Nang Fah Jam Laeng: Angels in Disguise
I walk down Th Sukhumvit, the road running beneath one line
of Bangkokís Skytrain, which for nearly two decades has brought
a small measure of relief to the cityís legendary traffic jams
(hard to believe it was ever worse than this.) The little
streets which branch off from Th Sukhumvit, numbered odd to the
north and even to the south, bend and straighten and sometimes
dead-end into endless imbrications of food stalls and
On both the north and south side streets, the metal carcasses
of half-built skyscrapers tear at the night sky. Begun during
the economic prosperity of the early 1990ís, these structures
were abandoned to eternal interruption when the bubble burst a
few years later. Serving not as towers of worship to financial
giants, but monuments of death for the once-millionaires who
lost everything overnight and hurled their bodies from the
This troubling city, a perfect blend of the spiritual and the
carnal, the entrepreneurial and the traditional. A city of both
long-preserved and fast-shattered dreams.
Perfect for the shot state Iím in.
Walking fast, skimming really,
I pass countless tailors with welcome signs in English and
German, including my favorite, whose name, "Intact," strikes an
ironic chord in this section of the city, full of seasoned and
very broken-wide-open prostitutes. I turn onto Soi 4, where Nana
Plaza, with its three stories of strip bars and assignation
hotels, glitters in the evening heat like a jewel about to be
As soon as I walk into the ground level courtyard, which is
ringed by about fifteen interchangeable clubs featuring nude
go-go dancers, sex shows, and procurement services, I am
accosted by at least a half dozen bar girls. They shower me with
compliments, beckon to me from red-curtained doorways, trail
their hands along my back. If I were a man theyíd be touching
other body parts entirely.
Feeling sick, hot, and dizzy, I stumble onto the stairs,
nearly running smack-dab into two women who quickly try to
entice me into Sapphic bliss in one of the by-the-hour hotels on
Nana Plazaís top floor. I decline by smiling, shaking my head,
and walking away (the last being the only convincing way to
refuse a sales pitch in Bangkok), but nevertheless ascend the
staircase to that same top floor of esoteric delights, simply
because the existence of the hourly hotels reduces the number of
nudie clubs and their hungry-eyed girls, and thus the congestion
"Do you want a drink?" I turn to see a smiling young Thai
woman standing in front of a club called "Hollywood Strip" ("The
Top Girls on the Top Floor!" boasts a sign above its door.) Less
provocatively dressed than most of the other girls Iíve seen,
she is wearing a red tank top that fully covers ample breasts,
and a black skirt that reaches almost to her knees Ė a decidedly
demure length for this place. Her manner, friendly but not
desperate, matches her toned-down outfit. With shoulder-length
un-dyed hair and a round, slightly pudgy face, sheís attractive
but not beautiful. She could easily be one of the many Asian
co-eds who took my classes at UCLA.
Except sheís on the top floor of Nana Plaza, so she isnít,
and at least in this lifetime, will never be.
A thousand women are clawing at my insides. Ten thousand
nails flaying my skin.
I always thought the pain of withdrawal would come from an
overwhelming yearning to put something in my body Ė more, more
of those things I loved so much (ketamine, cocaine, Vicodin, to
name a few favorites Ė my chemical tendencies were, like my
amorous ones, poly-.) But I donít feel like I want to put
something in my body: I feel like I want, I need, to get
Since the knife-nailed women inside me show no mercy, I
decide to give food a try. I duck into one of the few relatively
quiet eateries on Bangkokís raucous, preposterous Khao San Road,
where backpackers have pitched a permanent
shantytown-cum-Burning-Man-style-carnival with the meager
provisions of beer, bootlegged first-run movies, and juggling
implements. Even though I feel nauseated, I sit down and order
Kati Look Bua, coconut ice cream with water lily seeds,
palm nuts, peanuts, and sweet sticky rice. The concoction sounds
plausibly magical enough to countervail some of my drug
While I wait for my dessert, I survey the rest of the
clientele, which consists mostly of bored-looking twenty-somethings
in dirty clothes, probably hailing from Australia, America,
Canada, or Western Europe. These kids come halfway around the
world to prove that nothing is cool enough to move them. Iíve
observed young people like this all over the world, from New
York and Rome to Mexico City and London, but Khao San Road is
host to perhaps the highest density of the disaffected Iíve ever
The women are clambering up my throat, one by one, and
massing in my mouth. If the food doesnít come soon Iíll start
Luckily, the smiling waiter arrives with the exotic
dream-cream just in time for me to shove a big spoonful, both
smooth and nutty, between my lips.
Distractions to the senses save me from my body.
From a second-floor balcony table, I watch the pudgy-faced
girl gyrate with about two-dozen other dancers, every single one
of them naked but for knee-high cowboy boots. The stage is as
thronged with female flesh as a thirteen-year-old boyís wet
dream. On masse like that, and by turns plucky and perfunctory,
the girls look more like a particularly populated page of Our
Bodies, Ourselves than like savage seductresses ushering in
exotic carnal ecstasies. Theyíre an anatomical survey rather
than a mouth-watering menu for the erotic gourmand.
Even the cowboy boots are not so much cheeky accoutrement as
practical necessity: the girls must have one piece of clothing
from which to hang the numbered tags that their prospective
buyers use to identify and request them.
Since Iím not sure Iíd be able to live with myself if I had
to call her over by a number, Iím relieved when my new friend
comes up to me of her own accord during the next break.
"Iím Jenny," she greets me, not having told me her name out
front. "You have pretty pretty hair." Accented but wholly
She tells me that she is from Isaan, the poorest province in
Thailand, and, not coincidentally, the primary staffer of
Bangkokís strip-and-sex clubs. For eight months now she has been
working in Hollywood Strip, in order to support her large family
back home. Through her movements and eyes she exudes a mixture
of intelligence and bewilderment that is sadly moving, as if she
thoroughly understands her circumstances but canít quite believe
Without the slightest hint of schadenfreude, Jenny asks about
my life in America, and how I could have possibly come to be
wandering the garish byways of Nana Plaza alone.
I want to tell her my history: how I worked as a stripper
too, to support myself in college, and then in the early years
of graduate school. But my trials seem paltry compared to hers,
and my recent struggles with drugs and marriage trite and
selfish. Instead, as we study each other closely, I ask her how
she feels about her work.
"I am -- ashamed." She tries to force a smile while in the
background the "Happy Birthday" song, as rendered by a vocal
dead ringer for Daffy Duck, accompanies the girl on stage who is
blowing out candles on a cake with her cunt.
"No, you shouldnít be ashamed," I protest, futilely, over the
Disneyfied music and the thought of pudenda-sent gusts of wind.
"Youíre saving your family. You are a saint."
Her forehead flexes in defiance Ė whether at her life or my
attempt to consecrate it, I donít know. As she returns the
conversation to talk of my travels -- trying, like a good
hostess, to cheer me up Ė I reach for my purse and its
emergency stash of pills.
Iím still hot from the day as I watch the sun set over Wat
Arun, the temple of dawn, from my shaded vantage point across
the Chao Phraya River. Supported by brick underneath, the
templeís exterior is a mosaic of chipped, broken Chinese
porcelain in various sun-softened colors. Dumped by Chinese
ships that docked in Bangkok in the early nineteenth-century,
when they used tons of old porcelain as ballast, these cheap
decorations are somehow more beautiful than a gilding of gold,
and while the lambent light plays on their shards, as arresting
as the exaggerated femininity that swings from the meretricious
hips of the cityís many transgendering "lady-boys" (one of whom
I caught studying my gestures and movements, as if his very
her-ness depended on it, at a Starbucks earlier in the day.)
Adrift in this sinking city, I am a broken boat piled high
with goods that only the most sun-stricken tourist would want.
Ophelia being sold at the honky-tonk floating market, hair by
Midnight on Silom Soi 4, a stolen gemstoneís throw from the
sex district of Patpong. Soi 4 flaunts its own brand of
sexuality, more homo- than hetero-. While in notorious Patpong
the sensuality seems antibiotic-pinched and poverty-forced
rather than festively depraved, on Soi 4 the participants -- a
cheerful mixture of Thai kathoey (transsexuals),
laid-back tourists, and hip natives -- seem to genuinely enjoy
Silom Soi 4 is a dead-end passage, too narrow to really be
considered a street, too big for an alley. This intermediate
size only intensifies its sideshow atmosphere: because itís so
compact, the sheer number of neon lights and people is dazzling.
The proprietors and staff of over a dozen bars and clubs vie for
customers, tossing enthusiastic invitations and extravagant
compliments to the passersby.
Several kathoey praise my outfit, a dress of black
chiffon that drops from an ornate neck-plate of braided cords
and metal balls. Even while they are greeting me, their eyes
scan my body more carefully than any straight manís, for these
lady-boys have something more urgent than sex at stake. They
have their dreams of a different body, a different life,
hollering within their skin like starving babies. And if killing
me would allow them inhabit my body, or that of another
attractive woman, I think many of these men would do just that.
I find their honesty with themselves refreshing. The Thai
slang for transsexuals I like best is nang fah jam laeng,
meaning "angels in disguise."
Tapas is one of the bars on Silom Soi 4, across the street
from an open-air, kathoey-frequented tattoo parlor. I
take a seat outside and drink my Long Island Iced Tea while I
admire the Olympic ambition of the transsexuals scripting their
bodies with ink. They will do anything, absolutely anything, to
redesign what nature wrongfully ordained, paying for surgery
with blowjobs on elderly farang (foreign) men. These
lady-boys spit in the face of God -- not because they donít love
him, perhaps, but because they love him enough to correct his
Their dedication inspires me. Their reason for taking drugs
is similar to mine: to pass from nightmare to dream, the better
the flesh to breathe and fall. If they can survive the errors of
heaven, surely I can live through another day. And then another.
But on my third Long Island Ice Tea (my self-styled detox
program doesnít exclude alcohol, because Iíve never liked the
stuff enough to worry it could enslave me), I am approached by a
dark-haired man in his twenties. Haggard face, skinny eyes. He
turns out to be British, and after a bit of careful
conversation, he offers to sell me drugs Ė more pills, ketamine,
We go into Tapasí bathroom and I buy some ketamine. For
Jenny, I tell myself. She needs relief.
Itís been two weeks since I arrived, an exile from the state
of dependence, banking on the hallucination that is Bangkok to
take the place of my chemical beloveds. I donít think I should
still feel this pain (not this much, poisoned darts pinning my
heart to the chest wall, to bleed and shriek, captive.) I should
be able to lose myself in this city, descend into its dirt and
heat, and come out clean. Sensory inundation of the utmost urban
kind must save me.
The late April sky is stained white with heat and pierced by
skyscrapers, in the shadows of which near-ruined wats and
weeping hovels fall away like a fairy cakeís crumbs.
I cross paths with an orchid market and bury my face in
purple dendrobium petals. I duck into the nearest temple and
pray, pray, pray.
Theyíre all still there on stage, shaking their bodies
mechanically, like sleek-framed dogs drying themselves after a
bath. Petite slim unlucky-struck matchsticks, warm skin and dead
Jenny comes over to me during her break, and I take her hand
"These other girls" Ė she motions toward four of her
co-workers, who are simulating lesbian sex on stage Ė "they
think they meet a rich man here. But I know it wonít happen."
Her smile is unchanging as I place ten Vicodin tablets in her
palm and close her compliant fingers over them, and then when I
stare hard at my drink.
One of the worldís best hotels, the Oriental Bangkok is
renowned for its high standards of service. Iíve heard that
after youíve stayed here just once, the staff will remember on
your next visit what you like for breakfast, which flowers you
prefer in your room, and the exact pitch of smile and bow that
make you happy. I admire that kind of discipline and restraint,
having so little myself.
After crossing the Orientalís faultless lobby and descending
a plush staircase whose walls are lined with
one-hundred-year-old photographs of the royal family, I reach
the Authorís Lounge. There I am promptly and lavishly seated in
a high-backed wicker chair that could have doubled as a throne
in any British colony -- which, despite this setting, Thailand
never was. Thailand was never anyoneís colony, which makes the
Authorís Loungeís nostalgic atmosphere of quasi-imperialism more
than a little disconcerting. I guess it just goes to show that
Iím not the only masochist here: the fond remembrance of
colonialism, particularly when it never occurred, seems to me
one big rape fantasy.
Light wafts down from the all-glass ceiling, its fall
delicately broken by silk canopies. I admire the flower
arrangements in this idyllic conservatory until an assortment of
tea sandwiches, each the size of a locket, and a ballet of tiny
pastries are brought to me on a four-tiered silver server. And
finally, the tea, its china cup and spoon chosen to match the
tablecloths that stir lightly beneath the whispering fans.
Yes, please. More more more, until my lips are as wet as my
eyes, my heart, and the sudden place between my legs.
Here my body is both familiar and foreign. For the first time
in several years, I donít have the constant opportunity to
sacrifice it Ė to drugs, risky sex games, endless stabs of
guilt. I donít have this opportunity because part of my body is
not mine, and thus I must respect it. Part of it resides in and
honors the wild unknown corners of this brimming city.
They say that time heals all wounds, but canít place do the
same? And if not place, what about a dark-eyed go-go dancer
tricked out with kindness, resignation, and cowboy boots?
Better to keep my hope in place than in a person. For I am
not a deluded male farang, suspending disbelief to
convince myself that I can find salvation in the arms and heart
of one of these unfortunate girls. At least, I should be too
sober by now to be chasing after Madame Butterfly, maiden or
But foreign landscapes have a funny way of morphing,
condensing, collapsing, into the shape of a woman.
On May 2nd, my birthday, I visit Jenny at
Hollywood Strip. With a drink she bribes the DJ to play the
"Happy Birthday" song for me (without the accompanying
exhibition of genital skill.) "You must go back to America, have
many babies," Jenny toasts me. "You still young." She looks far
happier for me, for the banality that is my birth rite, than I
have ever been for myself.
I hand her a tiny packet of white powder and she smiles
serenely, forgivingly, like a tank-topped Buddha.
Heavy rain, and thus a respite from the never-ending hawkers
and their sidewalk stalls which normally flood the streets,
purveying flower necklaces, skewered meat, Pad Thai, preserved
and mounted spiders, pirated DVDs, cheap silk, cheaper lingerie,
ornaments made of bamboo, rosettes sculpted out of soap, lacquer
boxes, sarongs, spurious jade, t-shirts, animals and deities
carved from wood, pornographic magazines, fried scorpions,
fruit, fresh juices, electronic goods, little statues of couples
fucking and women masturbating, puppies, sandals, jewelry of
questionable origin and authenticity, skimpy dresses, amulets,
watches, poorly-made qiapos, sunglasses, wall-hangings,
handbags, candles, designer knock-offs, snakeís blood, and
Making the walkways even more impassable are the beggars
(many of whom are themselves immobile, amputees dumped on the
ground, plastic collection cups askew beside them) and
especially the omnipresent touts, offering tuk-tuk rides as well
as their surely invaluable guidance to discount gem shops,
custom tailors, massage parlors, and more explicit adult
entertainments (though they do not advertise these last two
services to me, a woman, but only to the farang men who,
heavy with sweat and on the gimlet-eyed look-out for underage
Thai girls, pant down the poorly paved, crowded streets, seeking
to redeem the lonely Saturday nights of their adolescence.) The
sidewalk salesmen and touts communicate among themselves by
gesticulating wildly and silently, as if they are all deaf-mutes
-- yet I know, because Iím often accosted by them in cloying
voices to take a look at their sorry wares, that they are not.
But theyíve all just pulled up shop to escape the rains. With
the streets suddenly easy to navigate, and concentration on
movement less necessary than usual, the floodgates of my memory
open as well. And I think back to all that happened, there.
At home. My extramarital affairs, my inadvertent cruelty, my
search for security and then my rejection of it. My loss of it.
By contrast, Bangkok is pristine. It was never touched by my
ugly betrayals, by grief or failure. So that even with all of
the cityís pollution and congestion, con jobs and harassment, I
am somewhat at peace.
One of the hawkers, slow to close up the stand from which he
sells lighters in the shape of naked women, gestures toward me,
and then the sky, and I realize Iím standing in the downpour.
"You still here?" He asks, teasing out a meaningful question
from the innocence of foreign words.
"Yes," I smile. "Still here. For now." I buy a nudie lighter,
thinking I can give it to Jenny, who will hope, because she
knows not a little about danger, that the gift is meant to say
The rain slows.
Cynthia Gralla is the author of the novel The