As the world tour rolled on, I was feeling tired. On this latest circumnavigation, I had hit six countries so far. Travel is exhausting. Especially when the schedule is breakneck, requires flights, and is chiefly international. My little retinue had become efficient. We were the first to disembark the planes, the first to passport control, the first to baggage claims, and the first to the taxi stands. We had it down to a science.
But I was still tired. It occurred to me that I had not taken a single day off thus far. I did the same thing on my first circumnavigation. That is for a variety of reasons: I am, by nature, driven; I had a job to do and that meant seeing as much as possible in every country; and I don’t like wasting time. But international travel also causes you to lose track of time and, occasionally, even where you are. Is it Saturday? Where am I now? Hong Kong again? You often feel like you need to get your bearings.
Elephant riding in Thailand
Reaching the hotel, I decided to take a walk. On the hotel’s recommendation, I headed for the famed Sukhumvit Road. High fashion, expensive hotels, super cars, souvenirs—they can all be found there. But there is unpleasant side to Bangkok, and I was, unwittingly, going to encounter it.
“Hey, there handsome,” a woman—was it a woman?—suddenly reached out to me from my left. Immediately, another grabbed at my right elbow and a third stood, arms crossed, blocking my way, completing the triangulation. Prostitutes all, they had appeared from alleyways and were physically aggressive—grabbing, pulling, putting their arms around me. In today’s world, this certainly would constitute sexual harassment. To be clear, I wasn’t harmed, but I was, how shall I put it? Embarrassed, uncomfortable, horrified.
With more than a little effort, I pulled free and walked on. Such women were everywhere and to notice them, no matter how innocently or momentary, is to invite them to rush you. I put my earbuds in, turned the music up, and made sure to keep my eyes straight ahead or down. I have now learned that this tactic works with pushy street merchants and with these, well, street merchants of a different sort. Once they see that you can’t hear them, they tend to move on to the next person coming down the sidewalk. Glancing behind me, I could see the next fellow being assaulted in similar fashion. He looked bewildered. But the man next to him appeared to be negotiating. I thought of the lyrics of Murray Head’s 80s hit One Night in Bangkok:
“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
And if you’re lucky then
the god’s a she.
I can feel an angel sliding up to me.”
Only they aren’t angels. The incident didn’t anger me, it filled me with sadness and something more; something like disgust and a wave of nausea swept over me. I can’t really describe the feeling adequately, but I actually thought I might vomit. This feeling was compounded by my embarrassment. With so much worldly experience, so much travel, so many encounters with people at all levels of society, I suddenly felt naïve. This was not the first time I had been propositioned. If you travel widely, it is an inevitability. But there was something different about it on this occasion. I wasn’t in a dark corner of the city. I was in the heart of it, near exclusive hotels and restaurants. Maybe it was the brazen, accepted nature of it all.
Hailing a tuk-tuk, I jumped in, and ordered the driver to tour me up and down the Sukhumvit. I just needed a breather until I could decide where I would go next. From the safe distance of this little vehicle, I would see the city. Tuk-tuks are the automotive equivalent of a rickshaw. Like scooters, they dominate the roadways of the Third World. Think of a large tricycle with an engine and a roof over the head of the passengers. The driver, a young man, suddenly wheeled off of Sukhumvit Road. Still shaking from what had just happened, I just let the wind blow through my sweaty hair and drank deeply from the bottle of water he gave me before objecting.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You want to see the city, yes?” He gave me a broad smile in the rearview mirror.
“Uh, yeah, but I’ll decide where we go. Not you.”
“Do you need a suit?” He was still cheery.
“Suits are cheap here. Excellent quality. Do you need one?”
He stopped in front of a suit shop and turned to face me.
“Listen, if you help me, I will help you.”
The look of annoyance on my face prompted him to explain.
“I get money for every tourist I bring here. If you go in for just a few minutes, I get paid. I will give you discount.”
“I’m a capitalist. I’ll do it.”
A few minutes later, I returned. He seemed pleased. From there he drove all over Bangkok pointing to this and that landmark. This was more pleasant and I was feeling better. Then he stopped in front of another place.
“It’s happy hour,” he said, and then, with a sweep of his hand, pointed at what looked like a night club.
What? A bar? I thought.
It soon became clear that it was a brothel. Women, dozens of them, all scantily clad, milled about and beckoned me. I felt like Odysseus.
A woman, all smiles, approached.
“They are all ‘clean’,” he said. “They are checked regularly by doctors. Women on the street? Disease! Not these pretty ladies!”
“You don’t like them?” a man said from the sidewalk. “What do you want?” His question left me with the distinct impression that he was prepared to indulge any appetite.
“Get me out of here,” I said to the tuk-tuk driver.
Hearing me say this, the face of the woman who had approached me, the picture of warmth and affection only moments ago, instantaneously transformed into an expression of startling hatred. Honestly, she was frightening. The transformation was so absolute that I halfway expected her to grow fangs and claws before my eyes. I had the urge to run.
It seems my reaction was not the one to which my driver was accustomed. We sped away at my insistence, but he was sullen, quiet, and probably (rightly) feared his tip was going to suffer. This is a common tactic, and I had fallen for it. I had made a rookie mistake. However, this was a new twist on an old ruse. A jewelry store? Yes. An “authentic” Oriental rug outlet? Yes. A souvenir shop? Always. Taxi drivers and guides the world over will try to coerce you to enter these places and spend your money. But a brothel? This was a first.
Lonely Planet says of this Bangkok scam: “Expecting your tuk-tuk to take you where you’ve asked, or your tour bus to drop you back at your hotel? You must be crazy…. This scam becomes a lot more hair-raising at night when the journey to the cool nightclub recommended in your guide book becomes a tour of dodgy prostitute bars and a refusal to take you home.”
After a few minutes, my driver spoke up:
“You aren’t a tourist.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You don’t ask questions and you keep to yourself. It takes a lot to impress you.”
“Brothels don’t impress me.”
I had been in Bangkok for only a few hours and had already been exposed to the seedy underbelly for which it is famous. The city was living up to its unfortunate reputation. This was the sort of place where the souls of men are sullied and destroyed. The song nails it:
“One night in Bangkok
makes a hard man humble,
Not much between
despair and ecstasy.
One night in Bangkok and
the tough guys tumble,
Can’t be too careful
with your company.
I can feel the devil walking
next to me.”
The Devil, indeed. Hard men, tough guys—I’m sure men (and women) of every sort have been sifted like wheat here. If what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, what happens in Bangkok stays with you, seared into your memory.
At this point, my reaction to Bangkok was visceral. I hated it. I wanted to leave. But this is a tale of two cities, that is, one city with two sides.