Valentine's Day in Bangkok

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We pitch our hearts' tents amidst faithlessness and loss. Love has always had mostly to do with how we respond when the ideal turns its back on us, and shows itself to be half-real. But nowadays the whole affair has complications that the likes of Ovid and Shakespeare could not have imagined. The average Western child today grows up in a household without both biological parents, and interactive relations now describe those where two people never actually meet. The age of protection is the age of guarding oneself against surrender. Step into a London phone booth, around the grand monuments and statues that once watched over Romeo and Juliet--or Brief Encounter at least--and the stickers on the windows say, Real She Male or (above a black-clad dominatrix) Agony or Ecstasy.
The heart of love, of course, can change no more than hearts or people do. But everything around it is colored by the vagaries of the age. Couples pledge themselves for an eternity that may last a few months, and pre-nuptial lawyers look for the loopholes in sickness or in health. If you go to a movie today--City of Angels, say, or The Matrix, Meet Joe Black or Being John Malkovich--you will be told that the ideal romance is one that involves a winged being, an alien or Death itself (if not that virtual being known as a celebrity). Postmodern love begins with an if and ends with a perhaps. In the face of all this love bartered, twisted or even made fatal, it makes a certain kind of sense to observe Valentine's Day in Bangkok. The city of (fallen) angels, once known for languorous canals and temple bells, is now associated largely with AIDS and prostitution (in fact, this week's hot movie, The Beach, portrays a Thai island as a paradigm of paradise lost). The world's oldest profession is no newer than loneliness or need, but in Thailand, where it may involve as many as 2 million people, it takes a particularly lethal form: man sleeps with woman (too often a barely pubescent girl), who returns home to sleep with her boyfriend (who also sleeps with men for cash), and then they try to wish it all away by shooting up. Death runs through the body politic as through a closed circuit.

Bangkok, then, is not for the squeamish. At night, the little lanes light up with Dream Boy barbershops and G-Spot V.D.O. bars. Electronic ticker-tape machines announce acts with razor blades and ping-pong balls, and every caricatured image of aging Western male and compliant local girl springs to life. Even in the more prudent places, like the vast Cabbages and Condoms restaurant--a shrine to safe sex--you find yourself surrounded by flowers, coffee mugs, even ties celebrating the prophylactic.

And yet, what still entices many a foreigner to Bangkok--and what can almost seem exotic to a visitor--is, of all things, the city's sense of innocence, its careless hopefulness. Families paddle boats in the park, or listen to sugary melodies as they picnic around a lake. Everyone bows before the Buddhas scattered everywhere, or to the world's most admired king. At dawn, as if to wash away the night, monks drift from house to river-house by boat, and women at each one bow down to give them food. The couples you most often see holding hands are the ones who met in a bar last week.

Spend too long in Thailand, and you begin to wonder whether the enticement of the place has not, at heart, to do with its promise of reviving a sweetness that too many of us think we've lost. Certainly, it can seem that love here is no more commercial than in, say, California. You begin to wonder, in fact, whether hope is not truest in the proximity of fear. In one recent movie that did not involve aliens--John Sayles's Limbo--two very ordinary humans, stumbling past wounds and bad memories and doubts, reach out towards one another in a story that can have no ending. Turning their back on the ideal, they embrace its faint shadow in the real.

This year, as every year, the rites of Valentine's Day are simplicity itself. You take a deep breath; you close your eyes; you leap out again into the dark.