Letter from Bangkok
I had been working around Thailand’s edges for some years but now I would really be going there. There was going to be a week-long sales and marketing event in Bangkok that would involve on-site preparation as well as the event itself. All told,
it would be at least 10 days in the world’s sexual amusement park and I would be there with all expenses paid. I couldn’t believe my luck and even with two months before I left, I had to do regular breathing exercises to stay calm
enough to get any meaningful work accomplished. Later, I learned the event would be held at the Marriott Resort and Spa. It was across the river from the main part of the city, but it was a real jewel of a hotel. Looking at the pictures on the
internet, I literally drooled on my desk. From my international friends, I been schooled on the best places to visit in Bangkok, yet I still read about Thailand in library books and internet forums late into the night. All sources indicated this
trip was going to be my best of the year and possibly my whole life. As the date to leave grew closer, the more I had to fight off anticipation; I felt like a stud being led closer and closer to the mare barn.
On the flight out to Bangkok, I couldn’t sleep very much on the first leg to Narita. I was devouring a beautiful book on Thailand with color photographs and concise descriptions of the people and the culture. Although I had read it a couple days before I left, I started reading it again so all the pictures would come to life as soon as I landed. The more I stared at the pictures, the more I could more clearly see the beautiful people against the scenic beauty of Thailand. At some point, I veered from the reality into a dream where I was on a beach in Thailand with scantily clad girls frolicking around me. I awoke quickly when we started our approach to cold Japan.
I shuffled though security and 30 minutes later I was on a 747 in business class sitting next to a very large American man. There was a delay in take off so we began to chat about travel and business in general. He told me he was a wine consultant on his way to Bangkok to help a number of hotels pick the right wines for their menu. I was instantly fascinated but when I told him I was in software technical sales, he was surprisingly fascinated with my work as well. When dinner arrived, already a few glasses of red wine into the trip, we decided to just eat the excellent bread which the flight attendants happily brought to us the rest of the flight.
We had been yakking so intently that we were soon 5 hours into a 6 hour flight and would soon land in Bangkok. I asked where he would be staying in Bangkok. He said he would be staying with his wife who lived there part time. Looking at my surprised face, he told me the story of how he met his wife. Years ago, coming off a complete collapse of his life both maritally and financially, he discovered a Buddhist retreat near his home. After a few months resident there, he renounced his Catholic faith and became a Buddhist. He tried to become a monk but the Tibetan monks convinced him that he should try something else, something he really loved. Getting the hint, he took the monks’ advice and thought for a long time and realized that over the years, he had been stocking a nice supply of wine and gaining a broad knowledge of the industry. Was there a living to be made in this he wondered? A year later he had become a one man wine consultancy. Not making much money at first, but when wine became very popular in Asia, his services were much sought after there.
On his many trips to Bangkok, John would occasionally indulge in its nightlife, especially with the freelancers that serviced the beer gardens he liked to frequent. One evening he came across a pathetic woman patrolling the bar who was so drunk she could barely stand up. He felt instant pity and took her back to his hotel room. He stayed in Thailand for a month while he sobered Boo up and they became very close. They married in America 6 months later and six months after that, her 2 boys came to live with them. Now, her boys were in college in America so Boo was now splitting her time between Bangkok and America, helping to care for her aged mother. My friend and Boo planned to stay in the city for a few days of business and then travel for a short vacation to Hua Hin. After we gathered our bags and went through customs, we went to the meeting area and there was his wife Boo, all smiles and hugs, like he was returning from some distant war. I looked on in obvious envy as both of them waved at me as they got into their taxi. After they left and I was taxiing towards the city, I was completely struck with the romanticism of this couple. Could I find love like that in Thailand?
The Marriott hotel was all it was all it was advertised to be; tastefully decorated, well staffed, and beautifully situated on the west bank of the Chayo Phraya river. In the first few days, I developed a routine of hard work during the day and exciting times at night. I seemed to have boundless energy and little need of sleep. I became familiar with the many bars of Patpong, where I developed another routine of entering a new bar, ordering one beer, and if I did not see anything interesting I would leave in a few minutes and go to the next bar. I was speed shopping for the thrill of a night’s sensual pleasure. On the third night in a bar I cannot now remember, I saw her. She was shyly dancing nude in front of a group of farang customers. She looked my way and gave me the sweetest of smiles. I could not take my eyes off her and soon she was sitting beside me at my table.
Her English was good and had traces of a British accent. She spoke softly yet she laughed easily at everything I said. She held my hand close and unlike the other bar girls I had been with, she stroked it gently like a loving mother would with her child. She asked if she could put on her outfit while she sat with me and I said OK. After a few minutes of talking, I asked if she wanted a drink. She said yes but warned me they charged for whiskey as she only drank tea. Later, I asked if she wanted me to bar fine her. She readily agreed so I asked for the check and paid the mamasan just as she arrived back at my table in her street clothes. She took my hand and off we went to the short-time hotel, as I could not risk having her seen by my team at the hotel. Later, I wished I had taken the risk of taking her with me to the hotel as she was a willing lover who responded in kind to every move I made to please her. Afterwards, we went to a nearby street café and talked late into the night. Her name was Da.
The next day after I had finished work, I went straight to Da’s bar and barfined her after only one beer. We again went to the short-time hotel but we lingered longer and stayed for the full 2 hours, never leaving the bed. Afterwards, we found a different street café on a crowded sidewalk for more food and more talk. I was playing by the bargirl rule of “treat them nice and have a nice girlfriend”, and so far it was working very well with Da. But something was different with this girl; it genuinely felt very good to walk hand-in-hand with Da and feel the warmth of her sweet smile.
The third night with Da started as the second night, only this time I sensed a more somber yet urgent pace in Da’s actions at the hotel. At dinner, she quickly ordered and instead of the usual friendly conversation, she was more quiet and withdrawn. After we finished eating, she was silent for a minute and asked if I wanted to go home with her. I said “sure” right away and with her bright smile returned, we were off in a taxi heading to an unknown destination. During the ride with my arm firmly around her soft body, I imagined an evening of more lovemaking in what was sure to be a cramped apartment. What I didn’t realize was Da had other ideas.
As we drove through the city, I became a little concerned as we were in a strange looking part of the city, no street cafes or brightly lit stores. The streets became increasingly quieter and darker the longer we rode. Da seemed unconcerned. After 30 minutes, we came to a very dark, dead-end street and got out of the cab. We walked about half a block in a neighborhood with little activity and almost no lights. When we got to the end of the street, I saw a river’s edge and a small wooden pier. As we walked closer, I saw the faint outline of a man sitting at the end of a long boat. It was a miniature version of the ones I had seen plowing up and down the Chao Phaya. He was leaning against the pier and was fast asleep. As we approached, he started to stir and was awake when we reached him. Da engaged him in some conversation and then told me to get into the front of the boat. Da got in right behind me and off we motored on dark water through an equally dark night. As we quietly cruised along the water, I felt equal parts new world explorer and condemned criminal on his way to Devil’s Island. I resisted the urge to stick my hand in the water.
After a few minutes, I could finally make out some lights in the distance. As they became brighter, I could just see the outline of another dock which we were fast approaching. At the last second before impact with the dock, the boatman expertly swerved to the right and pulled up alongside. He tied up smartly and I got clumsily out of the long boat. Da expertly jumped out and grabbed my hand. As we turned to walk away, I realized that there were floating huts attached to the dock with short, narrow runways leading to them. Da was now pulling my hand into one of them. When we got inside, she locked the door behind us and disappeared into a back room. I stood at one end of a small living room with a low ceiling. My palms immediately started to sweat and my heart started to beat faster. I suddenly realized that nobody knew where I was. I wondered if my hand phone had reception here or if I could swim back across whatever body of water we had just crossed if this turned out to be a bad situation. My claustrophobia was slowing turning into grave fear. I imagined that at any moment, Da’s boyfriend or husband would emerge to rob me, kill me, and throw my body into the dark water. Soon I would be another stupid farang that got into the wrong place at the wrong time in Bangkok. I was just about to unbolt the door and flee into the night when I heard Da’s sweet voice.
She emerged from the back room in a modest but pretty robe. She asked me to sit down in a small chair as she had something she wanted to show me. She pulled a chair beside me and opened a large, weathered book in her lap. She said it was her family’s Koran given to her by her Mother before she died. She explained that her family was from southern Thailand where Da had lived in small house with her mother, father, older brother and sister. She showed me an old photograph of them that was inside the Koran. Her father had once supported the entire family by working as a truck driver. One day, her mother became ill and was soon in hospital. She died of cancer three weeks later. Her father tried to keep the family together but he was drinking heavily now and missing days at work. One day he went to work and didn’t come home. Da and her siblings went to live with an aunt and uncle who lived nearby. It was an uncomfortable arrangement as her relatives were much older and poorer than her parents. Her sister became pregnant when she was sixteen and went to live with her boyfriend’s family. Her brother left to find work in Bangkok. Da struggled to stay in high school and when she graduated, she went to live with her brother to attend university. She found herself alone most of the time in a rough part of the city with no friends. She spent most of her time in front of the TV or reading from the Koran.
She had hoped her brother made enough money so she could go to school without working, but his work was infrequent at best. So she tried to find work in shops and department stores, but there were no openings. They were running out of money fast when Da met a friend from her hometown. She was working at a bar in Patpong as a hostess and invited Da to meet her manager. Da had heard of these places before but her friend assured her she would only be a waitress. She went to the bar the next night with her friend and the manager hired her on the spot. The manager was true to her word; Da only brought drinks to the farang customers but did not make much money in salary and tips. After a month, she started dancing topless to double her salary (her breasts were larger than most of the other dancers) and later doubled her salary again when she agreed to dance nude. After a few more weeks of dancing and saving money for school, her brother started using ya-ba and stopped working so she became the sole support for them. No matter what, she wanted to keep what was left of her family together, so it was not long before she accepted the offer of a kind-faced farang to spend the night with him. She was now a Bangkok bargirl.
That was two months ago. She was telling me this so I would know she was not a “real” bargirl. She hated her work but needed money to keep her small family together. I was the first farang that had treated her with kindness and respect. She was sure I had a good heart. She said she was in love with me and that all she wanted was a clean home and a husband that treated her well. She would take care of everything else. She spoke of her love of America and how lucky Americans were. She told me she was the best English student in her school and that she wanted to travel to places far away from Thailand. She talked about her mother before she died, who had a recurring dream in which Da left Thailand and returned with nice clothes and white faced children. My heart broke as I reached around and hugged her. Did she want me to stay the night? It was up to me, she said, but I detected that would not be right for her family. I told her I should leave now but I would see her again the next night. She rode in the boat back across the water with me and we kissed a long time before I walked alone up the street until I roused a sleeping tuk-tuk driver in front of a small shop. Before I got in, I bought two large Singha beers. Together we started a long, smelly ride back to the hotel but the beer made it less odious. When we reached the hotel, I didn’t want the second bottle so I gave it to the driver along with a nice tip. He smiled broadly, opened the bottle neatly with an opener he had handy, and then drove off into the night with the bottle between his legs.
When I got to my room, I did not sleep much. I had fallen for Da and now I was in way over my head. I lay awake thinking of all the things Da had said to me. Yes, she wasn’t like the usual bar girls but what did that mean? Could we be together and make each other happy? I only made it to Asia a few times a year and there was no way she could get a visitor visa to America. Could we wait months between visits? If we wanted to get married, could I get a fiancé visa for her? Didn’t that take 6 months to a year to get? Would I have to support her the entire time? Would her drug addicted brother steal her money or demand more money before she could leave Thailand? Even then, what would she do in America? Go to school, get a job, or get pregnant? I already had some children from a previous marriage; did I want more? The only scenario that made any sense was for me to move to Thailand, but that meant living far away from family and friends and maybe throwing my career away as well. Then there was the brother and maybe her sister and cousins who might want to come live with us. If only this business trip went on forever and I could bar fine her every night; I concluded that was the only way we could stay together.
The next day I worked in a fog of sleep deprivation and doubt but I met Da again at the bar early in the evening. Again, I bar-fined her quickly and we went directly to the short time hotel, only this time it was a cursory visit where I went through the rituals of lovemaking. Afterwards, we went to eat at a nearby restaurant and ordered the usual food. When we finished, I asked her some of the questions I had asked myself the night before: where would we live, how would she work, could she be with a man 20 years older than she, etc. Da answered with a breezy theme that love would find a way, all the time stroking my hand just as she did that first night and smiling warmly. We left the restaurant and strolled along the almost empty street. After a few minutes, I pulled her to the side and kissed her briefly and then stuffed 20,000 baht into her front jeans pocket. She asked what I was doing and I said I couldn’t marry her. Tears started to flow from both of us. I said she would be alright and that God would find a way for her to survive. She kept grabbing my hand asking me to stay and I kept pulling it away as I walked backwards on the sidewalk. When we were six feet apart and she put her head in her hands, I turned and walked quickly away. A taxi drove up and in a few seconds I was gone from her life.
As the sales meeting slogged its way through the week, I avoided Patpong and instead found new friends in Nana Plaza. These girls were as pretty as Da and one was fantastic in bed, but it wasn’t the same fun it used to be. Always, when I returned to my hotel, I would wonder what Da was doing. Was she with another man telling him the same stories? Was he kind to her? Did he know how very lucky he was to be with her or did he use her for a night’s pleasure as I had tried to do? Now I thought of John and Boo. John had put his life on hold for a month to save a fellow human from a wretched life and in the process, had found true love. Why didn’t I have that force of will or compassion to seek something not obvious on the surface? Would I always seek life’s pleasures instead of its humanity or affection?
On my last night in Bangkok, I couldn’t go out to the go-go bars again. I went down to the outdoor bar near the river pier and drank a lot of beer. One of the waitresses kept brushing by me and smiling; I smiled back but that was all I did. When I had drank enough beer to just be able to walk to my room alone, I left the bar. Early the next morning, I boarded my flight home but even with a searing headache that no aspirin could cure, I still thought of Da. I closed my eyes and hoped if there truly is a god, then surely he would find a way to take care of one of his most dedicated and beautiful disciples.
I believe that the first Western guy a bargirl genuinely falls for is the only one who has a chance with her. A chance. Maybe there was a chance there for you and her. Maybe not. Thai women are odd in that they can fall in love very easily, but when their first "foreign love" goes bad they seem to struggle to recover from it. I do believe however that if another many took her out of the bar some time later that the chances of it working would be incredibly low.