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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Table-dancing in Bangkok

February 2004: Every gay visitor to Bangkok knows Soi 4 off Silom Road. A few yards down the alley, after the tattoo artist and the men's swimwear shop on the right and Tapas and Home - clubs that only come to life at weekend - on the left, Telephone and Balcony face each other like temperamental drag queens, their waiters standing in  line like a row of lively pawns. The Balcony boys in their bright t-shirts try to grab you first, folding their hands in a wai and trilling "Sawadee kap", while the men from Telephone in their red-and-black shirts wait as you make up your mind. Both strategies are successful. By late evening the tables at both bars are usually full, with Thais and farangs, old and young, wealthy and aspiring, groups, couples and singles. Friendships, love affairs and one-night stands relationships are all nurtured here; those who are still alone by midnight can move on DJ Station in Soi 2, where minds and bodies dance until two am.

I went to Balcony almost every night the first few weeks after I moved to Thailand. The waiters were cuter and more welcoming than in Telephone and smiled more readily. If I was not expecting a friend, I would talk to a neighbour. Sometimes I considered sitting in the bar opposite, but to do so seemed a betrayal. As the days passed and I began to recognise faces, I saw that others felt the same; you were either Telephone or Balcony. You could and should greet friends who you saw drinking opposite, but you did not join them. And while at first there seemed little to differentiate the clientles, the more I watched, the more it seemed that Telephone was a second home to those who lived in Bangkok while Balcony had more of a transient crowd.

Time passed. I moved into a new apartment, and made friends who either did not like Soi 4 or who found it more convenient to meet elsewhere. And I was growing tired of a nightlife where half of those around me were of European origin and English was the common tongue. If I had wanted to meet Brits, I would have stayed in London, and if USAmericans or Australians were my desire, I would have moved back to Los Angeles or moved to Sydney. And while I didn't mind a few handsome young men approaching me because of my skin colour and its associations, I did not want every new face to see me as a walking wallet or a sex object. I was happy to visit this Thailand, but I did not want to live there.

And so I looked further afield. One Sunday night a Thai friend took me to Sake (pronounced halfway between Sa-geh and Sa-keh), a minute's walk away from Kho San Road of backpacker and The Beach fame. We stood with our drinks at one of the chest-high tables that filled the room, looking out at the crowd. It was packed with young Thais and I could make out only one other farang - a man my own age with his thirties Thai lover. I wondered where people danced; by the end of the evening I had my answer. Each couple or group dance at their table, as enthusiastically as in any nightclub where the floor is clear. So why the tables? I asked my friend. Because Sake probably doesn't have a dance licence, he suggested. Oh, I said, aware that table-dancing had suddenly acquired a whole new meaning.

As the evening progressed, the dancing grew wilder. I danced, drank, made my way through the crowd to the dark urinals, came back and danced again. Occasionally eyes crossed mine, looked away again. So, I thought, this is where Thais go to meet other Thais. I'm invisible here. And I like it.

A few weeks later I was with the Little Brother - a young Thai who was more enamoured of me than I was of him - in a different part of town. After midnight in the middle of the week at the end of a frustrating evening, we ended up in Oh Yes in Ramkhumheang. Another table bar, although half-empty. Our drinks at our elbows, perched on high stools to the side of the small stage, we watched the drag act. (I know, I know; "drag" is neither politically nor, in a Thai context, linguistically correct, but it most accurately describes the three figures who mislipsynched as they paraded stiffly to and fro in gaudy sequin costumes.)

The music stopped and after a short comedy break, the go-go contest began. Two young men had entered - one tall, slim and goodlooking, the other short, plain and able to dance. Good looks won over talent and an impressive looking cup was bestowed. It was getting late and LB and I headed for home. At the door I noticed a farang with a drink and one of the waiters keeping him company. I was disappointed; what was he doing here? Why couldn't he stay in Silom, where he belonged?

But the gay bar I prefer does not advertise. It's in the north of Bangkok, not far from the last stop on the Skytrain. You enter a short Soi lined by half a dozen or so karaoke bars. Outside each two or three handsome young men or young-women-who-were-once-boys greet and invite you in. Others might be tempted, but my friends and I always head for the last bar on the right. The manager greets us and one of the waiters opens the door. We are greeted by a Buddhist shrine and a room where sofas and coffee tables face one of three television screens. Someone is singing, usually badly, as the words unfold across the screen.

Our group is shown to a table, and if none is available, sofas and people are moved until space is found for us. A bottle of whisky is ordered - either the remains of the last visit or ordered anew. Mixers are sorted out - who wants soda, who wants coke. Our waiter pours our drinks and tops up our glasses throughout the evening. One of us has brought sweets to chew, another nuts. Sliced fruit appears from somewhere. If we are really hungry, food can be ordered in. We settle, the songbook is brought, numbers noted and handed to the waiter to give to the DJ. In quarter of an hour or so, the microphone will come.

I am not a fan of karaoke, and I always refuse to sing. But as Kit, who first brought me hear, explains, the singing is incidental; we are here to be with friends, new as well as old. At least half a dozen young men, slender, high-cheekboned and soulful-eyed sit facing us, smiling each time we look in their direction. Each hopes a customer will call him over to sing and talk and perhaps leave with him. Nothing unusual in Bangkok, but unlike Silom both men are Thai, the customer is often little older than his chosen companion and may come from a similar background - the only difference being that he has come further along the road that leads from poverty to comfort.

Why this bar, I asked Kit once, rather than another in the soi. Because here they don't hassle us to pick up a boy, he said. We can relax and enjoy ourselves and choose a boy only when we are in the mood. One day, perhaps, I'll be in the mood, but not before my Thai improves. In the meantime I'm happy to talk to my friends and our attentive hosts.

Or I watch the screen and test myself as to how many words I now recognise beyond the basic vocabulary of I and you, love and want, heart and so on. And when tired of deciphering Thai script I turn my attention to the pictures. Half the time it shows the singer or the band, almost all young, handsome-pretty Thai men. I want to reach out and kiss each one of them, to ruffle my hands through their hair and let my hands slip beneath the fabric of their shirt. And if the band is absent, a drama unfolds, almost always another cute youth pining for a beautiful girl. In the karaoke world, it seems, all young Thais love profusely, deeply, passionately and unrequited.

My glass is refilled. I can't taste the alcohol, but I know I'm getting drunk. This is what I have come 5,000 miles for. A world where I am the only foreigner. Where none of the songs is in English and none of the images portrays a Westerner. (Occasionally, a Chinese ballad creeps in, but that I can forgive.) I know that when I walk out into the street again, I will return to a city where English is the second language and  white faces are as common as coloured ones in London, but for two or three hours, I am far from my roots, immersed in another world - exactly where I want to be.

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