I awoke twice for my first day in Udorn. At oh dark thirty, the jiggling of the hotel bed jolted me instantly awake. My Thai darling was arising; she told me she had to go to the morning market. After a certain amount of erotic delay, I phoned the front desk and cleared her departure. Several hours later, I drifted back into consciousness with the delicious languor of fatigue slept out and loins emptied out. Room service brought me a most satisfactory breakfast in bed. The only possible improvement would have been if room service had been by a wanton “puying” instead of a cheerful “puchai”.
An hour or so later, I stood outside the hotel, contemplating my first free day in years. Waving off the “samlor” drivers down at the corner, I strolled down the dusty street. I had no particular destination; even though I had had fleeting overnight stays in Udorn for medical purposes while I was in Laos, I had no idea of the town’s attractions, or even of its layout. However, as I wandered along, I quickly became aware that my sleep-in had taken me almost to the siesta hour. In short, it was becoming so damned hot out there in the Thai sun, not even soi dogs were stirring.
Just as I came to that sweatily obvious conclusion, I saw a neon sign reading Heavenly Bowling. It fronted a building that looked exactly it could have been lifted from any urban American shopping center, with its plate glass front and clear sliding doors. I noted the air conditioners, and betook myself gratefully within, to be greeted by refrigerated air laden with the familiar crash of tenpins. There was a snack bar to my right, a pro shop to my left, a couple of dozen alleys before me. The only thing un-American about the bowling center was the staff; they were all Thai. There were half a dozen of them bowling and betting, plus a cook and a waitress in the snack bar.
I slid into a booth in the snack bar and ordered a Green Spot orange soda from a very cute young waitress in a white uniform. As the snack bar area was wall-less, with only a railing fencing it off, I could watch the bowlers. As I sat there, sipping my soda and spectating, I became aware of one more person that I had initially missed.
Standing in a shadow next to the pro shop door, just across the lobby from me, was a middle-aged Thai man. He was dressed in European cut clothing, of somewhat better quality cloth than was seen in Thai tailor shops. He was the first Thai I had ever seen in a necktie. He stood erect there in the gloom, his thumb and forefinger pinching his chin. His squarish head bore a crew-cut of graying hair. His forehead was wrinkled in thought, but his expression was otherwise blank. He had the saddest loneliest eyes I had seen in a long time.
Looking back, I realize that it was a case of one isolato being drawn to another. I impulsively hailed him with a greeting in my poor Thai. His reply was in English, with a British accent and Thai intonation, but clear. He introduced himself as the manager. As I was to discover, that was only one of Dang’s many roles in Thai society. As would also become apparent, the man who joined me at my table would be the most consequential friend I would have in Thailand.
After some initial chitchat, I confessed that I needed a place to live. The Air Force would supply me with quarters, but I could foresee I would have a miserable experience trying to live around oblivious Remington Raiders. I desperately wanted to live among the Thais as much as possible, as an escape from the Air Force. I had only six months left on my enlistment, and during that half year, I wanted as little to do with the military as possible.
Dang knew of an apartment. A Thai pilot had just vacated it. It was air-conditioned.
Dang gave a taxi driver the address and sent me off to look at it. It turned out to be a studio flat on the second storey. It was an odd shape, being a slightly squashed and bent rectangle of a room, with an old parachute hung overhead to make it into a Thai bachelor pad. It was furnished with a huge bed and a freestanding wardrobe. The window air conditioner blew arctic against my palm. The room had an actual john tucked away in an alcove, next to the shower, instead of a squat toilet and a klong jar. I rented the place on the spot. I do not recall what it cost per month, but it was cheap. Best of all, I could hear nothing but Thai voices in the apartments all around.
I laid a few baht on the landlord to have the place cleaned, and paid a few more to have some pillows brought in for the bed. That done, I took my waiting taxi back to the bowling alley to thank Dang.
As it turned out, the apartment was not the last item of the day for which I had reason to be thankful. As Dang and I talked, we found common ground in our divorces. He had been married to a Thai film star. I had left a dead marriage back in the U. S., though the divorce paperwork had yet to go through. I confided my previous night’s adventure to him, and confessed that while I wanted company again this night, I did not necessarily want the same girl, nice though she had been. However, she had given definite signs of laying more than just her body on me; she had called me teelot, or sweetheart. She wanted to monopolize me as her boyfriend, though she would still be available for trade. As I explained to Dang, there were all kinds of reasons why I did not want to get roped into such a one-sided arrangement. I can pretty nearly recall what happened next, after all these years.
Dang curled the left corner of his lip in what I would come to recognize as a Dang smile. “You want to be a butterfly boy?” he asked.
“You want to be a butterfly boy. You want to go from girl to girl, like the butterfly flies from flower to flower. So Thai people, they call man like that a butterfly boy.”
“Why, sure. Why not?”
“You must tell any girl in a bar that you are a butterfly boy. Then it will be all right. Only, if you tell the girl, or you don’t tell the girl, some will not go home with you.”
“Wait, wait,” I protested. Now I was really confused. “I mean, aren’t they all there for the money?”
“Yes, they are there for baht,” he told me. “But they may not come with you if they no like you. No one make them. You pick them. They pick you.”
“But how will I tell the difference?”
“When you talk with girl, if you can put even one finger on her and she let you do it, she will go home with you.”
“Good Thai girl will not let man touch her. She is not bargirl. If bargirl does not want to go home with you, she will move away from your hand. And all Thai people like good manners, so you let her go. If you butterfly boy, you find another girl, no problem.”
And the realization dawned on me that Pooey, the bright beaming snack bar waitress, always served us from Dang’s side of the table. She was friendly to me, cheerful, laughed at my wisecracks–and stayed clear of my reach. So it was that I continued to be polite to her, and never made any moves on her. She was obviously a good girl, not a bargirl.
As the evening crowd began to fill the alley, I left with all this new information whirling through my brain. I showered back at the hotel and went out just before nightfall. I had spotted a couple of bars while walking about, and I now headed for one of them. And when the girl of my choice called me teelot, I told her I had many teelots, even as I held her hand. She didn’t pull it away.
Those words from Dang are just as relevant today. Good Thai girls don't like to be touched today, either.