She padded towards us like a panther stalking its prey. Slinking across the long bar, her body writhed in a tight Cat Womanish body suit. Like three baby gazelles, we watched her in mute fascination. Her dark brown eyes were locked on the tall, young German next to me. We could no longer hear the club’s cacophony of booming Western pop music and multilingual drunken hoots and whoops. She deftly jumped from the bar and stood facing him, her long black hair dropping and fanning across her slender back as she stood straight and peered into his eyes. She bared two rows of perfect, white teeth between thick, blood-red lips.
“You American?” she asked with a thick Thai accent.
“No, German,” he replied, looking back at her.
Still smiling, she squatted down, slightly swiveled and stood up straight again. “You buy me drink?” “Maybe, later,” he replied.
She frowned and pulled back her shoulders in a stretch that showed off her full breasts. Still staring, she tilted her head to the right and pouted. “Maybe, I no need drink, later. You buy now.”
The German looked at her silently. She smirked and walked away.
It was too early to buy drinks. If we started now we’d be out of money before the night was over. The bar girls knew better than to waste too much time on us. We were young travelers. They wanted older men. Men here on business. Men with credit cards, expense accounts.
The ones who paid attention to guys like us were usually naive. They hoped we might marry them and take them back to our swimming pools and green lawns. For us, poverty had never extended beyond the TV set. It was an abstract subject like dinosaurs. We were the soft, weak children of the suburbs, bottle-raised in big, safe homes with money for college and food at the table. If we got a real taste of the poverty that surrounded us here in Bangkok, we’d probably never be back. I told the German and Tim, the Brit, that many of these girls were from deeply impoverished farms. Parents sell their daughters to pimps for a few hundred dollars. How, for the farmers, daughters are just useless mouths to feed.
“She’s a pretty wild looking farm girl,” the German said. “You sure she wasn’t one of the animals?”
Tim began singing: “How ya gonna’ keep them back on the farm after they’ve seem Bangkok.”
We all laughed, our humor threshold already lowered by a few bottles of the high-alcohol-content Thai beer. And with that, the girls’ plight fluttered away from our impaired consciousness. Such things seemed impossible under the flashing candy lights, the hard pop beats and the drunken, dangerous laughter of men feeling for the first time the power of being able to buy humans, at least for the night. We continued to drink until the room swirled.
The next morning, I woke with a start. My mind quickly calmed me, reminded me of where I was. It was early and a cool, welcome breeze flowed through my small, cheap room smack dab in Bangkok’s infamous backpackers area. I stood up, put on my bathing suit, grabbed a towel and climbed down the small stairway to the bathroom: a toilet, a shower head attached to a hose and a drain at the center of the floor. I locked the door and undressed. Turning on the faucet, I realized there was only cold water. As I rinsed, my body writhed in a full-body unhappy orgasm of pins and needles while pre-language utterances spilled from my mouth. I thought if only I could do this on the dance floor. I shampooed, soaped myself down and did it again. I looked over at the drenched toilet and realized I should have used it before I took the shower. What did I expect for $5 a night? And it included breakfast. I dried myself and headed back to my room where I dressed and readied myself for my continuing Asian adventure.
I went outside and sat down at a plastic chair and table. It felt like an August morning but it was early January. A young girl with white teeth and a page boy haircut brought some fruit and coffee and the first of many bottled waters. I wondered if the fruit was safe to eat. I decided to take my chances.
The backpacker area is a few blocks of ramshackle establishments that offer cheap, tiny rooms to adventurous tourists. There is usually a covered area in front of each inn called a cafe, which usually offers a five-page menu with attempts at Western dishes. The cafes also show bootleg copies of American movies at night. Of course, all this food attracts cat-sized rats that have, through evolution, developed a fecal-brown color so they can easily enter and exit the premises through the ubiquitous open sewers.
Some of the foreigners staying in this area are doing so out of necessity. They have a limited budget that they are trying to stretch out to a year or more. These folks pinch every Thai baht and see the world as paupers. They are noble and smelly. The next class of people are fraternity brothers and sorority sisters looking for adventure, who want to get down and dirty. There are also hippies, eco-tourists, and those who don’t know Thailand has decent hotels.
What’s so special about the backpacker area is how convenient it is. Convenient for thieves and murders, that is. They are like hyenas preying on the weak and young. Yes, mentally weak counts. The hyenas watch and wait for a young drunk Westerner to lose consciousness, to fall asleep outside. In seconds, watch, passport, cash disappear. Hopefully, that’s all they take. The victim wakes up, borrows enough money for a call home. He or she is quickly beamed back by mom and dad — usually no questions asked.
Not that I’m a seasoned traveler. I arrived from Hong Kong in a jacket and sweater. I didn’t know it would be so hot in the middle of Winter. I got a lot of strange looks on the bus from the airport. A traveler in Hong Kong had recommended the backpacker area. But I was now having second thoughts. Maybe I wasn’t as intrepid as I thought. I liked warm water and air conditioners. I would think about it while I did some museum tours. First stop was the Siriraj Medical Museum and cafe.
The Siriraj Medical Center, like all hospitals has two exits. One you walk out of, and the other you’re carried out of. And for those who are carried out, if they’re of interest in some way, they might be displayed in the Center’s museum of medical deformities, notable accidents and the bizarre. On my visit there were foreigners, both visiting and being visited. One display was of a young blonde haired woman. Now forever young, she had apparently trusted the wrong friendly Thai too much and so became a permanent attraction. Another man, eager to sample the exotic, took a little too much of the drugs so readily available. He was photographed dead but with foam still coming from his mouth. He looked like a latte gone wrong. But it was when I came to the children, the dead children, that the place became too much for me. As they say, what’s seen cannot be unseen, and I had seen more than enough. I shakily walked outside into the heat and light and sound of a Bangkok afternoon. Then and there I admitted to myself that I was a true, traveling chicken. And with that admission came relief. I could check out of my little room and into a decent place.
I found my way back to where I was staying and went upstairs. I packed my things into my backpack and shuffled down the tight stairwell. I reached the small table where the manager stood.
“I’m going to check out today,” I said.
The woman, in her thirties, looked at me, placed her hands together and bowed. She opened a book and found my name. “Richard, you are not checking out for two more days. You are checking out early?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She looked disappointed. “Is there something wrong? Why have you decided to leave early?”
“My plans have changed.”
“Your plans? We have other rooms. 105 just opened up. It is a bigger room. More quiet. We can give you that room.”
“No, thank you. The room is fine. I have just decided to leave.”
Have you found a cheaper room? We can lower your charge. She began tapping on a large calculator on the table, suddenly, an older woman came in and said something in Thai. They began to talk. She gestured towards me and they both looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.
“We can give you this price.” I looked down at the numbers but told her it was not the price. She smiled. I smiled. After more of this friendly brinkmanship, She muttered something in Thai and wrote out my bill. I took out my wallet, fuddled with the Thai notes and handed her exact change. She smiled, bowed again. I turned around and walked out the door.
I was the travel king again. I felt taller. I walked down the small walkway to the main sidewalk, looked left then right and had no idea where I was going. As if called by fate, a taxi pulled up and stopped in front of me, the driver smiling. I opened the door and got in.
When travelling by taxi, you have two options. You can insist they use the meter. Do this and they will take every ally and crowded street they can find until they feel the meter shows how much the trip is actually worth. Or you can just ask how much to get to a certain place and they’ll tell you. The meter never goes on and you get there in half the time. It just depends on how fast you want to arrive. The price will always be the same.
The driver looked over at me his head twisted so he could see me.
“Where to?” he asked
“I need to find a hotel.”
He looked puzzled, and pointed at the place I came out of and said “there’s one.”
“No, I need a different hotel. This hotel is no good.
“Ahh” he replied, knowingly, “dis hotel.”
“Ah, you know, I replied, smiling.”
“OKOKOKOKOK. Dis hotel. We go. Vedy nice.”
He took off and soon we were fighting Bangkok traffic where the rush hour is 24/7.
We drove and drove until I began to wonder if he was really taking me anywhere.
“Almost there.” he said, and then he again said, “dis hotel,” and twittered. Something we could agree on. “Yes, yes,” I said. “You know.” Finally we parked and he told me the fare. I looked out the window. We were in front of the Swiss Hotel. He pointed and smiled. “Dis hotel very good. Diserland style. Very clean and proper.” I paid and got out, slightly embarrassed.
The uniformed doorman opened the clear glass door and bowed. I entered and stepped onto a cool, spotless marble floor as two young women in native Thai attire rushed to me, hands in prayer, bowing their heads in greeting. Welcome sir, they said, smiling bright white smiles.
Without even a glance at my dirty backpack and stained T-shirt, they led me to a tall man behind a marble counter, exactly the same as the marble used for the floor.
They quickly checked me in, thanking me profusely for choosing their hotel. The cost was just under $100. Quite a bit more than I’d been paying. But the quality was much higher than I’d get for the same price in America. He handed a bellman my key and I, in faded jeans, tennis shoes, greasy hair and sweat-branded shirt, sheepishly followed the well-coiffed young man to my room.
The room was nice, a palace in comparison to where I was before. I took a long, hot shower, turned on CNN and ordered some ice cream from room service. The ice cream arrived and I called my parents to let them know where I was.
“Hi Rex,” my mom said excitedly. “How are things going?”
“Good, I said.”
“What have you been doing in Thailand?”
“Not much, yet. I went to a museum.”
And so it went.
After the phone call, I laid back and watched Cartoon Network and ate my ice cream. I began to feel ashamed. It was an ongoing battle within. No matter where I went in the world, I ended up in a nice hotel, spending my days at coffee shops and my nights wrapped in Western comfort. One could ask why I even bothered leaving the country. I can have bragging rights about going to all these countries but I’m never really in them. The downtown of any major city is pretty much like any other downtown. They’re like major airports or most people — all the same.
I got so angry at my weakness that I kicked the sheets until my bed was unmade. “No more,” I said, and took my pillow and top blanket and laid down on the clean, thick carpet. The purpose of travel is self-discovery and that’s something that can’t be done in cash-comfort. All those hippies are right. At least they’re earning their travel stripes. It was true. I was lower than a hippie. I looked over at the backpack. What a joke, I thought. I should be traveling with two Louis Vitton suitcases and wearing a pinstripe suit. The bile of self-disgust rose from throat and filled my head. Tomorrow this trip changes, I promised myself.
Morning arrived late and muted golden hues gently caressed me into wakefulness. The freshly painted walls, the beautiful wood cabinet and drawers, as well as the comfortable 72 degree room temperature filled me with rage and shame. I went into the bathroom and purposefully took a shower that wasn’t as warm as I would normally have. It starts today, I said. I got dressed, took the stairs down to the lobby where several employees quickly put their hands together and welcomed me by name. I smiled back and walked out into the muggy, steaming morning.
I wasn’t sure of where I was going. I needed to find a place that served food. All around me where Western fast food shops. McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut… I walked along ignoring the familiar. Soon I came across a few tables placed out on the sidewalk. I sat down and a Thai came over quickly with a quizzical look on her face. She smiled but said nothing. I stood up and walked over and pointed at a few things: Some rice, some mystery meat and bottled water. It cost about 50 cents. I stood up proudly and I felt a little more Thai. Now, what to do with the rest of my day.
I continued my walk. The weather was heating up and the smog made it hard to breathe. I was getting as much oxygen as a climber on Everest and I was already drenched. I wonder if I smelled. The Thai hate people who smell, I had read. But then again, doesn’t everybody? The Thais never seemed to sweat.
My course remained steady until I saw the Bangkok Starbucks. Without a thought, I walked into the familiar air conditioned nightmare. As I was ordering my grande dark roast, I heard my name called. I looked around to see Tim the Brit sitting at a table. “I knew you’d come in if I waited long enough.”
“Hey, Tim. What’s up?”
“Not much. Did you move out of the cockroach arms?
Yeah. It was a moment of weakness.
“I don’t blame you, mate. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have to. I’m trying to stretch things out for a year. You should be staying in the friggin presidential suite somewhere.”
“That’s kind of my dilemma. I pay all this money to travel to these developing countries and end up staying in swanky hotels and drinking gourmet coffee. I mean why should I bother coming here.”
“You come here because Bangkok is great, mate. I don’t see what the problem is. Weren’t you with us at the club when we met cat woman? Wasn’t that you? You gonna experience that in LA? You Americans can manage to ruin anything. You live in such a dream world over there in America. You should spread your delusions to whereever you’re visiting. You come here. Your money buys a little more and you can have a ton of fun. But you don’t take advantage. Exorcise that inner hippie and enjoy yourself. You think the one percenters back home give a rat’s ass about you. Do you think they ever consider doing that prince and pauper thing? No sir they do not. Why do you think they are driving around in Mercedes Benz and buying luxury brands? It’s so they can recognize each other. It’s so they know who they can make jokes with about the working classes. Are you saying you want to experience poverty? Why not find some in your own country? I’m sure you don’t have to go far. Look out your window at the Mexican mowing the lawn. He can probably point you in the right direction.”
I sipped my coffee and then said “Yeah, but I still feel I should experience something pure, something local.”
I think you’ve been in the sun a little too long. But even if you’re sincere, You should go to a really backwards place. How about Vietnam? You Americans did a real number on them. Why not go over there to touch your indians.”
“Ah, Lost in America. You like Albert Brooks?”
“Yeah, he’s genius for the most part. But what’s with his accent? Is he from the East Coast?”
“No, Beverly Hills.”
Tim finished his coffee and lit a cigarette. “I bet this is a rarity for you, too,” he said, pointing at his cigarette. Smoking in a restaurant. You ban that but people can buy assault rifles. How can you live with so many contradictions?”
“How’s the queen,” I retorted.
“She’s fine, thank you. How’s your, coff coff, democracy?”
“Doing well, sir. Doing well. How’s your tax rate?”
“Great. How do you like paying more taxes than Exxon? Oh, and how’s your health insurance? You like payin’ that monster mofo every month?”
“No, I do not.”
“I didn’t think so.”
I took another draw from my coffee and wondered how much a refill was.
“Look Rex, I know what you’re talking about, OK? I’ve gone through the same esoteric bullshaite. But I was just lying to myself. If I’m not willing to experience poverty in my own country, why should I do it here? But if you do want to go through with it, go down the street to the travel shop and buy a ticket to Saigon.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Well, finish your skinny mocca latte with a dribble of Egyptian honey first, Mother Theresa.”
“It’s just a regular dark brew, I said triumphantly.”
Back out on the grimy street, I walked towards the travel agency in an angry sweat. It wasn’t just that Brit that bothered me. It was all Brits. That strange reserve and humble self-righteousness. What an onerous group. All of them, thick upper lip, living on those cold, wet rocks in the Atlantic. No matter they ventured out for warmer climes.