I have thought of many ways in which to start this post about my first excursion out from the adopted homeland. Do I discuss more of my feelings on Korea? The nature of my desire to travel, and indeed its roots in the insatiable wanderlust of humanity? My connections to my real home, and this one, and how it feels to be away from both? How quickly one connects to travel partners? How living in Asia is like consistently dropping through the looking-glass, again and again, without respite? In reality, though, I know what is on my mind. I know what I should say first, just to get it out of the way, as its cool, salving memory whisks through my mind once more. Friends, I finally tasted foreign beer on a regular basis, beer that was not Cass or Hite, and sweet Jesus did it make me happy.
Like many good vacations, large swaths of the experience feel as though they were a fever dream, odd illusions cooked up by an atrophied cortex frozen into catatonia by cold Korean classrooms. Our first night in Bangkok, we wandered the streets trying every drink we could find, encountering nearly half of the Incheon expat community (a veritable “And you were there!” series of exchanges with each person we met) and feeling the rush of a new land. Cats crawled about in the bars, and strange women sauntered by with snakes about their shoulders. One street meat stand sold deep-fried scorpions and tarantulas, and an enormous, horrific pool of sautéed maggots. We ended up in a bar after hearing the siren call of a cover band: wafting out the window of an upstairs Irish pub, we detected the sound of a Thai man singing an alt-rock cover of Lady Gaga. This was the music that spoke to our souls, and like most other impulses and sensory overloads, we followed, trusting instinct.
Indeed, I have difficulty extracting reality from the nights in Bangkok, as though my entire recollection has played with the filters, blasting out contrast and saturation, and drenching every scene in exotic, coloured gauziness. The second night, we attempted to go to catch some fireworks by the Golden Mount, but were impeded by a massive Thai dissidence protest, a flood of humanity donned each in red, impossible to navigate through and taking hold of a major artery of the city. Our plan B, seeing the Sleeping Buddha by nighttime, was deemed intractable because of traffic. A tuk-tuk operator eventually whisked us away to an… adult performance, the audience of which was entirely middle-aged men with dead, hungry eyes and wives sitting in the back row. At one point there were razor blades. Did I make this up? I feel as though I’m not creative enough to have imagined this.
When things did not seem deliriously Wonderlandish, we took to the streets for the major sights of Bangkok, seeing innumerable large Buddhas, the Grand Palace, and more markets than I can count. Shrines and temples where everywhere, and incense smoke billowed and drifted from their sharp, snake-topped walls. Even doing the things that every tourist does, taking the veritable Every Thailand Trip, became just for us. No one had done or seen these things before, and my brain chugged along with this presumption, even as others were simultaneously doing the exact same things. Unyielding colour and beauty allows me to subjugate all logic.
There were occasional things to pull me out of my dreamy stupor. Being a white tourist, particularly one in South Asia, marks me as a few things to most locals and business-owners. They assume that I’m a) American, b) moneyed, c) hopelessly gullible, and d) excessively, uncontrollably horny. Essentially, I am a walking, erect phallus with an open wallet and an unceasing desire to have others take my money away from me. Keeping money in my own possession is very nearly physically painful and it is the kindness, nay, the noble responsibility of fine hucksters to alleviate me of this grievous problem.
What does this mean? It means that in every given hour, I was approached regularly and consistently to buy watches, shirts, small carved wooden frogs (okay, I bought the last one, but partly because it reminded me of one of my professors). Sellers shuffled the streets, eyeing the crowds there for dull-looking white people, and approached us with their wares whenever we accidentally made eye contact.
When I passed by on the streets, I was consistently hollered at to come and purchase a suit, or a glowy thing, or to ride in a tuk-tuk. As soon as the sun went down (and, disturbingly, once or twice when it was still up, with less subtlety and greater reliance on hip pantomime), I was confronted with feverish frequency for prostitution. At first, we assumed the calls of “Boom boom?!” were for some sort of club, a dancehall where one could imbibe fruity cocktails and grind noxiously with other sweaty white tourists. After a while, our British companion asked Britishly, “What’s boom boom?” The particular man he questioned hemmed for a second, wondering how bluntly to put things. “Get message,” he began, quietly drifting off, before adding peremptorily, “…then fuck lady.”
“Then fuck lady.”
Being the imperious bargain shoppers we were, we did once or twice inquire the relative cost of boom boom (approximately 3100THB, or the equivalent of $100 Canadian dollars, though for contrast and your edification, man hookers and ladyboys seemed to be operating on a different pay scale). Given the frequency with which we were solicited, we became confident of two things. One, that we could probably barter. And two, that holy crap, the boom boom market is booming, and we became positive that at least half of the other foreigners we saw were greasy, thumping sex tourists. Hisses of “Boom boom?” seemed to issue out of every alley, from every stoop, from the very air itself whenever you walked alone at night. Everyone seemed to be a frontman or –woman for boom boom, an entire economy run from the shadows.
And despite my brain regularly interpreting “Crawling with prostitutes and pimps” to mean “probably a dangerous area,” I felt especially safe and comfortable. It was an Amsterdam sexuality, vaguely sleazy and depressing and maybe requiring the regular application of penicillin, but more bizarre and over-the-top than anything even vaguely erotic. The whole city seemed like a hazy brain watercolour, a wash of colour and sense that was at once intoxicating to process, and also bewildering. Korea, to a certain degree, lost the initial blushes of travel-love: I have moved onto to working to accept it as a resident for both its goods and bads, and its weirds are no longer really that weird anymore. Going back to travelling is seeking out a rabbit hole. And as far as rabbit holes to drop through, Bangkok is certainly one of the deepest and weirdest.
[An alternate title I had considered for this post was “Lord Fudd’s Matinee Pussy Show.” I want to tell you this without any context and allow it to settle inside of your brainpans. It’s great to be back.]