From Tokyo To Bangkok, With Love
(True story, names changed.)
On my first trip to Thailand in 2001, I came with a Japanese group tour.
I am not even remotely Japanese. However, I was living in Japan at the time and a group tour was the cheapest option for a vacation. Also, since it was my first visit to Bangkok, I figured safety in numbers might be the way to go.
I wanted to see temples and culture, and maybe get a couple suits made. I knew nothing about the country's reputation as a den of iniquity until I started mentioning my vacation plans to Japanese friends. The men responded with the blank acknowledgment with which they greet any news at all. Comments ranged from, "Oh, really?" to "Oh, really." My female friends were more expressive, and from them I learned that Thailand was a place where women lose husbands.
I was happily involved with a recently graduated Japanese cheerleader at the time, so I didn't give the whole nightlife thing much thought. Consciously, that is. Unconsciously the thought was rampaging around like a four-year-old full of Sunday school coffee, knocking over Legos and drawing on the walls.
After a six-hour flight from a Tokyo winter, the aircraft door opened onto a blast of tropical heat. It was intoxicating and strangely familiar. Right there on the ramp, I was struck by the premonition that Bangkok would someday be my home. On the tarmac I hooked up with two girls who were part of my tour group and followed them, staggering through the airport like someone had swapped my Converse sneakers for Frankenstein boots.
After immigration, I marched up to the nearest currency exchange counter and foisted a wallet-full of 10,000-yen bills through the window. I read a look of mild surprise on the teller's face. I guess she was expecting dollars. She piled a stack of thousand-baht bills in front of me. No way this was fitting back in the wallet.
We drove through the city just as rush-hour was winding into full gear. It looked as grey as Tokyo, but the office buildings and condominiums (optimistically called 'mansions' in Japanglish) were interspersed with strips of corrugated tin poverty. This was a bit of a shock, coming from a country that is 98% middle-class.
There were no extra rooms at the primary hotel, so I was dropped off alone at the Sol Twin Towers, a four-star property that caters to Asian tour groups. The hotel is located in the center of Bangkok yet, paradoxically, close to nothing at all. The lobby seemed cavernous after years of little Japanese rooms, and a pair of giant red carved dragons gave me that warm, fuzzy, "we're not in Kansas anymore" feeling.
It was 7pm when I checked in. I found my room, dropped my luggage and marched back down to the front desk. "Where can I go shopping at this time?" I asked ingenuously. "Is there some sort of night market?" The receptionist's knowing smile when she said the word, "Patpong" told me she understood what I was too shy to ask.
A taxi dropped me off at one end of Patpong 1 for 100 baht, and I wandered into the soi. I poked at copied watches and other crap for a bit, keeping my eyes open for a proper place to drink a Singha. I soon found what I was looking for. No, it wasn't a girly bar. It was an open air bar with a live band. They were playing jazz and doing it well. Japanese jazz bands play immaculately and they can imitate anything, with the exception of emotion. This Thai band was all about the emotion and sexuality of jazz, and they hacked merrily away at old standards while I put down a couple beers.
When it was time to wander again, I left 300 baht or so in their tip jar. They gave me big smiles and a couple of wais. The wai is done only rarely in Japan, by very polite people like my cheerleader girlfriend (who also bows to the TV when the news announcers bow – so damn cute).
I poked around Patpong for an hour or so until my feet were crying for relief and my brain wanted more beer. I heard strains of classic rock coming from another bar, so I made a bee-line for it. As I entered, I was greeted by cheers from the stage. It was the jazz band from the other venue, now cranking out a rock set. They waved me to a table they'd commandeered near the stage and poured me my first ever glass of beer on-the-rocks. They piled some rice and pieces of curried crab in front of me and the good times rolled.
At some point during the festivities it came out that I was also a musician, for which crime I was summarily hauled onstage. The guitarist offered me his axe, but I knew I wasn't up to following unfamiliar chord changes that night. I spotted a harmonica resting on an amp and took that instead. I can blow like Elwood Blues if the harp's in the right key. I was drunk by then, so I don't know for sure if I blew or sucked, but it sounded good from where I stood.
After a few songs I was back at the table. We were eating again and I was asked the inevitable question, "Can you eat spicy?" Indignantly I blurted, "Of course!" With a mischievous grin, the guitarist handed me a small green pepper. "Try this."
I shrugged and put it in my mouth. Horrified looks went around the table and some of the girls cried, "No! No! It's a joke! Don't eat!" It was my turn to grin, as I was brought up on lots of spicy Mexican food. I crunched down on the raw pepper. It was surprisingly delicious and I chewed on it for a while before swallowing. Someone hurried to fill my beer glass and someone else brought water while I assured them, "I'm fine. Not spicy at all." Ten seconds later I was sweating from every pore, tears were streaming down my face and I'm pretty sure my hair was on fire.
Everyone else was laughing their heads off while arguing over the best remedy for the nuclear melt-down in my mouth. Beer and water made it worse, but finally someone handed me a stick of gum and that did the trick.
As the evening drew on, I began flirting with the female singer, a woman in her late 20's or early 30's. She was one of those singers who has a fat woman's voice packed into a 90-pound frame. At some point it became clear that I could end up mashing with her if I wanted. It was tempting, but I was feeling like wandering again, and I wasn't sure whether one of her band-mates might be her boyfriend. I tried to read for any subtle social signals, then realized I was too drunk to read anything subtle. I left it alone and made my excuses.
I took a side street and ended up on Patpong 2. At the very first bar, a bevy of girls waved me over. I'd had enough beer to overcome my social inhibitions and pretty soon I was at a large booth surrounded by five or six girls. Maybe eight. The bar was dark and smelled of stale beer, so I was right at home. A dart board in the corner seemed to be the only entertainment. I wasn't up for darts then, so contented myself with sitting like a king with my arms around two girls, chatting and drinking with several others. Readers of my other posts may know that I'm an admirer of Ghengis Khan. I was living it up.
The girl under my right arm was the one who had first attracted my attention on the street. Now she was telling me she loved me. She wrapped her arms around me and tucked her head against my chest and said, "I know you don't believe me because I just met you, but it's true. I love you." Actually, I believed her. However, our love was doomed, cut down before it bloomed by the mamasan, who chose that moment to introduce me to a cuter girl.
"This is Mot. She's new." A curvy, diminutive girl gave me a curious look that was either shy or fierce. Anyway, I recognized a certain gleam in her eyes that I've learned to associate with surefire fun in bed. My erstwhile love missed none of this. She wasn't happy, but surrendered her place without a fuss. Mot cuddled into me like a long lost puzzle piece. She couldn't speak word one of English, but we managed. Soon the place closed down and Mot suggested we move on to a nearby dance club.
We sat at an outdoor table and sipped beer. She was a lightweight and we were soon verging on a public display of affection. I don't know why I was shocked when she asked if she could go to my hotel with me. I got over it well enough and we were soon at the front desk, handing over her ID and paying an extra 700 baht.
Upstairs she marveled at the large room and we took showers. I was surprised at how curvaceous she was. After years in Japan I'd forgotten that some Asian girls can have large breasts and big round butts. Piling into bed we kissed and hugged and petted our way to third base. While we stopped short of home plate, everybody was happy and the room was glowing.
In the morning we ate at the buffet and I put her in a cab. I promised to see her again that night and she smiled, hooking her little finger into mine.
No money was exchanged. I was clueless about this because I had just come from a country where girls are meticulous about splitting the bill on dates. Japanese girls don't like to feel indebted to a man unless there's marriage on the horizon. Though I wondered if Mot might expect money, I didn't want to call her a whore by offering.
That day, I tailed around Bangkok with the tour group, learning about all the temples and history in Japanese. I can speak it pretty well and even write it, but a lot of the loftier stuff went over my head. Wat Arun was the coolest. I loved how beautiful it is, no matter where you stand. From the river it has this elegant, ancient profile against the sky. Up close it's festooned with colorful bits of broken crockery. Nice.
After all the temples had given me a nice, peaceful Buddhist buzz, the guide asked us if we'd like to shoot guns. Hell yeah! The driver took a turn and we soon found ourselves inside a derelict building where policemen lent us various weapons and we whanged away at targets for a while. There are no guns in Japan, so the girls were having a ball. I'm American so it was a little ho-hum after a while. I learned that I shouldn't bother shooting at anyone with a pistol unless they're ten feet or closer.
After this I thought the tour was over, but I was so wrong. We had yet to endure an endless hour in a gem shop. The girls loved that part and walked out with a few baubles. I bought nothing, as it was obvious that prices were no different from what I could get in Tokyo. Luckily the place had a little café. I drank free coffee and chatted with the tour guide. She couldn't speak any English so we talked about the difficulties of learning Japanese. Three freakin' alphabets, one of them with thousands of letters.
When the tour finally dropped me at the hotel, I told the guide I'd be opting out of the next day's shopping tour. She understood and we had one of those little honest chats you have when you know you'll never see someone again. "I hate my job," she said.
That night I found my way right back to Mot's bar and took my booth seat again. The rest of the booth was soon filled with girls and Mot was brought in from the next-door bar, surprised to see me. Another night of drinking and fun ensued.
During a trip to the bathroom, I got my first glimpse of the inside of a gogo bar through another door. This was 2001 and it was literally wall-to-wall with naked girls. A lot of people say, "literally" these days but don't really mean it. Well, I mean it. You couldn't move through that room without constantly squeezing between naked women, dancing enthusiastically.
So did I go in? No. It was sensory overload. The very thought gave me that flustered, shy, Jerry Lewis "Nutty Professor" feeling. Buddy Love was not in the house that night.
Back in Mot's bar, I asked the Mamasan to give her a night off. She said I'd need to pay 500 baht to cover her absence. "What?" I said. "You have like 20 girls here and no customers. She won't be missed." I had no clue about barfines, but I was finally persuaded to pay 300 baht.
Another night of fun was had, very similar to the first. Again, there was no actual sex, which didn't bother me because I was on a Japanese schedule, where sex with a normal girl usually doesn't happen before the second or third date.
The next day we went shopping. I ordered suits from a decently priced tailor who did two fittings, and took his card so I could make more orders from Japan. Then, before Mot had to go to work, she took me to the World Trade Center. In the women's department I was made to understand that I'd be buying her some costume jewelry. So it was pay for play after all. I took a fraction of a second to get over the sting to my male ego and told her to pick something. She chose a 300 baht necklace and shyly asked if it was OK. The little cutie. I picked out several more for her and she was beaming.
Back at the hotel we gathered her things and I put her in a taxi so she could head back to work. I asked if she had an email address. She didn't. She didn't even have a phone. I said I'd come to see her again that night. She smiled, but her goodbye sounded dismal. She knew I wouldn't be coming, though I honestly thought I would.
That night I stayed in, too tired from a day of walking and feeling a bit guilty for cheating on my Japanese girl. Man, there ain't nothing more cheerful than a Japanese cheerleader when her boyfriend gets off the plane. Though you need a strong back to catch her with.
I didn't make it back to Mot's bar until two years later, when I moved my life to Bangkok. Within two days of arriving, I found Patpong 2 and followed my memory to her bar. One of the girls who drank with me on the first visit had become the mamasan. She remembered me and remembered Mot. "She's gone back to her family."
I was disappointed, and glad to hear it. I didn't know whether it was true, of course, but I hoped that Mot was smart enough to get out of the scene. Maybe she was in another bar. Maybe she is living back in Isaan, or in Europe with a rich husband who takes good care of her and her family. She was a nice girl with looks and sometimes good things happen to good people. I'll be happy if I never know.