Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bangkok, Thailand, 1991

In Bangkok, my cousin Daniel and I sit at a red plastic table in the little restaurant of our hostel on Khao San Road. It is dusk. A grizzled guy from Los Angeles in his fifties, who looks like he needs to wash his hair, rolls a joint and then licks the rolling paper to seal it. He's going to Patpong Road again tonight.

"She really loves me," he tells us, beaming.

A young woman from Ohio with long blonde hair, a halter top, and flip-flops runs her fingers through her hair.

"Did you know there is a store a few streets away that sells crocodile purses ? So cheap...," she says, her eyes widening.

Our hostel has many rooms separated by plywood walls, and showers in tiny stalls with flooded, stinking floors. The toilets are holes in the floor framed by slippery footrests.

The Israeli next to her, just out of the army, asks: "Is the border to Cambodia still open?"

The sweet smell of Thai weed wafts in the air. I have visited the toilets many times today. I feel weak.

Several nights ago up north, I was eating sticky rice with green, fiery hot curries from the market that had been scooped into plastic bags from metal bowls, bowls that had sat in the sun in unshaded wooden stalls all day. I sat cross-legged on the perimeter of a circle of foreigners and Thais on the floor of a wooden house on stilts, with my hands pulling off balls of sticky rice that lay in the center of the circle. The carved wooden eaves of the roof curved upwards toward the sky, and the tiny spirit house outside in the courtyard had an identically carved, but much tinier, roof.

"Come with me to Patpong tonight," says Grizzly, sucking on his joint, a thick wave of smoke obscuring the stubble on his cheeks.

Daniel and I feel conflicted about going to Patpong Road this evening, the center of the Bangkok sex trade, wondering what we'll see there. I feel repulsed by the man from LA, how he really believes that he is the center of the universe for a teenaged girl he pays to give him pleasure. He's not thinking about the sociopolitical ramifications of his actions. We don't want to feel like we are exploiting poor local girls who are paying off their families' debts by working in the clubs of Patpong.

But we are curious, and we are here, and they are there anyway.

So we go.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1991

In Thailand, my cousin Daniel always has the Lonely Planet book open, reading the history of the Sukothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms, and figuring out which busses we need to take to get there. I mean to read, but I don't. I sit and watch saffron-robed monks flitter across bridges with bowls in their hands, and watch their shadows create depth on the stone paths. I visit hill tribes and watch an opium addict lie on a rattan mat and languidly blow horizontal smoke through stumps of teeth.

I stroll on a path with sixteen shades of green crowding me, and see squatting boys wash their kneeling elephants above rice fields. I stand at the bottom of a great rush of water spraying from above, letting the water pour over me until I can no longer hear its roar. That night I sleep in a hut in the hills near Chiang Mai with my tour guide, Ding, and let him pet my body as if I were a cat, as I lie there awake but feigning sleep, unmoving, unknown, foreign.

The next day our group goes bamboo rafting down the Mekong River. Ding and our other guides navigate with long poles and we veer around sharp rocks. Our raft is a bunch of bamboo bound together with ropes. If I don’t keep my balance, I will fall, and my body is swaying slightly back and forth. On the shore stands a Karen Padaung woman with a long neck supported by brass rings. She stares at us, and we stare back. Suddenly, I feel a sense of unreality, and wonder what would happen if the woman’s brass rings were removed. It doesn’t seem possible to me to put so many brass rings on one’s neck, and though I’ve read that the neck doesn’t actually elongate, that instead the clavicle gets crushed down, creating an illusion of a longer neck, it looks to me like her neck is nearly a foot long. My head sways back and forth as if I am gauging the weight of my own brass rings that it needs for scaffolding, and because the bamboo raft is tilting on the rapids. I briefly wonder if this river is dangerous, but then the woman with the long neck disappears from sight, and I see an elephant gracefully swimming by, and feel like this is a long moment in which nothing bad could ever happen.

I didn’t know elephants could swim so gracefully.

I laugh and laugh and laugh.

The night our trek ends is my 23rd birthday, and we all sit at a wooden table drinking Singhas and slurping fiery hot noodle soup, and Ding laces lotus flower necklaces around my neck, one after the other.

I am Lao-Thai, he tells me, looking deep into my eyes as if he wants me to know that that distinction is significant, or he wants it to be significant to me.

"I am leaving tomorrow," I tell him, my neck rung with flowers.

I will leave tomorrow and never see him again, but one day I will borrow the book from Daniel and check its index for "Lao-Thai", to see if maybe there was something important that I missed.