A First Time for Everything
Late yesterday afternoon, around 5:00, I came home after yet another long day toiling in the salt mines. Well, not really toiling, although it was a long day at school. On a kitchen counter I noticed a small plastic bag full of peanuts in the shell next to an assortment of vegetables from the market. Almost reflexively I helped myself to one, which I quickly cracked open and popped the nuts into my mouth. As the salty taste of that one small legume hit my tongue, I was instantly transported back to 1998, when I had my first steamed peanut.
While perhaps not in the same league as Marcel Proust dunking his Madeline in a cup of tea, my experience is equally illustrative of just how many memories can be triggered by a sensory experience. The sense of taste and smell do seem to open up synaptic gateways that may have been closed for many years, and in some cases decades. The memories are not always pleasant ones. Here however the memories were almost as sweet as the experience that created them.
On a balmy night twelve years ago I was sitting in Lumpini Stadium watching my first Muay Thai competition. The place was jammed packed full of noisy Thais enthusiastically cheering on their favorites. The air was filled with eerie, exotic music that preceded the first bout.
I was still jet-lagged after an exhausting trip from the U.S. during which I had changed airplanes four times. What a smurf I was as a “world traveler”! On future trips I would always fly non-stop whenever possible…or at least only one stop!
This was my first trip to Asia, and while I had dutifully done what seemed at the time a hell of a lot of homework, I was a little bit overwhelmed by everything around me. I was also more than a little bit overwhelmed by the presence of the extraordinarily lovely young lady sitting next to me, beaming a 1,000 watt smile, while busily shelling peanuts for me and popping them in my mouth. Was this heaven or what, I thought to myself. The name, The Land of Smiles may be a trite promotional phrase dreamed up by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, but at that very moment I would have been hard pressed to come up with a better description of where I now found myself. Of course the TAT would shudder to contemplate the particulars of where I had met this charming young woman, whose long silken locks were straight out of a shampoo advertisement.
While the ostensible reason for my trip to Thailand was to take a cooking course, I would be less than truthful if the prospect of sampling the famed Bangkok nightlife wasn’t a large factor in coming halfway around the world. I had been separated from my future ex-wife for a few years now. The idea of meeting some of the most beautiful women in the world…and hopefully doing more than practicing my language skills with them was irresistible. And, if any mutual exchange of language was going to happen, preferably this would occur in a horizontal position! So, although I was here to fill a part of my culinary education that was missing, I was eager to fill another part of my life than was frankly dead empty…that is my love life. Or lust life if you prefer. I had not the slightest qualm in indulging myself.
Back then the internet was not as powerful a tool as it is today. Looking for any information about Thailand online, including any about the nightlife was hit or miss. I didn’t know much, but I did learn two things: the Nana Hotel and Nana Entertainment Plaza. Did I need to know anything else? Obviously I did, but this would serve well enough as a starting point.
So after arriving at Don Muang sometime after midnight, I got into a taxi and tentatively said in Thai that I wanted to go to the Nana Hotel. I had been studying Thai for six months now with a teacher from the Berlitz language school in Boston. My head was bursting with words and phrases that I could theoretically put to practical use. My pronunciation was probably dreadful, but the only way to become proficient at speaking a language is to open your mouth and give it a go. That remains one of the mantras I recite to anyone who cares to listen.
The midnight ride to lower Sukhumvit was memorable in that the city seemed awfully dark for such a large city. The taxi driver had his tape player going and I heard for the first time what I would later know as Morlam music. This guy was probably from Issan. The music was other worldly. A woman was ululating in the Thai version of a yodel, while unfamiliar instruments droned out a beat. Well, that’s one of the reasons to travel to Asia, right? New experiences! During the next three weeks I would certainly have one new experience after another.
What can I say about the Nana Hotel that hasn’t been said before? It was after 1:00 AM when I checked in, and the lobby was as busy as if it were noontime. The best way to describe my room would be: seedy, lived in, and had seen better days. This was not the Ritz. The mattress was an ancient block of foam, with sheets that had probably been purchased when the hotel was shiny and new. The bathroom tiles were cracked and smelled of mildew. Did I care? Not in the least! I had arrived!
A quick shower and shave, a change into fresh clothes, and I was out the door. It was hard to miss where NEP was located. All I needed to do was follow the thumping music a short distance across the street.
Nana Plaza was a far cry from the decrepit hulk it is today. In the dark at least, and with the blaze of neon flashing, it seemed like paradise to me. My good karma account must have been topped to the brim, because I lucked out big time. The very first bar I stepped into was Pretty Lady, which was indeed filled with more pretty ladies than I had ever seen in one place in my entire life.
My first moments in a Thai go-go bar bordered on sensory overload. The dance music was thumping with bass notes so low and powerful that recording needles on seismographs on the other side of the planet were probably threatening to go off the scale. Colored lights were flashing away in such a way that it was a wonder they weren’t inducing seizures. My eyes were fairly popping out of my head, but not from the lights. I simply was unprepared for so many girls undulating with abandon, most of them wearing little or in some cases nothing but a seductive smile. These girls weren’t doing the lackadaisical shuffle that passes for dancing these days. Every single one of them was working it to the max. I was hooked. All that any one of them needed to do was reel me in. I would have been powerless to resist their charms, was good, since I had no intention of resisting.
I made eye contact with a particularly fetching girl who was just finishing her set. It was my extraordinarily good fortune that she was the first Thai girl I was to meet. As we exchanged smiles and sawadees, I become oblivious to everything else going on around me, which shows how enchanted I was, since not more than a few feet away the joint was truly jumping. It was as though the two of us occupied a private world of our own. It seemed just the place to start the tentative process of communication.
It was a damned good thing that my limited Thai was still fresh in my cortex, because she spoke hardly a word of English apart from hello. Not even the typical bargirl English: “What your name?” “Where you from?” “How long you stay?” I was a bit flustered, and I could only hope that my Thai was even close to being correct. It was I who asked her the basic questions that you ask when meeting someone for the first time. I soon learned that her nick-name was Noi. She was 25 years old, and she came from a tiny village in Issan, whose name I immediately forgot. She said she had only been working there for a few days. Now I know that many a hardened bargirl claims to have only have been working “for only short time”. I was naïve to believe almost anything, but it turns out that in this case she really had just “gotten off the bus” earlier in the week. She was literally just off the farm. She was about as clueless as I was about how “the dance” went. The mamasan strolled over to check out the sweet little tableaux that was unfolding to tell me that Noi was “nice girl”. “She jai dee!” “You be nice man for her.” I agreed wholeheartedly. I was ready to be a very nice man for her.
Noi didn’t drink, but said she would have an orange juice. She didn’t have a single tattoo. She was a good dancer, but not in an overtly erotic way. There was nothing coarse in her demeanor. In the bar she wore a bikini. No public nudity for her. Outside of the bar she dressed rather demurely. I don’t think she would ever show up even on a Thai bargirl detector, which is usually right on the button for accuracy.
As we headed back to the hotel, she took my hand in mind and gave it a gentle squeeze, as if to say, that everything would be fine. And everything was fine, and then some. I really had been one lucky guy. Noi was just the right woman to end a few years of celibacy with.
Neither she nor I wanted to say goodbye in the morning. I suggested that she come along with me to do some sightseeing. She nodded enthusiastically. It’s a good thing I brought my English-Thai/ Thai English dictionary along, because my ability to communicate was at its limit, and there were things she wanted to tell me. Not being a complete idiot, I realized my good fortune, and asked her to spend the rest of my time in Bangkok with me. She said that she would like that also.
That settled, we set out for the usual tourist destinations, like the Grand Palace, and a number of temples, including Wat Arun and Wat Po. Noi dutifully showed me the proper way to make an offering. It was near Wat Po that I had my first Thai massage. Noi insisted that we both have one. Instructors at the traditional Thai massage school did a marvelous job relieving a whole litany of aches and pains. I had my first introduction to classical Thai culture when we visited the Rose Garden. I thoroughly enjoyed the dance and musical performances.
For lunch we ate at tiny street side restaurants, where I had my first taste of that delicious trio of gai yang, som tam and sticky rice. This meal remains one of favorites to this day.
In the evening we headed back to the bar to pay the bar fine for the time we would be together. Some of the girls smiled approvingly, in what seemed to be in genuine approval. During the night we lay with both of us thumbing through the dictionary, which in retrospect would seem like a hilarious bit if someone were to make a movie about it. I began to learn more about her Noi’s life. Her parents were rice farmers. She had one older brother and one younger sister. She hadn’t graduated from high school. She had a three year old daughter, whose father had run off to parts unknown. She had come to Bangkok reluctantly to work in a bar, but hoped that she could find a better way to earn money.
This sounds like the sad, sad story that many of you have probably heard before. She wasn’t trying to set me up though. No pathetic tales about a sick mother and dead buffalo were forthcoming. No appeals for money, or for gold, or to take her shopping. I was completely honest with her. I wasn’t looking for a long term relationship. In a few weeks I would be leaving, and might never return. My head may have been blissfully in the clouds, but my feet were firmly planted on planet Earth. I wasn’t in love, but after a few days I wasn’t in lust either. If the phrase “in like” existed, that would describe how I felt about Noi. She seemed like a genuinely nice person. I wished there was a way to help her turn her life around. I certainly wasn’t about to send her money. Even as a newbie I wasn’t tempted to go that route! I would have to think more about the situation.
Some of the girls from the bar and their new “boyfriends” were going down to Pattaya for a few days, and invited us to join them. The idea of walking on the beach sounded like fun, so we agreed to come along. I was not overly impressed with Pattaya. The entire city seemed as dirty as the sea. Still, we had a pleasant time. It’s amazing, but the same girl that was dancing in a bikini was incredibly shy just to wear a modest one piece swimsuit.
Like most Thai women, she didn’t care to lie around in the sun. Her dusky skin was soft and lovely enough as it was anyway, although to the cream of Thai society it would be considered “too dark” and “obviously low class”. I am thankful she didn’t feel the need to smear on that god-awful skin whitener that is de-rigueur among too many Thai women today. Isn’t it ironic that so many westerners lie under tanning lights to darken their skin! No one it seems happy with what they were born with. I was content to lie under a beach umbrella with her watching the waves lap the shore and enjoy the fresh breeze while watching the endless parade of humanity pass by.
I especially was taken by the constant stream of vendors coming by to hawk their wares. A number of times what they were peddling was exactly what I was in the mood for. I had no more than to think, “Boy, I really could go for some icy cold fresh fruit”, and someone would walk down the beach pushing a cart of fresh fruit sitting on a bed of ice! Not too long ago I wrote a piece about the delights of my first green coconut. This took place under this very umbrella. I had my first manicure/pedicure here as well. I bought Noi a colorful tee-shirt that was large enough to serve as beach dress/nightgown…although that second possible use wouldn’t be needed on this trip!
A few days of Pattaya was plenty as far as I was concerned, so it was back to Bangkok, where I had my Thai cooking course to take. I spent the days learning to use a host of unfamiliar Thai ingredients, such as lemongrass and galangal. With a little practice I was making a respectable Tom Yom Kung. I spent the evenings with Noi, who seemed to enjoy trying some western food, such as pizza, although I think she was mystified by how to handle a steak.
Bangkok was only one stop on my itinerary. I had planned a trip to Phuket, and a visit to Buriram, to meet a young girl that I had been corresponding with. This was a purely platonic relationship, with no romantic overtones. I would be making these trips by myself, but I made a solemn promise to see Noi when I returned. I said that on this date I would meet her at the bar at a specific time. I doubted that she really believed me. Her eyes misted over as I said goodbye. I’m sure she thought she would never see me again.
For this story I will forgo telling you about my trip to Phuket, and my excursion to Buriram. I would remiss though in not mentioning that two years after meeting my erstwhile friend in Nongki, the two of us would be married and on our way to start a life together in America. At this point though, we were still just friendly acquaintances.
If life were a movie, my walking through the doors of Pretty Lady would be something like the final scene in An Officer and a Gentleman. Noi and her friends were stunned that I had returned exactly when I said I would. I was no Richard Gere, and this wasn’t true love by any means, but I sincerely felt a lot of affection for this lovely girl.
I hadn’t stopped thinking about what, if anything I could do to help Noi with her situation, and came up with what I thought was an interesting idea. It was time for a little “heart to heart” chat, once again with the aid of my dictionary. I asked Noi if she was serious about wanting to find a better way to support herself and her daughter. I received a great big yes on that one. Was she willing to work hard, even if that meant studying a whole lot of unfamiliar things? Again she said yes. Even though she hadn’t much in the way of formal education, she was not unintelligent. Would she be interested in learning how to be a secretary? Did she think she could learn to type, use a computer, and do other kinds of office work? Noi nodded yes. Okay, I said. Let’s find a school which can teach you how to do all of those things. What followed after the tears was some enthusiastic hugging and kissing…and well, you know.
I took a whole lot of asking around, but there was a government run trade school which was willing to take Noi on as a new student. There were a few fees to pay, but I was happy to pay them. The next step was to find a new place to live, with room mates who were not in the bar trade. Noi had more good luck. Some girls who were enrolling in her class were actually looking for another girl to share an apartment. The cost, split among four girls would be minimal.
I felt that studying English would be a benefit for Noi, and was willing to pay for six months of classes…but only if she was willing to do the work! She said she would. Once again good luck was on Noi’s side because her new room mates wanted to learn English also. This meant they could practice together. Great!
Now I was getting ready to return home. I had no idea when I would return to Thailand. Saying goodbye to Noi was a tearful affair. She was a sweet girl, but we had no future together. I hoped that she would find a way to make her dreams a reality. On impulse I gave her my address, although I never expected to hear from her again.
It turns out that I did indeed hear from her again. Fast forward two and a half years. My Thai wife and I had been happily married for six months. Obviously we long were overdue for an argument of some sort. A letter arrived at our apartment from Thailand which began a major one. It seemed that my dearest darling saw no reason why she shouldn’t open my mail… a habit by the way that she hasn’t lost even now, ten years later! <A VERY bad and unacceptable habit in my opinion, one that smacks of disrespect and control – Stick>
Inside a somewhat battered envelope was a neatly typed letter, along with two photographs. The first was taken by one of Noi’s friends on the beach in Pattaya, and depicted Noi in her swimsuit, sitting in my lap, smiling sweetly, with her arms around me. The second showed Noi dressed demurely in a white blouse, plum colored skirt and jacket. This picture, Noi explained in her letter was taken in the Thai Airways office where she had been hired as an office worker. The English was very basic, with a fair number of spelling and grammatical errors, but all in all it was written very well for someone who knew almost no English a few years before. It seems that Noi had wanted to write for a long time, but had misplaced my address until recently. She had never forgotten me, and the kindness I had showed her. She hoped that I was well and happy.
After my wife came down off the ceiling, I had to endure to an interrogation that even Torquemada might have viewed as a trifle extreme. The fact that: A) I hadn’t even met my wife yet when I had know Noi, B) I hadn’t had any contact with Noi since becoming involved with her, meant nothing in my defense. It was C) Worst of all; I had been with a “bad girl”. Let me tell you it took a lot of explaining to defuse this bombshell. I think the deciding factor in getting me off the hook was my “too kind heart”, since now Noi was now a “good girl”. It goes without saying that the letter, with its return address, and the photos disappeared, although I don’t know if they were destroyed, or simply hidden away somewhere for possible ammunition in a future argument. No good deed ever goes unpunished in this life! I suspect they simply went into the garbage, since nothing more was ever said about the whole affair.
I know this entire story that I’ve related today sounds, if not something out of a fairy tale, than at least a highly improbable one. Once again I wasn’t Richard Gere (Am I actually evoking him twice in a single submission?) and Noi was certainly no Julia Roberts. Ours was a chance meeting at just the right moment in time, which just happened to work out well for the two of us. My first memories of Thailand were sweeter than I could have ever hoped for. Noi received a gentle push onto a path she might not have taken. I have no regrets for what happened. I suspect she might just feel the same way.
As I walked out of the kitchen I grabbed a handful of peanuts and enjoyed them almost as much as those I had first tried so many years before.
Great story and fantastic to hear how you really did manage to help a girl get out of the bar life in and into a career with a future. Much more difficult to do that today!