Far off the beaten path, Nana Plaza is one of Bangkok’s most notorious areas. On AsiaWebDirect, it’s referred to as “sleaze central,” and described as a three-storey “sex mall.” Walking through Nana Plaza at night is like stepping into a dark dream world. Hookers and ladyboys line the streets, calling out “handsome man!” to any guy who passes, regardless of how handsome he actually is. Two midget doormen sat outside one bar I passed. A woman led a blind man down the street; he carried a speaker and a microphone and sang Thai songs, his eyes stark white and looking nowhere. Amputees are everywhere, begging for spare Baht. I saw my first Alexandro Jodorowsky movie when I was 17, and suddenly I felt like I was in one.
The most unsettling thing, though, was the amount of middle-aged ladies, sitting on the sidewalk outside the go-go bars, holding babies. The babies were usually cradled in their arms or slung over one bicep while the other hand held out a cup for money. On the patios outside the bars, white men sat with Thai girls (most of whom look old and worn), chatting to them while they fake laughed and waited for their bar fines to be paid. During the entire charade the women with their babies hung around, plopped down between the cops who did nothing and the transvestite hookers, hoping that pity would cause a drunken stranger to drop a few coins in their large plastic cups.
Nana Plaza becomes bare and empty in the day. The girls in their short skirts and lipstick are sleeping, it seems. It was my last afternoon in Bangkok, and I walked around aimlessly with lots of unspent Baht in my wallet. My flight would leave in a few hours, and I decided that I would just give the rest of my Baht away. It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t make me a good person: I wasn’t so much concerned with helping people as much as I just really didn’t care about the money.
I started by giving 500 Baht to a woman with two children: a baby and a girl who looked to be about five. The woman and the kids were elated. An hour later I walked by them again. They were all eating street food and they waved happily at me. I gave 200 Baht to a man with one leg. He smiled sweetly up at me. He had a snow white goatee, dark tan skin, and a naked stub that looked like a swollen knuckle.
Another 500 Baht went to a woman with a baby and an older son. She shut her eyes and bowed her head as I approached, closing her hands in prayer. I didn’t want to stick the 500 Baht note in her plastic cup where her coins were collected, so I waved it below her face hoping she’d notice. Her hands parted and she took the money, keeping her head bowed and her face pointed down the whole time. She never once looked up at me.
These are all images that will stick with me. The strongest image, though, was from the day before, when I walked past a lone baby sitting on the sidewalk outside Nana Plaza at about ten o’clock at night. The baby was by itself, crying and wailing and looking up hysterically at whoever passed by it. People kept walking by the baby, looking at it and stopping for a few seconds, then moving on. I walked by the baby too. It was groupthink at its purest – if nobody else saw anything wrong with a baby alone on the sidewalk, then that means it’s nothing to be concerned about, right? The baby was still all alone when I walked away. And I didn’t look back, not to see if the baby’s mother ever came, maybe with food or money, to rock it in her arms outside a sex mall until it stopped crying.