I was in the Thermae the other day. A woman in her sixties or more came up to me and called me by my name and talked about how long it was since she saw me. I bought her a drink and tried to remember her. I was really just visiting for old time’s sake. When I left I slipped her a couple of hundred baht just and walking up the steps to a bustling Sukhumvit I felt this strange sense of nostalgia. I started thinking about the old Thermae. I started thinking about how, when I first arrived in Bangkok, it felt like settling comfortably at the bottom of the world.
But memory is a strange thing. It fills in some details but leaves others out. Everyone remembers the Doric columns out front with the official (closed at night) entrance always blocked by vendors of one sort or another. There was a little patch of Sukhumvit always where there always seemed to be a throng of people drinking and smoking and sharing conversations across well into the middle of the night. Then there was the inlet road that led to the Thermae car park. There always seemed to be some slippery crap down here that stank of old garbage bins. The car park itself was rarely if ever full of cars but usually there’d be some crowd out there. A girl puking while consoled by half a dozen of her closest friends or a fight that nobody knew the cause of or someone sneaking a quick one in behind the odd car that was actually there.
Searching my memory, however, small things started to bug me. Did the Thermae usually have a girl sitting by the toilet entrance selling soap, toiletries and sheets of bog roll or is she transposed there from some other memory of some other place? Were the kitchens which prepared the delicious Thermae sandwiches right next the the stinking toilet which was occasionally the site of the odd wrist-slashing shower of blood or was that my imagination? And once you’d passed the toilet and the kitchen and the first wave of women hanging around there were the half dozen steps down into the pit before or after a corner was turned? I seem to remember it both ways.
I don’t suppose these details are all that important to anyone but the most rabid aficionado of Bangkok’s great farang hub of yore. They aren’t, maybe, the kind of details that you’d mention in a story but I could help thinking of the opening of Last Year in Marienbad and the way Robbe Grillet describes every ornate detail of the huge stately home in which the action takes place (or doesn’t take place as this film is all about the vagueness of memory too) and I wished I could describe the Thermae with the same kind of neo-religious significance because in some ways I feel I was reborn in that place.
I could remember a sea of impressions from the first time I walked inside. The toilet at the entrance and the steps down into a darker corridor which was lined with strangely old and over-made up women whose hands grabbed at me as if trying to tempt some amorous encounter but, more likely, to test my pockets for an easily snatched wallet. Just entering the Thermae was, in this sense, like some right of passage. My first impressions, no matter what my feelings are now, were of disgust. I may have been able to justify and romanticise Bangkok’s red lights up to this point but here was the truth. Here were the freelancers, those who had decided not to work the bars or those who’d finished working for the evening or those who were too old or who had some flaw which made the bar owners reluctant to hire them. Here was a buyers market beyond all buyers markets. Here were the hagglers. This is where, even in the early nineties, women would go with a man for three hundred baht and feel that this was an okay night. This was the joint that separated the men from the pervs who no longer gave a shit what the world thought of them.
But once the culture shock passed I fell in love with the place. No night went by without some kind of drama erupting. No night went by without at least one great conversation about whores, politics, the universe and classically obscure French art films that we’d probably all watched as children because there was a chance of seeing naked women in them.
Walking into the main coffee shop/bar there was a bar by which there was a juke box and a tiled floor for those hapless souls who wanted to dance. I found traversing the chequered tiled floor with drinks in the hope of scouting out a place to sit difficult enough without the drunken thrashing of elbows and knees that drunk middle aged farang think of as dancing. In time I realised the best way to handle the Thermae was to find a place to sit and either wait for the staff or send someone else to get the drinks. I’m both too lazy and too cowardly to want to get into a fight over spilt beer.
I also realised that using the infamous Thermae toilets was such an unpleasant experience that it was wiser to walk along to the Ambassadors Hotel and use theirs enjoying the peculiar contrast between the shrieking insane filth of the Thermae to the dignified comfort of one of Bangkok’s finest khazis.
At some point did the Thermae have a large screen television or am I transposing the television from the Malaysia Hotel coffee shop? Similarly I can’t really remember what kind of lights it had. Part of me seems to remember strip lights but I think these were the lights that came on in the morning when the owners wanted the last remaining drunks to leave the building.
I was temporarily out the country when the final drunks were finally ejected from the Thermae and the place was reduced to rubble. I had a friend called Johnny who said he was the last farang out. Considering I was the one who introduced him to the joint in the first place I really hoped this was true but I’m sure there are dozens of guys who make the same claim.
Sadly I fall into the category of men who believe the new place just isn’t the same but, aside from the snaking bar down the middle and being able to walk in through the front entrance, they really worked at making it look and feel as similar to the old place as possible. I don’t think they could ever manage to replicate the sleazy charm and history of the old place. I’ve found a couple of secret places that can match certain elements of the old Thermae but I never feel too cosy in them. It’s pure nostalgia. The women I met in the old Thermae are mostly long gone. Some are dead. Some are living nice boring lives in Europe. Some went back to their towns and villages. Some opened up small businesses in Bangkok selling som tam or cutting hair. Only a few familiar faces remain from my first times in the old place and most of these are women who were already old when I first set foot there back in 1991.
Apparently Christopher Moore had an edition of his book “A Killing Smile” bound in naugahyde from those old Thermae sofas. Part of me appreciates the poetic novelty of this while another part of me can’t help feeling that this is somehow reminiscent of old grimoires being bound in human skin.
© Turk Fist. All rights reserved by the author.
To read more stories by Turk Fist go here to our Sister-Site at: http://www.planetwriters.com
Or follow this link to Turk's most recent story over on planetwriters.cm: http://www.planetwriters.com/article/fiction/action-adventure/turk-fist-and-the-revenge-killer-death-squad-from-hell.html