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Bangkok is Sleazy, Hot and Courteous

Bangkok is sweaty, sleazy and you’re sinning just by being there.

I stepped out of the Bangkok airport at 6 in the morning and it was already 29 degrees outside. It’s like you’ve never been hot before, not really and I imagine the elevator doors opening to hell must be modelled on arrival in Thailand.

Having spent the last 6 months in India, adjusting to Thai realities takes me a while. They have luxuries like cars in good condition, air-conditioned shops, pavements, for christ’s sake. In short, Tom Waits’ lament that ‘everything is broken and no one speaks English’ is only half-correct. If only India could take a lesson from the Thais in getting shit done.

I find the last surviving wooden guesthouse in Bangkok and bang my head on the doorway, a standard in the land of short people where the western traveler is so often Gulliver. There’s no room for me but by virtue of smiling and saying ‘mai pen rai’ (‘It doesn’t matter’, the Thai mantra) they change their minds and a key is produced. Ten minutes later I’m venerating the fan and shaking out the contents of my rucksack like the facts of my life onto the floor.

You can eat street food in Thailand and not get sick. Again, I remember that I’m not in India where they invent new parasitic pathogens every day on the average samosa stall. After buying assorted bags of fruit, bags of rice, bags of kebabs – everything comes in plastic bags, often two – I find myself walking around foolishly with an armful of trash, not wanting to dump it in the gutter because, unlike India, there are no cows to come along and eat it all.

Another thing in Thailand – you have to drink all the time to replace your fluids but there’s never anywhere to piss. All the traveler can hope for is to sweat it all out before the bladder fills up. So now I know two things about the Thais – they eat their own plastic bags and they never piss. Or they dispose of both in secret locations that they’re hardly likely to reveal to the average hairy, smelly farang.

But you’ll never find anyone quite as polite as the Thais, who actually look like they mean it. Unlike the Japanese, who, as Paul Theroux observed, have refined their courtesy to an extent that it’s indistinguishable from their rudeness. The Thais on the other hand respond to your palms joined together wadi with surprise and eagarness, often bowing deeper than you to show respect.

Even a properly-performed wadi (don’t embarrass yourself or the Thais by saluting waiters) and 20 words of Thai will cut through the impassive contempt they reserve for the backpacker hordes. Never mind that, due to the tonal nature of the language where one word can mean 5 different things, instead of asking your way to the bus station you’ll end up enquiring after the health of their guinea pig. They still appreciate the effort. Why the fuck should they have to speak English anyway?

The service economy for tourists in Thailand is efficient, economical and quite disheartening. Again, unlike the happy chaos of India, the Thais have got servicing the needs of travelers down to the last baht. You want massage, you want pad thai noodles, you want cheap t-shirt, you want pirate DVD’s, you want hair extension, you want buy silver, you want learn dive, you want learn Thai cooking, you want lady boy?

Oops. I knew we’d get there in the end. The logical conclusion of a sub-culture of instant gratification is that it should end in the sex industry but I don’t feel like getting into that right now. But it’s always in the air in Bangkok. You can feel, smell, taste the sin in the air and the sordid atmosphere invades your lungs, lodges itself in the pores of your skin, gets stuck between your teeth.

And in a way, whether you get on the bus to Patpong every night or not, you still experience it just by being there.