They call it the city of angels in Thai. But, I see no angels here. Only Adonises and divas in breezy short shorts, pencil stilettos, with hairless limbs, perfect boobs and taut stomachs. And that’s just the straight folks.
I’ve never seen so many ostensibly and visibly queer people in my life (not even during a summer spent in Sydney). They serve me in restaurants, exchange my money in banks, stand beside me on the metro, jog past me at the park, and even give me rides on their motorcycle taxis. I ought to have expected it and yet I’m overwhelmed.
At the office, Grindr helpfully informs me that there are 20 men, erratum 21, in a 20 metre radius. How is that even demographically possible? I ponder idly into my mug that reads “World’s Greatest Daddy”. My brooding is interrupted by a man with twinkly green eyes lined incongruously by deep bags. “Fuckin twat!” he blusters. I look up to see a tight shirt creating a neat ridge across his chest bookended by two peaking nipples. “I was screamin’ my lungs out at ya at the metro station – couldn’t ya have waited for me?” I vaguely recall hearing someone shouting as I made my way through the turnstiles. “I’ve never met you before. How was I to know that we were destined to be colleagues?” He plonks down on the chair next to me. “Err. Earth to new posh boy with low IQ. Which other dickwads wear ties in this fuckin sauna?” That’s not entirely correct. The Japanese expats I saw in the elevator were wearing ties. Hell, they were wearing suits but I keep this to myself. “I’m Z by the way. Us bros, we gotta stick together eh?” I unstick myself from Z’s fraternal clutches and go back to glowering at my laptop.
Later that week, Z ambushes me in the restroom. “Whatcha doin’ after work?” Staring at the wall in my sweat box of an apartment, buying dodgy meat for dinner from street hawkers and flicking through my favourite amateur porn cum interior design website. “I dunno really”, I tell him. “R and me are headin’ out to the bars. You’re joinin’ us.” He offers an explanation in response to my mid-urinal bewilderment. “You’ve not sampled the gaybourhood my friend and it’s just round the corner.”
We meet R in the smoking zone. “Look who’s joinin’ us” chirps Z. “R’s been lookin’ forward to meetin’ ya.” R doesn’t look particularly pleased. We cut across the skytrain station, down the steps to street level and into the neon-lit mouth of the gay soi. Z skips beside me while R drags his feet behind us. “This is the gayest city in the world, gayer than San Francisco.” These words seem familiar but I can’t recall where I’ve heard them before.“I like ‘em tall”, he says. “Not really into Asians though they can’t get enough of me. Wouldn’t mind if he was a really tall Asian”, he adds smugly.
We sit at the corner of a bar where the pock-marked wooden counter swerves inwards. The man tending the bar has waist-length hair straight out of a Parachute ad. He sweeps his mane to the left and then to the right as he listens to our order. A scrawny torso with inked arms perches itself on the stool next to mine. “You visiting or working…?” he begins. I sense this is the opening of a well-practised script. Before I can respond however, R stretches his wiry frame across the L of the bar counter and says “Fuck off, not interested in money boys”. “Someone needs an enema”, mutters Z. I shoot the money boy a look of contrition in the hope that non-verbal apologies translate across cultures. “I need a smoke. Let’s go sit outside”, R says to Z.
The tables outside are arranged such that rows of men look at rows of men on the other side of the soi. They observe, at leisure, both each other and the punters who walk by singly or with money boys in tow. Up and down the soi; a veritable passeggiata of catamites and their daddies. The nattily dressed lad who’s waltzing over to our table is called Mint, I’m told perfunctorily. “Another money boy?” I enquire. “Oh no, he’s a guppie.” “A what?” “A gay yuppie – he’s an accountant and Mint’s his English name.”
“I saw you from other side”, Mint gurgles. “Why you never come for Midnight Patrol? You don’t want to make me happy?” While I contemplate his odd upward inflection on happy, Mint and Z make plans for the night. Between the upswings in the bass reverberating from the speakers behind me, I hear snatches of conversation that involves strippers and dancing. I fumble at my wallet and start saying goodbyes when Mint grabs my arm. “Where you going grandpa! You our guest. I show you Bangkok, city of angels … angels with big dicks.” I admire Mint’s nuanced way with words as he leads us away into a back-alley, past battalions of freshly mascaraed female prostitutes until we stand across from the entrance to a narrow lane.
In the shadow of lit-up signs that promise ‘dream boys’, ‘hot boys’ and even ‘the boys’, I study a rusty plaque that reads Soi Prathuchai. “It means Path of the Triumphant Arch”, sneers R. “Trust the Thais to try to save their face even when they are selling cocks.” We mosey up the lane taking in the sights of bars that open directly onto to the street, the pleas of pushy club promoters, and glimpses of gogo boys in tiny briefs dancing on table tops. I see a gang of Indian men trundling down the soi, bantering about and ridiculing their surrounds as if they’d taken a wrong turn. They reek of Gurgaon and Davidoff, and give me a look of disgust as they pass me by. But, one of them gives me a different, familiar once over and wipes it off his face just as quickly re-joining his mates in their bonhomie. It seems even on holiday, there’s no respite for denial.
We enter a suggestively-named venue and seat ourselves away from the low stage that partitions the space. An Australian leans over from the next table and informs me that he and his mates had a really good curry on Sunday. I gawp at him vacantly but he’s clearly from a low-context culture and continues to blather on about naan bread and rogan josh until Z pulls me back into his ambit. “There are lesbian bars over in Sukumvit. But they are women only”, he announces conspiratorially. Why are you telling me then? I think to myself. The cocksure way he delivers this makes me infer that he’s trotted out this trivia before. Then, I remember reading his earlier touristy titbit in Lonely Planet. He probably does this routine with all the visiting dignitaries, the gay ones at least. Maybe he brings straight colleagues here as well; he seems quite capable of it.
I have noticed the local lesbians though. Even in a city as gay as Bangkok, they seem somehow more assertive about establishing their presence. It might be the lesbian couples that I notice everywhere displaying affection in public, something I hardly see straight couples doing. Women nuzzle each other on the skytrain, eat from the same bowl at street food carts and steal kisses on mall escalators. But, they always seem to conform to the formulaic roles of butch and femme. Nevertheless, there’s not a woman in sight in this club and the tables are mostly occupied by somewhat rotund Japanese men. R seems more conciliatory towards me. “They are Japanese bears”, he explains. “They don’t seem to have much hair though” I observe. “Well, what do you expect? They’re Japanese, they try to make up for it in shape.” He nudges me, “Don’t eye them too much. Most of them are into piss play unless of course that’s up your alley.”
I look down and scrutinise my beer but it too is piss-like in more ways than one. I am paying 600 rupees for a pint that costs 60 at 7-Eleven. So that’s 540 rupees to look at some cocks. And out they come in ones, twos and threes – semi-engorged members tied off with black strings and cock rings – their owners parading them across the stage to the tune of Beyoncé and other singers I don’t recognize. They are flopped, rubbed, whirled and danced in a manner that is slightly out of sync with the music. Not that I don’t appreciate the skill required to synchronise phallic movements to piped rhythms. The last of this train of phalluses is a strangely flaccid one, like an aborted baby banana, made all the more endearing by its accompanying track, Ronan Keating’s rendition of When You Say Nothing at All.
I saw seven cocks in all, including the odd limp one, which works out to be 77 rupees per cock, a bargain some might say. An elderly white man seated diagonally opposite me points to one of the dancers while speaking to a server, who promptly writes something on a piece of paper. The elderly man looks as the chit, gives him a thumbs-up sign and points to his watch. The server seems to indicate that it will happen after the show. I suddenly feel nauseated. “As if that’s going to make him happy”, I whisper to R. “Happiness is in the gonads of the ejaculator”, he grunts.
The show isn’t over but Z is bored. We follow our captain out into the alley. I gather that the team is now heading over to some place named Guys on Display. I don’t know see how that would be an improvement from Cocks on Display but R assures me that it’s a proper nightclub. I make an excuse about not wanting to miss the last train home.
As I turn to leave, I am confronted by the indomitable Mint,“You will meet Bird”, he informs me nonchalantly. “Next weekend. He like you artist-type.” I consider the ambiguity of this utterance. Does he like artist types? Or is he an artist-type? Wherever did he get the idea that I am artistic? And why is everyone ordering me around in this city?
On my way back to the metro station, I spot money boys praying at a wayside shrine to a lustrous golden image of a four-headed Brahma. The Hindu gods here are understanding. They know that even rent boys need to eat and give their blessings freely with ever outstretched hands and beatific smiles. The boys of the night bring their palms together and offer ‘wais’ to the deity along with bottles of red strawberry Fanta, ready to drink with straws in place. Hungry rent boys, thirsty gods; it all seems to be a part of the natural order here.
Over Skype, my friend plays agony aunt, patiently listening to my rants before gently chiding me with the inherent authority that comes from being a Bengali. “How does it really matter? This perpetual existential crisis is merely a manifestation of your delusions about heteronormative happily ever afters. Just go with the flow and have fun.” I interrupt him. “Are you happy?” I wonder if the connection has dropped but it’s just him being quiet for a few minutes. “How is that relevant?” He finally answers.
I meet Bird. He fits the image of the archetypal artist, perhaps a little too well. Burgundy hair, fashionable glasses, twisted tartan belt, bottoms inspired by classical Lakhon performers, and footwear from the future. We go to the Art and Culture Centre. He is a digital artist and his friend’s work is on display but he doesn’t seem especially interested in it, shepherding me in the direction of the gallery’s café. He asks me about how I liked my night out with Mint. “It’s not really my scene.” I tell him. “That’s because Silom is for tourists. I will take you to Ramkhamhaeng. There are big clubs there, mostly locals, hot guys, not farang, definitely no tourists or money boys.” “And then?” I probe. He tells me that each club hosts a different theme night so I will have something to do every weekend. “Why would I want to do that every weekend?” “Because it’s fun.”
Later, we are sitting by a pond where diaphanous orange koi swim lazy laps, while drinking orange juice from slender plastic bottles and spearing fruit with wooden skewers in see-through bags. “Does that make you happy?”, I ask him referring back to our previous conversation. He feeds the fish several pieces of papaya before replying.“Why is that important?”
I go back to the bars, each time without company. Z seems otherwise engaged. Maybe he’s trying his luck at the lesbian bars. R is terse at best. On a couple of occasions, I see a boy with a certain rakish allure who I’ve noticed at work. He’s American or maybe Canadian, or at least from that part of the world, I surmise from his accent. In the coffee room, he explains away the white stains on his trousers as toothpaste in between mouthfuls of banana loaf and iced green tea latte. In the gay soi, he looks straight through me, twice. Why does he not want to acknowledge me? I wonder if he is happy.
I go running at five in the morning in a bid to cleanse my system of the aftertaste that the bars seem to leave me with, one part disconsolation and two parts misanthropy. I canter past phalanxes of shophouses in the riverside quarter of Bangrak, through delicate ceramic temples and under disagreeable concrete high-rises. I cross and re-cross Chaoren Krung road, the oldest modern thoroughfare in the city and eat breakfast in instalments from foldable tables and carts on the pavement. I buy dragon fruit by the dozen at obscenely low prices and wait for the traffic to let me pass as I make my way back. I amble across the road slowly, weighed down by my otherworldly pink beauties. On the other side, outside a 7-Eleven, a slim punkish twink rocks back and forth on a makeshift chair fashioned from crates. His hair perfectly spiked even at this early hour. Our eyes meet as he follows my progress to his side of the road. With a subtle dip of his chin, he beckons me over. I step up on to the sidewalk and in a motion that seems to take an eternity, I turn right, away the 7-Eleven and walk on.
On my last day in the city of angels, I look down on its urban sprawl from the top of its tallest building. I mull over why the queerest city in the world feels so gallingly inadequate. Bars, strip clubs, bath houses, rent boys and cruising spots and yet it all feel so hollow.This is no city of angels. It’s a cities of fairies; exquisite in their landscaped bodies and fine apparel, flitting from distraction to distraction, shaping their lives around that intangible pleasure – fun. But, when I try to cup them in my palms, I find them wisp-like and insubstantial. I try to hold them even closer but they fritter away, as fairies are wont to do, leaving a smidgeon of dust across my fingers. I gently blow my fairy dust out over the railings of the deck, where it’s carried by a warm thermal, back down into the city of fairies.