Bangkok 1987: SEX, SIN, STREETFOOD
Bidding adieu to our latest favourite paradise – the southern Thai island of Koh Samui – Elaine and I traveled by boat to the port of Surathani. There we caught a second-class sleeper on an overnight train to Bangkok. Chugging out of the station at around 6 p.m., we discovered this latest mode of travel to be surprisingly comfortable. Our two seats faced each other and we had half of the aisle to ourselves.
After a lovely dinner served at tables which pulled out from the side of our seats, we could have stuffed ourselves even more thanks to a never-ending parade of hawkers selling drinks and snacks. A porter materialized and dropped down the upper berth, then produced cushions, bedding and pillows to create a lower bed. Curtains were drawn and we settled in to our cozy nest for the night. But alas… the lights were left on to deter thieves whihc made it difficult to sleep. It would have been wise to purchase a pair of eyeshades to go along with the earplugs we bought in Singapore.
Around 4:30 a.m., we were rousted from our beds and asked what we would like for breakfast. The only thing I wanted was more sleep, but Elaine was hungry and ordered up what turned out to be rather bland victuals. As the soft light of dawn crept over the rice paddies and palm trees, we noted entire families crammed into tiny shacks abutting fetid ponds and streams. Crossing over the mighty Chao Phrya River we neared our destination and hordes of buses, automobiles and whining motorbikes stuck at the railway crossing as the train clanked by.
It was 6 a.m. – twelve hours since our departure but a world away from the tropical breezes of southern Thailand.
Pulling into the station we felt quite frazzled, as if part of our brain had been left behind somewhere near Koh Samui. We purchased a map to help us find the budget travellers’ ghetto known as Khao San Road. Somehow lost our yellow bible, “South-East Asia on the Cheap" crammed full of travel tips and notes, plus reviews of places we’d stayed at throughout our trip from Bali to Bangkok.
Somehow, we found our way to Khao San Road; the number of farangs hanging out everywhere was remarkable, despite the early hour. Saffron robed monks with alms bowls floated by, contrasting sharply with hippies, and euro gals and guys in cheap restaurant reading Bangkok Times while scarfing down scrambled eggs and gulping steaming cups of coffee. Despite the early hour, it was terribly hot and humid.
I left Elaine to revive herself with a cup of coffee as I scoured the street and laneways looking for a place to crash. Much to my dismay, every budget hotel was booked; we’d arrived during peak season and it was still too early for proprietors to determine who was departing.
Then, a bit of luck. Down a narrow alley I struck up a conversation with a cheerful Thai named SukSom who owned a hotel on the edge of the Khao Sahn district. He loaded our gear into his car and drove to his little hotel about ten blocks away, near the Chao Phrya River by the ferry dock. The basic room had a fan and screens, washroom down the hall, and was fairly quiet. Since we couldn’t be too fussy given the vacancy rate, we booked it.
After a refreshing nap and shower, it was time to meet up with Brad and Emily from California – who were staying at The Swan Hotel. The price of a ticket on a water taxi downriver to The Swan, next to the Oriental Hotel (at that time the number one hotel in the world), was about 20 cents.
Boarding the wooden ferryboat was an adventure. As it neared the dock, the engines were thrown into reverse, forcing it to an abrupt stop. A young crew member jumped off and held the boat fast against the pier with a heavy rope he looped over a metal piling. We had about 10 seconds to jump on board – no time for hesitation. At this particular pier mostly farangs boarded; some were inevitably left behind as they wavered for a couple of seconds.
As we quickly discovered, travelling by public along the Chao Phrya was the easiest way to get across town. Traffic was a nightmare in Bangkok, what with buses of every shape and size, trucks, motorcycles, taxis, and Tuk Tuks (aka golf carts gone berserk), most lacking mufflers, the noise level ear-splitting. Belching diesel smoke and the mad dash as the light finally turned green; for pedestrians, a nightmare. Whenever possible, we took the express water taxi.
The traffic on the river was sensational: water taxis of every description, rice barges lugging their cargo down river from the north, long-tailed boats draped in flowers, exposed diesel engines roaring along at ridiculous speeds, tourist boats gliding past golden temples and palaces.
The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keo were especially beautiful; unique spires and ornate buildings unlike anything we’d ever seen. Thai architecture is Buddhist influenced, and the gold and red roofs provided a uniquely exotic setting.
Further along the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, dominated the sky over Thornburi; our jaws nearly dropped as we gazed upon its mysterious spire, ornate carvings of this 270 foot edifice of Chinese porcelain, according to the tourist propaganda. People flocked to it like flies to honey and were clambering all over its tower.
We disembarked near The Oriental Hotel and were astonished by the number of wealthy tourists. The laneways were bestowed with hawkers selling brand-name knockoffs: watches, Polo shirts, Lacoste bags, etc.
Arriving at The Swan, certainly not first-class but much grander than our humble abode, we had to wait a little while for Brad and Emily to return from their business errand. Seeing them again after several weeks apart was like reuniting with family.
“We expected you to call us from the train station,” exclaimed Brad as he grabbed me in a bear hug.
“Well, we didn’t want to wake you up at 6 a.m.” I replied.
“Good thought,” he laughed.
“So where are you staying? Down at the tourist ghetto?” asked Emily.
“Yeah, and it’s completely sold out. It took us over two hours to book a room, and we're actually not even in the ghetto.”
“Too bad you got a place!” Brad responded much to our surprise. “We were planning to book a bigger room here, so we could all stay together. Well, no problem. We’ll worry about that later. What say we go down to the pool and lounge for a while?”
The pair had sold everything and dropped out of a high-rolling lifestyle in California, where they’d been making bucket loads of money. After realizing theri lifestyle had become a rat race three years ago, they had reinvented themselves and travelled all over SE Asia, China, India, and Nepal.
“We had one of the first passports to China, but it was very hard traveling in those days,” explained Brad over a beer one night in Bali. “At one point, we got so fed up with eating noodles and rice, we booked a flight to Italy, and spent a month there indulging in Italian food!”
“Bangkok has the best food of any city in the world, when it comes to price and quality,”said Brad with a grin. “I know places where we can get delicious bar-b-q’d honey duck on a bed of spinach for $2, including free Thai entertainment. There’s tremendous Indian, Japanese sushi, vegetarian, western – you name it, it’s here.”
“We’re gonna be fairly busy during the day, but if want to hang around the pool, you'll have no problem with hotel management. This place is like our second home and they don’t care who we bring in ‘cause we spend a lot of money here every year.”
While we wanted to take in the sights and sounds of Bangkok, we took their advice and lounged by the pool. We did manage a walk up Silom Road, then Bangkok's commercial strip, to the Canadian Embassy to retrieve a pile of mail. Silom Road was busy, crowded and noisy, but we encountered lots of food stalls and the "knockoff" hawkers everywhere, trying to entice us into buying fake goods. To our surprise the quality seemed to be quite high, so we thought at some point during our stay in town we might invest in some new duds.
That evening, we joined forces in B & E’s air-conditioned room. After cocktails, John from Wales and Colleen from British Columbia arrived. Brad informed us this was the couple who had shown them the inside on importing and exporting jewelry. John had been travelling around Asia since the late sixties – over 20 years! Their jewellery business was a means to support their lifestyle, as they stayed in Asia for six months of the year. The rest of the time, they travelled around the west coast of Canada and the US, selling their wares at fairs and boutiques.
We headed up Silom Road where nightlife was in full swing: countless stalls selling bootleg audiocassettes, speakers blasting as we strolled by. We noted there was plenty of food on offer down laneways off Silom Road but Brad steered us to Silom Village, which appeared rather inauspicious from the street. But once inside we discovered a modern interior with shops selling antiques, silk and traditional Thai items. We entered a restaurant lined with huge tanks, housing all manner of seafood and fish. Prices per kilo were posted; if you wanted a certain specimen, it was simply a matter of pointing, and it would be magically be served with a flourish as fresh as could be.
The restaurant opened into a lush garden, replete with bamboo trees and palms, designed to represent a Thai Village. At one end, a stage was set up; Thai dancers were performing to the rhythms of a big band, whose seated members were playing exotic reed and percussive instruments. Along one wall, chefs in traditional white hats prepared bar-b-q meats; in the centre court, beautiful Thai women sat at tiny stoves, rotating satay skewers and various exotic hors d’oeuvres. Several private rooms burst with tour groups. The centerpiece featured an authentic teak Bangkok house. It was a very impressive modern take on a Thai village, tourist style.
The joint was jumping, but Brad knew it was important to arrive early, so we easily found a table up front near the stage. The service was dazzling; we had four waiters taking care of our every whim. As labour was cheap and bountiful, it was fairly competitive to work in a place like Silom Village.
Based on the surroundings, we worried it was going to be very expensive to dine here even though Brad and Emily had assured us not to worry. The menu contained over twenty pages of items, but to our delight, almost everything was under 100 baht (less than $5). I decided to order Brad’s recommendation of b-b-q honey duck on a bed of spinach, while Elaine chose jumbo prawns. We also requested the hors d’oeuvres platter, a mix of Thai treats.
While waiting for our food, we were entertained by the dancers, dressed in beautiful silk outfits, topped by out-of-this-world peaked headdresses. Their complicated finger movements apparently took years to perfect. We noted the band's rhythms were reminiscent of sounds we’d heard in Bali, albeit a bit slower.
Two Thais dressed in traditional warrior outfits suddenly appeared on stage, hoisting intricately detailed swords. They began to swing them about, and soon they were a blur of movement; from our vantage point it looked very much like they were really trying to slice each other’s head off! Sparks flew and the sound was nearly deafening; we were almost breathless with relief when they ended their battle without having spilled a drop of blood.
Our food arrived and it was delicious, despite the cheap price. With drinks and other delicacies, the bill for the two of us came to less than 200 bt, ($10), which would’ve been the cost for the hors d’oeuvres alone back home. Brad’s star kept rising; he was definitely a man of his word.
His next suggestion was for us to jump into a Tuk Tuk for a tour of notorious Pat Pong Road, the world-famous sex and sin centre of Bangkok, begun as an R&R district for GI’s on furloughs during the Vietnam War. An industry based on serving the sexual needs of soldiers quickly developed here.
Our first glimpse of Pat Pong was a wide thoroughfare blazing neon signs, the likes of which we had never seen before. “Pussy Galore," “SuperStar," “Jugs," “The Pink Panther," “Pussy Galore II”… our heads were spinning! Like a mini Vegas focused on sex!
The street was humming with activity, mostly western men cruising up and down the street. We were immediately approached by a gang of Thai hustlers, one of whom handed us a card even as he yelled out a menu featuring exploits by the dancers' vaginas: shooting ping pong balls, swallowing bananas, picking food up off a plate with chopsticks, filling a goldfish bowl with goldfish, pulling out 20 razor blades with a string, on and on it went! We were definitely not in Kansas anymore!
Laughing at its absurdity, we managed to brush off the touts. As we walked down the street past darkened doorways, we were encouraged to enter by attractive scantily clad Thai girls. “Come inside, good looking girls, we show you good time,” they chanted. “No charge for lookee, cheap drinks, ladies welcome too.”
Elaine was rather taken aback, but Brad said he knew a bar down the street where things were pretty tame. “We can have cheap drinks, watch the go-go girls dance, no live sex shows, and just have a good time,” he said.
After deciding ‘what the heck?’ we walked down a narrow gang and entered a small bar. The place was full of scantily clad ladies, who we quickly ascertained were employees, but as there were very few westerners our appearance was quite conspicuous. Nevertheless, we piled into a booth and ordered drinks. The girls, who seemed very sweet and innocent, quickly surrounded us. It was difficult to imagine these bodies were for sale. Numbers were pinned to their outfits in case one couldn’t keep track of which one they desired to have a little hanky panky.
They were very interested in Elaine and Emily’s blonde hair, which they couldn’t resist touching as they believed blond hair brought good luck. As many couples come to Thailand to swing with Thai girls, they weren’t sure our status. Brad explained we’d come to listen to music and perhaps do some dancing. The girls thought this great and encouraged us to join them on the dance floor, which resembled a 1970s disco with its giant mirrored ball and strobe lights.
Two stages, one on each side of the room; the Thai entertainers took turns dancing, hanging onto the bar and swinging around. This wasn’t a strip club, so there wasn't any nude dancing; it was a pick up joint, where westerners meet Thai girls and take it from there.
On Koh Samui we’d seen and met many western guys who'd hooked up with Thai gorgeous and incredibly naive young village “girlfriends” they’d met in Bangkok. A Thai village street girl’s dream was to meet her western Romeo, who would bring her back to Europe or America, where she imaged they'd be married, send money home to her village and then live happily ever after.
It was great fun dancing and drinking with the girls even though they knew we weren’t going to be taking them back to Canada or the States with us. Brad and I enthralled them as we were so tall, but they respected the fact we were not interested in kinky threesomes. One of the girls slipped on Brad’s size 13 flip flops, her tiny frame hilarious as she tried to dance with them on her little feet.
Next stop for us was SuperStar Disco, an enormous dance club decked out in bright lights pulsating to a heavy beat, packed with westerners. We couldn’t believe the number of people frequenting this section of Bangkok; lots of bahts being spent on girls, drinks and food, as most establishments stayed open all night.
Stumbling out of the SuperStar around five am, a rush of TukTuk drivers converged. All four of us piled into one of these whacky souped up golf carts to head back down Surawonge Road toward The Swan. It was amazing how fast the driver was able to get his cart to scream down the now quiet street, given his payload of four big westerners. Riding in a TukTuk was like taking your life in your hands, but apparently they had a pretty good safety record, despite their habit of zipping between cars, trucks and buses.
Since our friends had to work all day, we decided to catch a boat back to Khao Sahn Road and the tourist ghetto at first light. The ride up the river was soothing but surreal given the hour. Back at our guesthouse, we spent most of the day sleeping, but managed to drop off some laundry at one of the cheap local services.
Returning to The Swan just before sunset, the four of us decided the best solution to our hangover was to start drinking heavily. I was very impressed with Brad’s stamina, as he’d managed only a small nap in the afternoon and been on the go since we had left him in the early morn.
Once the sun dipped into the river segueing into another Bangkok night we decided to head up to a district with a great night market, so we could dine on duck soup in anise for a mere 10 baht (50 cents).
John and Colleen joined us and the six of us piled into a pair of Tuk Tuks. The drivers began racing each other up Silom Road as ours decided to pop some “wheelies” – pulling the front wheel into the air while cruising at about 40 miles per hour. This really upset Emily, as she didn’t trust TukTuk drivers and she started yelling at him. I gave him a tap the top of the head for good measure.
Later, Emily said it was fortunate the guy wasn’t a total nutcase because touching a Thai on the head is taboo, as this is the sacred spot on the body.
“If he had had a gun in his glovebox, like a lot of them do, he might have blown you away for that,” she warned.
An important lesson learned but fortunately the duck soup was worth the trip, although I did notice a rat disappear down a hole in the restaurant floor right at our feet (I didn’t tell the ladies).
Afterwards we crossed the street to the night market, where we munched on many more wonderful delicacies. Brad’s word rang true – Bangkok did have the best street food on earth.
After we had eaten our fill, Brad wanted to show us another infamous travellers’ haunt, two notorious Vietnam era GI hotels: The Malaysian and Boston. This area wasn’t as budget-oriented as Khao San Road, as prices had risen in the past few years.
John reflected on the days he had stayed there in the ‘60s with a far away look in his eye. “I remember you could stay at The Malaysian dirt cheap. There were girls and US soldiers everywhere, and some pretty wild times, to be sure."
We hung out at a bar for drinks with some Americans on their first trip to Bangkok. They were astonished at the number of hookers in the district and appeared to be in hog heaven.
“These Thai girls are incredible,” drawled one. “They’ll do anything you ask, and have all kinds of suggestions too. They really want you to like them so you will finance their trip to the beach. I’m exhausted from screwing my brains out for the past few days!”
I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.
Was this was what “Bangkok” really meant?
For the remainder of our time in this fascinating city we continued to eat, drink and dance the night away at night while resting during the day. Consequently, we didn’t visit one single solitary temple or palace during our first weeklong visit, to the amazement of our friends.
Despite the heat, the noise and the pollution, Bangkok was our favourite destinations thus far during our year of backpacking round the world.
We vowed to some day return.
Which we have done some 16 more times since!