Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in early 1991.
Having recently recovered from a sojourn in the Levant investigating the current status of belly dancing, and with some time on my hands, I decided to undertake a journey of considerably greater duration, scope, and scientific magnitude, a voyage deep into the very navel of Oriental wisdom: those potions and pellets devoted to inspiring the bedroom arts. Envisaging a selfless quest that would take me through the seedy alleys and steamy fleshpots of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, I wired ahead to my man in Calcutta to pack my steamer trunks and prepare letters of credit, letters of transit, and letters of introduction. I then took passage east in full tropical kit and settled down to the prospect of several months’ arduous research.
As Aristotle remarks somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. Let us begin by defining broadly what we mean by aphrodisiacs, those of Southeast Asia in particular. I will not speak here of the sudsy pleasures of the wriggling Bangkok masseuses, nor of any other live specimens. As Aristotle might’ve added had he been better travelled, the first quality of a good aphrodisiac is that, once located, you can conveniently bring it home without violating any customs regulations.
Now you might well argue (as the Chinese have for centuries) the sexual virtues of shark’s fin soup. You might equally argue the similar properties of an expensive soup made from rare birds’ nests plucked, at great danger, from the dizzying heights of Thai island caves by daring men scaling rotten lianas. But what good are such delicacies if you have to fly a woman ten thousand miles to find them reliably on a menu? And then run the risk of her not ordering them? No, a good aphrodisiac should fit in an effective quantity into one’s vest pocket. My own personal rule of thumb is that it should at the very least be more portable than the person for whom it is intended.
I hope I may be permitted, in the interests of scholarly discussion, to include in this modest study not only those items of seduction, but also those of mutual enhancement, and finally, those of self-reinforcement. Lest this latter category embarrass a few readers, let us remember that even the luscious Kissy Suzuki had to use a cunning Japanese mixture of electrocuted frog’s sweat and powder of dried lizard to revive an inactive James Bond in You Only Live Twice.
Prior to embarking for the Orient, I took the trouble to call upon an old school chum who has worked for some years in the arcane corners of the legitimate pharmaceuticals industry. Before tracking down some aged apothecary in Hua Hin, I reasoned, why not see what Western medicine had to offer in the way of aphrodisiacs? It is all very well (I pointed out to my friend) to be able to put a man on the moon, but what good is modern technology if it can’t come up with a foolproof elixir, a few drops of which will instantly turn the person of choice into a willing, even eager, sexual slave?
“Precious little use, bub,” was his quick reply. “There is one item we’ve come up with called MDA. For a few years it was a recreational drug of choice, especially among yuppies. It’s about a hundred times more powerful than valium—we use it to ease the pain of terminal patients. Supposedly it has aphrodisiacal qualities as well, but you’d probably be just as happy to roll around on the carpet with the dog. Personally, I’d head east.”
Steamer trunks in hand, I began my investigations in Singapore. On infamous Decker Road, I decided to confine myself geographically and passed up the opportunity to buy kangaroo-hair ticklers imported from Australia. The next morning, however, in the rickety Chinese quarter, my eye was caught by a promising street-side stand. Piled high with boxed powders, there was also a crude carved wooden man, whose healthy protuberance could not be misinterpreted. Had I struck paydirt already? The mustachioed stallkeeper assured me profusely that he purveyed “only best powder, sir,” and recommended a golden box with two dragons and Chinese characters on the front. “One teaspoon in boiling water, twice a day,” he intoned. “Better you take ten box. Special price for you, only eighteen Singapore dollar for one box.”
I peered closely at the back, where an English translation was thoughtfully provided. It promised to cure “overfatigue, poor memory, maldevelopment of sexual organs, sexual debility, aches in loin, night emissions, etc.” Well, I thought, I do have a bad memory. I peered closer. The ingredients were the classic Chinese restoratives: herbs, wild ginseng, sea horse, hedgehog skin. More to the point, the powder also contained deer penis, spotted deer antler, donkey penis, dog penis, ox penis, sheep penis, and for a little flavor, snow frog.
Tempting as this concoction was, I decided to experiment several days with one box before investing heavily. In water its taste was unexpectedly bland; it had no ill side effects. In fact, it seemed to have no effects whatsoever. At least that I can recall.
Somewhat chastened, and unable to locate the unscrupulous tradesman, I flew south to Indonesia. Because that archipelago contains thirty thousand islands, and life is short, I decided to pass up Borneo, Bali, or Sumatra, and made for Java. Traditionally, an Indonesian girl hides her underwear in the clothing of the man she wants to seduce; I was unable to confirm if this still occurs. In Jogjakarta I saw a shadow puppet show caught in an untimely monsoon, but otherwise came up high and dry.
My extensive readings had suggested, however, the attractions of a smaller town called Solo, whose lovely women are said “to prowl the streets like hungry tigers.” Figuring some secret recipe might lie behind their feline insatiability, I explored the very busy Solo night market but turned up no tigresses. Solitary, I sampled a so-called “male virility tonic” called Susu Itb. Perhaps, had I stayed longer, I might’ve had positive results, but, unable to buy the stuff by the bottle for more rigorous scientific trials, I headed north to Malaysia.
At this point it struck me as highly possible I was being followed, so I disembarked the train by night and proceeded by horse cart to Malacca, that charming ex-Portuguese, ex-British town of the fabled straits and the enchanted name. Its sleepy waterfront was as soothing as ever, but I came up with no magic serums.
A haggard, elderly shopkeeper did try to assure me that in his selection of handsome canes for which that seaport is justly famous, several could easily be put to aphrodisiacal purpose. I could not agree with him on this, but I conceded that his well-carved canes were admirable works of art.
In Kuala Lumpur, I tried that fabulously repulsive and smelly fruit, the durian, on the basis of a Malay proverb which states, “When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.” This may be so, but I found it difficult to get close enough to a durian to get one down in the first place.
In Penang—that island oasis of preserved colonial-era calm—on a sweltering Christmas Day I celebrated by making the rounds of Chinese medicine men and their immaculate shops. One wizened patriarch’s unadorned cabinets held stretched snakeskins, dried spiders, porcupine quills, immobilized lizards like tiny dragons, and at least a hundred different insects in a kind of taxidermist’s nightmare. I asked about aphrodisiacs; he merely grunted and offered me a sprig of betel to chew, then opened his jaw like a whale to show a mouthful of the stuff.
Undaunted by this failure to communicate, a little farther up the street I found a younger and seedier version of the same Chinese gentleman. Seated in the shady recesses of his narrow shop with his wife, at first he said, “That against the law in Malaysia.” When I started to leave, however, he darted out of the shadows and pulled me back in. With a serious expression he extracted a small ring of knotted catgut, pushed it over the counter, and said brokenly, “Happy ring.” He then indicated its purpose, which I had by that time divined, and he pointed out the deviousness of minute individual knots around its circumference.
For such a test I would, of course, need a female assistant, and fortunately such labor is easy to hire in this part of the world. The tight little ring certainly seemed all that the doctor had ordered, but I realized that, rather thoughtlessly, even though he had made it clear to me when to put it on, I had neglected to ask him the more crucial question of when to take it off. After wearing it for several days I felt my gait had become a trifle bowlegged, a problem resulting, in fact, from poor circulation. In the end, to extricate myself from the fearsome contraption, I was forced to sever it with my Swiss Army knife.
Going back to lodge a complaint with the merchant, he was gentleman enough to offer me “at a very special price” four tablets he'd made, he assured me, “from all kinds of herbs.” I must admit I was losing heart by this time, so I pocketed them somewhat moodily and headed for Burma. In that remote country I hoped to purchase some of the love philtres mentioned by George Orwell in Burmese Days—“aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills.” In the Rangoon market I did purchase a number of large pills, but they turned out to be soap.
I had better luck in Mandalay, however, after a jolting nineteen-hour ride seated bolt upright in a pre-war railway carriage. At the Mahamuni Pagoda I saw the reverence with which the local population treats two superb bronze statues of warriors pilfered from Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia five centuries ago. The Burmese believe that rubbing a spot on the statues blesses their own health in the same body part. Judging from this, the Burmese have quite a few headaches and belly aches; but for my own purposes, I was satisfied to note that one warrior’s codpiece had actually rubbed away, while the other’s belt region had been polished to a shine over the centuries.
Heading south to Thailand, in Chiang Mai I was fortunate to meet an American expatriate named Daniel Reid—author, translator, longtime resident in Asia and an expert in local herbs and medicines. I was not astonished to learn that he imbibes daily his own elixir—for general health purposes as well—and that, mixed with rum and smelling of a dozen herbs, it also contains most of the unusual ingredients my useless Singapore powder had claimed to. Daniel assured me that his mix contained only the finest dried and powdered animal members, and that any Oriental aphrodisiac worth quaffing was based on this recipe. (Daniel’s is detailed in his book, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, Simon & Schuster). He poured me a glass, mixed with a little cognac. It rolled smokily, vaporously, down the throat, but otherwise seemed to do little else. In a cynical abandonment of scientific principles, that night I downed the Penang pills that had been jangling in my pocket for many days and lay down to sleep my last sleep before leaving Asia.
But it was not to be. I got no sleep that night; nor did my assistant. Whether it was Daniel Reid’s revived ancient formula, or those pills, I cannot say; perhaps it was even a delayed reaction to the Singapore powder. For anyone who wants to find out, I still have two pills left with which I am prepared to part for a very special price.