Bangkok Vice: Buddhas, Boxers, and Bar Girls

Doing My Bit for the War Effort
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 4 2007 12:00 PM

Bangkok Vice: Buddhas, Boxers, and Bar Girls

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A Marine, a fisherman, and a writer walk into a pingpong show.

The setup for this joke started at Rajadamnoen Stadium. Along with Lumpini Stadium, this is where Thai men go to drink, gamble, and watch Thai boys punch, kick, knee, and elbow one another in what is by far the most brutal sport on earth: Muay Thai kickboxing. As a fan of all things martial-arts-related, I found myself sitting in the farang section next to a Marine (wiry, intense, and 20 years old) and an Alaskan fisherman, a strapping lad with the kind of fresh-faced awkwardness I associate with the home-schooled.

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We kept our conversation focused on the fights themselves until the Marine surprised me by asking, "Have you read the Patriot Act?"

"No, I've read about it," I said. "I didn't think anyone had read it, not even the politicians who signed it into law."

"Well, I've spent some time studying the document, and I find it frightening how easily they can take away our rights."

"And you're a Marine on R&R from Iraq?" I blurted out.

"Why?" he shot back, mistakenly thinking I was questioning his right to R&R. "It's my final tour of duty."

"Your second or your third?"

"Oh, you've been paying attention." He smiled in such a grateful way, as if surprised that anyone back home cared, that it made my stomach clench with guilt. "It's my third. I'll be done in May."

Before I could stop myself, I made the sign of the cross.

The thought of going home sent the Marine into a reverie about what he would do when his tour of duty was up. He wanted to make some real money, maybe do  something in engineering. He'd never been as good at school as his sister, who, he proudly told us, was at Harvard, but he'd always liked math.

"But only if I come back in one piece. If not, I've got my Disfigured and Disabled List," he said. When it was clear we didn't understand, he continued. "If I come back all fucked up, it's the list of people who I'm going to sort out."

Muay Thai is the national sport, but only for Thai men. Thai women detest it—several I met called me a "bad boy" for expressing an interest in it—for the simple reason that after a night spent drinking, gambling, and learning new ways to hurt someone, their men either come home drunk, broke, and angry or they don't come home at all. "Butterfly" is the Thai term for men who want to pollinate every flower.

The beers had worked enough Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde magic that we all knew we weren't going home yet.

"Pat Pong?" the Marine asked rhetorically.

"Yeah," I said, knowing I shouldn't. My first Muay Thai class was scheduled for the next day, and the dumbest thing I could do (even dumber than Tiger Temple) was show up for the hardest sport on earth tired and hung over. But the irony was too perfect to pass up. Pat Pong, Bangkok's garish red-light district, had been built for U.S. soldiers on R&R leaves from Vietnam—the last time we tried to manage a civil war in Asia.

The tuk-tuk driver took one look at the state of us and asked, "Pat Pong? Pingpong show?"

We still had enough of our wits about us to recognize with one look at the bar (no windows) and the neighborhood he dropped us off in (quiet, residential) that we'd been had. In our infinite wisdom, we decided to walk to Pat Pong.

It took an hour and six 7-Eleven stops for directions, beer, cigarettes, and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red before we wandered into Pat Pong, a flea market bazaar that turns into a bizarre market for sex at night. Touts, tuk-tuk drivers, and flirty bar girls line the streets trying to entice farang, the drunker the better, into various establishments.

As we made arrangements with a tout to take us in, I waved away the Marine as he reached into his pocket. Having done little for the war effort other than shop, I figured the least I could do was buy a Marine a $50 pingpong show.

As he thanked me, he seemed so young and vulnerable that it called to mind something my father had said to me before I left: "Before I put your mother on the phone, I want to talk to you about your trip to Bangkok. I know from my time over there that the Thai women, well, they are even more beautiful than the women of Rio. They are so, ah, delicate. But with all the prostitution, the venereal diseases, they are fire ships."

I was so stunned—because he so rarely speaks about his service in Vietnam, and he had never before used an adjective like delicate in reference to women with me—that I failed to ask him what he meant and had to go online to find out the meaning of fire ships.

"Do you know what a fire ship is?" I asked the Marine.

"Sure, a fire ship was a ship that was filled with explosives, set on fire, and sent into an enemy fleet back when ships were made of wood. Why?"

As I stared at him with concern, a flicker of annoyance crossed his visage. "This isn't my first time in Bangkok."

So a Marine, a fisherman, and a writer walk into a pingpong show.

It was a black box with an elongated stage in the center, surrounded on three sides by a bar, with seating up front and a second elevated level against the walls. As soon as we entered, we were surrounded by waitresses, working girls, and "masseuses." By the time drinks were ordered and we were seated at the bar, I realized the Marine had disappeared.

Twenty minutes later, I looked around and realized the fisherman had disappeared. I found myself sitting next to a lovely young woman from Cambridge and her Scottish boyfriend—surprisingly enough, half the audience was farang women.

On stage, five absolutely stunning Thai women in bikinis danced listlessly, while at regular intervals a naked, chubby Thai woman entered, dropped to her knees, and proceeded to pull various household items out of her moneymaker—the more dangerous-seeming the better. The first time, she grabbed a string, and out came two dozen one-inch nails. The next performance was razor blades. Watching it felt like undergoing FBI profiling: If you find this erotic, you may be a serial killer.

The only nonmacabre moment was the mini bananas (pingpong balls are apparently out of fashion and were never used), which the performer would individually chamber and then catapult into the crowd. As we ducked the incoming missiles, I realized too late that the front row was the splash zone. It was like the Vagina Monologues meets the Shamu show at SeaWorld.

By the time the fisherman returned with a very happy-looking Thai woman under each arm, I had grown bored with the show itself but rather entranced with one of the stunning dancers in the back. It was the Cambridge woman who delivered The Crying Game surprise: "The dancers? They are all ladyboys."

"No!" I exclaimed jumping out of my seat, taking a closer look and feeling very much like a boy from Kansas. "Damn!"

One of the perennial questions about Thailand is why ladyboys (kathoey) are so much more accepted and such a bigger part of the culture than anywhere else on the planet. In Bangkok 8, which is by far the most entertaining book ever written about Thailand, Buddhism is offered as the answer; specifically, the idea that since each soul has gone through multiple reincarnations as both a male and a female, gender distinction is blurrier than in other faiths.

Maybe. My personal theory is that if your country's major source of revenue is tourism, and sexual tourism is a significant portion of that, then you'd want to offer every item on the menu. The latest trend is Japanese women and Thai go-go boys.

In the middle of this deep thought, the madam of the house, a tiny, wizened old crone, rushed up to me and grabbed my arm in terror, "You friend! You friend! He no get up!"

"He can't get it up?" I asked very confused. "What am I supposed to do about that?"

"No! He no get up! He no wake! No can wake you friend!"

"Where is he?" I asked, trying not to panic.

In the bathroom, she opened a side door and led me into the establishment's brothel: a hallway and five tiny rooms. In the third was the Marine, lying flat on his back and naked as the day he was born. For decorum's sake, someone had thoughtfully thrown a washcloth over his privates. Quickly surveying the room, I saw his clothes on the floor and with some relief noted an opened condom wrapper. He had been to Bangkok before.

The relief vanished as I shook his shoulder and he didn't move. I shook him harder, and still he didn't move.

Stepping back, my first thought was: My God, I let one of our boys die on my watch. This was followed by a second more horrifying thought: What am I going to tell his mother?

I leaned near his ear and shouted in my best Full Metal Jacket drill-sergeant impression, "Soldier! On your feet, maggot!"

Like a coiled spring, he was up and standing at attention.

"I think it's time for us to go," I said, handing him his jeans. "I'll wait for you outside."

As I was trying to explain to the fisherman why we should make our exit, the Marine came barreling out of the bathroom. His eyes were wild, still half-stuck in a drunken nightmare. He grabbed my arm and whispered, "We gotta get the fuck outta here." And then he tore down the stairs at full speed.

By the time I had rounded up the troops and made it to the street, he was long gone. "Should we look for him?" I asked.

"If he can survive Fallujah," the fisherman said, "he can survive Bangkok."

"Just to be safe."

As we searched Pat Pong, I thought about how politicians are always calling the troops the greatest soldiers in history, and it struck me that while deifying was better than demonizing them, it still lessened their humanity and therefore made their suffering more mythical and less real and thus less guilt-inducing.

Was this Marine part of the greatest warrior culture in history? I don't know. The blockbuster 300 has made a pretty good case for the Spartans. What I do know is that anyone who reads the Patriot Act and worries over its consequences is far better than we deserve. My biggest hope is he returns in one piece.