First, let me say that 44 baht = 1 dollar–that will save me a lot of translation in subsequent epistles. (I assume 40 baht = $1, for the sake of convenience.)
Well, I got a late start today, as I didn’t wake up until 5pm. I spent some time reading through the guidebook trying to plan, then decided to hell with it, I was going to go explore Bangkok and leave the guidebook for when I got back. So I went by the tailor for a final fitting on the clothes I ordered yesterday (the workmanship is exquisite and I feel guilty about dragging custom-made, high-quality cashmere pants and silk blouses through the jungles of Asia, but), then struck out in the general direction of Siam Central. Main goals for the evening:
(1) practice bargaining,
(2) find the scorpion vendor again, and
(3) poke my nose through the red-light district.
I ate at a couple food stalls on the way–these are dingy, battered little carts about the size of an ice cream cart, each equipped with a little charcoal brazier and a grill/wok/whatever. Each stall only makes one dish–noodles, grilled beef, fried grasshoppers, etc.–but they cluster in groups of five or six, so you can shop a few food stalls and get a reasonably varied menu, then eat it at a communal table. The limited menu at each stall is actually an advantage for clueless foreigners–you can just point, and ask how much, and take whatever they’re cooking. (If you don’t recognize it, don’t ask; I mean, why court trouble by finding out that delicious food was actually maggots?)
Needless to say, the hygienic conditions for these stalls aren’t the best (no refrigeration), but since cooking kills all nasties, it’s basically safe as long as it’s freshly cooked. Which it is. And, very tasty, and very cheap. 2 grilled beef skewers, a barbecued chicken leg, and a bowl of noodles ran me 65 baht (about $1.50)–I could probably have bargained that down by about 10%, but had a hard time convincing myself to do them out of the extra fifteen cents–these people aren’t completely impoverished by Thai standards, but fifteen cents is real money to them, which it isn’t to us. (I have another philosophical discourse on money and the relative value of labor, but I’ll can it for now.)
The guy with the beef skewers had a very interesting cart (I took a picture)–it had the back half of a bicycle grafted onto one end. The interesting part is, the cart makes up the *front* of the bike–it’s not attached to the back via tow hitch. I guess he uses the cart as handlebar/steering, and puts the cart up front so he can keep an eye on it/better negotiate Bangkok traffic.
(No, I am NOT riding a modified food cart on AIDS Lifecycle…though I’m sure that I could make myself the most popular rider next year by riding one, and filling it with Popsicle bars. )
Anyway, Silom was closed, so I went down to Patpong, one of the red-light districts. Patpong is stuffed with street vendors, so I spent some time drifting around and practicing bargaining. They really have honed scamming tourists to an art–on the main road, for example, a low-grade silk scarf was priced at 250 baht (I got them down to 175, but didn’t buy), but the minute you entered the red-light district, the same scarf was priced at 550 baht (!). I watched a Dutch (?) woman bargain that scarf down to 350 baht, then go off happily convinced she’d gotten a good deal. Moral of the story: never buy until you’ve walked away from at least three vendors (that–roughly–gives you their lowest price), and buy as far away from tourist districts as you can. I suppose that’s no different from any other city.
Anyway, I wound up buying a black rayon wraparound skirt for 250 baht (I think I still paid too much)–the seller swore it was silk, but if it’s not rayon, I’ll eat my sewing machine (see previous note re the fine art of scamming tourists). Of course, no way could I have gotten silk for 250 baht, so I’m not too upset.
I also got a black handbag, which I’ve decided will be my “stealth daypack” for walking around the city. I’ve noticed that while I don’t look Thai, as long as I’m not advertising myself as a tourist (backpack, camera, etc.) I can “pass” reasonably well–which means I don’t get hassled much by tuktuk drivers, sex-show touts, etc. A handbag is also a nice distractor for pickpockets–it’s big and obvious, so they’re likely to target it first, rather than my pockets. I really don’t care if I lose my water bottle.
Anyway, I’m pretty convinced I paid too much for the purse (beginners’ mistake), but at 300 baht I don’t think I overpaid by more than 50-100 ($1.25-2.50), which is not going to kill me.
I also bought a bronze three-headed elephant, just for the hell of it. i have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do with a three-headed elephant, but I’m sure one of my friends needs one. I also have no clue why someone would *sell* a little bronze three-headed elephant–I suspect it’s a Hindu Ganesh of some sort, but can’t really say. But what the hell, i got it, and it was good practice.
After the shopping spree, I went poking through the red-light district, looking for Dream Boys. Nima had helpfully pointed out Dream Boys on the way to the scorpion vendor, and described it as “the best male sex show in Bangkok”, so I poked my nose inside. She had also warned me that if I went by myself I’d be instantly deluged, which turned out to be true–thirty seconds after I sat down there were five dancers “coincidentally” sitting on the bench next to me. Apparently about half the male strippers/prostitutes in Bangkok are actually straight (“flipping” preferences to make money), so single women are very, very popular.
I spent some time trying to convince them that really, no, I was just looking, but couldn’t convince them to stop, um, getting friendly, until I explained that I had a boyfriend back in the States (sorry about that, Jim). After that they (mostly) kept their hands to themselves, though they still liked talking to me.
Anyway, to kill the suspense, the show was in fact very good as sex shows go–but the highlight, at least for me, was the one where they came out in UV body paint, lit with blacklights. One had a gorgeous scorpion down his chest, one had an owl, and one had a phoenix–very masterfully done. I want to talk to their body painter. If I could con him into teaching me how to paint, I could have a LOT of fun at Burning Man–I bought a set of Kryolan Brandel UV body paints for Burning Man last year, but don’t really know how to use them. This guy is *good*. I want to talk to him.
The only weird part in the whole thing was that at the beginning, all the guys stand on the stage in white G-strings with numbers attached, moving one spot down the line every twenty seconds or so (sort of a moving menu). Apparently, if you see a guy you like, you give his number to a waiter, and he comes over and sits next to you. I gather the female brothels work the same way–I can’t think of anything more dehumanizing/offputting, personally (think “meat market”), but then, I’m not their target customer.
Anyway, after I made it clear I was just looking, I wound up striking up a conversation with two of the dancers. One of them actually spoke decent English, and offered to show me around the city “as friends”–so I got his phone number, and am seriously considering it. Needless to say he’s probably looking for a “sugar momma” or something similar, but (a) I wanted to talk to a prostitute about life in the sex trade, and here he is; (b) he probably knows the guy who does the body paint; (c) he probably knows some of the “working girls” (or knows someone who does), so might be able to introduce me.
(For the record, the guy is (a) not my type, and (b) I wouldn’t be interested even if he were. I admit cheerfully to having a taste for adventure, and a high risk tolerance, but it emphatically does NOT extend to having sex with a male prostitute in the AIDS capital of Asia. I’d rather be shot at; the odds are better, IMO. (In the U.S., you have a 90% chance of surviving a gunshot wound, even if the guy gets lucky and hits you.))
anyway, I’m going to see what of my other feelers pan out, but if it looks like nothing else is doing I may try calling this guy and negotiating. I have no idea what his “rates” are, or what the house’s “cut” is, but I can always find out…and it wouldn’t hurt to have a native guide to teach me the finer points of bargaining, a few Thai phrases, and so on. I admit it’s a rather unorthodox way to find one, but I’ve never been much on orthodoxy to begin with. I promise I will NOT let the guy drug my drink, pick my pocket, steal my stuff, etc., though. (I read up on all those scams before setting out, too.) I’ll probably ask Nima about it, too, just in case. she’s been pretty good about pitfalls thus far, and she seems to know that “house” pretty well–as I’d expect: she writes travel guides for a living, so it’s her business to know these things.
(If you’re wondering why I’m considering paying this guy for conversation–it’s because his livelihood depends on people paying him for his time. It’s rude IMO to take up the time of a working professional without compensation, regardless of what that profession is.)
Oh yes–the elephant. On the way back, I was walking along the street trying to find a moving taxi (Nima helpfully told me to avoid parked taxis, as they’re almost universally crooks), and I passed an elephant! It was a very small elephant, about chest-height on me (four feet or so), and very cute, accompanied by two mahouts. They sold me a little banana for twenty baht–I offered it to the elephant, and it picked it up with its trunk and ate it. It was incredibly cute. I took a few photographs with the digital, not sure how they’ll come out. (Tomorrow morning I install software and try to get stuff downloaded. Really.)
I also passed by a stall where a guy was doing tattoos by hand–very neat to watch. He had a long bamboo pen-like thing in his hand, and was dipping the needle into several tiny pots of ink and pricking the tattoo in by hand. I took two photos and was horribly embarrassed when the flash went off on the second one (I had set it to no-flash override, or so I thought)–but I did get one good shot, anyway. I apologized profusely and scuttled off.
On the way back, I did flag down a moving taxi but the guy still tried to charge me 100 baht for a 55-baht fare home (wouldn’t turn on his meter). I said no thanks, got out, fended off the four touts and tuktuk drivers who immediately deluged me (“You need taxi, ma’am?”), and stalked off a block and a half, where I managed to flag an honest taxi. (Hard to imagine that two days ago I was absolutely terrified of boarding a bus. It seems pretty surreal to me, now.)
Oh–I almost forgot–in the back of a small shopping center, I found this metalworker who does the most INCREDIBLE art. He has a life-size See-Threepio and R2D2, all done in incredibly detailed, welded bronze (?–not sure if it’s really bronze). He also has an alien from Aliens, done in scrap metal, bicycle chains, etc.–also very beautiful. Unfortunately, there was a sign saying “No photography” or I would have taken photos to share–he also had smaller pieces that were equally exquisite, but at 12,000 baht each ($300, probably $250 with bargaining) they were out of my range. I did get a business card, I may want to try calling and buying something after I start working again. His work really is beautiful.
That’s all for tonight–it’s now 5am here, so I’m off to bed. Tomorrow I’ll see what today’s “feelers” have produced, and maybe do a walking tour of Chinatown. Alternately, there’s a hotel that has cool Thai dance stuff going on for free, and it’s next door to the Population Development Agency, which runs one of the biggest anti-AIDS programs in Thailand.