Bangkok

Vol. 5 -- Jaja in LALA by Jahan Sharif

This essay was originally published March 12, 2018.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade. Sights that once brimmed with details so precise that I could paint a hologram in my mind, have morphed into a hazy field of pixels-- an image enlarged to the point of distortion.

Occasionally though, I’ll swipe past a photo that prompts a flashback. I’m thinking of my visit to Wat Pho, the reclining buddha in Bangkok. It’s around the corner from the Grand Palace, the historic home of the Thai royal family. Unfortunately, it has become a tourist attraction so overrun with people that I felt like I was in some tragic ancient Disney World.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

I see the image and remember the struggle I went through to capture the size of the beast-- my little head poking out of the bottom edge of the frame while the lounging buddha, clad in gold, loomed enormously overhead. And then, how could I forget the man who, while I was taking my photo, leaned the weight of his whole body into me like I was a wall so he could take the same picture! I had to laugh at the whole situation, especially after I tapped him on the top of his head and offended him. (Oh? You’re mad?!)

I wonder, especially now that I’m home and talking about my trip with my friends, if that guy will choose to include this tidbit in his telling of the story? I doubt it. But I do think about the stories he, and the thousands of others, will tell.

I reread the essays I wrote to you to see how they resonate with me now that I’ve been back for a few weeks. As I read them, I remembered a quote I came across a while ago by the composer John Cage. He said, “It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good.”

A trust in the goodness of humans allowed everything you read about, and more, to happen. From the exciting adventures to find sex shows, to the lady who grabbed us by the hand and helped us cross the street. None of it would have happened had I not trusted strangers.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when both Andy and Vicool (and you) were strangers to me. However, when life brought us into vibrant and unexpected connection, we chose to explore the possibility of more. And why? Because despite the knowledge that everyone has the capacity to do wrong, we trusted that the other person would do right. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt, and became friends.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it ceased to be just another name on a map or just a place for expats to escape to. When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it stopped being a city where 9 million people lived, and became a city where just one person lives. The same is true for Andy in Hong Kong, Ilija in Kigali, and for you wherever you might find yourself reading this right now. Life is about people, connection, and relationships. So when life threw an ocean between Vicool and me, we simply learned to swim.

Seventy years ago, in the thick of WWII, the poet, thinker, and writer Henry Beston wrote, “There are moments in which melodrama becomes life, and this is one of them.” The line vibrates again with eerie relevance. Like then, the world today seems intent on finding ways for us to cleave instead of to converge. But our saving grace against this wave of cultural destruction comes from the power of community, which says, “I may not know you, but I see you— and I’ve got your back.” It is recognizing ourselves in each other, and then allowing life to thrust confidently outward into the world.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade-- but the feelings do not. When someone makes you feel, they become part of you. I think that’s why this trip for me has been so incredible. It’s not just the things I did or the sights I saw, it’s the people-- the ones I shared with you, and the dozens I didn’t. I wanted to document, but how? Feelings can’t be documented in words nor in images. Feelings are documented through actions. The people I met on this trip made me feel so rich with life that I was driven to share them with you. And their stories, through my words, inspired so many of you to write back. Through that interaction, we established connection and fostered community. Having you all-- my community-- along with me on this journey amplified this experience in ways that I could never have anticipated. And so, for this final installment of #JajaInAsia, I have nothing left to say, but thank you.

Until the next one! <3

Jahan

Los Angeles, California, USA
March 12, 2018

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Vol. 4 Bangkok -- Sex, Sex, and more SEX! // Jaja in Asia by Jahan Sharif

This essay was originally published March 3, 2018.

“I’m not leaving here until I see a sex show. And I’m not talking about one of those tourist trap ping pong shows, either. I want the real thing-- that stuff that I hear about, but that people like to pretend isn’t really here.” Such is how my Bangkok trip began. Nobody in our group had ever been to a sex show-- but as my friends are top notch, they made some inquiries on my behalf and came up with a few names. It was Wednesday and we planned to go out on Saturday-- so I had a few days to ask around for myself too.

You know me, I love to talk to strangers-- if someone with a friendly face so much as looks in my general direction, I’m going to say hi. Uber drivers stand no chance. Fortunately, most of them like to talk too. I took an Uber from my hotel in Thonglor to go to the Grand Palace. It’s where the royal family used to live and is the site of some of the country’s most famous temples and Buddhas. The driver who retrieved me was a Thai lady who grew up in the Netherlands, but moved to Bangkok with her German husband two years ago. I asked her about the sex show. She wasn’t surprised by my question, but said she couldn’t make any recommendations as it wasn’t really her thing. But, she suggested I check out the red light districts: Soi Cowboy for straight men, and Soi Twilight for gays. “One piece of advice,” she said, “negotiate everything before you go back to the hotel. Tell them what you want, and see if they’ll even do it. Most of those guys-- even some of the ladyboys-- are straight. So make sure you’re both on the same page before you do anything.”

On my return trip, I matched with Ruth-- a very affluent, Swiss and American-educated Thai woman who spoke perfect English. (She does Uber to keep busy and to maintain her language skills.) I phrased my question to her a little differently, “Why is sex here so out in the open?”

Minding my business in one of Bangkok’s red light districts.

Minding my business in one of Bangkok’s red light districts.

“I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I think it would have to do with the Buddhist influence on our culture and way of thinking. Sex is a very human thing, and Buddhism teaches us not to judge and to accept people how they are. So if we live that way, I guess it kind of makes sense that we’d embrace it. Now, how did it become all that you see? I think that’s just capitalism.”

“Fair enough” I replied, “So do Thai people participate in it? Or is it mostly foreigners?”

“Thai people do it, but it’s different. Thais aren’t going to the tourist areas...and it’s not even all Thais that do it. Only some.”

“Could I go to the Thai areas?”

“Depends-- you’d need someone to take you. And you’ve got to be serious about it.”

I stayed silent-- clearly not “serious about it.”

I realized I was asking the wrong people. Thai people will know that sex shows exist, but most aren’t going to hang out with the expats. I needed to find some experienced tourists. Fortunately, they’re everywhere-- and all I had to do was sit at a bar under the 80s neon lights of Soi Twilight to find them. I struck up a conversation with two guys at the table next to mine. They were super friendly and we made small talk.

“You’re travelling alone? First time to Bangkok?” They asked.

“I’m here visiting friends, but it’s my first time to BKK. I want to see a sex show, and everyone says this is the place to find them.”

“Well, you’re not wrong. But the shows aren’t on this exact street. You have to walk about 10 minutes to another block. We can show you, if you want.”

“Sure, why not? What are the good ones?”

“Dreamboys and X-Boys are our favorites. The guys there are smaller, more twinkish.”

We got up from our table, and the two guys led me around the corner to a street that had plastic backpacks hung up in neat rows along a makeshift wall that stretched up way out of reach. We turned right and passed a number of mom-and-pop stores before they gave way to a string of bars that featured ladyboys. There were restaurants with outdoor seating and karaoke bars with pumping 80s dance music flooding out like messy drunks at 3am after a bender. We continued down to the end of the block and made another right by the police station. This street was clogged with Thai people eating at the various street food carts that had taken over the sidewalk. Smoke from the meat sticks, whole fried fish, and pork omelettes filled the air and clouded our view. We got off of the sidewalk and continued in the street. The guys pointed out a popular beer garden before cutting a sharp left to cross the road. A few paces later and we came upon an alley that looked much like the one we started at, except this time it was all sex shows.

No pictures please!

No pictures please!

The sun was still setting, and young, fit, men in slick white underwear and white sneakers mulled about in small topless groups. The place was still pretty empty, and many young men were still arriving, tote bags slung over their toned shoulders. They walked like anyone arriving for work-- head down and with purpose. The two guys pointed out X-Boys and Dreamboys and we took a quick look inside another joint where a rehearsal was taking place. The guys on stage were in costume, which were rainbow panties, high-top sneakers, and red capes. They looked at us and I waved at them. (I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do!).

“This is it.” One of the guys said as we walked back. “Looks great!” I replied. I thanked them for showing me around, and that I looked forward to checking it out. I don’t know how my face looked, but they told me to relax, to have fun, and to “make sure you negotiate everything before you take someone back to your hotel.”

When Saturday night around 10:30 came I, as planned, led my friends down the same route that the two guys had showed me before. I explained our options and we peaked inside a few. I ultimately decided for the group and took us to X-Boys because it was 300 baht, while Dreamboys was 580 baht. I am cheap.

A man dressed in a really wonderful floor-length black gown adorned with a pattern of big red roses led us inside and showed us to our seats along the back wall, but with a straight-on view of the stage. I was the last person to go up the stairs, and before I did, the madam confidently grabbed my genitals. We made eye contact and smiled at each other.

The show had just begun and a drag queen, flanked by two “backup dancers,” was on stage performing an awful routine to some forgettable pop song. She was off beat, the dancers were off beat, nobody-- including me-- knew the lyrics, and nobody seemed to care. The trio finished their piece, walked down the runway and exited the stage. The room went dark, and they played Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” My friends and I sang all of the words and jived along to the thumping baseline.

They cut the song short, and a man draped in what looked like a really long scarf took the stage. The spotlight found his face and the music started. The iconic saxophone of Careless Whisper by George Michael filled the room and I bursted out laughing. The man on stage, turned around sporting this longing-pouty expression while doing a type of slow motion moonwalk dance, but somehow remaining in the same place. I composed myself and watched the guy on stage look around-- squinting at people and gyrating. Soon, two other guys came out and stood on either side of the main guy. They removed his scarf to reveal an impressive Viagra-inflated and condom wrapped penis that was at least 8 inches long. The two boys grabbed some oil that was nearby and rubbed the main guy down. At one point, one of the ancillary guys got down on his knees and briefly performed oral sex. The main guy didn’t react-- remaining stoic in his pout. Like the two-bit drag queen, they dutifully finished their routine and exited the stage.

More American pop music played and my friends and I danced and sang along again. Then there was a shower scene for us to enjoy, where two guys in the back of the stage literally took a shower and talked to each other. After they were “clean” they came down the catwalk to the main area and did body rolls “on top of each other” (they were about a foot apart and never touched). And, they carried on with that conversation. This pair didn’t even bother finishing their routine. With about 30 seconds left on the track, they went to each side of the stage and masturbated for a few seconds then walked off...still talking to each other!

There was absolutely nothing sensual about this sex show-- frankly it wasn’t even sexual. It was just graphic. And at the end of the day, anatomy-- no matter how big-- is just anatomy.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

I was bored by what was happening on stage, so I started to look at the crowd, and that’s when I saw, in action, what everyone had warned me about. Young men (all definitely in their twenties or thirties) were sitting and flirting with the foreigners who’d filed in. The foreigners would buy the drinks and the young men would give them attention. Just about everyone was individually attended to. Even though it was all completely transactional, the interaction between foreign patron and Thai local seemed, from afar at least, very natural. Everyone was performing, and so the fantasy was sustained.

We left after about an hour and headed to a bar nearby where we met an expat and his Thai friend. I told them about where we’d just come from, and they said that we’d had a pretty typical experience and that Dreamboys is basically the same-- though they might do penetration at the end which is why it costs more.

A few days later, I was talking to my friend about the sex show and he made an insightful comment. He said, “You can get a sense of how open a culture is by visiting their red light district.” It’s true. Bangkok, and from what I hear, Thailand in general, is very open: Gays don’t really have to “come out” and trans people seem to be generally integrated into society. Prostitution is technically illegal, but that law is obviously not enforced. The observation, however, made me think of the conversation I'd had with Ruth-- my foreign-educated Uber driver.

This sexual spectacle is for tourists. Thais don’t go here. What we, the outsiders, see is what they want us to see. Everything is clean, it’s transparent, it’s “proper.” But I wonder how different things might look if I actually had “been serious about it.”

Bangkok, Thailand
March 3, 2018

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Vol. 3 Bangkok -- Places and Spaces // Jaja in Asia by Jahan Sharif

The Four Faces Pagoda in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Four Faces Pagoda in Bangkok, Thailand.

This essay was originally published March 2, 2018.

While walking along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Andy and I happened upon a cafe. We stepped inside and saw an older man coming out of a door just ahead. He smiled at us and motioned for us to come through. I ducked my head and passed through the threshold into an expansive open space with art stacked high against white walls reflecting exposed rod iron gangways that led to private working spaces and doubled as mounts for overhead lights. The building clearly used to be a warehouse; and at some point, fairly recently I imagine, was converted into an artist space and gallery.

There were a few people in semi-private areas working with their heads down. One round man emerged from a cell a few floors up and looked downward upon us. He saw us but didn’t say anything.

Below the exhibition I saw a stark white wall with a floor made of the same iron planks that construction workers use to cover open wounds in the road during repairs. We went down, and Andy saw three chairs lined up against the perpendicular wall. “Go sit over there-- I’ll take your picture.” Andy instructed. And as expected, I obeyed.

I am not camera shy, but I’m also not a model-- and so my little effort to bring you some #Fashion was, in fact, a futile one. I did get one nice shot, though.

Strike a pose…ish.

Strike a pose…ish.

Andy, on the other hand, knows his angles. I was eager to make use of this white wall, and so I moved a chair over, and told Andy to sit. I retreated a few paces and pointed the camera at him. Turns out, that that’s all the direction he needed!

People saw us, but nobody said anything. That was the vibe of the place: Noticed, but not bothered. As we headed out, I thought to myself how wonderful this little spontaneous aside was. Here we are walking along without expectation, and then all of a sudden we are inspired to create! Such is the power of a place that is transformed, intentionally, into a space.

The Chao Phraya River originates in the plains of central Thailand at the joint of the Ping and Nan Rivers, meandering southward for 231 miles and passing through Bangkok before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. The city became the country's (then called Siam) capital in 1782 when General Chao Phraya Chakkri assumed the throne as Rama I. Bangkok sits in the river’s delta; and, among the new king's first acts was to move the court to the East Bank.

As the area was mostly swampland, there were certain challenges and advantages. For example, there were ample natural barriers for protection. The wide westward bend in the river created a moat guarding the site's northern, western, and southern flanks. To the east stretched a vast, swampy delta called the Sea of Mud, which could not be traversed easily.

People, however, cannot live in swamps. So the area was drained and the river tapped to create an intricate network of canals. Over the ensuing 200 years, the canal system expanded and a culture and way of life emerged where most people lived on, or near, the water-- an example of how space came to shape a place.  

The city today has evolved away from the elements that allowed it to once be known as the “Venice of the East.” Many of the canals have been filled in and paved over-- replaced with roads that are clogged with old busses, cars, mopeds, and tuk tuks (pronounced “tuke tuke”-- which is a three wheeled cross between a golf cart and a motorcycle). They all pollute with abandon. And then, in the midst of all of this, there is a modern, clean, reliable, and super-efficient metro system that would make any New Yorker envious.

A main street outside of CentralWorld, one of Bangkok’s largest malls-- around 11am.

A main street outside of CentralWorld, one of Bangkok’s largest malls-- around 11am.

Bangkok, in many ways, is like any major metropolis in a developing country: Extreme wealth inequality, but extreme affordability; and homelessness not so dissimilar from what’s in Los Angeles. Strong cultural norms anchored in its history that govern individual and collective behavior, but an unequal legal system. Free expression-- especially sexual-- but under an unelected, military-ruled government that prosecutes its peaceful critics.

An American friend of mine described this place as 10th century meets 21st century. And I would agree. It’s a city of contradictions: Young and ancient, wild and measured, traditional and radical. Thais describe it differently. They say, “Same same, but different.” And that framing, I think, shows how Bangkok is one of the most human cities I’ve ever visited, and why it is so eminently delightful.

Bangkok, Thailand
March 2, 2018

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