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Bangkok: The carnival of South East Asia

This will be the first article that doesn’t exactly fit into any conventional blogging categories, at least not here. This is an article based on my observation and experience in life. It’s about culture. There will be no takeaways or actionable steps for you to take. It’s pure writing, and I hope you enjoy it. It also contains a more serious tone, unlike my usual style. So yeah, there’ll be no “how to”, actionable steps or whatever. It’s just experience. Hope you like it. 

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I always thought Thailand was a shit hole.

The streets are dirty. The air is polluted. The whole country is overpopulated. The people are poor, so much so you see a lot of beggars along the streets. Some of them are disabled or disfigured, missing an arm, leg or have their facial features literally sagging down an arm’s length. It’s an awful, heartbreaking sight to behold. And yet, you aren’t even sure if you should give them money or food because you hear these stories of how they work for the evil syndicate, where the beggars are kidnapped and forced into collecting money for their evil masters.

Right here in Singapore, or any part of the world for that matter, you read news of how there’s rioting and protests going on in Bangkok. The people never seem to be happy with their government.

That was my impression of Thailand as I was growing up. It was never a good one. I found myself deeply affected by the state of the country and also the bad shit Thai people had to go through, at least those dealt with a shorter hand in life. I once read an email of how this couple when for their honeymoon in Thailand. While travelling by cab, the driver asked the guy to get out to push the car in order to jump start the engine. After he got out, the cab sped off, disappearing with the guy’s wife forever. It is then said she was sold into a sex slavery ring, never to be found again. What could even the authorities do, right? In hindsight, that could have been one of those ‘scare spam” email hoax, but it was a grim reflection of the prostitution industry in Thailand.

Just thinking of that email makes me feel uneasy.

Today, I go to Bangkok up to six times a year. My girlfriend lives there and we take turns seeing each other in our respective homes. I’ve pretty much fallen in love with Bangkok, its people and its culture. I’m no world traveller. I can’t say I’ve been to a lot of places in the world to start making sharp observations on life. My comparisons in the different places and cultures of the world will not even be that accurate.

But between my own home and my neighbour, the experience and memories from frequently travelling this short distance has been ingrained in my mind, and heart forever. This 28 year-old guy loves Bangkok, despite its supposed flaws and uncertainty has a safe place to be at.

And it’s weird. It’s also ironic. The love stemmed from partying, good food and hot girls.

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The first time I went to Bangkok was back in 2011. Well, it wasn’t actually my first time, but it was the first time I went as a single guy with a bunch of other like-minded friends. You could call it my “virgin” trip, where I was out to live it up and finally see what the big fuss was all about.

I was excited. I heard so many things about Bangkok from my friends, and they were absolutely not virgins when it came to the Bangkok scene. I was told by a friend that I was going to love it there, mainly because I was going to attract a lot of beautiful girls’ attention. Why? Because I have fair skin. I can be pretty damn pale sometimes. And apparently that’s what Thai girls like. Also, I happen to resemble some celebrity there, whom I never heard anything about to this day.

Soon after our plane landed and after going through customs, we took a cab to our hotel. That was the first thing that would hit you when you headed outside, the realization that everything was so damn cheap. The cab fare, with a toll booth included, cost like maybe five bucks total. That was cheap. Really cheap. A stark contrast to most countries and their transport system.

Let me just skip to the good part.

Nightfall came. It was time to party.

We went to RCA, one of the most popular partying spots in Bangkok. It was basically a street with a few clubs. This was when I realized why MTV called Bangkok a carnival, a term I first heard of on the box when I was 16. Thai people partied every, single, fucking night. Clubs were open everyday, and each night, there’d be a sizeable crowd, filled with young, beautiful people and the standard groups of tourists. Alcohol was cheap, especially if you bought them by the liquor bottles. A group of friends can easily have a good time with a ton of drinks, a table if you go early and not have to spend much. I’m talking maybe 1,000 Thai Baht a person, which amounts to about $40 a person. Inside, laser lights shot through the club. The DJ spun latest, mainstream music while mixing it with a touch of old school RnB.

My friends and I were in the club. We entered the carnival to enjoy the show. Only at certain points, we were the performers. Since everything was so cheap, we made it a point to tip the server a big amount. Big being big to them, but not us. It only cost us 100 Thai Baht, or $4. My friend would even do it in a faux, classy manner, what with the whole surreptitious handshake-cum-pass-you-money gesture. Yet of course, he did it in a showy way so that it could grab people’s attention, if that makes sense. The server was delighted, so much so she stood with us the whole time. She was there to prepare and mix our drinks, making sure we had enough ice and even wrapping serviettes around our glasses, so that the cold, icy feel did not affect our rich fingers. Like our drinks, it was a mixed pleasure, to have such VIP treatment which was bought at practically no cost to us.

Our performance didn’t stop there of course. We knew we emanated this “tourist aura” and we didn’t hold back to spread that feel. We’d drink like kings, as if the cheap, Thai alcohol would never affect our godlike physique. We would be loud with our English, to spread the message that we were not from around here.

We got girls’ attention. And the girls were mostly beautiful. I don’t know why, but it seems like the Thai gene pool is blessed to make all females gorgeous. I had a lot of girls’ attention. I literally had girls checking me out from afar by pointing at me. I refused to call that rude. Did I score those few nights? I certainly did. I guess that looking like a celebrity paid off, whoever the hell that was.

Our travelling circus came, and we made a name for ourselves. Our troupe performed well.

It’s funny how you don’t really have to make it big or be filthy rich to enjoy the high life. You just need to get a ticket to a poor country.

That was the highlight of my virgin trip. This is what most tourists, at least those from around here would tell you. Bangkok is a fun, awesome place to visit and one should definitely go when they can.

It’s entirely different for me now. Bangkok isn’t a carnival to me. It’s a person whose culture has grown on me. It’s a place where the love of my life lives at. For the first time in my life I found myself travelling outside of my country so many times that I feel like I found a second home. That is something I say out of sincerity and not just some form of loose teasing of my lifestyle, as some friends like to put it. It’s all good though. I don’t mind.

The love for partying, good food and beautiful girls is… just funny to me. I’ve come a long way since my initial, teen-like judgement of Thailand being a shit hole. Although many elements of the dark side exist, it makes for a brighter light to shine when you juxtapose it with the good stuff.

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Thai people, are nice people. Really. They’re extremely nice people. Every time I’m in Bangkok, I feel safe. I feel welcomed and treated with respect. Despite the streets being littered with crap, the air faintly stinking of sewage all the time, the roads jammed with traffic and the crowds, not once did I find myself feeling frustrated or angry. Everyone treated each other with respect and courtesy, which makes for a great culture even though it’s basic, human decency. Even in clubs, party-goers are nice. I’ve seen the drunkest of douchebags dancing like machines, only to bow down and apologize to you if they happen to knock into you.

When I met some Bboys there for the first time and started practising with them, they were very sure to make me feel included. A couple of them even asked what I was doing the following day as they wanted to show me around.

It got me thinking a lot. Why is it people in Singapore and/or other developed countries are always so damn uptight? Our streets are clean. Our standard of living is higher. It’s easier to get an education and find work. The air certainly does not smell of shit and you can get around pretty easily with our modern transport system. Why then, are most of us always complaining?

It is said that the poor upbringing for most people in Thailand made them humble. They realize they needed to help each other. So for the rest of the world, what then would we become as our surroundings changed for the worse? Is our culture and character going to go hand in hand in the shit hole or actually lift us up as people with a formidable, human spirit which recognizes the importance of compassion? What’s going to become of us if the apocalypse actually happens?

You know what else is nice? The food. Thai food is good. It’s amazing. The aromatic beauty doesn’t come from the idea that there are select places to eat at. It comes from the fact that, as a tourist at least, you can pretty much each anywhere and have a good meal. My friends and I would always choose a random place and order anything we liked. Food alone was an adventure. The better stuff usually comes from a random roadside hawker, where food is cooked on their portable stalls. They may not have the most hygienic locations or even the best culinary skills, but they always taste good to me. I love the chicken wings. I, up till today, have this belief the chicken wings in Bangkok are the best. Roadside hawkers are everywhere. It’s a delicious culture to know that you can grab a meal or a substantial mouthful just by walking outside, any time. And yes, it’s cheap. It’s always cheap.

But not many people adhere to street food “delicacies”. I know of people who are too paranoid to eat the food, mainly because of how they’re cooked. Imagine bucketfuls of oil or raw food being washed on the floor itself, and god knows where the water even comes from. And the thing is, Thai people who are poor or maybe at most bordering on middle class income are the ones who shell out the good stuff.

Let’s not forget that they are nice. I once bought a few sticks of barbecued food. I handed over 50 Thai Baht. Apparently I forgot my change and the stall owner, in his ragged clothes and farm hat ran over to hand it to me. He ran all that way, to give me back about 20 Cents. He could have used it more.

Does the rest of the developed world lack choices then? Does progress mean a lack in taste and flavour? Sometimes, I guess the best things in life comes from our roots, where we belong. I don’t think that will ever change. I know of friends who refuse to eat the street food there. They absolutely have to eat Mac Donalds or some indoor place with air conditioning.

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I visited some prostitutes. Or rather, we went to check out this particular street which is a popular tourist spot for people who want to buy sex. We just wanted a drink while exposing ourselves to the sights, sounds and smells. It was a red light district, for the fact that there were a bunch of red, neon signs. It kind of gave a Vegas-like feel, only that it was purely a street of whores, pimps and drinking. You could call it really “raw” street culture. Whores simply stood outside their respective bars or joints, touting any customers who walked by. They would chide you, wave at you and blow you a kiss. Anything really, to get you to go inside.

And I did go inside. Because I needed to pee.

I made my way past the bar which was being patronized by a single, old dude. He was smiling happily to himself. He should be, since he had like five whores around him, all  of whom had their arms wrapped around him. When I got to the loo, which was pretty much a shared restroom for everyone, I was greeted by a couple of urinals and a single cubicle. In the corner laid a thrash can which was filled with nothing by soiled, tissues to the brim. But you know what really caught my attention? It was the politeness and hospitality of the Mama, also known as the elder, female pimp who took care of the girls. When I walked in, she excused herself from the old, white dude she was talking to and helpfully directed me to the cubicle. “Wow”, I thought. Thai people are amazingly nice. There I was, in a grim, dark bar which smelled funny and had a bin of semen-stained tissues in the corner. And I never felt more safe. Maybe I was deluded, or that I was used to that kind of shit, but I felt alright, really. The Mama had the sense and will to smile, while I can easily name a ton of well-to-do people who are just plain unhappy and are willing to spread that unhappiness.

Smiles. It was everywhere on that street. Every whore I looked at outside was smiling. Some of them were even attractive. It’s their job, I know. But yet, I couldn’t feel a vibe of discomfort or uneasiness that very night. I am told they chose that profession. It’s their choice. Did their background and circumstances practically force them into that line? Yeah, probably. Were they kidnapped, drugged and forced into a life of whoring? I really couldn’t tell. I just felt alright, a far cry from how I always feel when I was partying in Singapore, where politeness and courtesy took a back seat.

I guess in this carnival, there existed a freak show too. Out of norm, out of most sights. Ostracised by people, cast down by society. The freaks still need to survive. People will pay though. People will always pay for freaks.

As me and my girlfriend left the street, I gave 20 Thai Baht to the beggar who was missing an arm and a leg. He was dragging himself on the road, along the street, back and forth the whole time. He was just doing his rounds with his little bowl.

Everything is still dirty in Thailand. As I’m writing this now there’re news of rioting and protesting going on in Bangkok. You still hear shit about the drugs, prostitutes, overpopulation and the poverty all the time. For a while I felt confused. What was the government doing? What are Thai people to allow their leaders to do whatever they’re doing? What are we doing as people of the world to collectively allow the state of the world to continue this way? I have this personal belief that I’m and always will be, “just one person”. Again, I’m no world traveller. Neither am I interested in politics. But as one guy, I’m part of people. And people is what makes up a place or nation.

It’s the people in Thailand that makes them for who they are. It’s the people that makes or break a country. No amount of progress or moving forward can create heart or soul. Progress can only create an image. And looking good on the outside, but having horrible interiors should never be the way to go. It’s disgusting in fact. Yet, I wonder why whole nations, and a lot of people for that matter go for that route all the time. Why do we work so hard on the outside to show off what material things we don’t even need in the first place? We study so hard in schools to work at jobs we don’t like. We work so hard in the office, not knowing if it has a real impact on society. We forget how to love, or even have fun. We forget ourselves.

From what I gather, the heart and soul of Thai people comes largely from the Buddhist culture and love for their King. Almost every Thai person is a Buddhist, and every one of them loves their King. I’m not religious at all, although I like to think that I’m pretty open-minded and have made large strides in my own spirituality. When I used to go to Bangkok with friends, we would make it a point to visit the Erawan Shrine, also known as the Four Faced Buddha to pray, just for good fortune and stuff. There is also a story of a westerner who went there and started beating the statue. The locals there killed him on the spot.

In almost every shop, or cabs you can find a picture of their King. When you watch a movie in theatres, everyone would stand up to watch short clip on Tribute to The King right before the real movie begins. Having watched the clip many times, it’s easy to, at the very least become curious to why Thai people love their King so much. Apparently he has done a lot of good for them. The people love him. They practically worship him.

I don’t believe in following any religion. Neither do I think it’s necessary to look up to something or someone to that extent. Perhaps I’m arrogant, but I think everyone, deep down has the power to believe in themselves and make something of themselves, whatever your circumstances may be. Yet, I can’t help but grow a fondness towards the simple Buddhist and King-worshipping lifestyle they hold on to. It’s raw. It’s simple. It’s peaceful. Maybe on some level, the raw belief and lifestyle go hand in hand with their lack of progress. It’s rather… charming, a quality progress throws aside when moving forward.

Bottom line, if I were to sum up in a line what the beauty of the rawness is all about: At least Thai people aren’t assholes about their way of life.

I like to think that I’m no longer a tourist of Thailand. The country has inspired me, and it’s thanks to the people. They give the best shows, yet they are modest people. I will always be there for every act. Like most of our lives, maybe I should call this piece “The Contradiction of South East Asia” instead. It’s crazy, and I love it.

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8 comments

  1. Jay Palmer - January 6, 2014 11:56 am

    Bro this post is 100% on the money. My girl and I have just started travelling and came to Chiang Mai in Thailand – my first ever venture outside of the first/westernised world. I have never felt more welcome and at home, the people are so nice and caring, even though I constantly have a phobia of getting scammed, it hasn’t happened yet (as far as I know!). Partying is mega cheap, food, transport, accommodation… Man it really does feel like you are living like a king when you pay a buck for a beautiful meal

    Reply
    • alden - January 8, 2014 6:01 am

      I think if you’re just safe and smart, it’s all good. A simple Google search on travelling can already help. You don’t have to be paranoid, just safe. If you do stupid shit like choosing to walk out at night alone, then you’re asking for it.

      I know right. Haha. We should all just move out.

      Reply
  2. Sebastian - January 6, 2014 7:20 pm

    Every time I read a sentence and scrolled down I expected a picture… What the hell…

    Reminds of Paraguay a little (where I’m from). People might hear all these stories about how poor is it and corrupt and dangerous (we have the biggest black market in America) but I lived there my whole life and it was a normal simple life.

    Reply
    • alden - January 8, 2014 5:59 am

      Haha nah. I chose not to insert too many pictures. Otherwise that’s so lifestyle magazine-ish.

      But yes. You’re right there. Usually when you aren’t living there itself you tend to think a place is fucked up cause of the news you read or hear.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: 7 life lessons I learnt from meeting my girlfriend's parents for the first time // | Alden Tan| Alden Tan

  4. Lisa - April 30, 2014 4:09 am

    Amazing insight on societies rich and poor; I couldn’t put it in better words. Love and support your statement ” I am and always will be, “just one person”… But as one guy, I’m part of people. And people is what makes up a place or nation.” I live in NYC so I totally understand how people can be incredibly rude but I am a working class individual that is humble and respects kindness. A smile really does go a long way 🙂

    Reply
  5. Hosting - September 25, 2016 2:14 pm

    Starting in the glittering lights of Singapore we head into Malaysia with its bustling cities and quiet villages, nestled deep in the highlands. Heading to Thailand we enjoy the beaches of Phuket, and you can visit some surrounding islands before arriving in Bangkok where ornate golden temples and busy markets await.

    Reply
  6. Mikey Moo - October 8, 2016 7:25 pm

    I surmise from your comments that you tend to see the good in people rather than the bad and I agree that Thai people are mainly good human beings. However, the small percent of people that have power in the country exploit the rest in every way possible starting with education with its xenophobic agenda preaching respect and obedience to the country’s greedy and corrupt controllers, who over the past 100 years have squandered thousands of miles of territory, and ruined the prosperity of an agriculturally rich country. Their women are culturally brainwashed into acceptance of being second class citizens. These nice people behave stupidly on the roads and they use their habitat as an open dustbin.

    Reply

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