It was mid-morning and humidity had barely begun to strangle the day, but the fruit vendors along Soi Four had already sold all their good mangosteens. Yet we did not mind. We were bathing in a honeymoon glow that shielded us from timetables and purpose. In other words, I was the perfect candidate for a setup that would end up twisting my spine into uncharted topography.
In the meantime, we wandered through steam heavy with green curry; nibbled on ten-baht sausages from carts; passed a shoe repairman who works without wearing any himself. I even forgot what day it was, which is always a sign of becoming lost in travel and living in the moment.
Our visit to Bangkok had been proceeding so leisurely that we never got around to all the leisure activities we had considered. I took that as another accomplishment, especially in the face of easy access to endeavors both indulgent and cheap. And plentiful. Bangkok's massage centers seem to appear with dependable frequency along the clutter of narrow dead-ends radiating from the throbbing Sukhumvit Road, offering Manhattan-corner-deli convenience for relaxation. Shiatsu, aroma massage, foot massage (with map-like foot charts hanging outside) — Bangkok pushes specialty treatments for ailments we never knew we had. We found ourselves adrift in the Land of a Thousand Massages.
Of course, Bangkok may not be considered the Land of a Thousand Massages for many Thais, unless that nomenclature refers to the number of clients they service per month. One just has to notice the shanties in the shadows of the newly built SkyTrain to feel the depth of the economic gap. Or the air-conditioned, Tokyo-style shopping malls across the street from gnarled women sweating over street cart flames and sewer-stink sidewalks.
A lingering reality of such a dichotomy is that travel can become a quest to peel away the image of the foreigner serving as a walking bank machine. For the masseuse, the underlying idea must be tantalizingly simple: just knead, press, and squeeze, and out comes cash.
To answer such a challenge, we wanted to do what we do normally when traveling — spend money at street level, directly, hoping that such contact, even though it involves an exchange of money, may result in a connection, an understanding, a chuckle, an impression. We tossed around plans for finding a massage.
We kept walking past tiny storefronts that advertised prolific lists of massages, complete with teams of women sitting outside in matching miniskirts, painting on makeup or munching on skewered fish balls, looking thoroughly bored. However, when I had walked by alone during a few errands, certain assumptions about a lone white man had taken over. The women lost interest in fish balls and aimed mascara-heavy eyes at me, tracking me, mumbling little sensual somethings in Thai that delivered an undeniably universal meaning, alluding to various off-the-menu items, until I had passed them all. And then back to cold fish balls.
Kicks and Drums
The necessary vetting of establishments had introduced hesitation in our desire to indulge. During our last night in the city, before we had found suitable masseuses, I convinced my wife to watch another of Bangkok's hands-on endeavors, Thai boxing, a discipline as old as Thailand itself. Gone are the days when fighters would glue ground-up glass to their hemp gloves; an expat we met had vouched for the sport's modern appeal, highlighting its all-limbs attacks and aerial maneuvers that deliver pain, thrills, and gratuitous wagering. The matches we attended, however, turned out almost bloodless, with more grace than brute. The arms of bettors, hundreds of them, slashing the air around the ring, appeared almost as aggressive.
I found myself drawn to the ring's live band — hand drums and a flute starting in an ominous, churning beat, the tempo ratcheting up towards the end of each round. They remained on a separate theatrical plane, ignored by the oddly cerebral fighters who sniped at one another with sparse but acute kicks. The crowd served as the glue that held it all together; each time a fighter landed a bare foot on his opponent's abdomen, the stadium would chant "huay!" in unison, while a knee kick drew a swift "hee!" as if we were partaking in a Rocky Horror Picture Show for violence junkies. As the band's tempo crept up, the crowds' huays and hees mirrored the swelling energy — without flying rice and without crooning transvestites.
The city's transvestites had better things to do, like patrolling the Patpong Night Market in their finest spandex and pleather. We arrived via metro and found them busy collecting double takes from tourists. The air hung thick with cigarette smoke and rotting fish sauce and perfume. We haggled over knockoff sunglasses. Roasted crickets and frog-shaped, guiro-like souvenir instruments hemmed us in. As we attempted to find a clearing, runty bar hustlers blocked our path while shrieking "Pussy ping pong!" with arresting urgency, as if saying, "There's a knife stuck in my back!"
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