Girl with the Khao San Dilemma

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I am curving through narrow alleyways lined with occupied mattresses, bars on wheels, and massage storefronts. The steam from the evening rain is still rising from the walking path, and motorcycles parked chaotically across the pathway make somewhat of an obstacle course. It is nightfall. Our visas are within one day of expiration, and the only train we were able to book will have us sleeping on a 3rd class bench for an awe inspiring 11 hour journey to Laos. This could be a lesson in why not to put off travel planning to the last minute. Instead, this is a confession of my waning morality as Bangkok takes hold of my soul.

The boy I am bargaining with is no older than ten. There is no possible way he owns this used book stand, but there’s no one else around to barter with. I hold a legitimate copy of a book in my hand, while he holds what is a clearly pirated copy of the sequel in his. I am trying to talk him into taking my real book for a discounted price on his fake one. (Despite my decision to only read the books I pick up from the ‘free exchange’ table in each guesthouse, I had to draw the line when the only trade-able English books were sappy gold embossed romance novels.) I am desperate. And this is Bangkok.

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Buying a pirated book was something I swore I would never do. Yes, I have seen pirated items everywhere since we set foot in Asia. We’ve seen the displays of pirated movies, albums, and handbags time and time again. But authors are different. Authors generally live the same sorry existence as the rest of us. They deserve every penny they earn. Comparatively, movie stars own jets. My rationality, while slighted, remains logical to me.

Pirated book. Long train ride on a non-reclining bench seat. I weigh my options.

Morally, this is a dilemma I should be guiltily questioning– I could just take one of the readily available sleeping pills sold on every street corner- like everyone else does- and ride out the train ride entirely. Instead I am arguing over 50 baht with a child, in a country with no copyright regulation and clearly no penchant for the legacy of deceased authors. I am only perpetrating this by instigating a prospective purchase.

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My moral gauge is imbalanced. But then again, this is Bangkok.

It could be worse. Tomorrow morning let’s interview the 20-somethings who just boarded a tuk-tuk bound for a ‘special ping pong show’. Everyone here seems to pivot a bit on moral foundation. In comparison, my lapse of self respect is laughable. But back to the book negotiations…

The little boy wants my exchange plus 100 baht. I open the fake book and point out how badly photocopied his book is. I open my real book to orchestrate a comparison of the pages. I point, I shake my head to his overpriced offer. ’50 Baht.’ He laughs. A stare-down. He shrugs. A little hand offers the black market book over to me. A deal is made. I ignore the stifled screams coming from the duct taped voice inside my head.

This is Bangkok. Land of the free.

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