Posted August 21, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Culture

I am Siam, Siam I am: A History of Ladyboys, Pagan Drug Dealers, and Competitive Eyeball-Removal

Thailand had infrastructure, and it was designed to place me on a beach with a drink menu in my hand as quickly and efficiently as possible. The buses were convenient, the streets were sterile, and the tropical breeze was as gentle as the locals. There were no pervasive feelings of danger or risk, terrorist gun markets, restricted military zones, or harsh wastelands that demanded my crossing. In summary: Thailand was awful and I hated it.

If you’re a travel blogger, nobody wants to read about you sitting in a bubble bath eating chocolates. No one gives a shit that you visited a lovely spa, unless you spent six days hiding in its basement. They don’t want to hear that your daiquiri was refreshing, unless you were sipping it in the midst of a Taliban gunfight. I have observed these things.

So for this Photo Travelogue, I traded away my potential elephant rides and happy endings for underground fighting camps and villages terrorized by jungle critters—in a coolhunting-quest for a grittier, more unusual side of Thailand…

The German couple was practically glowing with excitement. “Wow! Check this out!” they exclaimed. Our minibus had stopped for petrol outside a grimy, thatch-roofed hut.

“What?” I said.

This,” they pointed out the window at the totally shitty gas station.

A  fat woman in a rice hat tapped on our window, waving bags of potato chips with a passionate frown.

The Germans beamed with awe. “This is the real Thailand.”

“This is a totally shitty gas station,” I wanted to clarify. I’d heard warnings of Thailand’s insular ‘tourist bubble,’ but had disregarded this as snobbery. Oh well. Six million travelers visit Thailand each year, but apparently few glimpse the “real” Thailand beyond their backpacker hostels and powdered-sugar beaches. To such travelers, Thailand really is the ‘The Land of Smiles.’ And while the moniker is true to an extent, the happy veneer masks a much stranger face. A more intriguing one.
I began my search for an adventure-worthy story in Chiang Mai, the ancient heart of Siam.

One of the first things I noticed in Thailand was the ever-present gaze of a mousy, bespectacled old man named Bhumibol Adulyadej. His portrait hung in every single shop, restaurant, and home, plastering billboards on every highway, peering down at you from every corner of every public space. You can’t even jerk off in your hotel room without staring into the eighty-five-year-old’s judging, judging eyes.

Thai people love their king with a passion that hedges on perversion. When you ask them to describe him, they will respond with a dating-site profile. They’ll fawn about how he studied medicine at Harvard, that he composed the national anthem, that he likes French food, and can play the saxophone. They might tell you how he’s impossibly strong and handsome, capable of stopping protesters with his irresistible smile, or crushing enemy armies with his massive forehead. He’s certainly a good king, but I sensed something was amiss.

From a young age, Thais are blasted with pro-monarchy propaganda and it is a criminal offence to complain or criticize the king and the royal family. Unfortunately these Lese Majeste laws fail to protect his majesty from an even greater danger—if one of Bangkok’s SkyTram monorails were ever to pass over his car, then his head would be below the passengers’ feet! To avoid this horrible disaster, the government has devised a reasonable policy: whenever the king travels through the city, they shut down the entire SkyTram and everybody has to take taxis. Problem solved!

There are loads of hilarious laws in Thailand—i.e. it’s illegal to leave the house with pants but no underwear—and I humored the possibility of going on a soft-core criminal rampage. In reality, this would be as boring as it would be sophomoric. I knew Thailand had more fascinating niches to explore and to find them I’d have to go south to the ancient ruins of Sukhothai.

Thai culture is a surprisingly new development. In fact, you could read the entire history book while taking a dump. That doesn’t make it any less intriguing, however. The story of Siam is a story of murder, opium, and magic elephants.

Thailand was first settled by pagan drug dealers from China. At least that’s how the Chinese viewed the animist Tai tribes. After much persecution, these opium-growing hill people were forced to flee south into Thailand, where they could worship trees and rocks and grow drugs in peace. Some historians might call this depiction unfair and I guess the Tai tribes did other stuff too. Like raising pigs and killing other tribes and other stuff. As you can probably imagine the Tai were a lot of fun, but they lacked certain qualities—like being functional members of society. Thus for much of the last two millennia, they were the subjects of neighboring empires—the Khmer (Cambodia), Dvaravati (Burma), and Srivijaya (Malay). It wasn’t until the 13th century that the Tai finally got their shit together, in the plains of Sukhothai.

In the early 13th century, the king of Sukhothai coined a new strategy for settling disagreements between neighbors, which was: killing and/or subjugating them. His dominion hacked its way across the plains; in a period they cheerfully named “The Dawn of Rising Happiness.”

Thailand began with the rise of three kingdoms— Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Lanna (Chiang Mai). Instead of judging a kingdom’s prestige on military strength or artistic sophistication, the currency of power was how many magical white elephants the king owned.

From Sukhotai, I cut south to the former kingdom of Ayutthaya, where much of what we identify as “Thai” was first created—most notably the violent blood-sport, Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is the Art of Fighting with Eight Limbs, the most dangerous martial art on earth, remaining ruthless despite the pussification of the modern world. Aside from lethal kicks and strikes, its ancient forefathers crafted a convenient array of techniques for removing the opponents’ eye-balls and breaking their necks.

Around the same time that Muay Thai was outlawed in many countries, Thailand decided to start teaching it in schools and declared it the national sport. Perhaps it’s unsurprising to hear that Thailand is the only Asian country never to be colonized.

Underground Muay Thai fighting camps exist throughout the country and so I did what any sensible twenty-something year old guy would do—I decided to train in a fighting school for a month, learn Thailand’s cultural secrets to not being a cupcake, and then fight at the infamous Joe’s Bar, where drunk foreigners are fed into a ring to get clobbered by Thai fighters (if the tourist survives, they win a free bucket of rum).

Unfortunately this story wasn’t for the blog, but an exciting, collaborative, extremely time-consuming side project—the reason why I’ve been AWOL over the last few months. So I’m not allowed to tell this story (yet)…

Muay Thai was often a fight to the death, until the Thais learned to take out their bloodlust on neighboring Burma and Cambodia, who were busy making puppets and dance routines. When the Khmers were finally expelled from Thailand, their influence remained in the form of Hindu temples and religious beliefs, which poses a bizarre and terrifying problem for one town I visited, called Lopburi…

The citizens of Lopburi live in a state of fear. This is the fault of an ancient Hindu text called the Ramakian (Ramayana), which follows the story of Prince Rama. The legend goes that one day Rama was hanging out with his friends, who happened to be immortal Hindu gods, when his beloved Princess Sita was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. Instead of immediately summoning law enforcement or mustering an army—or asking his friends who are omnipotent Hindu gods—Rama wandered off into the forest to seek the aid of monkeys. Yes–his wife had been kidnapped and he sought the council of feces-throwing creatures that spend the day publicly masturbating. Either Rama was lucky or the demon was a drooling, bedridden vegetable, because this strategy worked and everyone threw a big party.

To honor the bravery of the monkey god Hanuman, the Khmers built a temple in Lopburi where worshipers could feed the wild beasts. For whatever reason, no one thought this was a terrible idea…

The town of Lopburi has been invaded by hundreds of cranky, thieving, aggressive rhesus macaques. Windows around town are barred with steel. Marauding troops of monkeys smash street lights, bend car antennas, and rip down telephone lines. Pedestrians carry sticks to keep the beasts at bay.

The superstitious locals can’t kill the monkeys, which are holy, so they continue appeasing them with bananas and living in a constant state of paranoia.

It’s amusing how often religious beliefs pose massive headaches for the Thais. The worst is probably the “Spirit Houses”—tiny dollhouses that stand alongside homes, in which the ‘house spirits’ are placated with daily offerings of incense, sweets, and votive knick-knacks. The spirits are usually angry. They’re the restless souls of deceased relatives, who have nothing better to do in the afterlife than heckle and complicate the affairs of the living. As in all cultures, mother-in-laws are the most terrifying, but your torment has only begun when she passes. Every morning for the rest of your life, you need to silence the angry spirit of that fat, nagging cow with candy bars and scented candles.

The irony of all this is that, unlike the other great faiths, Buddhism isn’t really a faith at all—it’s a science. It’s not based on beliefs, but on observations of the mind that can be empirically verified with your own experiences. Buddhism’s central teaching is that happiness comes from inner peace—which is true. Through meditation, Buddhists are taught to let go of unhappy thoughts, to detach themselves from pain and desire, and to achieve nirvana.

Buddhism has engrained such an innate open-mindedness in Thai people, that their language doesn’t include a word for ‘No,’—only ‘Not Yes.’ This objective consideration of ideas has promoted a unique and benevolent outlook on sexuality and gender.

In Thai culture, it’s completely inappropriate to kiss in public, but if a guy wants to head to the office or hit the gym wearing pink hotpants and stilettos, that’s hip as French fries. Upon my arrival in Bangkok, I was amazed at the proliferation of Ladyboys—Thailand’s ‘third gender’—and the level of acceptance they enjoyed. Despite western misconceptions, this has more to do with self-identity than sex. Not all ladyboys are prostitutes—more often they’re bankers, restaurant servers, Muay Thai champions, or normal visible members of society. Not all ladyboys are gay—the whole of mankind is theirs for the molesting. Some like women, others like men. Some simply teeter in their high heels outside 7-11s, crotch-grabbing anything that moves.

Ironically, my quest for an edgy, unusual Thailand ended in perhaps the most denigrate tourist hell-hole on earth—Patpong, Bangkok’s sex district. I found myself in a circus of go-go girls, drunk college kids, and aging sex-tourist perverts. Not that I could judge them; it wasn’t as if I’d come to admire the architecture. I’d finally found my story—a journey into Bangkok’s red-light ghetto, a descent down the rabbit hole of depraved, sexual deviancy, a pageant of ping-pongs, nipple-clips, and naked slaves in clown masks.

Maybe Thailand wasn’t so dull after all.


To hear my heartwarming account of the red-light district, check out “The Turtle & The Whore: A Downward Spiral into Bangkok’s Red-Light Underworld”

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For more eye-candy, check out the other Photo Travelogues

For a photographic tour of the Silk Road, check out “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and The Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo”

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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.