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Bangkok
One Night Is Not Enough


"Love it, hate it, or just like it, the Kok is one of a kind where contrasts collide.  Third World and First World, upscale highrises and sewer stenched tenements , street stall foods and elite deluxe hotel cuisine.  European expats on expense accounts brush shoulders (and rub their pelvises in intimate embraces) with Lao, Burmese, and Filipino maids.   Anything and everything goes on in the Kok.  Spend enough time here, and your definition of reality is altered more than regularly doing LSD."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


Way back in 1985, Murray Head sang about "One Night In Bangkok."  That was probably the first time I ever thought about the place, though in an abstract way.  I wasn't considering an eventual relocation there. 

Bangkok became my first impression of Thailand way back in '94.  Flights back then landed at Don Muang Airport, since curtailed to mostly domestic flights with the opening of Suvarnabhumi in 2006.  My flight from the United States was routed through India, and I didn't get to Bangkok until past midnight.  The airport by then was mostly deserted.  I caught a taxi with a Frenchman, Fabrice, and we wound up sharing a room on the infamous Khao San Road for several days and then going traveling together.

Bangkok was very different in the mid-1990's.  The ultra-modern air conditioned shopping malls hadn't yet spread their tentacles throughout the capital.  And there wasn't a Skytrain or Mass Rapid Transit system built yet.  I vaguely recall walking past the Hard Rock at Siam Square and eating at a restaurant there that I later revisited more than a decade later.  Street traffic was just as bad, if not worse, than today. 

Grand Palace

You won't be feeling like you're anywhere else when you're in Bangkok

Much of the place hasn't changed at all.  There are still tuk tuk drivers offering to drive you around for 'free' as they stop at souvenir and tailor shops awaiting you to buy at marked up prices so they can score 30% commissions; or "helpful" locals willing to show you a special promotion on worthless gems you'll be assured you can sell for multifold profits back in your homeland.   Such things will probably still be going on in Bangkok two decades from now.  

What has changed is the grandiose factor.   Swank air conditioned shopping malls are found all over the city.  There are so many malls selling name-brand merchandise at prices higher than the West that I often wonder how the country produces enough rich Thais to afford it all.   With the promulgation of the internet, the fancy gadgets you see in your home country are here at the same time.  It's a misnomer to call Thailand a third-world country anymore.      

   
What The Kok Has Got

In one word, everything.  Everything minus a real beach, that is.  The Globalization and World Cities Research Network lists the Kok as an Alpha minus world city, in the same category as Warsaw, Rome, Stockholm, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam. 

There is no other city/town in Thailand remotely like Bangkok.  It as if all business, industry, and entrepreneurial spirits has been channeled here, which is a real pity because there are numerous other locales in spacious Thailand that could focus as hubs for business and cultural investment if the government were to develop those areas.   As a result, Bangkok gets bigger and bigger, with more and more traffic and more and people, as both foreigners and Thais alike come here because, in many cases, there's no other location in Thailand they feel has the opportunities.   Everywhere else in Thailand is a limited view of one place, a single aspect of the country.  Bangkok is like taking a 360 degree panoramic camera and capturing it all at once.  To some degree, all capital cities serve as visual indexes of the entire country, but Bangkok does this in ways places like Washington, DC and New Delhi don't.  You can see the Lanna from Thailand's north, the Isaan from the Northeast, and the Muslims from Thailand's south without having to make an effort to spot the differences.

 

Chao Praya Koreatown Patpong
Bangkok from three different vantage points (l to r):   Chao Phraya River, where boat transport is available and many times faster than going by road (left); one of the city's ethnic areas: Koreatown (middle);  the sex district of Patpong that drains millions of male tourists per year of bodily fluid DNA samples (right)

The best -- and possibly worst -- of everything in the country is here.  There's an iMax screen, a 4D theater.  Arguably, the most famous massage school in the nation, at Wat Po, is here.  The largest travelers' ghetto in the Kingdom on Khao San Road is here, so large, so developed, so popular, people have heard of it who've never been to Thailand and who aren't traveling on skinflint budgets.   Thai language courses?  Bangkok has them in spades, in all price ranges.  The building in which my course is held has over a dozen institutes, and you don't need to look far to stumble onto another one.  Thailand's two best universities, Thammasat and Chulalongkorn, are here.  For the relocated expat or sexpat, there's no other place in the Thailand with even a fraction of the international schools for the kids they already have or the ones they'll soon be siring with local Thai vixens half their ages.  I can count over ten Christian International schools, if you're into the Christ thing in the land of the Buddha, and over a half dozen international boarding schools.  Do you want schools with international baccalaureate programs?  Over a dozen.  British international schools?  More than two dozen.  I haven't checked into it, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were internationally accredited stripping and pole dancing schools here, too.

medical tourism ThailandShopping malls aren't new to Thailand.  They were here in the mid 1990's when I first showed up, but the malls back then looked like 1970's relics, more like bazaars stuffed into one space.  No air conditioning, very little in the way of Western comforts.  Better malls have spread throughout the nation, and you can find multi-floor structures in Udonthani, Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, and beyond.  But there are no mega-shoppingplex universes, like the Siam Paragon or Emporium, anywhere else but the Kok.

Worried about getting sick?  The Kok has you covered.   Western standard hospitals with Western-educated docs are all over the Kok.  Since the Noughties, Thailand has been making an aggressive bid to develop the medical tourism market from citizens currently being ripped off in their native Middle East, U.S., and European Union.  Bumrungrad Hospital is the Kok's hospital showpiece.  It doesn't take much to beat the heart-attacking inducing rates a U.S. hospital will charge you after you've had a heart attack.  Once you've been in the Kok awhile, you'll start to realize Bumrungrad's rates aren't so sweet.  Overall, India is less expensive than Thailand for medical tourism and much wealthier Singapore, not substantially more costly than Thailand given it's a First World nation.   I have so far visited Bumrungrad*, Piyavate*, Samitivej*, and Bangkok Adventist Hospital.  For all hospitals marked with a *, I'd advise you to top up your wallet multiple times before entry.  Bangkok Adventist is the only hospital I've yet been to which has a vegetarian cafeteria and grocery store on the premises.   Their mission, unqiue among hospitals, is to actually prevent heart disease rather than bilk you after you've gotten it.   

A Melting Pot Or Just A Pot With A Lot Of Nations In It?

In 1994, I didn't notice how varied the resident nationalities were.   Perhaps I didn't notice because back in the mid-1990's, the number of foreign-born residents in the Kok wasn't high.   It's still not sky high but it can seem that way.  Estimates suggest several hundred thousand Western expats live in the Kingdom, most of them in the Kok, and that doesn't take into account high numbers of other Asian relocatees, from Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and China.  Even if half a million foreigners live in the Kok, that's still just about 4% of the population.  I dissected the number of foreigners living in Thailand here.   Doug's Republic estimates that over 70% of the total foreign expat population lives in and around the Kok.

Soi ArabThis has turned Bangkok into a multicultural city.   Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Africans tend to congregate in the areas between Sukhumvit Soi 3 and Soi 5.  Soi 3/1, located smack dab between Soi 3 and 5 is known as Soi Arab, filled with Middle Eastern restaurants and plump halal-loving Muslims smoking the shisha. 

Koreans are scattered around the city.  Their focal point is Koreatown, a mall known as Sukhumvit Plaza just next to Soi 12.  The Japanese have made the biggest impact, as both tourists and residents.  Entire apartment buildings from Phrom Pong near the Emporium shopping mall all the way past pricey Thong Lor are dominated by Japanese.  Had the Japanese government known how easy it would be to occupy Thailand in the modern era, using everyday citizens and businessmen as the non-violent soliders, it's doubtful the Japanese government of the 1940's would have expended the energy to twist Thailand's arm during World War II.  The Chinese presence, though numerous, isn't as strongly felt.  The overseas Chinese don't have an established community, like the Koreans and Japanese, and there are already plenty of Chinese-Thais as part of the Thai population, honoring Chinese customs.  A foreigner isn't likely to be able to pick out an overseas Chinese from the Thai crowd. 

I didn't realize how many Burmese and Filipinos were here until my wife and I posted a maid application online.  The rules of the web site dictated the advertisement had to be in English, not Thai.  Burmese and Filipinos inundated our inboxes with enquiries, expecting us to provide the work permits, which leads me to the logical conclusion that reams of them are here illegally. 

The white-skinned expats, though less numerous, stick out more.  You can see countless Brits gathering in pubs along Sukhumvit, many of the buildings quite authentic in the interior, the greasy pub grub served, and the British-like prices charged.  What can be said in their favor is that they really are as close to a British Isle pub as you'll find in Thailand.  Too often the word 'pub' gets used indiscriminately to describe any kind of establishment serving a bottle of beer without regard as to whether the business conveys any sort of public house atmosphere which pubs in Britain are famous for.  I can readily think of a half dozen such pubs stretching from just Asok, say Soi 14, to Phrom Pong on Soi 33.  One of these British-style places, ironically owned by a German, brews its own beers, which are very affordable during Happy Hours. 

German eateries and brauhauses aren't unknown.   I'm not particularly fond of German food, so I don't search these out, yet I can still think of three without even trying to.  French and Italian places are plentiful, too, initially started in nearly all cases by natives of those countries.  The interesting phenomena is that as these Western cuisines have become more popular and Thais more familiar with them, Thais are now starting similar concerns.

farangs ThaisDespite the wide number of nationalities present, the various communities do not really mix with one another.  You can see a European dining in Soi Arab or a Japanese in a British pub, but it remains uncommon for one member of a community to date/marry or spend significant time with a member of another unrelated community.  The Koreans and Japanese, especially, tend to live within their own communities, and it's quite possible for their language skills in both English and Thai to be almost nonexistent.   Far more common is for all these different foreign communities to interact -- sexually, at the very least -- with the local Thais.  While still not an everyday sight, you will see a Japanese (male)-Thai (female) union over a Japanese-Arab or Japanese-Chinese one.  There's still strong socialization pressure in the Muslim and East Asian communities to eventually settle down and spread their 'pure' seed with one of their own.

The farangs (= Europeans or Westerners of European descent) form a very loose community unto themselves not determined specifically by nationality, a result of how Westerners interact with each other anywhere else and how they've looked at the world since the days of European colonization 500 years ago.  In other words, though there may be Scandinavian community or Dutch community, you're more likely to see these nationals interacting socially with fellow Westerners of any nationality. 

Social interaction among Westerners does not lead to sexual interaction as it might back in the West.  In Europe it is not considered rare for two Westerners of different nationalities to marry each other.  No one's head turns when they see a French-German or British-Dutch couple.  This intra-culture mixing, as noted, is not so common among Asians.  In Thailand, it remains rare for two Westerners meeting here to form a union.  In Bangkok, if you happen to bump into a Brit married to an American, you can almost guarantee the two met somewhere else before.  The Westerners in Bangkok, if they arrive in the Kingdom single, tend to, without exception, prefer (sexual) interaction exclusively with Thais, even over their own nationality.  This is dealt with in great detail here. 

So what you get at the end of the day is hardly a melting pot, but more like a colorful salsa with different ingredients mixed together but which you can taste separately.  Thailand and the (usually female) Thais are the glue which links all the communities to the country and to each other. 

Big City Copulation Paradise

I wonder if the Tourism Authority of Thailand will ever add "cheap sexual thrills" as one of the reasons foreigners can state for their reason for coming to Thailand.  We're cognizant if someone were asked after the fact what he -- notice, it's primarily males we're talking about here -- liked about his trip to Thailand, the answer would be varied and go something like this:

I loved the inexpensive food and drink and the beautiful sunsets and the convivial nature of the Thai people.  (long pause, voice lowers) And I didn't mind the ultra cheap sleazy bar-side pickups. 

Here's the question no one is asking.  If tomorrow, bar-side pickups, sleazy and easy prostitution, and fish bowl style screwing massages were outlawed, how many of these tourists or residents loving Thailand would continue to love it?

Vietnam WarThink about this for a second.  What's a key difference between the three Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore? Try this answer on for size:  you don't have cheap, easy, sleazy screwing opps in Malaysia and Singapore.  Singapore is a first-world nation.  Everything works, everything maybe except the corny pickup line you tried on Miss Singapore or the $20 bill you handed the local Singaporean hooker and she spat upon for being an insultingly low offer.  Malaysia is slightly better off economically than Thailand.  It, too, has beautiful and even less crowded beaches and is an extremely economical place to live.  Why isn't Joe Sexpat touring and living there?  Because the hooker and pickup scene can't compare to Thailand, and the Muslim culture jacks up the cost of drinking, which in turn puts a stranglehold on destroying the inhibitions that can lead to the cheap pay-for-play scene.

Bangkok is much more than a big city copulation paradise, but that's probably not what the American GI's thought when they came here for R & R during the Vietnam War.  They called it I & I, for intercourse and intoxication. Doug's Republic argues that, although prostitution was nothing new in Thailand by the time the 1960's rolled around, this was the first time easy, sleazy inexpensive screwings became well known to those outside the region. A 1967 Bangkok magazine reveals the nightlife on offer to American soldiers at that time.   First Bangkok, then outlying areas like Pattaya, became developed to provide the thrills and chills the visitors craved.  Many of the visitors later appreciated the further charms Thailand had to offer; but if the sexual perks of Bangkok hadn't been there from the very beginning to entice them, would they have ever noticed Thailand's other bonuses later?

PatpongI have a friend named Johnny Oz.  He claims he's a cultural traveler, but that's a load of rubbish.  He will choose a travel destination solely on whether he can pay for cheap action.  Once in a country, his entire trip will be planned around the bars and clubs he'll visit.   A sample Johnny Oz itinerary in Bangkok:  (1) wake up  (2) eat Western breakfast  (3) visit Western-style shopping mall, maybe watch English-language movie   (4) Hang out at Western expat bar and eat Western snacks  (5) Relax in room until  (6) Drinks and dinner at Western establishment  (7) Hit discos, bars, and sleazy coffee houses for a pay for play pickup in Patpong, Nana, or Soi Cowboy  (8) Go to bed, with paid partner, wake up, kick her out, rinse, and repeat.    

How many other visitors to the Kingdom annually do you think have an identical itinerary?

Pattaya is probably the sex capital of the universe, with more sexual venues crammed per square meter than anywhere else in the galaxy.  But big city Bangkok is where whoremongers, perverts, and sexually uptight tourists can par-tay in the widest range of venues.   There are tiny bars with a pool table and a few Changs and Singhas in the cooler and also upscale clubs with cover charges and imported DJ's.  Freelance hookers always find their way into the establishments and charge prices to match the venue they were picked up in.   Whatever is finally paid, it still winds up cheaper than going out for a night of vodka and tonics in Perth and going home alone.  That's the Kok's claim to fame.

The majority of foreign visitors to Thailand don't engage in the sex trade nor are the majority of Thai women prostitutes, as many who've never been to the country mistakenly believe.  Depending on which statistics you look at, only 5-10% of the fluid exchanges going on are between foreigners and Thais; the majority of the copulation paradise's reputation is Thai-on-Thai activity.  But let us not discount that Bangkok's unique mix of cost effective pickups bordering on girlfriend experiences with comfort and value creates a nightlife that is hard to match elsewhere.  Enjoy repopulating the planet!


 

Copyright © 2009-2014. All Rights Reserved.

  



Insights From A Travel Mastermind

 Bangkok has it all. A great Skytrain, sexual districts like Patpong and Soi Cowboy, universities like Chulalongkorn, hospitals such as Bumrungrad. Stay in Thailand's travel ghetto on Khao San Road and get there via the Chao Praya River. Okay?