The sleepy provincial Thai town that I called home for the past 10 weeks offered little in the way of Western food or entertainment. Though a pleasant respite for someone tired of bowling alleys, strip malls, and 30-cent wing nights, I had a hankering deep inside. As they say, you can take the boy out of America but you can't take the American out of the boy and I was seriously craving some Western eats.
The woman asleep on my shoulder was achingly pretty and purring into the floral design of my shirt. The problem was I couldn't be certain that "she" was a woman. In Thailand transvestites (known as katoeys) are enormously talented and even expat veterans such as the legendary Bernard Trink of the Bangkok Post don't always get it right. Had I an opportunity to watch her walk, I'd have had better odds -- keenly looking out for the exaggerated wiggle that often gives them away. Unable to do so, I was reduced to assessing the scale of her appendages and surveying the prominence of her Adam's apple -- two reasonable indicators, though certainly not sure fire. My examination proved inconclusive, and so, knowing hormone treatments and wonder-bras repelled that type of scrutiny, I settled into my seat and softly serenaded her with Simon and Garfunkel's paean to travel: Kathy, I'm lost I said, though I knew she was sleeping ... we've all come to look for Americaaa.
I'd been living in Chachoengsao, a sleepy provincial capital in Thailand, for about ten weeks when the holidays rolled around and I resolved to take my first sojourn into "Krungthep" aka Bangkok. Located on the gulf-fed Bang Pakong river, Chachoengsao was off the beaten tourist track and thus offered little in the way of Western food or entertainment -- a pleasant respite for someone tired of bowling alleys, strip malls, and 30-cent wing nights; but not an everlasting one. As they say, you can take the boy out of America but you can't take the American out of the boy (or something to that effect) and I was seriously craving some Western eats -- that high octane cholestoral/carb diet which has pummeled a quarter of the US population against the ring-ropes of obesity. Oh yes, I had a hankering deep inside.
My waistline could certainly absorb the blow. I had lost 15 pounds since my arrival to Thailand -- a rapid loss I attributed to the elimination of pasta and white bread from my diet, contradicting my Siamese barber who insisted that it was the snake-oil pick-me-up he gave me every morning after my ten bhat (25 cent) shave. After completing a bit of internet research, I settled on Bangkok's Washington Square as the area to satiate myself on American manna, and booked a room at the popular Bourbon Street Restaurant and Guest House. At $18 a night, the accommodations were well within my range as a salaried English lecturer. The establishment was also American-owned and in the same location for nearly 15 years -- a formidable accomplishment in Bangkok, where restaurants open and close on a weekly basis.
The trip from Chachoengsao to Bangkok was roughly 90 minutes. Those minutes ended abruptly when our driver swung the air-conditioned bus into the Ekkamai terminal and slammed on the brakes, thus sending my groggy friend head-first into the seat in front of her. Groaning, she grabbed her head and turned toward me, searching for an explanation. I just shrugged. Trying to explain the behavior of Thai bus-drivers is a fruitless endeavor. Most are jacked up on amphetamines. And our driver also seemed to have a case of underdeveloped sinuses, driving the entire distance with a eucalyptus inhaler shoved up his nose.
The eyes of my traveling companion burned fiercely and I immediately divined the answer to my earlier question. She was a katoey; and now an angry one at that. He/she leapt from our second row seats and fell viciously upon the driver. The old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned pales when viewed through the prism of a ticked off katoey. Though masters of the effeminate, katoeys are brutal in their fury. Watching the pretty transvestite repeatedly bitch slap the driver, I immediately was reminded of Parinya Charoenphol, the famous katoey kick-boxer who entered the ring in full make-up and kissed his opponents before knocking the crap out of them. The popular fighter finally made enough money from kick-boxing to receive a sex change operation, to the delight of the Thai public.
I quickly escaped the fray and exited bus 56 with my overnight bag. My watch read 12:30. Just in time for lunch and check-in at Bourbon Street. Corrupt taxi drivers descended on me like flies, insisting that their taxi-meters were broken and quoting insidious prices for the ten-minute drive down Sukhumvit road to soi 22, the small lane where Washington Square was located. Tired of haggling and lacking the patience to find a proper taxi, I settled on an 85 bhat fare. Expensive by Thai standards, but as a Westerner, one finds it difficult to complain with a $1.90 taxi ride.
Bangkok, with a population of eight million, arguably has the worst traffic of any city in the world, and also the worst drivers. But during the long New Year's holiday many of the city's residents take their frenetic driving habits north toward Chang Mai; or south, to the beaches of Pattaya and Pukhet. Thus the city streets take on a modicum of civility. It perhaps is the best time of year to visit the City of Angels. The taxi-driver made quick work through the lightly traveled streets and dumped me safely on Bourbon Street's doorstep.
The smell of food emanated from the restaurant and I quickly checked into the guest-house upstairs. The accommodations were well kept, including a spacious room, queen sized bed, and mini-bar. Luxurious at $18. I made a beeline for the restaurant. Every American living in Asia misses different items, especially when it comes to food. Surveying the extensive Bourbon Street menu, some weary expats would go no further than the T-bone; others would salivate uncontrollably at the sight of baby-back ribs; those who grew up on the Louisiana bayou would vacillate over the blackened redfish or crabcakes; my eyes stopped at much simpler fare: the club sandwich. For the food I miss more than anything else while living abroad is a properly made, well-endowed sandwich. The Bourbon Street Club couldn't match, of course, a Jewish deli Reuben, but the Cajun-seasoned breast of chicken, meaty bacon, and ripe tomatoes, sandwiched between two lightly mayoed slices of freshly made bread was easily up to the challenge of matching my craving.
Feeling that special warmth one gets only after having indulged in a food of which one has been deprived, and heightened by several gin and tonics, I soaked in the atmosphere of Bourbon Street. The warm interior was filled with New Orleans memorabilia and posters of animated crabs and saxophone playing crawfish. The servers were refreshingly professional and friendly -- a unique combination in this part of the world. And I could see that it was this comfortable, homey, atmosphere (along with the cuisine) that made the place such a favorite among Western locals. I could have pleasurably imbibed there until midnight, sampling the menu, listening to jazz, and ringing in the New Year. And indeed I entertained the idea. My philosophy when living in foreign lands has always been to find one restaurant/bar to make as a second home. Bourbon Street seemed to fit the bill nicely. But I reminded myself that I was on a fact-finding excursion; my gastronomical tour was only in its infancy. I had to fight my well-developed indolent tendencies and soldier on.
Paying my bill, I exited the restaurant and entered the squalid heat of the afternoon. In Thailand there are three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest, punctuated by heavy rainfall from May through October. New Year's occurs at the heart of the hot season, ironically referred to by the locals as the "cool" season. Sauntering east down the square, I faced the irony head on and was soon sweating profusely. Not seeing much of interest except for a Korean massage parlor, I turned left and immediately found three bars side by side: The Cat's Meow, Wild Country Bar, and Texas Lone Staar Saloon. They emerged like a scene from a Texas border-town. Several young, scantily clad, ladies stood in front of the Cat's Meow and beckoned the "handsome" newcomer to join them for a drink in their cantina. I smiled and approached the senoritas with a jaunt in my step, but never one to be coerced into anything, I slipped into the Wild Country Bar instead. The name appeared to be a misnomer. At 2:30 in the afternoon on New Year's Eve, this small, dimly lit, bar on Washington Square was anything but wild. I quickly scanned the room and took note of a ragged behemoth sleeping in a corner booth, his massive arms around two Thai girls --also napping and using his immense belly as a pillow. Bangkok is a popular destination for American oil workers stationed in the Middle East and Northern Russia, and I guessed this was but one example. Three petite bartenders were positioned behind the bar, entertaining a lone, gray-haired customer, while Johnny Cash "walked the line" on the jukebox. Seeing me enter, the three service girls chirped in unison, "Happy New Year, handsome man!" I returned the greeting and pulled up a barstool next to the old reveler.
"Buy ya a drink?" the man asked.
"Sure. Why not?" I said, somewhat startled at the gauntness of the old man's face, weathered by years of obvious alcohol misuse. "Gin and tonic, karunaa." I gazed up at the television above the bar. It was set to the Fashion Channel, a favorite station among Thai and Western males for the simple fact that it was the only cable station that could get away with nudity, camouflaging itself in the banner of "art." Other than showcasing women in various stages of undress, the channel also featured clips from such cinematic gems as Jane Fonda's Barbarella. Its claim to art was somewhat dubious.
"They're taking this away from us, too," the old man lamented, looking up at the TV screen.
I took a sip of my drink, nodding at the old man's comment. It was easy to figure out what he was referring to. For the past several months, Thai authorities had been on a social order crusade, cracking down on Thailand's $20 billion sex and nightlife industry, especially in the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya. Raids at go-go bars and dance clubs were becoming a frequent occurrence and rumor was spreading that the Interior Minister had begun monitoring rogue journalist Bernard Trink's "Night Owl" column for leads on what venues to shut down and/or fine next. As the New Year approached, the Fashion Channel also had appeared under assault and frantically been encouraging an email campaign to rally support. Old Western expats were grumbling, ironically enough that, thanks to the minister's crusade, Thailand was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket. And that if the Thai government thought they could continue to attract over six million tourists every year simply with pretty temples and kitschy gold Buddhas, they were blindly misreading the data and were destined to plunge the country further into recession.
"My name's John," the gentleman added, extending his hand. "Where are you from?"
"Pennsylvania," I said. "Near Philadelphia, but I live here in Chachoengsao. I just came into Bangkok today for some food."
John chuckled sarcastically, obviously thinking that I was employing the word "food" as some sort of ruttish euphemism.
"No, seriously," I said earnestly. "I can't get American food in Chachoengsao. Don't get me wrong, I love Thai food. But, you know, a man's got needs."
John laughed again, but in a childish way that seemed to take years off his face. "You need to go next door then, son. The Lone Staar has the best Philly Cheesesteaks in Bangkok."
"Cheesesteaks!" I shrieked, my voice breaking girlishly. I coughed and settled down. "You've got to be kidding?"
"No, sir. But you might have to fight your way through a crowd. Today is the owner's 80th birthday, and they're serving a free dinner of country ham, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes. It's bound to draw a lot of people."
"The owner's American?" I asked.
"Yeah, his name's George. The guy's a living legend around here. Been in the bar business since the late 1960s. One of the old Vietnam entrepreneurs."
My mind was fixated on eating. "Yeah, but is he from the Northeast? I mean does he know how to make a real cheesesteak, with shaved beef, fried onions, and all that? It's not that thin breakfast steak Southerners plop on a piece of toast and try to pass off as a sandwich, is it?"
"Well, it's no South Philly Pat's cheesesteak, but it's close enough." He gestured toward the sleeping giant in the corner. Big Jerry lives on them every time he's here on sabbatical.
"Oil worker?" I asked.
"Yeah, up in Western Siberia, doing some kind of exploration. He's got only one week in town before he heads back to that godforsaken tundra."
"It seems like he's making the best of it," I said, quickly finishing my gin and tonic, visions of cheesesteaks dancing in my head. "Thanks for the drink."
"My pleasure. I'd go over with you but I hate crowds. Tell George I said happy birthday. He must have made a deal with the devil to still be in such good shape."
The barmaids had taken to reading comic books during my conversation with John, but on seeing me get up to leave, they made a sudden effort to retain me.
"Oh, you leave so soon! Pai Nai. Pai Nai. Where you go, handsome man?" cried two of them, while their partner did an end run around the side of the bar. Having observed such tackles before, I dashed toward the door the exit and made a clean break. The scantily clad girls were still outside the Cat's Meow and I stopped in my tracks as one flashed me her wares. I went momentarily blind and stood dumbfounded. But it was just my eyes readjusting to the bright light of the afternoon. Quickly regaining my senses, I thanked the exhibitionist with a suay mak (very beautiful) assessment of her goods, turned, and walked away. I'd reserved that kind of entertainment for another trip
Adjacent to the entrance of the Lone Staar was a large tinted window that read: Food, Wimmen, Likker. The words reminded me of the Dutch tavern signs back in rural Pennsylvania and welcomed me inside. John was right. The saloon was busy, full of 50-something customers taking advantage of the free meal. I noticed an open stool in the middle of the massive square bar and quickly claimed it.
The barroom had the cowboy theme in spades, complete with Texas Aggie flag, Cape Buffalo head, dart boards, and ribald bar signs such as: "Harlots are ladies who do well for money what other people do badly for love," and (in homage to their elder patrons) "I'm not a dirty old man, just a sexy senior citizen!" Owner George, the man of the hour, was seated facing out from a wooden booth not far from where I was sitting. Though 80, a military bearing could still be seen in the large gentleman, albeit somewhat tempered by his short ponytail and the Thai courtesans he had seated on each knee. The secrets of staying young.
The barmaid, finally acknowledging me, shot me a strange look when I asked for a menu. Nobody passes up a free dinner in Bangkok, to the extent that many dives offer complimentary meals to their patrons as long as they stay and continue to drink -- which they inevitably do. Had I not heard about their other offering, I certainly wouldn't have passed it up either. But there she was on page two of the menu: Philadelphia Cheesesteak with grilled onions, 125 bhat. I quickly ordered the sandwich, and a concomitant beer to wash it down, trembling with anticipation.
As the clock edged toward midnight and the year 2002, I found myself still seated at the Lone Staar Saloon. Unable to pursue the fight with my indolent tendencies, I had settled into a second cheesesteak, a few pieces of deep fried chicken, intermittent hot dogs lathered in chili sauce, and the better part of a bottle of Tanqueray. The night manager, a friendly gentleman named Richard, displaced the maudlin country tunes with the easy-rock of the '70s, keeping a steady flow of Seals and Croft, Leo Sayer, and England Dan & John Ford Coley on the sound system. Fitting accompaniment for comfort food.
A continuous trickle of Aussies, Brits, and Americans had meandered in and out of the saloon during my lazy tenure, frequently urging me to accompany them to other popular Washington Square taprooms, like the Silver Dollar, Dubliner's, Prince of Wales, and the Happy Pub. Or to experience the raucous transvestite show called the Mambo Cabaret. But I held my ground. I'd left Chachoengsao looking for America and found it. As midnight struck I leaned over the bar and rang the big bronze bell for a free round of drinks. In another ten weeks maybe my waistline would be ready for another round, too.