Rice Queen Diaries

Rice Queen Diaries

Rice Queen Diaries: A Memoir by Daniel Gawthrop

Daniel Gawthrop's Rice Queen Diaries strongly resonated with me. No, I'm not a rice queen, although I have been accused on occasion of being a taco queen. But for anyone who's ever had a romance or even a friendship while in a faraway place, especially in the developing world, and wondered how things would've been different without the inequalities (perceived or real) and without the cultural differences, this book will give you a lot to think about.

Rice Queen Diaries succeeds even just as a travelogue–the book transported me back to Vancouver in the late 80s/early 90s then on to London, Thailand and Vietnam. It is in Southeast Asia that the writing really shines–evoking the sights, sounds and tastes–carnal and otherwise–of the cities, the beaches towns, the villages. Like this passage describing part of Bangkok:

By Day Five, I was spending too much money. It was time to downgrade hotels. The obvious choice for new digs was Khao San Road, the famous backpacker strip in Banglamphu that had recently been the subject of a withering critique in the The New Yorker. The august weekly had reduced Bangkok's low-end tourist ghetto to a sad-sack holding pen for the West's forgotten human roadkill. Apart from holidaying students who used it as stopover during their whirlwind tours of Southeast Asia, Khao San had an overabundance of hucksters trading in fake jewelry, overpriced watches, and bogus passports of journalist ID cards. And too many burnt-out hippies seemed to have landed here decades earlier but lost their way home and, well, blended into the scenery.

I could appreciate the New Yorker writer's wide-eyed amazement at Khao San's postmodern jungle mix of contradictions. On one hand, the street life was a throwback to Haight-Ashbury. Rastafarian vegan children of mixed parentage sat for their henna tattoos or dreadlock hair-braiding; sixties music blared from guesthouse restaurants and bootleg CDs sold by the truckload; dope dealers plied their trade in coffee bars; clothing boutiques were filled with tie-dye of ethnic hilltribe peasant clothing; and bearded young men wandered earnestly about in their Che Guevera t-shirts. On the other hand, the hippie dippie vibe was diluted by a manic devotion to commerce. Streetside vendors competed with 7-Eleven stores for business. And the guesthouses created a 24/7 cacophony of media noise, constantly outblasting each other with music videos, premiership football matches or B-grade Hollywood action movies.

All the same, Khao San had its charms. There were a couple of fine second-hand bookstores, some half-decent Indian restaurants, and plenty of cheap but quality clothing stalls. It was possible to get a good package deal to Cambodia or Laos. And a few guesthouses, while hardly three-star fare, offered clean rooms and friendly service for less than 500 baht a night.

Khao San Road, Bangkok

Khao San Road by night. Photo by BjørnChristian Tørrissen

And this short passage is one of my favorites for the audio "imagery" he creates so richly:

The oldest temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho is also one of the most spectacular. Its Reclining Buddha, at forty-six metres long and fifteen metres high, is the largest in Thailand. When Toy and I entered the Great Hall to see it, we joined a procession of Thai locals who were dropping little medallions into bronze pots that formed a continuous column around the giant gleaming Buddha. Murmuring a mantra at each pot before moving on to the next, Toy dropped his own medallions into the pots, contributing to an almost hypnotic, repetitive metallic sound that echoed through the Great Hall.

Gawthrop has no hesitation in revealing details of his sex life in order to illustrate his thesis. This is something else in the book which resonates for me. As a writer that I've been conflicted at times about the how much to reveal of myself and how much to keep private–especially when the content is of the "would you want your mother to read this?" variety. There are times in the book when this strikes me as a little discordant especially when he alternates tales of exploits in Thai bathhouses with somewhat scholarly explanations of "global queering" or Thai history and culture. But in the end, he is his own best subject and his epiphany takes place only as a consequence of an series of casual sex encounters on his first three month trip to Thailand. This passage is from the chapter I, Sex Tourist and is one of many brief encounters Gawthrop shares with us; only the pattern of many which starts to illuminate:

As with Samui, I only knew one person back home who'd ever been to Phuket. And, like Samui, Phuket had evidently become an over-polluted tourist ghetto since that person was last there. But instead of moving on to Krabi, Koh Lanta, or other points south, when I arrived in Phuket City I decided to tough it out in Patong Beach, a sailing and diving resort heavily promoted in the gay press. Shortly after sunset on my first night in town, I was out for a walk when the shrill din of cicadas began to drown out conversation in the beachside bistros. Passing through a soi at the end of a soccer field, I noticed a swank little eatery called Bicycle Bar. Outside the entrance, a group of young male hosts wearing identical navy blue t-shirts stood posing for passers-by. The bicycle logos on their chests clashed with the establishment's wicker chairs, white linen tablecloths, and garden fountain gnomes.

Photo by Daniel Gawthrop

It had only been a day since my last embrace with Chai, so I wasn't in the mood for the stud-mechanic porn fantasy. I just wanted a drink. But when I entered the patio area, I was immediately swarmed by Bicycle boys–the beefiest of whom, Korn, kept making kissy-face gestures at me. I almost walked out until a tall skinny waiter with a mild case of acne pushed his way through the crowd. An odd looking character, with a disproportionately large head, nose and ears, he had a poise and self-confidence that set him apart from his fellow hosts. Introducing himself as "Soup," he sat me down at a patio table, ordered another waiter to get me a beer, and then joined me at the table.

Sitting next to me, Soup gently brushed his cheek against my ear as he leaned into look at my guidebook. His skin was smooth, warm, and moist.

“Soup," I said, "really, I'm just here to have a drink. I don't want to –"

“Sssshhhhhh," he said, putting a finger to my lips. "Don't worry–I come to your hotel room after I finish work. I no charge you, because I am gay. Not like the others. They are all straight."

I turned to look at the handsome Korn, who was still doing his kissy-face routine. Then I turned back to Soup, who was stroking my palm.

“Okay," I shrugged. "See you at eleven."

Soup spent the night. He was a good lover, and fun to be with. I wanted to see him again, but he told me he'd be busy running errands for the rest of the week. His mother in Phetchaburi was bankrupt, he explained. He needed to make some more money. "So don't feel bad," he said, "if you see me in boy bar with older guy, okay?"

Patong was pretty much downhill from there. I only saw Soup once more that week–at Uncle Charlie's Boys cabaret, with a Swiss man in his late fifties. After a brief chat there, I wouldn't see him again until we met in Hua Hin, on my way back to Bangkok. In the meantime I would suffer a series of misadventures that began to sour me on the whole idea of beach holidays.

First there was Manoon, a twenty-five-year-old hustler who accosted me in the street one afternoon after I'd turned him down on the beach. Despite my several attempts to politely get rid of him, Manoon used humour to sweet-talk his way into a drink and then taxi ride to my guesthouse. When he followed me in and began, uninvited, to strip off his clothes in my room, I knew the only way to get out of this would be to let him fuck me and then shortchange him. It worked: he left in a huff when I gave him only 250 baht. Then there was Mon, a go-go dancer…

Gawthrop's misadventures continue like this for a few pages. I certainly relate to being "soured on the whole idea of beach holidays." There's something about the dynamic of these places which allows us to suspend our usual rules of conduct for ourselves, a decision which often starts well and ends badly. Unfortunately I've often heard tourists badmouthing and blaming the local culture for their misfortunes, as if they weren't complicit in the bad behavior.

Gawthrop's initial three month romp through Thailand and Vietnam is followed by three years of ex-pat working in Bangkok. He writes:

If I had never returned to the country but instead summarized my half-baked perceptions in a piece of travel journalism, the resulting story would barely have scratched the surface. It takes far more than a whirlwind trip to understand a country, its people, or even who you are while you're there. Thankfully my sobering passage from gallivanting sex tourist to office professional took care of that.

There is a redemption in the book of sorts without being moralistic. Rice Queen Diaries I think is at its most successful when it stays with the personal rather than the analytical and through that lens allows us to contemplate our own cultural assumptions, behaviors and attitudes. But Gawthrop is also a seasoned journalist with several other books under his belt and that discipline shows. We get a book that doesn't preach nor hit us over the head with a conclusion but yet is more than a diary.

Rice Queen Diaries, is published by Arsenal Pulp Press. It is available through your local independent bookseller or online from Amazon.com.

Readers interested in Rice Queen Diaries may also enjoy Bangkok 8, a mystery novel by John Burdett set in the seedy underworld of the Thai sex trade.

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