Not long ago a friend offered a suggestion for this blog: “Less history, more sex.” I’m in Bangkok now where both exist in abundance, so I thought we’d try a combo package.
I’ve hooked up with a wonderful cab driver named Prasoot Varakorn, and we spent the better part of a day in Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand, then known as Siam. It’s about an hour north of Bangkok, traffic
permitting; on the way we passed the Pinehurst Golf and Country Club, which made me a touch nostalgic.
Ayutthaya (Aye-YOU-tee-ah) is in the valley of the Chao Phraya River, which comes up from Bangkok, and its ruins are spread out over a large area and connected by the contemporary town, which bills itself as “The City of Perfect Balance.” It was founded in 1350 by King U Thong who took refuge there from a small pox outbreak and ultimately declared it the new capital of Siam. The ruins of the “prang” (reliquary towers) and large monasteries are the only remains of former glory.
For more than 200 years Ayutthaya fought off attacks from Burma’s Toungoo Dynasty. In 1593 there occurred a famous elephant duel between Siamese King Naresuan and Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa, who was slain. Thailand still celebrates Royal Thai Armed Forces Day on January 18 in observance of the event.
By 1700 the city had a population of one million, making it one of the largest cities in the world, and between 1600 and the mid 1700s Ayutthaya experienced its Golden Age as trade flourished with Holland, France, Portugal and Japan, and culture blossomed as well, especially art and literature.
But the city finally fell to a 40,000-strong force from Burma in 1767; the invaders burned everything, destroying all the buildings, the art, the books. After finally capturing Ayutthaya following hundreds of years of trying, the Burmese immediately left the smoldering city to go defend their own capital from the Chinese, and they never returned.
Soi Cowboy is one of three areas of Bangkok known for the “romance” trade, the others being Nana and the legendary Patpong. “Soi” means little road, and Soi Cowboy is only about 400 meters long, but every inch of it is packed with bars and clubs and an endless supply of young girls trying to attract “farang”: foreigners. The area got its name from a cowboy hat wearing African-American soldier named T. G Edwards, who opened a bar there in 1977.
The street is like a mini Las Vegas strip: wall-to-wall neon and fabulous people watching. I walked from one end to the other and took a seat at a round top outside a club and ordered a Chang beer. There was an outdoor bar with a bartender and three waitresses, a fat bouncer sitting by the door pretending to check IDs, and seven girls out front whose sole responsibility was to entice customers to enter the club. Six of the girls were talking and giggling among themselves. The seventh one was older, sturdier than most of the reed-thin waifs working these joints, and best of all she was more than willing to sit down and talk about her life and the Soi Cowboy scene.
Yui is 33 and has a 10-year old daughter who doesn’t live with her but who she calls every day. She has had
serious boyfriends from Finland and Australia who took her to nice places, and she had hopes both times for something permanent, but they both left her for younger Chinese women. I asked her how much longer she would do this. “Everything OK now,” she said. “I no think about that.” Like every other girl on the street she holds out hope for a farang Prince Charming to take her away to an easy life in New Zealand or Switzerland or Norway, but I had to believe that if her window of opportunity wasn’t shut, it was closing rapidly.
I asked her what it was like inside the club. “Downstair, girl dance and dress normal. Upstair, girl dress like schoolgirl. They all come to you, rub your leg: ‘Oh daddy, you like me? You want to take me home? You so strong.’ They all say same thing.” Any of the girls are available at two-hour increments for a $20 payment to the club and $100 (negotiable) for the girl.
I asked her to point out some of Bangkok’s infamous ladyboys. “No ladyboy in Soi Cowboy. But in Patpong and Nana, many ladyboy. And you no can tell. They all have snip snip.” I winced as she made a scissors-like motion. “Only one way you can tell,” she said, pointing to my throat. She told me the fat bouncer was French; I guess most Thai men aren’t big or threatening enough. “He so fat because every day he eat pizza,” Yui said, and right on cue one was delivered.
I gave her a few baht for her time and thanked her for not trying to hustle me into the club or buy her a $25 glass of ginger ale; she seemed to understand that my purpose was more anthropological than amorous. But learning the ropes from a nice lady like Yui and watching the Soi Cowboy parade go by was a great way to pass a couple of hours … and a lot less expensive than the alternative.
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In truth Bangkok is so much more than these two sides: it is a vibrant, contemporary city with a thriving economy, up-to-date infrastructure, functional public transportation and a booming real estate market. It is clean, which is refreshing after being in cities where garbage is dumped on the side of the street and into rivers and streams. The traffic can be intense but drivers actually stop for red lights and no one honks their horn. It’s a very impressive place.
And now my intrepid friend Elle has arrived so the next ten days will be a true vacation, including elephant rides in Chaing Mai and a beachside hotel in Hua Hin and drinks with umbrellas in them. Pictures to follow!