Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Bangkok: Kmart of Sex - #23

After I had been posted as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) to SFO in the spring of 1971 – the cities I visited most often thereafter were Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Each city was markedly different from the others. Tokyo was crisp, bustling and sooty. Hong Kong survived WWII with its architectural heritage and British traditions intact and operated at a dignified pace – on the surface at least. While Manila and Saigon were as equally exotic as Bangkok to be sure, Bangkok seemed to be part of another universe.

The Far East was (and I’m sure still is) a shoppers dream. Whatever your heart’s desire there was a place where you could buy it. I’m not talking just about duty free consumer goods like watches, jewelry and cameras. I’m referring to the sort of stuff that you don’t put on a Customs declaration: weapons, drugs, trade and military secrets and – most of all – female attention.

It’s true that I was bouncing around the Orient at the height of the Viet Nam War and several of the cities I mentioned above were popular R&R (rest and recreation) destinations for GIs. However the Viet Nam War was no exception, the streamlined merchandising of whoopee to foreigners went back for centuries – perhaps millennia. Of all the peoples and places I saw in the Orient, it was the Thais who had commoditized the sexual shopping card to a degree that I’d not seen anywhere else.

As soldier stationed in Europe and a Sky Marshal, I’d seen Canal Street in Amsterdam, strip clubs in London, sailors’ dives in Lisbon, the Follies Bergere in Paris, GI bars in Hong Kong, not mention attending numerous acid-drenched “be-ins” as a student in Los Angeles and Berkeley. Nonetheless, I still wasn’t prepared for dance halls lined with a hundred numbered young ladies wearing hot pants, halter tops and bored looks, or murky massage parlors with “preview rooms” chock full of bikini-clad masseuses – also identified by number.

I suppose the obvious question to ask is whether I ever sampled the merchandise so amply on display. The truth is that I did not – for several reasons. A big reason was an especially virulent strain of venereal disease rumored to be rampaging through South East Asia. An urban legend, perhaps, but the thought of killer microbes frolicking in my nether parts has always taken the wind out of my sail, as it were.

A second less clinical but equally compelling reason why I never sought professional companionship in Bangkok was that none of the enumerated girls ever looked like they enjoyed their work, or that they found their clientele even remotely appealing. Sure, they would slide up to you, make full body contact to a degree I had never before imagined, and say things like, they loved you, and you looked like movie star, and they would do such-and-such so good that your hair would explode. Though their suggestions were often pretty imaginative, it was clear that I was just another rich American mark to shaken down, wrung out, and hung up to dry. And perhaps contagious.

Fortunately, avoiding Bangkok’s flesh pots left me lots time to sample its restaurants. I quickly found that I had no taste for Thai cuisine, but no matter. There were plenty of European-style eateries. My favorite of these was a place housed in an old walled French Colonial style villa located some miles from the center of town. Parked in a courtyard surrounded by high walls and just inside the main gate were always a clutch of Mercedes, their drivers idly chatting with parking valets who were most likely off-duty police. Their conversation would stop abruptly as you wended your way through the maze if cars, though I always assuming that had far more to do with my date than me.

Yes, I said date? As I’ve mentioned a number times in previous episodes, I flew entirely on PanAm, which had a well-deserved reputation for gorgeous stewardesses, some of whom preferred to be treated to a nice dinner on the town over room service in the hotel.

This particular restaurant drew an international crowd – International diplomats, Chinese bankers, Thai gangsters, Euro-trash, Air America pilots, etc. The entrance featured two massive, carved teak doors. On the other side was a beautiful Eurasian gal who greeted one and all with the cordial but slightly unworldly manner of a Stepford wife. A guy who I presumed was the manager wore a double-breasted white dinner jacket and patent leather shoes. He hovered nearby in case he was needed to lavish compliments on some important guest.
The walls were covered in dark red fabric that would have suited an 1890's New Orleans cat house. The ceiling was generally obscured by a layer of smoke so thick that the chandeliers appeared to float in space. On occasion when the clouds of smoke parted you could see that the ceiling was a collage of business cards, notes, and currency of all kinds held in place by thumb tacks. The ceiling was probably nine feet from the floor and I never saw how that stuff got there. If Richard Blaine, the expat saloon keeper from the movie Casablanca, had opened a place in Bangkok I’ll bet it would have looked like this.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2008