Friday, March 18, 2011

Time to go-go

It was rainy yesterday, so I didn’t go out in the afternoon, because I hate walking around in the rain. There was a thread in the Bangkok CouchSurfing forum for people interested in going to go-go bars and a ping pong show, which I was most definitely curious about, so I planned to meet up with everyone for dinner.

Heiko made us lunch in the style of a Turkish breakfast.


The block of white is white cheese that his friend brought from Turkey (where he used to live), which is from sheep, and quite good. The eggs had Thai-German bacon (yes, there is such a thing), and you all know how I feel about bacon, so that was excellent. I’m pretty sure you can all identify toast.

We were supposed to meet at around six-ish near Nana Square for dinner, but I couldn’t for the life of me get a bus that was going there. Evidently there are two types of bus 40; one only goes as far as the train station, and the other continues on east, which is what I needed. It seemed like every bus 40 that stopped here was only going as far as the train station, so I finally hopped in a cab.

Tip: I forgot to mention this yesterday, but make it clear that you need to get on the bus (e.g. by taking a few steps towards the bus before it gets to the stop), because if no one’s getting off, the bus isn’t going to stop. Logically then, also make it clear when you are getting off the bus. There is a red button in between the doors, which are more or less in the middle of the bus, to request a stop. If you don’t know where to get off, just ask the person who takes your fare.

At first I thought I’d get off at Siam Square, take some quick photos of the area and Erawan Shrine on the way, and then meet up with everyone near Nana. Then I thought it was already pretty late since I had waited for the bus for quite some time, so I should just go directly to Nana. …And then I thought, nah, I might as well get off at Siam since it’s not so far. I think the cab driver was ready to kill me. (Although the destinations are along one road, so it really doesn’t change anything major.)

Tip: Siam is pronounced SEE-ahm, not the way it is in English.

Siam Square is basically a concentration of enormous shopping malls and street stalls.




Not an official apple store, but pretty damn close

A bit of a walk further east (where, along the way, there was a banner that read “STOP TEEN MOM” and then a photo of bunch of teenage girls in some sort of camp’s T-shirt) is the Erawan Shrine. There are a ton of locals that come here, because supposedly, it is particularly effective at granting your wishes/answering your prayers.

Brahma

And directly across the street from this holy altar:

So then I took the BTS Skytrain to the Nana stop.

On the way to the square, I passed this lane where Arabic trumped Thai:

I met up with everyone at a Starbucks. For some reason, I thought they would have all already had dinner at this point, but they had been waiting for me, which I felt really terrible about. But nonetheless, we headed off to dinner.



I ordered spicy noodles with mixed seafood:

This was much spicier than I expected. The Western-looking CouchSurfers have told me that they usually tone down the spice automatically when they order food whether that’s to their actual preference or not, but since I’m Asian, they give me the order as it normally would be served.

Other food:


After dinner, we headed over to Nana Plaza to meet up with another group at Hanrahan’s, an Irish bar that was decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, with the waitresses in big Guinness hats. The crowd was neither very rowdy nor very drunk, which was slightly disappointing.

Then, off to the go-go bars.

Note: I am not interested in a debate about the ethics of the sex industry in Thailand. I don’t care if you think it is degrading because women are only valued for their bodies, empowering because hell, all you need is boobs and a vah-jay-jay (or not, considering this is Thailand) and people will give you money, both, or neither. For my part, I was simply satisfying a curiosity.

Note: There will be no pictures of naked girls. (They are neither permitted by the bar owners nor would I post them.) However, there will be descriptions, so if this makes you uncomfortable, stop here.

At G-Spot, there was no cover charge or entry fee, but you have to order a drink, and a small (U.S.-sized) beer is 145 baht, whereas it would normally be 70-80 baht. The girls are already topless, so there’s no strip show to speak of. There are a lot though, maybe ten or twelve, and they’re of all sorts of body types. (But let’s be real, this is Asia, so even the “fat” girls are not really all that heavy.) The girls, in general, were a little disappointing. I’m obviously not evaluating in terms of their bodies, but in terms of their work performance. I mean seriously, their report card would read something like, “Does not give an A effort.” Only one or two were really dancing. The others were sort of just shuffling around, shifting their weight from side to side, but not in a way that was remotely sexy or could be described as dancing. There were also a lot of poles lining the dance area, and they weren’t being used at all. Having just taken a trial pole dancing class (not that I’m planning a career shift), I can tell you it is not that difficult to swing around a pole. Come on girls. A little effort.

The one thing that did get them really excited was buying tips. The non-stripper employees will walk around the tables offering five ping pong balls for 100 baht. If you buy them, the girls will all turn their attention towards you and get really animated. The way it works is that you throw them at the girls and they try to catch them, and if they do, they get the tip. I think in reality, they split everything at the end of the night, because there was no sign of keeping track of who caught how many, but I think it’s just a fun little game, and it probably gets people to tip more than they otherwise would. It is really entertaining to see how eager they are to catch the ping pong balls.

After we all finished our drinks, we headed out, because really, a strip club is not that exciting for an extended period of time. It’s more like, “Oh hey, boobs. Cool.”

At this point, only two of us were interested in going to see a ping pong show, so Yim led the two of us to Patpong and talked to one of the many guys who were outside trying to get people to come into their bars, and after we had decided to go in, went to go home. (She had already seen her fair share of ping pong shows with other CouchSurfers and also has work today.)

Patpong's street stalls


I think the place we went to was called Side Line (or something similar), and like G-Spot, there was no cover charge or ticket, but a beer here was 200 baht. Still, that’s like six dollars.

The bar itself is pretty small, with a few tables along the wall that make an L around the stage. Like G-Spot, it was dark, but UV-lit, so if you wear white (which I was), you will be very bright. There are a lot of skills performed at a ping pong show, most of which I can’t even imagine how you train for or practice. I am perhaps most baffled by the person who first thought of the concept. I can easily understand how people would add new elements once the first ping pong show was already in existence, but I really cannot fathom how someone thought, “Hey, you know what would be a good idea? If we had a show where girls shoot ping pong balls out their nether regions. Wouldn’t that be cool?” And then to have someone else say, “Yeah, that would probably be pretty lucrative.” And then to find girls who could do it. How would they even know they could? Or maybe it was some girl who somehow found out she could do it and started her own show for money on the side, and now it’s evolved into this industry. I don’t know.

Regardless, below is a quick list of what they do. If you are easily disgusted, stop reading. No, seriously.

  • Pick up small rings with chopsticks and then place them around the neck of a bottle
  • Pull out a seemingly endless string (It’s got to be a few meters.)
  • Blow a horn (like a bike horn)
  • Pull out a string of razor blades, which they use to cut a sheet of paper just so you know how sharp they are
  • Blow a whistle
  • Pull out a string of flowers (like the ones on a fake lei)
  • Blow out candles on a fake birthday cake
  • Shoot ping pong balls (the audience are give ping pong paddles for this)
  • Pull out a string of needles, which are stuck into chopsticks to demonstrate their sharpness
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Open beer bottles (Paul says he saw something metal up there. But even so, that is pretty damn impressive.)
  • Pop balloons by blowing darts (Some are on the wall and some are held up by audience members. Don’t ask me how they aim. I have no clue.)

I’m thinking for the razors and needles, they must have some tampon-like protective device and a very specific way to insert them so that there’s no damage when they come out, because that could just go wrong in so many ways. The performer who did the riskier/more skilled tricks, who also must have been in her forties, though you'd only be able to tell by her face, actually checked her hand for cuts when she was done with the blades.

THOSE WHO ARE EASILY DISGUSTED CAN START READING AGAIN.

They also had a girl that did some pole dancing for a few minutes, which was at least better than G-Spot.

The funniest part of the night was when the manager came by to chat with us. She asked Paul and me where we were from, and then asked us how long we’d been married. I guess this is a reasonable assumption since most groups consisting of one guy and one girl at a ping pong show are likely to be a couple, otherwise it would be a group of guys. Paul played along and said three years. The manager then said something like, “Three years? Why isn’t she pregnant yet?” which was funny in itself. It was this next comment that really killed me, though. In a fake “whisper” to Paul, she gestured in front of her own chest and then pointed to me, saying I was well-endowed, “perfect” even, in what I guess was a sort of congratulatory manner. I was like, is this really happening? I mean, is that normal? It’s basically like saying, “Hello person I don’t know at all. Oh, this is your wife of three years? [raised eyebrow] Nice goin’ cowboy.” I found it pretty hilarious.

After the girls were starting the whole routine over again, we left. The guy whom Yim had spoken to before we came in told us if we stayed another half hour, we could see a "boy boy make love" show, but we passed on that. During the show, we were asked for a tip, so between the two of us, we gave 100 baht. Later on, an older employee (not a performer) was talking to me in Thai before she realized I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She then asked me in English to buy her a coke, which I declined. Basically, they try to hassle you into giving more money, but that’s to be expected.

We walked around Patpong, where a lot of people walk around with "menus" for their shows with items describing what we had already seen, like "pussy candles" and others we hadn't, like "pussy fishes in." There were also a variety of live sex shows, but neither of us was particularly interested in that. A guy running an S&M show told us to “Try something different.” We also walked down the gay equivalent of Patpong, where you see dirty old Western men in their 60s or so with 20-something Thai guys instead of girls.

Other bar names included "Fresh Beach Boys," "Banana," and "Mr. Dick's Bar"

I’ve noticed that in general, the locals’ first assumption is that I’m Thai until I open my mouth to speak. Akino said that it is very likely for this to be the case, and that at bars I should prepared to be approached by Thai guys because it is more valued here to have pale skin (like in China) and evidently, to appear more Chinese than Thai for whatever reason. I have yet to reap any sort of benefit from appearing local though, since I can’t sound local, but we’ll see.

The taxi driver who took us very clearly thought I was Thai as he kept looking at me for help as Paul was giving him directions to his hostel. Then when I started talking, he did a sort of double-take as he realized I was not, in fact, a local. The driver was adorable though. After he dropped Paul off, I was giving him directions to my host’s place, and he asked me, in very broken English, where I’m from. I told him I was born in Shanghai, but grew up in America. He seemed to be very positive about Shanghai. He didn’t really know where to drive, so I was giving him directions, and when we got here, I said, “Ok, here is fine.” There was a car to the left of us (Thais drive on the left), and while I hadn’t meant that we needed to pull over right that second, he responded, “No ok. Accident.” The fare was 81 baht, so I pulled out a 100 baht-bill and said, “I have one.” I guess this was a new sentence construction for him because after I gave him the one baht-coin, he said in a very jolly voice, “I have one. I have two.” It was very cute.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wats Up in Bangkok

So yesterday, I set out at the crack of dawn (read: noon) to meet up with some people for a tour of Bangkok’s most well-known wats.

Tip: The buses here may not really stop so much as they roll by very slowly with the doors open. Just hop on.

It cost 8 baht to get to Khao San Road, which is about a quarter.



Candide later had to yield his seat to a monk, because Candide rides with me, and I am female, and females cannot sit with monks.

I got off the bus when the conductor, who knew my destination, told me to and walked along a street to get to Khao San. Like China, there are a lot of stalls lining the sidewalks selling all sorts of things from hair clips and jewelry to food and desserts. I bought some patches of countries’ flags (4 for 100 baht) to represent the languages I speak, although I haven’t decided what to put them on. I also can't sew.



Khao San is basically one giant street market with bars and guest houses for backpackers. It seems like the only reason a Thai would be there is because they work there.

China has similar streets where they sell clothes for dirt cheap and various other accessories and knick-knacks. But we definitely do not have stands for fake IDs. That’s black market material in China. But here, they have what can only be described as an impressive array of forged documents.

You can get an international driver’s license, a TEFL certificate, a student ID or diploma from any number of schools, and even a lot of IDs that are specific to countries other than Thailand.

On the north end of Khao San is a police station with this sign.

After meeting up with the others, the first stop was lunch. This would be my first real meal in Thailand (as I had eaten leftover pizza on the bus the day before), so I thought pad thai (40 baht) would be an appropriate choice.

Delicious

The weather was cloudy, which was actually perfect for walking around with my big bag (containing Candide, my notebook, and several other items), although not great for pictures. So just pretend everything is brighter.

First stop: Grand Palace (350 baht or free for Thais, including entrance to two other sights)

Because the Grand Palace is royally affiliated, you need to be appropriately dressed. I thought my knee-length shorts would be long enough, but our local CouchSurfer guide, Yim, was worried it would still be a problem, so another traveler pulled out a pair of his jeans that I wore over my shorts. Otherwise, you can rent a sarong to wrap around your waist (200 baht deposit).

Tip: I am glad to announce that an entire country has sided with me on this deeply controversial issue. LEGGINGS DO NOT COUNT AS PANTS. Don’t even try. Seriously. Just go home and put some real pants on. For all our sakes.

This place is full of French-speaking and Chinese tourists. From Khao San to the Grand Palace I heard more French than Thai, and once at the Grand Palace, I heard Mandarin and even Shanghai dialect.

The Grand Palace, in a word, is gold. Everything is covered in gold, from the roofs of the buildings to the murals on the walls. It’s like the scene from 300 when Xerxes rolls into town. The photos will speak for themselves.
















These murals depict the Ramayana. There are something like 170 separate stories.



You have to take off your shoes to enter Wat Phra Kaew, and no pictures are allowed inside, although this one below is taken from just outside.


Many of the tiles used in the Grand Palace are from way back in the day when china was imported into Thailand (from China, obviously). Because it was imported on boats, the rocking of the sea would shatter a lot of the items. These shards were then used as tiles. This Chinese-style dragon is a tribute to that.


There were two areas that are usually not open (Yim said it was her first time seeing them open, and she's been here a lot), but they didn't allow photos. One was some sort of ceremonial hall, and the other was a weapons room.


Upon showing this last picture to our local guides, their immediate expression was a mix of wide-eyed shock and, “Oh no you didn’t.” Their first concern was whether I had touched the monk or not. (This is strictly taboo.) I said no, and that the monk had asked me to put Candide down on the ledge first (instead of handing Candide directly to him). This seemed to relieve them a litte, but Yim and Akino (another Bangkok CouchSurfer local) said that local Thais would never have done that, because monks are highly revered in Thai culture. However, they quickly added that since I’m a foreigner, it’s ok.

On the way to the boat to cross the river to Wat Arun, we saw some locals playing a game that is very similar to hacky sack, only with a different sort of ball.



Second stop: Wat Arun

Wat Arun is very not gold. It’s all stone.






I have no idea what this is. But it was weird and creepy, so I took a picture.



Yim took one of the small cups, opened the lid, and sprinkled a little bit of water on our hands. You then put the water on your head to bring good luck.

See, I told you there are random dogs. The woman in the picture just walked into the area, so she is not the owner.




We didn’t go in, but you can see enough outside that it doesn’t really matter. The entrance fee, if you are interested, is 50 baht.

Third stop: Wat Pho

Holy. Crap. I knew going in that this was the largest reclining Buddha, but I did not quite realize how large that would be. It is also very gold. Entrance fee: 50 baht.





Candide found a friend! A French-speaking couple had this turtle with them. I think it's the one from Finding Nemo.

After this we headed off to dinner, where I had Tom Kha Khai, which is a sort of curry with lots of coconut milk that is like a soup that you eat with rice. Thais do not put forks in their mouths, so the fork is to move food into your spoon.

For dessert, we had real, authentic mango sticky rice, which was AMAZING. It’s so good, I can’t even explain. It’s very sweet, and a little creamy due to the mixture of the fruit and a splash of coconut milk. The texture of the rice and the fruit together makes it soft with just enough substance.

After dinner, we played a bit of pool before heading over to the CouchSurfing meeting. The CSers here are very active, and my host, Heiko, tells me there are on average 50 people at their weekly meetings.

Our last stop was Brick Bar, where they have live Thai ska reggae music. Thais dance /really/ fast. The tempo that Americans would dance at is doubled. Also, I was hit on by a Brit, so the very far-reaching dreams of my 17-year-old self have been achieved. I know, I know, it’s the accomplishment of a lifetime.