These Are The Good Ol’ Days
I was laying in bed in post-coital bliss. She was asleep. I rested one hand on the small of her back and let the warmth seep in.
The fan came in waves, carrying cool and muffling the sounds of Thai pop songs playing on the TV in the living room, along with the traffic din below. The curtains were drawn to let in the Sukhumvit scintillation. The lights were off. I closed my eyes. I was exactly where I had wanted to be during all of those lonely nights back in America, a place where I had been increasingly steeping myself in booze to blank out the loneliness and wasting of a year.
Laying in bed, with the fan wafting over me, those Thai tones from the living room tincturing my thoughts with spectral haunting, I turned against the prevailing tide of Bangkok bitching. These, in fact, are the golden years.
— — —
Everything, of course, is relative. A couple of years ago I was sitting with a 40-something British bar owner with an easy demeanor and stoic take on life. It was his belief that any 20-something coming to Thailand is going to discover Xanadu — the mystical Bangkok of “20-years past.”
Perhaps the world of 20-years past is the perpetual state of every 20-something.
When I first spent a summer here as a 20- (and then 21-) year old, that was certainly the case for me. Thailand transformed me. Perhaps that is why I’m on the backend of my 30s, back here, and thinking about how to make the rest of a lifetime out of a place that is making that prospect increasingly hard.
And back then, sleeping on the edge of a canal, far away from skytrains and subways, in a place where I scantly saw another white face for months, every last experience for a rural American bumpkin like me came like a bolt out of the blue. It had too — it was all so new. The world only gets to be that new one time. And those are their own type of salad days.
I struggled a lot in that summer, mind you. A body raised on white “bread” and American “cheese”, a few weeks of daily pepper blasts to my unsophisticated palate had me reeling. At a certain point I barely ate, and could only only stomach white rice.
Now I could eat fly-covered goat ass jerky marinated in ghost peppers from leprous Old Delhi street vendor. How we change; how the times change us.
Then there was the cringe and embarrassment of being a young American with a drastically over-inflated sense of self. Oh, what a sanctimonious little shit I was. Breaking us out of that rigidity is tough. For we are an optimistic lot obsessed with how things should be. And in a fatalistic place ultimately centered on non-being, fundamental change is needed if you are ever going to sail on. But sail on I did.
And in that sailing I found joy and wild times, though none under red lights. Rather, there were rooster fights and late-night gambling sessions filled with smoke and soaked in piss, as well as morning romps on the floor after my girlfriend’s folks had gone to work. I saw so much of what someone who had seen so little needed to see. I got heatstroke and then heard the world go by under corrugated metal being pattered with rain. I turned 21 with the chills on a hot night. I learned a few things about death. And much more about life.
I was graced with ghosts in Dan Sai. I slept on stilts over the river bathed in starlight outside of the old capital. Forget about mobile phones, there was no electricity. We entertained ourselves with guitars and our animal avatar friends stretched across the glass. I would love to go back to that time. There is no going back…
The thing about nostalgia is, you have to first be connected to something that is gone to miss it. Kids born with mobile phones in their hands, surrounded by parents born with mobile phones in theirs, will miss a world without them about as much as we miss a world before radio or TV.
Because there was always some imagined time back then when people were kinder, booze cheaper, society more social, beautiful girls more aplenty, and hope not left on the line to die.
So much of this 20-years ago syndrome is just all of us getting older, if not simply old.
For if the Patpong Museum is anything to go by, not all the girls were so slim back then, it seems. And if A Lady Of Bangkok tells us anything, the bargirls haven’t changed nearly as much as some would like to think. And even in that masterwork penned in the post war years, characters were still lamenting: “Twenty years! You shoulda’ seen it here sometime back 20 years!”
Maybe. Or maybe we all miss ourselves of 20 years ago. Time is our most valuable resource. And we have less of it with each passing day.
— — —
In the end, I think it’s important to keep in mind we’re all just passing through. We have no more rights to these streets than the Indians or Chinese, who, ironically, have much deeper roots in this country than Westerners (despite all the grumblings to the contrary).
Of course it’s not all better, nor was it ever all good.
The prices certainly do seem to have gone up in the gogo bars (and every other bar for that matter). And 200 baht a drink — American bars in my overpriced city with hourly minimum wages above the daily bread here still managed a buck (30 baht) a beer happy hours.
But the gogo model itself was an extemporaneous solution to a short-term problem that ended up building a culture around it. You see, the boys wanted to dance with the ladies back then, but the license wasn’t so easy to come by. And thus the Bangkok shuffle was born. Now we shuffle faces to the left or right on Tinder. It’s all innovation looking to fill a need.
Though just like something was lost when Washington Square was turned to rubble, something will be lost when those adult playgrounds are repurposed for a different type of amusement park. But then again, time itself was working against the Vietnam-era vets who created that dark hole to forget in, just like time is working against a simple man’s dream of a wild night in an exotic land before the internet age.
Maybe it all got stale because it is stale. Maybe with so many hidden camera videos showing every nook and cranny of the neon night, there is no such thing as a dark corner of the world to hide in anymore.
And I think that is something we all miss romantically (if not practically). But what has always been missing from the runners, even in a pre-computer time when visa stamps were easy and running was really a thing, was connection.
Friends, family, lovers, and nature — that’s the isotoxal star of connectivity right there. Why else would a punter lose their head and a marry a bar girl despite their better judgement?
Sex is a drive to be met, but it’s intimacy with another person that will make you whole. And there are far too many people who once upon a time waxed philosophical on a barstool and thought: “What if a two week binder in Bangkok could be my life forever?” And then they make that dream a reality. And the dream becomes hell. For a man can only take so many headaches in a row, and sex where bodies move but souls don’t stir, until the emptiness sets in.
And then they look to tame a feral cat. And then they piss and moan when they inevitably get scratched.
As for nature, you aren’t finding a lot of that here, sandwiched between grey streets and skies (perhaps that is the one thing I truly do miss that may never come back — the blue skies and cool days of winter.)
Bangkok is a pile of sugar in the sun. But if you don’t mind yourself, the ants will eat you alive.
In recent posts about older men spartan lives devoid of purpose, or the steady stream of letters lamenting the end of an era, I cannot help but return to that one simple word: connection. Perhaps because I’m still young enough and in good enough shape, the Bangkok of today offers me something that I cannot get at home: a wealth of attractive middle-class women in their 20s and 30s looking for love, fun, and intimacy.
I enjoy the aesthetic of blinking lights, dark corners, and Bladerunner beer bars at dawn, but the demimondes plying their trade within have never been my cup of tea. I don’t blame them for their lot in life. But I grew up across the street from a trailer park. Strip away the exoticism of the other and it’s just the same-same with a twist.
For me, a Bangkok creating a large enough middle-class to have people peeking out from beneath the coconut shell — looking and think about the outside world — is a much better place to be.
The best things are never gonna come short time, especially now that related price indices are on the rise.
So perhaps if one’s golden era was built on chrome poles, then there is something to lament. But if you’re still looking for something that is much, much harder to find in the West, this place is hard to beat.
In the ladies I’ve met, and the latest who is doing her damnedest to steal my mid-sized American heart, the best of the Thailand I knew 20 years ago is still here — ease of nature, ease of laughter, beaming smiles, bright souls, criminally-soft skin, and endless sex appeal.
And it’s not just romance that makes this place shine. It’s the live and let live atmosphere that is so against the prevailing current of my own country. There is no expectation to lock yourself up in a suburban mausoleum and die once you turn 30. However you want to live, you may live.
Plus, the food scene is better than ever, the infrastructure expanding, the medical care top rate, the entertainment options endless. Few cities are as wild, as bright, as fun, as alive.
Finishing this missive as the sun begins to set on a Friday evening, the excitement is already welling up. I’m so grateful just to be here, just to be healthy, just to be alive.
For all its changes, I can think of few places that have nearly as much to offer as these halcyon Bangkok days, or nights.
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