August 2003 - As you trudge through the back streets of Banglamphu or along Petchburi Road, it's hard to imagine that there are many striking similarities to everyday life here inside the wall.
The urban jungle you trek through out there spews the very same municipal exhaust of sights, sounds, and smells as our penal jungle at Bangkwang Central Prison. Need a quick plate of fried rice? A fast cup of coffee? How about an icy fruit smoothie? Well, we have all of them on the inside. And mostly for a fraction of the price you pay out there.
Along with the variety of goods that are available here, there are myriad services as well. Have you gotten a traditional Thai massage yet? Need a back alley seamstress to sew up some duds for that next plane ride? Or the help of a street-side electronics tech for some Walkman repairs? Well, FYI, having your Walkman headphones repaired inside will set you back about Bt20. Sewing up a shirt or ageing pair of shorts runs Bt5-10. And a pretty decent two-hour massage is a real bargain at Bt20 – Bt40 if the guy is a true master.
In fact, one thing I share with a lot of visiting travelers, which is only a bit of an exaggeration, is that about the only two things I can't get in here are a helicopter and a genuine female. If you don't happen to be a purist, katoeys (lady-boys) are available for the right price. They're usually flogging their wares at any given time, though the most novel time to see them in action is during the occasional parties thrown in here – generally honouring a national celebration. They can be rather amusing to witness, as they'll be shaking their boy booties while dancing to perhaps the worst, non- disciplined cover band in the entire Kingdom, who'll be weakly rattling off such tired old favourites as “Hotel California,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” and then, invariably, “Hotel California” another two or three times. All the while, the lady-boys, dressed in their skimpy battle gear suitable for engaging in sexual combat on Patpong Road, are bopping in and out of the open-for- the-day cells every five or 10 minutes with their latest ‘John.’ Or do they call 'em ‘Pornchais’ in this country?
Oh, and for those of you whose curiosity is piqued by the topic – some of you must be 'cause I get this question all the time – yes, one can get condoms in here. Which is ultimately counter-productive, as the couple will share one and then go and share a needle that's been floating around the building for the last four or five days. Which abruptly brings us to the subject of drugs. Can they actually be had in a place like this? Affirmative. This is Thailand. Need I say more?
Most Farangs in here have a hard time adjusting to local TV stations, so another popular service in here deals with providing audio-visual wares. If you happen to be a Yank like me, the NFL season is the time to budget for a TV rental. They go from Bt20-100 nightly, depending upon such variables as screen size, stereo sound, and bilingual availability. Of course, as the football doesn't start until around midnight, you have to have something to do until then. So you can watch movies on your rented TV, right? Then this entails going to another guy who'll either rent you a VHS or a DVD player and whatever videos are on hand at the time. You'd be amazed at what's in these guys' collection sometimes. We had a copy of The Phantom Menace less than three weeks after it'd been released in the States, and the porno buffs here can watch eight hours a night, seven days a week, with no reruns.
Nobody ever asks just where all this pirated material comes from. (I mean, do you really care where that Sound Garden CD you'd bought on Khaosan Road came from, or were you simply happy to get it at that price?) We are simply happy that it's available to us here as a temporary form of escape from the daily rigours of existing in our unique little environment.
Actually, after reading this you may be thinking that this can't be such a harsh place to hang out in. All the conveniences of home, right?
Well, just keep in mind that just about every service in here is the product of a corrupt system amid a dirty, unhealthy, enclosed environment from which we can't simply get up and walk away. Of all the modest luxuries one can purchase here there's one thing that's just not for sale: your freedom. It's only for rent. A few brief hours at a time.
Building-2 (Now Released on Transfer Treaty)