BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Walking the Streets of Bangkok with Sonny Yabao

Bangkok, Thailand - Many things have changed in the Kingdom of drunkard kings and dancing queens. Once many moons ago, I woke up in the middle of the night in the smoke-filled bars of Patpong, in full view of fat and ageing naked strippers out to please sex-starved men in another night of hustle. 

This time, I found myself walking the streets of Sukhamvit Road in broad day light, looking for a place to eat. I couldn’t wait to fill my hungry stomach, Sonny Yabao, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to shoot. 

We turned left and right and left again, looking for an authentic Thai cuisine. I didn’t see the bars this time. Sonny, who was here one time and another, thinks too that the world has changed by leaps and bounds. 

"In the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the lead player sings, “Sunrise, sunset… when did she get to be a beauty… I don’t remember growing older… when did they?” Indeed, and Bob Dylan mourns, too, about “The times, they are a-changin’.” It cannot be denied that we all share these hopes and fears in the ever-changing things as they are, that one cannot go home again. And on a train ride, Bob Dylan again asks, “I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing, that old oak tree, the one we used to climb," Yabao muses, writing about this particular trip

As for me, I'm it my imagination or there are now more transgender walking the streets of Bangkok? Perhaps, this goes with a more progressive world or it is because having your penis removed is now as simple as going to a salon here in this city?

Meet Ashley, cherry-red lips, with chest brown hair, sexy and voluptuous. She sure turned heads including Sonny's but she was, once upon a time, a man like the rest of them. 

There’s also a whole industry of massage salons and spas, a sign of a more stressful city. (Traffic takes hours, just like Manila’s gates of hell). 

Many signs are now in English, a relief to visitors like me who have no patience doing sign language with Thais. 

Once, years ago, Jes and I found ourselves desperately lost in the middle of nowhere — there were no signs in English and not a soul spoke a language we could understand. We were on our way to Laos and the only thing that helped us get out of the rumpus and on to our destination was a lone rickety Third World bus with a wooden sign on its window: "Laos." 

Jes and I are back in Bangkok, this time for the opening of Pananampalataya. We’re lucky to have Sonny join us though until the last minute, we weren't quite sure he would leave the comforts of his Laguna abode, hop on the plane and actually take the flight. Or if he did, I imagined he might just choose to run away with a beautiful flight stewardess and forget about the exhibit. The night before he arrived, while we were setting up the exhibit, the photographers washed away their jitters with Japanese whiskey as they imagined the Master shaking his head in disapproval.

But showed up he did and allowed himself to be dragged all the way to this city, lending honour to the jam-packed exhibit opening, which is another story for another day.

After walking a while, Sonny and I finally found the authentic Thai restaurant we were looking for. The voluptuous Ashley, 100 percent Filipina, graciously served us like we were the only ones in the place.  

We walked the rest of the afternoon. I had one goal: to look for a bookstore while Sonny just wanted to shoot. I thought I was guiding an old man in an unfamiliar place, making sure he wasn't too tired from too much walking. But this was not quite the case. 

Sonny saw things I didn't see: birds huddled in twisted branches; she-men and a stranger's foot in the sprawling grassy park, the signs and silhouettes, the puddles of water with the reflection of the Bangkok sky; all these and more. Indeed, there's a whole plethora of things I almost missed. 

He refused to take the escalator on the way to the hulking white mall and laughed at me when I insisted the stairs might be too much for him. 

We spent hours in the bookstore and I would have dragged him for more shopping but I found myself really tired. The man, more than twenty years my senior, wasn't done. He went chasing a vendor with a Vietnamese style conical hat and a rickety food cart -- perhaps this would make a good photograph -- and they both disappeared in a narrow alley filled with street food.