It was pay day in Bangkok, and if I had known that it would be me who was paying the wages I would have stayed in that night.
Som nam naa (it serves you right). I said it to myself at the time and I’ll say it again now before anyone else does. I could claim that I was a complete newbie when it happened but I’d be lying. I just took my eye off the ball, that’s all.
It was towards the end of my days as a backpacker when I was still staying in the Banglumpoo area of Bangkok. I'd been around long enough by then, on and off, to know that beneath the surface of Khao San Road was a dark underbelly that you didn’t really want to be looking up at. I'd warned friends many times, who were in the LOS for the first time, to watch out for scams and avoid taking girls from around Khao San Road. They all appeared to have taken my advice. I, on the other hand, should have practiced what I preached.
Back in Bangkok, after several dreary months at home in England, and as always I just wanted to be everywhere at once. It was the end of the month. The city had that pay day feel to it where everything seems to go up another notch. That night the roads were just that little bit more congested, the buses a little more tightly packed. Street food vendors cooked with more urgency to keep up with demand, at times their sweat stained faces illuminated briefly by pans erupting in flames. The rickety tables and plastic stools where people ate were spread just that little bit further across the already crowded pavements. Even the heat seems to go up by a couple of degrees on nights such as this. Down in Patpong the touts were out in force. One of them managed to fix my attention onto a timepiece and compass set into a Perspex block that he was holding. With an arm on my shoulder we both stood in silence watching the compass needle as it span around. As it finally settled the tout pointed to it and then along the street saying "see, this way", and then pointing at the clock he added "time for fucking.”
It had been a good night out. A whirl of beer and bar girl beauties. Business was good on Patpong and everyone was happy. I was happy myself as I made my way back to Banglumpoo. But instead of heading straight for my room I did what I often do, if I’m on my own, and that is to take one last walk around the block before turning in, just to see what comes up.
On dimly lit sois noodle sellers were still taking orders. People sat around eating, drinking pay day whisky and playing bottle top draughts. Although I still stayed out that way I didn’t spend too much time on Khao San Road. I'd done my time there and I’ve seen it grow from a street with no glass fronted shops or restaurants to what it is today. But I decided to take a look on my circuit before calling it a night. Coming in from the police station end I remembered how it had once been described to me as "the most un-Thai street in Thailand.” Music played from stalls on both sides of the road and the infamous Hello Coffee shop had spilled right out into it despite still being open to traffic back then. A girl caught my eye from one of the tables where she sat. She said something that I didn’t catch. I was open to it as, after all, I was walking around the block to see what came up and she was what came up. With her slightly equine features she wasn’t the best looking girl in Bangkok. If she ever told me her name I don't recall it. She barely spoke English but we struggled by over a shared beer amongst the happy throng. A friend of hers flitted back and forth sharing the large Singhas with us that seemed to be going down rather too well. As time went on the seal broke and I was making frequent trips to the "hong nam" deep inside the coffee shop. Each time I returned my glass had been refilled and both girls would be keen to raise their glasses to mine where we'd all say "chok dii"and carry on drinking. I hadn’t been looking for a girl, and I’d already had more than enough to drink down in Patpong, but somewhere along the line I’d been fitted with a pair of beer goggles and horse face was beginning to look a little less like Mr. Ed. Her friend was making familiar gestures towards us, suggesting that we should go together. Do I really want to take her, I was asking myself, or would I just be doing it for something to put into the memory bank to enjoy again on a wet Wednesday afternoon when I got back home? Knowing you should never look a gift horse in the mouth I decided to take her anyway. I didn’t feel I was drunk, happy maybe. I felt I was in control, what could possibly go wrong? I didn’t want to take her back to my room. Too many people knew me at the guesthouse. I didn’t want word getting back to Noi who was the only one who stayed with me there sometimes.
At a grim little place down an alley we tried to get a room. Horse face was asked for ID which she said she didn’t have. At this point I remember an alarm going off deep inside my mind but decided to override it. I was in control. After a short ride in a tuktuk we found a room near Sanam Luang. Once inside I even made sure that she wouldn’t be able to leave the room with my wallet while I was taking a shower. I was in control. More beer arrived at the door. I was surprised at how much I was drinking. Looking back I remember her looking at me in a way that seemed to be questioning how it was that I was still standing at all let alone rolling around the bed with her. The last thing I remember of that night was lying there in her arms.
Somewhere in the distance a telephone was ringing. I could hear the sound of children’s laughter as they played some far off game. Why doesn’t somebody answer that phone, I was wondering. And then, as though coming up from deep under water, I realised that the phone wasn’t somewhere else but ringing loudly on the other side of the room. My eyes snapped open. Daylight had flooded in through frosted glass. Kids were playing just outside. My first thought was oh, she's gone. Scrambling across the bed to get to the phone my second thought was, oh fuck! I knew that I’d been drugged as soon as I stood up. I reached down for my trousers, that lay in a heap on the floor, knowing what to expect. One thousand pounds worth of travellers cheques were gone. Although my wallet was still there all the cash that I’d had left was also missing, except for two hundred baht. I picked up the phone and was told that it was time to check out.
Bathed in sweat I sat back down on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. Whatever it was that I’d been given was still coursing through my veins. It had obviously been slipped into my drink at Hello, and probably again back in the room. It was pay day and she'd been paid. I cursed the girl but more than that I cursed myself for being so stupid. I tried to take stock. I'd been in a tight spot once before in Bangkok so I knew that it was important to stay calm. "I’m still alive", I was saying to myself, knowing that sometimes people didn’t wake up again after something like this. Though I felt like shit I hadn’t been beaten up for the money and I wasn’t hurt. My passport was still in my room so she didn’t have that. I had two hundred Baht to my name. Strange that she should leave me that. Did that mean that she had a conscience? In the back of my mind I remembered an advert that used to be shown on TV about a guy who had lost his travellers cheques. As he sat back sipping cocktails on a sun drenched beach his replacement cheques were bought out to him on a silver tray by a uniformed flunkey from his hotel. I knew that I’d have to make a police report before I could get mine replaced. I looked at my watch. I couldn’t believe that it was almost 1:00 PM. I must have been out for eight or nine hours and then I only woke up because the phone was ringing. Getting myself together I took a cold shower and then staggered from the room into blinding sunlight. I walked back to the police station on Khao San Road. For some reason they couldn’t deal with it and said that I’d have to go to a police station just off Ploenchit Road. I had two hundred Baht. A taxi there and back would swallow up most of that and the thought of taking a bus in the state that I was in at that time of day was too much to even contemplate. I headed back to my room, which still had to be paid for, although I had no idea what I was going to do once I got there.
By chance Noi had turned up looking for me. She had obviously been waiting around for some time in reception wondering where I was. At the time she was the last person I wanted to see. I just didn’t want to have to explain. I could tell by the look on her face that I must have looked bad. I certainly felt it. Before I could speak she asked with some alarm "Reechaad, what happen?"
"Noi, it’s okay just go home and I’ll call you later", I said.
"No you tell me now", she insisted, while looking at me with some concern and pulling me by the arm up to my room away from prying eyes. I was in no position to resist. I told her the sorry tale. I'd known Noi for several years by then and she had every right to say"som nam na"and walk away. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had. But she didn’t. After some thought she said, "Okay come on", and was heading for the door. Flagging down a taxi she bundled me in and told the driver where to go. "Noi I’ve only got two hundred Baht", I reminded her. I knew she had nothing as usual. She took a hundred from me. I thought we were heading for the police station down Ploenchit way but having crossed the still, black, water of Klong Banglumpoo near The New World Department Store we pulled up on Thanon Samsen and I was bundled out again. I now had one hundred and sixty Baht. I realised that we were standing outside a pawn shop where Noi told me to wait. Pulling off a gold ring that she wore she went inside. Five minutes later she emerged back into bright sunlight from dark and dusty looking depths with a fistful of crumpled looking Baht. Pushing the money into her bag she showed me a receipt, complete with her thumb print, that said she'd received one thousand Baht for the ring. "Okay have money now", she said through a blue fog of exhaust fumes as a bus pulled away from the front of the shop. I felt even worse and assured her that whatever happened I would get the ring back as soon as I could. "Mai pen rai", she replied, while waving another cab down.
At the police station there was an air of having seen it all before, of which I had no doubt they had, and I’m sure still do. There were no questions asked, no mug books to trawl through, no squad cars sent racing to the scene of the crime, just a form to fill in with an account of what had happened. I'd decided that honesty was the best policy and wrote a brief report with the minimum of detail in an effort to retain some dignity. I failed. It was pathetic. But I was still expecting my travellers cheques to be replaced with the minimum of fuss. I was given the use of a phone and the number of the company that had issued them. Their office was on Sathorn Road. By then the afternoon was already slipping out of reach. "You'll have to come in tomorrow", I was told, as they’d be closing soon. "And you'll replace my cheques right?” I asked hopefully.
"Well Sir you'll have to come tomorrow and then we'll decide if we're going to replace them or not", she replied. This was the first inkling I had that the man with the silver tray might not be appearing. "What, you mean I might not get them?” I enquired with some alarm.
"As I said Sir, if you come in tomorrow then we'll see if you deserve them or not.”
"But I’ve got no money", I said with increasing desperation. She hung up.
To save money Noi wanted to go back on the bus. There was no skytrain then to at least escape some of the traffic. Sweat oozed from every pore on the crowded ride back with Noi telling me that dark rings had appeared under my eyes. Dusk was settling over Banglumpoo by the time we returned. It was obvious that Noi wasn’t going to stay with me that night. She gave me enough money, to add to the little I already had, so I could pay for my room and get something to eat. She promised to return early the following morning so we could go to Sathorn Road.
Dawn seeped in through grimy bug screens. Familiar morning sounds in a room across the alley of sloshing water and lungs full of God knows what hawked up and spat out. The screech of metal shutters opening up along the street as another day began. I'd barely slept. I still felt like shit. Whatever I’d been given was still working its way through my system. Unsure of what Noi meant by early I waited downstairs. With the rush hour well underway there was a shout from the back of a taxi in the street with Noi beckoning me Asian style shouting, "Reechaad, reaw reaw" (quickly) so as not to hold up the traffic.
Finding the office on Sathorn Road, where the company I wanted was located, we got into the lift. As much as I needed Noi I didn’t really want her coming in with me. I just felt that it wouldn’t help my cause in trying to make a claim for a refund with a Thai girl in tow. Not that she was tottering around in high heels, short skirt and low cut top looking as though I’d just met her in a bar the night before. She was older than me, and quite soberly dressed as she always was. Not wanting to offend I couldn’t just tell her to wait outside. I suggested that she might not want to come in, as I guessed that it could take a while, but in her mind she was helping me and wouldn’t hear of it. Up around the seventeenth floor there was more paperwork. I had to write out another report, this time in more detail. It was too late to change my story now that they had the police report. We waited in reception. Someone would come out and ask a question now and again and then disappear. After a while I was lead, alone, to an office where the man who held the rest of my holiday in his hands would make his decision. He was one of those unfortunate Orientals who was going bald. The beginnings of a comb over were evident.
"Ahhh Meester Reechard", he said, gesturing for me to sit opposite him at his desk. He read through the sorry tale that I had just written. As I spoke he scribbled things down. "What was the girl’s name?” he asked.
"I don't know", I replied
"Doesn’t know name of girl", he muttered as he wrote. This was not a good start. "What was the name of the hotel?”
"I don’t know.”
"Doesn’t know name of hotel or room number", he mumbled while writing. I had my passport, proof of purchase of the travellers cheques and where I’d bought them. I even had receipts from the cheques I’d already cashed and working out the serial numbers of the ones that had been stolen was easy enough to figure out. He looked over all of this. I had been in the country about four days and looking at the cheques I’d already cashed was troubling him. He couldn’t understand how I’d spent the amount I had in such a short space of time. Rather than say beer and women the best I could come up with was, "I like nice restaurants.” He shook his head as he wrote it down. I was starting to become even more un-glued than I already was. With the drug making me sweat more than usual I’d arrived with my shirt soaking wet. Sitting in an office with the air-con seemingly full on I was now shivering with cold but looking more like an alcoholic in desperate need of a drink. I really hoped that that wasn’t what he was thinking. "So where had you been that evening before you met this girl Meester Reechard?” he asked.
"Patpong?” he questioned in mock theatrical surprise which loosened a couple of strands in his comb over. "There's a restaurant I like there", I said, knowing that it was probably the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. He shook his head again as he wrote it down. By now I was beginning to regret my decision to be honest and wished that I’d made up a story about being pick pocketed on a bus. "Did you have sex with her?”
"No I fell asleep", I lied. It was becoming clear that I was being questioned as someone who had committed a crime rather than someone who had been the victim of one. As if to illustrate my thoughts he got up and pointed to a wall covered in passport style photographs of farangs. "This man", he said, tapping one of the pictures, "sold his travellers cheques and then tried to make a claim for a refund.” Prodding at another photo he continued, "this man, sold his travellers cheques and tried to get a refund.” Poking at another he added, "this man the same.” And so it went on, jabbing his finger into the faces of the guilty as he rammed his point home. As much as I tried to assure him that this wasn’t the case any hope that I might have clung on to about getting a refund was lost then. I knew that the man with the silver tray wasn’t waiting just outside the door. Even if he did believe my story he had me for not taking proper care of my cheques. But the questions continued. Sometimes moving forward, sometimes going back to a previous question. If his intention was to rattle me it was working. I was sitting there shaking and gibbering like an idiot. After wanting to know about my job in the UK he then wanted to know the office telephone number of where I worked. "I don't actually work in the office so I have to use the pay phone in the works canteen", I tried to explain.
"Doesn’t know office phone number", he said as he scribbled. For some reason I could remember the canteen phone number and tried to explain again.
"Okay give me that", he insisted. They needed to be able to verify parts of my story he said. At the time the canteen was looked after by a little old Irish woman who was confused at the best of times. I could only imagine how that call would pan out. Going over his notes he then asked, "where did you keep your cheques?” The little plastic wallet that I had kept them in was originally from the Bangkok Bank, which was not the company that I was trying to claim a refund from. The girl had left it behind. I had it in my pocket and showed it to my interrogator. He picked it up off the table between thumb and forefinger as if it were a soi dog turd. "You kept your cheques in this?” he asked, in disbelief. And it didn’t go un-noticed that it was from the Bangkok Bank either. "And where was this wallet?” he asked, dropping it back down onto the desk.
"It was in my trouser pocket", I replied
"So, Meester Reechard", he asked, "where exactly were your trousers?” He was starting to sound like a low rent Bond villain. A fleeting image of him stroking a white cat flashed through my mind. It wasn’t a question I’d ever been asked before, or since, but still remains engraved in my memory. He wanted to see my return plane ticket back to London. It was the one thing I’d neglected to take with me. "Can't you just call the airline", I pleaded, dreading the thought of an endless taxi ride all the way back to Banglumpoo to get the ticket then return back to Sathorn Road. He stood and started to gather all of his paperwork together indicating that this was the end of the interview. I agreed to go and get it. "Will I get a refund then?” I asked.
"Meester Reechaard", he said, "we have to check many things.”
"But I’ve got no money.”
"These things take time, there are phone calls to make, we may have to wait to see if the cheques surface again and that could take several weeks", he said.
"But I’ve got no money", was all I could say as he ushered me towards the door.
"Him give or not?” Noi asked hopefully back in reception. I shook my head and explained that we were going to have to go and get my plane ticket. "After him give?” she wanted to know.
"I don't know Noi, I don't think so", I answered. She took it out on the taxi driver all the way back to Banglumpoo, questioning every turn and berating him for every traffic jam we got caught up in. It didn’t happen often but I knew better than to try and calm her down when she started getting angry. I left her to get something to eat and cool down while I went to retrieve my plane ticket. As an afterthought I trudged around to the short time hotel, where I’d spent the night with horse face, to pick up a business card and find out the name of the place, and get the room number. Walking the streets in a city far from home with no money is a sobering experience.
Noi directed the taxi driver all the way back to Sathorn Road. Another day was fast slipping away. Back in the office I’d just about given up by then and slapped the plane ticket down on the desk, followed by the card from the hotel. My man studied them closely and shrugged his shoulders. He then left the room for a few minutes. After more pleading of innocence from me when he returned he said, "I see you have a Thai lady with you.”
"Yes she's a friend who's been good enough to help me.”
"And where did you meet her?” he wanted to know. What is now Bamboo Bar on Sukhumvit Soi 3 was once a place called Bier Kutsche. It was a small outside bar where Noi did a bit of freelance work at the weekend. That's where I met her. During the week she worked in a factory in Bang Khun Tien. "She's a friend of the people who run the guesthouse where I stay", I said. It was an answer that in the event he might want to talk with Noi was something I’d told her to say also. "Do you mind if I speak with her?” he asked, just as she was being shown in through the door. I could hardly say yes at that point.
"No not at all", I replied, thinking that this was definitely the end now. After some small talk in English, for my benefit, he then told me that he was going to speak with her in Thai. Sunlight glinted on cars out towards Klong Toey as I looked at the view from the window for the first time. I wished that I was out there. As awful as I was feeling I did my best to tune in to the conversation they were having and pick up what I could. Much of it I only got to know about afterwards. It seemed that he wanted to know as much about her life as he did mine. Long before I met Noi she'd been married to a policeman. He'd been killed in an accident. She told him all about that. About how she knew me, with the story we'd agreed on, and how I would never sell my travellers cheques. In effect she had become a character witness. She seemed to be turning things around. I saw the guy smile for the first time. There was even some laughter. I don't think she went quite so far as to say that I helped out at the local orphanage, or was kind to dumb animals, but it was heading that way. I sent her money sometimes if she had problems she said. She told him how I sent letters from England and always remembered her, and her family, at Christmas. The conversation went on for quite awhile. In the end it all amounted to Noi telling him that I was basically a decent bloke, stupid maybe, on this occasion, but not someone who would try to make fraudulent claims such as this on a three week holiday. He continued to write as he chatted with Noi and then just like that handed me a slip of paper telling me that I could get my re-funded cheques at the bank down on the ground floor. Noi had turned the whole thing around.
To think that I didn’t even want her to come in with me. I wouldn’t have stood a chance if she hadn’t. To say that I was relieved would be an understatement. Not normally one for making a big show of emotion I waited until we were back in the lift and going down before grabbing Noi in a bear hug. "Reechaad what you do?” she laughed, knowing that it was she who had made this happen, and knowing that I knew it too. She gratefully accepted the money from that first cashed cheque that would be enough to get the ring back, and a lot more besides. It was pay day again. She never did say "som nam naa", but for a long time after the event whenever we were out together she often took great delight in recounting the story, if ever the opportunity arose, either to friends or, strangely enough, taxi drivers.
I don't want this story to sound like a warning about how bad Thai girls can be. Some are, some aren’t. There are good and bad everywhere you go. It's all part of the game. If you're going to play you're going to get ripped off somewhere along the line whether you care to admit it or not. And I don't want this to be a story of stupidity, though undoubtedly it is. I would like it to be more of a warning about becoming too complacent. I thought I knew what was what at the time and I still got caught. Though in my defence there weren’t the multitude of websites that there are today warning of such things. As long as you learn from your experiences. There was a time when I would have trusted Noi 100%. I knew her for longer than most people I know here in London. Many years later, as if to prove you are never going to know what’s what in Thailand, she was in Lad Yao jail. But that’s another story.
Great story. While some of the women can be ratbags, Thais can show a great deal of compassion and offer assistance when someone they know, possibly not even someone that close to them, is experiencing bad luck. This story is a good example.