Bangkok is pretty big on the whole sex thing. Selling it, that is. I know it's there all over, in New York and Hong Kong and hell, my hostel was in the red light district in Singapore, but Bangkok seems to make it a spectator sport, a kind of open-air flesh market. So tonight I ended up making my way to Soi Cowboy, "Cowboy Road" or something similar, one of the gaudy strips of bars that promises untold naughtiness behind their red-glowing doors, scantily-clad beer touts that hold their signs upside down that promise "hundreds of beautiful girls plus two or three ugly ones."
I don't know why I went there, or maybe I do, and I just don't want to admit it (especially not here), but I don't have the money for beer, let alone drinks for two or three "friends." I guess the place is as harmless or harmful as you want it to be, you can walk and just take in the spectacle, or you can grab for your piece of the flesh pie. I turned into the neon-saturated alleyway and started to walk.
Left and right, there's subdued insanity, beer, tired-happy men, fake-happy women, and signs proffering poorly-punned promises of promiscuity. The openness of it seems to be a kind of thrill, inviting more ribald goings-on and giving confidence to the meek or the married, and as I walked I wondered if the people there are the kind of guys that go to strip clubs, the kind of guys that visit hookers at home, or if they're just passing by Bangkok and (like me, right?) figure, what the hell?
For the most part, I guess I was ignored, because you can get the feel for the clientele pretty easily: mostly foreigners, mostly older men (but let's not discount the locals that really keep this place running). So a young(ish) guy like me making his way down the street seemed to fall much more in the voyeur category. Or maybe they smelled the smell of walking in Bangkok heat all day and saw the well-worn t-shirt and jeans and backpack and guessed my budget. As I made my way down the street, noting beer specials and soaking in the lurid noise of it all, I was distracted by ... an elephant. Just right there, in the middle of the street, patrolling up and down, handlers on each side. And I couldn't stop looking at the thing, all sad-eyed and huge, shaking hands with his trunk, walking with him down the sidewalk, patting it's back and legs because, hey, it's an elephant!, and ignoring the tugs on my sleeve by brave little beergirls, and I followed my pachyderm without realizing it to the end of the street, where I bought a bag of fruit, fed him pieces one by one, and patted him on the head and gave him a kind of Eskimo kiss, my head against his massive skull, his brown sad eyes seeming to say "now you be good" as I left.
My Jesus tonight was an elephant, and he saved me from temptations of the flesh with a bag full of bananas.
On my way out, I ran into a group of young European Christians doing anonymous surveys about HIV/AIDS, the stark reality of forced prostitution in Thailand, and all that. They were in groups of two, clipboards and random pairings of Finnish and Swedish and Norwegian, and I chatted with them a bit, probably the only person who voluntarily talked with them the whole night, and they were doing a couple weeks all over Thailand, teaching and doing AIDS volunteering and all that. I asked how the survey was received by the sex tourists; they said it varied, sometimes they just ignored them, other times they got angry, still others talked and talked. "I'm here because I like sex," one guy said, girl in hand, strange accent (the "sex," the "x," was emphasized). We chatted about China and their time in Thailand and language and I said it was good work they were doing, even though the pamphlet they gave me came off a little too Jesus-freak.
Bangkok has certainly grown on me, after a good day of sight seeing and hoofing it all over. The public transport is a nightmare, a combination of slow boats, subways and skytrains the don't actually take you where you want to go, and taxis and tuktuks that just try to rip you off by hundreds of baht until you find one that will use the goddamn meter. But the city has a kind of raw appeal that the fully-suited squeaky-clean Hong Kong and Singapore seem to have lost. I think it's a good city to return to, because it can have highs, and it can have lows, and coming back to the perpetual Spring Break of Khao San and the backpacker ghetto is pretty damn low.
But even Khao San can't suck so hard that it robs the locals of just being such good people. Wading through that cesspool, I managed to buy two hand-painted cards from a young deaf man, and I was able to sign "I am American" and "thank you," thanks to James and his mom. I saw a local artist with some really intriguing paintings, and while I didn't have 700 baht to blow on one, it was nice to talk to him and let him know I dug his stuff. And before I came here, to this aircon netcafe with PCs you slide ten baht coins in like they're arcade machines, I found a bookstore that had just the book I wanted, it was run by a second-generation Chinese immigrant, and I was able to chat in Mandarin for a good twenty minutes, and only had to switch to English twice!
So yeah, Thailand, even Bangkok: it's good. I'll get some photos up, as well as photos from Ko Surin (the island with the amazing snorkeling) as soon as I have a PC that isn't fed on coins.