Out my window I see the tops of clouds and a sunrise. It’s kind of weird watching the sun rise through an airplane window while you fly east; it’s as though someone hit the fast-forward button on your life. Life is short enough without a fast-forward button.
This, coupled with the fact that I’m flying directly over it, has led me to the chilling realization that I have not yet written about Bangkok … despite the fact that I returned from my last trip there over two months ago. I have therefore taken out a crumpled pile of little scribbled-upon slips of hotel paper, a few canceled tickets to Thai sites, and my computer, and am trying to finish this dispatch before I arrive in Vietnam (just a stopover on my way to Manila. Too bad).
I figure there must be only one company that provides those little slips of hotel paper, because they always have pretty much the same format: roughly 12 centimeters by 9, with some kind of bogus coat of arms on the top and the hotel’s name underneath, then the address and phone number on the bottom. You’ll find a thin pad of these things near the telephone, and sometimes another one in that kind of stationery kit on the desk (or in the top drawer), the one that also includes bigger versions of the same paper, a post card or two, and a couple of envelopes.
I never use the big paper or the envelopes, but the little sheets are really useful for taking notes to write these dispatches. I actually save the little pieces of paper afterward. I have a drawer full of them. I suppose it’s partly because I’m such a hopeless photographer. I never, ever take any pictures of anything, and these little slips of paper and the dispatches serve as a photographic substitute.
Talk about an auto-analytical digression. Anyway, back to Bangkok (which, according to the image of the little plane on my seat’s screen, is rapidly slipping behind us).
Bangkok is like the drain in the world’s bathtub: not particularly appealing, but an inevitable destination. People naturally flow to it, like water, sometimes despite themselves, and if you’re not careful I suppose you could get sucked into the whirlpool at its rim and lose yourself.
But enough quasi-mystical apocalyptic crap has already been written about Bangkok (or sung by Murray Head). Bangkok is also just an interesting place to go. There are many high points: genuinely beautiful temples, the palace, the barge museum—where you can see stunning royal barges and their figurehead prows, which poke their way out of Thai mythology. Even from a purely literal point of view there are highs—I went to dinner at one place perched on the top of a 60-story building. The restaurant is the roof of the skyscraper, the diners sit outside, choosing their proximity to the railing on the basis of how afraid they are of heights. While I was there a thunderstorm came up and we watched bolts of lightning approach until the waiters finally shooed us downstairs, where every table has its unoccupied double so that, in such occasions, the diners can be effortlessly relocated. I protested—the lightning was mesmerizing and I wanted to stay and watch. The idiocy of this only struck me later. I suppose that’s why bugs fly into those blue zappy things—maybe they know about the danger but they can’t help it.
Come to think of it, those blue zappy things might be a good metaphor for Bangkok, too, along with the drain thing.
And then there are the low points. While Potpang is well known, there are numerous other areas of ill repute, and all of them tend to resemble each other. You walk down streets pulsing with neon while women try to entice you into bars with American names (lots of Old West motifs). Inside, there is an inevitable stage festooned with inevitable poles upon which bored looking young women do something that is supposed to be dancing while other young women (or maybe not—it can be disturbingly hard to tell) make the rounds of the bar’s patrons, sitting next to them and proposing various personalized services.
You generally don’t get propositioned if you’re a woman yourself, or if you’re a man accompanied by a woman. In that case, they leave you alone. When last in Bangkok, I spent one evening exploring a particularly seedy street with a couple of colleagues: a curious lady from New Zealand and a South African man. Of the three of us, the New Zealander actually felt the least awkward … but, then again, it could be a cultural thing; I’ve never known a New Zealander to feel awkward about anything. Anyway, thanks to the presence of a woman in our little group, we avoided any direct propositions while checking out the bars.
Which raises the point that men, when in strip joints with women, act like … well … dorks. This is based only on this one occasion, and is further limited to my examination of only two males (myself and my South African friend), but I’d be surprised if it weren’t a universal phenomenon. I mean, on one hand, we had gone into these places only to check them out, and, for my part, out of a spirit of journalistic inquisitiveness (please don’t snicker), so you want to look a little, but you don’t want to look with a female friend sitting next to you. You need to pretend you’re not interested at all while you’re looking. Just a little. She, on the other hand, had no such qualms and provided a running commentary.
Then again, it’s such a sad sight that it’s not really that difficult to turn your head away. Nobody who isn’t drunk really seems to be enjoying themselves, least of all the performers who are gyrating around the poles.
There are tales of more unusual entertainment, places where women not only pretend to have sex with a pole but where they engage in all kinds of genital gymnastics (usually involving props, sometimes involving fire). These we managed to avoid, abandoning the tawdry regions of the city to go to the night market, where merchants sell their wares from thousands of tiny stalls and where it is impossible to find anything to drink that isn’t beer.
My plane is well past Bangkok by now and is descending toward Ho Chi Minh City, so I’d better wrap this up—cut to the quick, so to say, and tell you about the silk weavers.
On our last day in Bangkok, my New Zealand friend and my South African friend and I managed to spend a full day going around the city in a boat with a very pleasant guide, who was herself the friend of a Thai friend (you with me, here?). She took us to a place that is definitely worth a mention …
There used to be a thriving silk-weaving trade in Bangkok itself. Now, though, this has moved outside the city and only one place remains in Bangkok where women still weave Thai silk on traditional wooden looms. One would assume that a place such as this would have tour buses parked outside and camera-toting Japanese parked inside, but this is not the case. For one thing, it can only be entered through a narrow alleyway off of the Sansub Klung, one of the many canals that cut through Bangkok. For another thing, it would be physically impossible to put more than a dozen or so people in the room anyway.
Inside, you’ll find a very old gentleman with a very long name that I unfortunately did not catch and two or three women working old wooden looms that go click-clack, click-clack when they do something with their feet. Scattered around the walls are photos, clippings from newspapers, pictures of Thai royalty, a calendar. A small TV plays for the benefit of the workers, and books of ledgers are scattered on plastic furniture. Three or four electric fans make a vain effort to cool things down.
You can buy silk directly from the old man with the long name (note: the best clothing purchase I ever made was 12 years ago when I bought three Thai silk shirts on the street in Bangkok for $2; I still wear them), but he seems not to care overmuch about selling anything to you, and I have to imagine that if you don’t have some way of communicating in Thai (interpreter, actually being fluent yourself, Babel Fish, etc.), then it would be impossible. But hopefully you’ll be encouraged by the news that this place exists, even if I haven’t given you enough information to actually find it. (It’s near Jim Thomson’s house, which is a landmark of sorts that actually has something to do with silk, off the canal, near the flowers [actually, there are flowers all along the canal, but what the hell], near a caged toucan, and behind a broken blue bicycle.)
We’re pretty low now and they’re going to make me turn off my computer in a moment, which means I don’t have enough time to tell you about Thai massages, where deceitfully delicate little Thai women push and pull on your limbs and walk on your pajamaed back, nor about feeding the fish who hang out in the canal near the Buddhist temples because they know no one will kill them there, or …
Too late—Vietnam approaches …