A Trip To Laos
This is not a story about the one big love or the struggle of trying to rescue a girl from the bar scene – just some travel experiences and personal remarks about Thailand and the business. I hope it might be interesting for some people. (If I am using the word "whore" anywhere, please be aware that it doesn’t carry any negative or derogatory meaning for me.)
In March 2000 I got to know a girl named Ooi (please pronounce "Oi", but with a long tone) in a cheap Thai brothel in Kanchanaburi. (It was not a bar, just a room with tables, benches and some girls and short-time rooms in the backyard.) She was from Udon Thani, rather old (about 33) and not really beautiful, but on that evening I went to that location with a friendly samlor driver I had met one day before and we destroyed a huge amount of Mekhong whiskey before I chose one of the girls sitting at our table, so my power of judgement was a bit restricted. But at that time she seemed to be quite charming and liked me very much (BTW I always had the best experience with girls who sort of CHOSE ME instead the other way round). (Yet another remark: someone mentioned in the reader’s submissions that he thought the most common nickname for bargirls must be Nong – don’t know if he confused it with the Thai expression for a younger sibling, as I never heard about anyone called Nong – but according to my insignificant experience, the most frequent nicknames for Thai women are Ooi, Noi, Lek, Joy and maybe Gai. For anyone interested, "Ooi" means sugarcane, "No" and "Lek" small, "Ga" chicken, and "Joy" could be taken from English, though in some cases the name Choi, meaning something like thin, might be mistaken for it.)
Later I sent her a letter from home, not because I had fallen in love with her (I hadn’t), just because I like to have friends in foreign countries. It was merely a try, I was not expecting her to write back. Back then, I couldn’t know that the whole story should develop in a rather unexpected way. Today we are not exactly FRIENDS, but….. read yourself:
In November 2000 I returned to the Kingdom for a 6 month’s stay at a university in a neighbouring province of BKK to work on my thesis. At some time Ooi finally answered my letter and I received it in Thailand, after it had been sent back from Germany by my family. I had just started a Thai language course, so there was no chance to understand much of the letter. I was hesitating a little bit first, fearing there could be any naughty / embarrassing details in it, then had it translated by a (female) colleague from my institute who I had made friends with. It was itself quite a funny occurrence because despite the lack of explicit contents she INSTANTLY sensed that the sender was a whore – Thai female instinct has to be one very very special thing. (Basically the letter went like "I am back in Udon and I have no job, if you want you can send me money and I would like to see you again, if you return to Thailand you can visit me here etc.“, but I have to admit there were all those "teerak" words, phrases like "I am really lonely and miss you so much" and so on, so it was somewhat obvious.) My colleague made an accurate written translation of the text, but couldn’t refrain from underlining some suspicious expressions and writing some personal remarks on the back of the paper, which I found really cool. Let me cite: "I don’t want to comment much about this lady cos this is also your personal matter. But as a Thai woman I would like to say that MOST THAI LADIES DON’T BEHAVE LIKE THIS, PLEASE UNDERSTAND. She is kind of the very special kind of lady that I don’t want say more." Didn’t she put that nicely? I don’t know what she thought about me, if she thought I had been to a bar / brothel or I had met the girl somewhere else (by chance) and she had to warn me as a friend not to get involved with such dangerous and disgusting persons….and sure I didn’t ask her. I guess at least she didn’t even want to know the exact circumstances. Anyway I think "decent" Thai women show much more contempt for the working girls than for their customers (interesting case of public schizophrenia: it’s all right for the men because it’s their nature, but those girls, beware!……they are scum). Back in my room I almost burst with laughter and giggled like a small child when I read her remarks again and again. It was so amusing that she apparently wanted to warn me of that girl. Lately I began wondering if the expression "Thai lady" is synonymous with "prostitute"…..? At least, I wouldn’t call anyone like that. It has a very strange overtone to it.
In late March 2001 I finally was to depart on a trip to Laos, an undertaking which I had had to postpone for quite a while. As Udon Thani is exactly on the way to Vientiane, I thought I could stay there overnight on the way and try to pay a short visit to Ooi’s family, just for fun. So I wrote back (using my newly acquired Thai skills) and told her I would try to phone her after I had arrived (Again: I wasn’t in love with her, I wasn’t even missing her a little bit, though I had to write it in order to sound more polite; I was just interested and thankful that she had answered my letter, so why not have a look at her home on this occasion.)
I arrived in Udon by bus in the early morning, found a cheap hotel room, slept until noon, made a short walk through the city centre (there is absolutely nothing to see) and tried to phone Ooi, but couldn’t reach her. So I decided to go to the house on my own. The people in the hotel didn’t know the address, but one of the tuk-tuk drivers in front signalled that he knew the way. It turned out to be a 15 minute journey by Isaan tuk-tuk. People who have been to the Northeast might know the Isaan variety of tuk-tuks which is – well, RUSTIC and very, very slow despite the noise emission being very much comparable to the BKK type tuk-tuk. Anyway, Ooi’s family lived in a "village" called Ban Phasuk situated on the southern outskirts of Udon and consisting of only one long road coming from the centre of town and extending into some kind of slum area prospering immediately behind the city limits. You have to imagine self-constructed huts with corrugated iron roofs erected on the slope on either side of the dam-like road. The houses have electricity supply, but water is brought in something best described as a "barrel on wheels" and stored in huge earthen jars. There are one or two village shops where they mainly sell cigarettes, beer, whiskey and sweets, and one "restaurant". During daytime, all doors are wide open and everyday’s life is taking place on the street. Virtually every inhabitant seems to be on the street at any given time between 6 AM and 6 PM. Astonishing numbers of children are running around and playing. Cooking is also done in front of the main entrance doors of the houses. There seem to be a lot of somewhat deranged people, maybe also drug addicts, but I reckon it’s a very safe place. I don’t have to explain that people are very poor, but they are no criminals and wouldn’t steal from a rich farang appearing unexpectedly amidst them. They often appear a bit rude (or let me say direct), but they have a big heart.
It is quite an experience. For example, there are fat old ex-Mamasans and other women in their late 40's / early 50's who tell you they have had a child with an American soldier (Udon used to be one of the big US Air Force bases in NE Thailand during the Vietnam War, along with Nakhon Phanom, Ubon Ratchathani etc – at least they left some huge airstrips for civil aviation…….) I must have been one of the very few farangs to enter this village since these times. Everybody seems to be jobless, except the tuk-tuk drivers, shopkeepers and restaurant owners. Men are sitting in the shadow, smoking, drinking and chatting all day long. As far as I can judge, the only future prospect for a female born there is to go to another province and become a prostitute to support her family. There was also one gay boy/katoey who had worked in the sex business in Pattaya, injured badly in a motorcycle accident and looking like a wreck. I came to the conclusion that Ban Phasuk would be a fantastic target for a sociological study (anyone interested?) In addition to the above mentioned things, you can observe how Thai family structures are working, for example. The older children (who don’t have money themselves) give some baht coins to their younger siblings who are very glad to rush off and exchange them into a packet of snacks or something. In exchange, they pay respect with a wai and have to carry out tasks like getting the adults some beer bottles from the shop on the next occasion.
The tuk-tuk driver found the house I was looking for, and it turned out that Ooi wasn’t at home (she was staying with friends or relatives in Loei for a few days – and generally not working anymore, as mentioned before), but the family received me heartily inside. They knew I must be the one who had written the letters. Ooi has about 7 or 8 brothers and sisters and one thousand uncles, aunts and cousins (and a 13 year old daughter, I became aware, but I never knew who the father was), so I quickly found myself eating lunch and at the same time being addressed by many different people trying to lead a conversation with me. Her younger sister Rojana, or „nong roj“ (pronounced lot), as a nickname form, appeared to be the most likeable person in the whole village, a very kind-hearted, thoughtful and calm character who was married with what seemed to be a rather nice young guy and who had a 1-year-old child. By the way, the only female in Ban Phasuk who I cannot imagine working as a prostitute, and supposedly she had never done it. I announced I would go to Laos the next morning. Nobody was able to tell me when Ooi was going to be back in Udon, but presumably not before noon of the next day. Finally I went with Lot to make a phone call to Ooi. (Has anyone else seen these street stalls where teenagers rent away their cellphones for long-distance calls? I have only seen them in Udon and in Hat Yai and Yala, deep in the South, I think. It seems to be a newly emerging business for young people in some areas and I think it’s not a bad idea because you don’t have to buy phonecards, don’t run the risk of getting interrupted when the card is empty and don’t have to find a working public cardphone first.) I couldn’t understand much of what Ooi said because she talked like a waterfall, seeming to be very glad I had come to Udon. Lot accompanied me to my hotel and we parted with an agreement that I would leave for Laos around 12 noon of the coming day in any case, but maybe there would be a chance that Ooi would come back to see me before. I thought to myself that the chance was rather small and expected she would maybe turn up around 10 or 11 if she hurried up.
Then the shock at 5 AM as somebody is knocking vigorously against my door. It’s Lot and Ooi, who hugs me like I was the most beloved person she has ever known. She has come back from Loei DURING THE NIGHT to see me. I am absolutely tired, but they urge me to return to Ban Phasuk at once where we sleep for some time (Ooi has her own hut behind her father’s house, where the two of us can stay together). What follows are a) several walks around the "village", b) a visit to the market to get the necessary ingredients for lunch, together with Lot and her baby, which she was breast feeding while we were travelling by tuk-tuk and c) a stroll through Nong Phra Jak Park in Udon with a large part of the family. You guess who pays all the tuk-tuk rides and expenses for food.
Ooi had forgotten every little word of spoken English, if she had ever been able to speak some, I cannot remember. And the other family members couldn’t speak it anyway. But my knowledge of Thai was enough to get along quite well.
The fatal thing was, she and her family thought me to be her "boyfriend" (bpen faen Ooi) without considering asking me for my opinion first, and after we had walked along the street together and she had introduced me to some neighbours, at the latest, the entire village thought the same. I tried to dissuade them from this idea, but they didn’t want to hear. I mean, it wasn’t a real problem for me to be regarded as a possible husband for Ooi, but I didn’t want anybody to develop illusions or expectations that could not be maintained. She repeatedly asked me if I found her to be beautiful, but despite my efforts to give her a clue without hurting her ("well…..a little bit"), she wouldn’t allow herself to realize what I really felt (or didn’t feel) for her. She thought I was joking, or was trying to make herself believe that I showed affection for her where I actually didn’t.
Of course most family members (especially aunts, uncles, cousins) and neighbours wanted to talk to me or to tell me some chaotic nonsense, whether I understood it or not, at the same time drinking beer or whiskey with me. One of Ooi’s older sisters had apparently gone (harmlessly) nuts, as if her thinking capability had been impaired by drugs, and I never had the slightest idea what it was she wanted from me. She wasn’t rude or obtrusive, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. Slowly I was becoming a bit fed up wasting my time with these certainly interesting and more or less friendly, but rather shallow people (the only exception being the really amiable Lot). Anyway, time had come for me to continue my trip to Laos.
This is where the real story starts, because now one thing that had already announced itself earlier became reality: It was proposed that I could take Ooi with me. (She had never been abroad, although Laos is only 55 km away from Udon.) What can I say about this? Could I reject their wish so easily? Yes, if I had been totally against it, I wouldn’t have minded to turn it down. But I wasn’t sure if it was a bad idea or not. The odds were 50:50. To be honest, my biggest concern was to spend more money than I actually had intended to. On the other hand, it might be funny to take her with me (for 5 or 6 days), so why not try and make an interesting new experience. I finally agreed, which was gratefully acknowledged by everyone.
We took a bus to Nong Khai, then a tuk-tuk to the Thai border control point at the Friendship Bridge. Here we had to get Ooi a limited entry permit for Thai persons visiting Laos, which cost me about 300 Baht, including photograph. This permit should play a crucial role later, as you can read further below. Then we crossed the bridge by shuttle bus, passed the Lao control point without problems (they had charming lady officers) and took a private taxi, an old black Peugeot, to Vientiane, which is only 20 km from the border. There we found a guesthouse which was a little bit too expensive for my taste, with a large aircon room, TV and fridge.
You must know that I absolutely enjoy travelling on my own and like to have that absolute freedom of deciding what to do, where to stay, who to talk to, what to visit and change my plans from one second to another if I feel like doing it. I had never travelled with a friend, small group of friends or a girlfriend before. Consequently, I sometimes felt about Ooi as a millstone round my neck, she was always there, costing me double entrance fees, about thrice the normal sum for meals plus additional money for cigarettes, which she consumed steadily, amounting to nearly 1 package per day. (I am a non-militant non-smoker who simply cannot understand how anyone could take pleasure in inhaling the fumes of burning leaves and consider nicotine addiction nothing more than a case of lacking self-dicipline, so this really annoyed me the most.) At times I wasn’t very happy with her company. Only once did I walk around on my own for one afternoon, taking photos and feeling free. Luckily there’s not that much to see in Vientiane (it’s a nice place though), so I didn’t really miss out on anything due to her presence….and after all, she had to submit to my ideas and travel plans. (On the other hand, you cannot demand of an uneducated Isaan working girl to have a lot of own ideas and travel plans anyway….she wouldn‘t have had the slightest notion what to do in Laos, of course.)
From Vientiane we went on to Vangvieng and Louangphabang (yes, the correct writing in Lao is without r). I was determined to go through with my plans exactly as intended before, as the time frame was rather narrow. In spite of all the things I stated above, there were many nice moments, especially when travelling on the bus for hours. It was nice to have someone beside you, which was new for me. The journey through the mountains was just fantastic (The road has been fixed recently, but is narrow and has 1 million curves; about two thirds of the 300 km are set in mountainous terrain, therefore it’s a constant up and down, turning left, turning right, the road just doesn’t seem to end. On the way back, when we made the whole trip to Vientiane in one piece, it took 10 ½ hours, including a forced stop due to a flat tyre; but the means of transportation at least in that part of Laos are better than in Cambodia, for example, and the landscape was exactly what I like. Beautiful limestone formations covered by largely undisturbed jungle, Sometimes resembling to Phang Nga Bay without water.) Ooi also liked it, she was happy and contented with nestling to me and pointing outside the window and even appeared to be grateful to a certain extent. As you can imagine, her method of „payment“ for this trip was sex. It was really not bad at all, but I wasn’t so fond of her as I had been one year ago in Kanchanaburi, considerably drunk.
Then again those uneasy feelings started to develop (I’d like to stress that the whole story was highly ambivalent): Now I am here, travelling around with an ageing whore who throws my money out of the window for cigarettes and expensive meals which she orders although none of us is really hungry. At least, I have control over the money (I found all she had in HER purse were 1 or 2 Baht!), but again and again she manages to grab or order things which I have to pay for in the end. I succeed in refusing to buy her any gifts and souvenirs. And still she isn't aware that I don’t love here, but took her with me out of kindness. Probably she thinks I am stingy. The only thing missing in this story is that she starts to complain. I don’t know what I am going to do in that case, probably shout at her and call her an ungrateful bitch. Apparently, this is some sort of badly written comedy.
(Having said it was a bit strange for me to be accompanied by a whore, this reminds me of another strange experience: I once got into the ridiculous situation of wandering around with a bargirl from Buriram at Pratunam Market. She was quite timid as she had almost never been outside her bar in Soi Ngam Duphli area and would have got lost if left alone anywhere in BKK, so she clung to me all the time. The thing was she had changed to some nice looking, but rather sloppy clothes, her slip being visible through the semi-transparent white trousers! As you can guess, we attracted many well………strange (amused, contemptuous, incredulous, whatever) looks (see the „looks“ article by someone else in the readers‘ submissions for comparison), every single Thai person on the market knowing for sure she was a prostitute. It was more than a little bit embarrassing, I can tell. Sometimes I felt like a spotlight was pointing at us: Look at that stupid farang with his whore! But she didn’t even seem to realize we were drawing so much attention. And yet another observation: most working girls seem to act according to the belief that their reputation is damaged anyway once they have entered the business and virtually enjoy "misbehaving" in public – smoking, wearing skimpy clothes, holding hands with men or nestling against them. It appears they are somewhat relieved to have this opportunity to break the strict rules of Thai society. Don’t know if they do that intentionally or not. Well, back to my little shopping trip, I tried not to mind the unpleasant situation, but it was not one of my favourite experiences, you believe!)
During the night in Vangvieng Ooi finally realized that I didn’t love her. (When she insisted on knowing the truth about it, I told her "I like you, but I don’t love you.") She was downright shocked and proposed to leave me and return to Udon the following day. At that moment, our mood was absolutely low and the atmosphere quite gloomy. I thought „How do I deserve this shit? Did I invite anyone to come with me? Must I occupy myself with a silly bargirl’s pseudo problems? Can’t she just enjoy her free journey? What is all that fuss about?" Again it showed that men aren’t as sensible as women with regard to these matters, but it definitely was her own fault to fancy that I felt more than a little bit of sympathy for her. That night, I wouldn’t have minded if she had committed herself to leaving (it would save me some of my money and give me a chance to be alone…), but in the end, she dropped that plan again. For her benefit, because when I try to imagine her going back on her own, I think there is no way she could have made it, crazy idea! One thing that puzzled me was that Ooi, despite being a sao Isaan and speaking some kind of dialect with her family, absolutely didn’t know many words from Lao language (like maak-nat for pineapple or sao for twenty). (I know many other people from NE Thailand who use exactly the same words like Lao speakers; they say "sao baht" instead of "yii-sip baht".) That means, it was almost easier for me than for her to talk with and understand the people. She would hardly have managed to bargain a price, let alone to keep control over handling with the Lao banknotes (the highest value in circulation is 5000 Kip, 25 Baht, which is rather…mmmm…..inconvenient). In addition, she has some difficulties with reading and writing, though I think she isn’t really illiterate.
We got to know one really nice American guy with an impressive – to put it nicely – body (Hi Buzz, maybe you read this….) on the bus from Vangvieng to Louangphabang and met him again 2 or 3 times in restaurants in LPB. He never asked about our relationship, just our names and where we came from, and I felt no urge to explain him that she was not my girlfriend and rather travelling with me by chance, making it look like I had bought some vulgar Isaan farm girl out of a bar forever to live with her and wanted to make me an idiot among all the politically correct backpackers travelling on the same bus or populating the streets.
LPB was nice, a very secluded and peaceful town with beautiful old Lao temples. It used to be the capital city of the legendary Lane Xang (one million elephants) Kingdom, as which Laos was known in former times, but nowadays it’s a sleepy and totally unimportant place. Go there if you want to take a rest from BKK! (But Vientiane or even Udon will do as well……) We were also able to make a boat trip on Mekhong River to the famous Pak Ou Caves, which aren’t really worth visiting though.
I hadn’t brought such a lot of cash and Travellers Checks because I had expected to travel alone all the time and hadn’t considered additional expenses. So towards the end of the journey it became apparent we would just be able to make ends meet. Ooi didn’t worry though, despite the fact I kept telling her that I was short of money. I often counted my banknotes in front of her and told her how much it was in Thai currency (it was much too complicated for her to convert Lao Kip to Thai Baht at a rate of approx. 1:200). But farangs are rich, so what….? If they run out of cash, they go to a bank or ATM and get themselves new money. Fine, but the catch is that there are no ATMs in Laos.
That’s why we arrived at the border using virtually the LAST CASH I had on me for the tuk-tuk ride from Vientiane to the control point! No problem, we just had to cross the Friendship Bridge and head for the nearest ATM in Nongkhai. That’s what you will say and what I thought. But there was a little problem: it turned out that Ooi hadn’t read the regulations on her entry permit, and I myself also hadn’t been aware that it was only valid for 3 days. So she had overstayed it for 3 days and accordingly was stopped at the Lao border control point after I had successfully passed. She was brought in a room and I was also invited to come in. First I didn’t understand what it was all about, but finally the friendly officers explained us that Ooi (that means I…..) had to pay a fine for each day. I cannot remember the amount, maybe 600 baht altogether, but it didn’t really matter because I had absolutely no money on me. Of course they wouldn’t let Ooi go although they first seemed to consider to let her return home and make her pay afterwards…..we were led upstairs to talk to someone else who wasn’t available, then down again, up again, down again.
So we were quite fucked up, detained by Lao officials and unable to pay, the only chance to get us money being my credit card in connection with a Thai ATM. One higher ranking guy came up with an idea. I already prepared myself to the silly task of taking a shuttle bus over the bridge, finding a tuk-tuk, going straight to an ATM in Nongkhai, returning to the bridge and crossing it again to pay the fine, and leave with my lady, on the condition that the Lao border police had informed their Thai colleagues about this plan and they would find it a marvellous idea…..but the guy changed his mind in the last possible moment and stopped me from entering the bus. Finally, after some more minutes spent with walking around while Ooi and I were becoming more and more calm and helpless (but not desperate), the border police officer told me "Ok, I can give you permission" (that means he had decided to let us go like that because he didn’t want to bother himself with the case anymore) and brought us to the shuttle bus which we didn’t even have to pay for due to his instruction. The whole unpleasant scene had cost us less than 1 hour. Thanks a lot here, you were being very kind and relaxed all the time. And everyone among the readers who is still unsure whether to go to Laos or not – do it! The people there are among the gentlest and friendliest you can find.
The "best" was yet to come. After our lucky return to Udon, I stayed overnight at Ban Phasuk before going back to BKK. Now as the time of farewell was coming closer, an effort was made to lure some money out of me, the essence being "You have been to Lao with Ooi (to WHOSE benefit was that???), you can give the mother some money. She needs it for the house, to repair the roof etc.", but Ooi also talked about a TV set for her room. They thought 10,000 Baht was appropriate. I thought like who the fuck am I? I spent more money than I wanted and could afford on this journey because I did that girl a favour and took her with me, I paid for all the transport and the meals and some beer here in the village (so it would have been much cheaper to stay in a hotel), plus the stupid cigarettes, we were broke and had problems with the border police, and now they are asking money from me? No way!" After my stay in Thailand I still wanted to go to Malaysia and I really had to pay attention to my expenses so I resisted their requests. But then during night, lying in bed, Ooi suddenly started to raise the topic again. I was disconcerted as she just wasn’t capable of understanding my situation. "Can you give 10,000 Baht to the mother?" – "No, I cannot!" – "Yes, you can. Only 10,000!" – "No, I CANNOT." – "OK, how much can you give? 8000?" – "No." – "Whyyyy? Ok, how much? 5000?" – "No, I cannot give you ANY money."
(At this point I was determined they wouldn’t get a single satang from me because this was becoming so ridiculous. All they could think of was the rich farang cliché, nobody wanted to consider any arguments – OK, I know I am asking a lot from a family of poor, simple-minded Thais.)
And on we go: (despairing) "OK, 3000." – (disconcerted) "…………" – (stubborn) "OK, 2000?" – (last desperate effort to explain) "NO, I cannot give you money! I don’t have enough money myself!" Finally she sulkingly accepted my total refusal, not believing my cruelty and heartlessness.
Fortunately, they weren’t angry at me at all when I left the following morning. whole issue just seemed to have been forgotten by them. After all, Thai people are looking for harmony all the time and don’t tend to be very resentful, unless they have lost their face. (I didn’t take offence either, but was a bit angry and taken aback by the shamelessness they had exhibited.)
BTW after my return to Europe I sent her some photos we had taken. A considerable time later, I got a friendly answer letter in which she said she remembered our time in Laos and had been happy to go there with me because she had never travelled to a foreign country before and it had been really nice, and she also thanked me for sending the pictures. At least.
Conclusion: I know some girls that would have been much nicer to take on this trip with me (see my first submission, for example). Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience which I do not regret in any form. Writing this story, I didn’t intend to complain. After all it was my decision to visit her and then to take her with me on this trip. Basically, I just wanted to show what can happen if you aren’t averse to unusual ideas. One thing I learned is that it can be useful to make things clear in advance and that I should have said something to the effect of "I can take you with me, but please realize that I don’t want to be your boyfriend, now make up your mind and tell me if you still want to go?"
Very nice report with lots of astute observations of life in Thailand and I can relate to most of it. There are lots of other Ois out there, just waiting to meet another farang like you.