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Slow Learner: The First Chapter



Like many, if not most readers of Stick, I too have felt the allure and pull of Thailand. For me, my first trip was in 1997. Since then, I have visited Thailand every year and attempted living and working there twice. I am now back in my home country (America), but I read this site and I may well be back again on vacation in the coming year. Only time will tell.

Like many of my Farang brethren, I first went to Thailand as a means for getting away from an upsetting situation at home. I was living overseas in another Western country (an ex-pat), with a very good job, and I was separated (pending divorce) and trying to come to grips with the fact that the cumulative effects of child support, high taxes in a pseudo-socialized country, and local laws that made earning significant extra income, beyond 25% of one's usual salary, not feasible (a tax system that discourages extra work through substantial "provisional" taxes on added income). In short, though I had a prestigious and enjoyable position, I had very little money. I was, quite frankly, depressed and getting more so. I had all the ingredients of a mid-life crisis.

My friends encouraged me to take time and get away for a bit. I pled poverty and noted that I already lived in a tourist resort there. They said "Thailand." And, with the crash of the baht, sure enough, a little investigation showed that I could indeed get away and have some time in a new and exotic location (to me) at very little cost.

My employer was sympathetic. They gave me leave at full pay and I picked up a discounted plane ticket to Thailand. I was on my way! A six week holiday in Thailand to lift my spirits. Of course, I extended that to three months. Let's just call that my first mistake and leave it at that.

During the course of my initial travels, I met many Farang in a similar position – traveling in Thailand or wandering that part of the globe to escape a broken heart or divorce-induced, income disaster. Social support was not a problem and I had some wonderful times hooking up for trips around the country with varying groups of fellow travelers. It was great.

During my first six weeks I met and spoke with Thai people, but most of my interactions were with my fellow Farang, mostly travelers and a few ex-pats of the English teaching variety with whom I enjoyed a bit of ganga in the evenings at what was then a popular, if somewhat seedy hang-out at one of the outside bars near a popular tourist area. No, it was not a go-go bar and I had no extended contact with those places for most of my time in Thailand; just the occasional night out partying with friends at the discos in Pat Pong.

The more time I spent in Thailand on that trip, the less and less often I left Bangkok, and by the end of my first six weeks there, I was pretty much hanging out with the ex-pat teachers and other interesting characters who used to populate that interesting little street we affectionately referred to as "Dog Alley" (because, of course, of the mangy dogs who lived on the street there behind a Wat).

It was there I met my first Thai girlfriend. Yes, that's right, I actually spent a month and a half in Bangkok without getting trapped by one of the ladies of the night. Surprised? Well, even in that short a period of time I had seen enough negative sides to chasing the bar girls that I simply did not do it. Instead, I met one with a regular, poorly paying job and began to date her. [To the best of my knowledge, she never worked again.] I had, it seemed, been a step towards learning to live off Farang (how many steps in that direction she took before me I do not know, but I doubt she had really just learned to walk!).

You see, what I did not know then, was that Thai women who work around tourist areas are often much like many of the Farang in the area – they too are often on the way down. This one, let's call her Noi (not her real name), had had a nice government job for many years but lost it with the dramatic fall of the baht that occurred in '97. When I met her, she was tending bar and doing the books back there at our little hang-out place behind the Wat.

Noi was close to me in age (I guess I was 41, turning 42 at the time), but looked ten years younger. She did not like her job, but she did like Farang and she was fully fluent in English. In short order, I was in love!

Since she did not like her job and, knowing her job I did not blame her, she eventually quit. In so doing, she took the next step so common in Farang areas and ended up living with, on and off, a succession of Western boyfriends. A small number, to be sure (2 over a period of a number of years) who took care of her. I did not live with her. I was not her first Farang boyfriend, but I may have been the first to help her out a bit financially (or maybe not). I paid her rent, which was small money, a few times, and occasionally "loaned her" a few hundred baht. Early on, she always paid me back. Once we were dating for a few weeks she no longer did. No big deal. I knew her, and knew many of her friends, and I had met her family. I had dreams that this might be "the one." Whatever, she was my first Asian GF and I was smitten.

I had wonderful times those last six or seven weeks in Thailand. Hanging out at that little outside bar, smoking ganga there with her and the Farang we hung out with, sharing beers with the occasional Thai police officers who stopped by the area and shooting pool in the afternoons.

Eventually my time ran out and I had to go home. But the place I returned to was not really my home, just another country in which I was an ex-pat worker. And I missed Thailand, and her, dearly. So a few weeks later, when there was a break at work, I decided to work from "home" and packed up my work and laptop and headed right straight back to Thailand and to Noi. Though that trip flew by, it was only two weeks, it was another marvelous time.

On my next trip back to my adopted land I knew I had to stay longer as I had to catch up on my work. Still, I thought about returning to Thailand. Don't we all?

Noi asked me for a bit of money from time to time and I happily trotted off to Western Union a few times to send her some. Nothing big, just a few hundred dollars three or four times (by the end, I suppose she cost me about 150,000 baht in total, so pay attention to those small sums that keep going out!).

In the meantime, despite having fallen in love with Thailand and Noi, I was right back where I had started from. Less depressed to be sure, but no better off financially, and with no clearer solution to my financial woes than before.

So, I decided to return to my home country (America) where the dollar was worth more, the wages a bit higher, and the taxes a good deal lower. I toyed with the idea of taking Noi with me, but never really got that far. Instead, a fateful thing happened. The company of a friend who knew of my plight contacted me and asked if I would like to work with them to set-up a branch in Thailand. Naturally, I agreed.

I quit my job, took my half of my limited retirement package at the time, and headed back to Thailand. Unfortunately, once there I learned two things. The first, which I learned immediately, was that Noi's old boyfriend had returned to Thailand and she was waiting for me to return to tell me that in person. I am not sure how many trips to Western Union he got to Thailand before me, but it must have been at least one, so I was none too pleased with that!

Still, we sorted that out. I actually liked her boyfriend and we became friends (one can never have too many friends to drink beer and smoke ganga with in Thailand). Noi and I remained friends for a number of years, until she died about two years ago. I am not sure the cause, but by then it may have been drugs (her bf's and others I knew there often slid in that direction).

Around this time I met another girl at the guesthouse bar. She helped me to set up my apartment, getting me Thai discounts and translating as need be. Somehow she moved herself in as well. I do not remember how. I suppose it was after I had had more than a few beers. But, she was cute and only 24 at the time, so….

This one, let's call her Wan, was actually a BG. I did not know that at first as I had not met her in a bar. I knew she worked in a bar in another part of town and it was not until I had known her a week or so that I knew which bar it was. After all, how would I recognize the name of some bar in Bangkok? So, why bother to ask?

Well, I bet some of you her know the bar. It was Gold Fingers. A pretty well known bar distinguished by having not just seats, but poles so the girls have something to hang onto on those long nights at work 😉

I lived with Wan, off and on, for six months. Off and on because living with a BG, even after she quits and lives with you is not easy. So, from time to time I tossed her out. Like a yo-yo, I tossed and she returned. Smart young thing – she always returned late at night when my resistance would be low. Pretty effective strategy. Eventually, after she failed to complete her English course, never kept a "real job" for more than a few days, and proved somewhat less than reliable in a number of ways, I moved instead. I went out to the county to live in a shared house with friends and did not give her my address.

She got the message and we, to this day, are still friends. I am happy to say that she never returned to the BG scene. She has now actually held the same job in a regular Thai restaurant for a few years. I stop by and say hello whenever I am in town. Some do actually escape when they get a bit older. Still, she would rather marry a Farang and head to Farangland, but Isaan girls do not always age well, so her chances there may not be so good.

The second thing I leaned when I returned to Thailand I learned less quickly. That was that the business in which I was now a partner had no real future there. I lost my shirt. Actually, if it had literally been my shirt, that would have been fine – clothes are cheap in Thailand. I lost my money, or at least most of it.

I tried a few things to stay on, though. I still had some cash reserves and so had time to kill, so why not? Life got more interesting then.

The Thai helped me to build a food stall (I like to cook). A big monster made of wood that I designed – 7 feet wide and equally tall, with a roof and, of course, Christmas lights. Back then, everything in Thailand had Christmas lights. I tapped into the electricity of the guesthouse with the little bar where I hung out (not hard – it was Thai-style – just toss the wire over the electrical lines already there and splice it in), bought a bit of cooking equipment, and Food Farang was born!

I paid a very small bit of "rent" to the owner of the guesthouse and I sold food, mainly to Farang. A Thai guy the guesthouse owner knew sold the beer. I started out with Western lunches and dinners with four tables and sixteen or so chairs. It was great fun, though I did not make much money. I did make pretty good food and most of my customers were regulars. But on rainy days I sold nothing. On any day, regardless of weather, I probably drank nearly as much as I made. Still, it was an adventure and I got to know a lot of people. For an escape from the real world, it was about as escapist as it could get.

Problems arose though. The Thai guy who sold the beer also started selling ganga to my customers. That, to me, would not have been such a big problem as we all smoked, but whenever he was short of cash, he would take their money to go get it and disappear. Needless to say, they did not like getting ripped off, so I heard more than a fair bit of grumbling. But, since he and his muscular Thai buddy were reputed to be low level Thai mafia, all they really did was grumble.

He and his friends also started re-opening after I had closed for the night. They would get the boom box out of storage and piss off the Thai neighbors with their music and drinking in the middle of the night. I heard more insistent grumbling from the Thais about that and was clearly told I needed to address the issue.

I was also getting a bit tired of dealing with the occasional drunken Farang non-regulars who would come by and start insulting my other customers left and right. On more than one occasion I had to double as the bouncer, and though I came out OK, I did not value risking my life and limb for a few baht when they turned on me when I asked them to leave.

By then the old guesthouse renovation was coming along and the owner was to start selling food. But, he did not want me working both outside and inside, so he planned to have a Thai do Thai food inside and for me to continue across the street with my oversized food cart.

In fact, I met the young Thai lady he planned to give that concession to when my bum shoulder acted up and he had her come and help me for a few days at the food cart. She was a lovely, young Thai-Chinese who ended up being my Thai GF number 3. We will call her Pon.

Pon was not a BG and had never dated a Farang. I am not even sure she liked them much, though she was always polite. I have always been pretty good at worming my way into women's lives (as this continuing tale will illustrate) and I wormed my way into hers. She was the first Thai I dated where my friends went to pains to point out to me that I was actually in the rare position of being able to date a Thai of the like most Farang never even get to talk to. We had chaperones (though at first I thought they were just nice friends who gave us rides)! At times, I was driven around in an older friend of hers Mercedes. Her father had died a number of years before and he was a middle-aged Thai guy who had been a family friend and helped to look after them. He will be an interesting part of this story later.

So, there I was. Dating my soon to be food competition and trying to figure out what to do about my beer seller / drug dealer / midnight partier. I remember well during the Asian Games when no one told me I had to close at 2am and the police took him away in hand cuffs when I turned the lights back on at 2:01 after his friend had shut them off. The police were sneaky, they parked their motorcycle down the street and walked up quietly. I did not see them and by the time everyone said "No" the lights were back on and he was headed to jail.

The price to have him released? 4,000 baht. Still, since he had not told me of this rule, I made him pay half. When he was released, he managed to break quite a few beer bottles on my food stall and all of the lights before the Thai locals stopped him. They made him do the repairs and replace the lights and I missed most of the action as that was in the morning and I did not open until the afternoon. He was not in a good mood, but tough shit, neither was I.

Oh, my, I forgot to mention how endearing it was when his former Muay Thai, muscular mafioso friend got in an argument with my customers and a big knife, strapped to his wrist, magically appeared waving in front of one of my friend's faces. Often the local Thai had helped me bounce the disruptive Farang, but on this occasion they were quick to say it was my problem. I did convince him to put the knife away, and the dear sweetie gave me many big hugs in apology, but he failed to get off of the ya-ba and things did not improve

So for Christmas, I decided to throw a little party for my friends (free food for invitees) and solve my little dilemma. I fed everyone, had a great time, and sent them on their merry way just before midnight. As the clock struck 12, I implemented my rather crude solution. I tipped that big mother food stall into the middle of the road and kicked it to pieces. It blocked the road and I assume pissed off a few drivers, but it was a small little soi with a turn-off, so I heard no real flack.

I walked up the road then and sat at someone else's little Thai place on the street and had a beer while I awaited the inevitable arrival of Thailand's finest. I did not want them to have to search for me as I knew that would piss them off to no end.

And, it was Christmas, which was something I had very well taken into consideration in devising this foolhardy solution. Come they did, two on the bike (all the better to serve you on the way to the station) and the senior officer asked me, in clear English, "why did you do that." Be not fooled, the police in Thailand tend to know everything that is going on around them. Bangkok is just a collection of many small communities. My reply, "you know what was going on, what else could I do?" His – "you could have a Merry Christmas" as he cracked a big smile and shook my hand.

Then he got on his bike with his junior partner and rode away. The Thai police paid a crew to clean up the road. They never complained. Me, I hid out for a few days because I heard the local mafioso were cruising around in a car looking for me (the beer partner cum drug dealer now had lost his spot). But the local Thai, and perhaps the police, made it known to him he was no longer welcome and they were gone in a few days.

Silly plan, perhaps, but I was free of him and, besides, now I was free to open "inside" where bouncing would be less my problem and I felt a bit safer than being a Farang with a food cart in lieu of a work permit. And that is what I did.

The owner of the guesthouse bought an old bar and I fixed it up. I now had more seats (all the seats and tables for the open air bar) and Food Farang II was born with me and my Thai-Chinese GF as proprietors. This time we specialized in breakfast from 6:30 or 7:00am to 2:00 or 3:00pm.

The police investigated me for two weeks, but never talked to me. They simply talked to the Thai business owners on the street and made me nervous as hell as no one would tell me what was going on. After the two weeks I was informed it was OK, everyone was happy to have me on the road as I helped bring more business and helped them out when they had to deal with explaining something complicated to a Farang.

I still did not make much money, but I did have more fun. My GF seemed to be getting more and more serious as time went on (though no less chaste as she truly was a traditional Thai girl). She even put me on an allowance and convinced all my regulars, to whom this was an amusing idea, to pay her and not me as I would only waste too much of it on beer and cigarettes. Not wanting to get in the middle, they were happy to oblige and she proceeded to teach me how to live like a Thai, off a Thai income, so that I could have a realistic opportunity to stay in Thailand for the long haul. This did not last long, but I will get to that later.

Over those few months with her, other opportunities also began to arise. An owner of a larger tailor shop with two floors (one for the largish shop and the other with rooms) who we visited from time to time after work told me he planned to retire in the coming year and that he would let us use his shop (a very nice building) to start a nicer restaurant. Another guesthouse was renovating and they offered us (through her) the opportunity to run their restaurant for a little bit of rent. The people on the corner up the road offered to rent us the corner for tables / beer. Eventually that corner had several hundred seats and many drunken Farang (but opens and shuts at the whims of the police). There seemed so many opportunities through her. I actually started to wonder if her late father might not have been some kind of Chinese mafioso or something. But, that seemed a bit paranoid at the time. Still, why so many business offers? I clearly was not rich, nor was she, and everyone seemed willing to help with the start-up.

But the allowance part got under my skin within days and that led to an argument. Arguments were something she was not used to, being Thai. She was a bit at a loss for what to do, so she called the Thai guy who had given me the rides in his nice new Mercedes and brand new, luxury pick-up. Never saw the guy work, but he certainly had some bucks.

Me? Well, I am a Farang. I did not approve of that approach. I even thumped the bar with my fist to better emphasize my point, lest she think me not upset. Has anyone ever told you how hard Thai wood is? I broke one and cracked two other bones in my hand. It did hurt a bit. I will never, ever, thump another Thai bar!

And I never really liked that Thai guy she called. I am sure he did not like me. I am also sure he liked her, though. And he was pretty pissed off at me when he showed up. Of course, I was not a very happy camper either when he stormed at me, so I picked him up by the shirt and sat him right back down in that nice Mercedes and told him to drive away. He did.

She was horrified. She said I had made a big mistake (which of course, was just one of many). I told her she had made a big mistake – she should have called somebody bigger!!! She told me I did not understand, "he Chinese Mafia, you make him lose face, you must leave quickly…" Well, that was quite a clever reply, but I did not believe her. Within moments, the Thai businessman next door came running in to warn me that he had gotten a call, the bad police were coming and I had to leave right now. Him, I believed, he had many police friends and I had drank beer with them on more than one occasion. So off I went.

I did not go far. I had a few beers and waited a bit and then went back. When I got there, she said again that I did not understand, the police know you will come back to talk to me, they will be back too. Good point, they did come back, but her advice was too late, they were already there and they were asking for me. To this day I thank you all – the Thai all said I was "no there, he bpai lau" (gone already) and I walked past them and left.

This time, I stayed away, but in sight, until the coast, or in this case, the soi was clear, and I went back yet again to talk to her. She warned me not to sleep at my apartment in the country that night, pointing out he had given me a ride home before and knew where I lived. She said they would come around 3am to find me. I slept at a friend's place.

I stayed out of Bangkok for a few days until a friend sent word that the Thai said it was safe to return. They told me not to worry, "this not Chinatown…this not his street…this our street….we talk him…you OK now…can open again…etc." Only a minor comfort. He drove by on the first day to check if I was still there. My friends expressed their regrets, but said they would not sit with me as they feared potential cross-fire, and he came by again the next day to see if I was still there.

It seemed when I had my minor problems with the local, so-called Thai mafia, that they at least have a sense of humor. I did not get the impression that was true of the so-called Chinese mafia. I did what needed to be done. I bought a plane ticket and I left and went back to my real home while I still could.

I tried to keep in touch with my girlfriend. We talked on the phone. Since she lived in the country a few miles outside of Bangkok, I photocopied her address off one of the mortgage papers for her condo so that I could paste copies, in Thai, onto envelopes so my letters would reach her. She planned to get rid of her cell phone so I asked her to send me her new number. I said I had written and when she got my letters they would have my address in America to send it to.

My letters all came back a few days to weeks later with something written on them in Thai. She had not gotten them. I went to the local Thai restaurant and asked them to take a look. They told me I had photocopied the wrong side of the mortgage papers. What I had was the technical description of the property, not the address. The Thai writing on the envelope was from the Post Office informing me that the address was incomplete and undeliverable. Oops.

I never did find her again. She was not one to hang out around Farang areas, so no one I know ever did know where I could find her. And I had only been to her place in the country in the dark. I had no idea how to find it on my own. Needless to say, that proved to be the end of our relationship.

And, there I was, back in America for the first time in many years and missing Thailand. I will leave how I got back to living in Thailand again to another posting. Suffice it to say that I did and that I made new mistakes, but at least they were different ones the next time!

So that was my life in Thailand the first time. I learned that if you are going to hit bottom, you will end up with more amusing stories if you do it in Thailand than if you do it in the West. I am not sure that is worth learning, but I learned it anyway.

I am not sure I learned anything else other than a few Thai phrases. I did learn that it is hard to make money in Thailand, but that will be news to none of you here.

Still, I had and have no regrets. It was a wonderful descent, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I survived to try again.

Stickman's thoughts:

Great story! I love these epics of how farangs have struggled to survive (or succeeded) in Thailand.