The Games People Play

Some years ago, one of the reasons my Significant Other (SO) and I decided on Bangkok is there’s a direct flight from Bangalore. Airports being what they are, the less one needs to be in them, the better.
A few short hours on Thai Airways, which is not as smooth as silk, more like tussar I’d say and you’re in Bangkok. The airport is called Suvarnabhumi which sounds suspiciously Sanskrit. I’m not sure if it was in Arrivals or Departures, but there was this enormous papier maché tableau of Hindu gods defeating some demon, a serpent I think, and signs all over claimed that this was Thai legend. Ah well, people will believe what they want to believe.
I was told by hotel staff that one did not go around trashing the King of Siam under any circumstance. His name is His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and to tell you the truth, plagiarism of legend notwithstanding, I would have never dreamed of trashing him. In my book, this king is cool.
The guitar player Larry Carlton wrote a piece to commemorate his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as king. A big concert followed in Bangkok, and a king who likes jazz can write whatever he wants on tableaus at any airport.
Most people go to Bangkok city to shop. There are zillions of malls but old SO and I are shopped out. If we look at another mall again, we may explode.
We could have gone to Phuket or Pattaya to catch sun and sea, but SO gets very tense when he’s relaxed. Ergo, we stayed put in Bangkok.
Oddly, we picked the Bangkok Hilton, which in druggie-euphemism is jail! The Hilton is on the river, very nice and you need to take a boat to go here and there.
So what is the one thing you can do in Bangkok you can’t do in Singapore, Malaysia or Bangalore?
Patpong of course.
Patpong is an entertainment district, top in the tourist guides for nightlife, catering almost exclusively to foreigners. It is the heart of Bangkok’s sex industry.
A bustling, thriving night market shields it from instant discovery, although I think the shops over flowing knock-off hand bags, shoes, hats, tee shirts and jewellery provide distraction for the many women who accompany their men to watch all sorts of live action in the bars that jostle for space with the restaurants.
If you’re planning a trip there, look for two parallel side streets between Silom and Surawong Roads and a side street opposite Surawong. Patpong is within walking distance of the SkyTrain’s Sala Daeng Station, and Bangkok Metro’s Si Lom Station.
Picture restaurants, shops, bars, neon signs, hawkers, hustlers and tons of people having a terrific time under a steaming hot Thai night sky. Even as your eyes adjust to lights from the shops, an assortment of old ladies and young men assault you with what look like laminated menu cards, with a long list of ‘dishes’ to choose from. All the while they’re shouting something that sounds like, “You like peeeng pong no? You like razor blade shoe? You like see shoe banana?”
I was sure I’d heard it wrong.
“We’d like to check out a few restaurants and read the menu ourselves, thank you,” I said prissily to the 11th person flashing plastic in my face. “My boyfriend can’t eat spicy stuff,” I explained earnestly.
But when a very sweet old lady insisted I took a look at her menu card, I finally figured it out. She was hustling for a particular bar and obviously commissionable if SO and I went there. She looked so old that I melted. I insisted to SO that we follow her up the stairs into a seedy looking bar. The cheerful hostesses gave us the best seats in the house. The dimly lit stage was empty at first, but as the bar filled up with similarly hustled tourists (two middle eastern couples, the women in burqas – I kid you not, some Australian senior citizens, a few young Indian couples who looked like they’d be at home behind a computer screen, several teenage American girls and a group of serious-looking Swedish business men), the lights brightened.
The show that followed was as amazing as any fire-and-sword swallowing act I’ve seen at a circus. Beautiful girls (who did not look under age) clad in thongs and teeny sequins danced in unison. Then the main act arrived with smoke, fanfare and laser lights.
The ladies who were part of this act undressed, lay down on the stage one after the other, at about the level of SO’s chin, and proceeded to use their unmentionables to projectile-eject bananas, ping pong balls, pretty pink flowers, pretty blue flowers, roses, razor blades, yes, razor blades, beads and other objects d’ art while all of us watched open-jawed. The piece de resistance was incredible.
One lady, older than the rest (she had to be because what she did clearly took years of practice), positioned what looked like a blow dart and took aim. Another lady flung a balloon in the air, then another, and another… all in all she tossed about 10 balloons in the air.
The blow-dart lady, with the precision of a sniper taking aim at a Head-of-State, proceeded to pop each and every balloon. She didn’t miss one. She didn’t use her hands or feet. Just amazing Kegel control. The applause at the end of this show was deafening.
I must say it was great fun and when the girls came around to collect tips, the ladies in burqa were most generous.
Strangely, there was nothing ‘sexy’ about the show. It was more a carnival like atmosphere where you ate popcorn and drank Pepsi while having a good time. Oh, I’m not advocating taking your kids to this kind of show… it would be hard to explain why mommy can’t do things like that. What do you say? Mommy’s lazy and doesn’t practice enough?
The businesses that flourish in Patpong are protected by the Thai police who can be seen in their form-fitting beige uniforms, wearing Raybans even at night, maintaining a coolly forbidding presence in the area, mainly to protect tourists from drunken brawls. They are happy to flag down a TukTuk for you, which is a Thai autorickshaw slung so low that you have to literally lay down to get a view of the streets, or even a hot pink Thai taxi.
Patpong comes from the family name of the Patpongpanich, who were Chinese immigrants that bought property here in 1946. They built roads and set up shops for rent. The bars eventually jostled other businesses out, and by 1968 the area became a hot R&R stop for US troops who needed a little break from the war in nearby Vietnam. The tradition continues today even if the GIs are gone.
There are other nightlife areas in Bangkok such as Soi Cowboy, which is a little more upscale, where no one hustles you and the shows are a bit more sanitized, and Nana Plaza. But since Patpong is the only government-endorsed area, you’re probably safer going there.
Hang around long enough in Patpong and some sweet old lady is bound to ask, “Why you not take lady to nice, real, live show?”
Go at your own peril. You are most likely not going to come to bodily harm (remember, word-of-mouth is very important for ongoing prosperity) but you could get over-charged. Carry just enough cash and you should be alright.
Surprisingly, these shows are more ha-ha funny than seductive. From the choreography to the special effects, to the make up and the lack of costumes, the 20 minutes or so seem like sleazy versions of Broadway musicals, with less-than-enthusiastic performers who, nevertheless, perform admirably on command.
I guess what endeared me to the whole scene was when one of the girls, fresh from a ping-pong shoot, went up to the kitchen, got herself a large plate of something slithery, and proceeded to sit at a table not far from us and demolish it with gusto, before she went up for the next act, smiling contentedly.
It’s not for everyone, but if you can leave Indian morals behind for a little while in Bangalore, you’re sure to have fun in Bangkok.

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