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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
My glass is refilled. I can't taste the alcohol, but I know I'm getting
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.