Warning: contains anatomically explicit language
Two more firsts for me this year:
1) I went to clubbing at RCA (Royal City Avenue) in Bangkok.
2) I went for a proper visit to Las Vegas. (That is, it was the first time I’d spent more than 24 hours there since a surreal family reunion in 1988, the aftermath of an aborted Christmas wedding.)
In any case, I’ve had enough dosage of nightlife to last me into the unfathomable future.
Bangkok’s nightlife has lost some of its intensity since the mandatory 2 AM closings. A few years back, RCA was the happening strip of nightclubs where people went dancing, now apparently it’s shrunk to fewer establishments. Although for the first weekend of the month, it was packed with young’uns flush with their paychecks.
My Thai cousins who are all in their early twenties, had invited me (the venerable thirty-something elder of our generation) to go hang out with them at a bar off Thonglor one night. It was the first time I’d ever hung out with them outside the context of Sunday family lunches.
“I’m flattered and would love to come,” I told my cousin Jane. “But you guys don’t mind me being the old fogey?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “We were wondering if you’d even be willing to come. But we decided to ask anyway.”
The bar turned out to be closed that night, so we headed off the RCA, and met up with three of Jane’s coworkers, who had gotten to the dance club earlier and snagged us a table. An ice bucket, bottles of soda water and Coke, and the requisite Johnny Walker whiskey were already waiting for us. . .
In the US, when you go clubbing (i.e. dancing in a night club), everyone has to make their way through the three-deep crowd around the bar, catch the bartender’s attention, order your drink, pay and walk off with your drink, and down it so you can leave your empty glass somewhere or somehow hold onto it while you dance.
In Thai clubs, there is full tableside service. Waiters and waitresses make their rounds to check in on all the tables to refill and mix your drinks (permutations of ice, soda water, Coke and Walker), whisk away empty bottles and bring you fresh ones. You never have to lift a finger, except to raise your glass to your lips. If you want a beer or wine cooler, you order it from the waiter who will bring it to you. If you want a cocktail, well, I think there was a full bar. But most people at RCA stick to the standard drinks.
Can’t find an empty table? The waiter will bring a table and some chairs too: exemplary of the service that Thailand is known for. However, this leads to the dancefloor being usurped by clusters of drinking tables, leaving nowhere to dance. Nut and Jane sensibly stayed put at our drinks table. Note and I made our way through the entire club, which was packed like a Tokyo subway train at commute hour, looking in vain for a spot of dancefloor. We’d dance in straightjacket for a minute, and then pause to step aside for other people trying to squeeze through. Repeat ad nauseum.
I thought it was funny that the music and the beat was loud enough for dancing, but everyone was mostly standing around drinking and chatting: how can anyone hear each other?
In Las Vegas, we went to a nightclub called Light in the Bellagio. There was definitely a dance floor to dance on, the music was good, but you had to run a gauntlet of extremely snooty, selective and slow bouncers to get in. They even had little tables by the dancefloor you could reserve . . . for $300. (That might have been the price of a bottle.) But for the most part, people ordered and picked up drinks at the bar themselves.
Since I’m on the subject of nightlife and drinking, I might as well add in one more item: Thai beer babes. In Thailand, at the larger restaurants (even the family restaurants), sometimes there will be attractive waitresses in very skimpy costumes emblazoned with a specific beer company’s logo. They are the beer babes. If you order that brand of beer, the beer babe will bring you the beer. All the other food and drinks you order at that restaurant will be served by the regular waiters and waitresses, who are wearing conventional outfits.
Usually it’s the beers with a very small market share, like Tiger or Asahi. Beers like Chang and Heineken sell enough volume that they don’t need to resort to such strategies.
2) Viva Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas trip was a bachelorette party, and at the instigation of the bride-to-be, we went to the Olympic Gardens strip club. Downstairs, they have topless women dancers performing on little stages, or providing personal lap dances for $20.
Even for a relatively quiet Sunday night, the topless dancers on the stage were putting on very good shows, stretching and contorting in very athletic ways; I wonder if they also do yoga. They really seemed to have a sense of professionalism in showing off their bodies as a performing art form; if they were faking their pride and enthusiasm, I couldn’t tell. It was quite different from the go-go dancers I’ve seen in Patpong. Patpong dancers are also topless, but the similarities end there; they just plod around in listless two-step with all the enthusiasm of a dead goldfish.
On the other hand, in Thailand, there are ‘live’ shows where women pull out paper flowers or even razors, smoke cigarettes, expel ping-pong balls, shoot darts into a balloon, and open bottles of soda pop . . . in the region between the waist and the knee. As it is, these live shows are often held in ‘clip joints’ where the touts tell passers-by that the drinks are only 50 baht and no cover, but once the customer gets in, they are presented with 2,000 baht tabs. Bouncers are prepared to beat up customers who refuse to pay.
One client at the Olympic Gardens was getting a quite a deal out of his lap dance, as his hands had full access to her breasts and her butt. In Thai go-go bars however, you can get more than a lap dance, and enjoy it in the privacy of your hotel room by paying the dancer’s bar fine (also known as “off”) to the bar (to make up for the drinks you would have otherwise bought for her in the bar), as well as fees to the dancer for whatever services you want as her john.
Upstairs at the OG where we were headed for, there are shirtless male dancers who will give women a lap dance for $20. (The gender equality in price is to be commended.) It seems to be more embarrassed titillation rather than hormonal turn-on for the clients, who probably hadn’t downed enough drinks yet!
* * * * * *
I was surprised, even faintly disappointed that Las Vegas was mostly full of respectably middling tourists. For some reason, I’d thought that it would be full of flamboyant characters, a town of chain-smoking gamblers and hard-drinking showgirls. Perhaps they’ve all passed on to the Great Slot Machine in the Sky from lung cancer and cirrhosis.
I’d brought the tamer items in my Burning Man wardrobe to wear: zebra print skirt, blue crinkly netting go-go pants, etc, thinking I should dress the part, to fit in the wild and crazy Las Vegas of my imagination. (Both are in Nevada . . .)
I ended up sticking out like a sore thumb. Everyone else was dressed like they were going to Disneyland. (Although some woman stopped me, wanting to know where she could buy a sequined Virgin de Guadalupe bag like mine. I’d made myself).
Las Vegas is the perfect symbol of the sex-obsessed prude/puritan dichotomy of the American psyche, like a teenager who gets Britney-Spearsesque chest implants, but isn’t provided any reproductive health education in school. The frenetic jumbotrons lit up with strategically-befeathered showgirls. The plethora of nude clubs . . . with no alcohol. The keno runners circulating the casinos in short-short tight outfits . . . and Sunday church pantyhose. Appearances go the distance, but stop at substance.
There is sizzle in the imagery of Las Vegas, seducing tourists with its suggestive come-hither cheek. But it boils down to pot roast. Most visitors are people doing what they comfortably do on family vacations: clutching cameras and pushing strollers, they take in the sights, snack a lot, and shop in malls. Even when they are in Sin City.