By JOHN HENDERSON
Special to woodypaige.com
BANGKOK, Thailand – Welcome to the land that morality forgot. Bangkok is where visions are blurred, not only through the haze of too many Singha beers but the tolerance of a Buddhist culture and of a tourist industry run amok. It’s where a he is a she and a she can do things I didn’t learn on the streets of Eugene, Ore.
When I started traveling in 1978, Bangkok became my gateway to the extremes of Asia travel. It guided me through an education that hardened me on my way to visit 100 countries. It nurtured me while racked with a vicious case of typhoid that cost me 20 pounds in eight days. It’s where I smoked Thai stick in a bamboo home over a pond and fantasized about snakes wrapping around my ankles until my Thai host said, “You’re not fantasizing. They’re real.” Where else could I watch a woman fire darts out of her vagina and pop balloons held by men ringing her stage then have her sit on my lap and ask to come home with me?
But it’s also where the perpetual sweet smell of fish sauce and chilies led me around every corner looking for the next cheap, delicious street stall. It’s where the warm air blew across my face as I darted around the streets in tuk-tuks, Thailand’s charming little three-wheeled, open-aired taxis. It’s where I learned the bad rap given the beautiful Thai women, the vast majority of whom are among the most advanced in South Asia.
It is here where I returned last month for the first time in 30 years. Bangkok wasn’t a destination this time. It was a base to come and go sandwiched around a three-week journey through Laos. Being gone from Bangkok for so long, I wanted some familiarity. So I booked two stays at the ol’ Malaysia Hotel.
In my past visits to the Malaysia, the way you impressed a lady was buy her breakfast the next morning. The Malaysia’s prostitution reputation was known to every male with a passport and a drop of testosterone. It became famous in the ‘60s as the R&R destination for battle-fatigued and horny American soldiers. By the time I arrived the first time in 1978, it had become nothing less than a pseudo brothel, a hangout for hookers, hippies, backpackers, short-term workers and the occasional world-weary expat. At 22, I had to cut through the hookers in the lobby like the entrance of an NFL stadium just to reach the elevator. I remember one time a young, lithe thing in stilettos was dry humping an Aussie’s leg as they entered the elevator. I stood back looking, expressionless from sexual overload common in Bangkok. The woman rested her head on the man’s shoulder, winked at me and licked her bright red lips.
This really isn’t fair to Thai women. An estimated 2 million Thais work in the sex industry. That’s both women, men and men pretending to be women. A couple has an attractive daughter in the countryside and they send her to Bangkok to send money back home. For some reason, there’s a particularly fertile breeding ground of beautiful young girls in northeast Thailand. However, the Thai women who aren’t hookers, the vast majority, are great, modernized women. When I was here in the ‘70s, there were more female college students than men. According to the Harvard International Review, last year 80 percent of the total employment of Thailand’s 10 largest export industries were held by women. Rural Thai women have always been the central bread winners and have owned land since the decree of King Rama V (1853-1910). Last year Thai women had the fifth most PhDs compared to men (57 percent) in the world and made up 51 percent of science researchers.
The beauty of returning to destinations is you get to peel away another layer of culture. I spent a month in Thailand the first time, a week the second time, a smattering of days the third time. I’ve seen the “girly bars.” I’ve seen the reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace. I wanted to see the new, modern Bangkok. So I went to the Moon Bar. It advertises itself as having the best view in the city and I wanted a place to hang out before diving into Bangkok’s culinary delights.
Getting there was an adventure. In previous trips, the mode of city transport was the tuk-tuk, these motorized trishaws that cost maybe 50 cents or a buck to go a kilometer or two. They have evolved into a blatant tourist trap. For the tourists who want the novelty, not to mention selfie, of the tuk-tuk experience, they charge more than an air-conditioned taxi and negotiate prices as if they’re down to their last dollar.. Instead, I got directed to a guy in a gray and orange vest leaning against his motorcycle. I negotiated his price from 40 baht ($1.15) to 30 (90 cents) and we took off like we being chased by gangsters, whizzing around cars, my knee barely missing their side mirrors.
We went down modern, wide Soi 1 (“Soy” means “road” in Thai) to the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was right out of Lower Manhattan, a 63-story skyscraper with doormen, guards and a fountain at the entrance. Two elevators later, I was on he top floor weaving my way through candlelit dinner tables to the elevated bar. It was a square, back-lit bar with a mind-boggling 360-view of modern Bangkok. This isn’t your father’s, or my Bangkok. Skyscrapers stuck up haphazardly all over downtown. The architecture is something out of an acid trip. One skyscraper even taller than the Banyan Tree zigzagged up toward the sky with uneven sides. It looked like a Lego structure missing some Legos. Another skyscraper had a swirling outer wall like giant snake.
But I don’t know if I was more blown away by the view or the prices. One of the cute, young cocktail waitresses with a blouse off one shoulder handed me a drink menu. The cheapest cocktail was 580 baht ($16). I turned to a young American blonde and said, “I don’t know if I’m secure enough in my manhood to order a Lychee Ginger Smack.”
“Sure you are,” she said. “I’ll order it and slide it over to you.”
I went with the Moon Bar Mojito, not only because it sounded a little more manly but also it was the cheapest drink on the menu. It was Absolut Mandarin, Pampero rum, vanilla, mango, mint and lime all of which cancelled each other out to where I was basically drinking slightly flavored crushed ice. It was a $16 Slurpee.
However, like Rome, when Bangkok gives you a headache and you’re exhausted and frustrated, there’s always dinner to look forward to. A guy on InterNations Bangkok told me to go to a restaurant called Uncle John. The name alone told me to stay away but locals know where to find two things: women and food. Uncle John is on a smaller street off the main drag of Rama IV and was the typical rudimentary Thai restaurant. Crude white plastic chairs were set up outside with a cheap, dirty yellow sign reading “UNCLE JOHN: Thai and French cuisine.” A tired middle-aged woman in an unfortunate short haircut stood behind a busy desk where she poured multi-hued syrup onto shaved ice for locals seeking dessert. The place wasn’t crowded.
I went with my usual habit for a first meal: the national dish. I ordered the pad thai which was better than anything I had in the States: long, flat noodles with big, fat chunks of chicken with bits of green onion and ringed ‘swith peanuts. That and an ice-cold Chang beer was all of $7.
Uncle John is a Michelin star restaurant compared to where I went the next night. Bangkok’s Chinatown may be the biggest in Asia outside China. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, not far from my hotel. The main drag of Chakrawat Road is lit up like the Las Vegas Strip with vertical neon signs flashing giant Chinese characters. The sidewalk was lined chock-a-block with cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The tables were covered with large iron-frying surfaces sizzling with crayfish, chicken and whole fresh fish, their eyes, still open, staring off at the diners packing the sidewalk. Bangkok’s air may be dirty but the air in Chinatown may be the most delicious in Asia. Fish sauce. Chilies. Grilled chicken. It all blended together to make me crave wherever my nose took me. I wasn’t hungry when I arrived. One block out of the taxi I was starving.
At one stall on the corner, a line snaked around the side of dozens of tables filled by sweating, devouring humans. Occasionally I’d see the white face of a bedraggled backpacker or some savvy old Asian hands who go where the locals go.
I skirted my way up a side street, each one I passed becoming a little less crowded. I asked a man selling fruit from darkened stands for a restaurant called Nai Mong Hoi Thod. Like many Thai place names, it sounds like a cat that gets its paw stuck in a lawnmower. But down three stores there it was, home to reputedly the best fried oysters and mussels in Bangkok. I took a plastic chair outside and a 30ish guy with bushy black hair handed me a grease-soaked, plastic covered menu. He said he’s out of mussels but nodded when I pointed to the fried oysters in oyster sauce. I thought, I’d better like oysters.
Just then an old Thai man at the table next to me saw me writing in my notebook.
“You a food critic?” he asked in remarkable English.
“I write about food,” I said. “Damn. You caught me. Usually I read a newspaper while I’m taking notes. I can’t really get away with that with a Thai newspaper. Good food here?”
He waved his hand back and forth.
“Overrated,” he said. “I know two places better …”
He then went on to give me directions that would confuse Indiana Jones.
He is no food critic, either. The fried oysters were great. They were little greasy, gray balls in a brownish-gray glue that looked absolutely disgusting, like polyps from a cancer dying cancer patient. But I’ve never had a more flavorful oyster. And the sauce gave it a thick gravy that exploded in my mouth.
You see, Bangkok has so much to offer than sex. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.) I’ve read that Patpong, the neighborhood of more flying testosterone and sperm than any in Asia, has devolved into somewhat of a sexual theme park. The girly bars are still there but it’s more of a place to view its seedy past.
I had no interest in returning to a scene that made me flaccid at 22. I took another local’s advice and took a taxi clear across town to Sukhumvit, a neighborhood of bigger, more modern apartments. This is definitely where the Thai white-collar class lives. Soi 17 was lined with upscale bars, all with modern signs and big glass windows and soft lighting. One was curiously named the German Beer Bar. Cute waitresses in Germany’s red, yellow and black colors skirted around with big pint mugs of beer. It was happy hour until 1:30 a.m. and I sat between a young couple from Hong Kong and two young Swedes.
I chatted with the couple about China’s views of Trump. A young Swede next to me said, “Only 2 percent of Sweden likes him.”
“Two percent?” I exclaimed. “WHAT 2 percent?”
They were 19 and on one of Sweden’s many government-sponsored holidays. They had traveled around Cambodia and the Thai islands, drinking a lot of beer and oggling at the flying flesh all over Thailand. I asked one of them, a skinny kid in a tanktop with hair the color of straw, about what he thinks of the supermarket displays of sex.
“I’m too inexperienced,” he said. He then went on to describe a lady boy show where a boy dressed like a woman gyrated on stage for customers obviously wondering about the vagueness of man.
The other Swede, a tall, handsome, rakish kid with two cheap island necklaces, said, “I’m all for expressing your sexuality. But when you become a tourist attraction …”
The novelty has long since worn off on me. I no longer see if Thai women make eye contact with me. Across the bar sat two women, one with dangling diamond earrings and gorgeous, thick, black hair and the eyes of a doe. She was also skinny as a rake. She was staring at me. Her friend had the high cheekbones that transvestites just cannot hide, no matter how much surgery they have. I asked the Swede to weigh in.
“Why don’t you go find out?” he asked.
“I don’t WANT to find out,” I said.
At the corner of the bar was a late middle-aged man, with graying hair and bulky stomach. Resting on his shoulder, maybe asleep, was a reasonably attractive Thai woman no more than 20. He tried to talk to her but her English was strictly rudimentary. He. Talked. Like. This. To her. She looked bored with him and only gave him the ubiquitous smile that basically said, “Hurry up and pay me.”
Starving as the bar closed at 1:30, I went across the street to an all-night diner. Over some fantastic chicken fried rice in chili paste, I saw four couples, all old Western men with young, lithe Thai women, each one more bored than the next. No affection. No connection. No communication. The women were eye candy and an orgasm at the end of the night. The men were a way to get them to the next day.
On the bright side, Thailand is the one place in the world where geeky, ugly Western guys can get a pretty girlfriend. It’s also where pretty women can get out of poverty real fast and easy. It’s a tradeoff that has less communication than animals in the Serengeti.
I took a long tuk-tuk ride back with a driver who had no clue where my hotel was. I was in no hurry. I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Neither is Bangkok.
John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel during his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country — with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport (www.johnhendersontravel.com) that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he had some of the best 10 years of his career. He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. He is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon, which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)