At the end of Mark Twain’s masterpiece when Huck Finn wants to escape the civilizing influence of Aunt Sally, he “lights out for the Territory” - which is modern-day Oklahoma.
The Mississippi River was the backdrop to my misspent youth, and Huck Finn was my first important role model.
Now I’m a long way from home, and I’ve lived in Seoul for nearly a decade. When I want to escape the civilizing influence of one or two people who still want to change me, I “light out for Bangkok.”
Would Huck Finn approve? I reckon he might.
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For me, a camera is a passport into other people’s worlds. I prefer the street for this-and-that reason, and some times for no reason at all. It just works for me. Too much introspection often provides no beneficial insights, and only makes me more neurotic than usual. Besides, to know thyself – as the ancient Greeks advised, only “plucks out the heart of my mystery.” Ask Hamlet.
I am drawn to Bangkok for all reasons – mostly because in this city, any thing is possible.
I’ve been in-and-out of Bangkok for a dozen years, and regard the Thai people as cool, and relaxed and, when there is a hustle –whether it’s a taxi driver-as-a tour guide, or a sidewalk entrepreneur offering sexual recreation, it’s all so easy-gong. A respectful: “No thanks,” and the scene disappears – unlike the hard sell one finds on Nathan Road in the Kowloon part of Hong Kong.
As a street photographer, I just want to be a socially acceptable voyeur – using my camera to document the human pageant with a minimum of judgment. I try to avoid interaction with the subjects I photograph – and if someone attempts to draw me into conversation in a foreign setting, I deflect this with: “No English.” And yet there are times when I find myself drifting across this line into Diane Arbus or Nan Goldin territory because I do have an affinity with the subject.
There are flights every evening of the week from both Seoul and Tokyo to Bangkok. By the time you clear immigration and find the hotel shuttle, and then check into your room, it is well into the Midnight hour – sometimes even a bit later.
Of course Bangkok is livelier at 2 a.m. than at 2 p.m. – and many neighborhoods are a little dubious regardless of time.
One evening in mid-June some years ago, I quickly surveyed the nocturnal landscape of Sukhumvit Soi #11 – my favorite neighborhood. After the requisite San Miguel Lite at a non-descript bar, I turned back for headquarters at the President Solitaire hotel.
As I passed a busy club, a dodgy Thai woman in her mid-30s blocked my path and made a bold inquiry. She put her hand between my legs and asked in slightly slurred English: “You want have fun?”
I understood the financial motive behind the question, though I wasn’t entirely confident of the woman’s gender – not in Bangkok, and not in the small hours.
I never answered the question – but, at my age, I welcome sexual harassment from interesting people. However, I wasn’t in the mood for a new acquaintance – and so I told this kind person:
“I must go now. I need to read The Bible.”
“I make you talk to God. I go with you.”
I went to my hotel room alone.
The next afternoon, I strolled to Sukhumvit Soi #4, a flashy yet seedy part of Bangkok about a mile from the Presidential Solitaire.
Bangkok is an interesting mix of first-class and low-class, and sometimes the examples are side-by-side. This particular neighborhood features the notorious Nana Plaza, where anything goes and the going starts around 5 p.m.
People barter and deal with each on the streets for sexual favors and perhaps for the empty gestures of paid, yet lengthier company. The legendary Miss Annie’s features hardened young prostitutes on display through a one-way mirror, primping and strutting for the buyers at this peculiar sex auction.
The spectacle of blatant, degrading capitalism proved too crass, so I moved quietly along the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare among the more conventional crowds of people.
Most seemed oppressively normal, escaping the drudgery of their ordinary jobs.
A few blocks away, I stopped at an imitative Starbuck’s on a Sukhumvit side street and bought an inexpensive drink to salvage a rag of pride; it was time to rest and I wanted an outdoor seat to briefly watch street hustlers one more time.
A coffin dodger stood close by with a small photo album of alluring prostitutes young enough to be his great-granddaughters. A friendly tuk-tuk driver also stood ready to lead willing victims to the neighborhood whorehouse; like sheep to slaughter and so many incorrigible human parasites jockeying for some trickle-down money.
For the uninitiated, a tuk-tuk is essentially a rickshaw with a small engine.
It seems that everyone in Bangkok has a perennially cash-strapped family in a remote village and this is the impetus for why so many people here sell themselves on the street.
As I disengaged from the sidewalk cafe, a peroxide princess sitting at a nearby table tried to strike a friendly conversation. A rough trade female companion, who looked like the daughter of Rosa Klebb, of From Russia with Love, just sat at the table and strongly exuded the L Word.
The peroxide princess extended her hand and introduced herself by some phony name. Allegedly, she was Russian and very glad to meet me.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Dostoevsky,” I said. “Fyodor Dostoevsky.”
“Please, call me Ivanka,” she said, and smiled.
“My grandfather was Russian – from St. Petersburg,” I lied.
“I’m from St. Petersburg, too. It was our fate to meet in Bangkok.”
“I am sure you are right.”
“Fyodor, would you like to fuck me?”
“No. No, not really.”
“Fyodor, please. I will do everything for you.”
And she offered a litany of standard suggestions, plus some amusingly perverted ones, as well.
“For only $50 (1,500 baht).”
“It is lovely to meet you, but I must be going.”
“Fyodor, let’s go now. Where are you staying? Close by, I hope.”
“I really must go. I’ll think about your charming offer.”
“Fyodor, please. Let’s go to your place now. Only $50.”
“I’m so horny, I can’t wait.”
Meanwhile, I noticed that her L Word friend had a face with a certain cadaverous grace and seemed bored by these lowlife shenanigans for quick cash.
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Late nearly every afternoon in mid-June a light, soft rain descends over Bangkok. Allegedly, this is monsoon season yet the weather doesn’t correspond to a deluge of water, so much as the quick showers that affect the Mogollon Mountain range of southwestern New Mexico in midsummer.
After the rain abates everything feels washed and clean once more, pedestrians gradually re-appear and wander along Soi #11, which is soon crowded with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxis. The traditional food vendors with their impromptu carts remained a permanent fixture, regardless of weather – only to be joined in early evening by the literal makeshift restaurants that setup shop on the sidewalk where space allows.
From Seoul-to-Bangkok, the sub-culture of street food is evident in both the morning and the evening. In Seoul, it’s not as lively as the southern part of the Orient (Hong Kong and Manila), but comes on strong by 4 p.m. or so. In a place like Bangkok, the heat keeps vendors off the streets until around 7:30 p.m. …. maybe 8 p.m.
What I’ve noticed in both Seoul and Bangkok is that the vendors are family members, with the couples playing traditional roles; the wife takes the orders and handles the money, and the husband preps and cooks the food … while the son or daughter fill in the gaps.
Yet in Bangkok, husbands are not as visible in the operation - and the women, if they are married, do the lion’s share of all the work.
What’s also interesting in both cities is that the vendors get their carts out of sight during the off-hours … usually on some side-street that is blocks from their set-up for pedestrians, which is always in the same spot, time after time, year after year. This suggests that there is an honor system in place - and no one tampers with your cart - your mobile restaurant.
One night my favorite vendor for sweet-and-sour pork was on one side of the street. He had already setup his cart and the odd tables and the cheap plastic chairs on the side of Soi #11. The food is always good, and for 100 baht (about $3), including a cold can of Coca-Cola, I’m squared away for the evening – except for maybe some beef sotay from another cart that specializes in this tasty snack.
When I was at the “sidewalk” café, the entertainment value from the spectacle of humanity was ideal.
Everyone in the world seemed to traverse Soi #11, and yet this side street hardly compared to busier neighborhoods in Bangkok. Conventional couples passed by, a husband and wife who share any easy familiarity; young couples in their mid-20s in a pointless hurry; the older Western man and the younger Thai woman who had just left a trendy bar after negotiations for pleasurable company.
Occasionally, a bedraggled Hindu man wandered by with a fake Rolex and made a half-hearted sales pitch. On one side of the street, some passive women nearing their early-to-mid 30s sat in uniforms to offer legitimate massages. On the opposite side were more aggressive women in their mid-to-late 20s wearing casual apparel; beckoning and cajoling single white men to enjoy dubious oil massages in dimly lit quarters lacking any ambiance.
I liked it there on Soi #11. I liked the throng of people as they mixed in a tropical climate. I liked feeling that I was in the middle of a Somerset Maugham short story.
As I threaded my way through the mass of people clogging the sidewalk, mostly Arabs with their wives waddling behind in their full-length black bondage costumes (the Iranian females seem to wear a partial metal covering over their faces … suggestive of muzzled dogs), I couldn’t help but notice other vendors who sold boxes of Viagra and realistic wooden dildos.
I was shocked … simply shocked by this flagrant display of decadence and debauchery.
Off to the side, at the beginning of a cul-du-sac that leads to several popular dens of iniquity, was the Russian whore I encountered days before – in the very same spot. Nothing had changed … open for business, you might say.
Ivanka tried to gain my attention with some degenerate ideas, yet I was deeply offended that she didn’t recognize me as her old friend, Fyodor. I was just a wallet with legs.
I denied her three times, and Ivanka was either impervious to rejection or drugged, or lobotomized. I’m sure Boris, her pimp, was nearby.
On my last day in Bangkok that summer, I walked down Soi #11 to a money exchange. The young woman working as a cashier soon asked:
1) How long have you been in Bangkok?
2) Are you here by yourself?
I just wanted to cash-in my Thai baht for U.S. dollars. Yet I knew she was a free-lancer, and all I had to do was ask for her name and phone number, and she would have been in my hotel room later that night – for a reasonable price.
So it goes in Bangkok.