PRESSED PALMS AND lowered heads are a common sight in Thailand. The greeting even has a word: ‘Sawat-dee-ka’. Under the spirit house (an idol of Brahma) in Nana Plaza, though, palms pressed together are not a form of greeting. They symbolise a prayer ostensibly ignored by the gods. It’s 5:45 pm on a Bangkok evening and the girls have begun entering the foyer of the plaza in batches. All lowering spines and folding hands. Only then do they vanish behind the sparkling purple curtains of go-go bars. In less than two hours, it’s show time.
Apart from the girls and the workers, the plaza is vacant. But beyond the neon-lit entrance sign that reads ‘Worlds Largest Erotica Playground’, the street is teeming with anticipation. On the balcony bars, men (young Indians and old Europeans, mostly) sip their beers with one eye on the clock. At 7.30 pm, the plaza will be ready to receive customers. Below the balconies, time is running out for the unemployed girls in various stages of undress.
A lady in a red skirt and yellow stilettos click-clacks her way into the plaza and makes all heads on the balconies turn. “She not a lady, she a ladyboy,” says a giggling Thai girl, her hand on the knee of a British septuagenarian. They are seated on the same side of a table by a balcony. “How can you tell?” asks the old man. “Is it the Adam’s apple? Or do you know her?”
“Noooooo,” replies the girl, playfully angry. “If she vewy pweety, she a ladyboy.”
The plaza is split in two sections. Go-go bars with girls and go-go bars with ‘ladyboys’, the street term for Thailand’s transgenders. Before they take the stage, they crowd the hairdresser’s on the third floor of the plaza. At once the make-up artist handles curling irons and hair straighteners, eye-liners and perfumes, blush and wet wipes. The clients leave, spruced up and satisfied.
With 10 minutes to go for the show, the saloon is vacant. The make-up artist steps out for a breath, and a cigarette. “Without these girls there would be no tourism in Thailand,” he says. “They have to look good.” He watches the tourists from the street drain into the bars. Into Rainbow II and Shanghai. Into Spanky’s and Angel Witch.
The logo nailed outside Angel Witch is misleading: a fully clothed girl on a broom. Step inside and you realise that the place hasn’t seen a broom in days. Clothes, too, are at a premium. The club is the size of a standard living room. Seats and sofas rest against the walls, forming a concentric circle around the stage at the centre. The raised platform holds as many as 20 girls at once, all demanding the customer’s attention.
Four Indians flock into the club, taking their place on the slab closest to the exit. One of them calls for the waitress. “How to get lap dance?” he asks. The waitress cannot understand. “Lap dance,” he says again, this time pointing towards the stage and then patting his thighs. “If you want to talk to girl then you buy her drink. 175 baht,” she says. “If you like then pay bar fine, 700 baht, and take her to hotel.”
By about 10 pm, there’s a queue outside almost every club. “Feels like every tourist in this country is on this street, doesn’t it?” says Desmond, a 53-year old man from Ottawa, Canada. He and his mates are in the quadrangle, overwhelmed by the crowded stairwells. But Desmond is determined to make a night of it. Tonight, he says, he turns 54. “I wouldn’t necessarily pay for sex. But I wouldn’t mind some female attention, if you know what I mean. Why else would I come to Thailand?”
The parade is a representation of Thailand in its entirety. When the dancers move with choreographed poise, the dragon undulates like a saw-scaled viper. Up above the park, baffled crows attack recording drones
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Surely, this country has more to offer, I say. But Desmond is vehement. “If I wanted to laze on a beach, I would’ve gone to the Caribbean, wouldn’t I?”
TANASAK PATIMAPRAGORN, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, is seated on a throne in the middle of Lumpini Park. Before taking his seat, Patimapragorn had looked up at the towering hospital just beyond the park, and at the 20-storey poster of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej wrapping its front facade. He then folded his hands and lowered his head in respect.
Since the death of the world’s longest reigning monarch in October last year, almost all high rises in Bangkok—from banks to luxury hotels—have been draped similarly. Giant pictures of the king in his gold finery, framed by a line that reads (in Thai): ‘We shall reign with righteousness, for the benefit of the Siamese people.’ But this poster on the hospital is special. Here the king looms over the first Thailand Tourism Festival since his passing.
“Tourism accounts for close to a tenth of our economy,” says Sarayut, one of the festival’s many volunteers. I am in the country at the invitation o f the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “You can see how seriously we take promoting our land. The deputy PM doesn’t inaugurate just anything.” The people of Bangkok take it almost as seriously. At the tourism festival, locals far outnumber the tourists. From children in school uniforms to businessmen in tuxedos, black ribbons pinned to all their bosoms (Thailand is in a state of mourning for one year), Bangkok has emptied itself into Lumpini.
Patimapragorn beats a gong and the parade begins. The parade, like the stalls spread about the park, is a representation of Thailand in its entirety. From the north, bare-chested men with painted faces wear menacing eyes and thrash at their drums. From the east, effeminate teens fan their faces and blow kisses at the crowd. From the south, sarong-clad girls twirl their colourful umbrellas. From the west, more painted bodies zig-zag their way in, hands carrying an orange dragon overhead. When they move with choreographed poise, the dragon undulates like a saw-scaled viper. Up above Lumpini Park, baffled crows attack recording drones.
“This stuff, this celebration of Thailand is exotic for us locals too,” says Sarayut. “One would assume that we, Thai people, are aware of the many different cultures in our country. But we aren’t. So what this festival offers is all of Thailand in one park. Now that’s a great reason to leave whatever you are doing and come here, especially if you are in Bangkok.”
On Sarayut’s recommendation, we tear into a bowl of clams and oysters from the ‘South’ stalls. “I’m assuming this is your favourite part of Thailand,” I say. Sarayut smiles. “All this is a celebration of the mainland. A celebration of land creatures,” he says. “To really see Thailand, you must leave the land and go into the water. That’s my favourite Thailand, the underwater one.”
The first thing that strikes you once you’re afloat is the water’s visibility. One would reckon that the corals, coloured a radioactive purple and red, must be at least 15 metres below eye level
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NATHEYI, THE CAMBODIAN speedboat captain, slows the engine down to a purr at Koh Yak, an uninhabited island of igneous boulders and dense foliage. The island is the size of a basketball arena. He hauls his anchor into the green expanse and says, “Numbeh one snohkewing prace in Asia.” Natheyi hands us snorkel masks, flippers and no advice; just one cursory ‘go see many phishes, this is weeal Thailand pawadise.’ The protagonist of The Beach, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, had once said something similar. “Trust me, it’s paradise,” the dialogue goes. “This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before.” In this Danny Boyle film on Thailand, Richard—DiCaprio’s character— leaves the tourist orgies of Pattaya and Phuket and Krabi behind, only to chance upon an untouched island. The filmmakers could well have been referring to any of the paradisiacal Kohs (meaning islands)—Koh Yak, Koh Rang, Koh Klum, Koh Wai, or even Koh Mak—satellites around the nucleus of Koh Chang.
Like the island in the movie, Koh Chang (Thai for Elephant Island) is well off the beaten path—closer to Cambodia than it is to the tourist attractions of Thailand. To get here, one must first reach the southeastern coastal city of Trat. To give you an idea of just how off-the-map Trat itself is, Bangkok Airways flies just three ATR-72s (indicating the number of seats) daily, to and fro from the capital. From Trat, Koh Chang is then a 45 minute ferry ride away. “Very few farangs (foreigners) coming here,” the owner of Banjo Bar on Koh Chang’s Lonely Beach had told me. “Injuns? I seen more sharks than Injuns.” Koh Chang, and its surrounding constellation of smaller islands, is not about massage parlours or go-go bars. Neither does it boast of monasteries or temples. At least none famous enough to make the trip. “People coming here for one reason, to enter new world. Underwater world.”
To do that, enter this sub-aqueous universe, one must first get to the gateway at the southern tip of the trunk of Elephant Island; the Bang Bao pier. The pier is flanked on either side all the way till the loading point by two bustling markets, a Colaba Causeway on stilts. One nameless restaurant on the pier displays this message: ‘If It Swim, We Make Dish.’ Natheyi, the body-art loving sailor, treats his speedboat less like a captain and more like a cowboy. He laughs his version of hee-haws as we crunch into prancing waves for an hour, en route to Koh Yak, the ‘real Thailand paradise’.
We leap into the vastness, careful to avoid the few snorkel tubes poking out of the water. This paradise has a sprinkle of early birds; but because it is paradise, we all catch our proverbial worms. Or eels. Or rays. Or coral groupers. Or schools of fish. Or ‘phishes’, as Natheyi calls them in their collective.
The first thing that strikes you once you’re afloat is the water’s visibility. One would reckon that the corals, coloured a radioactive purple and red, must be at least 15 metres below eye level. Then, once the sound dies down (apart from the Darth Vader-like suction through the mouthpipe), the sight truly takes over.
Here you have to be blind to not find Nemo—the orange and white clownfish made famous in the Pixar animation Finding Nemo. A troop of sergeant majors—a flat-faced, monochromatic lot—march on towards the hypnotic reef at the bottom of the rocks and it’s impossible not to follow. But you lose them when you see the majestic batfish—creatures built like Batman logos wearing striped pajamas—feeding in the crevice of the rocks.
You circumvent the island, your eyes peeled on submerged rocks, when the batfish slip deeper into cavities (they’re shy and we’re voyeurs), but you stop halfway around and dead float at the sight of the translucent brain, an octopus emerging from the seabed. You point and scream with joy, but no one can hear you. It only shatters your equilibrium, filling your mask and lungs with water, forcing you to resurface. By the time you recompose and dunk back in again, the octopus is gone and you will never know where.
Natheyi knows his way around the waters like we do watering holes around a city. We trot to the island of Koh Klum, where the predominant species are schools, scratch that, university towns of trumpetfish. Them with their needle snouts preying on wide expanses of yellow algae. Then we canter to Koh Wai, where seahorses and surgeonfish coexist in rural harmony.
Stung by sea urchins and growling with hunger after many daylight hours of snorkelling, we gallop away on Natheyi’s ‘Princess’ to the island resort of Koh Mak, all white sands and jute hammocks. After a few pints of foamy beer, the waiter arrives with our lunch by the green tide. “Pla Muak,” he says. “Octopus tentacles with lemon seafood sauce. Hope you enjoy.”