At about 8 o’clock in the evening in Twilight Alley, there’s a suspended moment of languid nothingness mixed with tremulous expectation–and that moment is at the centre of my idea of Bangkok. Twilight Alley, named after the Twilight nightclub at its mouth, is a short, mostly pedestrian lane off Surawong Road, which is one of the two main thoroughfares of the Patpong tourist and sex district (the other one is Silom Avenue). At night both of these streets are filled with continuously moving bumper-to-bumper traffic through which one precariously dashes to get to the other side. To make matters worse, the sidewalks are narrowed to nearly single-file width by canvas-covered stalls selling every kind of object imaginable, from ordinary tourist-item T-shirts to honey-coated fried insects, and are packed with meandering hordes of evening visitors.
At 8 o’clock in the evening, Twilight Alley is an oasis of temporary calm compared to the busy main streets. The mostly “go-go-boy” bars along Twilight Alley are just opening. The doors are ajar, the bartenders are setting up, the various bar-captains and their lieutenants, in dark, loose, silky suits, are performing the last of their preparatory chores before the evening begins, and the young men from the bar are often sitting out front, enjoying a final moment of leisure before a night of work. Since the bars advertise the young men with the English word “boy,” I should immediately make clear that the young men are all 20 or older (there’s a word in Thai, noom, for the category 20-29 years old, and it is variants of that word that are used for both younger and older males).
In addition to the dozen or so bars in Twilight Alley, there are also a couple of restaurants, one of which is called Dick’s Cafe, whose waiters, rather indistinguishable from the guys in the bars, are standing in front of their workplace. As well, there are two or three seedy hotels and several beauty salons filled with both male and female customers and hairdressers. A few vendors are pushing carts with fruits and other foods, or selling watches, cigarette lighters, and other geegaws. It’s December, and there’s even one kid trying to peddle Santa Claus hats with battery-powered blinking lights, though it’s far too early in the evening for anyone to be drunk enough to think that buying one might be a good idea. The occasional puttering motorbike or rare delivery truck wends through a thin trickle of early evening tourists. You can sit in a rattan chair on the patio of Dick’s Cafe, about halfway up the lane, have a cold Singha beer or a glass of fizzy mineral water–always welcome in the constant plus-30 degree sweltering air–and maybe strike up a conversation with another foreigner at the next table, or flirt with one of the waiters, all of whom have time on their hands at this hour.
Then at some imperceptible instant during the next hour, Twilight Alley transforms itself into a spectacle of desire, one of the dialectical poles at whose distant other end is the notion of the cessation of suffering that pervades the Buddhist philosophy of Thailand. Parties of diners replace the solitary drinkers of apertifs in the restaurants, the coiffeured customers leave the hairdressers’ salons, hosts in front of the bars now urgently tout the pleasures of their particular club, the music is turned up, spilling out into the lane, and the trickle of sex tourists thickens into a steady stream. Because the change is gradual, when what begins as a sleepy scene blossoms into a full-blown spectacle, the effect seems sudden and surprising. Inside the Classic Club, some way up Twilight Alley, just where it makes a little dogleg and soon gives out onto a dark boulevard behind it, the place begins to fill and young men in body-hugging white wrestling singlets take their place on stage.
The Patpong district, with its honeycomb of narrow lanes and dozens of bars (mostly heterosexual of course, though I’ve little knowledge of that side of things), occupies only a tiny patch of the vast sprawl of Bangkok, with its ten million inhabitants. When I arrived at the airport one midnight in early December 2000, and was rescued by my journalist pal Dan Gawthrop and his friend, Daeng, the first impression, even in my dazed traveller’s condition, was of being in a place that, for all its hyper-modernity, was rapidly regressing into ruins.
As the taxi took us into the city, Dan pointed out a several-kilometre-long set of cement stanchions along the dark freeway, meant to support an additional raised highway, but the project had been precipitously abandoned in the fiscal collapse of 1997, three years before. Only Y-shaped blocks of concrete were left standing, like mysterious Stonehenge plinths.
The intimation of decline was confirmed in subsequent days. In the neighbourhood of the Malaysia Hotel, where I was staying, there were numerous contemporary ruins–an abandoned, now overgrown villa, a modernist art gallery that had failed, and a three-storey gay bathhouse, the Babylon, which had moved to a nearby new location, leaving behind an empty building full of sexual ghosts remembered only by its former patrons. Even the occasional bits of infrastructural repair work I saw barely appeared to keep pace with the rate of deterioration. Though the shiny towers of luxury hotels, corporations, and shopping centres, some of them done in a fanciful pastiche of classical Thai architecture, were manifestly functioning, I could easily picture them slowly rotting in the equatorial heat, thickly-polluted atmosphere, and periodic meltdowns of globalisation. In time these future ruins would come to resemble the ancient remains of temples that I’d looked at in guidebooks and that I’d eventually see in the old capital of Ayutthaya.
The original Bangkok or Krung Thep (as it’s known in Thai), founded in the late-eighteenth century, was built on both sides of the Chao Phraya River, now displaced to the city’s eastern edge, as burgeoning Bangkok advanced westward over the decades. Though it was no longer central to Bangkok, I was repeatedly drawn to the river’s choppy mass of muddy brown water. Whenever I was there, aboard one of the dozens of pitching, flat-bottomed ferries that churned up the Chao Phraya’s surface, I could feel the energy of the river, its cool relief, the life carried by its currents, as a sort of natural antidote to the inevitable decay of human things.
Though I paid minimal attention to the politics of the capital, Dan’s work at an English-language newspaper made him an avid observer of the tides of power, and I absorbed a certain amount of political information through conversations with him. Everywhere you went–in places dotting the riverbank, at the corner 7-11 convenience store, along wealthy Sathorn Boulevard (halfway between my hotel and the Patpong district)–there were various-sized photographs of Thailand’s 75-year-old king, on display in shrine-like settings. The kingdom had been a constitutional monarchy since the 1930s, but although Thailand was a nominal democracy, its actual recent history was one of rule by political bosses and ex-army generals, interspersed with periodic military coups. Even now, in the midst of a general election that saw every tree and lamppost along the main streets festooned with the posters of various candidates, newspapers could blandly and credibly run headlines proclaiming, “Threat of coup lurking in the wings.”
Perhaps it was more accurate to say that Thailand’s nascent democracy had come under the control, not only of corrupt local politicians and warlords, but of international capital. Although Thailand was distinguished from many of its neighbours in never having been subjected to direct colonial rule, it had lately been colonised by consumerism. The results were uneven. If the first wave of globalisation in the 1980s and early 1990s had produced a conspicuous middle class, the subsequent fiscal crash had once more revealed the bare-bones structure of poverty underlying everything. Now, in the wake of the crash, the local business elites again mimicked the latest global dictates on prosperity, dutifully prattling on in the financial pages about “computerisation,” “venture capital,” and the other money-see-money-do catchphrases of the day.
Given my situation–a general ignorance of the culture and the limited time available in what I thought of as a first foray–I kept base and field narrowly circumscribed. “Base” was the Malaysia Hotel and the immediate neighbourhood; “field” was the twilight zone of the Patpong district. My routine was organized within this restricted space, except for periodic ventures out–to temples, museums, bookstores, the suburban newspaper where Dan worked and the nearby gated housing estate where he lived with Daeng.
What most intrigued me were the doings of my fellow sex tourists at the Malaysia and in Twilight Alley. At the hotel, I saw them in the restaurant, around the swimming pool, or sitting in the lobby, reading newspapers or occasionally dropping off for a little snooze, unperturbed by the bustle of the reception desk where people were arriving and departing. They were often in groups of three and four at a table in the restaurant, men in their fifties, sixties, even seventies, dressed in child-like shorts and T-shirts, having breakfast and planning their day. Or sometimes, one of them was sharing a morning table with one of the several young men who frequented the hotel, presumably after the two of them had spent the night together.
The sex tourists were the objects of my anthropological “research.” Though I’d briefly taught anthropology and conducted some actual urban field work while I was a grad student, I wasn’t a professional anthropologist nor was I doing official research. But as a philosophy instructor and a working writer, I was influenced by anthropology’s perspective on the world. I’d initially learned anthropology from a great teacher named Michael Kew at the University of British Columbia, where I’d taken a degree in the subject in the late 1960s, but my main influence came from the writings of the anthropologist Hugh Brody, who worked in British Columbia in the 1970s and 80s, and with whom I’d had a couple of friendly meetings. The book of his I particularly learned from was The People’s Land, a study he had made of Canada’s eastern Arctic. Unlike anthropologists who solely studied the native people of a place, Brody gave equal attention to the inevitable community of white administrators, teachers and businessmen who now colonized every indigenous culture on the planet. So, for example, although much is made in the popular press about drinking problems among native people, Brody shrewdly turned his attention to the drinking problems of the whites, describing them with the same sense of the exotic that conventional anthropology normally accords only to indigenous hunters and gatherers. His point, which I quickly adopted for my informal Bangkok “research” about sex tourists, is that there is no possible description of natives that doesn’t include a description of the non-natives who so often dominate and alter local life now.
I should make it clear that, even as a metaphoric “anthropologist,” I’m not at all a detached, “objective” witness of these scenes but, as the social science phrase has it, a full-fledged “participant-observer,” with equal emphasis on the participant half of the equation. If there were a group photo of all of us sex tourists at the Malaysia Hotel, I would be rather indistinguishable from the rest, other than for refusing, as do a minority of the other guests, to wear the child-like clothes, opting for short-sleeved shirts and long trousers (the costume that the guidebooks advise is approved by Thai natives for foreigners).
The main but imperceptible difference between me and the other participants in the scene is that I write about our lives. I have the odd notion that writing redeems (and I’m using “redeems” in the sense that is close to the phrase “moral redemption”) whatever it is we do in the world. Otherwise our acts would be mostly self-serving except for those of a few saints; writing proposes that our acts are part of a shared human experience. Though I see writing as morally redemptive, I’m not in the least tempted to engage in moralising about what I’m describing, even if it seems to invite moralising, given that it touches on homosexual prostitution, public displays of sex, inter-generational affairs, etc. Here, I take it that my readers are smart enough to supply their own moral perspectives to the portrait I’m drawing. But I am frankly puzzled by people who don’t “double” their lives by writing about them.
Even though the men I saw at the Malaysia Hotel didn’t, as far as I know, do anything more with their experiences than contribute accounts of them to the ongoing and interesting fraternal flow of gossip, I nonetheless rather admired their ability to spend their days hanging around with the young men, watching television, not a great deal pressing on their minds, lingering at table or around the pool, unlike me in not needing great stretches of solitary time, casually indifferent to language or Thai history, politics, and art, going off to look at some tourist attraction as simply something interesting to see rather than as an attempt to understand the context. I mean, I’m horrified by the illiteracy of such a stance while at the same time I see its lure.
A coda to the issue of writing, especially about sex: though I’m writing about the sex tourists and what goes on publicly in the go-go-boy bars of Twilight Alley, as well as about other topics concerning Bangkok, you won’t find much here about my personal sex experiences or about sexual activities at all except in their aspect as public or semi-public activities. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is historical. When the disingenuous question, “But what do you homosexuals do in bed?” was a live issue (in the 1970s), it was informative to say precisely what gays did do in bed, drawing on my own autobiographical experiences. Having written explicitly about my sex adventures in several books, it’s hardly a matter of shyness that leads to present reticence. It’s that, with the political success of the gay movement, and with the general sexualization of North American culture in the last quarter of the 20th century, most people now know or can know what anybody does in bed. Homosexual bedroom gymnastics are no longer news. Now, homosexuals are pretty much in the same position as heterosexuals when it comes to describing sex: unless you have something of specific interest to relate, usually of a psychological nature, that reveals something about us all, sex descriptions are mostly and merely a kind of self-indulgence, schoolyard boasting, or pornography. In saying this, I’m not in any way dismissing such descriptions, and in fact I think that carefully described sexual encounters can almost always yield something interesting, but I’m also saying that such descriptions have to be really accurate these days if they’re to be revelatory. Second, my particular sex experiences in this instance are so unremarkable that I would regard insisting on them as, at worse, vanity, and at the very least as an intrusion on readers who might otherwise be interested in the larger portrait.
In an airport, in early January, 2001, at the end of my first three-week trip to Bangkok, while waiting for a connecting flight from Taipai back to Vancouver, I ran into one of the men I’d seen napping in the lobby of the Malaysia and we struck up a conversation. Neil Philpott (not his real name)–tall and portly, in his early seventies, was a retired antiques dealer from Toronto. When I expressed my novice’s enthusiasm for Bangkok, Neil quickly warmed up, offering me the benefits of a veteran visitor’s anecdotes as we passed a half-hour or so in one of those geographically indistinguishable airport lounges.
Neil had been seasonally migrating to Bangkok for a decade or more, and had a relationship of some duration there with a Thai man in his late-twenties. While this companionship had its benefits, he readily admitted that it had its amusing restrictive side as well, such as when Neil wandered off for the odd extra-curricular sexual adventure. “Oh, he gets very angry,” Neil chuckled about his boyfriend, in the discreet, mock-naughty style characteristic of an older generation of gay men.
“So, this looks like something one can do,” I said after listening to Neil’s accounts, meaning that Bangkok might be a viable choice for one’s later years. “It’s possible to go on with your life.”
“Oh yes,” Neil said. “I’m 73–semi-retired of course, but I like to keep a hand in the business.” He meant his antiques business, which was now confined to mostly private deals, rather than running a store as he had in the past. “Why, you,” he said to me appraisingly, though I was only a decade or so his junior, “you’re still a young fella.”
I liked Neil’s matter-of-fact, phlegmatic view of things. No obfuscating moralising, or self-defensiveness, simply the recognition that Bangkok satisfied certain desires, without any corollary claim that its cornucopia of sexual offerings was a natural order that one could take for granted. What’s more, Neil struck me as relatively typical of the men I’d seen at the hotel.
But if Neil seemed to me clearly non-malevolent, a more ambiguous case was the Irish television producer, a friend of Dan’s who was visiting Bangkok while I was there. Since it was established early on that this was an Irishman who hadn’t read James Joyce, I’ll call him Kinch, in honour of the nickname given to Stephen Dedalus, one of the protagonists of Joyce’s Ulysses, a moniker which appears on page one of that epic.
Dan had offered a tentative warning that Kinch and I might have rather different notions of culture and he had probably, in his fair-minded way, similarly warned Kinch. Although you could stay in a perfectly acceptable hotel like the Malaysia for a pittance, Kinch had opted for a place on Convent Road, just off the Patpong district, costing ten times the rates at the Malaysia, primarily, Dan told me, because it was right next door to one of those fake Irish pubs that you can now find in almost any big city in the world. By chance, I’d been in Dublin the summer before and had been taken to actual Irish pubs, so I had some idea of the difference between them and the tourist version. Still, the Bangkok Irish pub–it was called Shenanigans–was certainly pleasant enough, but not, as Kinch appeared to regard it, a necessity.
The first time I saw Kinch, I was at Dick’s Cafe in Twilight Alley with Robin Ringold, an English freelance journalist in his late-twenties, another friend of Dan’s I’d been introduced to, and with whom I played tennis once or twice a week. Dan and Daeng said they would bring Kinch from his hotel to join us for dinner, but they were a half-hour late. Robin and I were just starting to wonder if there had been a misunderstanding when Kinch, who I only recognised by the fact that he was with Dan and Daeng, hove into view. He was a short man in his fifties, of collosal girth, 125 centimetres or more (for those unfamiliar with the metric system, that’s a 50-inch waist), sporting a tentlike pink T-shirt, worn outside his trousers.
He was in a jolly mood. As if there weren’t enough young men on hand, Kinch apparently prearranged meetings with various of them through the Internet, so as not to lose a moment’s time. He saw himself as “auditioning” them for some role in his life. During dinner, where he predictably dripped sauce onto his pink T-shirt, Kinch, a practised raconteur, entertained us with accounts of two assignations he’d already had on his first day in town.
“Dan tells me you’ve just had quite a success with a television series,” I said, changing the subject.
“A year-long program about twentieth century Irish history,” Kinch replied. I expressed admiration for the magnitude of the project and asked how frequently the programs aired. “Oh, t’was on every day,” Kinch said, “just before the 6 o’clock news.” I was slightly puzzled. A whole program every day for a year? “Yes, everyday. Well, two-and-a-half minutes,” Kinch amended. I vaguely remembered something similar on TV at home, called “Canadian Moments,” little snippets of dramatised patriotic kitsch. Still…, I murmured, non-commitally. It was a positively heroic effort, Kinch assured me, what with having to cram at least ten stories into every segment. Ten stories? I exclaimed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dan wince, knowing what I was making of this cultural recital. “Sometimes eleven,” Kinch said blandly. While I was trying to calculate the average number of seconds per item, Kinch had gone on to declare what a success it had been. “Yes, many letters from parents saying it’d gotten their kids interested in Irish history.”
By now, grasping at conversational straws, I mentioned that I’d been in Dublin the summer before. I could see that the names of his literate countrymen and their watering holes only dimly registered with Kinch. “And we had lunch in the restaurant where Leopold Bloom ate his gorgonzola sandwich …what was it called?” I prattled on, trying to remember the name of the place–Davy Byrnes?–in which Bloom, Joyce’s main protagonist in Ulysses, had dined. That’s when Kinch said, “I haven’t read Joyce,” in a tone of perverse pride, as if not doing so was something of an accomplishment on that Joyce-ridden emerald isle. Instead, Kinch went on to discuss his next opus, an abridgement of the history of forty years of Irish television.
Another night, Dan and I met Kinch in Shenanigan’s, his favoured location. He was, I noticed, a bit difficult to turn off or cut into once launched on a tale of sexual accomplishment. Kinch professed modest puzzlement at the eagerness with which his auditioning young men pursued him. “Me,” he said in self-deprecating wonder, “just a fat little fooker.”
Daeng was visiting his family upcountry that week, and when Dan sighed with relief at being permitted a night out without him along, Kinch was quick to pounce. Though he’d only met Daeng once for a couple of hours, he was prompt with elaborate advice, analysis of the relationship, and repeated offers. “I’ll be glad to take him off your hands,” Kinch said to Dan, more than once. But it wasn’t just a compliment about Dan’s choice of boyfriend. Soon Kinch was fantasizing opening a Thai restaurant in Dublin that Daeng could run, moving Dan’s boyfriend in, leaving his house to Daeng in his will. The vulgarity of Kinch in this little incident was that he seemed blissfully unaware that he was both passively-aggressively threatening to steal Dan’s boyfriend and boasting that he was capable of doing so.
The last I heard of Kinch was some time later, after I was back in Vancouver. Dan sent me a message recounting a trip on which he and Daeng had guided the Irishman about. When Dan proposed a tour of some temple, Kinch had declined, saying, “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen’m all.” Perhaps the remark was meant as an ironic parody of the typical sex tourist’s barbaric indifference to sights other than the obvious, but perhaps not.
You may be reasonably wondering why, if Kinch is such a total asshole, he’s a friend of Dan’s in the first place, or why I’m being civil to him. There’s no big mystery to that. First, Kinch was a long-standing friend of a friend and Dan’s hosting of him was part of a more complex web of social and sociable relationships. Second, when you’re in a foreign place that you have a bit of knowledge of, there’s an obligation to help out newcomers who are sent your way, whether you particularly like them or not. Third, Kinch isn’t a total asshole. In fairness, I should add that, in addition to whatever else, I also saw him as rather generous as well as an oddly intrepid soul, despite his general helplessness as a traveller. In any case, I tend to be civil to anyone who isn’t about to punch me in the nose. Sure, I’m horrified by Kinch’s illiteracy in a way that doesn’t horrify me about other people who don’t represent themselves as literate, but it’s precisely because Kinch is presented in the world as someone whose intellectual opinions ought to be taken into account that I’m horrified. Finally, from a writer’s perspective, I have to admit that Kinch’s saving grace is that he’s a great character. Writers collect monsters.
Another evening, around eight, I was sitting at Dick’s Cafe, when I noticed a man at the adjoining table. He was an athletic-looking guy with dark, curly hair, in his late thirties. A noticeable tension exuded from his body, the tendons in his wrist and forearm were taut as he clutched a glass of beer, and he appeared to be periodically muttering to himself.
We introduced ourselves–I’ll call him David Roth–and gradually fell into conversation, though he was distracted through most of it. An American from Florida, Roth now lived in Japan where he taught English, had been to Bangkok as a sex tourist many times, had an interest in Buddhism, and was, like me, a Jew. In fact, there were enough similarities between us that I immediately saw him as my younger, more anxious, Doppelganger. I’ve seldom encountered a man in a more extreme condition of metaphysical agony. The cause of his torment, he blurted out with the directness of someone near madness, was his addiction to the young men in the bars. He hated himself for his unsatisfiable desire, judging it, as a Buddhist, to be both spiritually bad for himself and for the young men, whom he saw himself as “using.” “It’s like fucking cocaine, man,” Roth said.
Even as he was telling me this–and though he’d mentioned he had a date for later that evening with one of the go-go guys in the club next door–more than half of Roth’s attention was fixated on a tall, handsome young man, about twenty, with dark-brown skin characteristic of people from northeastern Thailand, wearing a red vest over his otherwise bare chest, who was sitting on a stool in front of the bar across the lane, obviously waiting for the evening to get underway. In the middle of a sentence, Roth got up and dashed over to the guy’s side of Twilight Alley, where they engaged in a brief, animated conversation during which Roth pressed a bill into the young man’s hand.
“What was that all about?” I asked when Roth returned to his table. “Tomorrow night,” he muttered, gulping the beer whose glass I thought he might crush in his unconsciously furious grip. “Man, it’s a fucking fantasyland here,” Roth said.
If Roth and Kinch were striking exceptions to the untroubled, rather bovine placidity of most of the sex tourists I saw in the Malaysia Hotel, there were, besides the paying customers, two other categories of gay foreigners I also, if more superficially, identified in Bangkok. The first group I thought of as “adventurers”–young, relatively attractive men in their late-twenties and thirties, like Dan or Robin Ringold, who were in Bangkok for six months or a year or more, their plans rather open-ended. They found various jobs, in journalism or teaching English, and struck up relationships, both casual and more complex, with gay Thai guys they’d met in the discos and baths.
I was drawn to Dan’s earnestness in dealing with all of this new material–trying to write, learn, love. At least, he’d had the nerve to go off on an adventure, unlike many of his agemates, and he was basically attentive to things or, as the Buddhists say, mindful.
Robin was also likeable. A wiry adult in his late-twenties, English, with close-cropped blond hair, and a somewhat gruff, taciturn manner (a look and style currently fashionable among younger gay men), we’d meet at the tennis courts, located near the Malaysia, for an afternoon set or two of mad-foreigners-in-the-mid-day-sun whacking the ball over the net. The Thai middle class, more sensibly, only came out to play under the lights at night.
Other adventurers offered variations on the basic model. A guy from Quebec named Marcel was teaching Thai students some questionable business techniques (some form of public relations, I think), and one evening at dinner he gave me an extended account of his present life, which struck me as half-fantasy, half-real. Marcel represented himself as an attractive boy-toy foreigner, even though he was in his thirties, who was regularly picked up and occasionally half-kept by wealthy middle-aged Thai men. We were eating in a garden restaurant next door to the Malaysia, and long Christmas-strings of tiny electric bulbs threaded the tall trees, illuminating Marcel’s prim face and trendy wire-rim glasses, as I tried to imagine the penthouses and yachts owned by the men of whom he spoke. Marcel seemed to like this version of his desirability. Of course, it was possible to see another version of him as a vain, spoiled rich-kid who was deluding himself, but since I knew him so slightly, it didn’t seem worth the bother to really try to decide between the alternatives.
The other category of foreigners that included gays was permanent expatriates, people who had, in some fashion and for different reasons, gone native. One evening after work ended at his newspaper, Dan took me to a nearby party where I met several of these old hands. The party was an easy mixture of people of various preferences and nationalities, Thais and foreigners. The ex-pats, a few of whom were gay, had been in Thailand for a decade or more, had adopted some of the local customs and, unlike most of the adventurers, spoke considerable Thai. The style at the party was to directly approach people whom you hadn’t seen before (visitors like me) and engage them in conversation. So, I heard some of their stories. But again, as with Marcel, since I knew them so superficially, I got little more than the idea that it was possible to settle here long-term. Any serious judgment of their choices was out of the question.
When I visited Dan at his newspaper office that evening, he had introduced me to Pravit, an Oxford-educated young Thai editor. Pravit had an impressively nuanced, if melancholy, sense that something had gone historically wrong in the relation of Thai culture to the current dominance of Western business practices. In the course of an hour’s conversation, in which I expressed a desire to learn more, he mentioned a man he regarded as a sort of mentor–his name was Sulak–with whom I might make an appointment. If I wanted, I could phone Pravit at home the next day and he would give me Sulak’s phone number.
For the most part, I spent my days in study, reading Thai history and literature, and picking up some of the language. The initial stage of Thai struck me as relatively easy, since the language doesn’t require conjugations or declensions, has few complexities in terms of plurals or tenses and, although tonal, isn’t too demanding at the outset. An Australian language student I’d met in the hotel restaurant assured me that it became difficult once you got to the next level and started using Thai orthography. I quickly learned for myself how hard it was to pronounce the language’s phonemes with sufficient accuracy to make yourself even minimally intelligible.
Occasionally, I went off to one of the temples and sat contemplatively in front of a Buddha statue, or took meandering neighbourhood walks in the afternoon heat. I socialized regularly with Dan and Daeng, who joined Robin and me at the tennis courts a couple of times. Attached to the courts was a place that advertised itself as a tennis school, and there’d be a young man or two–I had the idea that they worked in the evenings as ballboys for the middle-class patrons–skillfully stroking a ball against the practice wall. I thought then that if I ever came back to Bangkok, I might take a few lessons to improve my groundstrokes, and perhaps strike up an acquaintance with one of those young men. In fact, when I returned the following year, at the end of 2001, my centre of gravity quickly shifted from the hotels and bars to the courts.
Just as the tennis courts were located about midway between the Malaysia Hotel and the Patpong district, I saw the game of tennis itself as halfway between desire and meditation. In the dead calm of afternoon the only sound was the familiar plonk of the ball hitting the racket; one’s attention was narrowly focussed on the ball’s movement, and the rest of the world fell away. When I hit the ball into the net and glanced up, I was surprised to discover the pale hazy sky, a bird diving into the shell of an abandoned, unfinished office building next door, the dusty greenery around the mesh enclosure of the courts. I was surprised to find myself in Bangkok.
Often my meditations simply took the form of gazing down from the fourth floor window of my hotel room into the fenced-in back compound behind the Malaysia. There was a cement-paved parking area flanked by two white concrete apartment buildings. Near the back fence adjacent to the street leading to the tennis courts, there was a narrow inverted T-shaped strip of grass. On the T itself was a jagged little tree, with bright green large oval leaves that provided a bit of shade, and during the day various people from the apartment buildings, mostly women and their children, gathered under it to chat while doing small chores. I liked to imagine the tree as a cousin to the legendary Bo tree Buddha was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment. But more realistically, looking at those small human figures from a distance, I felt the distance between our lives and theirs, especially the economic disparity between middle-class tourists who could afford to jet around the world in pursuit of pleasure and those barely scraping by on a couple hundred dollars a month, a difference not just arithmetical but exponential.
In the evenings, I went to Twilight Alley. Each bar has its own logistics, but in the Classic Club, the customers are seated and served drinks on a long tier of bleachers facing a stage where about half the young men working there are arrayed; the others are scattered in a group of chairs at the end of the bleachers, waiting their turns. As recorded music plays, they pose in their white wrestling singlets (in other bars, they just wear underwear), to each of which is appended a number on a button. If a customer would like the company of one of the young men on stage, he signals to one of the bar captains, who arranges the introduction. In other bars, the arrangements are somewhat more informal, with the young men approaching the customers directly. The behaviour of the young men on stage varies as well, ranging from blatant displays of masturbatory activity to the more demure style favoured at the Classic. In either case, a customer, identifying a young man by the number on his button, can take him off the premises, paying a stipulated “off-fee” to the bar, and then paying the young man whatever might be agreed to afterwards at the hotel.
Later in the evening, there’s a sex show on stage. Again, depending on the bar, the acts and configurations vary, as do the props–bubble machines, shower stalls, gleaming oils, soap suds, even a human aquarium. The denouement is invariably a scene of (condom protected) anal intercourse, which has its own rather strict protocols. The active partner tends to be somewhat exaggeratedly masculine while the bottom is markedly effeminate, and is further feminised by having his genitals covered. All of this reflects an older Thai tradition of homosexuality in which gender roles are sharply demarcated, even though in the last quarter-century a Thai gay scene of relatively undifferentiated partners has replaced the classic pairing of straight-appearing man and transgendered “boy-girl” (the word for this category in Thai is kathoey).
In the version at the Classic Club, there were four people on stage: the macho top who penetrated the passive partner in a series of rapidly-shifting acrobatic positions, a young man who was fellated by the bottom, and a rather beefy guy in a semi-leather costume who provided simulated sadomasochism with a foam baton.
Even for those who have seen such shows frequently enough to be partially desensitized to the spectacle, there can still be the occasional glimpse or flash that reveals the enormity of the taboo that’s being broken. Notwithstanding the sexualization of Western culture, including the widespread availability of visual pornography, the public or semi-public display of sex–since this is taking place in a closed bar before a self-selected clientele–remains a rare event. It violates the notion of sexual privacy and intimacy, brings into play a more elaborate social arrangement of actors and spectators who mutually affect each other, and promises the acquisition of a kind of knowledge otherwise unavailable. Just as theatre has the advantage of “life” over films, the sex show offers an immediacy for which pornographic videos are only a substitute.
Whether homo or heterosexual, fucking is “constructed” for us as one of the great human mysteries. By constructed I simply mean the history of the vast ideological web by which the meaning of sexual intercourse is presented to us. It includes everything from its mandated scarcity in the economic transactions of traditional marriages between families at various historical moments to the mundane sexual smirking and boasting of classmates at school as they enforce preferred sexual styles of manhood. The result of all this ideological discourse is to both mystify sex and present it to us as a holy mystery.
To experience the thrill of seeing fucking, you have to permit yourself a Nietzschean moment “beyond good and evil,” beyond your judgment of the “political” conditions in which you see it. Only then does the beauty and violence of human fucking reveal itself. The sex show, even when it occurs in circumstances that make it a “sleazy exhibition” wrapped in exploitation and humiliation is a challenge to our privatization of sexuality, a transformation of a mystery into a multifaceted ludic game of power and fun.
While the sexual intercourse would have been more interesting to me were it performed by the more androgynous young adults in the white singlets, since they were more desirable to me than the gender-demarcated performers, the enactment of pornographic theatre, itself a fantasy, is also the site of further imaginary stagings. I imagined a scene in which the audience was not the sex tourists sitting in the bleachers with their drinks, but the young men in singlets watching with amusement a performance in which the subject of semi-public anal penetration is the one fantasizing. That’s part of the hellish/paradisal “fantasyland” to which the anguished David Roth had been referring in the memorable conversation I’d had with him in Twilight Alley. It was also my own fantasy.
The primary business of the bar, apart from dispensing drinks, was the organization of pairings of young men with customers. It would be presumptuous to think one could in any significant way know those young men, apart from the uncertain, if intense, information picked up during one’s erotic encounters with them. Nor did I have any realistic idea of how they might see us. In addition to the cultural gaps–for instance, appearances to the contrary, Thai culture generally disapproved of homosexual behaviour, but at the same time didn’t provide sanctions against it–there was the simple fact of linguistic barriers. Most of the young men, many of them recently arrived in Bangkok from farming villages, spoke only Thai, apart from a few stylized phrases–“What your name?”, “Where you from?”–that had been learned for conversations at work. (Once, I saw the notebook of one of the young men who worked in a bar, in which were written these rudimentary introductory sentences in several languages.)
I could only begin to know these young men if, like Dan or Robin, I had more extended relationships with them and, even then, as I saw with Dan and Robin’s relationships, large ambiguities remained. But the one obvious sociological fact of the situation is that such relationships, casual or enduring, were predicated on the poverty that produced such an excess of services of all kinds to foreigners. It is here that the dialectic of desire and its cessation becomes pertinent, even though it may have been of little concern to most of the sex tourists, the occasional David Roth excepted. Here, though, I think Roth’s perspective, which I share, if not in such an agonized way, is better. That is, I think it’s preferable to keep both desire and poverty simultaneously in view, rather than being indifferent to the latter in order to pursue the former.
The widespread poverty generated a sea of suffering, from the extremes of legless beggars on rolling platforms snaking through the nighttime tides of shoppers on the single-file cramped sidewalks of Surawong and Silom avenues to the perhaps more benign morning-after scenes of patrons and young men at the breakfast tables of the Malaysia Hotel. In Buddhist politics, the goal is the cessation of suffering. The cause of suffering, according to Buddhist thought, is desire in all its forms, not just the sexual. At the time, I was reading commentaries on the Buddhist sutras–which are primarily narrative accounts of the teachings of the Buddha. While not emphasising sexual desire as a special evil, I noticed that Buddhist writing tended to be slightly more puritannical about such matters than first appeared on the surface of its texts. Finally, the source of desire–although this is a radical oversimplification–is to be found in the illusion of self. Seeing through the illusion of self and world, even the illusion of “good” and “evil,” and consequently ceasing to cling to those illusions was the aim of the meditative practices of Buddhism, the path to enlightenment.
On the day before my departure from Bangkok–shortly after the turn of the New Year, which I’d raucously spent with Dan, Robin, and Kinch in a bar where the midnight show of anal intercourse was interspersed with lip-synching drag queens–I had arranged to see Sulak, the mentor Pravit had told me about. In the interim, through reading some books and articles by and about him, I learned that Sulak, far from being merely the nice, old knowledgeable guy suggested by the image of Pravit’s “mentor,” was in fact the most famous dissident intellectual in the country. A key figure in the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Sulak, for some four decades, had been bluntly denouncing military dictatorships, the “religion of consumerism,” as he called it, and the spiritual passivity of the temples, which had turned monkhood into a mere profession. The price for speaking out had included both appearances in the courtroom docket and extended periods of exile.
That afternoon, I took a taxi across the Chao Phraya river to the Thonburi side, as it’s known, and was deposited on a broad, busy boulevard. Between two buildings housing a motorcycle repair shop and other similar businesses, there was a narrow, garbage-strewn gravel path and a sign with the street number I’d been given. The pathway, which produced an instant of trepidation in me, however quickly gave out onto a small, pleasant compound that included some trees, a pond, a couple of skinny dogs, a chicken coop, and a good-sized main building and some out-buildings, linked by a metal-roofed social space that contained some tables and chairs and a ping-pong table. Seeing various sets of sandals on the steps of the entrance to the main building, I placed my shoes there, and then went in to sit in the waiting area I’d been directed to by a secretary. If I thought to attain a preparatory moment of calm while waiting for my visit with Sulak, my efforts were interrupted by one of the small dogs who went straight to the fresh scent of my shoes, gripped one of them in its jaws and began making off with it in the direction of the pond. There was an instant of un-Buddhist panic on my part as I chased the creature down a slope of lawn until it lost interest and dropped the shoe on the grass, allowing me to retrieve it.
Sulak was a slightly heavy-set, brown, smooth-skinned man in his sixties, wearing a traditional long white shirt over his trousers. He invited me into a spacious, cool office in which floor-level chair-cushions were placed around a low table, and poured me a cup of tea from a metal pot. When I remarked on the house, now the headquarters of his Spiritual Education Movement, or SEM (Sulak was a great inventor of a series of overlapping and interlinked non-governmental organizations and their acronyms), he told me, in the accents he had acquired at law school in England, that it had belonged to his mother, and dated back to the days when such houses near the river had been at the centre of the elegant, canal-crossed city then known as the “Venice of the East.”
When I began with a sort of pro-forma question, asking him if he had any interest in the current election campaign, then in its final days, Sulak readily admitted, “Not really.” He regarded most of the parties, including the one leading the polls and headed by a media mogul, as money-wasting entities, one step removed from political gangsterism. While they mouthed the slogans of globalisation, development and consumerism, he said, there was nothing in their programs that addressed the real issues of poverty, environmental destruction or spiritual emptiness. “Still, it’s better than dictatorship,” he wryly added.
His remark about spiritual poverty provided an opening to ask about what was mainly on my mind, the state of Buddhism and the relationship between its goal of the cessation of striving and his own notion of a socially active, “engaged” version of it. “Buddhism has been fairly successful in simple agrarian societies,” he said, “but I don’t think we know how to apply it to a complex industrial society. I think that’s true of most religions.” Instead, countries like Thailand had been overtaken by “the religion of consumerism.” (He called Thailand by the older name of “Siam,” eschewing the now standard usage on the grounds that it had been invented by fascist-leaning Thai generals in the 1930s, in imitation of Nazi Deutschland.) As Sulak had written in one of his essays, “Today Bangkok is a third-rate Western city. The department stores have become our shrines. For young people, these stores have replaced the Buddhist temples as centres of social life… Although Siam was never colonized by a Western power, in many ways we have been more devastated by this insidious force that those who were.” (Cf., Sulak Sivaraksa, Seeds of Peace, Parallax, 1992.) Now, in our conversation, he reiterated various of these ideas.
We spoke for about an hour or so. Near the end, I asked Sulak one of the theoretical questions on my mind about Buddhist philosophy. “Is reincarnation a necessary doctrine of Buddhist belief?”
“No, it is not necessary,” he replied without hesitation, slightly emphasising the word “necessary,” as if to suggest that no doctrine was necessary, either to Buddhism or anything else. Sulak added, “Buddha said, Don’t believe in anything unless it is helpful.” Being a Western ironist, I naturally also heard in Sulak’s remark the parodic echo of scenes in which the spiritual seeker makes his “visit to the wise man,” but in this instance, Sulak’s neatly turned reply seemed to me reasonable enough.
Outside, before plunging back into the city, I paused in the garden a moment. A skinny dog lapped at the edge of the pond (I couldn’t tell if it was the one who had stolen my shoe), a household rooster squawked, and a transparent red butterfly floated amid the leaves of a tree, a reminder of the famed Buddhist suggestion of the impermanance of all things.
In Twilight Alley, between the Classic Club and an open-sided restaurant at the dogleg of the lane, there was a neighbourhood shrine. Despite the official status of Thai Buddhism–a rather roccoco version compared to the more severe Japanese Zen–the spiritual culture was crosscut with remnants of Hinduism, acquired from the earlier sweep of Indian thought across southeast Asia, and perhaps even more deeply, with local animism. One can find such shrines attached to almost every public building in Bangkok. Though I wasn’t clear about the relation of these shrines to Buddhism, small statuettes of different figures along with various trinkets are housed in glass containers, or elaborate miniature houses, secured to a large, square pedestal, and the shrines are regularly attended to by people from the establishment responsible for them–in this case, the Classic bar.
I was waiting in the adjacent outdoor restaurant just after 8 o’clock for a young man whom I was seeing named Joe, and I’d already paid the off-fee. Joe came out of the bar, but before we went off, he walked over to the shrine or spirit house. He removed his shoes, stepped onto the low platform before the alter, laid a yellow flower garland on a corner of it, and lighted a handful of incense sticks, which he placed in a vase-like container. Then he knelt before it, brought his hands together, and bowed low.
Joe got up, joined me, and we walked down Twilight Alley toward Surawong Road, in search of a taxi that would take us to the Malaysia Hotel.
Bangkok, Feb. 25, 2002 8117 w.
[An earlier, briefer version of this passage appeared under the title “Sex
Tourist Sutra” in Geist magazine, fall 2001.]