July 15, 2012


Filed under: Thailand — Kim @ 9:01 am

Watching a George Steiner interview t’other day, I was struck by a peculiar usage of “Lèse-majesté”. Speaking of his time in America he commented “I couldn’t accept the lack of irony…America is a land committed to things being better next Monday than they are this Monday. Irony is the enemy. Irony subverts. Irony is being rather nasty about hope. In America being nasty about hope is ‘Lèse-majesté ‘”.

The phrase these days calls to mind the recent cases in Thailand and – whatever your views may be on that – if you have talked to Thais about their King you will surely have realised the practically universal reverence in which he is held by his people. The vast majority of Thais would brook no criticism of their King and (as a consequence) most would support the Lèse-majesté law.

It seems clear that the Lèse-majesté law is being overused in Thailand and used as a political tool, but that’s not the point I wish to make. I’d like to link back to the point Steiner made about the “lack of irony” and the link is that, for Thais, to criticise the King is not just to be negative about a man or an institution…the way things stand at the moment it is “being nasty about hope”. To utter Lèse-majesté is a locutionary act that subverts confidence in present and future hopes for Thailand and in the moral rectitude of the entire Thai nation – as embodied in that living symbol, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Thais love their King for a reason; he clearly cares for his country and is deservedly loved. But wouldn’t a sense of irony help? Is the King a man or a God? I know how an ironist would answer that question…

September 9, 2008

Rich man’s club

Filed under: asia,culture,politics,Thailand — Kim @ 4:00 pm

Recently there have been some street scuffles in Bangkok between pro and anti-government protestors. The anti-government posse is called Pad and according to the Guardian:

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (Pad) is a collection of rightwing activists, business people and former army chiefs…The movement wants to replace the country’s electoral democracy with a system that would be dominated by appointees from the bureaucracy and the military. It claims the country’s rural majority is not sophisticated enough to choose good public servants.

Bloody peasants keep on voting for the wrong party! Suggestion:Why not switch to the Chinese system?

Anyway, during the street fights one of the pro-government peasants, a 55 year old man, was killed. He was beaten to death with golf clubs. Apparently, golf clubs are “the weapon of choice” for the Pad and this speaks volumes. Golf encapsulates very aptly the gap between the prosperous, leisured, often right-wing urbanites, and the great unwashed of the countryside. What…those Lao bumpkins have the temerity to vote for a party we don’t like? Let’s batter them with golf clubs.

I’ve nothing against the game of golf of course, just what it has come to stand for. Most “golfers” are not really that interested in golf and are arrogant cocks, and the golf courses themselves gobble up water at an alarming rate.

I say ban it! Anyone who disagrees gets pummeled with a pool cue.

January 31, 2008

The Horny Toad in the Bar

Filed under: asia,culture,east-west,Thailand — Kim @ 3:25 pm

The following is about a book I read a while ago. Not sure why but it “set me off on one” and prompted an old-style book review-ish type of musing.

Dean Barrett is an “Old Asia Hand” and a serious writer of accomplished prose and thoroughly researched historical fiction. His Hangman’s Point, for example, has been much lauded for the way it brings old Hong Kong to life and has been optioned for film 4 times. He has also had plays on Broadway, and has written several well-praised thrillers set in Thailand such as The Kingdom of Make Believe and Sky Train to Murder. He also likes to occasionally indulge in the knockabout prose of the “hard-boiled” detective genre and anecdotal accounts of his time in Thailand, and so we have his latest book Murder at the Horny Toad bar & other OUTRAGEOUS tales of Thailand.

Outside the office, he is that old guy who you can see hanging around the bars in South-East Asia with a beer in one hand, a bargirl in the other, and a big shit-eating grin on his face. He’s the kind who has an attitude about his lifestyle and will hold forth at length about his right to do what he wants, live how he likes, and his inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. And he is a hard sonufabitch to gainsay because he sure isn’t stupid and he has a voice that rings with conviction. But does he have a point? Well, assuming you’ve never hung around to listen much to that kind of guy, why not spend some time with Murder at the Horny Toad and see what you think?

Murder is a collection of fiction and non-fiction. It contains 3 “Harry Broditsky” detective stories, 4 Thai-themed short stories, 3 longish accounts of travels around Thailand and 28 vignettes that make up a separate section entitled Memoirs of an oversexed Farang. The title story is a detective story starring “Harry Boroditsky”. Boroditsky (“Sure, I know, the name sucks…friends just call me Boro. Enemies call me Ditsky. But not for long. If you get my drift”) is a classic of his type. A stereotype, that is, of the hard-boiled detective. Harry is a bit of a ladies man who will shoot men dead without hesitation or regret and who has a nose for a case and sex on the brain. “Condom-grey clouds scudded across a Viagra-blue sky”, being one of the most memorable images.

And when there is a murder at the Horny Toad go-go bar, the mama san knows just who she’s gonna call. But as to why Harry is given the title of the book, I must say I find it a mystery. Why draw attention to this story? I found the characterization to be flimsy, the humour strained, the imagery and atmosphere unappealing, the plot unconvincing, and the punchline lame beyond belief. I did not like this short story! But my expectations were high because I’ve read some of his other novels and because before reading the title piece I had (as I suspect many readers will) gone straight to Memoirs of an Oversexed Farang and had been treated to some laughs, sly wit, and classy prose.

The confessions/memoirs section is by and large a well-executed blend of self-exposure, self-mockery, and fond erotic memories. Actually, the collection kicks off with the 4 accomplished and interesting Thai-themed short stories, and in the first of these, The Death of Ron Adams, we can immediately detect the obsessions of Mr. Barrett’s book. Sentence 3 mentions a go-go bar and sentence 8 talks of how irresistible Thai women are. The other obsession comes on the third page when we are told that the go-go bar the eponymous Ron Adams decides to buy is called “The Feminist Nightmare”. A charitable critic might call this a sly dig, whereas a feminist would probably call it a cheap shot. In any case these are the two obsessions that run through the book, the Thai hooker and the Western female/feminist. Mr. Barrett’s binary for the significant other. He is obsessed with women.

This is the kind of thing that drives the Thai Tourist board and the good burghers of Bangkok up the wall because of its reinforcing of the negative image of Thai females. It’s also a convenient dichotomy I suppose, a muse you can love and a muse you can love to hate, but in any case, if not done deftly then this well-worn topic can quickly go back over ground well-trodden by the tedious, repetitive chunterings of the chauvinist bar-room bore. I found there is a definite difference in the quality of writing involving the not-so-witty point scoring against western women, who seem to very much get his goat, and the passionate portrayal of eastern women he obviously cares very much for, and/or is erotically bewitched by. Why could he not write about the latter without bringing up the former? An old flame? A guilt trip? A misjudgment of taste? As the Thais often say, “Up to Yoooo!”.

In any case, for this reader it is an important point in his favour that Barrett’s work evinces so much affectionate eroticism. The image of the Thai woman is often not such a positive one in texts by western men and this kind of writing stands out from the slew of bragging, condescending, body-obsessed, and affectionless pornography that all-too-often gets put on the internet.

Barrett is maybe at his most eloquent when waxing lyrical on the beauty of Thai women, particularly their skin and hair. This is not surprising perhaps as he is after all the proud author of two photobooks on Thai women, The Girls of Thailand, and Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women. If you ever forget or doubt what he is talking about you can simply take a glance at the front cover of Murder at the Horny Toad, which is graced by the kind of smoldering exotic Thai beauty to make an abbot kick a hole in a Watt window. Or if you live in Thailand you could just leave your house and head in any direction.

Yes, you can judge this book by its cover because this book is all about Eve. There is hardly a mention of Thai men (some taxi drivers and a DJ) and there’s not much Thai culture either. Both the fiction and the non-fiction sections contain very few of the sights, sounds, smells, or tastes of Thailand, other than those referring to the female form of course! Barrett can evoke Thailand and has shown how well he can in, for example, The Kingdom of Make Believe, but, in any case, the focus on the female is probably representative of his own preoccupations in Thailand. He is not alone in this…Thai women are the reason why thousands of foreign men come to Thailand. The beauty and attraction of Thai women (all women, all humans) is not easy to capture without sounding banal, but Barrett does a pretty good job.

He can be rhapsodic in his descriptions of Thai feminine features and can explicate and play up his helpless fascination with Thai girls tellingly and amusingly. Not only is he a helpless “ladies man,” but some of his most endearing and witty prose comes when he is sending up the “man’s man”, such as in the following where he writes of his bafflement as to why it should be that in Bangkok sports bars

despite the presence of gorgeous (and available) women, all of the men around me were watching and sometimes cheering hideously overpaid, half-men, half-boy jocks running madly about destroying a good lawn…and of course, once a ball was actually kicked into a net, the men watching the game acted as if they’d had their first orgasm in five years.

Now, that (and available) in brackets is worth a second look, because “available” is a word that is stressed throughout the book. He is at least honest and true to the mark in his analysis of why a certain type of western man, of which he is a representative, is so obsessed with Thai women. There is, of course, the outstanding beauty of Thai women…but it is the availability of these beautiful women that really gets them going. And here is the rub. Barrett’s appreciation of the beauty of the female form is affectionately and caringly crafted, and there is surely nothing wrong with that, but some readers may find a problem with his ready and even gleeful admittance that he sleeps with prostitutes. A lot. Almost exclusively it would seem.

For some people this kind of behaviour is to be condemned out of hand, and Barrett of course realises this. There may be a certain frisson of “épater les bourgeois” to his unabashed tone (I mean what would mummy think of it all?) and in some ways I want to congratulate him for his honesty and for his comedy on this touchy topic. Importantly, he sends himself up nicely and is capable of cutely exploiting the absurdities and double-edged exploitation of the economic transactions of paying for sex. An unusual and striking example is when he is called in to act in a film which is depicting the bar scene in Bangkok, and he hits on one of the actresses.

She gave me a friendly, don’t-be-silly, smile, an affectionate pat on the arm, and said in English: “Grandfather!” Oh. Ok, I see how the game is played. These actresses pretending to be bargirls are Bangkok girls from financially stable families as opposed to real bargirls from northeast Thailand from impoverished families. In other words, actresses posing as bargirls wouldn’t have quite the same alacrity to jump into bed with me. OK. I didn’t just fall of the durian cart yesterday. But I could handle the situation: Bangkok girls would simply be more of a challenge, that’s all.

But, revealingly, he didn’t get his girl, or at least I’m pretty sure he didn’t or he would have bragged of it! Now, Mr. Barrett can speak Thai and is a clever attractive guy, I’m sure….but outside of the bar scene he loses some of his lustre it would appear. Back inside the bar scene, however, all is well and good and Mr Barrett can indulge himself to his cock’s content. It does not make it any “better” but he is neither proud nor ashamed to be a whoremonger. He is simply delighted that there are so many beautiful women available to him…for a fee. This may or may not be a problem for his intended audience, but it is of course a problem for the other obsession of his book, the western feminist…and he is less than affectionate with women who do not see things his way and who attack him for his whoring. His “playful” term for them is the flippant and offensively stupid coinage “feminazi”.

Could this be a generational thing? Is it an American thing? Is it easier for us these days now that “western women” are more comfortable with “Men Behaving Badly” and are themselves better off and more powerful? I do not know.

In one of his pieces from the Memoirs there is a wish fulfillment fantasy in which Barrett is in a go-go bar surrounded by gorgeous Thai women and has a feminazi grovel for apology in front of him and admit that she only attacks him because she is jealous. Erm, like, what’s that all about? Hold on though because it gets all subtled up when his dream turns into a nightmare and he realizes that… I had been set up! This whole dream had been a feminazi trap of some kind. Somehow they had managed to penetrate my subconscious! And after being thrown out of the bar he ends up complaining that “I had just been thrown out of a bar in my own damn dream; a dream which showed me that feminazis were attacking me even in my sleep.

The lady-killer doth protest too much, methinks. He obviously feels stung or at least bothered by what they say. Is he scared of them? Is it because they are his superego? Because they make him realize that he is not having any kind of intelligent conversation with women? Why does he expend so much ink on them? Why are they his muse? Ok, enough of the ham-fisted psychoanalysis…yes, he is worried that they have a point. They disturb his dreams and he is honest enough to admit this, but not honest enough to dig down as to why they worry him so much. Would he mind, I wonder, if I had a stab at this for him?

No money, no honey. That hoary whorey cliché. Mr Barrett has money, so he can have sex with wonderful looking women. If Mr Barrett has no money, he cannot have sex with these wonderful women. If Mr Barrett were really to be “thrown out of the bar” he would have to start treating women seriously in order to get sex from them. He does not want to do this and is perhaps even embarrassed by his sexual urges. He is afraid that if he had to face women as equals then they would throw the horny toad out of the bar and leave him to slobber in his own juices in the gutter outside. They would mock his animal urges and leave him a lesser man. But he has money, so he can pay to avoid this fate. His dreams will tell him this, in “Freudian code”, but his waking mind does not want to decode the message into such straightforward unflattering terms.

Or so it could be put. I leave it to you to decide how unfair an interpretation this is. It is certainly an unflattering and over-dramatized one. However, as an intelligent man, Mr. Barrett of course knows full well that the kind of Thai woman he so adores would not be with him were it not for his money, and he demonstrates this amusingly in one of his vignettes called A Test of True Love. But as an intelligent man he must also know that his dichotomizing of women as either educated and aggressive and western, and therefore unsexy, or as eastern and uneducated and as erotic as hell, is a false and crude distinction. For Mr Barrett is an intelligent man.

Just to illustrate the kind of mismatch between him and his hookers, what about this dialogue from one of his vignettes in which Mr DB is having an inter-coital chat with one of his Thai take aways…

“What you do?”
“A ballad. I’m writing a ballad.”
I knew she didn’t know what that was but I also knew it would buy me a bit of time to write.
“What ballad mean?”
“A kind of poem.” I knew she didn’t know what that was either but I thought she might go back to watching the ghost story soap opera in the other room.

And soon, predictably perhaps, he stops writing and they start fucking. Well, I presume that he would prefer a soul-mate to a shag-bag, or at least a shag-bag he could talk to perhaps? But the kind of educated woman who could hold their own with Barrett and with whom he could really talk about his interests in literature, history, politics, philosophy etc, would most likely not be too taken with his bragging about whoring. And so he would have to reject a whole side of himself, which is not the kind of thing a man like him is likely to do in a hurry.

And although he says that he is happy with his Thai women, whether they love him or not and whether he can talk to them or not, he remains angry and dissatisfied about something, and he seems to be taking it out on western women.

Hold on a moment though before we finish off. Let’s not get too somber and po-faced here. Cold beer, flirty small talk, and great sex is enough sometimes, of course. And it is great fun. And many many men come to Bangkok for a sexual holiday, right? Old Dean is just having a bit of fun, right? He doesn’t want us to take him too seriously, right? Wrong. Mr. Barrett wants his world-view to be taken seriously. He thinks it is an excusable way to live, certainly an exciting and rewarding way to live, and he dedicates the book

to all farangs (foreigners) who washed up on Thailand’s shores and at some point came to realize that they are far beyond hope of redemption. And especially to those who have yet to realize it.

Having read the book, this dedication seems to me to be really more like an invitation to a male audience to join him in the cosy camaraderie of a whoremonger’s club, and I would like to refuse the invitation. I am glad I bought this book, it made me laugh, and smile, and it made me think. I would gladly read more of Barrett’s work, but to accept his invitation to lose “hope of redemption” seems to me to be a glib refusal of emotional maturity. There are some men who have washed up on Thailand’s shores who think that the relationships brought about solely by the financial disparity between east and west are usually unsatisfying delusions. The economically impoverished women of Thailand would by and large be better off spared the horny toads’ immaturities, inadequacies, and sexual cravings. I am not sure I would go so far as to deprive Mr Barrett of money by not buying his books, but it would probably be a good thing if the horny toads were to be thrown out of the bar a bit more often. It might be good for them too: some of them might sober up and turn into handsome princes.

October 16, 2007

What do “English teachers” get up to in Thailand?

Filed under: asia,culture,Thailand — Kim @ 12:48 pm

My heart sank a little when I read that the identity of the notorious paedophile “Vico” has been discovered and that he has been revealed as Christopher Paul Neil, a 32-year-old Canadian and – yes – an English teacher.

And – worse – he is on the run in Thailand.

This will confirm an lot of gossipy prejudice about both “English teachers” and Thailand. Having been an English teacher all my working life, I am used by now to the occasional patronising comments: “Ah, teaching English are you? That sounds fun…and when do you think you’ll get a proper job?”,”That sounds like a good way to travel”, “Ah, so you couldn’t find a job at home then?” etc. And I don’t let it get to me because I like what I do and because most of the people who say things like this aren’t worth arguing with anyway.

Expat English teachers also have a reputation for being alcoholics, fruitcakes, and/or sexpats. Well, there is indeed no smoke without fire and, admittedly, a few of the colleagues I’ve had over the years have been a little eccentric and fond of a drink.

And I lived in Thailand for a couple of years and am forced to say that in some ways Bangkok deserves its reputation.

However, I could go on at much much greater length about how the overwhelming majority of my English teacher colleagues over the years have been decent, clued-in people and how most of the guys I met working in Bangkok were no more sex-crazed than men anywhere else…but that would be less interesting, although much more fair and accurate.

The point is that for whatever reason even educated and intellectually scrupulous people can let themselves lapse into massive generalisations about a group of people based on the behaviour of a minority of them.

There are gradations of course and I think that comments like “the Russians like a drink” is probably only unfair on about half of the Russian population. But what about stuff like “Catholic priests are kiddy-fiddlers” or “Muslims are terrorists”?

I guess we’ll never get rid of lazy thinking like this.

Some of these comments are meant as jokey/harmless/throwaway and I know it can come across as a bit pompous to call people on them too often. But most of the time it’s just annoying and encourages sloppy thinking and contributes to building up harmful and unfair stereotypes.

I guess the next time I get pissed off with Chinese telling me that “laowai can’t use chopsticks” or “western food has no taste”, I will remind myself how many similar comments get spouted in “the west” too. (Though I’ll also tell them what nonsense they are talking.)

August 16, 2007

Fire in Bangkok

Filed under: asia,east-west,Thailand — Kim @ 4:30 pm

A recent encounter in a bar with “One Night in Bangkok” that old chestnut from the musical Chess got me thinking about the city of sin again. I’ve been away from Bangkok for a couple of years now, so it’s about time for a fond look back.

It must be said that distance lends enchantment to the view. After a few months living there I had had about enough of its clammy embrace, and, hubristically, I thought I had got its number. I wasn’t exactly fed up with the place but I wasn’t much taken with it either and I started to spend more time on the beautiful AIT (Asian Institute of Technology) campus, which is a good 40 kilometers outside of Bangkok. Anyways, my job (teacher training work with Sri Lankans) was interesting, the pay was good, and the contract was for two years, so I wasn’t planning on going anywhere else until it was up.

In any case, just to remind you of the song’s premise…it’s an exchange between an aloof American chess player and a siren-song chorus trying to tempt him away from his cerebral concerns.

And it’s kind of snappy…how about this for example?

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine

In this exchange is the real dilemma of the Thai life for the western man. Do you succumb to the sensual surface or try to keep your wits about you? Oh, yes, it’s quite easy if you’re there for a week or so with your girlfriend, but just try living there!

Well, it’s not such a black and white choice of course, but there is something about Thailand that dazzles and dazes the long-term visitor and does not lead to much useful work being done. Let’s face it, it’s a leisurely kind of place.

It’s not that easy for the locals to concentrate either though. Where are the Thai novelists? Or scientists? Or inventors? Thailand, it seems to me, specialises in chefs, designers, artisans, beauticians, and kind polite smiling people with a pleasant, simple, sensual, and not particularly intellectual take on life. Even Thai Buddhism is not very thoughtful compared to some of the Chinese or Japanese forms of Buddhism, such as Zen. Thai monks spend a lot of time memorising the sutra chants and almost none pondering koans.

But “One Night in Bangkok” is not really about Thais, it is about what happens to westerners when they go to Thailand. In fact, almost all western writing about Thailand is really only interested in what happens to westerners when they go to Thailand. Think of “The Beach” or “Platform” or “The Big Mango.”

I should say now that I intend to go with the flow and focus on foreigners (farang!) in Bangkok, and not only that, I am going to add my footprints to the path most travelled by and write about western men in Bangkok. (Many Japanese, Koreans, Arabs etc go as well but theirs is a slightly different story.) It might be cliched but the thousands of men who come in search of sex/love/marriage are for most observers by far the most interesting foreign phalanx in Bangkok. I mean, they shop at the markets, stare at the temples, and rave about the food – just like all the other visitors – but they also go and get themselves well and truly entangled with the locals, and all sorts of interesting cross-cultural complications ensue.

So what happens when these guys get Bangkoked?

I guess the first thing that strikes tourists to Bangkok has got to be the heat. It’s a viscous proprietorial heat that oozes into your pores and into your personality, encouraging you to slow down and get sensuous. Bangkok does get “cool” for a scant few hours in some January/February evenings, but basically the place is an oven. An oven to bake the foreign tourists’ brains.

And most of the pasty whiteys wandering around this oven are well and truly marinaded in Thai alcoholic sauce. Thai beer is strong. Beer Chang is a hefty 6.4% and there’s even a special portmanteau noun “Changover” to describe the morning after a night out on that soupy brew…and then there’s the delicious Singha at a mere 5.8%. (Tsing Tao in the big bottles is 3.1% for comparison.) Most western guys in Bangkok seem to have beer bottles glued to their hands. There’s also the sweet and dirt cheap Thai Rum and Whiskey, with the only difference between them, as far as I can detect, being that the Rum is a slightly darker colour. Most white male tourist life in Bangkok takes place in a hot and sticky alcoholic fug.

But actually, it’s almost everything in Bangkok that conspires to make the western man swelter with its sensualism after a prolonged exposure. The spicey tangy food will make you sweat, the sharp olfactory attacks of sewage, chili, durian or jasmine will make you blanch, just let the Thai language seduce you with its songlike swoops and swirls, and the women, ah yes, the women will make your libido smolder.

For the man who likes to “rinse his eyes with feminine beauty”, as the Italians say, Bangkok is pretty much as good as it gets. You can walk around the shopping malls by day and salivate at the well heeled and unavailable (to you) svelte Sino-Thais with milky creamy skin and silky shampoo hair and then of an evening you can stagger in a horny alcoholic haze into the sex-for-sale areas to ogle at similarly stunning honey-skinned up-country girls whose favours can be secured for a couple of thousand baht a night. And for those of you who for whatever reason are not too taken with Thai women, remember that most of them are seen through jasmine-tinted beer goggles.

And so the story goes, and most people know it well by now. You can love it or hate it but it’s just a fact of Bangkok and will be for a good long while yet.

But just to push a bit deeper perhaps (yes, push it deeeepah hunsum maaan!) what is going on with all these booze-sodden, lust-driven men staggering around Bangkok?

Two wonderful writers, Michel Houellebecq and John Burdett see them as the result of a grand male sexual neurosis in the west that has found a vent in the economic disparity between certain developing countries and relatively well-off First Worlders. Indeed, Houellebecq’s Platform is more or less premised on the blackly comic notion that the sexual tourism of the first world will provide the solution to the economic ills of the third world.

But whatever their place in the grand psychosexualeconomic scheme of things, we shouldn’t forget they are individuals, and I’ve talked to a fair few of them in bars and read their ramblings in blogs. Some of them are in search of love, and get diverted; some of them are habitual whoremongers; and some of them are hedonists enjoying a change of sexual scene. But all of them are helping contribute to making Bangkok the hottest, lustiest, most desire-ridden place on the planet. In some parts of the city you can practically hear the panting and the libidinal groans licking like tongues of flame around the sun-baked buildings.

All of which is a little ironic if we consider that Bangkok is also the capital of probably the most devoutly Buddhist country on earth and that the central tenet of Buddhism is that in order to free yourself from this vain cycle of suffering existence, you must rid yourself of desire.

The sanskrit word trishna can be translated as thirst, desire, lust, craving, or clinging, and for some of the hard-core Bangkok junkies the word “craving” seems more appropriate and accurate than desire. Bangkok seems to fan the flames of cravings and you can see these sex-starved/affection-starved alcoholics, dragging themselves through the Sois at night, looking for a horny fix. The craving often drives them to the edge of reason (who was it who said that for a male having an active libido is like being chained to a lunatic?) and here is longterm Bangkok resident Jake Needham on this subculture’s scene

In the empty hours it is this army of the dispossessed that takes control of Sukhumvit Road. Tuk-tuks, little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, fly up and down the street most of the night ferrying carousers between the two clumps of bars that anchor the neighborhood: Nana Plaza on the west and Soi Cowboy about a mile to the east. They are all there: the lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the lost, the vulnerable, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush back and forth from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving. It is this floodtide of the adrift and abandoned that makes the hours after midnight some of the city’s busiest.

Well, it’s too easy to sneer perhaps, and actually the post night-club “Sukhumvit stumble” scene, as a friend of mine dubbed it, is not so seedy these days. Food stalls line the street and people sit around eating hot-pot and checking out the passing trade. The ratio of deranged to adjusted seems more or less skewed in the level-headed’s favour.

But make no mistake, most of these guys are still hungering for a fix, and could be compared to the hungry ghosts who wander exasperatedly around one of the Buddhist hells. A hungry ghost is said to have a large mouth and belly but only a tiny throat…though some are described as having “a mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain”. Whatever. The point is that hungry ghosts can never be satisfied and they are consumed by craving. They are (dead) metaphors for the futile attempt to fulfill illusory physical desire and haunting allegories for all those who suffer from addictions that control and dominate their lives. The addiction could be for drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, power, work, entertainment…or even religion. All addictions are simply an attempt to cover up the fundamental sense that life is suffering.

These guys are on fire in Bangkok.

One of Buddha’s most important sermons is called “The Fire Sermon” in which fire is used as a metaphor for dukkha, the state of suffering or dissatisfaction which characterizes the Buddhist view of everyday life. Here is an extract:

“Monks, all is burning. And what, monks, is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition – whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant – that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death;

The Buddha urged us to dampen down these fires so that they no longer drive us into a distracted dance. In a general sense, this is to be done through meditation and leading a virtuous life so that lust, hatred and delusion fade away and ‘the heart is liberated’. With this liberation comes knowledge and understanding. The word ‘nibbana‘ literally means ‘to become extinguished’. In nibbana, therefore, the fires of lust, hatred and delusion are finally put out and we can experience the cool peace of non-craving.

This is a big ask for a western dude in Bangkok, I think you’ll agree.

And of course it’s not just Buddhism that seizes on fire as a metaphor. In his brilliant books More than Cool Reason and Metaphors We Live By linguist George Lakoff amply illustrates how fire is used in western culture as a central metaphor for passion, anger, and unreason. All of which seems apropos to the currrent discussion.

You can also get burnt in Bangkok in the slang sense of getting ripped off or taken to the cleaners. Mr Stickman has the longest running and, in my opinion, the best Bangkok blog and much of it reads like an extended warning to visiting western men. Here is an extract from an interview with “Stick”.

One really has to question the decision making of some people who seemingly just have to touch the flame, knowing full well that it is going to burn them…A lot of the guys who get burnt are lonely, harmless guys who were at the front of the queue when the almighty was giving out gullibility tablets. Many of them enter into a relationship with a working girl with good intentions and not only do they lose their heart, in some cases they lose their life’s savings too.

Burnt in Bangkok. Burnt by Bangkok. Burning in Bangkok. All part of the fire in Bangkok.

But still and all…some part of me thinks that in the end Bangkok is just another place with the accompanying temptations,frustrations and advantages of any major Metropolis. It’s what you make of it that counts and I know there are long-term western residents of Bangkok who live uneventful, normal, and even monogamous lives there.

Yes, you can piss your life or marriage away in Bangkok or Berlin or Beijing. Granted, Beijing doesn’t have ladyboys or Nana Plaza but at the end of the day the fire in Bangkok, although a hotter, more intense flame than in most other places, is the same flame that burns all over the world. Desire and lust and infedelity and addiction wreak havoc in every country and we are all of us chained to a lunatic. We just have to learn how to talk to him (her?) and calm him down.

The wise old psychologist Jung once said that “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them”. Well, that makes good sense to me, with the proviso that I think “passion” is very often just a fancy word for lust. I think that (with rare exceptions) people who get married to their first lover are asking for trouble later. I think monogamy is unnnatural and fiendishly difficult for many men, and for some women too, and I think we need to come to terms with that.

What we should do is to get mature about it and curb our lusts to civilize ourselves. Otherwise it’s too easy to fall prey to addictions, diseases, and just simply get burnt out. So, with any luck I’m a wiser man than four years ago and if we can talk in psychotopographical terms and say that Bangkok is a state of mind, I am glad I don’t live in Bangkok any more…and so is my wife.