The Volvo wagon jerks to a stop, and the seat belt snaps me back into place. My abrupt awakening is cushioned by a thick, all-enveloping blanket of tropical air, but the leather-wrapped passenger seat doesn't hurt either. For a moment, I am glad to have bothered with my seat belt, before I remember that it was automated.
God bless the Swedes.
My eyes shake off the weight of slumber and dilate beneath knock-off Ray-Bans: we are snarled in the tentacles of one of Bangkok's infamous, all-encompassing, all-too-common traffic jams. The late afternoon light diffuses through the thick haze, casting a warm glow across the raised expanse of superhighway, which is currently a very expensive parking lot. I lean out of the left-side window and peer across the landscape: hundreds of vehicles idling in neutral, the predictable Friday afternoon traffic jam. Garishly painted songthaews – pickup trucks modified into passenger vehicles – inch forward alongside late-model BMWs and cheap Chinese-built sedans. Only the ubiquitous motorbikes are immune to gridlock. Even when overburdened with people and cargo, they bob and weave through the impasse effortlessly, like fish slicing through water.
As if to underline this agility, an entire Thai household, mounted on a single motorcycle, races past us. I count five riders. A toddler sits in front of the father, who is driving; another child squeezes into the middle, and the mother, bookending the bike, is cradling a baby in her arms. White smiles flash in the fading light, and the family blinks out of sight. My own driver, who is also my roommate and co-worker here in Thailand, chuckles. We'll call him 'Big' – like most Thai, he uses a courtesy nickname (often silly or nonsensical) for easy identification.
My focus snaps back to the overburdened freeway: for the first time, I notice the buildings hanging on either side of the immense overpass. Buddhist temples and palm trees share space with multi-conglomerate billboards, while dozens of identical high-rises sprout in the distance. The waning light filters through Bangkok's ocean of smog and becomes something brilliant, vivid blues and pinks splashed across the sunset.
Between the heat, pollution, endless sprawl, and lethargic traffic, I'm reminded of a tropical version of my hometown, Los Angeles. Sleepily, I mention this to Big, who has never been to the United States, and he responds by laughing again. In English, he assures me that we will reach our destination soon enough, but I am already caught between the lazy, humid heat and the soft allure of sleep. The interplay of colors in the sky is soothing, even mesmerizing, as soft Thai pop music floats through the Volvo. Before I know it, I am swept back into unconsciousness.
I awaken in relative darkness. Incandescent light dapples through the windshield, casting patterns and blobs on the dashboard as the station wagon passes underneath a series of street lamps. We have long since left the freeway, and the Volvo glides down a dark back street that few farangs – foreigners – will ever see: we pass primary schools, hole-in-the-wall shops, Chinese restaurants. This is Bangkok for the locals.
Bespectacled Big turns expertly onto a side street, and for the first time I realize we are now following a large Toyota SUV. The shiny black hull and tinted windows gleam as we pass underneath streetlights, and I wonder who must be inside and remember why I am here. Big, my colleague from the office, has offered to take me on a family outing to a 'special' restaurant – what this might entail, I have no idea, but I jumped at the chance to interact with Thai people outside the confines of the workplace.
The Volvo swings into another alley, and already I have lost sense of place – the streets grow dirtier, the environs seedier. Thai script flickers in ten-foot neon, dark figures shuffle on the sidewalk. After what seems like countless twists and turns, we pull into a narrow, relatively well-illuminated street, already choked with cars, and park behind the Toyota. Three men clamber out of the SUV, and we smile, greeting each other with the traditional wai, fingertips pointed up as our heads bow. Introductions are quickly made: there is Big's older brother, Asahi (who adopted his nickname from the Japanese dry beer); Cousin, a well-built seventeen year-old, and Uncle, a friendly-looking man who seems younger than he actually is. All are noticeably darker than the fair-skinned Big, an unassuming twenty-three year-old trained as a scientist. Compared to the others, his glasses and buttoned-down look give off a nerdy vibe. From living and working with him, I know Big to be mild-mannered, generous, competent at his job, but I'm unsure what side of him I'll see on this excursion.
We continue walking down the street and pause underneath a laughing neon Buddha, hanging two stories up – this is Surat Restaurant, a cheap-looking concrete structure maybe four or five stories tall. The matron, a middle-aged woman, ushers us into the gaudy lobby, bedecked in red and gold. Paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, and a Chinese-style shrine, with protective figurines and electric candles, sits on the floor. Young women in too-short skirts mill around, and the faint inkling of an idea scampers across my mind as the elevator doors seal behind us.
As we settle into our private room, it soon becomes apparent that no one comes to Surat for the food. Raucous, boorish cheering penetrates thin walls from the room next door. The sole decoration is a molded 'painting' hanging against peeling green-and-white wallpaper: the Golden Gate Bridge rendered in plastic bas-relief. The five of us sit around a circular table, recessed into the floor so that when we are seated, our heads float at the level of the waiter's knees. I look down to see the menu – the cover features a cartoon of a tuxedo-clad man and a smiling woman in a red dress, her finger angled alluringly beneath his chin. Meanwhile, an indifferent waiter drops off a plate of indifferently-prepared spring rolls, and Uncle produces a bottle of Thai whiskey from a black wooden box. The waiter tops off our glasses with spirits and soda and exits, leaving us to our own devices.
The five of us light skinny Kent cigarettes as we spark conversation in a mixture of broken English and rapid-fire Thai. Asahi, a motorsport enthusiast, talks my ear off about his customized Subaru Impreza WRX, while the college-educated Big translates for his relatives. Cousin has a spectacular, towering tuft of sculpted hair, a Bangkok clubber's take on a military high-and-tight, and a v-neck tee clings to his muscular frame. He is training to be a fighter pilot in the Royal Thai Air Force. Uncle is in his early forties and married with a young son. The laugh lines around his eyes crinkle as he fills up another highball. "Chon!", we bellow, meaning 'to clash.' Indeed, our full glasses clink together, as clouds of smoke waft upwards to the dingy ceiling.
Suddenly, the door slides open to reveal a thin girl in an immodest top, denim cutoffs and clear plastic heels. I recognize her from the lobby – heavy makeup does little to conceal her weathered features, bad acne and tired eyes. There is little small talk. Within two minutes, she is grinding against Asahi, delivering the most dispassionate lap dance I have ever seen. Almost like an automaton, the pockmarked woman reaches over to rub the Cousin's crotch, then Uncle's, then Big's, then mine. I brush her arm away, not out of some moral fortitude but because I find nothing about her attractive.
An old man pops his bald head into the door, like an ancient leering turtle, and reaches out to pass the woman a wad of hundred-baht notes – at around $3 each, this comes out to fifteen US dollars, maybe a bit more. Without skipping a beat, she continues to grind against Asahi while pocketing the money, and the (satisfied?) customer vanishes as quickly as he appeared. I'm not sure what just happened. This isn't my scene: I did not choose this restaurant/strip club/whorehouse, but I did agree to come here. Drinks are disappearing as fast as we can refill them.
Another shot of Sang Som, a popular and potent Thai whiskey, jogs my memory. I remember that Big, who currently has a second stripper's hand down the front of his pants, also has a girlfriend.
Three more women walk into the room, introduced by the middle-aged matron from the lobby. The matron is modestly dressed, with slim glasses, expertly-applied lipstick and an up-do – still, her swaying body language and cool detachment lead me to suspect that she once worked in a place like this herself. The matron leaves, and the best-looking of the bunch, a leggy girl with chemical hair, follows her lead and departs for another room (I admit, to my chagrin.) One of the women, with long black tresses, looks no older than fifteen – her crooked smile has braces – but Big reminds me that Asians age differently and assures me she is probably closer to twenty. (After all, Big is twenty-three, and still bears the slight frame of a teenage boy.) The other girl, with dyed reddish-brown hair (and no braces), spoons rice onto my plate, displaying the 'caretaker mentality' so prevalent among – or so expected of – Asian women. Even in a whorehouse.
This is Hooters taken to its seediest, most logical extreme.
The faces of the four men are flushed bright red – the bottle of Sang Som is half-empty, and the Thai are not renowned for their tolerance to alcohol. Uncle wraps his arm around the young-looking girl's shoulders while Cousin pokes at her chest, puffing a cigarette. Big and Asahi are chatting up the girl with bad acne and one of the newcomers, and I see a dark hand slide onto a pale, exposed thigh. Soon enough, all three girls are topless. I have never been enticed by the concept of 'pay-to-play', so I content myself with a long pull of smoke, watching the tableau unfold.
Before I know it, Big is getting a lap dance – he is shirtless, with a face full of silicone-stuffed flesh. The others follow suit. I am not only the last man still wearing a shirt, but also the only one without a pair of breasts in my face. I decide that my companions are basically paying for dry humping. The girl with bad acne starts rubbing ice cubes from the drink bucket on her nipples, much to the delight of my companions. I'm not drunk enough to join in, so I swill another whiskey and Coke in a half-hearted attempt to work up the desire to do so. The spring rolls have long gone cold, and even the stripper-spooned rice is tepid.
The brunette is down to just her panties, and the just-as-topless Cousin is feeling her up alongside his dry-humping kin. I duck my head under the table to check if his pants are still on, and they are. Uncle, still chain-smoking is grinning ear-to-ear as the youngish-looking woman fondles him through his pants, while Asahi is smothering his face in the ass of the dyed-hair girl. He spreads her cheeks to reveal her womanhood to all – her pubic hair (natural black) is trimmed closely, leaving just a faint outline around her lips. I sit back, just a little stunned as I brush away another attempt to paw at my genitals. The situation is made all the more strange and surreal by the fact that I only know about ten words of Thai, but it doesn't matter – the strippers are speaking with their bodies. So are the men.
Dyed-hair girl concludes the show by sitting on the recessed table so the four men can examine her vagina like gawking schoolboys, finally pecking Asahi on the lips and leaving with the two other girls. Uncle gets up to peer through a slit in the door that looks as if it has been carved out with a hacksaw. In response, a waiter peeks his head through the entrance, then exits.
After the strippers leave, the excited, red-faced Cousin exclaims: "She drive me crazy, ohhhhh." He rubs his forehead. I observe that Surat is something like a 'combination strip club/restaurant', and Uncle (whose English is perhaps worst of all) asks me to "slow down", turning to Cousin to translate. "Uhhhh …" declines Cousin, shaking his head. "I am drunk." He lights another skinny cigarette.
Cousin thinks the dyed-hair girl is "so cute, she like Japanese girl." Asahi has a slightly different opinion on the subject of Japanese women: "I don't like it, but I want to fuck it." Big and Cousin giggle like children. Then, grinning, Asahi turns to me and asks, "You penis … hard?" He gestures to the others. "Everyone in room … penis hard." I shake my head 'no', and the room echoes with now-familiar laughter. I am reminded that this is a family affair, and Uncle cracks open another bottle of whiskey.
Asahi and Big offers to purchase me sexual services from a prostitute. "If you have not fucking, you have not been Thailand," says Asahi, smiling. Again, I decline, and the conversation wanders to Thai culture, politics and everything in between. While Cousin drunkenly, joyfully eats from a bowl of peanuts with his chopsticks, Asahi begins dishing on Thailand's deeply-embedded corruption. For example, Surat Restaurant, though highly illegal, is in no danger of being shut down because, as Asahi puts it, "owner of Surat restaurant is cops." The others nod sagely in agreement.
"You can do anything in Thailand if you pay cops,” says Asahi. “Police don't have to protect but have to collect money,” emphasizing the final word. He rubs his thumb and forefinger together, as if toying with imaginary bills. In rapid-fire Thai, Big and Uncle begin discussing the 2006 coup d'état, when 'red shirt' protestors, furious over government corruption and nepotism, forced out then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. I listen intently as Asahi translates, informing me that Thaksin fled the country for Montenegro. He sighs, concluding that "in Thailand, if you have money, you can push all happy to you."
Our conversation is disrupted by the arrival of three more strippers. There is a doe-eyed girl in a slinky black dress who looks fragile to the touch (according to Big, probably Burmese), and I am struck by the innate tragedy of pretty young girls selling their bodies to make their living, or worse, someone else's. Another stripper, perhaps Vietnamese, looks like a veteran hooker in comparison – her face is caked in makeup, and she wears a gaudy leopard-print top, lined with fake fur and supported by spaghetti straps. Marking the seventh distinct stripper of the night, a svelte Lao girl with wisdom teeth pulls herself out of a camel zip-front dress – behind her, something akin to pure lust flashes through Uncle's eyes, and I glimpse a peel of bills clenched in his fist. Half naked, Wisdom Teeth mounts Uncle, dry humping him and moaning theatrically. I cannot resist observing that her ass is so flat as to be almost concave, nor can I resist cracking a joke about the table being "a World Cup of prostitution."
The joke goes over everyone's heads like a chip shot.
The five of us puff cigarettes and sip whiskey as the four men receive lap dances. Casually, with a stripper grinding into them, they discuss the benefits of having a steady girlfriend – namely, sex "in the toilet, in the house, on the road, in the bathtub." It is increasingly difficult for me to take any of this seriously, and the alcohol seeping through my system only exacerbates how surreal everything feels right now. "Chon!", we yell for what seems to be the twentieth time, and I drain another whiskey.
A strange cycle begins: one of the men will take off his shirt for a lap dance, dry hump the stripper, then put his shirt back on before swapping strippers with a relative and going bare-chested again. My increasingly clouded mind concludes that the strippers are getting a decent deal: at least at this establishment, none of them seem to be coerced or forced into working (from my limited, rather-impaired perspective) and all they have to do is dry-hump horny Thai men to go home with a few hundred baht, a few days' wages. Whether this was an alcohol-fueled rationalization in the moment or something I genuinely believed, I still don't know.
Faces redden, glasses empty, cigarettes smolder. The strippers refill our drinks, and Wisdom Teeth pauses mid-dance to answer her cell phone in Big's lap. Her ringtone, Kesha's 'Tik Tok', seems oddly appropriate, though I doubt this girl has any idea of what the song is about. (She certainly knows about boys trying to touch her junk.) The Burmese and Vietnamese strippers finish their dances, peel off and leave, but the Lao girl, Wisdom Teeth, remains. Big's attentions are locked on her, and the two soon leave for other pursuits. He shoots us a text message with his room number (302, should anything goes wrong) and her price for services rendered: 600 baht, about $18 USD.
The four of us stay in the room, chain-smoking cigarettes and sipping our whiskey as we wait for Big to finish up. A half-eaten plate of spring rolls molders on the circular table. By this point, everyone is obliterated – two or three empty bottles of whiskey litter the room. M2M's 'The Day You Went Away' pipes in over the cheap speakers, and Cousin, whose face is reddest of all, belts out the chorus horribly off-key:
"For me there's only you
Been crying since the day
The day you went away"
The song reminds me of the ex who just dumped me, but also brings to mind the inherent irony of a Thai man singing an English-language pop song written by Norwegians. Globalization is inevitable.
We finish waiting outside, cigarette smoke curling up into neon lights, watching Thai businessmen stumble out of Surat and its neighboring establishments. To pass the time, Asahi and Cousin teach me bits and pieces of Thai: little everyday things, like how to say 'cockroach' and 'I want pussy now.' Eventually, Big emerges from the lobby, adjusting his belt and yawning like he's just woken from a quick nap. I am not sure if he is red-faced from embarrassment or all the alcohol – without a hint of self-consciousness, Big offers up a friendly smile, and I suspect it is more so the latter.
Recklessly, we pile back into our respective cars and continue our streak of dangerous, irresponsible decisions – Big and Asahi, the two brothers, prove to be surprisingly effective at driving under the influence. The five of us regroup outside Uncle's apartment, park the Volvo and Toyota and consolidate into the cab of a Chinese pickup that looks like it was pieced together from scrap metal. Self-assured Asahi, motorsport enthusiast and talented drunk driver, takes the wheel as the truck roars through Bangkok, in hot pursuit of wine, women and song.
At 1AM, the city is anything but asleep: the little truck weaves past a construction worker welding on a scaffold and illegal motorcycle races. Underneath a freeway overpass, we spot the flashing lights of Bangkok police and momentarily slow down to avoid a speeding ticket and a hefty bribe. But danger passes – or rather, we pass it – and the inebriated Asahi rockets onto the on-ramp like a Siamese Steve McQueen. As the fourbanger engine hits full throttle, the rickety pickup shakes all over, like the Space Shuttle jettisoning its boosters. We accelerate furiously, and Asahi cries out:
"Motherfuck … police!"
We peel out onto the open road and disappear into the enveloping darkness, cheap blinking lights fading into the distance.