An American Abroad

Bangkok 5

Sukumvit Road is supposed to be one of the longest streets in the world. I doubt that, but it’s long enough to pass through many worlds. My hotel is at the nexus of several of these. It’s located at the edge of the Arab tourist quarter. There are Omani, Persian, Lebanese and Iraqi restaurants. There are hotels with names out of the 1001 Nights. There are many shops with Arabic signage. But most incongruously are the Arab women dressed in full black niqabs, through which only the eyes are visible. Watching one of them pass by a ladyboy prostitute, who is wearing a tight low-cut minidress and high-heeled boots, I wonder what is going through both of their minds. Do they disapprove of each other? Feel threatened by each other? Envy each other? Attempt to blot the other out of their memories?

Another direction out my hotel door leads quickly to an Indian district, where I indulge my major weakness for Indian food. Sikh tailors stand in the doorways to their shops, offering to cut the best suits for me at bargain prices.

The sidewalks are jammed with people and market stalls. T-shirts, beard trimmers, pirated DVDs, sex toys, placemats, realistic replicas of popular guns, jewelry, postcards, Viagra, baby clothes, phony high-end watches, electronic accessories, wooden elephants, cigarette lighters, martial arts paraphernalia, Buddhas, and hijabs are all on offer.
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At one corner by the golden arches, Ronald McDonald welcomes the hungry with his palms pressed together in a traditional wai.
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(Ahead to Bangkok 6)

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Bangkok 4

There are a lot of roundeyes here–farangs, in the local parlance. Many are tall and blond. It takes me a whole day to stop being astonished when I see them. I now understand the behavior of the Shenzhen group at the Kunming airport a little better. I hear Scandinavian tongues, German, and Aussie-accented English. And I soon conceive a distaste for my fellow travelers. They’re too tall, too hairy, too fat, too old, too numerous, too rich. Many of the guys have their arms draped over the shoulders of Thai women. I’m no prude; my resentment isn’t rooted in moral scruples. These temporary-girlfriend relationships are mutually exploitive, and so what? No, it’s the aesthetics I object to. Thai women are indeed beautiful, graceful, and sexy. The western men tend toward the lumpy. It’s like seeing a beautiful painting in a cheap and ugly frame.

(Ahead to Bangkok 5)

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Bangkok 3

First wakeful impression on hitting the streets: familiarity. It’s the opposite of what I expected.

There are the logos: Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin Donuts, Au Bon Pain, Shell, Subway. (I have a surprisingly sentimental reaction to the old Goodyear winged-boot trademark.)

Next comes ethos: comfortable coffee houses, well-stocked bookstores, and restaurants offering cuisine from four continents.

And finally, pathos: amputee beggars pleading for loose change or small bills.

Yeah, it’s almost like being back in the States. In another mindset, I might have been disappointed by that, but after six months in China, I am surprised by how good the familiar feels.

(Ahead to Bangkok 4)

(Back to Bangkok 2)

Bangkok 2

It’s 3:45 am in Bangkok on December 23. I step out of a taxi and onto the set of Blade Runner. Bar carts, food stands, folding chairs and tiny tables dot the sidewalk. The bars close at midnight or 1:00, but the alcoholic and entrepreneurial spirits remain strong. Neon light illuminates the after-hours couples. Overhead the Skytrain’s concrete hulk makes the street feel more like a cave; it’s almost cozy. “See, I’m making a film . . .” I hear a guy say in an American accent to a doe-eyed Thai girl half his age and size. She leans across the table, if not truly rapt, then doing a damn good job of pretending. I find the modest entrance to the Ever Rich Inn. The night clerk has been expecting me. Five minutes later I lie down on the first real mattress to be under my body in months. I was here:

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Bangkok 1

After playing Santa to the Shane English Yuxi Christmas party, I change into my civvies and take a hired car to the Kunming airport.
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In the departure lounge, I become an object of fascination to a group of Chinese tourists from Shenzhen. It starts when one of them asks if I’d pose for a picture with her. Then four or five more had to have the same: every laowai’s a rock star. They’re a fun bunch—nervous and excited. None of them have traveled outside China before, but now here they are about to board a flight to Thailand. And so am I.

(Ahead to Bangkok 2)