Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Naked Tourist by Lawrence Osborne




(Mildly Recommended)




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Lawrence Osborne wants more out of travel than most of us. In The Naked Tourist, he leads readers through the journey he took on the way to a Papua New Guinea tribe that has had little contact with outsiders. From Dubai to Calcutta to Banjkok, Osborne seems to play it by ear as he wanders. The reader is an afterthought. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Hedonopolis,” pp. 117-120:


In the lobby of Thailand’s most august hotel, the house string quartet had just struck up “The Blue Danube.” The high notes were a halftone out of tune and no­body was dancing, but the lobby still brimmed with the fever mood of Hedonopolis, the world’s pleasure capital. I slumped in one of the lobby chairs and watched the Japanese executive groups and the farang businessmen with their Bangkok girls flirting to the sound of “The Blue Danube” under huge bell-like lanterns. (The term farang derives from français. The French were the first Europeans that the Thais encountered, in the seventeenth century—and so all Western foreigners are still called farangs, a word by turns neutral and ominous.) The Oriental has something maniacal about it—.circular fountains of unreal flowers, ornamental ele­            phants, ubiquitous mirrors. Here is the apex of the nation’s tourist sector, the nub of it all. Thai film stars swept in on their way to the Normandie restaurant. A nervous farang in a Pinstripe suit with a six-foot ladyboy bar girl picked their way slyly toward the elevators. I looked down at the suede shoes I had just laced up in the Somerset Maugham Suite, where I was lodged with a carved four-poster and a satiric portrait of the old boy. As the couple were politely inter­cepted—the Oriental is one of the rare Bangkok hotels that cannot bring themselves to condone amour entre hommes, despite its adulation of Somerset—I had a premonition that if I converted to Buddhism it was possible that in the future I would be reincarnated as a kathoey, a ladyboy; or else as an eel, I could not decide which. I looked carefully at the shoes—they looked hedonistic after the forests of the An­damans. The couple sat right next to me, and the ladyboy noticed them as well. She shot me a brilliant smile and a shoe compliment. “You very bad man!”

In his book Very Thai, Philip Cornwel-Smith offers the opinion that “the country probably has no more homosexu­als than any other . . . but . . . the Thai physique, smooth skin, love of beauty, refined culture and tolerance enables more of them to flower.” When they have been sex-changed, they are often a hallucination. They are “sirens of street cul­ture since ancient times.” Thais also call them faa cham­loeng, “angels in disguise.”

There is no society on earth more tolerant of the sexual drive than Thailand. Especially delicious is the Thai idea of sex as a series of gradated moods, each of which has its name: len pheuan, “playing with a friend” (for girls), len sawaad, “playing at love,” and so on. And so there is also seua bai, “bisexual tiger.” (Around two thousand people surgically change their sex in Thailand every year.) Like the Venice of the Grand Tour, Bangkok has made itself a center of world tourism, the seventh most visited city on the planet and rising, and it has done this by imitating Venice’s open­ness to the sex drive. No other city admits human na­ture as it really is, without trying to pretend otherwise. For Buddhists, this is simple; for everyone else it appears to be impossible. Few scholars of intercultural relations can say why.

I looked down at the shoes again. Suede? But in Hedo­nopolis they seemed appropriate. The ladyboy and client moved on, and there was a reprise of “The Blue Danube.” Strangely enough, I wanted to dance. My hand had stopped shaking and I was drinking nothing more than a shandy— glorious how Thailand has all the British drinks—along with a plate of Thai spiced peanuts. It was now my sixth hour in the metropolis and the Jarawa already seemed a distant phe­nomenon, let alone a distant memory. I looked up and found a small, incredibly pretty girl sitting next to me, with a hideous pink hair clip shaped like a predatory butterfly. The gaze was not innocent, nor was it venal. It was uninnocently unvenal. She put her hands together—a wai—and uttered the obligatory sawadee ka. As any visitor knows, it is almost alarmingly easy to meet Thais who are bent on meeting you. There is nowhere to run. And why would you run? Her name, she said, was Lek.

In the ballroom atmosphere of the Oriental lobby, lit by King and I chandeliers, I felt like an English sailor on a Samoan beach. Sailing from island to island, aimlessly and venally, greeted by Lek, who wanted money, amusement, kicks, a shot at love, a break from the street. It is the femi­ninity that had seduced the probably bisexual Margaret Mead. The Samoan girls are well described in the literature, which is not to say they have been described as they are: honey skinned, petite, incapable of our pudeur, lasciviously merry, subtly sly, etc. And it struck me that in some ways Bangkok has become not just our Venice but also our Samoa, our landlocked metropolitan Polynesia. It is Samoa, if you like, reinvented as a twenty-first-century Blade Run­ner city.

Lek was far more aware of this than I could be. She was dressed like any five o’clock commuter on the Skytrain. On the surface, Thais are prim, modest, and reserved. But they accept the divergence of appearance and actual behavior. Thais in particular separate gender, which is a public artifact to be kept nab roi (proper), and sexuality, which remains undiscussed and therefore unrestrained. Lek suggested a drink at the Bamboo Bar, where she could smoke a cigar, and walking beside me the casual bellhop observer was not to know that she was not my travel agent. If my Thai had been better, however, I would have known that lek means “small,” and in a country of diminutive women a woman has to be absolutely tiny to earn that nickname. When we stood, she came up to my hip. She giggled. Soon, she was laughing uncontrollably. The bellhops laughed as well. In my suede shoes I had become a six-foot-five-inch-tall Jacques Tati, lacking only a raincoat and a pipe—awkward, gangling, as un-Thai as a man can be. But Thai women are also bold. She demanded a Cuban cigar at the bar. “You German rich man lawyer,” she said, stroking my leg.

“No,” I replied. “Me broke English travel writer.”

Trarer?” She lit the cigar, and suddenly empathetic deli­ciousness broke out on all sides. “What is?”

“Like chess game. Useless.”

“You bad man!”


Osborne has a good time wherever he is. He drinks, meets interesting people, and often becomes the center of attention. In The Naked Tourist, Osborne takes readers to a variety of places, and in each one, it is Osborne who becomes the center of attention.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2006 issue of Executive Times


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