I was recently walking through the district of Silom in Bangkok, on my way to the gay strip along Silom Soi 4. It was my first day in the city and although I was expecting some culture shock, I hadn’t thought it would hit me so hard.
The chaotic nature of the place made me nervous; there were so many people, strange sounds and sights, but at the same time, this was exactly why I wanted to be there.
The air was thick, with the mild scent of incense burning, just a waft every so often along the way. There was also the sizzling smell of street food: satayed meats, noodle soups, spring rolls and other foods I’d never seen before.
Every time I crossed a major intersection, I had to make a concerted effort not to get hit by a car, motorbike or tuk-tuk. Even if I had right of way, it didn’t matter. There was a symphony of car horns honking and engines revving. I was almost hit twice.
I’d flown 18 hours total to get to Bangkok with a connection in Shanghai. I arrived at my new apartment in the middle of the night and tried to sleep, but only managed to get a few hours. Along Silom Road, my eyes stung and felt swollen from the lack of rest.
I decided to wander through Silom since it was still very early for the bar. I went up to Thanon Surawong street which was lined with young men and women in uniforms soliciting massages, and it wasn’t even 8pm yet. I wasn’t sure whether they were of the “happy ending” kind; they looked professional despite their loud solicitations.
I looped through the Patpong Night Market and turned onto a small street where Thai girls in lingerie were sitting on chairs, calling out for those passing by to come into their respective strip club. There were men around them, shouting something about “ping-pong.” The doors of these places were open so I peeked inside — each one had five to 10 women on stage dancing at once to techno and pop.
I got to the alley in Silom Soi 4 and found a seat out in front of Balcony pub, which was packed with men. It was directly across from Telephone, which was also bustling with people. Both bars had seats outside set up in rows so that the patrons faced one another. I found a place at the very back and ordered a beer.
There were many daddy types sitting on their own but I didn’t bother flirting. I wasn’t stupid; they weren’t there for me. They were in Bangkok for something very specific, which I observed by the early-20s Thai men by their side, who were bought drinks and food in exchange for public affection.
Silom Soi 4 was a whole ecosystem of its own. I sipped my beer and watched it all go by in the humid night. The waiters were fanning themselves with menus, but when new people wandered by, they’d try to lure them onto one of their patios. Then there were the street merchants trying to sell things like selfie sticks, slip-on tattoo sleeves and plush toys to the patrons.
A blind man with a speaker strapped to him walked in between both bars, singing a Thai tune into a microphone. His friend held onto him, guiding him through. An older gentleman sitting next to me was kind enough to give him a few baht (Thai currency).
I was nervous about this trip and generally about being in Southeast Asia for the next few months. It wasn’t like the recent trips I’d done to Berlin, Barcelona or San Francisco. Those are different cultures no doubt, but life in these cities still feels familiar. Bangkok, on the other hand, was a world of its own, so chaotic, and I was yet to even start to scratch the surface.