The sprawling Thai metropolis of Bangkok promises a traveller’s dream of fun, food and even danger. Leaving a late night bar, Will McGuire discovers firsthand the perils of the big city.
Cheering backpackers chug buckets of green alcohol as street vendors sell skewers with barbequed cockroaches. Grinning ladyboys slide down stripper poles. Girls hold up signs promoting ping pong shows. There is plenty of sordid fun to have on Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
But there are also stories of a dark side to the city, where tourists fall victim to robbery, trafficking or get locked up in rat-infested prisons.
So how far does the rabbit hole of debauchery go, before it actually becomes dangerous?
This question plays on my mind as we follow Kevin down an alleyway. The streetlights fade in the distance. As his face shadows, I can’t help wondering how well I know him.
I met Kevin with my girlfriend Jen, for the first time at dinner tonight, set up by a mutual friend. He is a special effects film technician or ‘the one who blows shit up’ as he describes it. He lives here in Bangkok to get in on the Hollywood action that passes through town. I hope by meeting up I might score an acting job.
When he suggested a change of location I didn’t expect shady corners and steaming vents. I just heard ‘private bar for film crews.’
Jen was reluctant to come out with us. She is dreading the company of smelly old men, farting on about boring movies. She wants to spend her nights in Bangkok partying. But my career could take off if tonight goes well, so she had to relent.
I sense a mystery to Kevin. He can make films anywhere. What is it about Bangkok that keeps him coming back?
He stops at an unmarked door and rings the bell. A Thai woman answers. She bows at Kevin and leads the three of us in.
Kevin is the gent. He notifies our presence to several glassy-eyed barflies who disturb their conversation to check us out with a grunt.
I shake hands with Malcolm, a film producer I’m keen to impress.
‘Hi I’m Will, and Jen.’ I take her arm, proud.
‘Willandjen?’ He turns to Jen snorting, ‘and what’s your name?’
Savouring the joke he interrupts the others, ‘his name is Willandjen!’
Flattened, I limp off.
Another barfly grabs my arm. ‘Has Kevin taken you to the dark side yet?’ They share a private laugh that I chuckle along with. I want to ask what they mean.
‘You know the real reason why Kevin lives in Bangkok?’ He lowers his voice and I lean in. What delicious stories does he promise? They break out in laughter again. I’m left grinning helplessly. Is Kevin involved with something sinister? He dismisses the provocation and waves for another vodka.
Kevin leads us up a spiral staircase. ‘I’ll show you something.’
A secret sex club?
He pushes a large door padded with black vinyl and reveals a secret – cinema. There are nine seats in front of the screen. A vintage film projector commands the back of the room.
‘I can play whatever film I want.’ He pats the projector.
I feel silly.
Returning downstairs we order more cocktails. Kevin rattles his glass and complains that the vodkas aren’t working.
Ben Kingsley, the bald-headed actor, walks into the club. I’m shocked to see that all the teeth on one side of his mouth are missing. His T-shirt is so small that it vacuum packs around his hard, knobbly muscles. As he slaps Kevin on the shoulder I see his shirt is glued to his armpit by a sticky, Bangkok-sized sweat patch. Kevin explains that the man is actually Creighton, a martial artist who trains actors in Krav Maga. I make the mistake of asking Creighton to elaborate and so he uses me as his unwitting demonstration assistant.
‘Some people think you need to hit a guy in the face, but me,’ he clenches his fingers into the shape of a tarantula ‘I’d go straight for his eyes.’ He lunges forward and blinds me. ‘Now that you’ve been disarmed I can do whatever I want.’ He twists me over and buries my nose into his gluey armpit.
Jenny clutches herself laughing, finally cheering up.
‘Very impressive’ I gasp, peeling back my face to breathe. Perhaps I could be employed as a stunt victim.
Malcolm draws Jen and I to one side to recount his favourite scriptwriting books.
‘- and so I say to my friend “McKee says no coincidences in Act Two!”’
‘No coincidences in Act Two!’ I cheer, raising my glass.
Jen’s patience is faltering. She’s not interested in films and less a dissemination of Robert McKee’s literary work.
I conclude the conversation by asking Malcolm for his business card. He hesitates, looking me up and down one last time. With a grunt he opens his bag. He shakes and rattles but can’t find any cards. Something tears. I feel guilty and as I tell him not to worry he pulls one out.
I read it aloud. “Malcolm at Firefly Productions”.
Kevin leans over me. ‘More like Butterfly Productions!’
‘What?’ Malcolm snaps.
‘Butterfly Productions!’ Kevin repeats. He buckles over with laughter, and thumps me on the back like I was the one who said it.
Malcolm glares at me.
Kevin waves over Creighton so they can chant ‘Butterfly Productions!’ The two of them dance across the bar, flapping their arms in imitation of the insect and heaving with laughter. Malcolm turns to drink alone; eyes fixed to the bottom of his glass. Having ruined his night, and thereby any chance of becoming a movie star, I’m ready to say goodbye to them all. I wave, hiding my disappointment at not discovering any of their sordid secrets. Do they really know of a dark side? Or are they just a bunch of drunks having us on?
Kevin wishes me luck. He says something about finding our way back but spills over a chair and his words are lost. Jen pulls me out the door.
We jump into the first available taxi. Jen tells the driver to flip on the meter but he brushes her off with a wave of his hand. The ‘no meter’ scam is the oldest trick in the backpacker book.
Jen lays it on him heavy, delighted to finally give someone a good drubbing. As she gives the address of our guesthouse the sudden and violent acceleration of the vehicle slams me into my seat. Our driver swerves recklessly back and forth from one lane to another. Had we pissed him off?
The road clears and so he floors it. I share a nervous glance with Jen and then feel for the seatbelt. There isn’t one. I close my eyes and assume the brace position. Is this driver jacked up on drugs?
Jen nudges my leg urgently. I peek through my fingers. Her eyes are wide as she raises her eyebrows in the direction of the glove box. Has she spotted his used heroin needles? The car lurches, flinging me onto her. I look over at the glove box. No needles. Nothing but his identification tag. Unflattering photo too, really highlights how fat and bald he is. Wait. I look at our driver as we swing violently into another lane. He brushes his long hair off his thin face. My belly seizes with pin and needles.
That isn’t his ID! This isn’t his car!
Is he even a taxi driver? Instead of a company uniform he just has ripped jeans and a dark shirt. We’ve met this city’s dark side. And it’s real. I need time to think.
‘Great night ay, Jen?’ I ask, straining to sound nonchalant. I look to the front and his eyes catch mine through the rear view mirror. He knows that I know!
What does he want to do? Rob? Murder? Steal our kidneys?
I don’t want to be the next cautionary tale that backpackers tell to scare each other. Our names remembered as the couple on a late night FBI documentary, last seen getting into a taxi before being found chopped up in a Bangkok basement. Kevin will get a job on the special effects. The shit will blow in all directions!
The Bangkok Ripper fastens a seatbelt around his waist. Why does he get to have one? Maybe he’s going to crash the car, knowing that he’ll survive, while Jen and I hurtle through the windscreen. Panic claws up my chest.
I know a little Krav Maga. Should I claw out his eyeballs? I assume the tarantula position, my armpits sufficiently gluey for the suffocating final move.
We screech to a halt.
At the far end of Khaosan Road, ten minutes walk from our guesthouse. I clamber for the handle.
‘This isn’t our stop.’ Jen looks unhappy.
‘Ok you walk, no far,’ he tells us.
I hastily hand him the fare.
‘Oh sorry,’ He holds up his hands. ‘No change.’
‘No way,’ Jenny takes a stand. ‘You drive dangerously, don’t take us to where we want to go and now you won’t give us our change! You’re taking the piss!’
‘I’m sorry, I cannot.’
How far will he go if pushed too hard? Will he really try to hurt us?
Jen crosses her arms, immovable.
His lips curl up, relishing the challenge. He reaches into the glove box. If he pulls out a weapon there’ll be no choice but to Krav Maga him to death. We’ll be thrust into the dark side from which there’s no return, living out our days eating rats in prison.
Jen’s defiance is admirable but I grab her arm and forcibly part her with the taxi. He’ll never know how lucky he is.
Jen spills a list of complaints as we push our way up the crowded Khao San Road. But her recital of my failings goes ignored.
Stepping back into the familiar scene of drunken revellers and steaming street food is a sudden comfort. I’ve looked down the rabbit hole of this city, just till it felt dangerous – and that’s plenty enough for me.