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Bending Buddhist Precepts in Bangkok

October 25, 2019

There are five precepts of Buddhism which are the core of that practice-do not kill, do not lie, do not steal, do not fornicate and do not use intoxicants. For more liberal Buddhist precept followers, the “do not” section is replaced by “refrain from.” As we will be heading out to Bangkok in the near future, there was a news alert in the Nikkei Asia Review entitled Thailand Bars to Stay Open Later to Counter China Slump. That would have been an attention grabber fifty years ago when that sort of thing had appeal. In fact, during the Vietnam War era there were curfews, police checkpoints and other visible means to thwart the spread of communism. It was an interesting show of martial force but all of the “CTs,” communist terrorists, were in the countryside where most city folks feared to go. Nonetheless, the author would release the driver in the early evening and somehow find the way home down back streets well past curfew to avoid the roadblocks which never changed location.
Bangkok is famous for its nightlife though it has been suffering due to a significant drop in big spending Chinese tourists. Accordingly, the Ministry of Tourism and Sports is considering extending closing times at nightspots in some areas from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. It is estimated that a two-hour extension in closing time would increase revenue by as much as 40%. The image below reflects a late-night crowd on Soi Cowboy, a relatively new sin city area to compete with the old 1960’s mainstay neighborhood of Patpong.
Although civil society groups complain that heavy-drinking tourists cause accidents and other problems, these side effects are ignored by what will be a welcome boost to the economy. In a stronger economy, the Thai authority focus had been on cleaning up some of the seedier establishments that seem to offer a vast choice of companions and dancers. In actual fact, bars and bar girls represent a significant portion of the appeal of Thai tourism which accounts for 20% of gross domestic product. One seldom sees interior views of the companion-oriented clubs on Patpong or Soi Cowboy scattered throughout many areas of Bangkok. In the afternoon, they are relatively empty like that shown below but are packed later on in the evening. Maybe the increase in alcohol consumption in the evening also causes the appearances and prospects of the bar girls to improve exponentially. The Bada Bing below had just opened under the watchful eye of The Godfather.

The Patpong area is quite close to the financial center of Bangkok and in the old days was a short walk from the author’s office. At that time, there were more user-friendly Patpong bars with numerous, smiling drink hostesses but they were anything but bulging brothels. Typically, they would be favorite watering holes for Air America pilots, spooks from the Joint US Military Advisory Group Thailand (JUSMAG) command center overseeing 50,000 US troops in Thailand and an illegal war in Laos, business types and outright mercenaries. Moreover, as many of the customers were frequent commuters to Laos, they were comfortable in the rowdy setting of Patpong as compared to the more dignified establishments elsewhere. Lots of neon and suggestive bar names were standard.  
In the 1980’s, the author returned to Patpong as one particular bar/restaurant had the best fried noodles in town. It was still there but the streets had been taken over by vendors as a huge night market. Fake Rolex watches and cheap T-shirts were the standard product available. The bars had become increasingly raunchy with scantily clad girls hanging outside hawking customers into the dens of iniquity. Can you imagine such a congested shopping experience as shown below in such an incredibly hot and humid climate. No worries as there is always plenty of cold beer at the ever-ready.  
Therefore, how do you reconcile all of this drinking and potential fornication with two of the Buddhist precepts? The underlying secret is “refrain from.” If you have attempted to refrain but turned a bit weak in the knees and even succumbed to fornication, you have done about the best you can do. Buddha was a prophet and one had to expect suffering if one succumbed to desire despite an attempt to refrain from temptation. How many people find it interesting that the Ministry of Tourism and Sports regulates the operational hours of bars and illicit sex businesses? It seems to put a different spin on the term “sports.”

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