The child must not be Thai, because he does not return either my smile or my book. Instead he lets out a piercing shriek in an international language which needs no translation. It means “the next thirteen and one half hours of your life are going to be hell.”
I debate whether I should:
Action Taken Results/pro and con
1. Strangle the child and repossess my book.
Positive: Receive the eternal gratitude of my fellow passengers, including child’s parents.
Negative: Incurring lots of legal expenses before winning court case based on plea of justifiable homicide.
2. Grab the book without strangling child.
Positive: Regain possession of book. Negative: No satisfaction from killing child.
3. Force remaining Valium down child’s throat before grabbing book
Positive: Receive the eternal gratitude of my fellow passengers including child's parents Negatives: Incurring lots of legal expenses before winning court case based on plea of the justifiable practicing of medicine without a license. Will have no Valium left for return trip.
4. Let kid keep book. Read something else while waiting for Valium to do its magic.
Positive: Have not committed any felonies.
Negatives: No satisfaction in killing child. Child may be one of those stereotypical Oriental geniuses and may be able to read and fully understand book. Child will be so inspired that with his parents’ blessing, he chooses to go all the way to Thailand – where he will spend my entire vacation screaming in my ear.
I reluctantly opt for number 4, and reach for alternate reading material in the form of the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me. I quickly peruse the section devoted to the duty free goods Korean Air are flogging to see if perchance they sell mace or any other weaponry which can be used against the hell spawn. The moppet has invented a new use for the book and is in the process of whacking his mother, who looks like she would welcome an opportunity to debate George Bush and any of his fascist right-to-life cohorts on the subject of abortion. She retaliates by slapping her progeny across the derriere, causing the happy result of loosening his grasp on the book, which sails into my lap. It also has the unhappy result of giving the tyke a new raison d’etre. He now wants to see if he can get into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest continuous scream, both in terms of distance covered and length of time. From the flight status map displayed on the movie screen we have thirteen hours and six minutes to go and are traveling at a speed of 546 miles per hour, meaning if his tonsils hold this has the potential of being a 7152 mile scream – well eclipsing the 172 mile shriek of the Challenger astronauts as they plummeted back to earth. A few minutes into the caterwaul the pilot announces the plane will be experiencing a “bit of turbulence ahead” and requests we fasten our seat belts, sit back and enjoy Korean Airlines in-flight entertainment. Relieved to know our entertainment consists of more than my neighbor’s interpretation of the Spice Girls meet Godzilla as performed by Metallica, I sit back into my seat and watch a movie about an attractive kid who is dumped off on the doorstep of Adam Sandler in Big Daddy. This leaves me disturbed as I wonder whether this is an omen. I nervously look to my left and check to make sure the screaming kid’s mother is still there. There is no way I’m going to be taken by the old ‘will you look after my kid for a minute while I go to the bathroom’ trick. Thankfully she hasn’t tried to make a break for it…yet.
About five minutes into his scream we hit the advertised turbulence. I’m not sure whether it is due to the airplane being buffeted around the sky or, as I now suspect, a well organized scheme hatched by all those under the age of five years old, but suddenly the plane erupts in a chorus of juvenile screeching. The lone abstainer is the infant on my left, who is too busy launching a Vesuvian load of vomit all over his mother and me to join in.
I really owe the manufacturers of Valium a thank-you letter, I think as I calmly sit with a lap full of infant puke (by the texture the baby seems to be on a diet consisting exclusively of strained carrots) waiting for the fasten your seat belt sign to
be turned off, bouncing my way to Seoul singing not completely sotto voce:
getting to know you
getting to know all about you
getting to hate you
getting to hope you hate me
There is something about me that customs agents find fascinating. I instantly become as popular as Pamela Anderson in a men’s prison. But whereas she is paid a lot of money to disrobe – and looks quite good once she does – I receive nothing in the way of compensation other than the privilege of some grim civil servant earnestly protecting his country by shining a flashlight up my rather unattractive ass. So needless to say I’m a little nervous. This is the first time in my life I have ever smuggled anything illicit – because I forgot all about the Valium in my pants pocket which I didn't use to fall asleep on my 20 hour flight until now. I can feel the Valium weighing heavily in my pocket as I watch my fellow passengers retrieve their suitcases from Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport’s carousel. By the time the last of the luggage has been delivered I’m sweating, because in addition to having a three ton Valium concealed in my jeans, it’s 35 degrees Celsius and I don’t have my bag. I walk over to the Korean Air baggage office, and report my luggage as lost. I fill out a form and the agent types the information into his computer. A few seconds later he sheepishly explains that my luggage was for some unknown reason sent back to Los Angeles – and that if I so choose I can have it sent to my hotel in two days. He gives me a handful of toiletries, and sends me on my way for my customs inspection.
Of course I am stopped. “Is that all you are carrying sir?” a smiling customs officer asks as I look down at my feet to make sure they are not pointing in any direction which could cause offense. “Unfortunately yes. The airline lost my luggage,” I lie, opening my carry-on.
“There is no need for you to open the bag, sir.”
I can tell he’s already spotted that Valium bulging like a cancerous tumor from my pocket. Maybe Korean Air can directly forward my suitcase to my jail cell. “You’re going to be needing some clothes aren’t you?” the agent distracts me from my paranoia.
“Yes, I guess I will.” I hope my voice doesn’t belie my guilt.
“Well let me write down this address for you. It is my brother’s custom tailor shop, he can have you a very nice suit of clothes made for you this afternoon if you like,” he hands me his brother’s information.
“I’m sorry about your luggage, but please enjoy our country.” He waves me through a set of doors, which I walk through without once looking over my shoulder. I’m officially in Thailand!
I walk over to the currency exchange booth and slip one thousand dollars through the window to be converted into Thai baht.
“Sir, the dollar is worth 39.32 baht, are you sure you want to convert this entire amount?” the cashier asks with a smile.
“It’s dangerous to walk around with so much money.”
“Is there a lot of crime in Bangkok?” I leave off the predicating phrase “other than my brazenly smuggling in ten milligrams of Valium.”
“No we don’t have much crime. But if by chance you should misplace your wallet, I would hate to read about your losing your fortune in the newspaper.”
I assure the helpful cashier I want the money, and promise I will be careful with my wallet. He gives me a wad of multicolored currency and wishes me a pleasant stay in Thailand.
I walk toward a door which should take me to a taxi, but before I can get there I’m intercepted by a smiling man inquiring whether I would like to hire his limousine. My guidebook had warned me to avoid airport limos, they will rip you off unmercifully charging you as much as twenty dollars for the trip. Considering that a taxi to the bottom of my street would run me nearly twenty dollars this doesn’t seem much of a rip off to me, but I decline it nonetheless.
“Why you no take my limo? I can take you massage parlor. Girls very pretty – do everything,” the driver entices me with a pamphlet with a picture of approximately one hundred girls clad in lingerie sitting in what appears to be a giant fishbowl.
“No thanks.” I brush past the brochure.
“Oh. You want boy then? Can do, I know place,” he pulls out another pamphlet from his pocket.
“No thanks, I’m not gay,” I feel guilty for saying it quite so defensively.
“You no want boom boom?” he gives me a look as if I must be from a foreign planet.
“No, but thanks for thinking of my happiness. I just want a taxi to take me to my hotel,” I hope this dissuades him from volunteering any further tour guide services.
“You want suit? I know place. I take you to friend’s shop. Very nice. Very cheap,” he gives it one last try as I make a break for the exit.
I quickly hail a taxi. The driver speaks a little English and I am able to communicate that I want to go to the Nana Hotel on Soi 4 near Sukhumvit Road.
As we pull onto the highway the driver asks me why I have come to Thailand.
“I’m here on holiday.”
“You want go to massage parlor?” he pulls out the same flier the limo driver had flashed.
“No. I want to go to the Nana Hotel.” I had nearly forgotten to book lodging altogether. A few minutes before I had to leave, in a panic, I had gone onto the Internet and entered the following phrases into Yahoo: “Hotel”, “Bangkok”, “room service” and “air conditioning”.
Out popped the Nana which at 900 baht, or twenty-two dollars and fifty cents per night, seemed to be a bargain. I ask the driver if he knows anything about the hotel.
“Nana very popular hotel for farang. Lots of girls. You have girl already?”
“Yes I do. I’m married and my wife’s in America.”
“You no have girl in Bangkok?”
“You need girl. Let me take you place. Good girls. Been to doctor. Very clean.”
“No I don’t need a girl…and I don’t want a boy either,” I add quickly as I’m pretty sure I can anticipate his next question.
The driver does not want to move the conversation past the girl issue. “You must be careful with girl in Nana,” he tells me, “many girls are lady-boys. You know lady-boy? Used to be man, then go to hospital and come out girl. We call them katoeys. Sometimes very hard to tell girl from katoey, cannot trust your eyes. Sure you no want me to get you real girl? Very nice price.”
I decline his gracious offer and sink back into the seat and, while hoping I haven’t booked myself into the Hermaphrodite Inn, stare out the window at Bangkok.
Quite often I have boarded airplanes with the feeling that I really wasn’t going anywhere at all. I was on some sort of virtual reality ride and some super-computer was running a program to make me believe I was suspended twelve thousand meters above the earth while a huge cadre of stagehands diligently constructed new sets to provide the illusion that when I landed I was somewhere completely new and foreign, when in reality I was only on the soundstage next door. The reason some flights took longer than others was the director had to run his actors through lengthy rehearsals to get their new languages down to a point where I can be fooled into believing they actually understand each other’s gibberish. This is probably the result of my parents forcing me to read Jean Paul Sartre and his existentialist cohorts at an early age – although I’m sure some cynics might argue that my character suffers from a touch of paranoid egotism in dire need of intense therapy.
While the taxi moves at glacial speed through a massive early afternoon traffic jam which even Los Angeles could envy, I realize how nicely my theory applies to Bangkok. The set dressers merely needed to substitute flashy pagodas for churches from one of their generic American big city sets and then toss in a few Oriental actors and just like that they were in business. In the last five minutes we have moved maybe two hundred meters and I’ve spotted McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Bob’s Big Boy, Blockbuster video, Robinson’s Department Store, Tony Roma’s, Sizzlers, Starbucks, a Häagen Dazs ice cream shop and two 7-11s.. I only wonder why the flight took so long…maybe the director was forced by someone named Vito to use stagehands who belonged to the Teamster’s Union.
Forty-five minutes and two hundred baht later, I arrive at the Nana hotel. While filling out the registration forms I glance at the lobby and notice a number of middle-aged Caucasian men chatting with attractive young Thai ladies. None of these women look like stereotypical western prostitutes. No plunging necklines, short skirts, fake fingernails, or obvious silicone breasts advertise the profession. It all seems quite above board, although I find myself checking the women for Adam’s apples. I don’t see any, so I’m fairly sure these are not any of the katoeys the cab driver warned me of.
A bellboy takes me to my fifth floor room. Upon opening the door he insists on showing me how to operate the light switch (“Lift switch…Light go on”) the telephone (“Push button to dial…like this”) the television (“Push ‘on’ button and TV work”) and just in case I’m a congenital idiot shows me how to open the mini-refrigerator door (Pull on handle…it open”). I reach into my wallet and give him 100 baht, and he smiles like he just won the lotto.
“Kop kuhn kop, that mean, ‘thank you very much’,” he clasps his hands in front of his nose and gives me my first wai with what I’m pretty sure is a moderate bow of respect. “Before I go, you want me get you girl?”
“No thank you.”
“We have very nice girls here in hotel, can have in room in two minutes. Good massage good boom boom. Even have girl who smokes.”
“Why would I want a girl who smokes?” I ask. “Lot of men like girl to smoke them,” he makes a motion with his hand and mouth.
I get the message. He’s talking about blowjobs. I politely decline his gracious offer, “No thank you. I’m really tired…you understand ‘jet lagged’?” “You don’t want girl? You want me get you b…”
“No. I’m not gay,” I stop him.
“Sure you here on holiday?” he shakes his head and shuts the door behind him.
Right now I’m not sure of anything other than the bed looks inviting after twenty-four hours in the care of Korean Air.
Refreshed after a two hour nap I am faced with the age old dilemma that faces all tourists – now that I’m here, what the hell am I going to do? My first inclination is to go and buy a stack of postcards so I can write everyone I know and impress them with my worldliness (Dear Agatha, Sorry I couldn’t be there for your performance, but as even you may have noticed by the stamp rather artistically affixed in the upper right hand corner, I’m in Thailand. Love, Toooldtorock ). However I realize this activity is not going to keep me sufficiently occupied for my entire ten day stay.
My second inclination is to sink into paranoid despair. I don’t know a soul in Thailand – I can neither speak the language nor decipher, much less pronounce, the squiggly lines which constitute the Thai alphabet. In effect I’m a deaf mute, and since according to the taxi driver I cannot trust my eyes to tell the difference between a real woman and a transvestite, I’m sort of like a modern day Helen Keller. This causes my mind to giddily run through several really tasteless and politically incorrect jokes, but when I get to the one about why her leg is yellow (because her dog is blind too) sobriety returns. At least Helen Keller had her faithful dog to guide her through a strange world. My dogs are probably still lying on the couch in California wondering if my absence is going to cause any reduction in the quality of their room service. I’m all alone in a foreign country. All sorts of craziness rattles through my brain. What happens if I go outside and get hit by a car? It happened to me once in Rome right in front of the Coliseum. A car ignored a red light and charged across three lanes of traffic to nail me as I attempted to cross the street. As I writhed in the middle of the road clutching my freshly broken leg I didn’t need to be able to speak one word of Italian to understand the shouts of ‘vaffanculo – tu cretino scronzo’ emanating from the wildly gesticulating driver who struck me. He was clearly requesting that I perform an act which was biologically impossible. But here in Thailand where it’s impolite to shout, I wouldn’t know if the driver was questioning my parentage, inquiring about the current state of my health (or lack thereof), or merely informing me my zipper was unzipped. Consequently I settle for my third inclination and switched on the television. I can feel the bellboy’s chest swell with pride as I correctly execute the maneuver of pushing the remote control’s ‘on’ button. The TV flickers on to CNN where Frank Sinatra is being interviewed on Larry King Live. If my memory serves me correctly the Mafia’s favorite singer croaked over a year ago, so either it takes a long time to beam programming over here or Sinatra is back from the dead and therefore is the second coming of Christ, as a former neighbor of mine steadfastly maintained while tormenting me with continuous playings of ‘I Did It My Way’. The latter prospect is so unnerving that I change channels before I can fully develop the thought. The next station features Mariah Carey turgidly warbling about love, propelling me into switching channels faster than Prince Phillip can put his foot in his mouth. I settle on watching the Teletubbies. Maybe it is due to my heightened katoey sensitivity, but I find myself observing Tinky Winky closely for any signs of his being, as Jerry Falwell claims, gay. After about three minutes of viewing I realize:
1. I haven’t understood a word anyone has said because the program is dubbed in Thai.
2. It doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a word in Thai.
3. Someone should teach Falwell the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘insipid’.
4. Western cultural imperialism must be stopped at all costs.
5. It is better to venture out of my hotel room than be slowly bored to death by television.
Consequently with a bit of trepidation I grab my phrasebook and exit my room. I summon the elevator and the door quickly opens revealing an incredibly malodorous westerner in a sweat-soaked Hard Rock Bangkok T-shirt groping a dainty Thai girl who looks to be a third of both his age and weight.
“Ain’t it fuckin’ great to be in Bangkok where the whores and beer are cheap?” he employs a unique American white trash form of greeting. Correctly sensing my unease, he winks at me and adds, “Don’t worry none, she don’t understand a word of English. See – she’s still smiling her little face off.”
His companion is indeed smiling – but I can’t help but think it’s because she finished her unenviable job and is about to escape his clutches.
“Where y’all from?” he asks me.
It is this precise moment when I am struck by an epiphany. I realize that there is a tremendous sense of liberation from being so far away from home that the seven degrees of separation rule probably doesn’t apply. You can lie with impunity about who you are and what you’re doing and chances are no one is going to be any the wiser for it. I realize this is not one of those major ‘I saw a weeping Elvis guzzling beer behind the Kwiki Mart’ epiphanies. But it’s an epiphany none the less.
“I’m from Germany,” I affect what I hope is a credible German accent, “I’m with the World Health Organization doing a study on the transmission of AIDS from prostitutes to johns. How are you feeling today?”
“Good,” he mumbles, and we pass the rest of our downward journey in blessed silence.
I walk through the well air conditioned lobby, step through the door and enter the sauna which is mid afternoon Bangkok. I’m not sure what the exact temperature is but I’ve stood in the midday sun of Death Valley and felt infinitely more comfortable. The humidity is oppressive and the air is foul with the exhaust of each and every one of Bangkok’s five million motor vehicles. Within seconds my armpits start doing their imitation of a faucet and my body odor is offensive to even myself – reminding me of the necessity to buy some clothes to tide me over until Korean Air decides to parole my luggage.
I head out my hotel’s driveway to and am immediately approached by a man driving a three wheeled taxi which looks like a souped-up golf cart.
“Where you go? Want tuk-tuk?” he inquires in English.“What’s a tuk-tuk?”
“You no know tuk-tuk? This tuk-tuk,” he points to his vehicle. “Guess your first day in Thailand?”
“Yes,” I admit feeling embarrassed that I already stick out like a sore thumb.
“Then you must celebrate with massage. I take you for number one best massage in Bangkok. Very clean girl, see doctor every week,” he produces the same pamphlet which I have already seen twice this morning.
“No thanks, I’m not interested.”
He pulls out the other pamphlet, “You want…” “No I don’t want a boy,” I head off his next sales pitch.
“Why then you come to Thailand?” he asks in the same tone that a resident of Agra would use to a visitor who flew halfway around the world only to profess no interest in seeing the Taj Mahal. I take leave of the driver and walk up Soi 4.
Evidently the street food venders of Bangkok are having a convention on this small street. Every inch of the sidewalk is taken up by scores of busy cooks preparing fragrant foods. I pass stands purveying various pork and chicken dishes barbequing over open flames. Others are piled high with fruits and vegetables of indeterminate variety, while neighboring woks sauté noodle and mushroom entrées with meats and seafoods. There are jumbo shrimp, squid, clams and other live mollusks awaiting their demise via being immersed in boiling soups redolent with coriander, and exotic pastries which I have never encountered before. I keep on walking until I come to a sign in Thai and English, the latter of which reads:
A person is not to spit saliva or phlegm, discard cigarette stubs, or litter by throwing any form of garbage in public areas, on the streets, or on the ground. Offenders will be subjected to a maximum fine of 2,000 baht.
Whoever posted the sign has given its location considerable thought because it is right next to a cart featuring three huge metal bowls of roasted grasshoppers, beetles, and something which looks remarkably similar to cockroaches. I examine the cook carefully to make sure Agatha hasn’t somehow managed to follow me to Thailand with her latest piece of performance art entitled ‘dead insect lunch’. But rather than sipping Perrier and, being dressed in the latest trendy clothes from some chic Melrose Avenue boutique, the chef is a middle aged Thai lady wearing a Bon Jovi ‘Slippery When Wet 1986 World Tour’ T-shirt sipping a Coke.
I must have stared at her too long, because the purveyor of entomologist’s delight seems to think I want to sample some of her morsels. She thrusts an insect in my hand and motions for me to eat it.
“Aroi,” she says with a huge smile causing me to race through my phrase book in search of the polite way to say, “I would rather die first,” in Thai.
Unfortunately the phrase book is not very thorough, and all I can find is a listing for ‘I don’t eat meat.’ “Pom mai gin neua sat,” is my first attempt at speaking Thai.
Apparently my pronunciation is not very good, because she responds with what seems to be the Thai version of “huh?” So I show her my book and point to the Thai translation of what I am trying to say. She reads it, shakes her head and says in heavily accented English, “Not meat – this thak kha thom tawd – fried beetle. Delicious, good for health. You try.”
I remember when I was in high school in the early seventies there was a kid named Turkey Atwater who used to collect a dollar from everyone to watch him eat a live worm sandwich. The concept was altogether too disgusting for me and I never attended his shows, but Turkey made over one hundred bucks for swallowing, and I heard he raked in twenty percent on all the winning bets concerning whether he would chicken out, thereby clearing another hundred and fifty dollars. If Atwater invested his earnings in the stock market he would most likely be worth millions today.
Fleetingly I look around to see if there are any suckers out there willing to pay for the privilege of viewing me trying my first beetle. But sadly there is only my hostess and two pistol packing traffic cops wearing surgical masks – ostensibly to protect themselves against inhaling vehicular exhausts but more likely to hide their laughter at watching a farang about to make a fool of himself. They’re probably placing bets with the line running at least ten to one against me swallowing – but neither of them are offering to cut me in on their action.
Malaria, ptomaine, the plague, dengue fever, typhoid – looking at the beetle carcass in the palm of my hand it’s easy to think of a million reasons why I should decline her offer and run. But I hear the voice of my long dead mother telling me from beyond the grave, or at least from the bottle in my sister’s basement which her ashes are in, that it is rude and disrespectful not to try at least one bite of everything offered to you. I realize the longer I think about this the worse it is going to get, so I mutter a silent prayer, put it in my mouth and chew. Whenever I hear anyone describe any protein substance which is outside the traditional western food groups, the taste is said to be just like chicken. Now I realize I haven’t eaten chicken in many years, but the taste of this critter is nothing like any chicken I remember. It is crunchy. It is bitter. It is spicy. It is awful – and it’s against the law to spit it out, so I reluctantly swallow. If this is indicative of things to come I may soon be able to trot out the “thong ruang, lae puad-thong maak” phrase from my book as dysentery is a strong possibility. However on the bright side, I’m not dead yet… although I may be soon if I don’t get a drink and wash the taste out of both my mouth and memory.
“Very good, yes?” she beams.
“Delicious,” I summon up proper manners and lie. “Farang usually no like, but you good man. You want more ? All this five baht.” she offers a whole ladle full of insects.
“No thanks, I think my eyes are bigger than my stomach. Do you sell anything to drink?”
“No have. Buy drink there,” she dejectedly points to a convenience store a few meters away. I resist the temptation to offer my Western perspective of her business plan. Outside of the gambling possibilities the big money in the bug snack business is most likely in the vending of drinks. For each five baht spoonful of bugs she should be able to dispense several extremely marked up bottles of water, coke, or liquid Valium.
I hurry into the store and buy a bottle of water still clutching my bag of dead bugs. Emerging from the store one of the cops comes over to me and peels off his mask revealing a grin. “You like thak kha thom tawd?” he asks.
“I’ve never had anything quite like it,” I heed the advice of the prime minister from The King And I and avoid telling the truth.
“It lousy,” the cop laughs and shakes his head.
“Thak kha thom tawd is Issan food.”
“Where or what is Issan?” I display my ignorance.
“Issan is very poor land upcountry. Issan people no have money, no have much water most of year so nothing grows after rice harvest. Rest of year they have to eat anything they can find. Food no good for normal people.”
“Then why does she sell it?” I ask offering the cop a Coke, which he gladly accepts.
“Because you right by Nana,” he points to an alley sharing the same name as my hotel, from which a banal disco song with the repetitious chorus of ‘hey now! hey now! happiness is just around the corner’ is blaring.
“What does Nana have to do with it?”
“Because Nana is where prostitutes for farang work. Most prostitutes for farang come from Issan. They are all ugly and the only ones who eat insect. When I see thak kha thom tawd in Bangkok I know ugly prostitute nearby.”
He drains his glass and giggles, “if farang like thak kha thom tawd I think he was prostitute in past life.”