March 1999

A straight Muslim in Bangkok




On the flight back from Bangkok, I was seated next to Rashid [not his real name], a Malay Singaporean. We had a short conversation which I found very interesting. It had been his first visit to Bangkok, for a company seminar, and he had just the last night free for an outing. I asked him for his impressions and what he told me was refreshingly different from my own experience. It was as if we had been to two different Bangkoks.

It made me think, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you.

All of us approach a place from unique angles. Rashid was different from me in three important ways: he was Malay, straight and a first-timer. I am Chinese, gay, and have been to Bangkok more times than I can possibly remember. It would be interesting to compare.

Many of my gay Singaporean readers would know Bangkok as well as I do. It'd be no exaggeration to say that we have a certain circuit, perfected to an art. There'd be shopping -- Jatujak market, Mahboonkrong shopping centre, World Trade Centre, or the upmarket Emporium. Late afternoons, especially if tired from the shopping, are perfect for the massage clubs. Possibly, there'd be a lovely dinner somewhere with fabulous Thai food, or at a sinfully copious seafood market, or if rushed for time, at the roadside. Absolute musts on the agenda are the saunas, followed by the Patpong bars or VCD shopping from the Patpong stalls. Midnight is when the party begins. There's the dance club at Silom soi 2 that doesn't end till 3 in the morning.

I know most of us more or less follow the same circuit because there have been occasions when I have seen the same faces at three different locations, all on the same day, as if they were following me. This "circuit" is true not just for gay Singaporeans in Bangkok. It is true for gay Hongkongers and gay Taiwanese too.

Same circuit doesn't mean the same places everyday. There are now quite a number of saunas and massage clubs to choose from. You can go to a different one every day. And there have always been a fair choice of bars, with or without go-go dancing.

This time, I remarked to my friend, Joseph, "You know, with the new saunas opening recently, there are now more saunas to visit than I have days left in Bangkok. I won't be able to visit them all."

"But you can visit two a day," he said.

"That's not possible," I said ruefully.

"Of course it is. Just don't have sex!"

"Then what's the point?" I asked.

"That's the trouble! You're like this friend some time ago who wanted to visit all the nude beaches in Australia, and he came back complaining to me, 'Oh God, it was such hard work!' "

So that's the gay Bangkok. Yeah, very hard work.

* * * * * * * * * *

What kind of Bangkok, I wondered, did Rashid, this Malay Singaporean, see?

"So tell me," I asked, while seated next to him on the plane, "what do you think of Bangkok?"

"I don't like it. I don't think I want to go back." Not a sentiment that any gay man I know of might share!

"In what ways didn't you like it?" I wanted to know.

"I couldn't get anything to eat," Rashid said. "I was stuffing myself with bread from the breakfast in case I can't find anything to eat for lunch." Rashid was obviously quite strict about Muslim halal food.

"Halal food is quite easily available in Bangkok, if one knows where to look," I said. "Bangkok does get lots of travellers from Pakistan and the Middle East. But unfortunately, where you stayed was nowhere near the area where the Middle Eastern tourists congregate."

"Ya, I couldn't find anything around my area."

Chinese Singaporeans are generally adaptable about food, especially around East Asian countries, and in any case, most of us just love Thai food. I myself eat anywhere, even at roadside stalls. Food is never a problem for me in Thailand, and I think this is quite typical for Chinese Singaporeans in general.

Yet here is a fellow Singaporean whose topmost complaint about Bangkok was that he couldn't find anything to eat. It would have been easier if he had been more liberal and just ordered whatever that did not contain pork, even if it was not a halal-certified restaurant. But some Muslims are strict about it, and insist on proper halal eating places. Rashid appeared to be one of them. It wasn't my place to tell him to be more liberal. It's his choice what sacrifices he was prepared to make for the sake of his religion. It's just that as Chinese, it seldom occurs to us that other Singaporeans may have a hell of a time getting food in Thailand.

"I walked around looking for a McDonald's," Rashid continued, "but I couldn't even find one."

"It would not have made any difference even if you did."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, McDonald's in Thailand is not halal," I explained.

"But in Singapore …"

"In Singapore, the McDonald's are halal, but not in Thailand," I said.

"You sure?"

Yes, I was certain. "You know why? Because they sell a Samurai Burger which is a pork burger. I saw it being advertised."

"So McDonald's also cannot."

I really felt sorry for him. Imagine if he had seen the promise of the McDonald's arches a distance away, walking in the blazing midday sun to it only to find a huge poster for the Samurai pork burger at the door!

"Damn terok lah," he went on, "everyday eat bread. And another thing: they always think I am Thai."

"But you do look like a southern Thai. I even thought so myself when I first saw you."

"I don't know lah. All I know is that they keep on speaking to me in Thai, and even on the first day when I arrived, the officer told me to stand in a different queue."

"The passport queue?"

"Ya, the passport queue. He came to me and rudely told me to join the Thai passports queue."

"I know," I said, hoping to sound sympathetic. "Sometimes the Thai bureaucracy can be amazingly rude to their own people." Which was true. I have witnessed the Land of Smiles turn into a land of scowls when bureaucrats dealt with working class Thais.

I tried to put a more optimistic spin on things. "Well, after a while, we learn to handle such situations. Most people speak to me in Thai too. After all, they can't tell the difference between a Thai Chinese and some other Chinese. I just smile at them and say 'Sorry, I no speak Thai', and then they will apologise and say, 'Oh sorry, I think you Thai. Your face look same-same Thai.' "

"You're lucky. I somehow got a different treatment," Rashid insisted.

And he probably did. He was darker than me. Do the Thais treat dark-complexioned people more gruffly than fair-complexioned ones? I wouldn't be surprised about that. All over Asia, fair skin is more highly valued than dark. And here again, it's something a fair-complexioned Singaporean takes for granted: that he'd be treated royally by the Thais. But our own compatriots who are darker-skinned might have a completely different experience!

"Where did you go for your outing last night?" I asked, to change the subject.

"Where else? To Patpong, of course."

"Alone, or with your seminar colleagues?"

"In a group."

"And where in Patpong," I probed, "did you guys end up?"

"At first, they wanted to go for a massage, but I and another person, we didn't want to go. So we went shopping around the stalls. I bought a few things for my daughter … "

"Did the others go for the massage?"

"Ya, they did."

"Which place did they go to?"

"Don't know lah, but they said it was a clean massage, no hanky-panky. Supposed to be quite good. The traditional style."

"How much did they pay?" I honestly had no idea how much the straight places charged.

"I heard something like 300 baht, but I'm not sure."

"Did you go into any of the bars?"

"Ya, one. And then got … don't know lah … "

I made a guess. "Problem with the bill?"


"How did that happen?"

"We went to this tiger show, you see. Outside, they tell us 200 baht, but at the end of the show, suddenly it became 1,800 baht. They add this, they add that, and the total was 1,800."

"Each? 1,800 baht per person?"

"Ya, per person. You know -- 1,800 baht -- that's about ninety dollars! Imagine, ninety dollars, and some more, they promised the show has this and that when we went in, but at most only 60 percent of what they promised was really in the show."

"Did they get aggressive?"

"You bet! So we have to pay up. What choice did we have?"

"Well, at least you had a show and an experience to tell others about."

"Sure, for what that's worth… and a beer."

"A beer?" I smiled complicitly at him. Good Muslims are not supposed to touch alcohol.

"I know, I know. Just once in a while, to relax. I'm not supposed to watch a tiger show, anyway. If I'm watching a tiger show, I might as well get a beer."

I can't fault the logic. If one is going to sin by watching live sex, one might as well wash it down with a sinful brew.

"Anyway, I'm not going back again."

Absolution, that.

© Yawning Bread