‘Any Thai man who is not married is gay,’ said a Thai woman to me. ‘You could say that about many places,’ I observed. ‘Yes, but 80 per cent of Thai men are also effeminate,’ said a second Thai woman in the room. We were waiting to see a top politician. There were no local men present. I’ve never heard people complain like this about their males, except perhaps in Britain. These were Thais, not British women. I was delighted. I felt a wave of empowerment. I am no Greek god. But nor am I a ladyboy.
Out on the streets of Bangkok, though, the pressure is pretty intense. I am glad we clearly stood out as journalists, rather than sex tourists. I mean, Matt the producer held a big camera and I was rigged up with a microphone. This kit separated us from the hordes of Western men my age stalking around with much younger Thai women. Except, that is, when we had arranged a secret rendezvous with a source in a hotel room that we rented by the hour, and went up to prepare with an earnest local female journalist. ‘Yes, you have nice time,’ nodded the receptionists with knowing smiles. All three of us were blushing deeply. We knew we were conducting an interview about human rights for British television, but everybody else thought we were making a cheap pornographic film.
In restaurants, I was fascinated by these Western–Thai couples: Brobdingnagian giants shovelling protein into their mouths next to child-bodied escorts eating like birds. Many were hookers and punters. Some looked like legitimate relationships. Most of them looked quite happy. They were chatting away. They looked more comfortable with each other than most couples you see in London. It was like a Michel Houellebecq novel come true. I had to consider this: is it only because these Westerners have a little money that they get to be with all these very attractive, very young females? Could it be that these women volunteer to be with Westerners precisely because beer-swilling, balding, paunchy, boring, smelly white men like me are eligible since they are considered straight and manly?
I do not know. But there’s something going on that is explained not just by economics. I did not see any non-Thai women with Thai men. Not one. Back home in East Africa, it cuts both ways. I would even say that these days there are more white Western women with black African men than vice versa. I will not speculate on why that may be, just as I had avoided delving deeper into the issue while chatting to those two Thai women in the politician’s waiting room.
Sex is hard to get away from in central Bangkok. I am almost ashamed to say that I had none myself. Close to the hotel, randomly chosen because it was in a central neighbourhood, were signs advertising various freak shows: DANCE WITH PING PONG. DANCE WITH FISH. The other guests in our hotel were going at it all day and all night: Australians, Frenchmen and packs of Gulf Arabs. One taxi driver asked, ‘Where you go boom boom?’ I said, ‘Tonight, no boom boom. Seafood restaurant.’ ‘No boom boom?’ There was silence in the car as we lurched through the Bangkok traffic jam. The cabbie stared at me in the mirror and then asked plaintively, ‘Why not?’
In the Foreign Correspondents’ Club bar, I looked around at all the old hacks. They’ve got a nice restaurant here, a place for debates and films, a press centre, even a magazine. There are veterans who have been around since Vietnam and Cambodia. On the wall there’s a photo of the war cameraman Neil Davis, killed in a 1985 Bangkok coup d’état, whose motto was ‘One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name…’ There’s a whiff here of Jon Swain’s wonderful Indochina war memoir, River of Time. And I felt jealous in a funny kind of way.
A Zimbabwean woman journalist friend who has settled in Thailand explained things to me. ‘In East Africa correspondents earn their spurs and move on — or they get killed. Here, the hacks never move away. Most of them are men, and most tend to meet Thai women and settle down here for good.’ That is all very well but, sex aside, after three weeks of polite, pretty, petite people, who talk quietly and do not invade each other’s space, I was delighted to reach the airport. Waiting for the flight was a gang of Congolese women with big bottoms and opera-singer busts, pushing, shouting and flirting with a seven-foot Nigerian on his way home from Guangzhou. And I felt happy that my place was still Africa.