Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Pattaya: A Boneyard for Old Men

"We lust until we die," conclude two of the personas in Lawrence Osborne's travel memoir, Bangkok Days. Accompanied by their IV drips, the protagonist, recovering from a serious throat infection, and his German companion, whose cancerous testicle will be removed the next day, are dining in an upscale Italian restaurant off the lobby of the luxurious Bumrungrad Hospital, ground zero for medical tourism in Thailand. Osborne observes the fellow patients that surround him:
Women on crutches with face masks flirted openly with men suffering from epileptic fits and sciatica. Hobbling, limping, squinting, this injured mass proved that the sex drive is the supreme of all instincts and cannot be suppressed even by terminal cancer.
I visited Pattaya last weekend and saw "Sin City" this time through the lens of Osborne's bittersweet recollection of numerous trips over a number of years to Bangkok (it should more accurately be titled Bangkok Nights given his colorful descriptions of nocturnal wanderings). While sex in many forms pervades the pages, it is rarely vulgar (the writer occasionally comes off as prudish) and is never used as a weapon to whip a Thai culture more libertine than libidinous, a country that a friend of mine (who had never visited here) once termed "the brothel to the world." Writing about the Nana Entertainment Complex, four floors of bars staffed with hundreds of prostitutes, Osborne says that "what characterizes this entire operation is the absence of any atmosphere of brimstone or anger, its clumsy naïveté and lack of self-consciousness which has not yet toppled over into sin." One of the many expats the author encounters is a retired Australian widower named Dennis, “an elderly man with skin as white as fine library dust, with a fop of dyed blond hair falling between his eyes,” who is visited regularly by a student moonlighting as a provider of sex. "I like to paint and to make love to Porntit," he tells Osborne. "I am thankful that you can buy generic Viagra without a prescription at any Thai pharmacy. It works out to two dollars a hit. It's pleasure, not happiness, but I am happy with that -- If you see what I mean. My wife, God bless her, would never have understood."

Pattaya is peopled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of aging Caucasian men like Dennis who refuse to fade away in their home countries. I remember my grandfather who wasted away pointlessly in an easy chair in front of the TV after the death of his wife. In the Bible, the Deuteronomist records God as saying, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live." On this, my third trip to the overblown city that began as a comfort station for young GIs on R&R from the American war in Vietnam, I saw that the gray-haired and bald men on Walking Street and along the beach boardwalk had made a choice for life in coming to the sex capital of the world. They were there in the mornings at the Lek Hotel's 110-baht breakfast buffet, many with their ladies and others, like this man, alone with his cigarettes and an emphysemic cough. Another man with an artificial leg lounged by the pool and watched his girlfriend's two children play in the water. Of course it's hard to distinguish the lifers from the short-time holidaying sexpats, but certainly a large number of elderly men have chosen Pattaya as their boneyard, the final home where they seek to live every moment until their last. I only hope this is possible for women as well, but you see very few Western women with Thai men in either Pattaya or Bangkok. We did see a single farang woman with white hair on Jomtien beach accompanied by a younger Thai lady who appeared to be a close friend, but who knows?

I'm not sure why so many of Pattaya's male visitors feel compelled to take their shirts off, but perhaps it is the heat which enfolds one like a cocoon. And I dislike the drunks who wander down the sidewalk with open containers of beer almost as much as the European men who insist on wearing tiny bikini briefs (both equally impolite in Thai eyes). But I do not criticize the "girlfriend experience" that draws men here to the range of services provided by businesswomen struggling to survive in the world's oldest profession. I do not intend to praise every aspect of this cross-cultural copulating. Alcohol and drugs accompany the business of sex and claim many victims. Bar girls have a brief span in which to accumulate savings for a shop back home or find a wealthy farang for a husband. Not many of their customers are granted the bliss of dying in flagrante delicto (a la Nelson Rockefeller). These men, however, will "not go gentle into that good night," but in their attempts to drink the last dregs of life they will show their "rage against the dying of the light" (thank you, Dylan Thomas). Back in America or Germany, Sweden or perhaps in Russia, their former colleagues are dying the death of a million cuts in rest homes anesthetized by TV and pharmaceuticals. How much better to lust until we die!

Nan and I went to Pattaya for the three-day weekend occasioned by the holiday of Vesak which celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. We were also celebrating the successful renewal of a visa and work permit which will allow me to teach English for another year. It was a nostalgic journey for Nan, 11 years after a memorable trip there with her aunt, Banyen. They stayed at the Lek Hotel, and visited Mini Siam, a large park where wonders of the world are reproduced in miniature. Nan played in the surf at Jomtien Beach while her aunt, who did not like the water, and her boyfriend watched. We visited the same places and took photos to compare with the earlier trip. We also had a delicious creole dinner at Café New Orleans and fresh scallops, squid and sea bass at King Sea Food on Walking Street. At Ma Maison, our boutique hotel with a pool, energetic construction, with loud drilling not unlike a dental office, made any vacation naps impossible. Since Friday was an alcohol-free religious holiday, glum-faced tourists were forced to drink Cokes and water at the outdoor bars. At one end of the street a large group of international Christians were singing a rousing version of "I love God." "Do you?" asked one Thai woman of me. "Nope," I said, ungenerously; "he's just a fiction." I preferred the songs of a lounge trio at the outdoor restaurant nearby who were doing the Carpenters songbook. Saturday night was more lively in the neon zone, but a heavy shower confined pleasure seekers indoors (where the action really is). We eye-shopped at the new Central Festival mall and I noted the Russia presence, judging by signs, to have increased in the last year and a half. We took a pickup truck taxi to Jomtien and found the beach much nicer than Pattaya where speed boats and jet skis outnumber bathers. By late Sunday afternoon we were back in Bangkok, rested and refreshed.

The first part of last week was the Day of Vesak Conference at my university and at UN headquarters in Bangkok. It was attended by 3,000 Buddhist monks and professors from over 80 countries. I was the secretary for a panel of speakers on "Global Recovery through Buddhist Ecology" which brought back my years of studying environmental history and philosophy. On Friday I traveled to Ayuthaya where guests were housed at the Krunsri River Hotel and met fellow secretaries, panels and moderators for the academic portion of the conference. Sunday, the event was inaugurated by the Crown Prince and his princess in the ceremonial splendor of the new auditorium at the Wangnoi campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University. I worked closely with our panel's chief moderator, Colin Butler, a professor of public health at Australian National University as well as an environmental activist, and all went smoothly at the three sessions the next day. Our speakers were from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and South Korea (one from the U.S. and two from China canceled, no doubt due to the troubles in Bangkok which probably cut attendance by a third). Perks included excellent food and a river tour around the island of Ayuthaya. The hotel's bowling alley and karaoke parlor never seemed open. On Sunday everyone convened at the mammoth UN building in Bangkok for a round of speeches. The Prime Minister sent a flunky in his place. Dr. Butler's report on our panel, among other insights, pointed out the links and parallels between attitudes to the Earth and attitudes toward women, a bit of wisdom that did not make it into the final Bangkok Declaration, perhaps because the role of women in Thai Buddhism is notoriously subservient.

Yesterday I visited the Siam district for the first time since the brutal end of the red shirt occupation of the Ratchaprasong intersection 12 days before. Most traces of the thousands of anti-government protesters who had occupied the area of five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls have been scrubbed clean. But the fire-damaged ruins of Central World, once Bangkok's largest mall, particular the end that contained the department store strangely called Zen, remain to symbolized the "terrorism" of the mostly rural and poor demonstrators for middle-class and elite Bangkok residents appalled by the two-month standoff. Love notes to Central World and dried flowers have been left behind by shoppers grieving over the demise of their favorite palace of consumption. I tried to imagine the anger and rage of the red shirts pursued by soldiers and snipers firing at them who torched this store and over three dozen other buildings in the city. Most of the protesters probably never dreamt of entering such a store, much less buying anything in it. For them it symbolized the arrogance of the wealthy who valued shopping over the lives of Thais taken in several street battles (more than 80 died, and nearly 2000 were injured, almost all civilians). I walked around the corner to Wat Pathum Wanaram, a large temple situated between Central World and Siam Paragon, a place where six people were killed by snipers, including a nurse trying to save someone else, and many were injured, journalists as well as demonstrators fleeing soldiers. I expected to find flowers or a shrine of some sort at the temple, but there was nothing to commemorate this atrocity. The government refuses to take responsibility, making up incredible stories that beggar belief.

As I write this I am watching a televised censure debate in the House called by the opposition Pheu Thai party. Of course I understand nothing said in Thai, except for the passion of those accusing the government of masterminding the horrors of April-May 2010 which will go down in infamy, and the calm demeanor of Prime Minister Abhisit who now appears to be firmly in charge. Hundreds of red shirts, now all tarred with the "terrorist" brush, are being rounded up and imprisoned. (For a good historical perspective on this, see scholar Michael Montesano's article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.) Censorship is tightening and any support of fugitive Thaksin and the army of ignorant savages from the north he allegedly bought and manipulated is suspect. There appear to be no attempts at reconciliation and the divide between the wealthy monarchists and militarists who run this country and the majority of voters in the provinces is wider and deeper than ever. While I do not feel at all personally unsafe, the future of this poor country is more uncertain than ever. Tourism, and the economy that depends on it, is in shambles. And as the unspoken comes closer, there is less and less said of it.

In Bangkok Days, Lawrence Osborne points out that one of the paradoxical attractions of Thailand is this uncertainty and mystery, apparent to anyone trying to decipher the language or understand the seemingly contradictory values of the culture. It is definitely one of the reasons that I love this country and its people.

3 comments:

Boonsong said...

Thanks for this very interesting post.
I agree that Thailand is a country of contrasts and contradictions. These are what makes it so exciting

All the best, B

janet brown said...

"Love notes to Central World and dried flowers have been left behind by shoppers grieving over the demise of their favorite palace of consumption." Will,don't you think more than a few of those offerings might have been prompted by the grief over the loss of livelihoods caused by the destruction of Central World? And incidentally, I saw more than a few non-affluent Thai people in that mall, because of TK Park--a wonderful library/media center for Thai children. Women who were far from designer-brand clad sat with their children to watch them draw; elderly men who weren't wearing Rolexes--not even copies--sat in comfortable chairs and read magazines. There was a room with a piano for public use and I sat one day for an hour listening to a teen-age boy playing jazz improv. Gone now--I was told today that the fire didn't reach it but the water did.
I hate malls and only enter them for the bookstores they contain--but I am mourning Central World--and not because I was a faithful shopper. More was lost in that conflagration than luxury goods.

Anonymous said...

Quote:"I'm not sure why so many of Pattaya's male visitors feel compelled to take their shirts off, but perhaps it is the heat which enfolds one like a cocoon."

Yess, I think you may be on the right track with your theory about the heat.