Bangkok Vice: Buddhas, Boxers, and Bar Girls

Khao San Road and the Emerald Buddha
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 2 2007 1:41 PM

Bangkok Vice: Buddhas, Boxers, and Bar Girls

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In the beginning there was Jon Stewart irony, and it was good. And then there was Steven Colbert meta-irony, and it was better. But then I discovered meta-meta-irony, and it scared me straight.

In a tiny bookstore on Khao San Road, Thailand, with a bottle of duty-free Jack Daniel's in one hand and a copy of Alex Garland's The Beach (with Leo DiCaprio on the cover) in the other, I was looking through the window at the most dense, most multiethnic, most unwashed group of truth-seeking wanderers I'd ever encountered in one locale, when I made the mistake of cracking open the book and reading its opening: "The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road. Khao San Road was backpacker land. … Khao San Road is a decompression chamber."

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Khao San Road is only a decompression chamber if you are ascending from Laos or Vietnam. I had descended from Midtown Manhattan, and Khao San Road was giving me the bends. I wanted to shout, "Get a job." Then I remembered that travel journalism isn't exactly coal mining, and I exhaled nitrogen and whiskey as I merged with the never-ending party.

Khao San Road is where WTO protesters go to vacation. It is a collection of cheap hostels, Internet cafes, semi-legit massage parlors, disreputable travel agents, nightclubs, and endless stalls manned by Thai merchants willing to cater to the desires of the First World's spiritually confused, culturally eclectic youths. And what do they want? Primarily, tattoos, henna, and dreadlocks. As I walked past a Thai grandmother braiding Bob Marley hair into a twentysomething Japanese head while a Thai man was needling Superman's symbol onto his shoulder, I thought: If this is where peace, love, and understanding lead, then let's give war a chance.

My morning was spent blearily drinking with a table full of Australians on multiyear walkabouts. This inevitably led to a heated argument about whether Foster-drinking, g'day-mate, crocodile-hunting Australia actually exists or is simply a myth invented by pommy descendants too embarrassed to admit that they'd been banished and never found a home to call their own. As the debate raged on, I found myself significantly outnumbered and decided that I should probably start exploring the city.

Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok, older even than the city itself, having been built in the 17th century. At its center is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which houses a 45-meter statue of the Buddha lying down and smiling from ear to ear like he has just had the best massage. Because the Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under a tree rather than nailed to it, his iconography has a decidedly less tragic demeanor than Jesus'. Even his death—the result of eating a bad piece of pork, which he knew was rotten beforehand but digested anyway to prove his detachment from life itself—has a certain comic appeal. It's hard to imagine even bloody-minded Mel Gibson making a film about it: The Passion of the Trichinosis.

Leaving Wat Pho, I wandered the southern wall of the Grand Palace, looking for its entrance until I eventually ran into the gem-shop scam.

Every country has its con artists. Ours we call Congress. Thailand's are called tuk-tuk drivers, and they earn commissions by luring tourists into their three-wheeled auto rickshaws and dropping them off at dodgy shops. The gem-shop scam involves a tout who tells confused tourists that the popular attraction they want to see, like the Grand Palace, is closed for the next couple of hours, but in the meantime, his friend the tuk-tuk driver can take them, for a minimal fee, to some of Bangkok's other sites. Before the destinations are reached, the tuk-tuk driver, claiming an empty tank, will stop outside a gem store and encourage the tourists to go inside while he gets a gas voucher.

I know this because I read about it in The Rough Guide to Thailand on the plane ride over. I know this because while looking for the entrance to the Grand Palace, a tout came up to me and said in the strikingly solid English found throughout Bangkok, "Sunday Grand Palace is closed to farang until 2 p.m."

(Farang is the Thai term for white foreigners, and not once did a Thai use it in my presence without smiling awkwardly and looking away. Farang is their F-word. And, given the history of Western involvement in southeast Asia, it should be.)

I'd like to say that I walked away. I'd like to blame the fact that I didn't on jet leg and Jack. But the truth is, his patter was silky smooth, and his smile was radiant. It wasn't until my tuk-tuk driver had to stop for a gas voucher and pushed me into a low-rent gem shop run by an Arab man—"You like gems? Everyone likes gems! We have the best gems in Bangkok!"—that I realized I was the sucker at the table.

Frustrated that I refused to buy anything in any of the stores or remain in them for more than a few minutes, my tuk-tuk driver finally abandoned me at the Golden Mount, a mediocre temple on top of a huge mound of dirt. It took me two more tuk-tuks and two more gem shops before I finally made it back to the Grand Palace. Outside its gates, a different tout told me it was closed to farang until 4 p.m.

One of the most important concepts in Thai is jai yen (cool heart), which gives you some indication of how frustrating the country can be. The tout took one look at me, saw that my heart was anything but cool, and dashed off.

Located inside the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo was built as the royal temple, and with its brilliant, outlandish color scheme and oddly sized structures looks like the kind of spiritual playground Donald Trump would create if he happened to be a gay Buddhist dwarf. Speaking of gay Buddhist dwarfs, Wat Phra Kaeo houses the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's holiest icon. Made of green jade, this 18-inch statue sits atop what appears to be a vault-sized wedding cake made of gilt and gold. I'm joking, of course, about the Emerald Buddha being gay—as an enlightened being, he is free from desire for either gender, making him technically a bored bisexual—but he does possess three Liberace-fabulous outfits, which, according to custom, the king of Thailand himself personally changes at the beginning of each of Thailand's three seasons: spicy, steamed, and fried.

But I shouldn't joke about the Emerald Buddha. For one thing, the Thais are a bit touchy about their national icons, and in particular their king—my first cab driver said to me, apropos of nothing, "The king is my heart." And the Emerald Buddha is the most important religious idol in southeast Asia. For centuries, the Burmese and the Thais have been playing capture the flag with the statue because of his reputed spiritual powers. Pilgrims from all over the world visit the Emerald Buddha in search of miracles.

Personally, my view of holy sites is that it's more about the journey than the destination, but the most surprising thing happened to me as I walked into the Emerald Buddha Temple. I took one look at him, and I felt my soul become cool and calm. It wasn't mind-blowing, but it was noticeable, and I hadn't felt anything quite like it in a long time.

That evening, I fell asleep early and had the most wonderful, life-affirming dreams where there was peace on Earth, good will between men, and I happened to be extremely popular with the ladies. And I woke up confused, because my dreams are usually a cross between Mad Max and Lord of the Flies. As I wondered what could account for the change, the image that popped unbidden into my mind and stayed there was of the Emerald Buddha. He looked marvelous.

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