Nana Plaza after dark looks like a scene from Blade Runner.
The entrance sign to this aging anchor of Bangkok’s lower Sukhumvit red light district boasts ““World’s Largest Adult Playground”, but it’s hard to read because several of the lights have burned out. More consistent light – and thumping bass – comes from the open air bars with streetfront patios full of overpainted, underdressed Asian women poking at their smart phones. Some of the women are talking to white men who are almost uniformly middle aged, bald and sunburned. Champions League games play on screens in the background and signs say “Jack Lives Here”. Between the bars is a mix of massage parlours, internet cafes and resturants with German-language menus offering proper English breakfasts. The streets are prime commercial real estate too – stalls sell food, flowers, guns, knock-off Polo t-shirts and generic drugs from viagra to valium.
I’m staying on a side street about 200 metres from the centre of the happy hour, happy ending mayhem. The guest house directly across from me offers “rooms for rent short time” – 300 baht (CAD$12) gets you an hour and supposedly clean sheets. I haven’t seen any overt sex tourist activity at my guest house – I think the CheQinn Chic Hostel Bangkok is trying to be something different in the area. Not trying too hard though, given the red bulb in my bedside lamp and the mirrored shower.
Several times a day I walk the three blocks between my guest house and the Nana skytrain station. Each time I pass the same transvestite, a life-size doll with long fake eyelashes, cartoon pink cheeks and red lips set off by a pasty white face. Even her legs are painted pale. A bargain basement geisha, slowly melting in the heat.
I’m invisible on these streets. The women ignore me because I’m not a meal ticket and the men don’t look because I’m not on the menu. I like the anonymity but each time I step outside I lose a bit more of my faith in humanity.
A couple days ago I got turned around, exited the skytrain station on the wrong side of Sukhumvit Road and landed in Arabia. Women in hijab, the smell of shisha, and lots of sandal stores. It’s an odd combination of communities – the women wearing the most clothes and the women wearing the least clothes, separated by four lanes of traffic.
So why am I staying in this pay-for-pleasure jungle?
I came to stay at the Atlanta Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Bangkok, and a haven for writers for many years. Even Elizabeth Gilbert stayed while she was writing Eat Pray Love. This one-star hotel has a gorgeous Art Deco lobby, the oldest hotel pool in Bangkok and a great restaurant run by a old Thai woman who hasn’t aged a minute in the 14 years I’ve been staying there. It’s also strictly anti-sex-tourism, and located far enough down a long soi to mostly avoid the neighbourhood mess.
On past trips The Atlanta successfully pulled off faded glory, a blue haired great dame who still uses her best manners long after the carpetbaggers (and worse) have moved in. But this time I just saw the faded, not the glory. My room with its scuffed linoleum floor, bare fluourescent bulb and sputtering fan was too much Apocalypse Now, not enough drifter princess. I stayed one night, spent a pleasant morning by the pool, and traded up the following day.
When Nana becomes too much (which happens at least once a day), I take the sky train to one of Bangkok’s luxury shopping malls. Riding high above the smoggy, snarled traffic feels like something from a Margaret Atwood novel – bullet trains bypassing the dirt and the plebes on the way to gated zones of luxury.
Photo credits: woodrow walden and rob sheridan