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.


  1. “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.”

    I am in nearly the exact same situation as you, mate. Excellent post and so, so true. Ah…the days of the LBFM. 😉

    Comment by canrun — August 17, 2007 @ 12:30 pm

  2. I travelled Thailand for two years back in 2004, and have been back twice since. The last time I went was the only time I spent any significant amount of time in Bangkok, and it was totally touristical (on my honeymoon and all). I can’t imagine calling the city home like I call Suzhou “home”… I often wonder what would have happened had the Thai school that offered me an ESL position replied before the Chinese one…

    Fantastic post man.

    Comment by The Humanaught — August 21, 2007 @ 1:41 am

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

    Pingback by East-West Station » What do “English teachers” get up to in Thailand? — October 16, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.