obelisk: a tall pillar, usually with four sides and a tapering top, set up as a monument or landmark.(Oxford dictionary, Paperback edition, 2000)
“The Obelisks” was the name of a men’s recreational complex located in the Thong Lor district of Sukhumvit Road, one of the longest thoroughfares in Bangkok. It didn’t have a tapering top, and it would be overstating things to call it a “landmark”. But it was definitely a “monument” for the men who went there before it was closed for good in August. “Obelisks” was a perfect name for this 11-storey complex, a clever marketing ploy. Thai culture, like our own, holds the phallus in high esteem. But unlike ours, it’s a lot more playful about it. Although “Obelisks” referred to a building it had nothing to do with the edifice complex, whose Freudian interpretations of size inadequacy and childhood trauma would go over most people’s heads, figuratively speaking, in Southeast Asia. Instead, the focus was all on fertility and strength. Outside the Hilton Hotel near the Chao Phraya river, a collection of bright painted sculptures of throbbing boners, in various shapes and sizes, sprouts from the lawn of a “penis park”. On the island resorts of Koh Samui and Koh Samet, there are similar penis statues situated near the beach. (The first time I saw one of these, I thought they’d make nice replacements for the rather artless, identically-shaped stanchions on the dock of Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver.) And so, for men who enjoyed going to saunas, the name “Obelisks” inspired images of towering stiff cocks-the unspoken implication being that yours must be a big one too. Or at least it would be, once you’d ventured beyond the front doors.
Several months ago, while planning to move from the suburbs in Samut Prakan into the heart of Bangkok, I decided on a Thong Lor address partly because of its proximity to The Obelisks. After eight months of hour-long taxi rides on weekends, I was comforted by the fact that my favourite Thai sauna would now be less than two minutes away by motorbike. But the joys I experienced there were shortlived. Less than three months after I’d moved to the neighborhood The Obelisks was shut down for good after a police raid, the casualty of a draconian morality campaign waged by Thailand’s federal government. The fact I was there when it happened put me in an odd position. As a Westerner in Bangkok, I had begun the evening by enjoying all the pleasures that Thai hospitality usually extends to foreigners, but in a context officially frowned upon by traditional cultural mores. Once the cops barged in, the young Thai men on whose presence my enjoyment depended were much more vulnerable to the whims of the state than I was. The fact they cooperated with the police officers, rather than resisting them, said a lot about Thai culture while destroying the already tenuous myth of “gay paradise” promoted in the tourist brochures. But I’ll get to that eventually.
City of Angels, Jardin de L’Amour
Thong Lor Tower, my apartment, is on soi 18 of Thong Lor Avenue, otherwise known as Sukhumvit soi 55. At the intersection of Thong Lor and Sukhumvit Road is the fourth skytrain station from the southeast end of the Sukhumvit Line, one of two routes in the city’s rapid transit system. Thong Lor is about a half-hour taxi ride southeast of the Patpong and Silom/Surawong commercial sex districts. But it’s only two skytrain stops away from Nana Plaza, another red light playground. And just beside it is Clinton Plaza, a fantasy theme park named in honour of…you guessed it. One night before I moved to Thong Lor, I took a stroll through Clinton Plaza with two other homo farang (foreign) friends. Having grown tired of the Silom 4 scene, we were interested in the possibility of finding go-go boys on the much less touristy Sukhumvit Road. We were following up on a rumour, which turned out to be false, that there were gay bars somewhere in Nana. After being dropped off by a cab driver who kept making cunnilingus noises with his tongue and rude gestures with his hands when he should have been steering, we were instantly set upon by a troupe of screaming young Thai women who recognised us as newcomers. They were quite taken by Robin, the youngest of us at 30: a blond-haired, blue-eyed Brit who could almost be mistaken for soccer star David Beckham if you’d had five or six drinks too many. These women mistook Robin’s big toothy grin for interest, when really his Inner Drag Queen was just admiring their plastic hot pants and stiletto heels. We escaped, continuing our search for a boy bar, but all we could find were places with names like “Monica’s” and “The White House”, which looked pretty much like its namesake if you subtracted the Thai girls wrapped around the pillars.
Unlike Vancouver and Burnaby, where property values plummet close to rapid transit, the exact opposite occurs in Bangkok. The sidewalks that border the ten or twelve blocks between Thong Lor station and my building are lined with cheap noodle stalls and look as though they’ve been through a few earthquakes, but the apartment blocks are mostly high end. There’s also an abundance of expensive Japanese and Singaporean restaurants, traditional teahouses and trendy pubs, a Starbucks outlet, a Mercedes Benz dealership, and lots and lots of wedding boutiques. I’ve counted enough of these places on soi Thong Lor to marry off most of the city’s youth before they’re old enough to drive. A few of them are quaint little Mom & Pop storefronts with modest window displays of bride and groom drag. But many more are garish Greco-Roman “love shops” festooned with plaster garden gnomes of Cupid playing the harp and other kitsch Valentinia. Two or three of the latter variety, which have names like “Viva Forever” and “Jardin de l’Amour”, are housed in large, cream-coloured buildings that take up half blocks and are advertised at night by giant floodlights. In my first two months at Thong Lor I frequently passed by camera crews on the sidewalk, waiting to capture some happy Thai couple strolling out of their fitting session, perhaps on their way to a temple. I was usually on my way to The Obelisks, another kind of “Jardin de l’Amour” altogether.
The arrival of the Bangkok Transit System in December 1999 was a boon for bathhouse owners, who printed new route maps for their businesses using the skytrain’s proximity to lure more customers. Among the five or six gay saunas that dotted the skytrain route along Sukhumvit, The Obelisks stood out for its ostentatious air. The Men of Thailand, a gay listings guide, referred to it as “an elegant (almost piss-elegant) facility”, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Most bathhouses in the West are utilitarian flophouses that don’t waste a lot of time or money on presentation. They tend to have cold, industrial interiors-lots of cement and gray carpeting-designed for the quick and dirty visit. But The Obelisks gave new meaning to the concept of Fuck Palace. The décor seemed more appropriate to a luxury hotel, or an upscale art gallery, than a place where men gathered for sex. Its “piss elegance” lay in its attention to detail, which implied a touch of class and exquisite good taste that flattered its clientele (who displayed little of the sort while on the premises).
On August 19, I arrived at the small courtyard that led to the sauna and made my way toward the garden entrance. Passing through the front gates I crossed a small wooden bridge over a babbling brook that led to a water fountain and tropical fish pond. Wooden park benches dotted the terrace-a patchwork of fine masonry-and the garden was lush with coconut trees, mangroves, tiger lilies, orchids and bougainvillea. The whole place was dimly lit by vertical beams emitting from black designer floodlights. Through the large, oak wooden front doors that led to the foyer and its smooth black marble floors, my attention was drawn to the second floor restaurant exposed by the lobby’s 20-foot ceiling. Assorted couples sat at dining tables wearing only towels, checking me out while continuing to munch on that evening’s entrée of spicy chicken basil leaf with rice. After paying the 200 baht entry fee (not quite $8 Canadian), I passed through a turnstile and took an elevator to the fourth floor locker rooms. There I was greeted by the conflicting aromas of soap, shampoo and cologne, and the sight of six or seven Thai men competing for space in front of a row of mirrors and sinks. Then I found my locker, undressed, wrapped myself in one of the clean cotton towels provided by the staff, and began making the rounds.
One of the reasons I enjoyed The Obelisks-as opposed to the more touristy Babylon-was that there weren’t many foreigners there. The Obelisks was known as a “sticky rice” sauna, a place for Thais who prefer other Thais. This meant that the few foreigners who did show up were enough of a curiosity to attract attention-thus rendering the “sticky rice” factor a myth. I was glad to be an exception to the rule, and I usually left The Obelisks wearing a smile. One of my favorite lovers in Bangkok made eye contact as I was leaving the building with a Canadian friend one night. When I realised he had followed us onto the skytrain, I quickly scribbled my phone number and handed it to him before getting off at my stop. The next day we were on the phone, arranging to meet back at the sauna once it was clear that we lived at opposite ends of the city. When we finally connected a few days later, we headed straight for the rooftop steam room, one of two glassed-in hot boxes that offered panoramic views of the city. Tong gave me a deep soothing back rub as the last light of day shone through the windows, casting a golden glow on his muscular arms through the steam. We watched the Ekkamai skyline fade into dusk, then left the steam room for a private cabin downstairs, where we took turns fucking each other. Over the year or so that I visited The Obelisks, I enjoyed the company of an endless assortment of young Asian men like Tong-men in their early to mid 20s with smooth lean bodies, mischievous eyes and a limitless reserve of stamina. A dance instructor from the Silom, a beach boy hustler from Hua Hin, a lanky and well-hung waiter from across the river and a sex tourist from Hong Kong who brought me back to his five-star hotel to spend the night, were a few of the standouts. The fact our sex occurred in a sauna meant that no money ever exchanged hands. We were all there for the same reasons; the sauna was an equal opportunist playpen.
But the reasons didn’t completely revolve around sex. Even when there wasn’t a lot of action, a night at The Obelisks was worth the admission fee for all the other entertainment-intended or otherwise-that took place. In some ways it was the Club Med of gay saunas, a recreational theme park where every floor expressed another aspect of constructed gay identity. Above the restaurant and bar, which served half-decent Thai food from display dishes in the foyer, there was a fully equipped weight room and gym. And above that was a karaoke lounge. Now as synonymous with Asian culture as spring rolls, it was only a matter of time before the karaoke lounge became a regular sauna staple. At The Obelisks, karaoke made perfect sense: picture two Thai men in their towels who’ve just finished sucking each other off upstairs, now gazing into each other’s eyes as they warble out-of-tune, heavily accented renditions of Celine Dion’s dreadful ‘My Heart Will Go On’ theme from the movie “The Titanic”, and you’ve got the idea.
The sixth floor, the most popular gathering area, had a dry sauna, a steam room, a cold water Jacuzzi, three shower rooms, and two seating areas from which to view the passing traffic. One was near a large window that took up most of the side wall, offering an expansive view of the city and allowing the occasional breeze. On either side of the window solitary men would sit down to light cigarettes, gazing out at the night sky or waiting to see who would take the other bench. The steam room and shower rooms had no lights, which was a deliberate incitement to foreplay. Many times on this floor, I never knew who it was who was grabbing my ass or my cock in the steam room (or, conversely, whose ass or cock I was grabbing in the shower room). But then, not everything happened in the dark: sometimes in the full light of the dry sauna, the smile of a young Thai athlete sitting beside me-whose velvety, muscular thigh had just rubbed against my hairy leg-would be enough of a signal for us to leave the sauna together and head upstairs to a private room.
On the seventh floor was a massage room, where for an extra fee you could make an appointment to have your muscles loosened up by one of the hunky staff members. (I never used the service, having learned that such fees tend to go up when the masseur “convinces” you-in that charming Thai way that almost always succeeds-that you really want a handjob, or more, to go with that massage.) On the eleventh and top floor, you could drink in the open-air rooftop bar, enjoy a dip in the Jacuzzi, or have a steam in either one of the glassed-in rooms where I went with Tong. Not much in the way of sex ever happened in these rooms, which allowed more light than those on the sixth floor. But on busy nights, when both were full of semi-naked men with slippery wet bodies, it was never long before two men-and sometimes three-would look at each other, exchange a word or two, and make a rendezvous for a room downstairs.
The eighth to tenth floors were reserved for the sole purpose of sex. Each floor had two rows of private cabins containing a single sized bed with a thin vinyl mattress, a side table with tissue paper and a container of lubricant, and a dimmer switch for the light. At the end of the hallway on one of these floors was a video hall for porn viewing. Set up like a cinema with eight or ten rows of seats, it offered voyeurs and gropers a safe alternative to the seedier urban porn cinemas where sexual orientation is more ambiguous, the floors are strewn with dirty needles and the threat of violence is ever present. At least here they knew that if they tried to go down on the guy sitting next to them, the worst that would happen is the guy would move to the next seat or, bored, get up and leave.
On another floor, the hallway of private cabins led to a maze-literally a human version of the mouse puzzle, the rabbit warren. The appeal of this complicated, dimly lit network of narrow paths was the built-in thrill of disorientation: within seconds of entering this labyrinth of identical panels and passages, I felt swallowed up by it. It was easy to get lost and forget which way was out, and that was usually when I ran into someone else. Unlike everywhere else in the building, where you could easily avoid eye contact with someone who didn’t interest you, in the maze there was no escaping it. Now and then, if I’d see someone hot who thought I was too, we’d find the darkest corner possible and ravage each other until the floor was sticky with cum. But such animal lust of the mutual kind rarely occurred in the maze. All too often I was left heartbroken by a gorgeous hunk who I’d notice deep-throating another Thai guy only minutes after he’d brushed me off. Or worse, I’d be stalked by Yoda as I made a mad dash for the exit. If you were claustrophobic or paranoid, the maze was either your worst nightmare or the means by which, through sheer force of will, you triumphed over your neurosis. I belonged to the latter camp. On August 19, I was about to walk into the maze and test my coping skills when a sudden hush in the main hallway-followed by the beam of two flashlights and the clicking of boot heels on cement-signaled that a police raid was in progress. Finally, a citywide clampdown on nightclubs and sex clubs had arrived in my neighborhood. The raid, which I’ll get back to in a minute, was part of an anti-vice campaign launched by the federal government.
A new regime: “Thais love Thailand”
During the month of August, Bangkok was in the early throes of a “new social order” initiated by the country’s new interior minister, a humourless and poker-faced authoritarian named Purachai Piumsombun. Purachai, a former head of security at the Police Academy, got a PhD in criminology from Florida State University and spent 14 years at the National Institute of Development Administration, where he was dean of Political Science and twice Rector. During his days at the Police Academy, Purachai met and became a close friend of Thaksin Shinawatra, a political animal with an interest in the booming new sector of telecommunications. A couple of decades later in 1996, Purachai decided to contest the election for Bangkok mayor as the running mate of Major General Chamlong Srimuang, a former mayor and unorthodox Buddhist who spoke publicly about renouncing sex with his wife. When neither man was elected, Purachai decided to go to work for his old friend from the Police Academy, Thaksin, who was by now the enormously successful CEO of Shin Corporation, a telecom giant. Purachai spent two years as Shin’s research and development director. Then, in 1998, when Thaksin was forming a new political party, Thai Rak Thai (“Thais love Thailand”), he named Purachai secretary-general, a position he holds to this day. When Thai Rak Thai, led by Thaksin, won the general election last January, one or two of his long-time cronies begged the new prime minister for the much coveted Interior portfolio. But in Thaksin’s mind, there was never more than one serious candidate for the position. Today, Interior Minister Purachai Piumsombun is one of the government’s few members with a clean personal record.
Purachai has never made any secret of his resentment for what he sees as the corrupting presence of Western decadence in Thai society. He longs for simpler times, when Thai culture was impervious to foreign influence-a time before US marines on R&R during the Vietnam War began appearing in Thailand, turning Bangkok’s Patpong and the fishing village of Pattaya into the biggest whorehouses in Southeast Asia. But an all-out assault on the nightclub scene was not part of the campaign platform for the party that won last January’s federal election. In fact, Purachai’s unveiling of the “new social order” coincided almost to the day with the Constitution Court’s August 3 acquittal of Prime Minister Thaksin for deliberate concealment of assets. Thaksin, by now Thailand’s multi-billionaire, telecom tycoon equivalent of William Rogers or Izzy Asper, had been elected to office on January 5 in a landslide victory by Thai Rak Thai. In the leadup to the election the party had been whipped into shape as a grassroots populist, liberal free enterprise coalition of old-line party war horses and bright young technocrats with no prior affiliations. Thaksin, the party leader, was a small business booster who also believed in a strong interventionist approach to the economy. Policies such as the one million baht “village” fund for small-scale development, the 30-baht-per-hospital visit health scheme, and the establishment of a national asset management corporation to handle the big banks’ non-performing loans all proved popular on the campaign trail and were major factors in his massive win.
Thaksin’s triumph occurred despite his conviction by the National Counter Corruption Commission, in mid-campaign, on charges of deliberate concealment of assets. The case involved an asset declaration statement he had filed three years earlier while he was deputy prime minister under Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. After Thaksin’s conviction in December, the case was forwarded to the Constitution Court, where a guilty verdict would have banned him from politics for five years. In most Western democracies, the prospect of a frontrunning candidate suffering such a hit in the middle of a campaign would be just cause for instant withdrawal. But this is Thailand, and since the Constitution Court would not be able to issue a ruling for at least five months at the earliest, Thaksin, casting himself as a victim of a bureaucratic technicality by the country’s tough new anti-corruption laws, fought the election like the champion of the Little People his handlers made him out to be.
Shrewder analysts argued it was worth the gamble of being tossed out of office, since he was so far ahead in the polls anyway. Plus, as the founder and chief bankroller of the Thai Rak Thai party, he was too important to be sidelined unless he was forced to be: there was simply no other feasible candidate to replace him as leader. So he fought the election, won it, and then vowed to deliver as much of his platform as possible before the Constitution Court delivered its verdict. The schedule couldn’t have worked out better for the newly minted prime minister. While prosecutors took their time compiling the case against him, Thaksin had nearly six months to put his stamp on the government and begin delivering on some of the populist ideas he had promised.
It didn’t take long for the international investment community to sound the warning bells about Thaksin, and not just for the cloud that hung over him with the corruption indictment. Also of concern were his inward-looking, nationalist rhetoric-which placed a good deal of the blame for Thailand’s 1997 economic crisis on the baht speculation “triggered” by international financier George Soros-and his alleged muzzling of a TV station tied to his business interests. In these matters, Thaksin was compared to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with whom he shared a penchant for messianic paternalism, a fondness for executive, “CEO-style” one-man government, and a distaste for press freedom and dissent. Thaksin’s impatience with the media was especially intriguing, given that he was the founding owner of Shin Corporation, the country’s largest telecom firm with interests spread throughout the Kingdom.
Although he divested himself symbolically of Shin shares before the election-passing them on to his son-the Thai Rak Thai premier was quickly accused of interfering with the news reporting of channel iTV, a Shin subsidiary, and of extending favours to news outlets that focused only on positive government initiatives. All of which raised the usual stink over conflict of interest among the few political pundits who weren’t compromised by employment in a Shin-controlled company. Before the Constitution Court’s verdict on August 3, Thaksin deflected all the criticism of his media manipulation with a magnanimous air, implying that the complaints were all just the result of a misunderstanding. But on the day after he was acquitted in a verdict decided by a single vote-the majority judges ruled there was not enough evidence to prove intent in the asset concealment-he closed his office to the media and put the brakes on all individual press interviews. Within days there were increased reports of press freedom violations, and Purachai began his attack on the bars.
A New Social Order
In Bangkok, police crackdowns on bars are nothing new. “Don’t worry,” the people say, “it will all be over in a few weeks.” And it usually is. In many cases, enforcement is triggered by short-term political concerns. One incident last year was provoked by the national humiliation of a former high-ranking police official and now influential member of parliament, deputy New Aspiration Party leader Chalerm Yoobamrung. Late one night at the Thong Lor police station, an angry and visibly drunk Chalerm showed up to collect two of his sons who had been charged with assault after a bar brawl-the fourth or fifth such incident involving the politician’s three sons to hit the news. Captured by the nation’s TV cameras, the former cop defended his sons and accused the entire police force of being in cahoots with the bar owners. Then he dared them to prove otherwise by enforcing the 2am-closing rule. Embarrassed by this public “j’accuse” by an ex-cop, the police were everywhere in Bangkok the following night, closing the bars at the stroke of 2am, in accordance with the law. But the crackdown stopped once the headlines faded, and life went back to normal. (Although for the Yoobamrungs, life got much worse. A few months ago, two of the sons were back in the news for apparently forging documents to avoid military duty. Then in October, an international manhunt began-and is still on-for Chalerm’s youngest son Duangchalerm, who is accused of murder after shooting a police officer at point blank range during yet another bar dispute. While Chalerm has further eroded his credibility and political career by appearing to shield his son from justice, the case has led to much handwringing over the cloak of protection enjoyed by the privileged when accused of a crime.)
Within a few days of Thaksin’s acquittal on August 3, Purachai launched an all-out offensive on the vice industry. Saying that Thailand had wallowed long enough in the gutter of prostitution, drugs, and low-life tourists, and that it was time to “clean up” the country’s image and attract “better quality” visitors (by which he meant wealthy, church-going CEOs who wouldn’t lead Thailand’s daughters astray), the interior minister began a citywide crackdown on entertainment venues and restaurants that would eventually expand to include the whole country. His methods of attaining a “new social order” ran the gamut from cutting off liquor sales at midnight to on-the-spot urine tests of bar patrons to check for drugs. Police were authorized to check tourist ID cards, book teenagers for underage drinking, arrest sex trade workers and raid massage parlours. Clubs that stayed open after 2am had their licences revoked, and for several weeks at the Siam Hotel, between eight and 20 working girls a night were arrested and hauled away for “public” prostitution. In several cases, police officers and ministry officials were reassigned to inactive posts for failing to enforce the law.
Purachai himself played celebrity cop by showing up at many of the bar raids. “This is going to be a prolonged war, and whoever is more tenacious will win,” he told reporters early on. I was working on the news desk at The Nation the night after Purachai made this comment, and I happened to edit the story in which it was quoted. Since part of my job is to “clean up” awkwardly translated quotes, I gained much more insight into the Thai interior minister’s thinking as I crafted his words into readable English. The more I read, the more familiar his arrogant, gunslinger posturing became. Sure enough, our reporter actually asked him how far he was prepared to take his campaign, how far he was willing to clamp down on civil liberties. Once I was able to confirm that his response was identical in substance and tone to Pierre Trudeau’s 1970 response to a CBC reporter asking him about the War Measures Act in the middle of the October Crisis, I couldn’t resist attributing these English words to a Thai-speaking politician: “Just watch me.” In November, Purachai the Purifier proved he may have gone too far by trying to revive a 1972 curfew law used by the military junta of the day. The law, if applied now, would prevent anyone under the age of 18 from leaving their homes after 10pm and would punish the parents of any minor who broke the law. Enraged columnists reminded the minister that he, too, had once been a teenager. The proposal hasn’t gone anywhere.
Until Purachai came along, the notion of a complete overhaul of the country’s liquor laws would have been unthinkable. Thai people, for all their Buddhist piety, struggle with the conflicting motivations of nirvana and economic necessity. They are caught in a hypocritical double standard: while many people find foreign influence distasteful, they like foreign currency and are happy to welcome as much of it into the country as possible. It has been this way ever since King Rama V, the legendary Chulalongkorn, visited Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and came back telling his countrymen to start eating with forks and spoons-one of the many concessions to Western culture that signaled an opening up to foreign influence. Today, Thailand’s pride at being the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonised is a little misplaced. “Independence” is a relative term when one compares Thailand-with its over-abundance of American fast food chains, cinemas dominated by Hollywood drek, and beaches crowded with fat German sex tourists-to Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim former colony that’s done a much better job of maintaining its cultural autonomy by resisting foreign influence. So if Thai people truly want to return to a golden age of Siamese culture in which chastity is seen as the ultimate virtue and everyone gets home by midnight-and polls appear to indicate that they do, since Purachai has the highest approval rating in the government-then they’re going to suffer a lot of pain in the process.
Although it would be difficult at this point to directly attribute the declining tourist numbers of the past few months to the “new social order”, given the global slowdown after September 11, Purachai’s clampdown on bars and nightclubs might have been playing with fire. Bangkok’s thriving nighttime entertainment scene is the magnet that draws many tourists here, and cutting off liquor sales at midnight in restaurants and closing bars at 2am sends a very clear message that the party’s over. Purachai also appeared to be tone-deaf to some of the realities surrounding prostitution, the vice he is most eager to eradicate. Few would argue with his concern about child exploitation, as the problem of underage prostitutes is a serious one in Thailand. But his rhetoric about attracting “better quality foreigners” appears to be a smokescreen for weeding out sex tourists, as if they’re mostly to blame for the booming sex trade. But according to various sources, including Thailand’s Society for the Promotion of the Status of Women, 95 per cent of client-sex worker contact in the Kingdom is confined to Thai nationals. Says the Lonely Planet guide: “Thai men visit prostitutes an estimated aggregate of 18 million times each year-creating revenue that amounts to nearly double the annual governmental budget.” According to Chulalongkorn University’s Population Institute, there were at least 210,000 sex trade workers here before the economic crisis. A 1998 report of the International Labour Organisation said that up to 14 per cent of the gross national product is derived from the sex trade, and that Thai prostitutes contribute more to rural development than all government programmes combined. Those figures, if anything, were growing as the country began crawling back from the crisis last year. So while Purachai’s anti-prostitution agenda has done wonders for him in the polls, neither he nor any of his Cabinet colleagues appear to have any idea how to replace the revenue the sex trade provides, much less develop alternative employment programmes for sex trade workers.
And prostitutes are by no means the only Thai people who suffer under a “new social order”. The night time entertainment industry targeted by Purachai’s crackdown on the bars feeds everyone from fresh food market employees and icemakers who stay open late to taxi drivers and food cart vendors. Comedians, musicians, DJs, dancers and other performers also depend on a thriving entertainment scene. But Purachai’s amendment to the country’s 1966 Entertainment Places Act cuts the widest possible swath, citing all “eating and entertainment venues that serve alcoholic beverages and provide musical or stage performances.”
For foreign tourists and expats in Thailand, Purachai’s crusade was a rude awakening. Many who decided to live here were drawn by the Kingdom’s relaxed social mores and spirit of sanuk, or fun. “Amazing Thailand”, the country’s official tourism slogan, is supposed to conjure visions of breathtaking beauty and warm welcomes-not puritanical echoes of bygone dictatorships. Sure, there’s been no violence or brutality in the campaign. But the spectre of accelerated police harassment seems a bit creepy in a newly democratized country whose last military coup was only a decade ago. So when the men in the tight brown suits and jackboots show up, sphincters tend to constrict. As mine did, the night the police raided Obelisks.
The party’s over
Half an hour before the cops arrived, I was up in the rooftop garden bar with my Canadian pal Ray, lamenting the spread of Purachai’s campaign into gay venues. A few days earlier, I’d said, police had raided Chakran, another sauna popular with Thai gay men. “Oh really?” replied Ray, countering that he’d just heard about raids at Telephone and Balcony, the two most popular beer bars in the gay district at Silom soi 4, as well as Babylon, the city’s most popular gay sauna. (During a subsequent raid at Babylon, police turned on all the lights in the “dark rooms”, tore the doors off private rooms, ripped lubricant containers off the walls and posted signs that read “New Moral and Social Order”.) Ray and I finished our drinks and agreed to meet later after wandering the cruising halls on our own. It was only 8:45, and I was about to enter the maze a few floors down, when two police officers entered the main hallway with flashlights and ordered everyone out. It was more than two hours until closing time, and there was no specific reason the police should have evicted everyone, but it quickly became obvious that the party was over in more than the metaphorical sense.
When the police entered the hallway I was standing with my back to the second officer when I caught the beam of his flashlight. He walked past me as I turned around and stared at his polished, black leather boots with the metal-tipped heels that clicked with each step on the cement floor. I was suddenly aware of the chilling silence that had descended upon the hall. The cops seemed to strut as they wandered through our space, filling it with their authority-they in their uniforms, we naked but for our towels. I was glad they went about their business quickly, not stopping to interrogate anyone but using their body language to frighten everyone toward the two exits at either end of the hall. Still, it felt like a violation. What the fuck did they want from us? Thinking about this, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t inhaled in about 30 seconds-the sudden presence of state authorities in my favorite playpen literally taking my breath away. At that moment, I felt as though I was getting a glimpse of what homo life must have been like in 1950s North America.
In stunned silence, I watched as dozens of semi-naked Thai guys filed out of the cruising area without requiring so much as a barked order or even a push, a shove or a prod from one of those foot-long, phallic flashlights. Witnessing this scene I felt a brief, hot flash of homophobic self loathing. Stuck in a holding pattern between my Western sense of moral and political outrage-the ACT-UP part of me that wanted to say “Fuck the police-this is our space!”-and the part of me that recognised how things worked in Thailand (the part that knew why resistance or confrontation would be futile and only make things worse), I felt a deep sense of paralysis and inadequacy for being queer that I had not experienced since coming out of the closet more than a decade earlier. Saying nothing felt terrible; the cops were sneering at us, because they knew they wouldn’t have to lift a finger to clear out this place. The biggest leverage they had-apart from those imposing brown uniforms, black leather boots and gun holsters-was the knowledge that not one of the Thai guys in this building would want their presence at The Obelisks to reach the ears of their parents, their employer, their wife or their girlfriend (or, in some cases, their boyfriend). As for myself and the one or two other Westerners on the floor? The cops didn’t care too much about us. They didn’t want the hassle of an international incident by harassing “liberated” foreigners. But they were also confident that we wouldn’t intervene on behalf of any Thais arrested, because it was none of our business.
Thinking about all this, I felt diminished. It was as if my so-called “liberation” had just revealed itself as a pathetic illusion-a temporary state of existence that could be removed in an instant by a simple act of will by a normal authority. Yeah, we fags are all so witty and charming in our own company, aren’t we? But then reality intervenes, the forces of authority send us cowering into our little corners, and the opulence of our favorite sauna-with its faux crystal chandelier hanging over the lobby, its marble floors, its padded wooden chairs in the restaurant, and its lush greenery that surrounds the rooftop Jacuzzi like an oasis from the rest of Bangkok-is exposed as a mirage.
Luckily, I wasn’t able to stew about it. As I stood there in the hallway, wondering what to do next, I was interrupted by a strapping, barrel-chested young stud who stroked the palm of my hand as he walked past. He hovered in the exit doorway a while, waiting for me to return his gaze. And I did: he was husky and light skinned, with a farmboy look that excited me. I’d had a lot of feminine boys lately, but this one was all butch. For a brief moment I forgot about state oppression and turned my focus to how I would switch from being a “top” to a “bottom” for this boy. He must have known what I was thinking, for he came back into the hallway as other men were filtering out of it, took me by the hand and led me toward a private cubicle.
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I whispered in the dark, as the flashlight beams hit our faces from the opposite end of the hall.”Sssshhhh,” he replied, putting a finger to my lips. Then he led me into the room, closed the door, and dimmed the lights. Removing our towels, we stood for a while and embraced, exploring each other’s nakedness with our hands as we kissed. Then I felt his strength as he pulled me down on the bed. We lay there a few seconds, wrapping our legs around each other as we necked. Then he invited me to lick a trail down his smooth, muscular chest. By the time my tongue reached the wiry black bush of his pubic hair, the persistent door knocking of the two vice squad officers-which had grown louder as they progressed further down the hall in our direction-was now almost upon us. I began sucking him, but couldn’t get the image of a police officer walking in on us out of my mind. Neither could he, it appeared, for he sat up suddenly and threw his towel back on. The cops were about two doors away when we slipped out of the room and headed for the stairs, not stopping until we’d reached the locker room three floors down.
The place was crowded with men-about 40 or 50, as I recall-and the frantic process of enforced evacuation was well under way. Some of the younger boys, the 18- or 19-year-olds, were being checked for ID. A few of them were taken downstairs and outside into a waiting paddy wagon. Other patrons were detained at their lockers, where police officers inspected the contents of their gym bags. The customers who gave no reason to attract attention quickly showered, dressed and got the hell out of there. My friend Ray, who had just emerged from his first trip to the steam room when the cops arrived, was asked for his passport-as if he carried it with him as a rule when visiting a bathhouse. Instead, he showed the officer his teacher’s card from a leading local university. This sufficiently stunned the policeman into giving Ray a “wai”, the folded hand greeting that Thais traditionally extend to status superiors. Once we were outside the building, Ray told me how stunned HE was by the officer’s sudden display of class respect in the context of law enforcement. Like me, he was troubled by the sight of young men being thrown into a paddy wagon for not having ID.
Ray and I, along with my new Thai acquaintance Wan, who quickly joined us outside, were relieved to get away from The Obelisks without being busted for “indecent” acts. The raid had been stressful, obviously. And as we left the courtyard and the tension subsided, the three of us all had the same physical response: ravishing hunger. We were starved for a good meal, and sitting down to eat seemed a good way to digest what had just happened. So we stopped at “Thon Krueng” (“Main Ingredient”), a Thai restaurant on Thong Lor not far from my apartment. As Thon Krueng’s attentive staff hovered about our table, laying out a spread of Thai spring rolls, spicy papaya salad, shrimp curry, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and chilli, and Tom Yam Goong soup served in a large, earthenware pot, Ray asked Wan how he felt about the police “invasion” of our favourite sauna. (We were all speaking English, as my Thai skills were limited and Ray spoke almost no Thai whatsoever, despite being a language instructor.)
“I think it very good,” said Wan, munching on a spring roll.
Huh? Ray and I looked at each other, wondering for a moment whether our Thai friend had misunderstood and thought we were asking him about the spring rolls. He hadn’t.
“They try to make things better. They take away drug.”
“Oh,” I cottoned on. “Do you mean to say that the police came to Obelisks because of yaa-baa? (Yaa-baa, or “crazy drug”, is Thai slang for methamphetamines, a popular recreational drug manufactured across the border in Burma. In Thailand, yaa-baa dealers who get caught are tried, found guilty, then executed by firing squad.)
“Yes,” he said, as I poured him a bowlful of steaming Tom Yam Goong, its sweet scent of lime leaves and lemongrass filling the air.
“But wait a minute,” Ray said. “What about those boys who got busted for not having ID? Do you think they deserved to be arrested?”
Wan lowered his head and turned his eyes away from us. We were inviting an argument about politics and the state, which is almost always a mistake with a new Thai acquaintance.
“No,” he said. “That not good.”
Eventually we moved on to other topics. Apart from avoiding arrest, we were all happy that the raid had not been filmed by television news cameras-unlike that of another sauna led by another crusading politician and “child welfare advocate” said to have business connections to the sauna’s competitor, who had allegedly tipped off the politician that there were “children” being exploited at the other place. (The raid turned out to be an embarrassment for the politician, as there were no such “children” to be found.) Ray and I, asking Wan about his life, learned that this 25-year-old man-whose hands and tongue had explored my body at The Obelisks and who, back at my apartment within half an hour of our dinner, would be kissing me passionately before slamming his cock into my ass-had a girlfriend back home in Lat Phrao he had every intention of marrying. Meanwhile, he was making ends meet by helping out at his mother’s noodle shop.
Recalling the police raid of The Obelisks a few days later on the phone, what struck Ray and I about Wan was not his bisexuality or uninhibited behaviour in bed. It was his seeming indifference toward the invasion of the state in private activities in a setting that complied with state regulations. It was his apparent lack of outrage, indignation or any sense that an injustice had occurred. Wan had simply shrugged it off, as if the sudden imposition of a morality campaign targeting gay men was business as usual-which, according to every other Thai person I’d spoken to, it quite clearly was not. Despite our adventurous little moment of defiance as the police were clearing out the hall, Wan’s outlook in relation to authority appeared to be no different from that of his fellow Thais who quietly filed out of the maze the moment the cops showed up. His sense of resignation about the raid typified the deference to authority one encounters each day in Thai society. You can see it everywhere: from the unquestioning respect for the King drummed into everyone who attends a movie screening (even Hollywood fare such as “American Pie II” is preceded by a patriotic musical tribute to His Majesty, for which everyone in the theatre must stand) to the military earnestness that accompanies the changing of the guard at even the smallest apartment complex.
Within a few months, the most dramatic effects of the “new social order” appeared to be on the wane. Thai people-good Buddhists, for the most part-understand the temporary nature of all things in life. Nothing lasts forever, overzealous politicians no more than “piss elegant” gay sex palaces. So when The Obelisks closed down after losing its licence, its clientele simply flocked to other saunas. At my own favourite, The Beach-a more “low-end” establishment for university students that charges only 99 baht for the entry fee-I learned in November that bar owners and other nightclub establishments were preparing to break the law en masse as the peak tourist season approached.
Not long ago, my English pal Robin, who runs an entertainment website, sent me a press release he’d received from one such establishment. In a media bulletin headlined “Bangkok’s Best Boys Back to Normal”, the details went on to reveal that three “leading” go-go bars-Blue Star Sexy Circus, The Boys Bangkok and Dream Boy-would once again be putting on their “normal colourful shows” every day from 8 pm until “2 am or later”.
December 12, 7864 w.)