It’s about 6 pm, and I’m sitting on a bench outside one of Bangkok’s fanciest malls, Siam Paragon, waiting to meet my husband and his friend who are on the train and running a wee bit late. It’s a nice cool evening, so I sit down to do some people watching. There are lots of tourists are around — both foreign and Thai — and everyone seems to be dressed to the nines in high heels and swank clothes, and snapping pictures. I’m not sure why Siam Paragon is such a hot spot for vanity shots… Perhaps it’s a way of showing people that they were there, at one of Bangkok’s swankiest malls, in the flesh. There were loads of guys taking pictures of their girlfriends, who were trying to look all cute, posing up and holding up the ever-present peace sign with their fingers. I just had to take some shots of their own glamour shots to share with you.
Anyways, the phone rang, interrupting my misanthropic makoing, and I went to go meet the guys. A friend of theirs in the US, who was born in Thailand, had asked her niece, a local who lives here in Bangkok, to take us out one night for dinner. The niece showed up with her other Thai friend and nervously introduced themselves. “Where do you want to go eat?” they asked. “Are you hungry?” We said that of course we would love some Thai food. The two local ladies looked at each other and had a mini conference in Thai. Finally, they suggested the food court inside Siam Paragon. We all shrugged, and followed them.
The two ladies kept talking in Thai, looking quite nervous, trying to decide where to take us, as they looked around at the restaurants inside the mall. I knew exactly what was going on — there they were, two locals, with three foreigners who may or may not like Thai food, and who may or may not be accustomed to the local way of eating, and they had no clue what to do with us. Siam Paragon, as I mentioned, is a classy joint, which means the average Thai person can’t exactly afford to go have dinner there as the food is quite expensive and caters to foreign tastes.
Finally we stopped them and alleviated their fears. We said, “Please, take us to where YOU would go to eat on a Friday night.” The two girls looked at each other. “You mean like street food? Thai food?” Seiji gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. “Yes yes, normal Thai food, take us to where you usually like to go!” The two girls smiled and shrugged and said, “Okay, we’ll take you!”
We went up into the pedestrian crossing and passed over a number of huge main roads that criss cross the city, and walked for about ten minutes. Much to my amazement, there was traffic absolutely everywhere, and nothing was moving. Buses, cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, everyone was clamouring for a spot on the road. “Is it always like this?” I asked them. The girls laughed. “Yes, it’s like this every day. This is normal.”
Finally we reached our destination — a sidewalk street restaurant, with fold out tables and cheap plastic chairs. The air was full of smoke and the smell of cooking oil. Traffic steamed steadily on the street. By western standards, sidewalk street food would be considered unhygienic, but the truth is if you see a place jam packed with people, it’s a good sign. When travelling in developing countries, it’s always best to eat in places that are busy, because you know the food is fresh and has a high turnover. Plus, if all the locals are tucking in, you know the food is good!
The ladies sat us down, grabbed the menu, and ordered a million things… spicy papaya salad, grilled catfish (which I wouldn’t eat, personally, because fresh water fish here tend to live in rivers that have raw sewerage), grilled intestines (again, I passed on this one), grilled pork, rice noodles and long grain sticky rice. All this was accompanied by five huge bottles of Singha beer. The food was hot and spicy and made us gulp down the cold beers. We chatted with them, asking them questions about Thailand while they asked us questions about where we come from. It is in fact very likely that they have never sat down and had a meal with foreigners before!
Once the feast was done, the ladies had to call it a night because they had work in the morning. But we were just warming up. After seeing them off at the station, we headed to one of Bangkok’s most notorious adult districts, Nana Plaza. A few minutes walk from Nana Station, we simply followed all the bald old white guys who all seemed to be heading in the same direction, and once we saw some neon, we knew we had found it…
And what an eyeful!! Nana Plaza is a three storey go-go complex with dozens of bars and strip clubs with names like Pink Pussy and DC-10. There are gorgeous Thai girls everywhere with perfect bodies and luscious long black hair. There were also a few ladyboys with the most incredible bodies — far better women than real women! We walked around wide-eyed and mouth gaping. In the centre of the complex was an open patio area where a band was playing live music. Much to my surprise there were lots of foreign female tourists and a number of couples who perhaps, like us, had just come to see what it was like. Lots of people were just liming and drinking and dancing. If it wasn’t for all the brothels, it could have just been a disco!
We headed upstairs to get a better view. The stairwell stank of piss and spilled beer. In the corner, a man was mixing up spicy papaya salads and bowls of noodle soup for the working girls because hey, prostitutes need to eat too. The bass kept on booming, the band downstairs in the center square for some reason started singing a rock version of Hava Nagila which was really quite bizarre. As we passed the clubs we got a few peeks behind the curtains to glimpse a bit of the action inside — the strippers gyrating on poles in high heel black boots, girls in tiny see-through skirts and g-strings, some even in costumes. Of course, I’ve never seen the inside of a Thai brothel so I have to admit I had a morbid curiosity. For Thai people, sex tourism is no big deal — it’s just a fact of life and one which they do not hypocritically try to hide — but for the average foreigner, it is a total culture shock to see it so open. I can see why a lot of people go to Nana Plaza for what I guess is sightseeing, because it’s a bit of a freak show.
As we sat there drinking our cheap beers and ogling the action, I had to wonder whether places like Nana Plaza and the other hot spots of Bangkok like Patpong and Soi Cowboy are sort of fake, because for sure these particular red light districts target foreign tourists. Of course, the sex is real, and the girls get paid for it, but I’ve been told that this kind of sex tourism is largely a show for foreigners. Make no mistake, the majority of prostitution in Thailand is local, not with foreigners, but places like Nana Plaza and its opulence has made it famous world wide. Perhaps the Thai people know that all humans have an itch to scratch — they just provide the avenue for it to happen.