Knee significantly better, I had another stop in Bangkok on my return to Bhutan. On this trip, I’d arranged to see an old colleague from Japan. She and her husband were now living in Bangkok and he gave me some advice on how to spend the day. Since I was interested in cheap electronics and DVDs, he suggested Chatuchak weekend market and Patpong. I figured that between these, I’d be able to fill in the day between the wait for my Drizabone at the airport and our rendezvous in the evening.
Luck was with me, and instead of the 5 hours I was expecting to wait, the coat arrived in half an hour. That left ample time for me to check into a hotel and go shopping. Unfortunately, Street 1 was full so I had to drag my bags around for half an hour looking for another affordable but secure (I had my laptop with me) bunking place. I ended up at the Grace hotel, which was the same price and larger, but dirty. I wasn’t sure that it had even been cleaned after the last person since their soap was still sitting in the bath. I decided to use my own towel and vowed to book Street 1 when Marie and I come at the end of the year.
The Skytrain, a monorail that runs high above the main roads, ran all the way to the weekend markets so I got my first taste of the excellent public transport that Bangkok has to offer. The markets were a bit of a let down. There were whole blocks of stalls selling all sorts of Thai cushions and carvings, but I had neither the bag space nor the patience to look closely. The wet heat was taking its toll even before lunch. I managed to find one stall selling DVDs, made a quick selection and was on my way. Outside, food stalls had been set up along the park and I made for these, but even the food couldn’t entice me to stay in the heat, so I ended up back in the Skytrain heading to the air conditioned restaurant in Sukhumvit, feeling guilty but sure the food was just as authentic.
I had no idea where Patpong was, and it wasn’t marked on the map, so I stopped off at the tourist information booth at the Skytrain and asked there, then again of the guard when I reached the correct station. He pointed back along the main road and told me it was the first street on the right. The sight that greeted me as I turned the corner dropped my jaw. Signs advertising, ‘live sex shows,’ ‘adult entertainment,’ and ‘erotic shows’ filled the street. A man stepped into the sun and shoved a brochure in my face. “You want nice girl? Which you like?” I was given a choice of pretty girls in small pink outfits. So much for trying to get beyond the sex to the real culture. I’d just advertised to the tourist information booth and everyone at the station that I wanted to go to the sex district. My friend had set me up.
But I could be wrong. I decided to walk a little more and since I was already in deeply, I asked a policeman where the markets were. He pointed around the corner, so I tried that street and had offers all the way along. “You go to the markets? They’re not open yet. Come and have a massage.” I’m prepared to believe that the massage parlours in the Starbucks district were non-sexual, but not here. I kept walking a couple of blocks until it became obvious that I’d have no luck, then cut back to the main road and into the cool of the Skytrain. That was it for me. I’d have to wait until I came back with Marie and got into the countryside to find the real culture of Thailand. For now, I’d spend the afternoon in a theatre watching the new Batman movie.
And surprisingly, it was here that I found something that felt uniquely Thai. On paying the meagre fee for entrance, the ticket seller showed me a diagram and asked me something I didn’t catch. It took me a while to realise what I was looking at – a map of the theatre. She was asking me to choose my seat. Inside the theatre, the ushers checked my ticket and directed me to the correct seat. After the usual previews for Fantastic Four and other action films, everyone around me went quiet and stood up. Not knowing what the hell was going on, I joined them. On the screen was the message ‘Please take a minute to respect the king.’ It was replaced by the king’s theme song and a barrage of images of the Thai monarch. In what other country do people so respect the leader that they’d stand in silence for a minute to honour them every time they go to the movies? I checked and it doesn’t happen in Bhutan.
That brought me to the time to meet my friends, and I caught a taxi to the night market, found some more DVDs and then met them in a huge beer garden with a live band. Ben laughed, without confirming or denying that he’d set me up, and gestured for me to choose from one of the scantily clad girls around us. They all came running up with drink menus and I chose one from a stall that was selling the harder stuff. After a whisky and some conversation, they urged me to try a local drink that I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember – not the name nor the flavour.
As we talked, Mei Lyn admitted that she’d been into the sex district where Ben hadn’t. It was on a business trip when they were looking for a cheap beer and didn’t realise where the guy that accosted them in the street was taking them. She described a circus of girls that used their vaginal muscles to perform feats of lunacy. Some opened bottles (with a bottled opener lodged firmly where it should never be put), others fired ping pong balls. In the end, the beers came to over $100 for 5 people and the group had to be rescued by the tourist police.
Mei Lyn had taken interest in the scene and read a book by a woman that studied the women involved. She’d found that most came from small villages in the north. They’d seen other girls leave for the city and come home with nice clothes, expensive bags and perfumes and decided that they’d like to live that way. Once they found out what was involved, they were too embarrassed to tell their families or others in the village where it came from, so the next generation of impressionable girls had no warning when they came looking for their fortune.
For all my attempts to avoid the sex side of Bangkok, it ended up dominating my trip. Now that I’ve been initiated, I hope to do a better job when I bring Marie back.
The next morning I had to be at the airport by 5am, so I had no choice but to use the taxis. To my surprise, it was only 150 baht, barely more than the airport bus and infinitely more convenient.