When the farang left his hotel earlier that evening the lights had just begun to come on across the city, in buildings and on streets, as the sun slipped toward Bangkok’s skyline. The sky had been slowly taking on the appearance of an old bruise; yellows and purples layered across its expanse, each sliding into the other in a muted rainbow of disturbing colors as if borrowed from Bosch’s palette. He’d had dinner, figured out which route to take on the Skytrain, figured out which flight of stairs he needed to use to transfer lines at Siam. And now the taillights of cars passing below merged into a steady stream of glowing red lines that intersected the blackness of Bangkok at night.
After the sun went down, the city was a completely different landscape than the one presented to tourists during the day, the farang thought, as he made his way towards the dimly lit set of concrete stairs at Saladang Station, the jostling crowds of excited visitors and bored locals below not providing comfort that he might be headed in the right direction so much as warning him he that wasn’t in Kansas anymore. ‘Cuz in Kansas, they didn’t serve Toto as freshly cooked barbecue on the city’s streets.
So far, on his first day in town, he’d been amazed at how modern the city was, how familiar it seemed. Sure the weird and unexpected jumped out from every corner, and traffic moved down the wrong side of the street, but there was still a sense of the ordinary, a feeling of walking the streets of any major city in the U.S. Although possibly through its China Town or one of its other Asian neighborhoods, and certainly not one of its districts composed primarily of white faces. But at night Bangkok seemed intent on throwing the familiar out the window; it gathered the unfamiliar and exotic of the day in its claws, ratcheted up the weirdness factor, and then embraced every drop of the less than salubrious it could find, creating a strange world that throbbed with desire and want in a never ending display of neon colors. Except for the sodium vapor lights the city’s guiding fathers had opted to use to illuminate their streets, their venom-yellow glare turning the faces in the crowd pushing its way to an exit a sickly shade of ugly. Those lights had been all the rage back in the States at one time too. A good decade or more ago.
What idiot convinced three quarters of the world that dim yellow light that muted the night’s colors was the way to go? That lighting that was supposed to deter crime yet turned the color of blood black – as though it was just another integral part of the night – would ever instill a sense of safety and well-being in its citizens’ souls? It bathed the streets in an indistinct, unnatural glow that never quite rounded out the corners, never brought the reality of the night into focus, did little but cast shadows deeper than what the moonlight could have managed on its own. Not that shadows were necessarily a bad thing, he thought. They allowed you to ignore what your mind feared as one of those shadows scurried past your foot, the rational part of your brain wanting to point out normal urban trash and debris isn’t usually known to scurry. Welcome to Bangkok. The Big Mango. The City of Angels. Where you could dance with the devil to your heart’s desire.
The miasma of the city’s streets that created a scrim of neglect and haze crying out not for reality, but rather suggesting reality should be fed to your dreams, was a perfect metaphor for the town, the farang thought. And then laughed at himself for spending his holiday composing metaphors. I really need to get laid, he told himself. There was something forever savage and primitive about Bangkok at night, something that threatened the alien and conventional both from within and without, and although the town was beautiful and desperately alive, it seemed desperately fragile too. The city overwhelmed. And enlightened. And rewarded. More richly than any promise. But the promises it made were only given with one hand hidden behind its back. With its fingers crossed and a libidinous smile on its face. How could you not love this place?
Hitting the pavement, he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to turn right or left. When in doubt, follow the crowd, he decided, as he merged into the slipstream of tourists making their way up Silom. He’d been warned not to trust touts, but would kill for a tout’s guidance and assistance right now. A landmark would be good too, he thought, which was what Patpong’s night market was supposed to be for his outing. But there was nothing to tell you you were there. There was no there here. Thais must be as big of fans of Gertrude Stein as they were of sodium vapor lighting he decided as the crowd swept him along, past a conglomeration of shanty-like vendor stalls offering cheap trinkets in competition with the not-so-whispered cries of, “DVD! Sexy movie for you!”
He trudged past a Burger King, then a Subway, little imported slices of American life than only served to remind him he wasn’t in America any more. Small, cramped dark openings lead into tiny sois – he assumed they called them sois instead of streets ‘cuz that was the Thai word for alleyway – prodding some atavistic sense within him to steer clear, not realizing as countless tourists who’d come before him had learned, the real danger lurked in the brighter reaches of the red light district’s infamous ode to counterfeit commercialism. His mind flashed on a scene of Leonardo DiCaprio hustling through the gloomy streets in a scene from a movie that was supposed to be set in Bangkok, but was filmed elsewhere. So far, from what he’d seen, that summed up Thailand perfectly.
A brightly lit display of handbags and luggage filling an entire wall and spilling into the road beckoned the bag-addicted down a curving side street; relatively free from Silom’s shoulder-to-shoulder herd of shoppers it offered a bit of space, possibly even a cooling breeze. On the internet they said any of these streets led to where he was headed. They didn’t say those streets were so ill-lit pedestrians were immediately swallowed by darkness. Or that they contained speed bumps. Which seemed to have a greater impact on unsuspecting tourists than on the occasional stray tuk tuk that noisily puttered by, proving that Happy Hour can be detrimental to your health anywhere in the world.
The street straightened itself back out; ahead, the darkness narrowed into a pink pinpoint of neon. A short spur to his left, much livelier, better lit, and anchored by a neon ode to The Sopranos suggested a safer passage, the road not not taken dumping him into a mass of humanity. If by humanity you meant half the population of Thailand busily intent on separating visitors from the cash in their wallets. He didn’t know if he’d finally stumbled upon the night market, or if this was just more of the shopping that presaged it. The clueless, overweight white couples being trailed by their brood of weary children said no. The large lavender and pink neon sign over their heads that promised Super Pussy said otherwise.
Sparkling displays of counterfeit watches and silver jewelry that barely qualified as plated competed with not as stellar displays of female flesh just slightly past its prime. Hanley T-shirts, brand name jeans, and polo shirts bearing on their breast a logo as large as a real pony flashed a rainbow of extravagant colors as he strolled past. Florescent tubes lit the scene, their insistent buzzing providing accompaniment to the vendors’ cries of, “Mistah! Look! For You Mistah!” An end to end Gordian knot of extension cords sagged from above, plastic sheeting drooped even lower, forming a gauntlet for anyone taller than the five feet in height that most locals aspired to. Hands reached out, momentarily grabbing his arm, his shoulder, his leg, not enough to halt his passage, but still enough to slow him down to give yet another barker the chance to shove a poorly xeroxed card in his face promising pussy blow candle. He hoped that wasn’t all a super pussy was capable of, thankful that there was no good reason for him to find out.
Without warning the cheek to jowl line of small stalls that had accompanied his walk for the last fifteen minutes came to an abrupt end, a moving parking lot of cars jammed the junction in front of him, a small sign he almost tripped over finally provided a clue to his location. In triplicate. Patpong Night Market. You are here. Buh, bye. He turned right as he’d been instructed, quickly choosing the relative safety of a street filled with pink and orange taxis over the narrow confines of a sidewalk filled with grotty-looking chefs cooking unidentifiable meats over small charcoal braziers, each of whom undoubtedly thought their food was the cat’s meow. Okay. We won’t go there again . . .
It’s gotta be around here somewhere, he thought, remembering his next point of reference was the dubious mention of a Family Mart on a corner. Back home, before he left on his trip, that direction had sounded specific. Having already seen a dozen or more Family Marts on his first day in town, now, not so much. At least those directions hadn’t included hanging a right at the McDonald’s he’d just passed at the mouth of the night market too. He wondered how many spots in Bangkok could be reached with the directions of turn right at McDonald’s, then look for the Family Mart. But it appeared that for now he was on the right track; the mix of genders surrounding him and what they were on the prowl for was beginning to take on a ratio that would have pleased Kinsey.
A small gathering of dark-skinned men blocking an equally small and even darker gap in the line of buildings across the street drew his attention, the fabled Family Mart just to their left. As the gates to heaven go, the scene was sorely lacking in its heralding of the promised land. He jogged across the street with less regard for pedestrian rights than with a jay walker’s belief that life was one big winning scratch-off lottery ticket, into a tunnel of blue Xmas tree lights dangling from the air, intent on casting an insipid pallor over the vividly white smiles of tuxedoed men calling out their promises of, “Show Now! Show Now!” while a flashing neon sign of rainbow colors overhead screamed Dream Boys, Boys, and More Boys.
The blue light bathing the scene changed to red. Or pink. Or some other shade that mimicked the color of the blood suddenly coursing through his entire body. Discombobulated hands reached out of the night like a scene from one of Date’s lower circles of hell. The street was a mass of bodies, a mass of colors, a mass of frenzy festooned in need and desire that overwhelmed and assaulted his senses. His anxiousness in finding the soi confronted by its reality at once caused him to be both nervous and giddy, excited and scared. The constant tug on his arm from every direction – not the meeting of flesh he’d envisioned for the night – incited a sudden urge within him to escape, to flee back out to the safety of the street, a move that may well have proven to be one of the smarter ones he’d ever made thwarted by the less-salacious oasis of calm that appeared to his right.
Dick’s Cafe. How trite, he thought, plopping down into an empty street-side chair where his popularity came to an abrupt end. Totally ignored by what appeared to be waitstaff busily staring off into the distance, his opportunity to finally catch his breath was eventually intruded upon by a dark, thin, effeminate boy in a livery of greens who mumbled, “Sawatdeeeeeekaaa!” as he used a damp, dirty, worn rag to push crumbs and spilled liquids off the side of the rickety, glass topped table as if making an offering to one of his gods in whom he held little faith. A drink is what I need, the farang thought. Something fruity seemed appropriate.
While settling into his new tradition of being ignored, he took in the scene being played out along the soi just yards in front of him. To his right, a gaggle of young men in white wife-beaters wearing shorts of an abbreviated length not seen since the days of the NBA circa 1971 sat listlessly waiting for a future that held little promise. Across the way, an angry little man with a scowling, Teutonic face broadcasting widespread resentment sucked on a cigarette with a determination that suggested a belief that if he puffed hard enough he could make everyone and everything that dissatisfied him disappear. A narrow staircase lit in yellow directly across from the farang seemed to lead upward to a dead end; a frail, elderly man being helped – or pushed – along its path by a pair of barkers perhaps confirmed that destination, while younger Japanese men traveling in small groups attempted to survive the onslaught of a gauntlet of noisy barkers determined on pulling them into their bar at the risk of leaving a limb behind.
Beyond the scrum of barkers to his left the soi seemed to die off, a too bright sign at its far reaches bleached the contrast of its lettering to a point that he could not decipher just what type of boys that bar offered. Immediately to his left the bar offered future boys, the idea of which left the farang vaguely uncomfortable for some reason. Across the way the sole hold out on promoting the boy theme had gone with X-Size; the intent behind that name eluded him. At best it seemed to be missing two Xs. Or considering the average size of Asian men’s equipment, the false advertising of an added X and a L. Fresh Beach Boys gave him pause too, he wasn’t sure if their freshness was the operable part of that promise, the idea of a bunch of naked beach boys shimmying across the stage seemed enticing enough. He’d heard one of these places had a large aquarium in which the boys swam, showing off their naked bodies. Perhaps that was the place, he thought, although Wet Boys would have been better branding then.
Dream Boy seemed to have hit the mark the best. Or would have if not for that angry little German man still hovering about its entryway, serving as a reminder that not all dreams are necessarily good ones. Hot Male, a bar he’d passed when he first entered the soi, too had stuck to the basics but may have benefited from an s, although a smaller sign at the foot of its stairs clarified that matter by promising 69 sexy boys. The farang wondered if the bar employed 70 men, one of whom wouldn’t qualify as sexy in anyone’s mind, or if the obvious play on positioning was just a ploy, a ruse to lure potential customers up its stairway. There was another bar, or perhaps a few more, designated with that curious X in their name too. But they’d slipped past unnoticed in his attempt to push his way through the aggressive phalanx of barkers. In any case, there were plenty of bars to choose from. How to go about making that choice was the question he faced.
Was the bar’s name enough to go on? Or did the look and appearance of their barkers foretell what waited inside? Proximity might be the way to go, the closer the bar’s entrance the less number of hands reaching out to hinder your passage. Did those with the more active barkers signal a bar that needed business desperately, or one where you were guaranteed of having a good time? His fellow patrons at Dick’s seemed to have a plan of attack already mapped out. After a loud clap of their hands to stir a waiter into fetching their bill – like colonial conquerors of the past confident in their superiority, assured of their place in their new domain of lands filled with brown-skinned people – most made a beeline for one of the bars directly across the soi. Many made as hurried of an exit right back out onto the soi.
His eye kept circling back to the red glow and blackened glass expanse of a bar that seemed to dwarf the others in size just across the narrow soi. With its door at street level, there was no concern of the dangers he’d heard about in patronizing upstairs bars. Except for a street hawker, a bamboo pole draped across his bony shoulders balancing a pair of baskets filled with dried nuts and vegetables – a snack the primarily Caucasian crowd had little interest in – his path looked clear and unimpeded by those intent on steering him elsewhere. And there was something honest in its name; with no attempt to obfuscate and in a color that paid tribute to the district in which it resided, in glowing letters running the length of its frontage it proudly announced its stock in trade: Bangkok Bois. Even its odd spelling seemed to be purposeful, as if to set itself apart from the competition. Or to not promise what should not be promised even here. That might just be the right bar for him, the farang thought. He was, after all, in Bangkok. And it was the city’s boys that he was here for. Keeping a watchful eye on its doorway to see if potential customers walked back out as quickly as they’d walked in, he debated whether he should make a break for it, or if the better part of valor was to have another round.
Fuck the Brits, he thought, not willing to participate in their homage to The Raj the farang threw a suitably large handful of baht on the table – the nice thing about being an American in a foreign land was the ease with which you could dispense with the advice of when in Rome do as the Romans do.We are, by reputation, the ugly tourist. He hurried across the street and stepped through the bar’s doorway into a darkness blacker than a convict’s soul. The resounding echo of the theme to Star Wars filled the room, so heavy on bass that it hurt his teeth. The precise beam of a penlight flickered on next to him, urging him to follow its lead to a seat as a spotlight hit the stage revealing a foursome of young Thai men,flaming candles held reverently aloft, naked but for the gossamer material that draped their loins in glittering folds, a silky covering that accented rather than hid their hard throbbing cocks from view, each of their glistening erections seeming to pulsate with an intensity as deep as the hushed silence that now filled the room.
The men of stage – the litheness of their bodies saying boys – began a slow, serpentine-like dance, their movements causing muscles in their legs to ripple and their high, taught buttocks to flex, to arch, to shimmer in the light like fresh, ripe peaches waiting to be bitten. Tilting the candles they held aloft, hot wax began spilling over, splattering onto their chests, cascading downward over their hardening nipples to form pools in the creases of their abdomen. One by one their diaphanous coverings dropped away, exposing their fully erect cocks to the audience as they moved across the stage. And rudely, a grating voice of undeterminable gender shattered the farang’s fixation with the heady sight of exposed flesh only inches away: “What you drink?”
Him. Him. And him, his mind answered, but voiced Singha instead, allowing the second syllable to dissipate into the dark as was the custom. Focusing on the boys on stage again the farang thought, this was the sirens’ song that had called him to Bangkok, this was why he’d flown thousands of miles from a satisfactory but not very exciting sex life, this was why The Land of Smiles had worked its magic on him before he ever hit its shores: the music, the dance, the celebration of his sexuality, and the boys in the bars of Bangkok.
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