Saturday, January 20, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption, Thai Style

I used to think that Americans had cornered the market on conspicuous (i.e. gross) consumption of consumer goods. But that was before I came to Thailand (and, come to think of it, Buenos Aires). Yesterday, while Jerry worked on the final chapter of a revision of his biography of Elvis (everything that has happened since the King's early death), Baron and I set out to do the tourist boogie in this wild, crazy, intense and very modern Asian city. We ended at MBK Shopping Center (pictured above, along with significant traffic flow), Bangkok's most popular mall, but one of MANY well apportioned malls in the Siam Square area of the city.

Baron, who took photos of every significant music artist in the 1960s and early 1970s, brought a camera along. I just point and click my little Nikkon. He helpfully pointed out for me angles that avoided light and telephone poles with unsightly wires. He has an eye for color that I miss and was quite taken with the many colored taxis of Bangkok. "Let's take that pink one," he said when we were leaving Khao San Road for MBK. We took each other's photos by the giant reclining Buddha in Wat Pho, Bangkok's largest and oldest (16th century) temple, and promised to each digital shots when we got home.

The trip began with the Skytrain at Nana station near where we are staying in Sukhumvit. I'm always impressed by Bangkok's transportation options. The elevated Skytrain is modern and clean and offers great views of the cityscape. We changed trains at Siam and rode to the end of the line, Saphan Taksin, where we could catch the Chao Praya Express boat to Ta Thien, the dock closest to Wat Pho. The day was warm but not yet oppressively hot. If you don't look too closely at the water, the river ride is refreshing. There are views of temples and churches as well as luxury hotels like the Oriental and Shangri-La, high-rise condos and office buildings, and the aging docks of Chinatown. The express boats are packed with tourists, students and Buddhist monks.

We joined the throng of tourists at Wat Pho and slipped our shoes off to enter the giant hall that contains the huge Reclining Buddha. There are paintings on every wall illustrating stories of The Buddha, and the large feet of the Reclining Buddha, with designs and illustrations in mother of pearl, are fascinating. People were taking photographs left and right and Baron and I joined the queue to get our grinning faces next to the Buddha's. We wandered the grounds of Wat Pho, by sacred trees, sculptures large and small (the ferocious guardians at each gate are impressive), and saw even a bunch of wild cats, no doubt criminals working out their past lives. There was a monk carrying a small monkey (figures) that attracted small children and a curious dog. Exiting the temple, Baron bought a hat to keep the sun at bay, paying 400 baht, a reasonable amount we both thought. A few blocks away he spied the same hat for 49 baht. It hurts to be cheated so blatantly, but the hoardes of unsuspecting tourists are a fertile opportunity for hard-working Thais.

We walked past merchants and food stalls to the entrance of the former palace of the royal family and Wat Phra Kaew, the temple housing the Emerald Buddha which dates from the 15th century. I visited there three years ago, but by the time we got there yesterday the heat was rising and we opted not to pay the 250 baht entrance fee. I took Baron down the street, past the large university and the amulet market where Buddhist and Hindu icons, large and small, are on sale, to the S&P Bakery, a clean chain restaurant with a site on the river. The food was great and the freezes (lime for me and watermelon for Baron) were refreshing. After a little R&R at the S&P, we walked past the National Museum through the Sanam Luang parade grounds to the Banglamphu section of the city, taking a tuk-tuk three-wheeler for the last few streets to Th Khao San, the backpackers heaven that was featured in "The Beach." The short street is filled with cafes, internet stores, travel agencies, used book stores, clothing and food stalls, and people braiding hair. Most of the customers, pedestrians and shoppers look Western. We sat at an outdoor cafe and looked at the passing parade, waving away the roving vendors who thought we were a likely target. I got my fix of daily cappuccino and Baron drank a coke.

From Khao San, we decided to take a taxi to the shopping paradise at Siam Square rather than return via the river. The air-conditioned pink cab took us east through the city, giving us a chance to see something not easily accessible by Skytrain. I was constantly amazed by the contrast between ancient and modern; behind a concrete and steel castle you could see tiny lanes lined with old wooden houses,a canal or two, and the street life of a Thai village. The afternoon traffic was not bad until we got near the shopping centers. Later in the evening Baron noticed an almost total gridlock on Sukhumvit, a major thoroughfare. The traffic flow is not so chaotic as I saw in India but here the cars far outnumber motorcyclists (of which there are many, who frequently take shortcuts by driving down the sidewalk past surprised pedestrians) and bicyclists (of which there are far fewer) and a variety of three-wheelers. The taxi let us out at a Skytrain stop and we climbed up to the second level where there are entrances to all the major malls.

I'd not been to MBK before, and the first thing I noticed was the the shops were small and lined a maze of aisles, looking more like a street bazarre than a modern shopping mall. There were sections for various goods, like cell phones. We were both parched and sought out the Food Court on the 5th floor. It turned out to be huge and luxurious, with acres of tables. We ordered smoothies (mine was kiwi based, and Baron's mango) and watched the shoppers, a mix of Westerners and locals. Afterwards we roamed the six or seven floors which included video game sections and a movie theater showing American films. Christmas decorations were still in evidence. The Thais apparently love Santa too. After I proceeded to get us lost, Baron asked directions and found I was turned around and heading the wrong way. Without windows, there are few directional cues.

I wanted to show Baron a different kind of mall, and once we found our way outside, and after stopping to observe an outdoor rock concert that turned out to be an advertisement for a hair salon, we headed across the street via the Skytrain mezzanine to what I thought was Siam Paragon, the newest mall which opened right before I arrived in Bangkok a year ago. The stores in Paragon were spacious and the basement featured a full-sized aquarium. But the Skytrain route led us only to the Siam Disovery Center, yet another mall. There we found an Asian Books outlet and shopped for Jerry's latest publications. I bought Asian Aphrodisiacs and Baron got his two books with collections of stories and interviews about Bangkok and Thai life.

I'd hoped to be able to show Baron the fascinating Erawan Shrine on a corner next to the Erawan Grand Hyatt Hotel. An astrologer determined that the foundations of the luxury hotel had been built on an inauspicious day. To correct this mistake, a shrine to the Hindu god Brahma (rare even in India) was erected here and activity goes on non-stop. There is a small orchestra and a troup of dancers who perform pieces for pay as gifts to the god in thanksgiving for favors received. People light candles and incense and place them along with flowers around the diety. It's quite a sight, in the shadow of so many consumer pleasure palaces and hotels. The modern and the traditional coexist nicely here. But both of us were exhausted after seven hours of touristing and wanted naps.

In the evening, Jerry took Baron and I to Soi Cowboy, one of the several "entertainment" areas in Bangkok that feature dozen of bars and many, many go-go dancing girls. Soi Cowboy developed during the Vietnam war as a place for GIs on R&R and the short street then was still surrounded by rice paddies. Now the Sukhumvit area has grown up around it and the street of erotic dreams was filled with tourists, mostly male, from all over the world. We began with dinner at the Old Dutch, and then went in search of Jerry's friend Paul, a British filmmaker who works as a camerman in Thailand. Paul, a young man in his thirties, learned to speak Thai, a rarity among even expatriates, and his home away from home is the Rawhide bar where he is a friend of the owner, Mint, who got her start as a flower girl on the street corner before working her way up to the ownership of two bars and a hotel. Paul's first suggestion was the Baccara, a bar that was filled with Japanese men who apparently liked the two-level show. On the bottom were about 20 dancers in bikinis who mostly looked bored, many of them chewing gum. Above them were about a dozen girls in schoolgirl outfits in skirts with nothing underneath. The Japanese were all craning their necks upward and would be customers for a deep-tissue Thai massage later. From there we walked down the gaudily neon-lit street, assaulted by touts and scantily-class ladies on every side, to the Rawhide, nextdoor to the Long Gun which Mint also owns. Both bars rare in that they feature shows with costumes and choreography and a range of talent that was, ah, unusual. One young lady, who had obviously been doing vigorous kegel exercises, was able to pop balloons with darts, and blow out candles in an unusual display of erotic creativity. Others took a bubble bath in a large improvised tub, ending with a shower. And there were a variety of dances with costumes that didn't stay on for long.

Jerry explained that each entertainment area has a different police force and that regulations regarding explicitness differed. At Nana Entertainment Plaza there was not total nudity; dancers wore pasties reminiscent of the 1950s in America. But Soi Cowboy businesses were apparently allowed to be clothing optional, although Jerry said the shows now were much tamer now than we he arrived 12 years ago. He told one story to author Tom Robbins about frogs that was retold in Villa Incognito. Most of the dancers, Jerry said, come from Issan, the terribly poor region of northeast Thailand, and they send most of their earnings back home to support their parents and sometime children. When bar hours were cut back by a morally conservative government several years ago, there was an economic crisis in Issan when the flow of assistance from Bangkok was cut back. In Bangkok the girls work seven nights a week and share cramped quarters with other bar girls a long commute away from their employment. I talked with one, Ann, who told me she was 35 and had a 9-year-old daughter who lived near Kon Kien in the north with her family. Her daughter called her daily on her mobile phone wondering when she was coming home (not until May, she told me). She didn't like Bangkok and wanted to go home, but there was no work to be had. Dancing and prostitution are desperate career choices for young women who seem more innocence than hardened by their difficult work.

Jerry and Baron left today for two nights in Pattaya. They are staying at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel in that beachside party town because Baron, whose photos of rock stars Like Janis, Jimi and Jim Morrison hang in several Hard Rock restaurants around the world, managed to get free accommodation. I leave tomorrow morning for Ko Samui and what I hope will be an idyllic vacation. Still no word from the pilgrims to India who should have arrived back home several days ago. But at least I received no anguished cries for help. Thank god for small mercies.

The scene below is of a street vendor on Soi 8, Sukhumvit.

To my faithful correspondents: I seem to be not getting all mail sent to cruzio for some reason, so please email me at my yahoo address until further notice.

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