Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Elephants, Part 1: Mae Taeng in Chiang Mai

Any time we as tourists see animals in roadside-type attractions most of us feel a little sorry for them. I've seen my share of tigers who've been sedated enough to allow folks to pose with them for photos with an implied level of alleged safety - and I admit I've paid to do the pose.

I've also seen my share of elephants being forced to walk around on paved streets in a number of places. The asphalt is really tough on their foot pads and the autos, motorcycles and exhaust can't be good for their well being - physical or emotional, either one.

The Mae Taeng Elephant Park I visited near Chiang Mai last Fall wasn't a "roadside" place, it was a true encampment; the people giving all indication that they were sincere in their efforts to "rescue" elephants formerly used as beasts of burden, and that's also what I was told by the friend who deals with them on a regular basis. The only thing I AM sure of is that there are rarely absolutes, so while there probably ARE unhappy chang (elephants) there overall I feel comfortable recommending the place.

You'll see more clips and pictures in future posts from my day there, but here's one to end March with. It's a little jerky - I asked the elephant to move a little more smoothly, but I guess she wasn't listening. Maybe if I'd had a little bunch of bananas for her...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Night Riding On A Motocy

Motor scooters and small cycles are far more prevalent in many parts of Thailand than cars. You see them everywhere, and I mean everywhere: parking lots, streets, sois, sidewalks, walking paths, lobbys, front yards, back yards, fields – hell, I’ve even seen one parked inside of a laundromat. They’re cheaper and easier than a car to buy, fuel, maintain, park and navigate through the inexplicable maze that is Thai traffic.

They provide, however, next to no protection for the people driving or riding on them, (and I’ve personally seen a family of six piled aboard a single scooter) unless you consider a shirt, shorts and flip-flops to be “protective gear”.

Granted, there is a helmet law in place and you do see many people wearing them, but what good’s a helmet if an alarming percentage of your body’s been grated like parmesan cheese along the road after you’ve hit an immovable object at a combined speed of 50 miles per hour?

Coming back from a late dinner a bit south of Jomtien a few weeks ago I was looking out into the near-darkness along the road and chatting with my friend when I heard somewhere relatively close behind us the loud, concussive sound of a collision. No horns, no squealing of brakes, just the loud, low "WHUMP" of the impact. Being a good American (we can be such voyeurs) I craned my neck around to see what had happened, but only thought I saw a motorcycle on its side. My friend, both hands on the wheel, never even broke stride in the story he was telling me when I heard the noise.

"Hey!" I exclaimed, interrupting him "That was an accident back there. Aren't you supposed to stop and offer assistance?" "Maybe," he said, and then allowed "Yes, we're supposed to, but what could I do?" "Well, you're a doctor, for a start," I began, but he cut me off, saying "I don't have my bag with me, and if it was a motorcycle it's almost always just a matter for the coroner to clean up." Not judgmental, not flip - just being realistic, I suppose.

It did, however, make me think back to the previous night when, against my better judgment, I’d climbed onto the back of a friend's motocy and allowed him to drive my weary frame back to my room to sleep. A friend of mine had been killed on his motorcycle back some 40 years ago, and since then I'd only allowed myself to be on one of the contraptions two other times. I was, you might say, more than a little spooked.

Toey was sober, alert and a careful driver, but I'm amply aware it's the people who aren't who'll get you. However, figuring "in for a penny, in for a pound" I took out my little FlipHD recorder and filmed a couple of clips along the way, holding the camera out to my left. He seemed relieved that I'd abandoned the death grip I'd had on his kidneys when he first pulled out into the traffic on Second Road, and truthfully it was rather exhilarating... but not something I'm likely to repeat any time soon.

Here's one of the two clips I made that night while scooting through some of the lesser streets of Pattaya:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Let Sleeping Thai Lie: Sleeping, Part 1

Many people I observed while wandering around on morning and afternoon walks seemed to share a similar gift: they could sleep almost anywhere at any time, apparently at the drop of a hat. It’s an enviable trait to those of us who sometimes lie awake even at night, unable to enter the land of slumber.

Some of them seem more logical than others, I realize; it’s not often a challenge to drift off on the train, as blue boy does below – but the laborer duo were sleeping on the sidewalk, as was the young man with the red fingernail polish at the bottom, who I’d guessed had been out late the night before. If I tried draping over the back of a chair at Hua Lamphong train station to nap for a while my neck would be out of kilter for a week.

This will probably be the first of a series, hence the header.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Just The Massage Today, Thanks...

Trying out new massage places in Thailand is always a hit-and-miss proposition, but sometimes one really hits a winner. Early one Friday afternoon in early 2008 I ended up at the now-defunct HIS in Silom Center, about a block from the Chong Nonsi BTS station. It was far too early in their day for it to be busy so I was nearly dragged inside by the scant few who were on duty – perhaps concerned I’d walk the additional 50 feet to Arena Massage and they’d lose the business. They needn’t have worried. It was quite hot that day, I’d already walked a fair distance from the Surasak BTS station, and I wanted to sit down.

Out of personal bias I tend to go to more massage places that cater to a gay clientele than a straight one, but that bias isn’t because I’m looking for what is euphemistically known as a Happy Ending, it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the thought of being in the situation with a female working on me. We all have our quirks, and that’s one of mine. For a true Thai massage (something I’ll address in another post) it doesn’t bother me nearly the same, so go figure.

The Manager on duty gave the usual pat “All – ALL good massage” answer when I asked “Who actually knows proper massage?” but when he asked the eight guys themselves for a show of hands, only two went up. One of those was Kiaw’s, and he was telling the truth – he could do a great massage. He took his time, worked in a methodical manner and sensed immediately when I winced a little at pressure too firm on a sore spot, giving a little nervous laugh the first time I said “jep!” (ouch), saying “sorry, sorry” as he adjusted the pressure. He also understood my request for a real massage and made no attempts to start anything otherwise. I thought I was going to have someone to add to my “permanent” list, but it was not to be.

His English was passable, and we had a nice 90-minute chat while he worked. He’d just turned 20 a few weeks before but didn’t try the “today my birthday” ploy in an attempt to inflate his tip, a trick I’ve heard often enough before; often enough that now when I hear it I say “Wow, how cool! Let me see what ‘today’ looks like in Thai on your ID!” – which they never seem to have available – and thus ends the game. Not fair, perhaps, but neither is the fib.

He shared a basic studio room about two kilometers away in the Bangkrak district with two other coworkers but “home” and his family were a good deal farther away in Surin, where he was looking forward to being for Songkran in April, two months away. “When will you come back?” I asked. “Not,” he replied, smiling. I gave him a puzzled look and he puffed out his chest and said “School,” with a certain amount of pride. He’s been working for a long time to save money for a five-year training program, something that sounded a little like pre-med but may well have just been medical assisting of some sort. He said there will be an additional three years of training past that.

He was pleased, because he’d almost made it to his financial goal and figured if business continued well he’d reach it in another month or so, making everything above that gravy until April. It wasn’t a sure thing, though; business had been spotty, even through this current “high season”, and although he worked six days a week he could never know if he’d have one customer choose him in a week, or four. I was the first in three days, he allowed, somewhat glumly.

He was slim even by Thai standards and about as dark-skinned as they come, making his broad smile seem even brighter than most. When I asked if he liked girls or boys he dipped his head shyly and said “Girl, but never have.” He said he didn’t have a girlfriend either here or in Surin, which didn’t seem to bother him. He heaved a big sigh and said school was going to keep him more than busy once he got started. I didn’t press further but sensed he was probably as pure of body as he seemed of heart.

After we’d finished but were still in the room I tipped him and asked him if he minded if I took his picture. He sat down for a moment, happy to pose for a couple of snapshots. I got it across that I’d be back to give him a copy before I flew home, and he smiled again as the thought registered with him. “For my Mother,” he smiled.

While paying my tab at the reception desk he stood next to me, rather than at the front door the way many do, gently reminding customers about their gratuity. I figured he was standing next to me because he’d already been tipped, but then I saw him writing on a piece of paper. He walked outside with me, and as he took my outstretched hand to shake it, he handed me the piece of paper. On it, in Thai, was what looked like a mailing address and phone number. “Come Surin see me,” he said. Kup kun krub,” (thank you) I said.

That evening, on my way to meet friends for dinner I dropped the image off at a photo shop to have two 4x6 copies of his picture printed. On my way back to my room I picked them up, purchasing a presentable wooden frame for one of them.

Monday afternoon I returned to HIS with a small bag in hand, containing Kiaw’s photos. When I entered the shop the manager didn’t recognize me and asked if I was there for a massage. I pulled the framed picture of Kiaw out of the bag and held it up so he could see it. He laughed, and then the rest of the gathering hopefuls saw it, too, as I knew they would. A great uproar of laughter and shouting erupted from the group as they called Kiaw out from wherever he was, dragging him by the hand over to collect his pictures. He smiled and took the photos with a “wai,” pressing the framed one to his chest, pleased. “For your Mother,” I said, tapping the back of the frame with my finger – and he smiled again.

I waved and turned to leave, and again he followed me outside. This time instead of a handshake he reached out and gave me a hug and said “thank you”. I wished him luck with his schooling and waved goodbye as I walked down the stairs to street level. “Come Surin see me,” he called down to me, pantomiming the writing he’d done on Friday. “I will try,” I said “I will try.” And I intend to.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Sexy movie? Sexy movie?" - the DVD Touts

If you walk through the narrow sidewalk pathways anywhere around the Silom-Patpong Night Market area, you will undoubtedly run into the “Adult” movie touts. They’re rife around the Sala Daeng BTS station. The same goes for the huge assemblage of electronics stores, shops and booths that fill the cavernous Pantip Plaza building on New Phetchaburi Road.

They’re an exclusively male group, most in their early 20’s at ground level, but they most certainly must answer to older “managers” – even as rag-tag as the operations appear to be. It reminds me a bit of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, out doing the less savory work for Fagin; propositioning bewildered tourists as they browse along Silom or enter Pantip, but hey – it’s work.

Hovering around in the crowd, usually alone but sometimes in pairs, they watch for the bewildered and wide-eyed entering their territory who may not have heard their pitch before. Some sit to the side, but most will walk right up to you and say “Sexy movie? Sexy movie?” or a variation on the theme, holding a hand-made card cupped in their hand that reads “Sex Movie” or “Sex DVD”. The cards are about the size of a playing card, and hand-done with ballpoint or felt-tip pens on a light cardboard or a sheet of paper folded up to give it some stability, and usually held in front of them near waist level.

Most don’t bother to follow you if you say “no, thanks”, but occasionally one hearing another speak to you will set off others in the vicinity, somewhat like one neighborhood dog who begins barking and begins a local canine choral piece. I’ve had a few who actually came up and touched or grabbed my elbow or arm in an attempt to slow my pace to get my attention, but that’s been very rare. Maybe that’s because I’m twice their size, I don’t know.

I’d been instructed on an early trip to say “Mai ow”, meaning “I don’t want” in Thai, but another writer ex-patriot I had the pleasure of visiting with a few weeks ago shared something new that seems to be a more sure-fire method, and I owe him for that. His suggestion was to look in their direction (without smiling) and, closing the eyes for emphasis, make a quick sideways movement of the face as if to say a brief but stern “no”. Not a full swing, less then 90 degrees – and not rudely – but quick and firm. Works like a charm.

A friend of mine, living and working in Thailand this past 10 years shared long ago that he’d learned to ask the guys in Thai if they themselves were in the movies, wagging his eyebrows and leering salaciously at them as he asked, and that worked well for him – sending the poor things scurrying for cover but I’m not quite that adventurous. I’ve done a similar routine in a joking fashion, but it wasn’t very satisfying and seemed a bit mean-spirited to me so I abandoned it.

Shortly before this last trip I hit on a new idea – one I thought I might have some fun with and that might be of a benefit to the guys themselves: I made up a simple sheet of repeated words, laminated it and cut it up into cards very similar to the ones the guys use, but far more polished looking. I brought about 30 of them with me (some pink, some white) and would tuck a few into the pocket of my trousers each time I dressed to go out.

When I’d approach an area where I was likely to run into these guys, I’d palm one of the cards in my pocket as I walked along. Occasionally I would spot one of them before they spotted me, and would pull the card out, holding it up at waist height and hit them with “Sexy movie?” before they hit me. It always got a big laugh, sometimes from a few guys nearby, too. I would then give the guys the card(s), tell them “chock dee” (good luck) and go along my way. Looking back I’d almost always see them either smiling and pleasantly surprised – some calling out “thank you” – or sharing their new visual aid with someone nearby, sometimes pointing in my direction and undoubtedly chattering about the crazy farang who just threw them off their game. For the two dollars it cost me it was definitely a win-win situation.

As a side note: less then two weeks after handing out the first card in Silom I saw printed/laminated cards almost identical to the ones I’d made being used by a few guys.

Evidently Fagin liked the idea.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

You’re A Couple Quarts Low There, Buddy

The strange thing about dehydration is how it sneaks up on you - even in humid tropical climates where you wouldn’t think you could dry out it’s just as easy to do as it is in a desert. It affects people in different ways, depending on individual systems and stamina. Mine tends to be able to take a little more abuse, but boy – when it hits, it hits hard.

I’d been out walking around since just past breakfast time and not paying proper attention to my fluid intake while it lay in wait for me, giving me hints that I didn’t notice while enjoying my time wandering around the shops and markets between Day Night and South Pattaya Road, where I’d planned to have a massage before heading back to my hotel.

By 1:30pm the cheeseburger I’d had for lunch wasn’t sitting well, and I chastised myself a bit for eating the fries that were probably cooked in a fat that I knew better than to eat. I had a Diet Coke for lunch and by that time was a few bottles of water short of where I should have been for the day. I wanted water as I walked along, gawking at stalls of fruits, vegetables and everyday items, snapping pictures along the way, but I worried about being overly full and having it reflux while getting my massage, so I didn’t stop for any. In retrospect that was probably what tipped me over the edge.

After the massage I felt as though my batteries were at somewhat less than 50% and I knew I’d better get back to the hotel and rest if I wanted to get out for the planned visit with my Thai friend Dan for dinner or a movie. I was weak on the baht bus, feeling somewhat “ishy” as folks in our family have said as long as I can remember. After hitting the buzzer and slowly getting down off the back of the bus I handed the driver my 10 baht and was, for a moment, actually concerned about getting myself across Thappraya road to the entrance to Jomtien Complex and the Poseidon lobby just 20 feet past that. I stood quite a while gauging traffic in both directions and finally did the shuffle you see any number of older Asian women do when they’re jaywalking. That short, half-hearted jog across the two-lane road nearly did me in, and my whole body cried out in surprise that I’d asked it to do it at all.

As I entered the lobby, Boy was at the reception desk to greet me while doing some paperwork. “How are you?” he asked, and I paused to lean on the counter, pulling my shirt away from my chest a few times to fan myself, saying “hot.” He smiled, as I’m guessing he has a thousand other times when farang have reacted as I had to the heat. It wasn’t especially hot or humid, but I felt much like I’d been through the wringer, nevertheless. As fate would have it, I’d booked myself into a “Junior Suite” that was in the new addition to the hotel, and there was no elevator.

I looked at the base of the stairway and dreaded the steps up to my room on the third floor. I wondered for a moment if I should sit and rest a minute before making the climb but realized I was close to collapse and thought I’d be better off in my room than the lobby if I was going to be involuntarily horizontal for a while. Remembering my old friend Sandra’s account of moving slowly in Thailand and the bicycle rider going so slowly she couldn’t understand how he remained upright on it I began my ascent, as slowly as I possibly could. Five steps to the landing, a turn to the left and the first full flight came into view. Resisting the wheezing that I wanted to do I went up a few stairs and peeked down to where Boy was sitting, looking up to see if I was OK, probably alerted by how slowly I was moving.

On the second floor landing I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to the room. I think my arms did more working than my legs did as I pulled myself up the last flight and stood panting and dizzy at my door, fumbling with the two keys and swinging the door open with a triumphant feeling one might feel when reaching the top of some Himalayan peak. The hot, humid air from the room rushed forward to envelope me as I reached in and pushed the key fob into the power control, moving more than a little uncertainly to reach for the first of two air conditioning controls, turning the shower/vanity/jacuzzi end of the studio on “high” at 23C and then looked forward down what had previously been a charming hallway leading to the sleeping area that now seemed to be the length of a football field.

I took a few steps along the way and sat down on the daybed, panting and perspiring to take off my shoes. I’d only gone 8 feet, but it seemed like a long way. I sat and tried to will my body into getting up again and after a concerted effort - again convincing myself that bed was a better place at this point - I managed to slowly rise and stagger like a drunken sailor the last 20 feet or so to the bed, pausing to get the TV remote and a large bottle of water from the fridge, guzzling it like the aforementioned sailor along that last 10 feet or so.

Sitting down on the bed I noticed it was just a bit before 4:30 and thought a nap might help snap me out of whatever what happening with me. The tough part was getting my body to turn, lift my legs onto the bed and get horizontal. I just didn’t have the strength to move. I turned on the TV and slowly made my way through the 60 channels of pure unadulterated trash available, finally settling on the worst of the lot: the Pattaya People’s Channel. The man who owns it does interviews of locals and there he was: smile plastered on his face while asking questions of his guest the same way each time. He makes a scripted statement about something and then says “tell us a bit about that.” It’s awful. Worse than awful. The problem is it’s so horrible you almost have to look, rather like an auto accident you pass on the road.

With a supreme effort I make another turn to try and get comfortable, both my t-shirt and underwear damp and clinging to me as I try to move. As I’m settling down I come to the alarming realization that I have to pee, but just don’t have the strength to get up and go. I consider wetting the bed, but soon abandon that – no need paying for a new mattress. I again summoned what strength I had and retraced my path back through the sitting area, past the jacuzzi and into the small toilet enclosure. The smaller than usual amount and the darker than normal color was all the confirmation I needed that I was dehydrated on top of the nasty cold, and I stopped at the fridge and got a second bottle of water, downing most of it as I shuffled back to the bed and once more got myself flattened out, head propped up to face the banality on PPC.

What seemed like a few minutes later I again woke up, needing to pee. In reality it was nearly midnight, and I’d missed my evening out with Dan, too. I felt a lot less dizzy but was still weak enough that I didn’t quite have the strength to give a damn about not getting out that evening. I was steadier on my feet than I was seven hours before and I finished the second large bottle of water on my way to deposit the first one-and-a-half bottles in the hong nam. Although I wasn’t really hungry I knew I should probably eat something, but the idea of the stairs settled that thought and I scrounged around in the fridge and shelves next to them, eating some pomello, a handful of crackers and a few of those small, delicious bananas I’d bought on my walk before my massage before again crawling back into bed, shutting off the TV and checking out for the rest of the night.

Shortly past 7:00 I woke up again, did the bathroom thing and showered before making my way carefully down the stairs, where the morning waiter Toey seemed to know something wasn’t quite right with me. When he asked if I was OK I said “I think so, thanks… just needed more water yesterday.” He seemed to understand, and didn’t seem surprised when I didn’t order much to eat but wanted extra juice and water. He also didn’t bat an eye when I added a little salt to the fruit juice – something that helps us retain the fluids, I’ve learned. I lay low for the rest of the day: reading, writing, watching TV, napping and continuing to re-hydrate myself. That evening I made my way out to meet my friend Dan for a light dinner – including a tangmo (watermelon) smoothie, followed by an easy evening stroll, making it an early night before I returned to my room, had a soak in the jacuzzi and fell into another long, sound night’s sleep.

The next morning I woke up a little before 8:00, feeling hungry but so much better than the morning before. I showered, dressed and went down for breakfast, where Toey greeted me with his usual broad smile, asking “Are you feeling better today?” “Oh, SO much better than yesterday,” I replied, and then ordered my usual breakfast – and two bottles of water.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Where The Wild Boys Live

“Oh!” my friend said, surprised. “I forget VCD! You OK wait? I get.”

Last evening I’d spent a couple of hours visiting in a Thai go-go boy club with some of the guys who could communicate well enough in English for me to understand them on more than a “where you from” level and had become somewhat charmed (as many do) with one in particular named Pom. Although Pom was obviously straight -- despite his self rating of “50-50” -- and relatively new to the club life, his “mentor” friend Pui was as gay as a goose and just flamboyant enough to be entertaining without being annoying. We’d laughed and chatted for a couple of hours.

By 10:30 though I was ready to get away from the smoke in the club, so since Pui was content to set his sights on another farang who had just plopped his sweaty bulk onto a plastic seat nearby I asked Pom if he wanted to join me for a foot massage at a nearby shop I’d had recommended to me that morning. Although I got what I imagine will soon be a well-practiced but for now a not-quite-convincing pout he understood it wasn’t going to be a night’s wages, but I’d pay his off fee, massage and tip -- and he was fine with that. He’d previously shared that he hadn’t had an off in a week, so anything was better than nothing and he agreed it’d be a nice change. Besides, he allowed, I was “goofy” (where did he hear that?) and I made him laugh, so what the hell, sure, let’s go. I called for the check bin, tipped Pui for his time and off we went. It was the best foot massage I’ve ever had, but that’s another story. Pom was pleased with his, also. I walked him back to his club and said good night, him asking if I’d come see him again the next night. I fibbed slightly and said I thought I might have other plans, although I had none.

Tonight I’d succumbed to the siren call of familiarity and returned to see Pom and Pui for a couple of reasons: first, I’d already established the superficial rapport with them that many of us fool ourselves into think of as “caring friendship” on the guy’s part, and that’s often enough for holiday acquaintances, if we’re wise. I’m not as adventurous as some when on a limited schedule and would rather not risk an evening trying a new place when there’s a known quantity more than likely already hoping I’ll make good on my assurance to come back and watch them shuffling around on a small stage, silently cursing the aircon needed to keep farangs in the club. Secondly, the two of these guys together were a hoot. Pom was handsome and affectionately chummy without being pushy (so far) and Pui was a show unto himself as well as a great go-between translator who was willing to help me learn more of Pom’s interesting story.

As it turned out they’d been off someplace together that afternoon and Pom had bought a couple of gay VCDs from a vendor. Pui was much more interested in them than Pom was, but maybe Pom was curious, I don’t know. Maybe he was more “50-50” than I was giving him credit for, despite what I’d learned the night before about his girlfriend back in his home village. “Nothing wrong with doing research for work,” I told him, but it didn’t translate well through Pui, unfortunately.

The bottom line was they had no VCD player where they lived, and they wanted to know if they could come to my hotel room and watch them there. After giving it some thought I decided it would be safe enough to try, so after settling accounts at the club we headed out into the warm Thai night air, had a bite to eat and were getting ready to catch the baht bus to my room when suddenly Pom remembered that the VCDs were back in the room he and Pui shared with 10 other guys.

While learning their stories I knew they lived in an upstairs room provided by the owner of the club, but I had no idea there were quite so many in the same room. “Just how a big a room is this?” I asked Pui, and he said “oh, not so big, but good enough for us.” For some reason I thought of a cramped, poorly-ventilated room rather like you’d expect to see in some documentary of sweat shop workers, so I asked more about it. “It clean, and don’t pay much,” Pom allowed and Pui said “but way high, too many stair!” He feigned an exhausted look, and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead as though he were wiping sweat off. “Careful,” I thought to myself “if you catch your hand on one of those gelled spikes you’re going to puncture yourself.”

“OK?” Pom asked again “You OK wait I get?” Pui offered to wait with me.

I thought for a moment and then asked “How about if I come with you and see your ‘loom?’ Is that possible? Would you get in trouble with the boss if I did that?” Pom and Pui exchanged glances; Pom not quite sure what I was asking and the cogs in Pui’s head whirring audibly. “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” I said coyly, feeling clever to be using the double-entendre; but that only necessitated wasting a few minutes explaining it to a puzzled Pui, who then of course tried to explain it to Pom, and in the end it was just a piss into the wind. Vernacular humor rarely translates well.

They spoke back and forth in Thai for a couple of minutes, alternately looking at me and back between themselves. I think Pom -- as the new kid -- didn’t want to make waves with the boss, but again it was more obvious by his tone that Pui wanted to see the movies, dammit, and was ready to push the issue. “OK, OK,” Pui said, pulling on my hand and leading me back toward the club area “you want we try.”

Near the club itself we stopped at a small alley between a couple of businesses where the guys seemed pleased to find a short, stocky woman they said was the person in charge. They spoke to her in Thai, Pui as animated as I’d seen him all evening, pouring out the charm to the woman who looked over at me with a scowl, as if I were several government inspectors rolled into one. I did my best to look like just another wilted, sweaty tourist (not much of an effort, if truth be known) and finally Pui won out. The Boss Lady jerked her head off in the direction of the alley and I followed the three of them down about 20 feet and around a corner, Pom smiling over his shoulder somewhat sheepishly at me, and Pui dancing and skipping along, as happy as a child who’d just won a “cake before dinner” argument with his mother.

“Cooking area for boys,” said Pui dramatically, making a sweeping motion with his hand like a tour guide toward a covered kitchen spot, much like I’d seen in so many country homes. Simple, but efficient. “This is where you eat?” I asked, just making conversation to stall while I looked around and tried to discreetly take out my camera. “Sometime we cook here, share,” he explained. I was ready to take a picture, but the others were ready to get moving.

“Come on, we go in here,” called Pui, and I saw Boss Lady holding an unmarked door open for me, giving me a mildly impatient look. Pom was already inside, just heading through a storage-type room and nearing the foot of a staircase. I followed into the nearly dark entryway behind Boss Lady and Pui.

Up the first flight to the second floor I expected to see their room, but there was none. It looked as though the second floor had once been a part of the club below in a previous business incarnation, but I didn’t have time to ask, as the rest were already heading up another flight; Boss Lady just ahead, looking back to check on me as though I was maybe thinking of stealing the mop leaning in a plastic bucket in the corner. It was still nearly dark, and I steadied myself with the railing, pulling myself along while trying to see as much as I could.

At the third level there was even more of a finished but now unused area, although it was slightly better lit. It looked somewhat like a hotel’s housekeeping station on one side, and there were a few rooms along the hall. “Short time room,” said Boss Lady, somewhat proudly pointing to a small, dimly-lit room with the requisite small table, bowl of condoms and tube of KY on a nightstand next to a decent-enough looking bed. “For customer,” she added, as if I might have thought it was for delivery people to take a short break after dropping off six cases of Chang. “Two hundred baht, one hour.” “Very nice,” I allowed, trying to be gracious but in reality already a bit winded by the stairs. I mopped my face and neck with a handkerchief and hoped we were near the living quarters, too.

“Come on,” called Pui, already half a flight of stairs above us. “Good God,” I called back to him “do you live on the roof?” Receiving no answer, I followed Boss Lady up to the fourth floor. There, down a short hall, a door stood open to a well-lit room; a gentle breeze refreshing the stale air of the landing. I slipped off my shoes, adding to a few others outside the door and crowded gently past the Boss Lady in the doorway to enter the room.

The seven-foot ceiling seemed a bit low for someone of my height, but it certainly wasn’t a problem for the guys. The large dark green and red tiles that covered the floor were both clean and swept dust-free. Indeed, other than a bit of wear on the white painted walls from some previous occupants the quarters were neat and tidy; not at all what you’d expect from nearly a dozen college-aged men all sharing what was really just a large dorm room. The two big windows overlooking the street below were covered with tablecloths but those didn’t do much to keep the sounds of the clubs below or nearby from serenading us with their incessant thumping.

There were a number of small “wardrobes” along one wall: each about five feet tall with a tubular metal frame covered with a plastic covering, each with a front panel that could be zipped closed for privacy, although all were open but Pom’s. About three feet wide they were just deep enough to allow a hangar to hang on the bar across the inside, and all had an interior top shelf to keep a few personal belongings. Some had framed photos of family inside, some had small hampers for laundry on the bottom, some had towels hanging to dry. There was a large plastic basket of bananas and fruit on top of one and a generous selection of partial bottles of soda, all sporting a decorative straw; Fanta Strawberry seemingly a favorite.

“Sleep here,” said Pom, proudly standing on his bed. Feigning disgust as he gestured across the room he said “Pui sleep over there with other lady boy!” Pui laughed and jumped to sit crossed-legged on his bed, smiling coyly. Again doing his tour guide routine Pui suddenly jumped up again and began to point to each of the thin mattresses around the room (some no more than a thick moving pad, some regular “western” twin mattresses) and recite the names of each boy who occupied them, doing a running commentary about each that I couldn’t keep up with but one that had Pom laughing like crazy. The Boss just frowned as though they were misbehaving students, but it didn’t seem to faze Pui a bit. I watched with great amusement while also looking around the room, feeling somewhat privileged to be seeing what one tourist in a hundred thousand ever see.

A few of the boys had pictures taped to the wall above the head of their beds. Much as you’d expect a couple were what I’m fairly certain were “the folks back home,” a couple were studio photos of the boy and a girl, a couple were of the boy and another boy and one was of a caucasion (or as you'd say in Thai "farang") man in his late 50s. I pointed to the photo and asked Pui “is this a gay boy’s bed?” “No, but the farang good to him and he like him too much,” he replied, matter-of-factly. I decided to press a bit and asked him “You mean he likes the farang or the money?” “Sure money!” Pui laughed that bright laugh of his, his face lighting up “but he really like farang, also.” “But he’s not gay?” I asked. “No, but he really like him too much, same same falang, it good.” I decided to quit while I was ahead and didn’t ask any more about it.

As I had expected there were several small individual alters with flowers, incense and foodstuffs in addition to a larger one above one of the wardrobes. The faint smell of incense lingered in the room, in addition to a hint of exhaust from the streets four floors below.

Pui again resumed his commentary on their roommates but Boss Lady said something to him in a somewhat curt tone that made him stop short and say “OK, we go now.” Pom retrieved the VCDs from under his mattress and came over to me, taking my hand as though I wasn’t going to be able to find my way out of the room alone. Back down the stairs we went, Boss Lady leading the way this time, probably ready to dispense with me and get back out on her rounds. My foot slipped off one of the first tiled stairs and I grabbed the rail to steady myself. “Careful,” laughed Pui “no room for you get well here!” and I took it easier the rest of the way down.

Outside in the alley again Boss Lady looked at me and asked “OK?” “Yes, kup koon krap – thank you very much.” She stood looking at me and suddenly I got the hint. Reaching into my shirt pocket I pulled out a 50 baht note and handed it to her, thanking her again. She smiled, folded the note into quarters and slipped it into her pocket. She said something to the guys and they laughed and also thanked her as she walked out of the alley ahead of us. The other workers in the alley stared at me wide-eyed, as though I’d just beamed down from another planet. I smiled and followed after Pom and Pui who were already ten feet ahead of me, chattering and laughing on our way to catch the baht bus.

Sharing A Smile On The Train To Isaan

I have shared this story before but it’s long been a favorite of mine, along with the photo of the boy in it. Here it is in a revised form:

On my very first trip to Thailand I took a butt-numbing 10-hour train ride from Bangkok to the far Northeastern part of the country to visit a pen-pal I’d been communicating with for about four months. After emailing and chatting online with him I’d convinced myself I’d be fine in what I’d imagined were The Wilds if I could just stay on the train and look for him when I arrived in Udon Thani. As is often the case my fears were groundless and the trip – while somewhat tedious for a person too spooked to leave his seat other than to pee a couple of times – was a fine story in itself that I’ll post another time.

On the train with me that day was a couple in their mid-twenties, their female friend and their six-year-old son, seated across the aisle from his parents, three rows ahead of me in our second-class car. Halfway through the trip the father took his son to the toilet, and when the returned to our car the little tyke came back sobbing.

As close as I could figure out he’d gotten his hand pinched in one of the sliding doors coming back and was obviously hurting and unhappy. He’d been so good the first four or five hours of our journey – without the usual bag of junk you see kids at home traveling with – that I tried to think if there wasn’t something I had along with me that would entertain him. Suddenly I remembered that I still had one of the small, rainbow colored beanbag teddy bears I’d brought from home as gifts for a few of my new Thai friends. One friend was adamant that he could never take it home without having to explain more about his personal life than he wanted to, so I still had his with me in the suitcase, riding in the netting above my seat. I took the bag down and dug around until I found the extra one and took it up to him.

At first he shrank down into his chair, naturally overwhelmed by my size and foreign look, but after I smiled and danced the bear around some I sat it down on the edge of the seat next to him and backed away a bit. He finally picked it up and hugged it to him with a shy smile. His mother and father acted so surprised that I as a “newbie” to the country and culture worried briefly I’d overstepped a social line, but I soon understood they were just good people, pleased that their boy was happy and occupied. They remained seated but both bowed and “wai”-ed me, and the woman kept saying “kup koon kah, kup koon kah!” which is the female way to say “thank you” in Thai.

A few minutes after I went back to my spot three rows behind his he began peeking up over his seat, doing a little puppet-type show with the bear and playing peek-a-boo with me, laughing and smiling. When I got the camera out a little while later and took a couple of pictures he giggled and laughed, and when I actually went back up and showed him himself on the viewing screen he was just as tickled as a kid would be most anywhere else in the world, as were his parents. We couldn’t really chat, but we could all smile and share in his excitement. It was the first of many reminders that trip that a smile is indeed the universal language.

Playing With Crocodiles, Part 1

For reasons beyond me, this clip I uploaded to YouTube a few years ago has gotten linked to a number of other sites and continues to get a surprising number of viewings - to me, anyway.

Like many others I was there that afternoon in Samut Prakan primarily for the carefully rehearsed entertainment - but also the possibility of a mishap. As I understand it that rarely occurs, thankfully; most of the crocodiles have been worked with long enough to give the handlers a reasonably good idea of how they'll react to them, but hey - they are just reptiles, and the guys aren't much more than a "Crocky Snack" to them, if truth be known. It's a tourist stop I've enjoyed a couple of times, and will probably visit again.

There are a couple of graphic bite clips to be found out there (hey, wait... at least finish this post before you click away looking for them) but I'm happy with merely the vicarious thrill of the possibility I've enjoyed each visit.

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Warm Night In Bangkok

It was a warm, slightly humid evening in Bangkok; the work day ending for some and just beginning for others as three young men sit on a bench on Soi Twilight, absorbed in their own worlds. One twenty-something stares at an unfocused point off ahead of him, a serpent of smoke rising from the cigarette in his hand as he sits, occasionally checking his oversized watch, his gaze rising like mine every now and then to scan the people walking along the soi.

Beside him are a couple men of a similar age, both absorbed by something being displayed on the cell phone one holds in his hand. His friend looks up and laughs often as the owner’s thumbs move quickly over the keypad, and they chatter merrily in a conversation I couldn’t understand even if I could hear it clearly while sitting at my soi-side table, nursing along a bowl of tom yung goong I’d ordered without remembering to say “pet nit noy”. It gives me time to watch the parade as I allow the fire in my mouth to subside between spoonfuls, though, and that’s a pastime I never seem to tire of.

It’s just past 8:00pm and the tempo of the soi has risen slightly over the past few minutes; a subtle change from dinnertime to show time as the club lights blink on, casting their assorted hues down onto those of us walking or sitting below. The club touts who’d been sitting and having noodles five minutes before are now standing and on the prowl, menus or show bills in hand.

“Come look, sir,” they say with a smile and a gentle bow, waving their arms in an arc towards the open doors where the thump thump thump of music has already begun to spill out onto the street. The bolder ones even say “Show now – show now,” although all but the greenest of visitors would know there would be nothing of the sort for another couple of hours, but every club IS a show of sorts, if truth be known.

Behind the cell phone guy and his friend sit two men in the type of athletic tee-shirt known in some parts of America as “wife beaters,” who both seem to see the same young man at the same moment as he hurries to the entrance of the club next door. Their voices rise and fall together in harmony as they cat-call out to him, as if they’ve just caught him misbehaving: “AaaaaaAAAAAAhhhhh!” they sing in an admonishing tone, and the man smiles sheepishly, knowing full well himself he’s missed his start time – and from their tone probably not for the first time recently.

He pauses briefly to wai at the entrance to the club before bounding up the stairs two at a time. Inside he’ll punch his time card in the time clock, make a brief apology to the boss – in a vain effort to dodge the fine for being late – and head back to the dressing room, where he’ll change out of his street clothes and put on his Speedo-like uniform. Pinning a number to the waistband he’ll attempt to mentally prepare himself for another evening of rotating on and off of a small stage with another couple of dozen similar guys, all hoping to break what is far too often an extended string of nights where their earnings amount to no more than the 100 baht stipend paid for clocking in by 8:00… if that.

Outside on the soi below, a variety of people stroll along in this night made fragrant by a combination of street-side barbecue, jasmine, cigarettes and the mixed-blessing aroma of the soi itself. Some crane their necks to take in the near-canopy of neon above them as they wander, overwhelmed and saucer-eyed, they’re easy marks for the touts who appear at their elbow, ready to lead them into their club. Some walk purposely along, avoiding all possible eye contact in a futile effort to get from point “A” to point “B” without being hounded by the same barkers while fighting the natural urge to take in this ever-changing carnival going on all around them. Some know and are known and they pause here and there to say hello to friends, joke briefly with a club tout, share a joke or make their way to a favorite table or street-side seat, where the waiter greets them by name and scurries away to fill their request for “the usual”.

Allegedly “straight” couples move in a tentative fashion along the soi, the female sometimes smiling in anticipation of later possibilities, sometimes looking somewhat bewildered as the man they’re WITH does the smiling, perhaps also in anticipation of later possibilities. “We ‘offed’ a guy here the other night,” grinned a man with a strong Scottish accent to the male half of the couple he and his girlfriend were walking with. By the leering grin on his face and the slightly puzzled look on his girlfriend’s face there wasn’t much question as to who’s idea that had been – or who’d enjoyed the encounter more. “Did you, now?” said his friend, with a somewhat nervous laugh. He lights a cigarette and looks as though he’d rather be walking through the fires of Hell than here. I could only imagine what their breakfast conversation would be like the next morning, and I chuckled.

Someone walked a tad too close to the group waiting outside the massage parlor, setting off all the guys that weren’t otherwise occupied with their cell phones. “Massaaaaage sir?” offered one. “Come inside and check it out!” “Happy hour?” said another, hopefully – perhaps setting his own fiscal happy hour, three hours after the usual one. Upbeat and playful the group of seven or eight joked amongst themselves, sometimes leaning far out into the soi in an attempt to be the first to see the newcomers entering off the main street. For guys that may well go home with nothing to show for their five hours or so of waiting it was somewhat refreshing, until I stopped to realize that not having to work over (or under) a beached whale for an hour or so was in and of itself a bonus, and I laughed quietly to myself again.

The kid with the cigarette suddenly sat straight upright, peering down the soi to the street entrance. Recognizing the neatly dressed middle-aged farang making his way toward him he dropped the cigarette, snuffed it out with a sneakered toe and got up to meet him, accepting a clumsy hug from his new “online” friend who looked to be new to both the Land of Smiles and this particular type of arrangement. They stood together in the middle of the soi – the farang looking shy and uncomfortable, his younger Thai friend looking just the opposite – and the Thai allowed them to be guided to a table next to me by the same waiter who had welcomed me to my perch an hour before.

It soon became apparent that this was both their first meeting, and that it would go on until much later in the evening at a different location, perhaps capped off by an American Breakfast some 12 hours hence, the Thai looking around the buffet for something a little more to his liking than scrambled eggs and watermelon cut into small heart shapes, the farang looking at another Thai man seated a few tables away, primping his spiked hair as the farang HE was with read the International Herald.

Back on the bench across the soi from me the Thai with the cell phone checked his watch, suddenly realized that he himself was late and, saying a hurried farewell to his friend he rushed off, disappearing into a doorway down the soi.

From the corner of my eye I could see his friend size me up as he looked over in my direction, attempting to make eye contact. Upon doing so he cocked his head and smiled, pointing to his chest and then over to my table, looking for an invitation to join me. I smiled back, and shook my head gently. He leaned back to yawn, stretching as he ran a hand under his oversized tee-shirt and up over his chest, exposing a swath of silky-smooth belly. Shaking off the yawn he again smiled at me, giving me a quick wink. “Flattering,” I said to myself, but again I just smiled and shook my head at him. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say “oh well, I tried,” and rose from the bench, heading off down the soi towards the street entrance.

“Check bin,” I called to the waiter, and after settling my tab I too joined the flow, becoming part of the parade on this warm, somewhat humid evening in Bangkok.

One Last Cut Through Soi Yipun

Thaniva Road, that I've come to know as Soi Yipun

My last afternoon in Bangkok this trip was sunny and quite warm so I was wilting by 4:00pm while walking back to my hotel from the Sala Daeng BTS station via Thaniya Road – a long one-block stretch I call “Soi Yipun", connecting Silom and Suriwong and the closest cut-through from the BTS station. Yipun is the Thai word for Japanese, and as Thaniya’s lined with signage in Japanese for restaurants and clubs targeting Japanese tourists in search of food, alcohol and what can only semi-politely be called “Ping Pong Shows” the nickname made sense to me, so I’ve kept it. Many of my Thai friends know precisely where I’m talking about.

In addition to the ethnocentric nature of the street the other unusual characteristic is its relative dearth of convenience stores. 7-11s and Family Marts are even more plentiful in urban Bangkok than Starbucks are here, if that’s possible; there’s one on almost every corner. The corporate website says there are just over 3,900 of them in Thailand, and most of those are in developed areas, so the concentration is high, but not on Soi Yipun, so I was thirsty while walking along in the harsh sunlight. Had it been one minute past dusk there would’ve been close to 100 venues all plying me with drinks, but not now, and I was thinking of the aircon and cool shower awaiting me a couple of blocks ahead.

“Hello, Boss!” called a somewhat familiar voice, and looking to my left I saw a dark-skinned Thai man hopping off of the planter he’d been perched on and heading over to me. Glancing down at his hands I saw he wasn’t holding one of the gate-folded color brochures featuring young women lined up with stars covering their naughty bits or beaming at you from Jacuzzis that I doubt actually exist. Those guys I know enough from experience to give a wide berth to; knowing if I give them any encouragement at all they’ll follow me for at least a hundred yards, speaking in low tones about things I’d rather not hear about, but that’s another story.

I’d seen this same man yesterday afternoon on Soi Yipun while returning from a lunch date, and had guessed him then to be right about my age. He was pleasant enough – partly by nature and partly from making the same conversation a few thousand times and learning that one does indeed catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Yesterday he followed me for a half-dozen storefronts as I walked along and although it was a somewhat rehearsed conversation on his part it was, as I said, pleasant.

“Where are you from?” he’d asked yesterday, after I’d answered his “Hello, Boss” with a polite “Sawatdee”. “Ah-meh-ree-CAH,” I replied and immediately felt a little ashamed about, having spoken to him much as I would a person of a lower stature or Thai friend I was joking with, as this is how a lesser-educated, non-English speaking Thai might say it. It didn’t seem to phase him in the slightest, though. “Where?”he asked. “California.” “Oh! California!” he said, as though he had family there himself. Using a tactic that has thrown a club tout off of their routine in the past I came back with “What part of Thailand are YOU from?” I don’t think many get this question, and it does seem to break their mental stride; perhaps even pleasing them that someone would ask.

“Bangkok,” said my walking mate, smiling. “Bangkok?” I said, somewhat surprised myself “Really?” Twelve million people in this City of Angels so I certainly shouldn’t have been surprised, but I’ve consistently gotten replies of areas from the great generalized Northeastern area of Issan for so long that when someone doesn’t say “Buriram” or “Khon Kaen” or “Surin” I’m thrown off stride myself. “Really,” he went on “Born in Ratchada and my family is still here.” “Interesting,” I said to myself, more than him. “I haven’t met all that many people who are native Bangkokians… Bangkokonians,” I stumbled over my own mispronunciation. “People born and raised here in Krung Thep.” “You’ve met me,” he said, and then continued a few more paces along with me, while I mopped my forehead and the back of my neck.

“You need a beer!” my friend said, returning to his rehearsed pitch. “Come to my club and have a beer!” “No,” said, just as I had the previous afternoon. Pantomiming drinking from a glass, shaking my head and wagging my index finger as though that could help me communicate with him better and he stopped walking. I stopped also and asked him “How’s business?” “Not good,” he allowed, frowning and shaking his head with an exaggerated concerned look. “It would help if you came to my bar and had a beer!” “I don’t drink alcohol,” I said, somewhat apologetically. “Yes, I remember,” he said, and waving me on my way with a smile he said “See you later!’ He turned to head back to his perch to await the next possibility to some slogging along. Maybe he thought I was going to stop in at “his club” and pay 100 baht for a 7 baht bottle of water, I don’t know – but at least he wasn’t pushy about it. “Chock dee (good luck),” I said to him and walked another 20 feet or so before I stopped.

Turning back, I pulled two 100-baht bills out of my pocket and folded them into quarters, palming them and putting my hands back into the pockets of my shorts and I re-traced my steps. He was already back perched on his planter as I approached him, and he seemed a little puzzled to see I’d returned.

“It IS hot,” I allowed, leaning in towards him and speaking in a conspiratorial tone “and I really would like a beer – but since I won’t have one, maybe you’d have one for me?” I took my hand out of my pocket and offered him the two folded 100 baht notes and again using sign language said to him “YOU have a beer for ME,” patting my chest. He laughed and said “Thank you!” with a small wai, tucking the notes into his shirt pocket. I smiled as I turned back to slog my way along Soi Yipun, thinking again of cold water, aircon and a cool shower.

A beginning, of sorts

There are probably already a million blogs about travel, and easily thousands about what has become my favorite destination – Thailand – but as I’m just as vain as most other writers and not nearly as thick-skinned as some this seems a safer place to post some of my experiences in the Land of Smiles than a public member forum. Here I can do my own moderating and delete what I’d normally grind my molars down a bit further about on a forum. Besides, there are those who are interested in my observations and stories and this will allow them to check in at their leisure as their time allows.

Am I an expert on Thailand, this land I’ve grown so fond of? Not by a country mile, so save your comments. I’ve made a baker’s dozen trips there over the past seven years, and each time I learn a smidgeon more about some sliver of the culture or people or some place I've visited, and this will be a place where I can share... but it’s by no means a reference. If you want that, try doing a Google for something more authoritative.

My experiences may be of use to you, but the anecdotal nature of them will probably put them more into the category of entertainment, since I rarely reference sources. If you find it an enjoyable read, I’ll be pleased enough. If it inspires some sharing of ideas and opinions in a constructive manner, that’s a bonus.

At some point I’ll assemble these entries along with other pieces into book form and who knows, perhaps even find someone interested in publishing it besides a “vanity press” house.

So... sawatdee krub. Nice you found me.