Saturday, October 03, 2009

Is this Bangkok, or mere cliches?

Thai Takes

GUESS which city fits this description: “... A teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro (name of city), dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change.”

If I was to guess, I would guess ... ermm, I’m thinking of the capital of an Asean country but I better not say it out loud as this nation is literally at war with my host country, Thailand. Another guess would have been any city in South Asia.

Surprise, surprise I’m wrong. It refers to Bangkok where I’ve been living for the past three years. And “a teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro Bangkok, dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change” is not something I’ve experienced in the Thai capital.

But that’s how Mark Ebner characterised Bangkok in his article “The Last Days of David Carradine” in the September issue of Maxim, a men’s magazine.

Ebner, who has been covering crime and Hollywood for 20 years, was in the Thai capital to “follow in Carradine’s steps and try to reconstruct his final days” that ended up with the 72-year-old Kungfu icon dead in a Bangkok hotel room on June 4.

The article, which Patrick Winn described in (a news website) as “riveting, perfectly paced and dripping with detail”, was loaded with fantasy, however.

“Journalists on assignment in Bangkok often turn out amazing prose. It’s a glittering, messy and alluring city that tends to inspire,” wrote Winn, an American journalist living in Bangkok.

“Trouble is, out-of-town reporters have a tendency to rely too heavily on the fantasy Bangkok they imagine on the plane ride over. The city offers a feast of clichés: lurid sex, prowling transsexuals, low-lives who’ll kill for cheap.”

(Ebner’s plane ride – in his own words - was “23 hours in a cramped China Airlines 747”.)

What does the farang (Westerners) community think of Ebner’s portrayal of the Thai capital?

“It’s not false, but for those of us that have visited BKK (Bangkok’s airport code), it’s just not the real picture,” commented “geriatrickid” recently in’s forum which is popular with farangs.

“Yes there may be limbless sidewalk cripple or two, yes there is choking smog but that’s not really BKK is it?

“I dislike BKK and avoid it as much as possible, but even I can see that the use of the negative imagery is intended to lay the foundation to make (an unflattering impression of Bangkok).”

Another commentator “DP25” sarcastically wrote: “After reading the full article on Maxim it seems quite obvious that the author of the piece has never even been to Thailand.”

However, a forum member called “Danish pastry member” agreed with Ebner’s depiction, saying: “If it was up to me, the picture I’d paint of Bangkok would be a lot less poetic and a lot more nitty gritty.”

“Last time I was in Bangkok, about two years ago, I almost died waiting for a bus. I jest not. Each minute standing at the bus stop was sheer torture, as the fumes from vehicles was horrible.

“How anyone can stand to try to exist in such a hellhole is mind boggling.”

In his article, Ebner pigeon-holed Bangkok as a city where ladyboy (in the writer’s words: “a transvestite prostitute who sounds like a girly-man but would probably kick your ass for saying so”) was a killer or accidental murderer.

And he quoted David Winters (a 70-year-old British who produced several movies with Carradine) as speculating that a ladyboy was involved in the Hollywood actor’s death.

To strengthen his point, Ebner cited Gary Stretch, a British actor, as saying: “A big thing here in Bangkok is that, especially the lady-boys, they’ll go back to your hotel, put something in your drink and then rob you.”

To probe the ladyboy killer angle, Ebner cruised Bangkok’s Nana red light district where he met “a striking-looking child bride” who for 10,000 baht (about RM1,000) “will come back to my hotel, tie me up, choke me and stay the night”.

Instead of cruising Nana, if the writer visited Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) or Thonglor (where the trendy hang out) he would have seen a less clichéd Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on October 3, 2009)


ChrisIPS said... on, Phillip, sounds more like a cab ride to the airport thru the slums of Oakland, California, to me! On the other hand, if you live in Bangkok, Maxim seems like a pretty dumb I guess having dumb writers doing dumb articles is right in their target area.