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Name: Aletta Mazlin
Photos: aletta's photo libraries
We walk in there half expecting to be ripped off. It's just a matter of how they are going to rip us off.
A drinks menu appears in front of us with all the usual suspects, but with no prices.
"How much for a Singha?" "Singha? Ohhh... one hundred baht."
One hundred baht is a hefty price-tag for a small Singha, but if that's the form that the ripping off is going to take, I can handle it. Just to be sure I ask if we can pay now so that we're not struck with any nasty surprises when we leave. The woman looks frustrated and stomps out of the bar, returning with a metal canister with our order taped to the side. At least I assume it's our order, since it's written in Thai. It could say "you're a bunch of shithead farang" for all I know.
We're sitting at the back of a dimly lit room, all black vinyl and stainless steel. (Easy to clean? Your mind skips to the practicalities in places like this.) On the stage in front of us are five or six barely-clad Thai girls, white bikinis and skimpy skirts illuminated by black light. They're swaying on the spot like uncomfortable fourteen year olds at a school dance. One of them is inserting a string of nails into her twaddle.
This is Southeast Asian travellers' cliche number 14: The Bangkok ping pong show.
I'd woken up that morning in my cushy dorm room in Siem Reap. I'd eaten my free breakfast, said a quiet farewell to my swimming pool, and then jumped in a taxi with Canadian dorm-mate Heather and Daniel the earnest Englishman. We headed out of Siem Reap towards Poipet and the Cambodia/Thailand border along what my guidebook calls the "Boulevard of Broken Backsides". It's a road that is in incongruously wretched condition for such a major route. My guidebook also says that it remains in this wretched condition while a particular airline continues to pay money for it to stay in that condition. Corruption is so quirky.
If you're not particularly concerned about the parts of your car that may be damaged by hitting swimming pool sized potholes at great speed, this road is tremendous good fun. If you're in a bus (which is concerned about hitting these holes at great speed) it's not so much fun. The taxi ride takes a whooping, white-knuckled three hours. The bus ride takes a grim six hours. Passing all the buses with their tortured cargo, I felt very very clever.
This journey was the first time I'd actually been out of Siem Reap, temples of Angkor aside. Siem Reap is all glitz, with it's fancy restaurants and expensive hotels and ice cream parlours, albeit posed next to ramshackle buildings, broken pavements and muddy roadsides. The whole time I'd been in Siem Reap I'd felt like I'd been plonked down in the middle of the country like Mr Bean. Just vomited onto the pavement. I had no context from which to understand this bizarre town, so I tried to grab all the context I could on my way out.
The Cambodia I saw along this road was flat and dusty and eerily unlike the countryside in Laos or Thailand. There were no little farmer's huts standing in the middle of dry rice paddies. Just the occasional tree standing in the middle of a whole lot of dust, and a big, unsealed, potholed road cutting through the middle of it. And then coming towards us on a bicycle would be a little Cambodian woman with her krama wrapped around her mouth to block the dust. And then we'd pass a bunch of Cambodians piled into the back of a pickup truck, various coloured krama wrapped around various parts of their bodies and faces. I took lots of crapshoot photos out the windscreen. Mostly all I got was dust.
Typical mode of travel along the road from Siem Reap to Poipet.
Dusty and corrugated. This actually looks like one of the better stretches. For reasons you might imagine, it's hard to get photos of the more exciting stretches of road.
Petrol station in the middle of nothing.
I love the elegance of this lady: Not only is she sitting perfectly straight, sidesaddle on the back of a motorcycle, but she's wearing white. Brave woman. This is heading into Poipet town.
At the border there are taxis, buses, little men with carts, touts and a bathroom that levies a fee of 5 baht for a pee. A couple of large "resorts" and casinos rake in the cash from Thai patrons who can't get any casino lovin' in their own country. One stamp to exit Cambodia, one stamp to enter Thailand. We take a tuk tuk to the train station and catch a six-hour third-class soot and sweat special to Bangkok.
After a eight weeks in Laos and Cambodia, Thailand is a paragon of modern infrastructure. Everything seems so orderly and efficient. The roadsides are all sealed, the driving is less erratic, there has been some attempt at gardening. And the King is everywhere, looking benevolently over his people. He's on billboards overlooking the highways, on calendars in the smallest of roadside eating establishments, in the middle of roundabouts, everywhere. Sometimes he's young, sometimes he's old, sometimes he's with his wife, sometimes he's talking to children. Sometimes he's just looking through a camera at something or other. The Thai people adore their king, and when you see him all the time you begin to adore him as well.
At the end of our six hour sweat and soot train ride we emerge at Hualumpong Station. There are waffle stands, escalators, security checks, surveillance cameras. Popping out of the station and there are giant buildings and six lanes of traffic, along with that Bangkok haze of pollution and the omnipresent smell of sewerage. I'm most struck by the pavement: There is pavement. Funny the things you notice.
Daniel had needed to come to Bangkok anyway, since he was heading down to the south of Thailand to see some beaches and stuff. Heather wasn't meant to be in Bangkok at all. She was meant to be in Phnom Penh. When I'd mentioned that I hoped to check off Southeast Asia travellers' cliche number 14: Ping pong show, she'd been so insanely jealous that it hadn't taken much convincing to get her to come with us to Bangkok for two nights, and fly to Phnom Pehn after that. I like people with flexible itineraries. A flexible itinerary is like an open mind. I just made that up.
So we make our way down to the vicinity of Patpong Sois 1 & 2, off Silom Road. Not being red light district aficionados we walk around looking for the largest cluster of neon lights and try not to get sucked in by the touts standing outside with laminated pieces of paper listing such delights as "pussy chainsaw fuck". After losing one such tout in the 7-11 we meet another who flashes his card, smiles assuredly and leads us up some stairs into our den of vinyl and stainless steel.
To be honest, I expected more from a ping pong show. I've seen that scene from Priscilla Queen of the Desert: I expected to see things flying across the room. I expected to see weird things flying across the room. I'm not sure if this one was representative of ping-pong shows in general, but everybody just looked bored.
One girl steps forward and lifts her little white skirt then starts wrapping herself around the pole, only to stop, stamp her feet and yell at the bar staff when the song ends before her routine finishes. Another girl sidles up to Heather and tries to engage her in conversation. Heather has no idea what the girl is saying aside from the usual: What's your name? Where are you from? So Heather says her name is Sam and she's from South Africa.
Other girls come up to us and insist that Daniel write his name on a piece of paper. He writes "Frederick". Five minutes later the girl is on stage writing "Hello Frederick!" onto a large sheet of paper, pen skillfully manipulated by her, ahem, "ladies' garden". This piece of paper is presented to Daniel, and the girl asks for a 100 baht tip. Ok, fifty baht. Twenty baht. Only twenty baht!
"But it's not even my name!" Daniel protests, before parting with twenty baht. He scrunches the "Hello Frederick" into a little ball.
About two-thirds of the way through our overpriced Singhas, we notice some other farang hanging out by the door and arguing with the Thai staff. The staff have shut the door and blocked it with a rather beefy man (by Thai standards) wearing a rather serious expression. I turn to Daniel and suggest that it's probably time we leave.
We head up to the bar clutching our little metal canister holding our 300 baht. Three beers at 100 baht each. We present this to the bar guy who tells us that our beers actually cost 300 baht each. That's about $10 USD, or $12 NZD each. Those are some pricey, pricey beers.
We talk to the other people at the door who tell us that their bill has mysteriously totalled 4000 baht, or about $160 USD. Oh ok, ok, so that's how we're going to be ripped off. I see now. I remember talking to a guy who suffered a similar kind of scam in Istanbul, and only escaped by barging the door, running down the stairs and leaping into a taxi. I suggest to our fellow captives that someone might want to call the police. "Oh yeah! Know the number?" Shit.
Our bar guy drags us back to the bar and attempts to explain the situation in case we've misunderstood. He writes it down on a piece of paper, because that makes it indisputable. 300 baht each for the beers. 1000 baht each for the disappointing "show". Grand total: 3900 baht, or about $150 USD. I laugh. I look back to the other guys at the door. They're gone. They've escaped without us. I curse.
So what happens then is a quick evaluation of the situation: They're obviously not going to hurt us at this point, because the bar is full of other people, although those other people are all Thai. There don't appear to be any other exits. None of us have a cellphone. We can stand around here all night and see who gives up first. It's kind of hard to drag any other victims up to the bar if there are a bunch of people standing beside the door trying to get out.
Or, you know, I could just barge the door and run down the stairs into a taxi.
I look back to the door, which is now standing slightly ajar, with our burly captors chatting to each other. I cross the distance in three steps and pull the door open. My way is blocked by burly doorman who is burly, yes, but also shorter than me. I push against him and against the door frame. I shove my face into his.
"Let me out," I demand firmly, sternly, impressively. He pushes back.
"Let me out." I'm using my serious voice, I'm mean, I'm tough, I'm intimidating. I'm bigger than him, goddamnit. He pushes back.
"Let me OUT!" I put all the "don't fuck with me" I can muster into that last one and manage to push past him and walk oh so coolly down the stairs.
I'm waiting for him to grab me from behind but nothing comes. I look behind me and Daniel and Heather are following. We walk past the door bitch and tell her what a bad place it is she works in. "This is a bad place. A bad place!" The look she gives me needs no translation: It's "well, duh."
Out on the street we see the guys who had abandoned us in the bar. They'd paid 400 baht in the end: 100 baht for each beer, and that was it. They said that those bar dudes were really just trying it on, and that if you just stuck to your guns they'd give up eventually. It's at this point that I realise that we didn't even end up paying for our beers. For a little bit of hassle we got three free Singha. The only financial damage being the 20 baht that Daniel paid for his Frederick sign.
Not too bad going if I do say so myself.
So we inadvertently crossed off two of my travellers cliche's that evening. The first was the ping pong show, disappointing though it was. The second was "any serious scam". I think that counted as a serious scam.
We cross back over Silom Road away from the ping pong shows and seedy nightlife. We walk into an Irish pub to calm our (my) shaking hands with giant glasses of Heineken. As Daniel points out, you always know where you stand with an Irish pub.
(6 Feb 2008)