Bangkok is so different from Paris. I can see that right away, from the moment we arrive and step out of the plane. And I see more of the differences on our first day here, a day of R&R after that long flight across Europe and Asia. Today is Bastille Day back in France. It’s just another Wednesday here in Bangkok, but the differences between the cities strike me at every turn.
While Paris is muted, with soft colors and subdued light, sweet and tantalizing aromas and distant sounds, Bangkok is brash, its colors and smells overwhelming, its blinding light and unremitting noise harsh on your senses. While Paris is a lover who woes you with gentle caresses and tender kisses, with sweet, if insincere, words whispered in your ear, Bangkok assaults you with its urgency, taking you fiercely without a moment’s remorse or hesitation, casting you into the street like garbage when it’s done with you. While Paris licks you surreptitiously behind your ear, Bangkok is all up in your face.
I’m like a little girl at the zoo. I gape and point, my mouth hangs open, I ask Sid about all the strange animals doing all the strange things I see around me. The taxi driver from the airport drives like a madman on the expressway, and then gets bogged down in the incomprehensible traffic when we get into the city. Big trucks fight for space with little buzzing motos, cars and limos and taxis and bicycles and people, people everywhere, all fight for space, and somehow they all seem to fit. I can’t explain how, it’s like the vehicles shrink to fit through it all, to avoid taking casualties as they maneuver through impossibly tight places. And they drive on the other side of the road here, on the left, like in England and South Africa, which just adds to the effect it all has on me.
I look at the women and the girls from the open window of the taxi. There is a grace and a beauty to their faces that I have seldom seen before. French women are nice enough, no doubt about it, but except for the most outstanding examples, other than exceptional French women, women like Chantal, their beauty pales against the soft beauty of the Thai women. Not so much the men, they don’t particularly impress me, with their flattish moon faces and tigerish eyes, but the women do. Very much so.
It seems everyone is engaged in something, every Thai human is in a struggle for survival. I see no signs of idleness or indolence, as I see daily on the sidewalks of Paris. It reminds me of the tropical ant colonies I have seen, highways of tens of thousands of ants doggedly carrying leaves several times their size through jungle undergrowth, all of the tens of thousands acting as one to bring back their leafy capture to feed the queen, nourish and sustain the colony.
I see little girls, girls half my age and less, and little boys, hard at work beside their mothers and fathers and on their own, carrying huge sacks, pushing food on hungry crowds, hawking cheap goods from the side of the road. I know Bangkok’s reputation, Southeast Asia’s reputation, for how little girls and boys are plied into the sex trade. Sid has told me all about this, long before he ever contemplated this particular trip, and I know enough about Sid to know he’s probably partaken.
Seeing the beauty and grace of these girls and boys who melt my heart, I understand, just by looking, how that life and money and strain all might be easier than being a beast of burden on the street, as the little beasts of burden I see from the taxi window. But Sid already cautioned me that we’re not to deviate from our primary mission, not to mix our apples and our oranges, our meat and our bread. Not on this trip. There is too much that can go wrong, too much trouble we can get ourselves into, the consequences of which are too grave. It amazes me sometimes how focused Sid can be when circumstances demand it.
Sid also told me, quietly counseling me on things to expect away from the other passengers as we awaited our departure in Paris, how Asian people don’t like to say “no.” It’s not their way. They find it too rude. They’ll talk all around something rather than just come out and say “no,” even though you know “no” is the answer. That’s different from the French, too, who will just come out and say “non” to your face when it suits them. Or “absolument, non.” But Sid tells me not to let my guard down, not for a moment, not to be deceived, and that the Thai people we’ll be dealing with, the Thai drug dealers and traffickers and criminals, their way of saying “no” comes through the barrel of a gun or on the blade of a knife. I’ve taken it all in, though that seems kind of rude to me.
Sid and I made it through immigration okay as Uncle Oscar and his niece Lulu. That’s what Uncle Oscar calls me. Lulu. Except when he’s cross with me, then he calls me Louise. I don’t like it when Uncle Oscar is cross with me so I try not to give him reason to be. And I just hate being called by that name.
Don’t ask me the name of the Bangkok airport. It’s Don something. It doesn’t really matter, so let’s just call it the airport. We picked up our bags at the airport baggage claim, and they’re definitely on the light side, given their size. We need room for the “souvenirs” we’ll be acquiring here and bringing back with us. Well, that I’ll be bringing back, in my bag. Not so light as to attract the attention of the customs officials, just light enough and with enough room for our buys.
The first thing we do, after checking in at our hotel, which is a Western-style hotel right in the middle of the city and pretty nice, is take off our clothes and fall into bed for a much-needed nap after the ordeal of the past eighteen hours. It’s twenty-three hours on the clock and it’s not even 9:30 in the morning yet – still the middle of the night back in Paris – when we get into bed, and we’re both worn out and need some rest. I remember to mess up the other bed in the room, the one I’m supposed to be sleeping in, since who knows what a Thai chambermaid expects of an uncle and his niece, and we don’t want to raise any questions, so I get out of bed to do that, then climb back in next to dear old Uncle Oscar and show him some of that nice niecely devotion he so enjoys, being careful not to mess up the sheets like we did the blanket on the plane, before we both fall into the sleep of the dead.
When we’re up a few hours later and showered, separately this time for the sake of efficiency, we go out on the street in search of some lunch. I’ve had Thai food before, and it’s one of my favorite cuisines. With it’s highly spiced curries and pad Thai dishes and soups, it’s known to be the hottest food on the planet. As a culinary student, I can tell you this. So there.
Like all the other differences, the differences I’ve already mentioned, there is the difference of food between Bangkok and Paris. While French cuisine is gentle on the pallet, tending to your appetites like a solicitous butler or housemaid, filling your mouth with rich flavors and sensual textures that heighten and sharpen your senses incrementally, Thai food just rushes in and grabs you by the throat and makes your taste buds and your tongue explode with its flavors, all overlaid on one another, and burns you all the way down your gullet and into your stomach, makes you sweat and turn red and reach for a cold Thai beer, makes you wonder if you’ll survive the experience and at the same time wonder why you don’t eat like this all the time. It’s conjecture on my part, but I bet it can even give you an orgasm, if you’re sensitive like that. I come pretty close to them when I eat Thai food, and this food I’m eating here in Bangkok is the best, and hottest, Thai food I’ve ever had.
I squirm in my seat, sweat running in rivulets down my sides under my loose top, my face flushed red, my nipples about as hard and obvious as they can be, as I force each torrid bite of green curry into my mouth, washing down every fourth or fifth bite with a swig from the sweating bottle of Singha beer beside my plate. Sid can’t help but notice, this time he actually notices, and he gives me one of his rare smiles, a sly Sid smile, his eyes cast directly on my chest.
“Enjoying the food, I see.”
“Oh, man, yes. Is it that obvious? Well, yeah, it’s almost orgasmic, it’s so good.”
“Almost? Is that all?”
“Well, so far, anyway. But I’m not done yet. If I don’t come sitting here you’ll have to get me there back at the hotel when we’re done. Man, it’s that good.”
Sid smiles again, looks around the restaurant to be sure no one’s looking in our direction, and reaches out and pinches my left nipple, hard, through the cloth of my top. First I wince, then my eyes open wide in the nexus of pain and pleasure where I find myself, between the food’s heat and Sid’s pinch.
“Does that help?”
“Oh, Sid, don’t. You will make me come, and if we’re trying not to be too noticeable, you don’t want to do that. Not how I’m feeling right now. The whole restaurant will hear me.”
His smile has turned into a grin, one of Sid’s almost-as-rare evil grins, as he gives one last tweak, softer this time, and then smooths my top and takes his hand away.
“You’re right, Lulu. Now be a good girl and eat your meal and Uncle Oscar will take care of you back in the room.”
“Thank you, Unc. I’ll be a good girl, I promise. Will you read me a story when you put me to bed?”
I’m really into role now, maybe too much, and I’m talking in my little girl voice.
“I’ll do more than read you a story, Lulu. You’ll be in the story. How would you like to be in Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Bears?”
My face krinkles all up at the reference. I hold my fork in mid-air, quivering. It’s all I can do not to burst out laughing.
“Unc, I think you’re getting them mixed up. It was a wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. The three bears were in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You’re so silly.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, I’m not real up on these things.”
“Apparently not, Unc.”
I’m still holding down a huge laugh that threatens to escape at any moment. It’s almost as much torture as the hot curry. Please, Sid, say something else. Please. And, happily, he does.
“Anyway, Lulu, do you want your Uncle Oscar to be the big, bad wolf and eat you all up?”
“Oh, yes, Unc. Eat me all up. Eat me up like I’m green curry and you can’t get enough of me. That’s what I want.”
You see, Sid does have his good points.
Anyway, that’s how we started our visit to Bangkok. That and walking around some and more food and more beer and more sleep and more of the wolf and Little Red Rosie Riding. Tomorrow we’re supposed to meet some of Sid’s contacts, and after that we’re going by train to some place called Chiang Mai. Up in the north of the country. Going there to meet more of Sid’s contacts, closer to the supply, he says.
Hope no one has to say “no” to us.