The days flowed by like looking out from a merry-go-round, catching short glimpses of unconnected faces and activity. For me these glimpses included shouting matches, worried young faces, confrontations, ultimatums, long plane rides, excitement, freedom, and then the very white light of Asia. In the course of six months I went from the husband of a neurotic wife and father of three wonderful boys, to a single man looking for rental condos in Singapore and eating in wonderful outdoor seafood cafes. It was thrilling and yet lonely, as my mind would often drift back to my sons. My company was doing well in Southeast Asia and I had an important role in developing new business. I was moving into management with a worldwide company in an exotic location, and I had no idea what I was doing.
The merry-go-round started to slow and I was able to focus on my new surroundings. Singapore at the turn of the millennium was thriving with an expanding ex-pat population. The city was frenetic with business during the day and leisurely at nights. For me, the nights were a chance to experience Singapore’s erotic side. In the next month, I roamed the city at night from Orchard Towers to Mohamed Sultan looking for my next sexual partner, as I became the typical Asian ex-pat on a promiscuous binge. It never occurred to me if what I was doing was right. Then I was asked to help coordinate our annual sales meeting in Bangkok at a large resort in Thonburi. It would be ten days and ten nights in the land of beautiful smiles.
I flew in early in the day and entered the city enthusiastically. In the first few days, I developed a routine of hard work during the day and exciting times at night, as I seemed to have boundless energy and little need of sleep. I became familiar with the real estate of Patpong, Nana Plaza, and other parts of Bangkok. I would enter a promising bar, order one beer, and if I did not see anything interesting, I would leave in a few minutes and go to the next location. I was speed shopping for the thrill of that night’s pleasure. On the third night in a Patpong bar I cannot remember, I saw her. She was shyly dancing nude in front of a group of farang customers. She gave me the sweetest smile I had ever received. I could not take my eyes off her and soon she was sitting beside me at my table.
Her English was good with traces of a British accent. Her tone was soft and she laughed easily at everything I said. She held my hand close and stroked it gently. She asked if she could put her clothes on (yes) and later if I wanted to bar fine her (yes again). As I could not risk having her seen by my team at the hotel, we went to a Patpong short-time hotel. Afterwards, we went to a street café and talked late into the night. Her name was Da.
The next day I finished work and went straight to Da’s bar and barfined her after only one beer. We again went to the short-time hotel but we lingered longer and stayed for over 2 hours. We found a different street café on a crowded sidewalk for more food and more talk. I was playing by the bargirl rule of, “treat them nice and have a nice girlfriend”, and used it liberally with Da. But it genuinely felt very good to walk hand-in-hand with Da and see her flash that sweet smile.
The third night with Da started as the second night, only this time I sensed a more urgent pace in Da’s actions. At dinner, she quickly ordered and instead of the usual friendly conversation, she was more quiet and withdrawn. After we ate, she was silent for a minute and asked if I wanted to go home with her. I said “sure” right away and we were off in cab with her bright smile returned. In the cab ride, I imagined more lovemaking, a few hours sleep, and a quick cab back to the hotel. I didn’t realize that Da had other ideas.
I was quickly lost as we were in a strange part of the city. It grew increasingly quieter and darker the longer we rode. After 30 minutes, we came to a dead-end street and got out of the cab. We walked about half a block with little noise and activity. When we got to the end of the street, I saw a river’s edge and a small wooden pier. As we got closer, I saw the faint outline of a man sitting at the end of a long boat. It was a miniature version of the ones I had seen plowing up and down the Chao Phaya. He was leaning against the pier and fast asleep. As we approached, he started to stir and was awake when we reached him. After some conversation, Da told me to get into the front of the boat. Da got in right behind me and off we motored on a dark water and in an equally dark night. As we quietly cruised along the water, I felt equal parts new world explorer and condemned criminal. I resisted the urge to stick my hand in the water.
I could finally make out some lights in the distance. As they became brighter, I could just see the outline of another dock, and we were moving swiftly to it. At the last second before impact, the boatman expertly swerved to the right and pulled up alongside the pier. He tied up and I got clumsily out of the long boat. Da expertly jumped out and grabbed my hand. As we turned to walk away, I realized that there were floating huts attached to the dock with short, narrow runways. Da was now pulling my hand into one of them. When we got inside she locked the door behind us and disappeared into a back room. I stood at one end of a small living room with a low ceiling. My palms immediately started to sweat and my heart started to beat faster. Like looking up at an approaching large wave, I suddenly realized that nobody knew where I was. I wondered if my hand phone had reception here and if I could swim back across whatever body of water we had just crossed. My claustrophobia gave way to fear. At any moment, Da’s boyfriend or husband could emerge to rob me, kill me, and throw my body into the dark water; another stupid farang that got into the wrong place at the wrong time in Bangkok. I was just about to unbolt the door and flee into the night when I heard Da’s sweet voice.
She emerged from the back room in a modest but pretty robe. She asked me to sit down in a small chair as she had something she wanted to show me. She pulled another chair beside me and opened a large, weathered book in her lap. She said it was her family’s Koran given to her by her Mother before she died. She explained that her family was from southern Thailand and that they were Muslim. Da had lived in small house with her mother and father, and older brother and sister. She showed me an old photograph of them that was inside the Koran. Her father had once supported the family by working as a truck driver. One day, her mother became ill and soon after that she was in the hospital. She died of cancer a week later. Her father tried to keep the family together but he was now drinking heavily. One day he went to work and didn’t come home. Da and her siblings went to live with an aunt and uncle who lived nearby. It was an uncomfortable arrangement as they were much older and poorer than her parents. Her sister became pregnant and went to live with her boyfriend’s family. Her brother left to find work in Bangkok. Da struggled to stay in high school and when she graduated, she went to live with her brother to attend university. This was now in her new home.
She had hoped that her brother made enough money so she could go to school without working full-time, but his work was infrequent. She tried to find work in shops and department stores, but there were no openings. They were running out of money fast when Da met a friend from her hometown. Her friend was working at a bar in Patpong as a hostess, and wouldn’t Da like to meet her manager. Da had heard of these places before but her friend assured her she would only be a waitress. She went to the bar the next night with her friend and the manager hired her on the spot. The manager was true to her word. Da only brought drinks to the farang customers but did not make much money in salary and tips. After a month, she started dancing topless to double her salary (she was very well proportioned) and later doubled her salary again when she agreed to dance nude. After a few more weeks, her brother started using drugs and stopped working altogether. No matter what, she wanted to keep what was left of her family together, and it was not long before she accepted the offer of a kind faced farang. She was now a Bangkok bargirl.
That was two months ago. She was telling me this now so I would know she was really not a bargirl. She hated her work but needed money to keep her small family together. I was the first farang that had treated her with kindness and respect. She was sure I had a good heart. She said she was in love with me and that all she wanted from me was a clean home and a husband that treated her well. She would take care of everything else. She spoke of her love of America and how lucky Americans were. She told me she was the best English student in her school and that she wanted to travel to faraway places away from Thailand. She said her mother had a recurring dream in which Da left Thailand and returned with nice clothes and white faced children. My heart broke and I hugged her until my fear was displaced by compassion. I told her I had to leave now but I would see her again the next night. She rode back across the water with me and we kissed a long time before I walked back up the street to whiter lights. I soon found a sleeping tuk-tuk driver and started a long, smelly ride back to the hotel. I asked the driver to stop at a 7-11 and buy me two large Singhas. I started to drink one and gave the other to the driver. He smiled broadly and off we went to the hotel swigging our beer together.
After I returned to the hotel, I did not sleep much. I lay awake thinking of all the things that had happened in the last few weeks before I arrived in Asia. In a very short period of time, I had gone from a successful, suburban, yuppie family in America to a single ex-pat in Singapore considering marriage to a 19 year old bargirl from Thailand.
The next day I worked in a fog but met Da at her bar early. I again barfined her quickly, the mamasan was now my best friend, and had a quick visit to the short-time hotel. We went to eat at a nearby restaurant where I asked her many questions about our planned future: where would we live, how would she work, I am still married, I am over twice as old as she. Da breezed through these questions with answers of a theme that love would find a way, all the time holding my hand and smiling deeply and warmly.
When we got outside the restaurant, I hugged her for about a minute and put 20,000 baht into her front jeans pocket. She asked what I was doing and I said I can’t marry you. Her tears started to flow. I said she would be alright and that God would find a way for her. She kept grabbing my hand and I kept pulling it away. Soon we were 3 feet apart and when she put her head in her hands, I turned and walked quickly away. A taxi drove up and in a few seconds I was gone. When I got to the hotel I went to the outdoor bar and drank more Singha. The next day, the sales meeting started.
That was the end of my carnal adventures in SE Asia, except for a few times out of pure loneliness. As much as we like to think this game between farang and bargirl is played purely for sexual pleasure and money, we are human beings and sometimes we forget the rules. When we do, people get hurt. I know Da might have been scamming me but I never again wanted to feel like I had this power to save bargirl’s lives, as I couldn’t stay within the rules. I realized that Thailand is just like any place else in the world that yearns for family, peace and happiness. Yes, the excitement of prowling the streets was gone, but I now knew that Asia was much more than my personal playground.
Powerful and touching.