My Life And Times In Thailand Part I
Lek (all names changed or withheld unless otherwise stated) stood framed in the bathroom doorway of my Chiang Mai guest house room. The bedside lamp cast a soft yellowy glow towards her exquisitely cute, smooth, round, brown young face, almond eyes and slightly full, smiling lips. The backlight from the bathroom behind her outlined her mid-length black hair and brown shoulders with a silken sheen.
Lek slid her right arm up along the doorpost, cocked her hips slightly to her left, right leg slightly in front of the left, left hand on hip. She’d reprogrammed the bath towel into a one piece dress. It hugged her perfect curves from above her firm apple breasts to half way down the thighs of her perfect model’s legs. Giving her hip a slight wiggle she giggled “Thai lady classy lady” then skipped across the room towards me. Perched on the edge of my bed David Byrne’s words went through my head (not for the first time in my rather colourful life) and I asked myself – “How did I get here?”
It all began in Egypt actually. In 1997 I was fortunate enough (very, very, fortunate) to land a job which paid well and gave me a lot of time off with plenty of perks. I took up travelling again, visiting Egypt several times after learning to dive there. But after a couple of years I tired of the place. It’s true, the deserts, the rugged coastlines, the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula are all beyond beautiful and the hospitality is as good as anywhere else, as are its skies which boast at least as many pastel sunsets and sparkling Milky Ways as any Andaman sky; then there are the psychedelic seas teeming with life; the seafront cafes of Dahab so laid back they’re horizontal; Luxor’s incomparable Corniche flair; the fertile green gash of the Nile valley slicing through the hot deserts with their countless valleys of painted tombs; the peace and quiet of retreating into one of the big mosques in Cairo – closing its huge door behind you, shutting out the clamour of the crazy dusty pressure cooker city outside, to lie down in the cool and dose off with the golden, bejeweled dome roof slipping out of focus, safe and calm and quiet. Transcendental. But after a while there is one serious drawback with Egypt – most of the country is absolutely barren and that kind of beauty wears thin if you’re not born there.
I longed for a lush, green, preferably tropical country. Memories of my time in what was once called Malaya danced in my mind. I had done 6 weeks jungle warfare training there with the Brits in 1974, followed by 2 weeks leave in Singapore. The experience had made an utterly indelible impression on me – the smells, the weather, the food, the bars, the music, the markets, the vegetation, the animals – principally troupes of monkeys, although we found big cat traces at a water hole as well, everything right down to the exotic insect life. Obviously we regularly lived in the jungle – at one point for 2 weeks, so we were a lot closer to nature than most ever get.
Needless to say I did a fair bit of performing with my platoon as well. Drinking gallons of Tiger and Anchor and generally being a nuisance on Bugis Street (which we mispronounced Boogy Street), which I understand exists only in legend now. And boogy it was. The Army back then was of course deeply homophobic. However on Bugis Street anything went even with us. In between zulu-warriors it was a point of honour for otherwise totally homophobic killers to spend the night with a kie-tie (as we mispronounced katoey).
I’m no prude and I’m definitely firmly in the liberal/enlightened camp as I’m sure you’ll see if you read along, but that was never my cup of tea even when drunk and I passed on it. I didn’t pass on one or two of the goldfish bowls although those experiences were less than edifying. And I didn’t pass on Kota Tinghi village either, even though it was expressly off-limits to us. That’s where I drunkenly haggled with a bar owner over the price for the girl with the long dress and the football sized breasts. I wasn’t so drunk I didn’t notice feeling vaguely uncomfortable at what is obviously a barbaric procedure, but I was too drunk to understand why I felt that way.
Payback was a seriously uncomfortable case of balanitis. Those were the days where I didn’t even use the party hat the Army provided for free! Since 1982 I’ve never passed on the party hat, after reading my first article about a strange phenomenon amongst homosexuals in San Fransisco. They’d called it AIDS; a description because it was so devious, dark and deadly they couldn’t come up with an adequately dreadful name. They were saying it only affected gays but that was obvious biological nonsense. How long before bisexuals brought it into the hetero community? How long before it was hosted elsewhere else on a plane? Lots of planes, lots of hosts. Welcome to the deadly embrace of globalised disease.
Anyway, the 2002 Berlin Film Festival set my mind’s wheels in motion. I saw a really great Thai film there directed by Pimpaka Towira called “One Night Husband” (คืนไร้เงา or Kuen rai ngao). A mystery set in Bangkok, it’s about a woman whose husband gets a phone call in bed late on their wedding night. He dresses, leaves and doesn’t return. It’s about Thai male infidelity with a really devious twist at the end. A superb film, but what struck me was the setting – Bangkok suburbs, nice houses and last not least, tropical vegetation with a chorus of crickets and birdcalls. I was sold on Thailand.
So, being single at the time, I began planning a three month trip to Thailand and south east Asia for Winter 2003/2004. Got a Lonely Planet, got onto the Internet.
Apart from the warnings about gem and “hotel-temple-whatever closed” type scams, I also came across lots of warnings about the sex industry. I’m not so self deluded as to imagine that I wouldn’t have a look at that as well, so I researched. One site in particular, I think it was called “thaibargirls.com” or some such, which I unfortunately can’t find on the web anymore, told the story of a romance through the eyes of a bar girl, and then through her farang boyfriend’s. It pinpointed really well the complete disconnect between their respective cultures, experience and expectations and how even with the best will in the world most of these “relationships” are doomed to painful failure – in no small part also because of the individual shortcomings of the two parties themselves. Forewarned is (at least partly) forearmed, and with my new back pack (NZ-made Macpac – great thing!) I left for Bangkok in November 2003.
I didn’t fancy starting off in Bangkok. I live in a big city anyway and I wanted some respite. I also wanted to get more of a feel for the country before I took in the City of Angels. The Lonely Planet mentioned that Don Muang had a train station and that the discerning traveler could hop over the tracks and catch a train to such Thai gems as Ayuthaya from there. Feeling extremely discerning, that’s exactly what I did.
I made it to Ayuthaya as evening approached, and chose a guesthouse on Thanon Naresuan (real name). The LP had warned against staying at this particular one because the owner was “abusive and even violent towards guests”. But after checking out a few this one seemed the best and also appeared to be run by two women. Figuring that was safe and the LP was probably a bit out of date, I checked in. The room was a cubby hole, with one high frosted window in the bathroom, and no other natural light source, but I thought ‘OK, it’s only a few days anyway’. It was clean and I needed sleep. Zonk!
The next morning the woman who did the cooking asked me if I wanted fried rice for breakfast. It wasn’t included on the menu but I said yes straight away – figuring it would be freshly made. It was and it was delicious, the best I’d ever tasted up till then. Afterwards I hooked up with a small group of 30-ish Germans to share a boat ride around the city. Wow, what an introduction to Thailand! Far better than Bangkok.
But Ayuthaya’s also where I caught my first glimpse of the country’s wrinkles. On the second morning I approached the chef and asked if fried rice would be possible again. Her answer was negative but I tried to turn her with a little good natured banter and a few culinary compliments. I had by now become convinced LP had definitely been wrong about the place. There’d been no noise, no violent verbal or physical disturbances and I felt pretty safe. Until I asked for the fried rice again. Well! The chef did a Mount St. Helens on me, face twisted like a hungover gorgon, screaming wildly and launched towards me across the small kitchen towards the hatch with some raised implement or other. “What you want!!!, you get out!!!” are the only words out of a torrent of screaming I can recall as I fled pleading “OK OK farang breakfast 2 eggs” and escaped outside while her partner intervened to cool her off. LP was right – in a typical male fashion I had assumed any owner of an establishment would be … well, a man. It had never occurred to me a woman would either own the place or be violent towards guests. Whatever, breakfast did come and it wasn’t adulterated. There was no more trouble for the remaining 2 days either – although at night I did jam a chair under the door knob. That was my first (and so far only really serious taste) of a Thai woman’s “temperament” – in fact the poor woman was quite obviously disordered.
After a couple of bike trips around the island exploring the temples, lots of grub at the night market (divine), an afternoon at the dragon boat races (where for the first time in my life a complete stranger walked up to me and offered me a woman – and then seemed surprised I said no!) and a day trip to Lop Buri to see the apes and the palace, it was time for something bigger and Chiang Mai was next on my itinerary.
I took the daytime 2nd class diesel sprinter, because I wanted to see as much of the countryside as possible. Not a bad ride, but fact is the Thai central plains are not exactly thrilling viewing after an hour or so. Unfortunately, much later, as the scenery was starting to get interesting, as we nosed and rumbled up into what are really the foothills of the Himalayas, trees and bushes began to line the track and cut off most of the view. The last part of the journey the diesel engine labored grimly through the hills in the dark. It took most of the day to get to Chiang Mai.
I spent three weeks there. The guest house was more of a hotel; big, three wings, two fan I think, the other aircon. I prefer fan rooms generally, especially when I’m acclimatizing. It also offered an open air restaurant next to a swimming pool. It was nicely set inside the moat area, right at the end of a long twisting quiet Soi, away from the razzamataz, noise and fumes of the moat road. Friendly, family run with a lovely 18 year old daughter who was hoping to get into government service after schooling. She was extremely friendly to me and we chatted an awful lot during the first few days. They were especially taken by the fact that 5 days a week, I’d be out every morning early for breakfast at one of the bakeries near Thae Pae Gate and then on to my one-on-one Thai language class at the AUA.
I also met a few guys of my own age around CM. A few were working, several retired. I liked the idea of living there, but at that time decided I’d have to wait till retirement since my skills and experience are not easily transferrable. I discovered the incredible Chiang Mai sausage, often eating at the Arun restaurant near Thae Pae gate. I live in Germany which is the world’s sausage mecca, but Chiang Mai does turn out a sausage (just one) that’s better than any in Germany I have to say sadly. I saw the King’s birthday celebration on December 5th at Thae Pae. Did a Thai cookery course. Spent lots of time at Buak Hat Park either lying in the shade reading and munching Thai snacks and fruit, feeding the fish or jogging. And of course every time I returned to the guest house in the evening I’d run the strange siren gauntlet of “Wewlcam”, “hansum man” “yoo bye me dlink” etc. as I passed a strip of beer bars, staying just out of range of the hands and arms that tentacled out towards anything male that happened along, returning the ladies’ enticements with a twinkle eyed smile and a slight, knowing shake of my head.
I’d already worked out roughly how the scene in Thailand is divided up. It seemed quite clear to me that at the bottom of the scale, freelancers from the street are the most obvious source of danger. They’re more likely to carry diseases and are frequently the misfits who can’t even hold bar jobs down. They’re also harder to trace if things go wrong. Most of the unpleasantries I read about in the news from Pattaya and BKK and Stick, like drugging and robbery etc. seem to be connected with Beach Road and Sukhumvit freelancers. Bar beer girls too are a pretty flux crowd although a clear step up. But there are also no real controls and it’s easy for them to disappear for a few weeks (the average farang stay) to avoid any heat. Prices may be lower there than in go-go bars, but so are the looks and culture by and large as I later experienced.
As I said earlier, I’m not prude, and for me it was obvious I’d start to investigate the sexy side of Thailand sooner or later, and it was also obvious to me I’d go for the go-go bars. They are more expensive, but the girls seem a better class, at the very least prettier. I assumed they’d speak better English (wrong!). They are theoretically subject to regular check-ups (although that’s merely an added reassurance if you use a party hat anyway). They also have a vested interest in not losing their jobs which are the better ones in the industry. They are at least in theory easier to trace after drugging/robbing/killing someone (generally true I think), so they’re also less dangerous (as long as you don’t mess them around I guess). And as long as they’re earning those kinds of prices why should they do something stupid in the first place?
So, late one evening, 12ish, I emerged with Lek from one of a strip of go-go bars along the outer moat road. I’d asked the mamasan for someone who spoke a bit of English, but she claimed she wasn’t certain who did. Said I’d just have to try. And let’s face it, why should they speak English anyway? It’s only about sex in the end. But I was after someone who would perhaps be a bit of company, who I could ask a bit about her life and Thailand and so on – sort of chat up even if it was a business proposition. Lek was only prepared to go short time for a sum that eludes me today, I think about B1000 plus bar fine perhaps, but that doesn’t matter. At any rate I didn’t haggle because as long as the price is within the bounds of reasonableness I think it’s utterly tasteless to do so. Haggling some unfortunate girl from €30 down to €20 to shag you all night because she’s so desperate for the cash is a singularly despicable act of exploitation on the part of people who wouldn’t get a blow job for that much back home. To actually brag about it as I’ve heard many do is simply beyond reprehensible. Those who do it deserve to be drugged and robbed as far as I’m concerned.
I wanted to go long-time with Lek, but 2 hours was her limit for me. I figured she wanted to get back to the bar for another trick, so OK. WTF. For me she was the prettiest on the stage, a real stunner and the only one I fancied; I was in the mood as well, so off we went.
And that, to return to David Byrne, is how I got there.
Believe me I have lived the dream gentlemen. Just so you know where I’m coming from. Never been short of a girlfriend. Ever. Sometimes had too many of them. Lived with them, married them, worked and had affairs with them, had one night stands, weeks-long affairs. Joined the mile-high club with my live-in girlfriend (we worked for an airline and it was a question of honour!). Slept with two once. Paid for the odd one when I was drunk enough and didn’t feel like going home. Pulled them in bars, on trains, in buses, at the beach, at parties, in discos, shops, anywhere and everywhere. Charmed the pants off many many different gorgeous nationalities and shapes and sizes. Had a great time with all but two. Even my divorce was entirely amicable. Life was a party, nay, a veritable orgy up until my early thirties. Still love’em. My best friend right now’s a woman. What I’m trying to say is that pussy is no novelty in my life. It’s not exotic (although every woman remains mysterious somehow). Easily available pussy is simply nothing for me to go apeshit about because it’s always been a part of my life. It’s just another part of Thailand for me – and not the main part by a long chalk.
I regularly date women here at home. I have absolutely no axes to grind with them. It makes me heave to read comments like “western women blah blah” “feminazi blah blah” from people who boast about settling down with semi-literate, barely educated, semi- articulate, superstitious prostitute peasant brides half or a third their age after spending two three week holidays “getting to know them”. Well, after a life of partying around, I’ve decided to accept instead the uncomfortable truth that at 53 years old (now), with no power, money or fame to my name, most younger girls don’t find me sexually attractive any more, even if we value each others’ friendship and flirt quite happily. It’s also a reciprocal truth that I’m not that attracted to women of my age either in a straight Darwinian reproductive sense even though we value each others’ friendship as well. I think accepting that’s a part of growing up, although if you’re not married it is likely to mean living single for long stretches like I am now. However, if you’re a decent guy and genuinely like women wherever they come from, I’m sure your love life need never end.
Back to my sex life which was about to boil up. Lek skipped across the room to me, planted a huge and loving kiss on my amazed and adoring mouth, shrugged the towel off her smooth lustrous skin and launched into a good 30 minutes of really expert lovable wriggling twisting adorably lithe smooth-as-silk love-making. To my surprise this bundle of paradise immediately became one of the more memorable screws of my life. Truly amazing Thailand! Then ten minutes later, after less than an hour in my room she suddenly leapt out of bed and said, post-coitus interruptus, “I go now”.
I asked her what had happened to the two hours we agreed. She replied “cannot, go now”. I thought about arguing, then thought ‘if she wants to go there’s no point in hanging out with a disaffected bar-girl in my room’. I didn’t feel like another screw straight away either so there was really no motivation for a discussion at all. I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek as she left and was a little wiser about the honesty even of go-go girls. Bearing her no malice I went to sleep, chalking it up to experience, and resolving to clarify that kind of thing properly with the next go-go girl as and when I got THERE.
The real downside of the experience wasn’t apparent until morning. Obviously my visitor had not gone unnoticed at reception where suddenly everything had become very formal. The otherwise friendly and engaging family was very reserved and withdrawn, indeed cool from then on – no more beaming smiles. I understood immediately. Up till then I was not a sex tourist in their eyes – after Lek I was. By definition that was exactly what I had just become. The difference was palpable, and although I had already exchanged a couple of e-mails with their daughter by including her in the address list when writing to friends, she never responded to another one after that. Don’t anyone have any doubts about how normal Thais view the cavortings of sex tourists and their consorts. It is prostitution, it is frowned on. You effectively shut yourself out of normal Thai society when they know you indulge, just as you would be shunned back home. I’m not the first one to have pointed that insight out on Stick’s pages either, especially in the recent debate over the “morality” of whoremongering.
Some of Thailand’s wrinkles became evident again a couple of days later at the travel agency set up next to reception. She (yes, a woman again) wanted to sell me a hill-tribe trek but I had already booked with Eagle House (real name) across town. I’d discovered them during my pre-travel research and they offered quite clearly the best in ecologically thought out and sustainable tours. I wandered into this trap wide-eyed and naïve. It never occurred to me that I would be verbally harassed and scowled at simply for booking something somewhere else. Other countries, other customs I suppose. She was really furious and unfriendly but I didn’t relent, and leaving most of my stuff in the hotel storage room where I rightly judged it would be safe, I left for four days and nights in the hills around Doi Inthanon.
It was a great group. The guide was ace. We didn’t see another tourist anywhere. The trek was a memorable kaleidoscope of campfires, villages, kids, buffaloes, chickens, huge pigs, rice terraces, bamboo jungle, elephant rides, hills, streams, bathing in icy rivers after baking in the dust all day, freezing in huts at night-time even though I had all my clothes on under the blankets (haven’t had that since army days), rafts, you name it. It was of course dry season, and I found it interesting that while the leaves in Europe turn brown and fall off the trees because of a lack of sunshine, in the hills around Doi Inthanon they wilt to brown and fall because there’s too much sun. There were also a couple of farang women in the group, one of which I felt certain I could have hit it off with if I wanted. But for the first time in my life when faced with a potentially available woman I decided to pass. I really felt like I wanted to travel alone, and when it was time to leave CM I didn’t want to have any explaining to do or leaving to take. That was actually an important moment for me.
It was also a good decision because a few days later I’d had enough of Chiang Mai, especially with the air starting to get biting and choky. That was particularly apparent driving back from the trek – about 10 miles out of town, quite literally from one breath to the next, the air went from fresh-natural to smoky-polluted. On the streets people could often be seen were heaving and howking their lungs up after a lifetime spent in a cauldron of stubble burning and diesel fumes, disgorging oily bronchitic blobs onto the sidewalk with a splat. I was struck by how lucky I am to have lived in countries with pollution ordinances, and to have shed the fags at age 41, as I felt myself gradually heading off down that asthmatic path. I’ve felt the nip of that wringer – don’t ever want to go there. Purely for health reasons Chiang Mai’s not an option for me as a place to live.
It was time to move on. As a consolation prize I let the travel agent woman at the guest house book my train, but I didn’t tip her and wouldn’t let her book a Bangkok hotel either. I’d already decided on a little guest house in the LP that seemed to be exactly what I was looking, for just off from Democracy Monument.
After a great three and a half weeks arriving in Thailand, it was time to head for the mother ship – Bangkok.
Very nicely put together indeed!