High Times Greats: Spalding Gray

They call it “The Lust Ring.” Spalding Gray almost got caught up in it. Sex and drugs in Bangkok.
High Times Greats: Spalding Gray
Illustration by Kate Keller

He’s been called the Mark Twain of his generation, but the writing career of Spalding Gray (1941-2004) was actually a fairly late development. Gray’s credentials in experimental theater, however, were always impeccable. An active member of the now-legendary Performance Group in the ’60s, Gray wrote several plays for the Wooster Group in the ’70s. He also performed a series of monologues with such titles as “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” “Booze, Cars and College Girls,” and “A Personal History of the American Theater.” Swinging madly from hilarious anecdotes to searing private confessions, these monologues have established Gray as one of the great storytellers of his generation. In 1983, Gray was given a bit part in the film The Killing Fields. Predictably, the result was another monologue, this one titled “Swimming to Cambodia.” A wild, rollercoaster ride through the whorehouses, hotels and back alleys of Thailand, with frequent ruminations on sex, drugs, and the destruction of Cambodia, “Swimming to Cambodia” was eventually published by the Theatre Communications Group. A brief excerpt follows, originally featured in the May, 1986 edition of High Times and republished here to coincide with what would have been Spalding Gray’s 79th birthday on June 5.

It was the first day off in a long time, and all of us were trying to get a little rest and relaxation out by the pool at this big, modern hotel that looked something like a prison. If I had to call it anything I would call it a “pleasure prison. ” It was the kind of place you might come to on a package tour out of Bangkok. You’d come down on a chartered bus—and you’d probably not wander off the grounds because of the high barbed-wire fence they have to keep you in and the bandits out. And every so often you would hear shotguns going off as the hotel guards fired at rabid dogs down along the beach on the Gulf of Siam.

But if you really wanted to walk on the beach, all you had to learn to do was to pick up a piece of seaweed, shake it in the dog’s face and everything would be hunkydory.

So it was our first day off in a long time and there were about 130 of us out by the pool trying to get a little rest and relaxation, and the Thai waiters were running and jumping over hedges to bring us “Kloster! More Kloster!” Everyone was ordering Kloster beer. No one was ordering the Singah because someone had said that Singah, which is exported to the United States, has formaldehyde in it. The waiters were running and jumping over hedges because they couldn’t get to us fast enough. They were running and jumping and smiling—not a silly smile but a profound smile, a deep smile. There was nothing idiotic about it because the Thais have a word, sanug, which, loosely translated means “fun.” And they never do anything that isn’t sanug—if it isn’t sanug they won’t touch it.

Some say that the Thais are the nicest people that money can buy, because they like to have fun. They know how to have fun and, perhaps due to their very permissive strain of Buddhism, they don’t have to suffer for it after they have it.

It was a lovely day and we were all out by the pool and some of the British and American technicians were out there with their Thai wives. They had had the good sense—or bad sense, depending on how you look at it—as soon as they arrived in Bangkok, to go down to Pat Pong and buy up women to travel with them. I was told that each man bought two women so as not to risk falling in love. And there the Sparks were, lying like 250-pound beached whales while their ninety-pound “Thai wives,” in little two-piece bathing suits, walked up and down on them giving them Shiatsu massages as a Thai waiter ran, jumped over the hedge, tripped and fell, hurling his Klosters down to explode on the cement by the pool.

And looking up with a great smile he said, “Sorry sir, we just run out of Kloster.”

Ivan (Devil in My Ear), a South African and head of the second camera unit—and a bit of a Mephistophelian figure—said, “Spalding, there’s a party tonight up on the Gulf of Siam. Could I come over and borrow your toenail clippers?”


“Shall I bring some Thai stick? Do you want to smoke a joint before we go?”

I thought, why not? It’s a day off and I haven’t smoked since I’ve been here. Why not give it a try?

Now, every time I’ve been in a country where the marijuana is supposed to be really good—Mexico, India, Northern California and now Thailand—I’ve always felt that I should try it. Maybe this time it would be different. Maybe this time I would be able to sleep, like so many people say they do. Maybe this time I’d have a sense of well-being and feel at one with the world. You see, marijuana tends to unlock my Kundalini in the worst way and the energy just gets stuck in my lower Chakra. It just gets stuck and spins there like a snake chasing its tail, or a Studebaker stuck in sand.

So I said, “Sure, bring it over.”

Then I thought, maybe I should have waited until I’d spoken with Renée first. Renée was over there visiting me for fourteen days and we planned to go back to New York together as soon as I finished the film. We had rented a summer house together in upstate New York, in Krummville, and Krummville was looking less and less exotic to me the longer I stayed in Thailand. You see, I hadn’t had a Perfect Moment yet, and I always like to have one before I leave an exotic place. They’re a good way of bringing things to an end. But you can never plan for one. You never know when they’re coming. It’s sort of like falling in love… with yourself. Also, I was beginning to get this image of myself as a kind of wandering poet-bachelor-mendicant beating my way down the whole coast of Malaysia, eating magic mushrooms all the way, until I finally reach Bali and evaporate into the sunset in a state of ecstasy. But I wasn’t telling Renée that. I was only telling her that I wasn’t sure when I would be coming back, and that was enough to enrage her. We fell into a big fight on the way to the party that lasted all the way down to the Gulf of Siam. And there we were, arguing on this fantastic beach where, unlike the Hamptons, there was no boat and a bigger boat, no ship and a bigger ship, no carrot and the carrot and desire and desire. It was just one big beach with no boats. Nothing to buy. Just one big piece of calendar art.

And Renée and I were walking down the beach arguing and I said, “Stop, Renée. Stop with the fighting. Look at this beautiful sunset. Look! Look! I might be able to have a Perfect Moment right now and we could go home.”

But Renée would have none of it. She’s very confrontational and always wants to talk about what is going on in the relationship, not the sunset. So she went off to cry on Therese’s shoulder and talk to Julian, and I went to Ivan (Devil in My Ear) who said, “Spalding, don’t let her get the upper hand, man. I mean, after all, how many straight, single men your age are there left in New York City anyway? What’s she going to do?”

And I said, “Ivan, no, don’t say things like that.”

Then Renée and I came out of our respective corners and went back at it for another round, until at last she said, “Listen, I’ll give you an ultimatum. Either you marry me or you give me a date when you’re coming back.”

I thought for a minute and said, “July 8. I’ll be back on July 8.”

Then it was time for the pleasure. We had fought and made up and it was time for the sanug. That’s the order in which we do it in our culture. So we went down to the beach with Ivan and sat at the water’s edge. By then it was dark and gentle waves were lapping as party sounds drifted in the distance. We were the only ones down on the beach, under the stars, and it was almost too much, too beautiful to bear. Ivan lit the Thai stick and passed it down.

I took three deep tokes and as I held the smoke in, this overwhelming wave of anxiety came over me. I closed my eyes and saw this pile of black and brown shit steaming on the edge of a stainless steel counter. The shit was cold and yet it was steaming, and I somehow knew that it represented all of the negative energy in my mind. I could see a string extending from between my eyes to the shit and I knew that if I pulled that string with my head I could pull all that shit right off the edge of that stainless steel counter. I started to pull and as I was pulling I could see that next to the shit was this pile of bubbly pastel energy floating about two inches off the stainless steel counter. I saw that this pastel energy was connected to the shit through these tendrils that ranged from pastel to shit-brown. It was then I realized that if I pulled the negative energy off the counter I would pull the positive off with it, and I’d be left with nothing but a stainless steel counter, which I was not yet ready for in my life. And at the moment I realized that, the counter turned into a tunnel I was going down at the speed of the Santa Cruz roller coaster. But the tunnel was not black this time so I knew I was getting healthier. It was gold-leaf, and the leaves were spreading like palm leaves or like the iris of a big eye as I picked up speed and headed for the center of the Earth, until I was going so fast that I couldn’t stand it anymore and I pulled back, opened my eyes, grabbed the beach and let out a great WHOOOA….

When I opened my eyes Ivan was there but Renée was gone. She must have wandered off down the beach. I had no real sense of where I was. It all looked and felt like a demented Wallace Stevens poem with food poisoning, and in the distance I saw what looked like a group of Thai girl scouts dancing around a campfire. I thought that if I could get in that circle and hold hands with them I would be whole again. I would be cured and back in real time. I got up and tried to walk toward the fire and found that I was falling down like a Bowery bum, like a drunken teenager or the fraternity brother I’d never been. And all of a sudden I realized I was going to be very sick and I crawled off like a Thai dog to a far corner of the beach.

Up it came, and each time the vomit hit the ground I covered it over with sand, and the sand I covered it with turned into a black gauze death mask that flew up and covered my face. And so it went; vomit-cover-mask, vomit-cover-mask, until I looked down to see that I had built an entire corpse in the sand and it was my corpse. It was my own decomposing corpse starting back at me, and I could see the teeth pushing through the rotting lips and the ribs coming through the decomposing flesh of my side. I looked up to see Renée standing over me saying, “What’s wrong, Hon?”

“I’m dying, that’s what’s wrong.”

“Oh. I thought you were having a good time building sand castles.”

She had been looking on at a distance.

Two men, I don’t know who, carried me out of there, one arm over one shoulder and one arm over another, like a drunken, crucified sailor. And I was very upset because the following day I was scheduled to do my big scene in the movie.

My first big scene was to be filmed on a soccer field outside of Bangkok. We were reenacting the 1975 evacuation of the American embassy in Phnom Penh. I was with Ira Wheeler, who was playing John Gunther Dean, the last American ambassador.

Ira is an interesting man—he used to be vice president of American Celanese Chemical. After he retired he was singing in a glee club in New York, where someone saw him and put him in Jane Fonda’s Rollover. Now, at sixty-three years old, he was beginning his film career. If you live long enough I find it all comes full circle. Shortly after I arrived in Bangkok I found out that Ira served on the same ship in World War II as my Uncle Tinky. They were on an LST together in the Pacific.

So Ira was playing John Gunther Dean, the last American ambassador. We got to meet Dean because he is now ambassador to Thailand, right there in Bangkok. And because Costa Gavras was getting sued for fourteen million dollars by the Chilean ambassador for Missing, David Puttnam wasn’t taking any chances. He was bending over backwards to have the text examined by the ambassador to make sure it represented history the way he remembered it.

Ira and I went over to visit him because we wanted to meet a real ambassador. I was very intimidated by this man. I had met politicians but never a statesman. And he was a true statesman, a combination of a ship’s captain, say, of the Q.E. II, and a boarding school principal, say, of Phillips or Andover Academy. And he said, “We saw Cambodia as a ship floundering in high seas. We wanted desperately to bring her safely into port. When we saw we were going to lose her, we wanted to leave the ship with dignity, and I cut down the American flag that you see behind me, wrapped it in plastic and carried it over my arm.”

And there we were, Ira running with the American flag wrapped in plastic over his arm. And me, the ambassador’s aide, running beside him, heading for a Cadillac limousine parked on the soccer field. We got to the Cadillac limousine, it was 110 degrees, and the first thing that happened was that the air conditioner broke. We had to spend the whole day in this black torture box—it was going to take that long to shoot the scene—and Ira was sweating, he was dripping. It was cooler outside than in, and Ira is the type who sweats like a, like… an Ira. He sweats so much that he says he beats his opponents at squash because they slip in his puddles.

Wardrobe was changing his shirt while we sat in the limousine and next the electric windows broke, the radiator boiled over and by the end of the day the entire exhaust system and muffler were dragging on the football field. I was laughing—I found the whole thing very funny. Roland Joffe had told us, “Look like you’re on the verge of tears.” Ira, who was studying Stanislavsky acting for the first time and had read An Actor Prepares and Building a Character, thought that Roland meant “on the verge of tears” all day long, just in case the camera was turned on. So he was doing an emotional memory and he was in a deep funk. You couldn’t even approach him.

I was so bored that I began talking to the driver—an extra. He was an expatriate from San Francisco, an elephant expert, who was spending his time counting elephants in the Thai jungle because he thought, “America is going crazy. Going nuts, going to the dogs. Going to the wow-wows.” He went to Thailand to get his sanity back, and in Thailand he only trusted elephants. So they were all he was interested in. He slept in the bush at night and in the morning he got up, grabbed his elephant counter and just counted elephants.

He had a limp, a game leg—and he knew that if you frighten elephants at night they will charge. They sleep standing up and he was sure, he confided to me, that he was going to be killed within the following two months by a stampeding elephant.

In the middle of this Ira looked up and cried out, “WILL YOU STOP TALKING ABOUT WHATEVER IT IS YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT? I’m trying to have an emotional memory.”

“Ira, Ira, this guy is about to be killed by an elephant, for real. Think on that. ”

And we were driving through this black smoke, pouring up off of rubber tires, which were burning to make it look like a real war. We headed for a nonexistent Sikorski—I guess because the American Air Force had not given the Thai Air Force any Sikorskis. They just had little choppers. We were supposed to be getting into the Sikorski but we were just pretending it was there. We drove through Marine guards, lots of extras dressed as American Marines—I don’t know who those guys were. I think some of them were Marines who didn’t get enough of the war so they went back to join up with Bo Gritz, who had a foreign legion going in Laos to look for MIAs. Others were there to deal drugs, which is extremely lucrative but very dangerous in Thailand. And still others were there basically for the sex. Because on one lower Chakra level Bangkok is one big whorehouse. It’s not all our fault, or the fault of the troops on R&R, or the Japanese sex tourists. The tradition existed way back before the war, when there were concubines in all the villages. It just got way out of hand during the war. They had hundreds of prostitutes in quonset huts the size of airplane hangars, to service all the soldiers—and for birth control they took Chinese herbal potions. There were a lot of Amerasian children being born.

After the Vietnam war they put all the prostitutes in Pat Pong. If you’ve been to Bangkok you’ve probably seen Pat Pong. (There’s nothing else to see in Bangkok but the Gold Buddha. You can see the Gold Buddha during the day and Pat Pong at night.) If you’ve seen the film The Deer Hunter, you’ve seen Pat Pong; all of the Saigon sequences were shot there, at the Mississippi Queen. The Mississsippi Queen is still there, and walking into it is like stepping into that film.

There is no sense of seduction, as in “across a crowded room.” The whores just fly to you and stick, and they’re small enough that your body can carry six at once, two on an elbow, two on a lap, two here, two there, until you feel like a Christmas tree. You just sit there and they go wild. They smile, giggle, reach into your pockets, and if you can make up your mind which one you’re in love with by one o’clock, which is closing time, you can go home with her. Or, if you have enough money, you can go home with all of them. Each one costs 500 Thai bhat (about twenty-six dollars) for the entire evening. If you want to buy her out early you can pay another 300 bhat and go home anytime. You can even walk to the hotel to save money.

If you don’t want to spend the whole night with a giggly, happy Thai whore driving you nuts, or if you’re afraid of the intimacies involved and would rather be in control, you can go instead to a massage parlor. The massage parlors are very much like huge department stores; there are three floors. You go in and there are, maybe, thirty-five women on one floor, behind a oneway glass, all fully clothed under fluorescent lighting, sitting on tiers and wearing numbers. All of them are looking at a focal point just under the partition. You don’t know what they’re looking at, but it’s a TV. They’re all watching TV.

So you strut up and down in front of that glass like a little Sultan until at last you think you’ve found the perrrr-fect body, suppose it’s Number Eight. You say to the man, “Could you call Number Eight for me, please?”

And he calls over a microphone, “Numbah Eight.”

Number Eight stands up and you can tell by her disgruntled expression that it’s not going to be as great as you had thought, because you’ve interrupted her TV show.

You go down into this small room and for a little bit of money you take off all your clothes and she stays dressed, and you get a mild, tweek-tweek massage; nothing Reichian about it. A mild, tweek-tweek surface massage. And for a little bit more money she takes off all her clothes and gives you another mild, tweek-tweek surface massage, and occasionally you might feel her warm, brown Thai body brush-brush up against yours. A little bit more money and you get a hand job. A little bit more money and you get to fuck her. A little bit more money and you get the supremo-supremo… the body-body massage. For the body-body massage she puts you in a tub and she completely soaps you up. She doesn’t rinse you. She puts you, slippery, on a waterbed. Then she gets in the tub and soaps herself up so she’s slippery too, and she doesn’t rinse herself either. And she gets on one side of the room and runs and hops on top of you and goes swiggle-swiggle-swiggle, body-body-body, and you slide together like two very wet bars of soap. For the final facial massage she’ll let you put your face between her breasts, she’ll part them and then let them go and cry out “Boobily-oobily!”

After you’ve been fucked, sucked, had your tubes cleaned, toes cleaned and nose cleaned and you’re ready for more, you can go rest and relax at a live show. At a live show the women do everything with their vaginas except have babies. One starts with ping-pong balls and a soda fountain glass: Chung, chung, chung, she catches the ball in the glass. Then another brings out a Coca-Cola bottle, a king-size Coke, which she shakes for a long time, really shakes it hard. She works on it and works on it for a long time until—I don’t know how, but she does it—she opens it. I don’t know if she has a bottle opener in there, or teeth, but the Coke sprays all over the audience (because it’s warm, and she’s shaken it). Then she pours the rest of the Coke into her womb, squats and—whoosh—refills the bottle like a Coca-Cola bottling machine.

Then comes the banana. First she shoots a few lame shots, just boring shots like those Russian rockets that are going to sputter and pop and land on our cornfields. One, two, three. Then, for the finale, she aims her vagina down the center aisle like a cannon, loads it with a very ripe banana and—FOOP!—fires it. She almost hit me in the eye, almost hit an Australian housewife in the head. The banana hits the back wall and sticks, then slowly slides down to the floor where it is devoured by an army of giant roaches.

For the last act, out comes a Thai couple to do a live sex show. They do all the kama sutra poses—and the Thais are the most beautiful race of people I’ve ever seen. When you see them coming toward you on a Bangkok street you don’t know whether they’re men or women; there is such androgyny afoot. And when they get closer to you it doesn’t matter. The couple does this live fuck show as if they’re dancing. They are so beautiful as they go through their poses and positions. And they end with her completely wrapped around him, belly up, in this incredible contortion. And he’s got his dick deep in her to hold her up, as she balances in a classic praying position, watching a rerun of Poltergeist on the TV over the bar and waving to her friends. Then it’s time to go home.

Now some men have no problems with all of this, men who can admit to a longing for the old Henry Miller days. I know I’m too ambivalent about it to count myself in. In fact, some of the British actors said I was resisting tradition, that the whores were there for me and that I should go to them. That was a rule of the culture. But I was ambivalent about it. I found it very difficult to just leap in and not think about it. But the man who wants to, who knows the power balances he would like, who knows that if the bomb doesn’t go off, the sun will go out eventually so therefore he’s not concerned with history, who knows that after he dies his history will last maybe twenty minutes at most, who just wants to regress a little bit, that man should go to Thailand for a vacation. But he should be careful because it inflates your estrogen and ego in the worst way, making it difficult to reenter the West. He may end up staying on as a schoolteacher—many men do. They get stuck in the Lust Ring. I met them there and they were schoolteachers.

Now one of the British actors in the film was determined not to get stuck in this Lust Ring, and to be loyal to his wife back in Britain. He just didn’t want to get stuck in a situation of lust, so he worked out his libido by jogging and playing tennis. On the third or fourth day out jogging, he pulled a muscle in his right leg very badly, and in our hotel—which was like a Ramada Inn—he saw a sign for massage. He figured it was on the up and up, as it were. He asked for the “regular massage.”

Later, he said, “I went in, my God, they worked on the wrong muscle for an hour! For an hour I got a hand job; where am I going to get my leg fixed in this town?” You see, it’s subtle.

We were in the posh lounge of this Ramada Inn-like hotel. The only difference between it and a Ramada Inn was that it had those King and I round windows to make it Siamese. There was this woman singing with a Thai combo, “Killing me softly with his song…” and we were ordering Kloster beers. “Killing me softly…” and rats, posh rats, were running across the wall-to-wall carpeted bar to hide up under the furniture. “Killing me softly…” And the Art Department was coming through with Cambodian body parts, artificial limbs for the film. Skeletons, skulls, legs, bones, then “Killing me softly…” The waitress was on her way over with two beers, slinking and dancing, three inches off the carpet. And she had a slit up the side of her skirt so you could see her naked leg flashing through. She came to deliver the two beers, slid in and knelt at our feet, took the beers off her tray and put them on the coffee table. It’s subtle.

© 1985 by Spalding Gray

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