Being Indian in Bangkok
The first time I went to Bangkok, I was an accidental tourist. I was in transit, with an eight-hour stopover. At Don Muang Airport, I stood in line for a transit visa, got hustled into availing a whistle-stop Temples and Shopping Tour, and found myself plonked next to a compatriot top-brass-at-an-MNC-type (also in transit) in the tourist taxi. In five minutes, we’d become fast friends.
In ten minutes, I mustered up the sang-froid to ask him: “Do you think you could convince the guide to take us to Patpong instead of the temples?” I’d been fed on formulaic stories about how Patpong equals Bangkok. It was the nerve centre of all Happy Endings.
“What are you saying?” He seemed genuinely aghast. “Good Indian girls don’t go to Patpong.”
“I’m not a good Indian girl,” I said triumphantly. “So please ask him.” He probably wanted to go to Patpong himself (it was his first time in Bangkok too, he generally ‘did’ the Western circuit on his corporate tours, not bloody south Asian, he’d added), so he tapped our guide, a young Thai girl sitting next to the driver, on her shoulders and said: “Er, Patpong?”
“Sexy Street?” the guide giggled. “Sorry, opens only at night, we go to see temples now.”
That was it. And that was four years ago.
This time, when I left Delhi for Bangkok for a weeklong wayfaring, I’d had been summarily asked to do various things by various well-wishers: “Get a massage… you could try the Thai, the full-body oil, or even… what they call the sandwich massage…”; “Go to Patpong — you absolutely must!”; “Get me a sex toy.”
It was a time when the rupee had suddenly gained currency; the dollar was weakening; the Thai baht seemed static — almost equal value vis-à-vis the rupee, just slightly over. In Bangkok, I spotted foreign currency converters at every street corner. “Do you convert rupees?” I asked hopefully every time. I don’t know why I had so many rupees in my wallet and not enough bahts. “No, we don’t,” one by one, all converters shook their heads. (Not even at Suvarnabhumi, the new airport, where duty-free shops beckoned consumerist Indians like myself.) It obviously wasn’t because the rupee is like small change compared to the dollars, pounds and euros of the world — the Japanese yen, much, much smaller change than the rupee, was doing brisk business.
I made friends with the country head of an Indian MNC there, a Bengali. He told me how Thais are the most ‘non-confrontationist’ people in the world. You’ll never see — or hear — people fighting on the streets, or anywhere else for that matter unless it was their bedrooms. He talked about his workplace. “You know how it’s like with us Indians, we get stressed about everything, so initially it was a problem with our Thai employees.” What did they do? “They quit. Simple. They can’t handle tension.”
He also told me how being a sex worker there is a way of life. “Like being an engineer or a doctor.” You are looked upon as being a driver of the high-noon sector of sex tourism in the booming Thai economy.
Traffic is chaotic, but you don’t hear a single honk. Lane driving is so straight that you think of classroom geometry boxes. And if you are behind the wheel, you have to give way to pedestrians. But then, right of way is rarely used as you have to go up overhanging footbridges and then come down on the other side. Someone stopped me when I tried to dart across an almost empty road once. God, was I missing India!
Essentially India was in vogue at the departure lounge the night I was coming back. Our flight (Air India) was delayed, and each of us got food vouchers worth 200 bahts, redeemable at a few restaurants.
I joined a group of four Indian men in front of a Burger King outlet, all of them armed with 200-baht coupons. One of them ordered a burger that cost 195 bahts; he gave the girl across the counter his 200-baht coupon and demanded a 5-baht change. Sorry, she said, you can’t redeem the coupon for cash. A big fight ensued. Everyone around stared. To make matters worse, another person from his group started getting all enthusiastic about ‘extra long’ in the extra long chicken foot-long, and began making noisy references to certain male body parts.
That’s when I remembered the condoms. At a restaurant called Cabbages & Condoms in Bangkok, there were condoms everywhere: wall hangings made of condoms, lampshades made of condoms, artifacts made of condoms, even tables made of condoms. The raison d’être: “Cabbages are a common food in Northeast Thailand… they are a staple part of the diet, they are grown in all villages, there are everywhere and everybody uses them. Now, if condoms could be as common and used as often, then some of the population and health problems facing Thailand could be overcome!”
And yes, when the bill came at the end of the dinner at Cabbages & Condoms, everyone around the table was given a condom — instead of mint.
Well, all right, there were a few red Indian faces — but it was a happy ending.