Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ode to Bangkok

No other city on earth is as crazy, captivating and no-holds-barred as Bangkok. This mega-metropolis of 10 – 15 million residents hoists skyscrapers to rival Manhattan and sprawl to put Texas to shame. No matter how much you struggle to leave Bangkok, to explore Thailand’s world-famous white-sand beaches and topaz-water islands, the pulse of this urban megacore keeps you locked inside. Bangkok is truly the place where anything is possible, from mango vendors serving you 4 a.m. fruit to hawkers in front of bars holding enormous signs boldly proclaiming “we sell fake I.D.’s!!” (not that anyone needs one, except to take to their home country.) At both noon and midnight, you’ll find people clamoring in the restaurants, surfing the Web, watching outdoor movies or shopping from sidewalk vendors don’t differenciate noon from midnight. Bangkok is the land where street vendors sell everything: the Harry Potter book collection, roasted squid, and corn-on-the-cob. Foreigners come crawling to the city to satisfy their most eclectic desires. Want an affordable sex-change operation? Want a fake press I.D.? Want a Thai wife? No problem – this is Bangkok! Bangkok has it all! You can have your teeth whitened by top-notch dentists before noon, get a new tattoo in time for dinner, guzzle a bucket (literally) of hard liquor by 9 p.m., get your hair cornrowed at 3 in the morning, and then stay up until sunrise at an Israeli-owned internet café, where you eat hummus while downloading Weird Al videos on YouTube with your new Welsh friend, who chain-smokes and has two black eyes.

I love the city for its fashionable $2 streetside clothing racks, its $5-an-hour massages, and its 75-cent plates of pad thai. I recently spent a few days at Ko Samet, a beach with soft white sand, crystal-clear blue waters and perfect cloudless skies, and you know what I said upon returning to the traffic and congestion of the city? “I missed Bangkok!”

The only hint is its “officially” nighttime is when transvestites start roaming the streets. Short men wearing stuffed bras and hip-hugging dresses pose very convincingly like sexy young Thai women. They congregate at the bars and flirt with clueless Western men, who buy them cocktails all night.

I didn’t know this until I had been in Bangkok long enough that I must have unwittingly watched hundreds of them in action. “Look at the size of ‘her’ hands,” someone told me, “and look closely at the neck. That’s a man.” After that, my friends and I started playing a guessing game of “man or woman?” with every high-heeled, mini-skirted Thai we saw. I found myself wrong (or at least, outvoted) about 80 percent of the time.

Perhaps “man or woman?” is a game that’s better lost than won. The winners, who can always guess correctly, show symptoms of having been in Bangkok too long. Stay in Bangkok too long and you may morph into a white-haired aging hippie in the corner of a 24-hour vegetarian restaurant eating kale at 5 a.m. while muttering to himself about how expensive south China has gotten these days. (Yes, this guy is real. We met him at dawn after a red-eye bus ride from Ton Sai back to Bangkok. Which, by the way, was also when we met the Welsh guy with the two black eyes, who kept recommending the Massaman curry. Which, by the way, is delicious.)

After two months in repressive India, where everything shuts down by 8 p.m. and wearing shorts, tank tops or above-the-knee skirts is a no-no, Bangkok is a breath of fresh air. Here, reality turns upside-down, and its good to be on your toes – in this case, toes encased in spiky high-heels which you can buy from a street vendor at 3 a.m. Just remember: the girl shopping for high-heels next to you wasn’t necessarily born a girl. Need a cheap sex-change operation, anyone? I know just the place ….