Reflecting On My First 5 Years In Bangkok Part 5
Part 5 One Night in Si Saket
If you think “One Night in Bangkok” is weird, try “One Night in Si Saket”. In 1996, I was still chafing to go to Angkor Wat and my Thai friends still would not let me go. They said it was too dangerous, with Khmer Rouge and bandits everywhere. Probably, someday, my final memoir will be entitled “I Never Got to Go to Angkor Wat”.
They said that I could go to Khao Phra Wihan instead, an ancient Khmer ruin just inside the Cambodian border from Si Saket. No passport needed and it was jointly patrolled by the Thai and Cambodian Armies. In the interest of tourist dollars, all hard feelings about which country the ruins really belong to had been set aside. Or so I thought.
My plan was to take the train to Si Saket, spend the night, tour the ruins the next day or two and go back to Bangkok. I arrived in the afternoon and settled into the Prom Phiman Hotel near the train station. It’s an ok place. I’ve stayed in worse. I placed a call thru the operator to my Thai friends in Bangkok to let them know I had arrived safely. When I got off the phone, the bellboy appeared with a receipt to collect payment for the call. Never saw that before.
I walked to the local TAT office. I was informed by the “officer” that the border was closed until further notice. I was also told not to blame Thailand because it was the Cambodians who closed the border, not the Thais. She cheerfully informed me that there were other ruins on the Thai side. However, after looking at the brochures, they weren’t so impressive and I decided to forego them. After I left the TAT office, a couple of taxi drivers confirmed that indeed the border was closed. I was so disappointed.
I walked to the market and ate som tam, khao niao and gai yang, sitting on a plastic mat in the shade. It must have been almost 40 degrees. The gai yang lady teased me a lot, introduced her teenage daughters and joked that I could be her son-in-law some day. Then a lady about 40 years old showed up and gleefully explained to me in sign language and scribble that she was an English teacher. The lady could not communicate in English at all and could not even speak or write a single simple sentence in English. I knew Bangkok bar girls who would appear to be Shakespearean actors compared to her. God help that poor woman’s students.
After a nap, I went out to see what kind of nightlife the town had to offer and crossing the tracks, I was not disappointed. I went inside a large open air place that had a stage and musical instruments set up. I ordered a beer and some dinner. Just as I am finishing my meal, a cute young woman, all dolled up in a fake fur jacket, dangling earrings, skin tight pink micro skirt and white vinyl ankle boots, just sits down at my table and beams the famous Isaan smile. I smile back and she says “Sing-ging contest tonight. You please cheer for me?”
“Well, if you’re good, sure. I’ll cheer for you.” I offered her a cola, which she accepted. We chatted a little and she excused herself to get ready for the contest.
By now I was on my 3rd or 4th beer and had seen a few of the contestants. Some were quite ok. Then my girl, let’s call her “Pu”, takes the stage and the house band starts churning out a mo-lam standard, complete with keyboards, drums, guitar, and the ubiquitous kaen.
Pu wastes no time warming up. Pu is good. Better than good, she’s great! She sounds just like Jintara Poonlap! I’m very impressed, tapping my fingers on the table. I couldn’t believe that all of this big sound was coming out of this cute little woman. People are buying garlands and putting them around her neck
Later comes the moment of truth. The manager gets on stage with a decibel meter, holds his hand over each contestant’s head and calculates the applause. Pu wins 1st Place by a landslide! She didn’t need me to cheer for her. She won over the whole crowd!
She won 500 baht and got a few tips for the audience. She rejoined me at my table. “Wow! I have a star here!” She says “You cheer for me and bring me good luck. Thank you so much!”
She explained that there is a “sing-ging” contest at another club, but we have to hurry. I paid the bill, Pu hailed a samlor and we arrived at the next club in a few minutes. This nightclub was small, dingy, dark and, the AC was on full blast. No band, but a DJ with a karaoke machine. Pu asks the DJ if it is too late to enter the contest, he says it’s ok and she belts out another mo-lam tune, “sing-ging” her heart out.
Then the DJ swings the spotlight on me and says that they will have a special English language category in the contest tonight and for me to please come to the stage. Now I am by no means a singer, more like a mixture of Tony Clifton (a.k.a. Andy Kaufman) and Sid Vicious. Pu says I have to go. Rifling thru the DJ’s songbook, I choose “Summer Wind”, an old Frank Sinatra song. I meander thru the song without too many problems and get a roar of applause, especially from a large table of inebriated policemen, two of whom put garlands around my neck.
Pu wins 1st Place again, this time 300 baht. I win the English language category by default and win a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. The police insist that we join them. I usually try to avoid drunken policemen, but Pu says we must join them or they will feel insulted. For me, that’s a very good reason to accept their invitation.
Two of the younger cops could speak some English, better than the “English teacher” in the market. That may not be saying much, but at least they could communicate. Add some alcohol and shyness evaporates. I don’t usually drink whisky, so I gave the bottle I won to the highest ranking cop and thanked him for his hospitality. One of the younger cops started to pour me a whisky but I explained in Thai that I was part Native American and that if I drank whisky I might paint my face and shoot arrows at white men. Then he would have to arrest me. The cop just laughed and said “No problem! No farang in Si Saket! No target for you to kill!” The whole table roared. They bought me a beer and Pu a cola.
We stayed long enough to be polite then Pu tapped me on the knee and glanced to the door. We said goodbye to the cops. Out on the sidewalk, Pu says “You want to go home with me?” Now the evening just keeps getting better and better! “Sure! Let’s go!”
Pu and I had a nice chat in the samlor. “I want to be a “sing-ger”. That’s all I want to be.” We walked thru a cluster of old houses in the dark. The night was black as pitch. No streetlamps. The old house was on stilts and we walked up the steep stairs in the dark. Inside, an old black and white portable TV with a crumpled clothes hanger antenna was blaring a program that was more static than picture. I sat on the wood plank floor and surveyed the situation. Mom is hypnotized by the TV. Grandma, topless, with her tits hanging down to her stomach, slowly covers herself, crawls over to me and, sticks her face within inches of mine. This sack of bones opens an almost toothless mouth, stained with betel and reeking of Mekong and snarls “Farang?” “Yes indeed ma’am. 100% farang”
Dad is passed out on the floor with a wet towel over his face with an empty bottle of Mekong next to him. To his other side is a big machete, set on top of its scabbard. Two very bored, teenage girls in pajamas are combing each other’s thick, short bobbed hair and picking out lice. Now I have entered the Twilight Zone.
Pu comes back with a glass of water for me. She tells Mom and Grandma about her good luck at the contests and that I am good luck for her. At some point Dad looked out from under his towel, stared at me in drunken bewilderment, dropped the towel back on his face and went back to sleep. Pu asks me to go outside with her.
“You want to sleep with my sister?”
Now I am floored and don’t know what to think. “But you asked me to go home with you, not your sister.”
“Pu good girl. Cannot do like that. Pu want to be “sing-ger” only. My sister needs money to go school. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”
The sisters were like about 12 and 14 years old! They still had that Thai baby fat on them! I felt like running like hell. I sobered up fast and realized this could be a really weird set up for a rip-off. I knew I needed to play it cool. “But you’re the girl I like. Can’t I sleep with you?”
“Pu cannot do like that. Come on, my sister pretty and needs money for school.”
“Well, it’s late. I think I should go now.”
“I so sorry, James. Pu send you back hotel.”
We took a samlor to the hotel. “Are you sure you won’t come in?” “Please, I told you ‘no’ already. Thank you for bringing me good luck. What time you leave Si Saket?”
I told her the departure time and she extended her hand like we had just concluded a business meeting. We shook hands. Then she opened her little purse, pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote her name and address. I don’t know why, but I did not reciprocate.
Back in the hotel room, I turned on the TV but it was no better than the one at Pu’s house. I contemplated whether or not I was more disappointed about not getting to see Khao Phra Wihan or, not getting in to bed with Pu.
The next day I checked out, ate khao tom for breakfast and walked over to the market to kill time before the train arrived. I visited the gai yang lady, her daughters and, the non-English-speaking English teacher. I had a couple of beers and a snack. I walked to the train station. Pu was there. She ran up to me.
“I buy food for you. Bangkok is very far.”
She smiled and opened the bag to show me gai yang, khao niaw, moo yang and, some of those sticky little Thai desserts. I thanked her. The train pulled in and as we walked to the carriage, there was no more time to talk and I really didn’t know what to say anyway. Pu said, “Please don’t forget Pu! Pu will never forget you, James. You my good luck man!” I waved goodbye from the window and she waied.
I never wrote her and I never saw her again. I may still have that scrap of paper with her name and address, tucked into a book somewhere at home.
I wonder if she ever became a successful “sing-ger”.
I wonder if it was really her home that I visited. I wonder if she was just a procuress and if those people were not really her family at all. I did not see any strong family resemblance except between the two young girls, who looked almost like twins.
Looking back on my “One Night in Si Saket”, I think about how much Thailand and, my own life, have changed. Ten years ago I would go anywhere, any time when I had a few free days. A small bag, a “Lonely Planet” and a couple of thousand baht was all I needed. I would get drunk with strangers on trains and wind up God knows where. Now I am less trusting and, my travels are secure and planned, with first class flights and 5 star hotels.
My “One Night in Si Saket” I got drunk, got in a samlor at night with a woman I didn’t know, sang a Frank Sinatra song and won the contest, drank with drunken, upcountry policemen; went to a strange house in the middle of the night where underage girls needed tuition money and, let Pu know my real room number at the hotel. I would not do that now, but sometimes I do miss the old days. Thailand was less dangerous then and, the provinces were less dangerous than Bangkok. Now we read stories of tourists, some acting as stupid as I did 10 years ago, brutally murdered in almost every corner of the country.
I still have not seen Angkor Wat. But I finally got to see Khao Phra Wihan in 1999. And, I did have my “One Night in Si Saket”.
The summer wind, came blowin’ in from across the sea
It lingered there, touched your hair and walked with me
All summer long, we sang that song and we tried not to pretend
I lost you to, I lost you to the summer wind . . .
Apologies to Frank.
Excellent story and what fun you must have had!