Burgess in Bangkok

A postcard from where wanderlust meets standard midlife neuroses.

By Steve Burgess 28 Jan 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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My hotel is a pimp. A well-dressed one certainly, as judged by the grand lobby and my spacious suite on the tenth floor. But a pimp nonetheless.

Consider this: my suite has a couch, chair, and coffee table with two more wicker chairs in a small adjoining sunroom. But if I were to invite someone up to join me—say, my local businessman friend Andrew, or his family, or a hooker— the hotel would charge me 1200 baht (about 35 bucks). Any visitor, anytime, for any reason and any duration—1200 baht. No exceptions. It’s for security reasons, as the smiling manager apologetically explains.

Financial security, he probably means. Pimps do need that for their old age. The hotel surely understands that prostitution is a pillar of the Bangkok economy. Author John Burdett, writing recently in the International Herald Tribune, noted that in Thailand prostitution even substitutes for government in subsidizing agriculture. Poor young women from northeastern farming communities head to Bangkok and send their earnings back to the family farm. Ordinary working class women who toil in convenience stores by day will head out to the bars at night in search of supplementary income for themselves and their families back home. By now, prostitution is woven into the fabric of
Bangkok society.

So why shouldn’t my hotel get a cut? Staff members say the fee is actually an attempt to prevent such shenanigans, but they don’t forbid it. They just charge. Like the street-corner cat with the purple fur coat and matching upholstery, the Siam City is a big Mac Daddy and wants to get paid. If my friends cannot enjoy free coffee in my large, empty suite, well, that’s collateral damage. Everybody pays—no embarrassing questions that way.

My new buffalo guardian

This is a great, if complicated, city. I imagine Bangkok must somewhat resemble Dickensian London—dirty, desperate, and throbbing. Stink and commerce are everywhere. But the real stink comes when you try to send your precious purchases home.

Down at the Amulet Market, a 10-minute walk from the Tha Thien pier, I found an exquisite brass and red jade teapot, plus two clay figurines. One is a good luck salamander and the other a water buffalo guaranteed to scare off bad spirits.  50 bucks for the teapot, five each for the figurines. Interested in more expensive items? No problem—just ship them via FedEx. My teapot has now tripled in value thanks to the fine folks who stranded Tom Hanks and a volleyball on a desert island. But at least the experience allowed me to confirm the powerful ju-ju of my new guardians.

The FedEx girl on duty asked me to unwrap the packages for her. First to emerge was the water buffalo. Her reaction suggested that I had just uncrated a live tarantula—she put up her hands and backed away, unwilling to have anything to do with it. I had to re-pack it myself, satisfied that I had stumbled upon one of those B-movie staples such as the magical monkey’s paw that waits in sinister repose in the old back-lane curio shop. Once I get this thing home I’ll be emperor of Vancouver in no time. As for the young woman’s
reaction to my buffalo guardian, well, I can only conclude that bad spirits and FedEx employees are somehow genetically similar.

Setting sun?

Dirty, throbbing Bangkok—it’s there in the riverboats that chug up and down the Chao Phraya, belching black fumes on embarking passengers, rattling the bones of those who lean against the rails to catch the lovely late-afternoon breeze. Heading upriver past the spooky majesty of Wat Arun, watching the sun set on my final Bangkok day, I had to ask myself if I would ever have the opportunity to stand on one of these boats again.

Here’s where wanderlust blends in with standard midlife neuroses. My trips to new destinations, like my next stop Hanoi, are always mixed with return visits to cities I already know. Because when I ask myself that question, wondering if I will ever return to a favorite spot, the possible implications are too painful. To answer “no” is to admit that life is finite. I have to reassure myself that there is more to come. So—Au revoir, Bangkok. Till next time.

Steve Burgess has fled his obligations as an occasional television critic for The Tyee to wander Asia for a few more weeks. Sometimes he sends an email.


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