My ‘Khao’ Lady
My ‘Khao’ Lady with apologies to Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Sound Track: The Rain in Isaan Falls Mainly in the Plain
Flower Girl: NA
Supporting: “Thai teacher”
En route home from London I did a stopover in BKK for a few business meetings and was met at the airport by my Executive Director (ED). He hails from Down Under and had been business commuting to BKK for some months. I am in my mid 50’s and many years divorced. I knew of Bangkok’s reputation in a general sense and completely oblivious of the entertainment attractions it offers.
ED had organised for me to stay at his hotel, the newly opened Jasmine Hotel in Soi 23. Unknown to me, he had a big night planned. ED is in his early 30’s; an inveterate charmer with the looks and manners to go with it. After dinner, we walked out of the hotel and Soi Cowboy hits me like a ton of bricks. My eyes had to be put back into their sockets. As we strolled along Soi Cowboy ED was swarmed and molested every few steps we took. It would have been rather incongruous to see us walking together as I am only 5’2” and ED is 6’7”. He took point and fought off the hordes of ladies seeking to drag him into their establishments as he strolled through the length of the street while trying to look cool. I followed in his wake. At the end of the street we found what looked like a pool hall – Country Road.
The band belted out the Eagles number – California Hotel.
The reception in the street was only a precursor to the pandemonium that ensued when the prodigal ED walked into Country Road. It seemed as though the entire room full of ladies had dropped what ever they were doing and rushed to hug, touch & kiss ED. He was the MAN of the moment. Tables were rearranged to make room for us. I was introduced as ED’s big boss. Drinks all round for the girls; ED had his perfunctory Heineken in a condom (local terminology for stubby holder) and I settled for a wimpy coca cola. The manager came round to extend a personal welcome and the establishment matriarch made herself known and scored a drink. The room soon went about its business and there I was, sitting on a bar stool contemplating my new environment. ED was engrossed in a game of pool with an attractive, fair-skinned lass, whom he introduced as his “Thai teacher”. Fool me, and I thought the ladies were there to take drink orders. It was disconcerting to discover hands massaging me, a new experience for me to have people I have never met before running heir hands all over me. I think to myself, when in Rome… and sat there enjoying this new found treatment for jet lag.
1 AM and the lights came on. We finished our drinks and leave. “Thai teacher” and a few girls joined us as we headed to a roadside hawker for noodles. ED was feeling its effects of too many Heinekens. Luckily the Jasmine Hotel was literally across the road. “Thai teacher” had attached herself to ED. I was beginning to feel knackered from the long flight and retired to my room to sleep. An hour or so later I get a phone call from ED; would I be interested in “Thai teacher” spending the night with me? Huh? I am dreaming. Heavy with sleep I hung up and went back to my slumber.
The next day was all work; I met some senior people in Government and from business. We were wined and dined by our business hosts and by 11pm I was back in my hotel intending to call it a day. The phone rings while I am in the shower. It’s ED looking to do a bar crawl. So we venture out into the night humidity. We end up in Country Road again and ED gets his customary superstar treatment, I am beginning to see another side of life that I have not been exposed to before.
“Thai teacher” introduces her best friend, Ms. “NA”. She speaks little to no English and is cautiously friendly unlike the roving hands of the previous evening. Drinks followed by the 1am noodles chaser seem to be the order of the evening. During noodles Ms. NA’s phone rang and a heated conversation ensued. It was later explained to me that a lady who had the benefit of drinks from us the night before was berating NA for encroaching on her turf. Wow, I am now a disputed item of a turf war. Strange country, this Thailand.
Soundtrack: “Why Can’t the English (read here as Thai)?”
“Thai teacher” is under the weather from too many types of tequila and walking in the street a drunk tourist pats her bottom. “Don’t touch my ass” she screams. The drunk looked at the looming figure of ED’s 6’7’’ stature and decided on beating a disorderly retreat.
I was left with NA and not knowing what to do. ED had earlier pressed some large denomination Thai notes into my hands with a slurry message to enjoy myself. PANIC STATIONS! I had not expected to be landed in this predicament. I started towards the lift and was followed by a hesitant, unsure NA. The bellboy jumped from his station and beat me to the lift button. The hotel staff must have been well looked after by the generous ED and he might have even shared with them that his ‘big boss’ was in town.
I was tired and Ms NA was not sure what was expected of her. We ended up in my hotel room. We talked and I asked the most obvious question. ”What is a nice girl like you doing in a bar?” Yes, it is obvious very wet behind the ears. Before sleep overtook me I got the story that she is from the country, husband had left her with a young child and she has to fend for the family. Her sister and brother in-law had been killed in a motor vehicle accident leaving 2 young children with grandmother to bring up. Her father, previously a school teacher had some years go seen enlightenment and become a Buddhist monk leaving the family without a breadwinner. The mother had inherited some land but had sold everything to feed the family. NA had resorted to selling food in the nearby large town but it was hard work with not much to show for. She had saved enough to take up an offer of a trip to Germany to work as a maid. It lasted 3 months before she returned to Thailand and ended up in BKK with the idea of finding employment. When her savings ran she succumbed to working at Country Road and had been there for some months.
It was laborious trying to make a conversation when language was a barrier. I spoke no Thai and she had a few words of English. Sleep was a welcome distraction.
Next morning I rang ED and abused the sugar out of him for setting me up. He asked what happened and I told him, NOTHING happened. ED then educated me on the local custom of long time & short time rates. I surreptitiously slipped the few thousand baht notes ED had given me the night before into her purse while making sure that she had seen of the gesture and said I had to get ready for work. She left and I showered and prepared for another round of meetings.
I am beginning to get the gist of what ED had been up to in BKK after work; Heineken, pool, smokes and language lessons from his “Thai teacher”. When the sun went down, ED as though driven by a homing instinct, made a bee line to Country Road for his Thai language tutorial.
We met one of the owners of CR, an American; shot some pool and chewed the fat and drank his beer. He extended his hospitality by discounting the bar tab. That night ED compensated the establishment for allowing “Thai teacher” and NA to leave work early as he wanted to show me the other sights of BKK.
“Thai teacher” is a fascinating and endearing lady, so full of her self importance and dominates the limelight, often belittling her friends with stories of her conquests and how many have worshiped her with offerings of untold baht. ED kept her at arms length causing her to occasionally display episodes of temper tantrums at the perceived rejection. It was apparent that “Thai teacher” had vocally scent marked ED to keep other ladies away.
ED was the consummate butterfly leaving a trail of admirers in each and every establishment. His fame, nay notoriety was a constant source of amusement to me.
Ladies, strangers would profess to know or know of him and his exploits. Butterfly was the word most used to describe him.
I left BKK two days later after taking in some eye-opening sights including sharing some emotionally intense times with NA.
Two months later I was again in BKK. ED had set up more meetings. NA was as pleased to see me as I was to see her again. Country Road extended its welcome normally reserved for ED, treated me like a long lost friend. The matriarch lady chided me. Apparently I had rocked NA’s equilibrium. The brief time she had kept company with me had allowed her the luxury of a timeout from the nightly “party time” routine. It had enabled her to rediscover her own self worth. Working at Country Road had become a chore and she had restricted herself to being a drinks waitress. That had made a dent into her earnings. Fortunately the few baht I had left with her had helped.
NA & I talked into he night; she bubbling with so much to tell me with only language holding her back. However, she managed to convey the message that she had decided to give up CR work on her birthday. She was looking for work in a beauty salon or factory and asked in jest asked if I would employ her as a maid.
Next morning at breakfast I asked ED to put his thinking cap on and work out a strategy to help NA. ED relished in this extracurricular challenge. Later, I was shown a spreadsheet with a number of options. I shared this with NA. I said that there was an outside chance that we would need a local person in BKK to help with organising ED’s schedules, transport, translation, etc. She was rather excited by this prospect. However, I cautioned her that it was still only a remote possibility. Nevertheless she was adamant come what may she was going to leave CR and find other work.
Soundtrack: “I have grown accustomed to her face”
Sometime later, on NA’s birthday I flew into BKK unannounced. ED had asked the Jasmine Hotel to organise a birthday cake. A party had been in full swing at CR by the time I arrived just after midnight. NA was the star of the evening and my appearance was the icing on the cake for her.
Sound track: ‘I could have danced all night’
Later she told me that she had resigned from CR and was returning to her village. She thanked me for showing up as it gave her tremendous face with her friends.
The next evening ED had organised a quiet birthday dinner at the top floor restaurant of the State Tower. NA was overwhelmed by the occasion. A receptionist from the hotel had invited herself when ED had asked her to make the reservation. “Thai teacher” was livid when she found out she had been slighted.
The following night we dined at the Face restaurant in Soi 38. ED outlined an offer to NA, where she will be employed with a monthly salary. She will go back to school to learn English and undertake computer studies. ED had seen her rather basic accommodation shared with “Thai teacher”, sleeping on a mat on the floor. It was suggested that she should find a new apartment for herself. She also needed to apply for a passport as it was intended for her to travel and undertake more intensive training overseas.
It was made abundantly clear that what was being done was not charity. We needed a trusted local person to help out and she fitted the bill. We used the analogy of not putting fish on the table but teaching her how to catch fish so as she will have the long term skills to look after her family.
Instead of shopping at Pratunam she was introduced to the world of Emporium shops and Isetan department stores.
It did not take rocket science to work out why ED has selected the Jasmine Hotel as a base. The Meritus State Tower became my BKK address after negotiating a corporate rate.
NA launched herself into English and computer lessons and became quite proficient with the computer; a notebook was her reward for her achievements.
She travelled to Singapore where she was introduced as a young lady from our business in Thailand and was there to learn. While in Singapore she stayed at the Meritus Mandarin Hotel, and was tutored by accountants on the workings of offshore companies and international banking. In Kuala Lumpur she stayed at the Crowne Plaza and learned among other skills, to travel alone on the KL equivalent of the BTS using her newly acquired English.
She is now a seasoned traveller having done some 8 trips overseas in the last 12 months, often travelling alone. She is a quick learner, acquiring new social skills and together with a new wardrobe she is equally comfortable dining demurely in Hong Kong or at home sitting on the floor of her BKK apartment swapping stories with her friends.
Business in Thailand is conducted at a measured pace so NA has idle time on her hands. She has absorbed business skills by being around business people when business is being done. She has confidence in herself, so much so that she has taken on the task of building a house for her family in the country.
Her next goal is to acquire for herself an apartment in BKK and a car, replete with driver.
A well off cousin had taken upon herself the task inducting NA into BKK Hi-So circles despite NA’s feeble objections.
Life in Thailand is not always plain sailing, with constant demands from friends and family but NA has learned that she has to deal with problems herself and find solutions.
Respect & Dignity
This story has a different. As guests in Thailand we have been overwhelmed with generosity and kindness and in turn we have reciprocated in kind and with mutual respect and dignity.
ED has moved on to greener pastures and no longer visits BKK.
“Thai teacher” left CR and opened a restaurant, sponsored by an admirer. ED & I visited the restaurant one evening. He was moved to tears to see “Thai teacher” slaving over a hot stove as opposed to seeing her preen herself in CR. He left that evening with a heavy heart and a lighter wallet. The restaurant experiment failed and the “Thai teacher” is now back working in a bar.
One Thai family has exchanged living in a hovel for a new house that does not leak in the rain. The family is now supported by a daughter who is now equipped with educational and social skills to take on the world.
To take on the world? Good luck….