A Night with Noi
She was Thai. She was very attractive. She was a gambler. She was many other things, but these were the only things I knew for sure. I had met her in the lounge of a local hotel at about 10:00 the evening before, and now it was close to 5:30 am. It had been quite a night.
I had noticed her around the hotel a couple of times in recent days, but always with a burly looking farang. Tonight she was alone. She was wearing a black mini dress that showed enough of her pert figure to get your attention, but not enough to make you wonder how much your fun was going to cost in the morning. Her gold bracelets were real, and the long gold chain around her neck nestled a Buddha image in the warmth of her cleavage.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I asked where her boyfriend was. “He go with other girl…he butterfly man,” she complained. After some small talk she revealed that after she found out what her “boyfriend” was up to she had called a friend to meet her so they could go out, but she had not showed up. I volunteered a few sympathetic comments that seemed to be taken well, then I told her I was going to get something to eat and asked if she wanted to join me. A couple of minutes later we were in a burping and farting tuk-tuk lurching through the Bangkok traffic on the way to one of many seafood restaurants on the western side of the Chao Praya river.
During the meal she bitterly complained about her boyfriend: “He no goos man, alway jai-ron”, but eventually we began to talk about other things. I found out that her name was Noi and that she had been in Bangkok with her sister and friend for just under a year, when they had arrived from Roi Et in the North East, to make money to send home to her invalid mother. Of course, I wondered if this money-making venture involved providing the infamous Thai intimate services, the fastest and most common way for girls from up-country to raise money, but Noi assured me not. OK, I thought to myself, so where did the gold come from? And how come she still had it if there really was a needy mother. I decided to just go along with this and see where it led, but keep my guard up at least a bit.
Originally they had stayed with an aunt, but they had soon found their own apartment when they discovered the aunt was “stlict too much”.
After the excellent meal it was about midnight and Noi said she had to go arrange to send money to her mother. I steeled myself for the inevitable cash-call, but instead she said “You come, you goos man”. At first I thought that she expected me to lay a golden egg, but when I asked where, she said “You come, you see. No plomplem.” No problem for her, maybe, but I had no idea where we were going as we jumped into another belching tuk-tuk. As we burped and farted farther away from the main streets and into the maze of side “sois” I took a mental inventory of what valuables and documents I had on me: only copies of my passport and US green card, one credit card, about 3,000 baht in my wallet, another 2,000 in my pocket and my (genuine) TAG wrist watch. OK…I could afford to lose the lot. When we turned down a very dark, narrow and threatening alley I only hoped I came away with my dignity and my life.
We stopped at the back of a what appeared to be a row of dilapidated old apartment-shophouses that looked like they had been pulled apart then randomly stuck back together: a monkey with a Lego kit could have designed them better and there were so many different levels, jutting rooms, multiple staircases and odd balconies you couldn’t tell how many stories they had or where one apartment ended and the other began. No traditional Thai teak joinery in this place. As I paid the driver he gave me an inscrutable look, then muttered “Baa falang” (crazy foreigner) and spluttered off into the Bangkok night. Noi motioned me to follow her as she made her way through a doorway a few paces down the alley. She walked through the gloom with such certainty that either she had cat’s eyes or she had been here many times before. At the time it could have been either, but I hoped that she had at least one extra life to spare.
I stumbled along trying not to trip over the piled trash and boxes cluttering the way. Then up a flight of creaking wooden stairs, across a landing, down a dank hallway, through another door into what appeared to be a crude kitchen, with three big propane-type tanks feeding hissing and spluttering gas cookers heating bubbling pots of pungent broths, and on a dirty wooden table the bloodied and limbless carcass of some creature that most likely a few hours earlier would have purred as I stroked its ears, then quickly out into an adjoining store room, through another door into a hallway lit by a flickering fluorescent tube dangling from bare wires snaking into the ceiling. At the end of the hallway was a steel door with a sliding port at eye level, but no handle or key hole. Noi rapped on the door and instantly the port slammed open to reveal a pair of penetrating and angry eyes set into a fleshy, pock-marked face. They were expecting Noi, or at least someone like her, but not a pink-skinned farang lurking in the shadows. The withering look he glanced off Noi tried to incinerate me with incendiary intensity, but I just smiled and kept quiet while Noi did the explaining. Or at least that’s what I took the exchange to be all about as I took in her sweet, dulcet lilt, occasional “…falang…” and lots of “…na kha…” versus his guttural grunts and coarse gestures. The port slammed closed, there was a grinding clunk and the door groaned open into a small bare room on the far side of which was a flood of light and bustle of voices coming from a partially open doorway. Crossing the 10 paces to that door way was like one of those slow-motion sliding pan shots where the perspective rushes away from you as you move forward: you’re not really moving that much or that fast, but the sheer momentum of the shot thrusts you to a place you can’t resist. For me that place was a large gambling den burbling with the raucous sights and sounds of clusters of people sitting on the floor playing all sorts of card and other games of chance – in an instant of insight I wondered if these were the means to fulfill part of the players’ karma and how mine was tied into theirs. I was about to find out.
Noi was greeted by a few friendly nods from some of the gamblers and one beckoning gesture to join a game on the right side of the room. On the other hand all I got was mostly inscrutably blank stares and a deepening sense of foreboding. As Noi settled down on the floor to play a game that involved cards, dice and some sort of board, I sat down by her to try to follow the action in front of me and also look around the room at the players in the other games. There was quite a collection of characters, from loud, boisterous and highly tattooed guys in jeans and open short-sleeved shirts, a few youngish girls like Noi in outfits that suggested they were ready to either go clubbing to spend their winnings with their Thai boyfriends or work off their debts by providing some personal and intimate company to horny or lonely farangs, to ordinary looking middle-aged couples to wizened and scrawny old men in baggy pants and whitish singlets. I counted 8 games with about 5 players per game, for about 40 players. Around the perimeter of the room were 3 imperious but jocular older women seated on tall bar stools, and occasionally they would bark out comments to a group of players who would either raucously laugh or groan or fire back comments in rapid-fire Thai that would elicit more banter and invariably much mirth. I realized that much of this was at my expense as the word “falang” was liberally used and was occasionally accompanied by a gesture in my direction. Even Noi joined in with a couple of comments that judging by the immediate and universal stares in my direction seemed to confirm my position as the “Baa falang” . I did my best to look the part with alternating impish grins and, as the night wore on into the early hours, bleary-eyed spaced-out stares into the faces of a brand of Thai subculture and obsessive-compulsive urges not mentioned in Lonely Planet guidebooks.
At the back of the room was an old lady sitting on a wooden platform raised about 2 feet off the floor. Next to her was an array of metal containers about the size of breadboxes. I soon discovered what these contained when a couple of stern-looking men arrived to sweep up the takings and hand them to the treasurer, who counted then re-counted the stacks of cash and made notations in a large ledger, finally depositing the wads into one or other of the cash-boxes.
Meanwhile Noi was on the typical gambler’s roller-coaster ride, and seemed to be losing more than winning at each hand. She began to hand me her money and told me to give her good luck as though the ritual passing of the notes between us would somehow conjure up the right combination of cards for her big win. Had she known the dismal luck I had had in life, let alone gambling, she may have tried another tactic: as they say, at that time in my life if I hadn’t had bad luck I wouldn’t have had any luck at all! Fearing the inevitable, I began to palm off 100 baht notes each time she gave me either her occasional winnings or her rapidly diminishing stash, and soon accumulated about 1,500 baht. She stared to complain that “You not bling me luck” and changed her strategy by touching her bets against the Buddha talisman around her neck. This didn’t seem to change her luck but did signal an increasingly desperate approach and her ultimate fate.
During the evening a few new gamblers arrived and joined the games, although interestingly nobody seemed to leave. I noticed one man arrive because there was a lot of deep “wai-ing” and obviously he was someone pretty important. He was dressed in black pants, white shirt and a black Members Only labeled jacket, the fake kind you find on almost every vendor stall in the street markets. He had a severe yet taciturn look in his eyes that meant he was both capable and perhaps also ruthless.
I was surprised when he sat down opposite us to join Noi’s game, although the players seemed to almost expect it and after more wai-ing, got back to serious wagering. I paid a bit more attention to our game and could not help notice the amazing string of good luck the newcomer had as he immediately started accumulating quite a stash of winnings. Upon sitting down he had eyed me up with a mixture of curiosity and disdain as he assumed I had hired Noi for the night, or at least for night-time pleasure, and obviously made some comments to that effect because visibly Noi bristled and shot him a daggers-look that could have not only drawn blood but eviscerated a lesser man, but she managed to keep her mouth shut. I gave him a generously high wai and hoped that being obsequious gave him sufficient “face” to not be bothered with me anymore. No such luck. After a few hands he stopped to look me up and down and his gaze settled on my TAG watch. With a flourish he flicked up the left sleeve of his jacket to reveal an identical TAG watch on his wrist, and in broken English he announced “Good washt…same same me,” and then asked: “You leal or fake?” Surprisingly he unclasped his watch and gestured me to do the same, which I did and held it in my right hand. He held out his watch for me to take, presumably to check its heft and quality to determine for myself if it was real or not. But some sixth sense made me hesitate and instead of handing him my watch I just took his in my left hand and very ostentatiously held it up and manipulated it to gauge the weight: it was obviously fake.
He held out his right hand to take mine, but instead of handing it over I put his on the cloth on the floor in front of us and said “That is your watch,” and as I held up mine in my right hand for our players to clearly see I said “And
this is mine…I know it’s real because I bought it in the US, not on Sukhumvit.” I looked him directly in the eye and as he held my gaze with a stern but not menacing look I prayed I had done the right thing, or at least hoped that
my watch karma was good. I feared I had blown it when he brusquely gestured me to hand over my watch and made some comments in Thai that judging by how tersely they were delivered I’m glad I did not understand. After my bravura performance,
to not hand over my watch would have been a serious loss of face for him so I dutifully complied. He hefted my watch for a moment, then eyed his, gave me a withering look and paused. Uh oh…moment of truth time. I felt a rush of adrenaline and
wondered how fast I could reach the door, and for that matter where the hell the door was, and even if I made it out of the room how would I get past the pock-marked bruiser at the end of the hallway? Everyone in the game saw me flush and then
blanch and my dread was palpably, pathetically, obvious. He had won…we all knew that, even though it was obvious that his watch was a fake…but how to grant him more face so we could all breath again and get back to the game of losing money.
“You leal” he announced and leaned forward to place my watch right in front of me. As he did so I saw a flash of metallic black inside the left side of his jacket, close to his body and then it all made perfect sense. He was a cop, and this was his way of not only having a little fun but also collecting his royalties from the game while no doubt ensuring some degree of protection for the players. I wondered how many others like him cycled through the games every night. Frankly I didn’t want to stick around too long to find out.
He watched my eyes dart back from the gun to match his gaze, but again we all knew that I was trapped and had to pay my dues. So I pulled out my wallet and laid down the 3,000 baht on the mat in front of me, making a show that it was all the money I had, reached for the dice and prayed that daddy needed new shoes as I shook them out onto the board. They came up 3 and 2. I had no idea if that was good or bad, but I assumed that it wasn’t going to beat the cop’s throw, no matter what. He held my gaze, picked up the dice leaned back and just dropped them onto the board without looking away. I knew from Noi’s muffled groan that my money was his, so I picked up the notes and with both hands placed them squarely in front of him and then raised my hands in a high wai and said “Chock dee, krab”. With an inscrutable look he nodded, gathered up his winnings, put his watch back on and then stood up. All the players at our game wai’d him and this time he wai’d back and with a big grin and a burst of Thai he moved to a game over in the far corner of the room.
That was Noi’s signal to re-start her losing streak with a renewed and yet fated enthusiasm. But evidently Noi had had enough of me, so she announced “You no goos luck, you go mamasan” and gestured for me to go sit with the old lady on the raised platform in the back. Talk about humiliation…not only was I being rejected by my girl for a wizened old woman, but I was even considered so lame as to cause no concern sitting near all the cash.
As it happened, the old lady was very gracious, and with a broad and less than toothsome grin welcomed me as she gestured to the platform to her left as an invitation to sit down, and then offered me an unopened bottle of water. I was quite relieved to be away from the rather dispiriting presence of Noi and have the chance to again watch the action without being in the center of it.
Unfettered by my unlucky presence Noi proceeded to gamble with more gusto and a lot less restraint. But she soon was down to her last few notes and then she had none. I considered regaining her favors by producing the 1,500 baht of her winnings that I had stashed in my pocket but reckoned that I didn’t really need her fleeting gratitude and decided that it would be lost in about 2 hands anyway. So she took off both her gold bracelets and with a desperate and yet pathetic pleading she appealed to the old lady next to me to trade for baht. At first the old lady would hear none of it and yet eventually after much cajoling interspersed with Noi’s trademark mellifluous “na ka” the old lady took the bracelets, hefted them to measure their weight, opened a cash box and counted out 5,000 baht into Noi’s outstretched and trembling hands. Noi had a manic glint in her eyes as she sat down and threw the 5,000 onto the board in the middle of the game, grabbed the dice and rolled her destiny. It was not good. I shuddered as another player picked up the money and counted out the 5 1,000 baht notes as a kind of taunt. Noi could not resist the gibe and yet hesitated for a moment as she attempted to regain her composure and equilibrium as she fought the impetus of her world spinning off on an axis she could never control. She bowed her head in a moment of silent prayer, squared her shoulders as though bracing for the burden of a heavy yoke, and reached for the clasp of the gold chain around her neck to unfasten the Buddha image. The players stopped their inane chatter and stared as she took off the golden Buddha, turned and offered it to the mamasan. I looked straight into her eyes and through them directly into her desolate and desperate soul. I shuddered and felt a wave of raw, but almost maudlin emotion as a rush of adrenalin charged with pity, empathy and even love coursed through me. In that moment I saw and felt all the eons of my own yearnings and failings and realized that this was the real part of my own karma that was being tested.
This was sacrilege…even trying to buy Buddha images instead of offering a donation is bad enough, but trading the sacred Buddha for gambling cash was just too much for the old woman and she refused all of Noi’s entreaties. But she shuffled over to Noi while also apparently gesturing her to leave because Noi rose from the floor and looked first at the woman then at me. The despair and yet reckless desperation in Noi’s eyes was so profound I felt guilty and ashamed for being a part of the last few hours that had leeched away her self-respect and my naivety.
We left in an awkward silence and eventually found our way back into the brightening dawn and enveloping heat of a typical Bangkok morning. We walked down the side soi to a larger street and hailed a tuk-tuk. I realized I had no idea where Noi wanted to go or if I should invite her to come back to my hotel. I didn’t relish a scene with the muscle-bound boyfriend, who may not agree that he was now an “ex”, so I said she should take this tuk-tuk and I’d get another one. She seemed not to really register what I was saying so I guided her onto the platform seat in the back and presented her a 100 baht note from the emergency money in my pocket. The sight of money made her visibly start and perk up. Then I fished out the 1,500 baht that I had been stashing during the gambling and told her what I had done. I have never seen a person change so fast and so much… instantly she transformed into a rabid, crazed tigress and as she lunged for the money with her right hand she screamed and with her left hand she tried to rake my face with her bared nails. I backed away and out of her reach, which was just as well because she pivoted in the seat on her left hip and tried to emasculate me with a vicious kick with her right foot. Then she leaped from the tuk-tuk and ran back up the side soi to the gambling den.
I fought the urge to go after her and instead clambered into the tuk-tuk and gave the driver the address to my hotel, not even bothering to negotiate the fare. Suddenly I felt both exhilarated and exhausted and yet an unexpected wave of euphoria swept over me: as we spluttered through Bangkok’s fascinating places and entrancing people, arresting sights and pungent smells it occurred to me that I didn’t expect experience the ad slogan “Amazing Thailand” in quite this way and I was so grateful for being such a boring and ordinary fellow with few of the toxic vices I had just witnessed. But little did I know that this was just the beginning of many more and exotic adventures…
Wonderful insight into a part of Thailand that few foreigners ever see. What you witnessed is a very common sight, that of a bargirl who has made a small fortune blowing it all in no time. I would bet that almost as much money as is sent upcountry to needy (and sometimes not so needy) family is blown gambling just as Noi did.
But I would caution against going to such places. I would not step foot in such a place. I really wouldn't. No good can come of a foreigner being there.