I flew from New York to Los Angeles, then nonstop to Seoul. I had a few hours before my flight to Bangkok, and I rode a shuttle bus into downtown Seoul, walked around, snacked on fried shrimp, drank a beer, and caught a bus back to the airport. Nothing looked remotely familiar, but then it had been quite a while since I’d been in Korea. I hadn’t spent much time in Seoul, but this time around it was noisy and bustling and furiously modern, a far cry from the Korean cities and villages I remembered.
This time around, too, nobody was shooting at me. There were no Chinese soldiers blowing bugles, no artillery rounds whistling overhead.
I have to say it makes a change.
I’d reset my watch in L.A. and in Seoul, and I reset it again a few hours later in Bangkok. By then I’d lost track of what time it was in New York, and, since there was nobody I wanted to phone, I didn’t much care. It was three in the afternoon in Bangkok, and that was all I had to know. It was a half hour earlier in Rangoon, if I remembered correctly, but I would cross that time zone when I came to it.
My only luggage was the day pack I’d carried aboard the plane with me, and all it held was a clean shirt and a change of socks and underwear. My toothbrush and razor and such rode in the Kangaroo pouch clasped around my waist, along with my Swiss Army knife. I had some cash in a money belt under my Gap khakis, and once I’d cleared Customs and Immigration I ducked into a men’s room and slipped my passport in there as well. Then I ran a gauntlet of overeager cab drivers, took a train to a spot where I could catch a water taxi, and floated on into Bangkok.
I’d been there before, and more recently than I’d been to Seoul. Late sixties, say. Thirty years ago, according to the calendar. Less than a fifth as long by the clock in my head.
Overhead, the sun burned in the afternoon sky. I welcomed it. A breeze off the water had a cooling effect, and of course I had the deep internal chill that was always with me. The sun might give me a burn – I really should have put on sunscreen – but in the meantime it felt good.
Other boats kept pulling up alongside my water taxi, full of people who wanted to sell me something. They all spoke some sort of English, though not one of them was ready to hire on as an announcer for the BBC. I got tired of saying no – to opium weights and ivory carvings, to pictures on rice paper, to rubies that were probably cut glass and lapis that was probably dyed, to bright-eyed offers of male and female companionship. “Very young,” I was assured. “Very clean.”
“No,” I kept saying, in English. “No, thank you. I am not interested. No, thanks all the same, but no.”
“Maybe you like better to watch,” one thoughtful young man suggested, leaning forward and gripping the side of my water taxi. “Two girls together? Boy and girl? Two boys?”
“No, thank you, but-”
“Girl and a dog together. Very popular show, all the tourists like very much. Japanese businessmen, very wealthy, they all love this show.”
“Good for them,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Is very good for them. Is good for you, too. Girl is seven, eight years old, has never been with a man.”
“Just with dogs.”
“You like, after show is over, you can have the girl.”
“Suppose I’d rather have the dog?”
“Girl, dog, whatever you want. Both, if you want.”
In Thai I said, “All I want is for you to fuck off and leave me alone.”
His eyes widened. My Thai is reasonably fluent, although I have a little trouble with the written language, which comes with an alphabet that makes my eyes cross. Thais never expect you to speak their language. (Nobody does, really, except the French, who expect you to speak it badly.) More to the point, they don’t expect you to understand their language, and I have often acquired useful information as a result. I’ve thus learned to keep my linguistic ability a secret, and here I’d gone and tipped my hand to a floating pimp.
No harm in that, I decided. Who was he going to tell? He drifted off to plague someone else, and an old woman selling horoscopes and teak carvings took his place, and I defended myself once more in English. “No,” I said. “Not today. I don’t want any. Thank you. No.”
The teahouse was where it was supposed to be, just across the street from the Swan Hotel and a stone’s throw from the Grand Palace. There was a skanky-looking tobbo shop to its right, a store overflowing with electronic gear to its left.
I walked into the teahouse, and at first I thought it was empty save for the tired waitress leaning against the counter. Then my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, and I saw the sole customer seated at a table against the back wall. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking a Kloster beer, and he raised his eyes at my approach but kept his seat.
I said, “Mr. Sukhumvit?”
In Thai I said, “Today the Chao Phraya swarms with crocodiles.”
In Thai he replied, “Elephants on the highway, crocodiles in the river.”
We both smiled, and he got to his feet. He was on the tall side for a Thai, around five-nine, and lean as a sapling. He wore black pants and a shortsleeve khaki shirt, and his forearms were wiry and muscular. He had a mustache and goatee, the latter consisting of a half-inch band running down the center of his chin.
“Tanner,” he said. “Welcome to Bangkok.” We shook hands. “Recognition signals are ridiculous, aren’t they? Crocodiles and elephants. Schoolboy nonsense.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
“And inadequate in the bargain. Suppose you show me your passport so that I can be confident you are truly yourself.”
I went to the men’s room, retrieved the passport from my money belt. When I got back to Sukhumvit’s table there were two fresh bottles of beer on it, and a bowl of peanuts. I gave him my passport and poured myself some beer while he squinted at it, looking at my photo and at me, reading everything the passport had to say about me. Then, with a quick smile, he folded it and handed it back to me.
“You are enjoying Bangkok, Tanner?”
“I just got here.”
“You speak the language well.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m pretty good with languages.”
“How’s your Burmese?”
“Not as good as my Thai. ”
“You’ve been to Burma?”
“Fascinating country. Cut off from the world all these years. You’ll find Rangoon very different from Bangkok.”
“I can imagine.”
“Of course, it’s Yangon now. And the whole country is Myanmar. But no one outside the government calls it that.”
“So I understand.”
He helped himself to a handful of peanuts, chewed thoughtfully, drank beer. He said, “You’ve been to Bangkok before.”
“No, not since that passport was issued. Do you find it changed much?”
“A lot of new construction, from the looks of things.”
“And it seems to me the traffic is worse.”
“It is worse each year than the year before.”
“And there was a war going on the last time I was here,” I said, “and that’s over with.”
“Not a war in Thailand.”
“No, of course not.”
“In Vietnam, you must mean.”
He frowned. “But how can that be? It says on your passport that you were born in 1958. Americans were not drafted until the age of eighteen, is that not so? And the last American troops left Vietnam well before your eighteenth birthday.”
“I lied about my age,” I said.
“Ah. And volunteered for service.”
“And fought boys younger than yourself,” he said. “In the Vietcong, an eighteen-year-old was a grizzled veteran. If he was still alive. And in the hill tribes of Burma, the children fight alongside their parents. The Shan, the Kachins. The Kareni.”
“But childhood itself is a Western invention, don’t you think? Childhood as a time of innocence. Only the fortunate get to have such a childhood in this part of the world. The rest are not so innocent.” He lit a cigarette, pursed his lips, blew smoke at the ceiling. “You know how a Thai girl celebrates her eighteenth birthday?”
“She puts her daughter on the street.”
I drank some more beer. I’d had Thai beer in New York, a brand called Singha, but I’d never even heard of Kloster, which tasted like a German beer – Beck’s, say – but lighter. It wasn’t bad.
I said, “On the river I was offered the opportunity to watch a seven-year-old girl have sex with a dog.”
“And you passed it up, eh?”
“So that I could meet with you.”
“I am honored,” he said. “But it is upsetting to many people, this business of child prostitution. For myself, I would not want a partner of such an age. I prefer a woman who knows what to do. Although some of these children learn quickly.”
“I imagine they do.”
“But for most of their customers they are best advised to appear ignorant and inexperienced. We get whole planeloads of men on organized sex tours, you know. Americans and Europeans and Japanese. Some want boys and some want girls and some don’t seem to care. It is curious, isn’t it?”
“Of course, the U.N. wants to put a stop to it. And now I suppose the SPCA will stick its nose in as well, saying it is cruel to the dogs. You want another beer?”
“Not just now.”
“You go to Rangoon first thing in the morning, don’t you? Do you have a hotel yet?”
I didn’t have one because I wouldn’t need one, but he didn’t have to know that. “Out at the airport,” I said.
“The Amari? A good choice. Will you want to have an early night? Bangkok ’s twelve hours different from New York, so I don’t know how you stand on jet lag.”
“I’m all right.”
“You were able to sleep on the plane?”
“Off and on,” I said.
He stroked his vertical stripe of a beard. “Forgive me for saying so,” he said, “but you look a little peaked.”
“Probably jet lag.”
“You feel all right?”
“Well, I’m a little chilled,” I said, “but other than that-”
“A little, but-”
“But it’s a hot afternoon. The temperature is well over thirty degrees. That would make it close to ninety degrees Fahrenheit.”
“That sounds about right.”
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “you’re perspiring. So how can you be feeling a chill?”
“I’m sure it’s part of the jet lag,” I said. “And you’re right, it does feel warm in here, and I am perspiring. It’s more an internal sort of a chill.”
“And it’s no big deal,” I said. “I can live with it.”
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