I stepped out of the hotel, jackhammers assaulting the ears in the close distance. Evening, blissfully cooler, was seeping into the edges of my vision. Just outside the door, past the doormen, a taxi man. “One minute, wait one minute, just looking, just looking,” he called out, and I, unused to this form of address, waited one minute to look.
“Girls, you want girls? Looking, pretty pretty girls,” he said, producing a rollout postcard of naked women.
I shrugged, smiled, no thank you (apparently, a strange decision for a single man). He persisted politely (“Thai massage?”), I hurried on, learning that Southeast Asia is the same as Southwest Asia. Ignore those who pester: beggar, taxi man, or ordinary hustler.
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster/ The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free Past my hotel, on the edge of the Chao Phraya river, Charoen Krung Road went north, then east to the Ratanakosin area. Each side was lined with bakeries, shops, 7-Elevens, internet cafés and tiny dhabha-like restaurants where I ate my regular fare of Kuay Tiaw, noodle soup. The smells were exotic, the spices Thai, a food-cart in every alley scenting the air, alien fruits piled high. Fishy smells amplified past restaurants and stagnant klongs, after passing a huge plastic-catfish-decorated cart I heard music: deep, heavy and ceremonial. A darkened courtyard made it easier for me to pry, voyeur-like, upon a temple dance inside. I watched for a few minutes and moved on, to other performances.
It is in the evening, when the heat falls and the shadows form, that the City of Angels awakens and begins its show. The exquisite temple dancers, the sexy dark-nippled strippers, the loose-limbed breakdancers and the glistening Muay Thai fighters.
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister/ A little flesh, a little history/I can feel an angel sliding up to me. Earlier in the day, I had gone via the klongs to the old settlement of Thonburi, an era removed from the rising glass and steel modernity of the Bayoke Tower, the Siam Discovery Centre, and the Skytrain. The true name of the city foreigners call Bangkok is Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintra ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya.
KrungThep, Bangkok, is the quintessential Asian metropolis, where everything, anything, is available, possible, doable. It is the freedom of heaven, or the corrupting choices of hell, it is the City of Angels. Bangkok actually means village of wild olives. ‘Bang’, village or place, of ‘makok’, wild olives. Twenty years after the Burmese destruction and ransacking of Ayuthaya in 1767, the capital of Siam was re-established here by King Rama I. Save for a brief period of Japanese occupation, Thailand has never been occupied. It is a country free of the confusion of multiple cultures.
It was getting late and I needed to reach the stadium. Motorcycle-taxis stood in the corner. How much, I asked, the English words meaningless. ‘Lumphini stadium’! Muay Thai! Blank stares. Lumphini! Ahh, Lump-hini! Like a stupid farang, I was pronouncing the ‘ph’ as ‘f’ instead of an aspirated ‘p’. Agreeing to the jacked-up price of 40 baht I climbed on the backseat of the motorcycle.
I climb vertical rock and ice on a regular basis, and have done many stupid things. I’ve been afraid, but almost never like this. Our tiny moto weaved in and out of traffic at 70 kmph. Two Corollas in the distance rapidly neared, as they slowed for the light. Moto-taxi-man kept the throttle gunned. The light is red. The moto-taxi-man brakes sharply, for the gap between the cars is too narrow. Then he, incredibly, shifts his weight from left to right to manoeuvre the bike through the cars. I just hang on.
The light is red. The roads are Developed-Nation wide, wellsurfaced and lanes marked. He jumps the light, with a dozen other motorcyclists.
I close my eyes till we reach Lumphini Stadium. One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster/ The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free. I buy a front-row ticket from a uniformed angel. She smiles widely and escorts me into a small, tightly packed space. Beer is available, but the punters in the stands behind aren’t interested. The din becomes louder, chits are passed, and the hounds are hungry.
The first fight starts with two very young boys. Each does a ceremonial dance before the bout. After several rounds, the points are totalled and the fighters exit. Progressively, heavier and heavier fighters come out into the ring. The crowd roars with deafening enthusiasm. The betting at the back is increasingly frenetic. Hand signals pass back and forth. The round ends and each man-boy returns to his corner, covered in sweat and spit and blood. Each is exhausted. The trainer has leapt into the ring, is massaging his hands, wiping him down. The noise is extreme, the air palpably thick with tension, smoke, money, beer, sweat and blood.
They return to the fight. I throw myself down full length under the ropes, unnoticed, and shoot pictures. An Anglo-Bulgarian, ex-boxer, sitting next to me, urges them to punch, instead of using their elbows and knees—the characteristic form of Muay Thai. In the final fight, the loser was TKO’d with an uppercut to the jaw.
After the fight, I wander the streets looking for dinner. The angel directed me towards Suan Lum, and I didn’t have the courage to ask her to join me, even though she was the only Thai I’d found who spoke English.
Night-markets are present on many corners, pirated DVDs to cheap T-shirts, Gucci to Tag Heuers, reflexology to Thai massages, in fact, anything you might ever want. The Suan Lum night market is permanent, well-ordered and neat, unlike the street mess. Turn a corner and I run into a concert, a girl singing Thai pop on a stage. I keep walking, walking, walking. Tuk-tuks race by, one does a wheelie , sparks flying off its rear end. The Americans inside it grin in excited terror. I pick fried morsels off a cart to munch on. I have no idea what they’re called, and they taste really good. The cart is right next to another with something I do have a name for: fried insects. I skip that and move on to buy fruits—lychee-like lamyai, frighteningly hairy rambutan, and papaya.
Nearer the infamous Patpong, I have to play dodge the pimps, a game any man must. The street itself is non-navigable for anything more than pedestrian traffic, for stalls have been set up in the middle of the Soi. Amidst the stripclubs are refreshingly normal bars with techno and people dancing. On both sides of the alley are lurid girlie posters next to doorways with multi-coloured lights and pole-dance music streaming out. Men and women stand outside to call you in. This is better than Nana Plaza, where you sometimes can’t distinguish the men from the women...
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister/ And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she/ I can feel an angel sliding up to me It is late and I need to escape the steamy chaos. The Skytrain rides high above the city, above the crowded roads and narrow wandering Soi, above all the noise and life of this complex organism. From above, Bangkok appears like New York, steel, concrete and neon. Many centuries are hidden when viewed from above, shadowed by the glowing green signage of the MBK mall and Siam Centre.
In the evenings they step out into the high corridors connecting the mall to the Skytrain stations. Boys, nearly men, place an arm on the ground, loose shorts tightened, swing a leg in the air, and practice breakdance moves. Inside, decked out teen girls get piercings and tattoos, as they wander with their boyfriends among shops filled with enticing junk.
Other boys, men, in orange robes enter the metal doors of the Metro. Most Thai men above the age of 20 spend a few years as monks, before re-entering the lay world of pleasure and pain. This is the middle way. In the heart of glistening modernity is an ancient civilization, Indo-Chinese, yet unconfused, a vibrantly united melange. There are no shrill keepers of the faith, perpetually afraid of incoming moral apocalypse. Life goes on.
I look for a cart-side bowl of noodle soup before reaching the hotel—none are exactly the same.