"Dr. Bombay, calling Dr. Bombay. Emergency. Come right away". The horny old warlock then vaporizes in exotic garb sitting on an elephant straight from a witch's apothecary in Bangkok (Bewitched).
The syphilis joke that uses the play on words naturally built into Bangkok (ouch).
The King and I where the King of Siam (Thailand's pre war name) struggled to embrace, resist and negotiate the proper dose of the western world into Siam ways.
Elephants, puffy pants, exotica, east meets west…these fragments to me were Bangkok. But the reality of today's Bangkok is so different than any of these dated vestiges. It is a sprawling city with intense traffic, high-rise buildings and designer shops. There are no elephants and not a warlock in sight but despite the visual normalcy, exotic and weird still hangs in the air and can be experienced in the spaces in between.
We arrived at our hotel to a flurry of evening attire milling about the lobby. There was a wedding taking place with over 2000 guests. No one famous, just a typical wealthy Asian nuptial. These numbers are typical we are told. God bless the bride but the overcrowded hotel and the water damaged mildewy room that us that were not on the guest list were asked to endure was super annoying. In addition to an intense odor the whole floor was buckled- so much so that the door wouldn't even totally open. We dealt for a night then made a room switch. Despite us traveling with pillow and encasement the dust/mite/mildew factor greatly effects the constant cough/sinus/snore issue that plagues our youngest so we are a bit high maintenance- this is now our 3rd room change on this trip. Divas. Once settled in and issues resolved we perused the possible list of things to do. This entire trip we have gone to each place unprepared then have a first day scramble. It is definitely not the most efficient method but local knowledge is better so we wait for it. We decide to honor the weird in Bangkok and book a ladyboy show. The fact that there were child priced tickets helped convince us to throw caution to the wind; we gave the kids a bit of an introduction and went for it. The kids were glued. Those lady boys would great at teaching times tables or the periodical table of elements- they command complete and enduring attention. They could sing catchy jingles made up out of the facts and do their over zealous dances. Genius. Some ladyboys were definitely more lady than others. One of them was a bit bowed in the legs making her look just like Klinger on MASH but most were divine goddesses. Sometimes I would catch an interesting mix together and be reminded of the old sesame street song-
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
The cast of characters put their hearts into the show and were gracious- you fell in love with them all by the end. I wish I could call them all by their individual names instead of group them into a stereotypical title so I could let you know the good will I have towards these individuals. The kids had some good questions about transformational methodology and the wonders of duct tape were explored. They pondered it all and I could tell they were thinking deeply based on their questions. - for instance, they asked if Michael Jackson was a ladyboy.
For those of you who don't know, Thailand is the place for gender bending. The local term for ladyboys is kathoey. This word describes males who dress as women as well as males who undergo medical procedures like breast implants, hormones, silicone injections and Adam's apple reductions. Kathoey are not limited as performers in cabaret shows but they also gain employment in shops, restaurants, beauty salons and even factories- Thailand has a high proportion of female industrial workers. This lifestyle comes with its challenges but is more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexual people are in most other countries. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys and Thai newspapers often print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. Unfortunately acceptance often does not equate to value but rather pity. Popular opinion is that being called to live your life as a kathoey is a result of the Buddhist notion of Karma and payment for transgressions in past lives. In addition to societal acceptance born of pity they have no legal protection. Even with sexual reassignment surgery their gender remains as is on their birth certificates. A kathoey that has committed a crime- even if they are a drop dead gorgeous diva- will have to go to an all male prison.
Here are some places that kathoeys have been highly visible in popular culture: Nong Tum is a former champion Thai boxer. She would enter the ring with long hair and makeup and occasionally kiss a defeated opponent.
The Chiang Mai Technology School created a separate restroom for kathoeys that have an intertwined male and female symbol on the door.
Bell Nuntita, a contestant of the Thailand's Got Talent TV show, became a YouTube hit when she first performed singing as a girl then amazed the crowd shifting to a man voice.
The film The Hangover Part II has a main character (Stu) inadvertently have sex with a kathoey (played by Yasmin Lee) while on a drug-induced bender in Bangkok.
We continued to peruse options to tap the madness. A forensic museum with specimens of medical oddities (like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia). A shrine to Chao Mae Tubtim, a female fertility spirit that has 10,000 penises ranging from small woodcarvings to big stone sculptures standing ten feet tall. Some are decorated with ribbons. Now why didn't I think of that?
We shed the search for weirdness and opt for Thai boxing instead. The Lumpinee Boxing Stadium is kind of famous and just a sky train (the mass transit overground) away. While navigating said train I find it's the first time I am really studying signage since entering Kmer-ish lands. This may sound crazy but to me the Thai writing looks somewhat Middle Eastern with lots of flattened straight up and down curvy writing. Between this and the plethora of genie pants the theory jumps into my mind that Bangkok is more east meets Middle East than east meets west. We arrive to Lumpinee drenched with sweat. It is well over 100F here. The doors don't open til 5 minutes before the fight so we get some street food in literally a little hole in the wall with a table of Thai food spread out on the table. There is no need to fret over keeping things hot in this temperature- just leaving it out is like putting it on a chafing dish in this heat. It is good, but truth be told at this point now we are growing weary of the unrelenting spiciness. Just last night we had one of those precious family moments- one of the kids innocently queried if a recent experience was cause for concern- lets just say that the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire surely was inspired by Thai food. A westerner comes in the hole (in the wall) and we chat him up. He is a commercial fisherman/boat captain from Alaska and earns enough money in season to get out of dodge every off-season. This is the second Alaskan we have met on our trip living the forever summer life. I like it.
The time is right so we approach the fight club. It's all run down, which makes us feel like we are about to see the real deal. Our eldest is not into being dragged to see testosterone gone wild but is taking one for the team. As we enter there are army guys wearing long guns hanging out with a pack of the most deadliest looking attack
dogs I have ever seen. The air is thick with the growl of canine breath. We pass by all the brass and a scanner to the inner sanctum. It is a concrete room with folding chairs set up around a boxing ring centered in the middle. There is an additional very small boxed area about 15 feet off to the side. Some old geezers in weird garb are hanging out inside it. A large ancient-looking bell hangs just outside the ring. An old man sits near it with a clock. A bunch of guys in dark pants and shirts with the Lumpinee logo are milling about. They sport some very cool black patent leather ankle boots- the kind you intuit that Roy Orbison would like. It's hotter than hell in the stadium despite the many fans. While they don't do much to cool they add a comforting hum to the surroundings. We all sit down just in back of the patent leather boot brigade and the sweat immediately facilitates a degree of suction onto our chairs. The atmosphere is classic. There is a sign asking ladies to honor their traditions and please not touch the ring. There will be no bikini-clad girl carrying round markers in this establishment. No transition ever occurs in our family without a pilgrimage to the toilet so its time to go trekking. Oh how I wish I took a picture of every toilet we visited. We walk half way around the stadium and right outside the WC we find the boxers hanging out getting readying for their fight. I'd give a penny for their thoughts. They are being greased up like you wouldn't believe looking very serious all inside themselves. They are just boys. My heart goes to their mothers.
We land back in our seats just in time for the group of geezers in the small box to surprise us by picking up some instruments out of their boxy nest and beginning to play. The guy front and center has some sort of loot and then there is a drummer and a cymbal player. The fighters come out. There are several flower garlands around their neck and corded ties on their biceps. Upon their head they wear a colorful piece of gear made from wrapped thread in the shape of a tennis racket- the handle part sticks out the back of their head. I am not sure if I imagine it but the music seems to accelerate as they disrobe and start to settle into the ring. They start milling about then do not walk but rather dance to each corner of the ring doing a series of curious motions. Their movements seem like half dance and half stretch. The lower part reminds me of the technique that football (soccer) players use on the sidelines of the field to keep warm. It is the lift the leg and turn it out away from your body as you propel yourself forward thing. They are doing it in similar fashion to the footballers however their motion is perfectly timed to the music. Their upper body is reaching to the sky with their arms then circling about and returning them to their body like they are grabbing every ounce of energy out of the air and infusing it inside of themselves. None of this is float like a butterfly sting like a bee. It is some strange mishmash of martial arts, dance, praying and fighting. They make their way to all 4 corners of the ring on their dance route each independently crafting their own ritual. At each corner they bow and pray into the cushion lining the metal post. After honoring each corner they proceed to the center of the ring and kneel performing 3 deep bows with faces to the ground. One of the guys then starts a rhythmic back leg stretch respecting the beat of the drum while the other guy with both arms fully extended remains on his knees and makes broad scoops across the floor again drawing his arms out and then back in as if gathering every ounce of luck from the seasoned wise floor into himself. They both rise in no certain time and not in sync with each other then go to their corner of the ring. At this stage they are clearly in the same precinct that guitar players go to when doing a lick.
A bit of research after the fact informs my experience to date. Thai boxing is known in Thailand as Muay Thai and is in fact a combat sport in the martial arts family. It is a physical and mental discipline known as the Art or Science of Eight Limbs because it makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes thus using eight points of contact as opposed to two points like fists in boxing or four points like hands and feet in kickboxing. A practitioner of Muay Thai is known as a Nak Muay. The prefight dance ritual is called Wai Kru and is a way of paying respect to teachers, ancestors, spectators and the sport itself. During the fight the tempo of the live music is increased to encourage the fighters to put forth their best efforts. The music always is live and 3 piece with the Pi (the recorder like loot), the Ching (the cymbal) and the Glawng Khaek (the drum). The grease applied before and after every round is called Namman Muay. It is a warming agent to prepare the body as well as help it recuperate. In addition to helping during the fight it helps maintain consistency in training by eliminating nagging aches and pains. It is only made in Thailand.
The fighters stop their dance, the music stops, and what looks like a large tin trash can lid is placed up in the ring in each fighters corner and a stool is placed in the center of the circular trashcanlid-ish vessel. It is catchment for the multitude of liquid and grease that will be poured upon these guys after every round. Their garlands are removed as well as their tennis racket hat. Their trainer gives them a blessing. Their bodies are greased and muscles vigorously rubbed down by a couple of guys. They stand and after a leg stretch on each side lifting their foot high over their head and a back bend on the ropes they are off to the center. The patent leather boot brigade has sent in one of their own to officiate. His role is not just keeping the fight honest and breaking up clinches, but he also plays the role of egging them on encouraging each to give a good fight to the crowd. He paces around them like an animal and sends them stern looks and scolds them. More of the patent leather brigade sits in little boxes on opposite sides of the ring obviously keeping score. The fighters toy with each other using their hands then as fast as lightening and out of nowhere they kick their opponent in the head. The dexterity of their legs and reach is amazing. We saw 8 fights, numerous knockdowns and 3 knockouts all accompanied by varying doses of blood. There were 2 foreigners, Nak Muay Farangs, in round 6- an Australian and an Italian. They were so much larger than the Thais and the blows on their expanded area of flesh made a distinguishably different sound. The Italian guy was knocked out and even shed some tears. We learned our youngest is blood thirsty, our oldest not so much. No matter what ones view on fighting, the art of this sport is amazing. The thing that made it palatable for me is that all throughout the fight the Nak Muay gave each other amazing respect. If a fighter was clearly going to lose the opponent showed mercy and allowed the time to run out without injuring the man. There were hugs after rounds. It was like everyone from fighter to spectator knew were were participating in something bigger than us all.
The fights left us hungry for some girly action the next night with some shopping at the night market. But even that ended up mostly as a fishing trip. That's right, all five of us hopped up on the bench hanging our limbs over a tank submerged our piggies. It was a bit embarrassing as passersby stopped to observe how they all flocked to my feet. I admit it; I was in serious need of some resurfacing. It felt like serious pins and needles, nothing remotely pleasant or relaxing, but my feet were restored to age 18. I could not believe the results. Guess what, they also ate some veruccas off an individual's feet who shall remain nameless. They accomplished what Compound W failed to do. Hey, we were in Bangkok.
Thailand is not all ladyboys, boxing and Dr. Fish. They are a proper nation, a constitutional monarchy, headed by King Rama IX, the ninth king of the House of Chakri. He has reigned since 1946. He is the world's longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history. He and QE could have quite a cup of tea, couldn't they?! The conversation over crumpets would not include reminiscing about the good old days with the empire though because Thailand (the very name means land of the free) has great pride in the fact they are the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power. It wasn't that their dance card didn't appeal, there were many who wanted to tango, but the savvy Thai rulers were able to exploit the rivalry between French Indochina and the British Empire so the country remained a buffer state- the line that if crossed meant war that no one wanted I suppose. Some pieces were shaved such as the east side of the Mekong, which went to the French and the Malay Peninsula, which went to the Brits. For the most part Thailand, Prathet Thai as the natives call it, remained intact through the great land grab by being the monkey in the middle, the kid in middle school who brokers scoop to each side of the social divide being friend to both yet loyal to none.
This approach also got them through World War II. Thailand battled with Japan for about 15 minutes then shifted to their usual middle school survival approach signing an alliance with Japan but all the while the other side of their face was conducting an active anti-Japanese resistance movement known as the Seri Thai. There were probably a lot of covert things going on including top-secret deals. After the war Thailand emerged as an ally of the United States. The famous academy award winning classic movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai is a movie about World War II Thailand and the Thailand-Burma Death Railway the Japanese used POWs to build. Thailand struggled with political instability after the war but achieved stability, prosperity and democracy in the 1980s. I don't want to understate any strife and death that has happened in and to Thailand- especially near the Malay border- but I think it's impressive that Thailand has a longstanding history of successfully avoiding mass national bloodshed. With the movie playing right across the border in Cambodia and Burma who could blame them for so clearly knowing they want to avoid it taking part in that film. Even their 1932 transition from a my-way-or-the-highway monarch to one that takes good pictures and does charity work was bloodless. It was carried out by the Khana Ratsadon group. They held down King Prajadhipok for 6 hours and tickled him with a feather pen until he cried uncle then used the pen to sign the first constitution of Siam. ;-)
Wheeling, dealing and feather tickling continues to this day even in this modern city. We saw it in a big way in the tuc tuc and taxi culture. The tuc tucs play lets make a deal and the taxis have a complete bag of tricks from not turning on the meter to delivering you to their cousin's shop. We used the maps feature on our phone to try to keep them honest but it was a tradeoff- they didn't rip us off but that really pissed them off. One cabby after arguing heavily about turning the meter on took off with us like a bat out of hell laughing maniacally as he drove at excessive speeds to punish us. We had 3 children in the car. Shameless. I guess he was one of the few that did not put his time in at being a monk, or maybe he did and it drove him mad.
But he is by far the minority, most Thai are super nice. As with the Cambodians they subscribe to the ancient Kmer way of greeting with the wai- hands pressed together, fingertips pointing upwards and the head bows to touch their face to their hands. The common greeting that accompanies this is the men say sawasdee khrap and the women sawasdee ka. If you get into the minutia of society there is a pecking order to who does the wai first. Whatever protocol surrounds it can't detract from it being a warm and genuine greeting. It feels like it would be hard to do it without sincerely transferring respect and reverence.
Sawasdee ka from Bangkok 13.7500° N, 100.4833° E.