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Five Nights In Bangkok

When I was invited to do my road show in Bangkok, Thailand for a U.N.-sponsored event called "Asian Youth Forum" addressing "sustainable Third-World development" (17-25 May 2002), I leapt at the chance even though I was rather dubious about the event itself.

The chance to visit a new part of Asia for the first time was appealing, but given the conference theme I feared being surrounded for a week by the sandal-wearing enviro-Greens who seem to dominate U.N. conferences these days -- crypto-Marxists who refuse to get a clue how horribly destructive their disdain for markets and free trade and economic liberty is towards the poor people their hearts are supposedly bleeding for. I knew it would be a strain for me to remain polite to such people for very long. I very nearly turned the organizers down, but decided I could simply fulfill my speaking duties and ignore the rest of the conference for sightseeing if the bullshit got too thick.

Fortunately, it turns out AYF is run by a group of Asian university students who are not part of the anti-globalization yahoo crowd. They're trying to get themselves affiliated to the UN as a secretariat. The goal of the conference was to develop a charter. I saw a lot of earnest naivete and a bit of fumbling, but not the vicious politicized stupidity I was half-expecting. At least not on the first day.

It took me thirty-three hours of train and air time and airport layovers to get from Malvern to Bangkok. Philadelphia to San Francisco, San Francisco to Taipei, Taipei to Bangkok. It all blurred together after a while. Thank Goddess for the reclining seats in First Class; I managed to sleep for about nine hours on the SF-to-Taipei leg, and so wasn't too jet-lagged when I landed.

The bit of fumbling started when, for no reason anyone was able to explain, they flew me in two days early and I landed before the conference was properly set up. Not a real problem, as it turned out, since my hotel room in Bangkok featured a live Internet port, so I could stave off boredom by working.

I spent Friday morning and some of Saturday with Martin Sommer, a conference organizer who had been assigned to take care of me. Half-Thai, half-German, raised in Western ways but a fluent Thai speaker, he filled me in on a lot of useful trivia about Thai language and customs.

Saturday morning Martin and I shifted my digs to a hotel on the campus of Assumption University, the host of the conference. The campus was pretty impressive in itself -- monstrously huge buildings in a weird cross between brutalist modernism and cathedral architecture, spaced widely apart across over square miles of manicured parkland. The usual pleasant Asiatic casualness about the boundaries of religion is evident here; though Assumption University is Catholic, one of the most conspicuous structures on campus is a Buddhist meditation pavilion, with multi-tiered roofs elaborately carved and gilded in the native Thai style.

Saturday afternoon we tried to visit a Buddhist temple near the University, but it was all closed up -- locked gates across the entrance stairways, something I hadn't seen elsewhere in Asia. The buildings were pretty impressive even from the outside, though. Cunningly curved roofs, elaborate carving and gold-leafed spires produce an effect of gorgeous richness.

Then we went off to eat lunch at what Martin described at a traditional Thai roadside restaurant. The thing was basically one big roof on posts, like the mother of all garden gazebos, with the cookstoves clustered under one end. It was run by a family of smiling Thais, obviously rural peasants on the make in the big city. The menu (which Martin had to translate for me) featured a mix-and-match assortment of rice, peppers, different kinds of meat, and noodles.

The food was excellent, like American Thai food but simpler. I asked Martin and he confirmed that we were eating Thai country cooking, not the urban cuisine that normally gets exported. I had crispy fried pork with peppers over rice. Martin had some fried-chicken skewers.

The table came equipped with a couple different sauces, including ordinary red-pepper paste and a soy-with-herbs combination. The standout, though, was some wonderful fiery stuff called "nam pla prig". The "nam pla" part is a delicate, aromatic fish sauce that looks and tastes a lot like the Vietnamese stuff called "nuoc mam". The "prig" part refers to the diced red peppers floating in it. The intensely hot diced red peppers. I was a happy boy.

The bright, sunny weather when we sat down to eat turned into a drenching monsoon rain about the time we were finishing. The owners, doubtless used to quick-starting and quick-ending downpours, didn't bother unrolling the plastic tarps hanging from the eaves. As we were lightly sprinkled by the wind-driven rain blowing under the roof Martin observed that it was surprisingly chill for mid-May. Usually, he told me, the monsoon rains are blood-warm.

Sunday morning the conference launched with the expected speeches by various dignitaries. These included Thailand's Secretary for University Affairs and the rector of the University, an ascetic-looking man in a white cassock who everyone addressed as Brother Martin. Mercifully, the speeches were short.

My first real chance to mix with the delegates was just before the opening ceremony and during the coffee break just afterwards. Though the working language of the conference was English, many delegates turned out not to have much production vocabulary. They would nod and smile and appear to understand me but have trouble replying.

One charming exception was Jadamba Tsolmon, of all things an orthodontist from Ulan Bator (the capitol of Mongolia). A poised, pretty, outgoing woman, she spoke quite fluent English and discussed the history of her country with me. Unfortunately we discovered that she had wandered onto the wrong shuttle bus at the airport and was actually supposed to be at a different conference -- with the Asian Students Association, not the Asian Youth Forum! Tsolmon was a bit conflicted by the situation, as she had struck up some friendships the previous night and also particularly wanted to see my talk.

I watched with interest as she untangled this snafu with the conference organizers; it turned out one was planning to go over to the ASA conference after tonight's dinner and could take her over with him. At least this meant she would get to spend the rest of the day with her new friends, and to see my road show as well. She handed me her card and invited me to keep in touch afterwards.

During the coffee break the one other paleface among the delegates introduced herself to me. She was a light brunette with peaches-and-cream skin that looked rather startling amidst all those bronze Asian faces and glossy black hair. I learned that she is named Natalya, an ethnic Russian from Kirgizstan, and she confided that she was feeling a bit out of place and glad to see another European here.

In the first session, on "Problems of Education and Information Dissemination", the questions were more intelligent than the answers. The student delegates raised real questions, like "What is the best strategy for helping people in the Third World get Internet access?" and got long-winded and mostly meaningless answers, full of politics and faunching for more foreign aid, from a UNICEF bureaucrat.

I spoke in the second session, on "Information technology and development". It seemed to go well, though I got a couple of questions from people who seemed to have persistent problems making the open/closed distinction. Following my talk and the inevitable coffee break, we finished the afternoon session with an open discussion period. The UNICEF drone having departed, the discussion was a good deal more productive.

By the first-night dinner, Tsolmon and I and Natalya and Saidolam Djuraev (a delegate from Uzbekistan) and Sarah from Iran, and Sarah's husband Dr. Pejman had formed into someting of a krewe. Dinner was Thai food accompanied by an exhibition of traditional Thai dance; stately, graceful maneuvers performed by women in elaborate silk brocades and fantastic gilded headdresses.

Then we got a bit of a curveball -- a different group of dancers performing to electronic music with a rock/dance beat, wearing a sort of goth version of Thai dance costume, all black and silver. It was very interesting to see the gestural language of the traditional dances we had just seen adapted and mixed with moves from modern dance and even gymnastics. I think this demonstrated that the Thai dance tradition is alive, and not just a museum piece to be statically revered.

Afterwards more hang time. Tsolmon headed over to the ASA conference, muttering about coming back here tomorrow. Natalya, discovering I'm a musician, mentioned that she had a CD of Kirghiz traditional music she would love for me to hear; unfortunately we weren't able to scare up a computer with both CD-ROM drive and speakers.

Breakfast Monday morning was the worst bummer of the trip so far -- college cafeteria food is crappy the world over, but cold sunny-side-up eggs? Blecchh! Martin and I snuck out to a roadside noodle stand (across the street from where we had eaten lunch yesterday) during the morning discussion period. Egg noodles and roast pork with hot peppers and greens...mmmm. Thai food good!

The day's sessions were uneventful. I contributed a bit, finding that my perspective as the only First-Worlder in the room got more respect than I had expected. Over lunch with the krewe Sarah from Iran confessed that she had been expecting me to be more prejudiced (in some sort of ugly-American way she didn't really specify) but thought that all my comments were admirably balanced and befitting a scientist. I thanked her for the compliment.

(Sarah, by the way, is light-skinned enough to be European but actually has the astonishingly huge liquid Persian eyes you see on people in Moghul miniatures. It's an arresting combination. When I asked her husband Dr. Pejman if many Persian women have eyes like that, he smiled and said "I was very selective". Dr. Pejman himself, I learn, is both an academic and one of the top five players of the Iranian dulcimer. His presentation on the causes and consequences of Third-to-First-World brain drain is excellent. Sarah, too, has been selective.)

Sarah's presentation on the effects of sexual/medical ignorance among Iranian women led to some discussion of cultural value conflicts about sex education. I refrained from publicly sharing the insight I had about that, though some of the krewe had a good laugh with me about it later. Worldwide, I realized, the basic cultural conflict about sex education is that the teachers want the students to learn self-control and abstinence, but the students want to learn technique...

Tuesday night got a little strange after the expected Thai dinner with the krewe and yet another dance troupe. There was live music from a four-piece ensemble called "Music Club". They were pretty good players, but their repertoire consisted entirely of wedding-band schlock -- slow drippy luuuuhv ballads, '50s grease music and an indifferent cover of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy". Zzzzz.

There was a break from the somnolence while one of the delegates, Tamkeen Zera Shah from Pakistan, organized an all-nations amateur night. I got to know Tamkeen a bit during the next couple days; she joined the krewe at a coffeebreak or two. Her little-girl voice, schoolgirl glasses and demure manners fail to conceal a sharp and observant mind. She did a good job of recruiting singers, too: even got me to do Pete Seeger's "Blue and Gray" as the American contribution. As English was the conference working language, those may have been the only lyrics everyone in the room understood.

Afterwards, the band actually played some dance music. I learned that Thais don't dance in pairs. They proceed to the dance floor in groups of at least four and dance in big circles, sloppy conga lines, or amorphous pulsating blobs. And they are almost without exception lousy dancers by U.S. or European standards. In fact, they're so bad that my lame-ass 44-year-old-white-geek-with-palsy moves make me conspicuously one of the best dancers on the floor. I get compliments for this, a fact which boggles the hell out of my mind until I clue into the fact that most of the healthy, half-my-age college students around me are emitting all the sexual zorch of limp dishrags.

I think I'm detecting symptoms of serious inhibition in Thai culture. These college kids dress Western and can sing English-language pop tunes in chorus, but they're timid in the extreme about behaviors with any libidinal edge. Not that the delegates from elsewhere seem much more liberated, on the whole. Is this an all-Asian phenomenon, I wonder? Very weird...

Next morning Jadamba Tsolmon rematerializes from the ASA conference, having traveled two hours to get here. Hugs all around; we exchange email addresses. Since it takes her two hours to shuttle between conferences, she's unlikely to come back a third time, alas.

Tuesday was the day of political bullshit, perhaps inevitable since the day's topic was "Institutions and Social Justice". I lost my temper only once, after hearing two nut-fringe Islamic delegates that I never identified accuse the U.S. of setting up the 9/11 bombing to justify invading Afghanistan and using radioactive weapons on Iraqi children. The other delegates, evidently recognizing paranoid fantasy when they heard it, seemed anxious to forget the incident.

Tuesday night's events were offsite, after a long bus trip through Bangkok. One of the AYF staffers managing my bus, striding around competently with walkie-talkie in hand, caught my eye; statuesque women with long wavy black hair and flawless skin who look like supermodels and dress in tight midriff-baring outfits tend to do that. With some bemusement I realized that the thought of trying to talk to her made me a bit nervous. Some adolescent insecurities never die, I guess.

Dinner was in the "Royal Thai Navy" military club. I didn't really see the point, since it was the same steam-table generic Thai food we'd been eating back at the University -- quite good (Thai food tolerates steam-tabling well) but hardly enough to cross town for.

The view from the club balcony was pretty good, though. In one direction, the intricate roofs of the Royal Palace, fluted and spiked and ridged and all over gold-leafed and floodlit to a fare-thee-well. In the other, the dark shimmer of the Chao Payar River, with ornate high-prowed barges floating down it outlined in lights.

After dinner we bussed over to Khao San Road, a notorious bazaar cum tourist trap flanked by "guest houses" that seem to be divided between cheap accomodations for the backpacking crowd and brothels. The road wears its reputation as the main drag of a red-light district so brazenly that I imagine Thai city planners thinking "and over here, the official rough-trade area for the round-eye tourists". It's noisy, crowded, lined with tacky neon, dirty, and the liveliest place I've seen in Bangkok.

The street swarms with foreigners, souvenir hawkers, beggars, and pimps. One of the pimps, a skinny rodent-like little Thai with bad skin, sidles up to me and offers me a brochure featuring pictures of naked Thai girls. Alas for him that I find the thought of sex with any woman doing it for the money revolting; even if I didn't, AIDS is so common here that I'd get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine. When I tell him I'm not interested, he asks me if I want a boy. I refrain from decking him; I suppose it's a reasonable question, from his specialized point of view.

Just a few seconds later a posse of four pretty girls I recognize from the AYF staff sweeps me up. They ask me if I want to go dancing. Replying in the affirmative, I find myself being borne off on a wave of giggles to a relatively quiet little bar, and placed firmly at the head of a tableful of chattering Thai college students. They're all selected from elite universities, thus with IQs generally in the 130-and-up range; their body language and eye movements have the alertness of the intelligent. Mostly women, and mostly rather pretty, at least in the face.

Thai women tend to look, er, unripe by Western standards. Like Taipei, and unlike Japan and Korea, there's a fairly severe curve shortage here -- slim-hipped and small-breasted is the norm (OK, let's be honest; damn near flat is the norm). Delicate bone structure tends to make their faces look childlike to Westerners, and the demure body language their culture teaches doesn't help either.

By contrast, the few women with real figures look utterly gorgeous. One of them is sitting on my right; she was in the party that snatched me off the street, and is in fact the beautiful wavy-haired woman I had noticed on the bus. She answers to the nickname "Boom". To my left, a lovely, slender girl with equally glowing skin, classically Chinese features, and (unfortunately) braces answers to "Gigg". Gigg confirms that her family is part of the ethnic-Chinese minority that runs most of Thailand's mercantile economy.

Several memories fall into place in a new pattern. I ask Boom if she's ethnic-Chinese too; she dimples and nods. Eureka! I've got the template now; ethnic-Chinese have different eyes, a different bone structure, more prominent cheekbones than ethnic-Thais. They don't look quite like Chinese from China; skin tone is subtly different and the epicanthic fold tends to be less pronounced. They're actually rather better-looking, at least to me, than the Chinese of Taiwan.

Essentially all of the "Thai" women who have been catching my eye for the last three days, I realize in retrospect, are ethnic-Chinese. Martin later tells me that local folklore agrees with me; part-Chinese girls are considered the most beautiful. Maybe it's because, unlike the pure ethnic Thais, they don't tend to look barely pubescent even into their twenties.

After forty minutes or so of sipping iced sodas and talking, one of the girls further down the table notes that we've got to meet the bus back in half an hour and suggests we dance if we're going to. I pull a weakly protesting but laughing Boom towards the dance floor; Gigg and another girl ride our wake.

Booty-shaking ensues. Boom is a better than average dancer by local standards, but local standards remain low -- all three girls are far too impressed by what I'm doing and try to imitate it. Apparently the idea of timing one's movements to rhythm is novel here. So are the forceful, interpretive display gestures common in European clubs. When I work a martial arts move into the rhythm it evokes gasps. The girls' attempts to emulate my style are good-natured but a bit timid. Nevertheless a good time is had by all. There's something to be said for the experience of having three pretty women cheering and trying to imitate one on a mirror-ball-lit dance floor deep in the Bangkok combat zone.

I sleep pretty soundly that night and oversleep the next morning. Not that this is a problem, since everybody else was on the Khao San expedition too and gets off to a similarly slow start. The delegates have broken up into interest sections to draft an action plan. The high point of my morning happens while looking for the venue of the IT and Education interest section, on which Martin has asked me to sit in.

Boom is the designated wielder-of-the-tape-recorder in one of the section rooms. I tell her she looks lovely this morning (a gross understatement) and she smiles and says that just for that she will record anything I say with extra care. Alas, someone tells me I am in the wrong room. I am not pleased. Neither is Boom, who compliments me by looking disappointed that I have to go.

(This is the woman my remnant insecurity tapes tried to tell me was unapproachable. It's a good thing I've taught myself not to listen to myself when I think things like that.)

There is not much for me to do the rest of the day. Though I did offer to help Qui Xiaofeng Lee (aka Mary) from Peking with her English, and we quickly became friendly. She was one of the two women who get elected to represent our interest section at the final roundup. Because the shuttle vans had unaccountably stopped running, we took the 20-minute walk back to the dorm together, getting acquainted. We never discuss politics, but what I learn about her life and interests tells me that Chinese Communism is moribund. Oddly, she seems rather more like a member in good standing of the American-generated global youth culture than the Thais here, certainly much more so than some of the Islamic delegates like Tamkeen. Part of this is body language; she makes eye contact and carries herself with the easy sexual confidence of an American woman.

The evening is Fancy Night, a costume party. Delegates are encouraged to wear national costume, but all kinds of others show up too. Star Wars characters, a couple of wizards and witches, and some camo-clad soldiers make appearances. Three girls show up in identical vinyl hot pants and weird mutant sailor suits, probably as characters from some anime I don't know about.

Sarah is magnificent in Kurdish tribal wear, gold-on-black embroidered robes and a coin-fringe headdress. Tamkeen looks elegant in Pakistani dress, a simple black-and-orange robe. Natalya has improvised an attractive costume from a Thai-style braded headpiece and wraparound dress she bought on Khao San Road. Boom looks ravishing in a sort of gold lame odalisque number. I, having not been informed of the protocol in advance, have nothing to wear. I carry my flute and tell people I am cleverly disguised as a musician.

In the front lobby of the conference center I encounter a Thai in traditional dress who is carrying an acoustic guitar. We jam on a few songs and attract a small crowd. Inside, buffet tables offer a local version of dim sum, mixing Chinese and Thai dishes to good effect. The spicy pork buns are especially tasty.

Dinner is accompanied by more Thai traditional dance, then by a mixed troupe of Korean dancers who do several numbers with costume changes. The most impressive features the five men in the troupe wearing something like silver lame zoot suits. Accompanied by pounding rock music and strobe-lit, they do a routine that is fast, athletic, testosterone-charged, savagely intense. I have never seen such unequivocally male dancing before.

After the dancers everybody's favorite Thai wedding band retakes the stage and proceeds to play pretty much the same set as two nights previous (though we are mercifully spared "Play That Funky Music" this time). This time, however, the Thais and foreign delegates and AYF staffers on the dance floor behave rather less like clueless 13-year-olds at their first sock hop. Everybody is a little looser. Actual rhythmic motion occurs, and there are sporadic outbreaks of pair dancing. Zounds! Discussing this with Martin the next morning, I propose that Thais are less inhibited when they're not wearing their own clothes. Martin agrees this is plausible.

During one of these outbreaks I slow-dance with Boom, a deeply pleasant experience that ends much too soon. She is without a doubt the most beautiful woman I have met in Thailand, and actually one of the more attractive I have ever met anywhere. She doesn't know that I have voted for her in the best-costume contest, nor that I am suppressing a mad urge to make a pass at her. I'm married, I don't know the courtship rules here, I'm flying home tomorrow, and she would deserve more than a one-night stand anyway. Ah, the hazards of travel.

Sometime in mid-evening Tamkeen tells me she's done for the night and is going back to the dorm. I hug her and tell her she'll be welcome in my home if she ever visits the U.S. A few minutes later I discover that there is in fact at least one really good dancer in Thailand, another AYF staffer nicknamed Jik who is resplendent in Hindu costume. She has has better moves than Boom and is quite pretty in her own right, though she doesn't light up my limbic system in quite the same way. We play well together, managing some neat spins during a couple of fast dances; her delighted smile is worth remembering.

Music Club's second set finishes up, or perhaps just stalls out, around 11PM. While I'm wandering around looking for Boom so I can give her my email address, I run into the guitarist I had played with earlier. He has partially unshipped his costume, which includes a Thai sword shaped something like a Japanese wakizashi but with a long, elaborately turned wooden hilt. It's a country weapon, crudely made but quite serviceable. When he sees me admiring it he makes a gift of it to me, explaining that he bought it for the costume and can get another for 100 baht (about $3). I thank him for his generosity. I'll hang it on my wall at home; it will go nicely with the ritual masks and old maps and hieroglyphic Egyptian papyri.

Next morning the other speakers and delegates pile on buses for a cultural tour, which I can't take because I have to fly out at noon to be in Baltimore on the evening of the 24th. Martin and I go back to the noodle stand instead for a good hot Thai breakfast. During the hour-long drive to the airport we talk of things Thai and other. I hear the story of his Thai mother and German father, who met while they were working for an airline in Bangkok. Martin, half-Western and raised in Germany, has a more objective view of Thai custom than a native would likely be able to manage.

It's good to be heading home again, but I won't mind coming back to Thailand if AYF wants the road show again next year. It's a gentle country. The place has good food, beautiful women, and there are thousand-year-old Buddhist temples to hang out in. What more could one ask for?

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