If Last Life in the Universe was my cinematic reference for Chiang Mai, then Bangkok's has to be Only God Forgives. Without delving too far into critic mode, this second collaboration between Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling really doesn't live up to the precedent set by Drive, but aside from a memorable performance from Kristin Scott Thomas, the film presents an eery portrait of the city's nightlife and its main attractions - boxing and sex.
I've been fortunate enough that physical violence is something I've only ever experienced through the media and entertainment (same for war and, to a certain degree, politics), so seeing an actual fight up close (literally - we had ringside seats) was nothing short of surreal. From watching and studying films, I knew that sound plays a pivotal role in making fight sequences seem real; I was conditioned to expect to hear it each time the fighters made contact, so I was surprised when I didn't. But even though I couldn't hear the impact of each blow, I could sense it in other ways - from the crowd's reaction and the drops of sweat (and occasionally blood) flying through the air. Curiously, the match had a soundtrack of its own: a small band playing traditional instruments. The fighters moved, shifting their weight from side to side in time with the drum beat like a sort of dance.
I had read online that foreigners will occasionally enter the ring, and the night we went was no exception. The most memorable match was between a Polish guy who was at least a good head taller than his Thai opponent. I was hoping that the Thai boxer would wipe the floor with the European but, alas, the white man's reach was longer and he kept going for the head. The Thai guy got him in the crotch pretty early on, and afterwards the Polish boxer became noticeably more vicious. By the final round the Thai boxer seemed to be using all his energy just to remain on his feet; his arms drooped, no longer protecting his head, and he moved sluggishly.
Originally, the other event I was interested in was the famous ping pong shows. No, not people playing table tennis, but rather women shooting a diverse assortment of objects out of their vaginas (including ping pong balls, razor blades and live animals) on a stage. Admit it, the description alone piques curiosity.
But the more I heard about it from others who had gone, the less fascinating it seemed. Apparently the women who perform in the shows are all older - retired prostitutes, I presume - and just, in one traveler's words, "Clearly not wanting to be there." After the initial novelty wore off, the show was just depressing.
So, instead of seeing a ping pong show or ladyboy cabaret, we joined the throng of tourists and locals at Khao San Road, drinking and dancing the night away. For some people nights like those are the reason to go to Thailand, but personally I much preferred Bangkok by day.