Welcome to Naai-Landby Brandon Edmonds / 12.03.2010
Let’s get the highbrow shit out of the way – and then we can move on to hookers and hotdogs. Prurience means ‘inordinate interest in sex’. It’s a dumb word really, who isn’t inordinately interested in sex? It’s a term as redundant as “materialistic” or “envious” – we mostly all are – and as pervasive as global warming. Some characteristics are so much a part of being a consumer they’re as “natural” as shaking hands or checking your fly, stressed, disengaged, unfulfilled, and go without saying. Words, to get all High Modernist on your asses, are only ever dumb approximations of the “real” – laughter, happiness, death – hence Samuel Beckett’s textual slide into silence, and Wittgenstein’s words to live by: “whereof we cannot speak, let us be silent”. (A certain ham-fisted ‘Culture Minister’ might want to dip into Wittgenstein). It also suggests why a life professionally devoted to words can hollow someone out. Cue the litany of literary self-enders: from Papa Hemingway shooting himself with his favourite gun to John Kennedy O’Toole’s aghast refusal to be ignored to Primo Levi’s terrible leap down a stairwell to “voice of a generation” Cobain’s shotgun kiss. (Ja he’s not a writer, but if anyone has written anything more dead-on in the last 20 years about how we live now, than the couplet: “I feel stupid/and contagious/here we are now/entertain us” – let me know). Sex, then, language, and suicide – if a tale must have stings, these are they.
Prurience led me to Thailand. I was on the brink of thirty. It was a horndog’s gift to himself. A misguided final fling (before some imagined collapse into dread thirty-something stolidity – car, house, propriety), a lowbrow loll, a sin-soaked sojourn, a lascivious lark, and here ends the alliteration. I had read Houellebecq, of course, the nasty new voice of euro-decadence and despair, already, justly, uncool by now.
His books tend to follow rich older men to exotic locales where willing, cash-strapped “natives” might jolt their jaded libidos back to life. Gauguin’s tropical heat and light run through Celine’s pitch-black negativity. It got to me. The allure of carnality – of doing it – on beaches, in windless rooms, in jungle clearings, bathed by foreign moonlight is, you know, compelling. Plus I had seen The Beach. Plus males in bars encouraged me to go with glassy, memory fed eyes – they insisted with the fiery intensity of a convert. The trip changed them. Besides, you can’t be online long without encountering “Thai whores”. Everyone knows the apocryphal lore of ping pong balls spat from you know where. Here was a place given over to basic instincts. A metropolis marinated in excess. If there’s a vaunted much-thumbed suburban image of paradise, particularly compelling to dreamy boys not yet ready to strap-on the jumpsuit of full-on adult masculinity, it’s Thailand. Drugs, cocktails and easily won consent. Ornate young men and women made out of slenderness, fun and lechery. Everything is permissible in that hellacious imbroglio of coconut milk, tamarind seeds, temples, and heat. I thought I was up to it, and I was wrong.
First off, obsessed by the debonair ease of Cary Grant, a movie star who started out as a cockney gymnast called Archie – and ended up necking with Audrey Hepburn, I needed a suit, look where it got Archie, and soon found one in a thrift store. It was light, summery and sort of vanilla coloured. It was jaunty seeming, too, hell, debonair even. Such a damn fine fit, I felt like a leading man in it.
Listen – always arrive somewhere new looking fine. You never know who or what’s waiting for you at the other end of the line. I think Yves Saint Laurent said that, or was it Lee Harvey Oswald?
A pleasant flight alone, the grudging woman in my life was gently banned from joining me through a remarkable propaganda campaign of self-pity and promises: I’m unhappy, I love you but, when I get back everything will be different, you’d hate it over there, gross I’d never do that, you can come if you want, maybe you shouldn’t take that long off work, Asian girls are way too skinny for me, I’ll be back before you know it, I love you, honey bun, trust me. Besides she wasn’t all that into me. Even her maudlin cocker spaniel, Dario, looked thrilled to see me go.
I flew my beloved Singapore airlines, pricey but the staff are toned and efficient, the in-flight entertainment top notch, and the legroom almost adequate in Economy. We touched down at old Don Mueang, rudely cast aside by the new boilerplate po-mo greenhouse that is Suvarnabhumi airport in 2006, in the kind of tropical heat best reserved for incubating rattlers or rustling up breakfast on car bonnets. Even Superman would’ve lingered in the shade. My suit almost instantly turned on me. What seemed like good cotton turned out to be polyester – the thing clung to me like vinyl, like legwarmers, like bad debt. My manly Portuguese thighs scraped together like Grandmaster Flash scratching the shit out of an old Temptations joint. I may have actually groaned out loud.
If you think the past Mother City heat wave was bad, try Thailand around Christmas. Santa would fucking force-feed his beard to the reindeer after 3 seconds in the cauldron of Bangkok. That anyone does anything in these conditions struck me as heroically masochistic. Even the taps in the airport bathroom were hot to the touch. I looked like a man recently assaulted in the mirror: so much for first impressions.
The money-changing booth was forbiddingly far from Arrivals. Jesus would have given up. It felt like a Zen koan, a sly trick, and an object lesson in effort and value, in the true cost of things, to walk and walk for currency. The travelator looked defunct and abandoned. The woman in the booth had no English or teeth. One of us was far happier with the transaction. She laughed like a witch in that Scottish play. I pocketed the cartoonish clump of outsized notes and imagined life in my underpants as a precarious protozoan swamp of deep-sea fish with lantern whiskers and depraved dancing seahorses. I needed a drink.
You don’t drink Thai water I was told and all the caps were loose on the bottles being sold. I went for Coke (comfortingly sealed) and drank it on the street feeling like a geopolitical lout, a dunderheaded cultural imposter… like an American. The bus into town was crammed with willowy undergraduates – girls and boys doing law and business at good colleges from nice homes, in Thailand together for a lark, highly photogenic and fuckable. The kind of adorably suggestible age bracket ‘adspend’ is spent to seduce.
I listened to their talk (qualified hipster excitement at Third World chaos) envying their easygoing anticipation – beaches and dancing, drugs and canoodling – and felt old in my sodden vanilla suit. The highway heaved with transport. Traffic bunches and parts, and bunched and parted like birds. We inched along – just another lit bus of cash-laden foreigners descending on a city Dante must have hallucinated in his dreams – a sticky miasmic cesspool of grinning Beatrices. The city took us in like smoke. Was that my loins stirring or the bump and roll of the bus?
Downtown Bangkok is as it is billed. Teeming, chaotic and other adjectives you know well from travel yarns like this one. The city is assaultive. It wants to shake you down. It wants to leave a mark on you. It wants your assets. It’s Vegas run through Gomorrah, through Hades, through the Book of Revelations. It put me off right away. I was living in Japan at the time and was used to Japanese streets being pathologically orderly. You could eat off some of them. That beguiling place had apparently turned my sensibility mildly fascist. Social mass moved regimentally in recognizable lines, when and where it ought, guided by automated signs and lights, and a powerful communal restraint. Bangkok shat on all that. Cars grazed your knees. Animals were loose. People walked wherever. Disorderly conduct was everywhere. Children played in the dirt past midnight. Strangers yelled out loud. Competing bar sound systems gelled into an unbearable techno mélange of thonking bass and orgasmic Diva yelping – ‘Take me higher and higher and higher!’
The palpitating pavement was disagreeably soft underfoot – alive like flesh in the swelter – as if we were all being carried along on the back of an animal. That much compounded neon light turned any exposed skin the syphilitic green of an Egon Schiele painting. Even the sky was dead looking and dusty. Overhead wires crisscrossed into offices where someone was, I imagined, by now delirious with stimuli, about to be beheaded or rewarded. Or both.
It is, yes, Babel of sorts, Bangkok. Its streets an ongoing ocean of cosmopolitan users: tides of Euro Lotharios in slip-on loafers, chains around their necks, raw white Rastas just out of high school, their dozy girlfriends bored and high, British men in football clobber, ‘alternative lifestyle’ bores with dogs on leashes, all-male tour parties in leisure wear, solitary sociopaths with stricken faces, the face-crimp of desire; older couples here for history and deals on old things, to loping flocks of dismissible package tour folks, fanny packs zipped against temptation, and many fashionable Asians from other richer regions, here to party and tick the box marked Thailand. That much ravenously curious humanity out for kicks in the urban forest creates an unbridled something in the air, this floating debauchery, and a shared sense of license. Or is it the near constant hum of solicitation – people beautiful enough to be in commercials, dressed in the available flesh-bare idiom of music videos, beckoning you openly for monetized sex. I was exultant, eager and surprisingly appalled. It felt wrong. Bangkok already felt exhausting. There’s an onus to taste, fuck, see and do everything all at once. You must enjoy! It was kind of off-putting. Anyway, I had no plans. I’d made no pre-bookings.
I would, like a flaneur, like a lazy swimmer, like a turd, give myself over to the tide.
Which was a mistake.
The tide sloshed and waddled inevitably toward the Khaosan road. Now the great Marxist thinker, Walter Benjamin, once opined the “loss of aura” art undergoes when “mechanically reproduced”. A photo of a Lucian Freud nude isn’t a Lucian Freud nude. It’s a photo. What’s missing is the presence of the thing, the suggestive atmospherics of being in a room with it. The Khaosan road totally inverts the theory. It gains in aura the further you are from it. What is the Khaosan road? Really? Okay, it is, as Wikipedia puts it, a “world-famous back-packer ghetto”. And yes, it is as horrible as that sounds. It’s about as intriguing as a lecture on marketing. Given in Urdu. It’s not intriguing. It is loud, desperate, busy and mindless. A bazaar long leached of the bizarre by tourist-transaction. You can buy good books there though. The intellectual discard of generations of travelers. I had to stop browsing (while blocking out the blaring speaker-fed banality of Hootie & the Blowfish) and remind myself where I was, the greatest fuck-pad on the planet, that infamous international whorehouse, Naai-land. Time to lose my suitcase behind the locked door of a reasonable room, and find a willing sinner.
Far enough from the backpacker ghetto, I found a place behind a larger hotel thanks to a Thai man dressed all in white, like Neil Diamond playing Helsinki – who said the magic words, “Naai soo!” I ignored him (thinking he was offering himself) but he grabbed my arm. Again, “Naai soo!” Oh right, “Nice suit.” Someone finally noticed.
I was touched. Moved even. He led me to his establishment, and gave me a giant wooden key. The small room was like something out of a 50s prison drama, spartan as hell – a bed and a low wall that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. But the door locked.
He fed me soup made from molten lava and lime leaves, and took the big key back. When I thanked him, ready to go, he said, “Nolaysee!” Don’t be late. Yeah right.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 3 here.