Bangkok, Thailand

Reclining Buddha

Head of the great Buddha at Wat Pho

Bangkok, Thailand

One of the big tourist draws of Thailand are the hill tribes of the north, and the guidebooks devote considerable space to describing how to identify the different groups by their dress, adornment and physical features. But sometimes farangs in Bangkok seem to exhibit their own distinctive tribal characteristics and distinctive behaviors.

The Khao San Road sub-tribe are perhaps the most distinctive. The men wear shorts and sandals, topped off by a T-shirt that usually references some other destination in South-East Asia but sometimes simply carries one of the standard Thai tourist slogans – “No money, no honey” or “Same same (but different).” The women hover on the fringes of the hippie look, big-breasted girls in tight white singlets and baggy harem pants. Both sexes wear Ko Samui tans and “Get your hands off my baht” expressions.

Around Nana, where we’re staying, a different tribe is more commonly seen. Its members are almost exclusively male and mostly older than the Banglamphu backpackers. The younger ones favor shaven heads (I shaved my own head one hot sticky May day and immediately looked like everyone else on the street), while the older ones cling to their remaining hair with sometimes painful combovers. About two-thirds of them will have a listless Thai rent-a-girlfriend in attendance, patiently trotting alongside her partner and occasionally pulling him in the direction of particularly-attractive shopping opportunities.

There are also variations on the theme. On Friday night, outside the gas station where a young Frenchman was engaged in a shoving match with a Thai traffic cop, I saw an elderly farang determinedly towing two young girls towards his hotel room with the grim air of a man who intends to go out on a high note, cost what it may. Last night, we passed a man in his early-to-mid sixties (whose clothing, as M. observed, fairly screamed ‘mid-life crisis’) with a tall dark-skinned girl in a tanktop and tight jeans pressed sinuously against him. Completing the threesome was what we took to be the man’s wife, a stout white woman of about his own age, her ruthlessly-curled hair dyed a brassy bottle-blonde. “I really want to know how that group works,” M. said, her anthropological curiosity piqued by the combination.

The group at the supper bar in the supermarket didn’t fall into any of the obvious categories. The three American men were variations on a single model – early fifties, shorts and polo shirts, with a ruddy sun-dried look that suggested outdoor exercise more than outdoor work. Next to them was a large Australian man in a loud shirt, his seamed and florid face topped off by an imposing crest of gray-white curls. Beside him, his dumpy wife hovered eagerly on the edges of the conversation. The two groups were plainly strangers to each other, but they had quickly found a common theme.

“And on the reservations, they can do anything they want. There’s no law,” the closest American – pink polo shirt, olive-green shorts and white socks – was telling the Australian. “They say they’re sovereign nations. Well, I tell you, that’s just horseshit.”

The Australians nodded gravely with the air of people long used to the perfidiousness of indigenous populations.

“They build these huge casinos. And they don’t pay a penny in tax,” continued the American. “I tell you what we should do,” he added grimly. “If they’re a sovereign nation, we should just make war on them. Invade them. Take their damn land and make them obey our laws.”

The Australian man wasn’t going to be outdone.

“In Australia,” he said, “we pay them.” He paused for a moment to let the enormity of it sink in. “Welfare,” he explained. “We pay the Aborigines so that they can lie around and do nothing. They just drink all day. They’re all alcoholics. The wealthy ones, they just say ‘Give us more money’. They’re building houses for themselves. Of course, they’re all half-castes anyway.”

His wife thrust herself into the conversation, eyes sparkling.

“They all just lie around in the parks all day long,” she confided. “And they poo and they pee everywhere. And they throw poo at people.”

The American shook his head and pursed his lips.

“What you need is for us to send you down a bunch of our American skinheads,” he said. “They’d soon sort them out.”

The Australians nodded. Clearly, this was an attractive solution. Then the Australian woman had a better idea.

“We need the Ku Klux Klan,” she hissed. “That’s what you should send us. They’d know how to deal with the blacks.”

With this parting shot, she levered herself off her stool and plopped to the ground, ambling off in the direction of the magazine counter. The conversation shifted to more serious topics.

“Dollar fifty a litre?” said the American incredulously. “Back home I pay a dollar a gallon. How can you guys afford to drive?”

“Well, we don’t drive around in V8s, I can tell you that,” said the Australian. He stood up. “Have to go. Nice to meet you – see you ‘round, mate.”

The American raised his glass in salute, and the other man headed purposefully towards the exit, towering above the Thai shoppers.