The Barbary Coast
Years ago, before any thoughts of depositing myself in the LOS had even entered my head, I was living a fairly mundane existence back in Sydney, Australia. During my short – about nine years – stay in that colourful town I became familiar with many of the colloquialisms, and expressions, used by the locals to describe a situation, or location, in their backyard. One such expression, often heard, was the endearing little term used to describe the beach side suburb of Manly.
“Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care” was the catch cry as hundreds, nay thousands, would scramble onto the ferries, at Circular Quay, for their day out of sun and sand on the far side of North Head.
Love it, or hate it, once you were there, with your beach towel rolled out and body plastered in sun block, it did kind of feel that you were at least a few miles from care.
In some ways the picturesque little city of Hua Hin has taken on the same connotation for many farang disillusioned with the “rat race” of Bangkok. The beach side town is seen as a more viable option as many seek to relocate to a quieter life 250 kilometers south of the “big smoke.” The white sandy beaches, blue ocean and abundance of fresh seafood has not been lost on the locals either; middle class, and hi-so Bangkok Thais have been taking their long weekend getaways in the historical royal city for years.
White, sandy beaches, clean air and an abundance of fresh seafood
Increasingly, over the past ten years, Hua Hin has gone through a boom. Spurred on by the influx of expat retirees, and the swelling numbers of tourists, the growth in the number of hotels, guesthouses, and other forms of accommodation has been quite phenomenal. The once sleepy, coastal town is now teeming with masses of people all wanting to get their slice of paradise by the sea. And, it’s not hard to see why; the beaches, compared to somewhere like Pattaya, are pristine all the way up and down the coast. The nightlife is probably a bit more subdued than other more well known Thai tourist hotbeds with the focus being more on wining and dining. During the peak times, the beachside restaurants are packed with hungry, sun burnt hordes getting their fills of seafood, Thai, and Italian. All well and good; the contended masses gorging themselves in paradise.
Most tourists, and perhaps a majority of resident expats, are probably unaware that Hua Hin’s most famous product is dried squid. The Thais, of course, are well aware of this and it’s probably one of the main attractions, of Hua Hin, for them. A short excursion to one of the nearby coastal areas to the north, or south, of the town and one will quickly become aware that dried squid is a major player. Even more so if you are on a motorbike as the pungent, salty odor spikes the air from roadside drying racks and hawkers carts. Often, the smell is that strong that one could be forgiven for thinking there’s something laying around rotting or that something is definitely off. And that, given Hua Hin’s recent murky history, is rather ironic. In Hua Hin there is literally, and figuratively, a smell in the air.
Scratch below the surface of the spin doctor’s image of the idyllic, paradise by the sea and you start to pick up the stench, nay the rot, of humanity gone bad; stories of greed, avarice, brutality, and lies to match any murderous pirate's tale.
Lend me your ears, buckos, and I’ll spin you a yarn.
I was on my third visit to Hua Hin. It was approaching the long weekend anniversary of the death of HM the King's sister, and the place was teeming. I was beginning to get a feel for the place though, and the street layout was no longer confusing, as I zapped about on my rented motorbike. One of the benefits of knowing someone, like Jim, who’s lived for a long time, in an unfamiliar area, is that they have a wealth of local knowledge that, otherwise, you would never have access to. The tourist traps can be avoided as your knowledgeable, local mentor guides you along the more interesting, and less travelled, roads in the area. They can also provide interesting anecdotes, both good and bad, that you’ll never see in the tour brochures. On my previous visits I’d set a fairly hectic schedule for myself; within minutes of dropping my bags into the hotel room I’d been on my way to an outlying location well beyond the city limits. This time I was going to ease into things; instead of rushing off to a site forty kilometers down the coast I was going to spend the afternoon nosing around Hua Hin.
My first stop was the lookout, or viewpoint, back across the railway tracks and up behind the town. I’d made arrangements to go up there with Jim and shortly after midday we were making a bee line for Khao Hin Lek Fai. With the clear blue skies above the temperature was, once again, scorching as we pulled into the parking bay.
“A few years ago, none of this was here. It was just a dirt track, through the jungle, that went on over the hill and down the other side for a hundred meters or so” said Jim, as we got a bottle of water each and took some shade at one of the nearby restaurants.
I looked around at the expanse of the sealed car park, and adjoining terraced restaurant complex, and found it hard to envisage what he was describing. It seemed to be a huge amount of construction for what was, seemingly, an almost deserted development.
“Looks as though they spent a lot of money for a poor result,” I said, looking along the row of shops with their shutters pulled down.
“It gets worse,” said Jim, as we moved off down the cement trail towards the viewing platforms.
Fifty meters down the path Jim stopped and indicated towards a very large steel framed structure that looked completely over grown with vegetation.
“This was originally an aviary. You see that mesh hanging off the sides of the framework?”
“Yep,” I said almost knowing what was coming next.
“Well, a few years ago, that completely covered the whole structure and the place was full of exotic birds. The trees, growing inside, eventually broke through the mesh on the roof and the birds started to escape. For a while you could come up here and see some really colourful birds habitating around the hilltop.”
“What happened to them all?”
“Captured, killed, and eaten. The usual deal,” said Jim, with a resigned shake of the head as we moved off along the trail again.
The track meandered on down through some large boulders and eventually an expansive platform, constructed of steel and solid timber, came into view.
“This is probably the best thing they did up here,” said Jim, as we stepped onto the wood flooring and moved towards the handrail.
The platform jutted out over a cliff which dropped away sharply to the valley below and the panoramic views over Hua Hin golf course and the ocean beyond.
The view out over Hua Hin golf course and to the ocean beyond
“I used to come up here at night, years ago, when none of this was here. I’d come here with Duncan for a quiet puff, and some peace and quiet, as we checked out the lights of Hua Hin spread out before us. We used sit up on that rock there. It was damned hairy though because one false move and you’d be gone into the depths below,” said Jim reflectively.
“Who was Duncan,” I said, being a bit nosey.
“He was a crayfisherman from Invercargill, New Zealand; a big, affable bloke who was larger than life. He died in my arms in Hua Hin hospital about 7 years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that, mate. What happened.”
“He had a heart attack. I took him to hospital and he hung on for a while but it was too late. The doctors worked on him for an hour after he stopped breathing but they couldn’t revive him. I spread his ashes out over the ocean off Khao Takieb,” said Jim, looking towards a headland south of Hua Hin.
“Condolences, mate” I said, as we stood there in a moment of silence for his long lost buddy.
“He had this beautiful big jade (New Zealand greenstone) fish hook around his neck,” said Jim, happy in thoughts of his mate.
“He was Maori?”
“Yep, and a big bugger as well. He had fists the size of hams.”
“Did you get the jade fish hook?”
“No, his bar girl friend grabbed that within 2 hours of him expiring. Later that night she went down to the house and packed all his stuff in boxes and shipped it off to the village up north. A week later she was gone and I haven’t seen her since.”
“Are you surprised?”
“No, and it just reinforced what I’ve always said about bar girls.”
“A farang is just a job for them,” said Jim, as a matter of fact.
“So it seems,” I said, nodding in agreement.
“That was the first golf course in Thailand,” said Jim, as we continued to look out across the panoramic view.
“Yeah, when the train station was put in they also made a golf course and built the Sofitel. That road leading down to the hotel, from the station, was the only road in Hua Hin. There’s some nice manicured gardens at the hotel. Might be worth a couple of shots?”
“Sounds good, do you want to head down there now?”
“Yeah, but first we’ll drop into a neat little temple just over the other side of the hill that not too many tourists know about. It’s got a really nice reclining Buddha there,” said Jim, as we started to make our way back along the track.
A few minutes later we were pulling up in front of a rundown looking temple complex, surrounded by scrub on the side of a hill. As we began ascending the short flight of stairs up to the open amphitheatre, housing a Buddha statue, a cacophony of noise erupted from a nearby building. For all intents and purposes it was a badly out of tune brass band in a practice session.
“Crikey, there’s some bloody weird shit that goes on in this place. A temple is supposed to be a sanctuary of peace and quiet,” I said, laughing at the idiosyncrasies of the locals.
“Supposed to be? You’ve been living here long enough to know better than that,” said Jim, looking at me and laughing as well.
“What are these used for?” I said, noticing a couple of two-wheeled, wooden carts in a small room at one end of the amphitheatre.
The reclining Buddha in a small temple on the back side of Khao Hin Fai Lek
“Those are for hauling the dead bodies up to the temple. Don’t you know these places are just glorified crematoriums?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said, as I positioned myself at one end of the Buddha statue.
“Well, that’s the main activity that goes on at a temple; the cremation of bodies,” said Jim, wryly.
“And practice sessions for badly out of tune brass bands,” I said, shaking my head at the continuing noise coming from the building back along the road.
“That too,” said Jim, laughing.
“Let’s get down to the Sofitel,” I said, folding away the camera and leading off towards the bikes.
A few minutes later we were heading back towards the beach and, after parking not too far from Sofitel's back entrance, we were entering the grounds. The sweat was already dripping off us in the mid-afternoon heat but fortunately the abundance of trees within provided ample shade as I walked about banging off shots and taking in the manicured layout of the gardens and hotel beyond.
The manicured grounds of the Grand Centara (previously the Sofitel)
“You know they used the Sofitel during the filming of ‘The Killing Fields.’ It was the set for the French Embassy,” said Jim, as we took a respite in the shade of the lobby.
“No, I didn’t know that. Perhaps it was a portent of things to come in Hua Hin?” I said, ruminating over a rather disturbing website that Jim had directed my attention to the night before. A couple of days later he tied this in with another anecdote about the making of the film. We’d been down the coast checking out some cave sites and, on the return leg, stopped to look at a temple atop an isolated small peak. As we stood there taking in the picturesque view spread out before us, in the fading light of the late afternoon, Jim directed my attention to the winding river directly below us.
“That was the location of a lot of the rural scenes in The Killing Fields,” said Jim, pointing down to flat, scrubby area beyond the river.
Another set location for the filming of “The Killing Fields”
The sun continued to blaze down from a clear blue sky above, creating an energy sapping level of humidity in the stillness of the late afternoon. Thick, dark clouds were massing over the peaks, towards Burma; the threat of a thunderstorm wasn’t too far away. We decided to head for some air-conditioned comfort and a cold drink at a bakery back along the main road into Hua Hin.
The Baguette was a popular venue of the visiting Bangkok hi-so crowd for coffee and croissants. It was also a regular breakfast spot for many resident expats of Hua Hin. Jim and I met there most mornings to fuel up before hitting the road for our planned outings. We also tended to gravitate there for a caffeine hit and a bit of reflective discussion after returning from our daily sojourn. The business itself was the perfect example of the industriousness and hard work that a good and honest Thai woman was capable of. The owner had seen an opportunity an, after putting herself through a bakery course had opened what had become a very successful enterprise. The idea of using someone to make her way in the world was a completely alien concept to this hardworking, decent woman. Her approach to life was in stark contrast to that which we so often encounter with ladies from the “industry.”
After an hour spent chilling out over a couple of lattes and a croissant, a decision was made to meet up later in the evening. I was on my fourth trip to Hua Hin and as yet was still to venture out into the bar area of the town; I was keen to get out and have a stroll about with the camera.
The Baguette; a popular bakery and coffee spot in Hua Hin.
We met up again a couple of hours later and after getting our fill of some good Indian food Jim was leading the way into the heart of the small, but vibrant, bar area of Hua Hin. Our first stop was Jim’s old bar and after parking up nearby we made the short stroll back along the soi to see what was happening. There was plenty of colourful lighting but for all intents and purposes the place was dead. After ordering a drink and taking a seat in the outdoor setting Jim started to talk about his past association with the bar where we were the only ones present.
“When I still owned this place, six years ago, it was the busiest bar in Hua Hin. The place was rocking every night and I had 36 girls working for me,” he said, shaking his head at the deserted scene around him now.
“If it was doing so well, why did you sell it?” I said.
“Because I’ve always maintained that the way to go with any bar is to build it up until it’s doing well and then sell it at its peak. It was tough do though because it was making such good money.”
“It looks pretty dead now.”
“In its day it was packed every night. I copped a bit of flack from the local authorities over the name though; it was called the Hard Cock Café,” said Jim, having a bit of a chuckle.
Jims bar; previously known as the “Hard Cock Café”
“You see that door over there?” said Jim, as we got up and walked about inside.
“When I had the bar it was a glass enclosed room with 6 live pythons inside.”
“Crikey, I bet that got the punters through the door?”
“It did when it was feeding time, I used to throw in the odd live cat or two,” said Jim, without batting an eyelid.
“Holy shit, no doubt that caused a bit of a stir?”
“Well, yeah it did eventually. That was another reason for selling the bar. I was starting to cop some heat from the local authorities for having pythons on the premises.”
“It seems amazing to think that this place was once heaving with people. What about the new owners, who were they?” I said, looking about again at the empty premises.
“It was an Aussie guy and his bar girlfriend.”
“Are they still the owners?”
“The girlfriend is. He left town ten days after the sale was finalized.”
“I think I know where this is going,” I said raising my eyebrows.
“Yep, I told him to put the lease in his name and the license in hers,” said Jim, shaking his head again.
“And did he?”
“Nope, all he kept saying was ‘it will be okay, she loves me.’ A week later she smashed him over the head with a bottle and told him if he came back to the bar she’d kill him.”
“Som nam na,” I said, shaking my head at the sheer stupidity of some people.
As we took our leave from the bar an older looking Thai lady sat down at the outdoor tables and started tucking into a plate of som tam. Jim smiled, said hello and introduced me to the owner. She seemed friendly enough but as we wandered off down the road I couldn’t help thinking that it was another example of bar girl greed and malaise in this country. They do everything to connive and cheat a foreigner out of a business but then because of their lack of business acumen and motivation, allow that business to run down to a barely functioning concern. And that, given their lack of education and their cultural mindset, is hardly surprising. Bar girls, generally, don’t make good business people because their lives are conditioned by a simple living by the day philosophy; they are, essentially, just hunter gatherers.
Last stop for Jim's friend, Brian
As we continued our walk around the bar sois Jim stopped in front of a 4-storey hotel.
“A good friend of mine committed suicide in a room on the second floor of this hotel,” he said, solemnly.
“Sorry to hear that, mate. Do you mind telling me what happened?”
“About two years ago the cops called me, one morning, and asked me to come to this hotel. They didn’t tell me why, but when I arrived here and saw a bunch of people from the local TV and news services I knew that something bad had gone down. It turned out I’d been called here to identify the body. I went up to the second floor room to find Brian hanging from a hook in the wall. It was a hell of a shock to see him there lifeless. His tongue was all blue, and hanging out of his mouth and his body was slowly turning from side to side on the rope. The cops came to the hotel first and found a note in the room with my name and number on it. It was the tragic end of another guy who lost the plot in Thailand,” said Jim.
“What was Brian’s story?”
“After his second trip to Thailand, Brian returned to his native Canada. He sold his home, and a successful trucking business, and made a permanent move here about 8 years ago. He had 25 million baht in the bank and proceeded to blow it all on whores, booze and a hedonistic lifestyle. Life was a continuous party and he was doing some crazy shit around Hua Hin. After his accident though I reckon he became a real loose cannon.”
“He was up in Kanchanaburi riding around on his Harley and ran into a couple of Thais on a motorbike. It was a high speed accident. One of the Thais was killed and the other survived after losing an arm and a leg. Brian suffered a bad head injury and after that he was never the same. I think he became mentally unstable and was doing some weird shit around town.”
“What kind of weird shit?”
“Well, he used to get around in a Hugh Hefner style purple robe and slippers. One of the staff I had working on the tour boat called me one day and told me he’d seen Brian out on a jet ski in the purple robe and slippers. He was having some real problems with the booze as well. He was drunk all the time and started getting into fights with other farangs in the bars. It all came to a head at a bar just down the road there a few months before he committed suicide. The owner of the bar beat the crap out of him in the street over some bad shit he’d done to a couple of the girls working in the bar.”
“What did he do?”
“A few days before he got beaten up he bar fined the two girls and took them up to his house in Kanchanaburi. Apparently he forced them into having sex with no condoms. One of the girls claims she was raped. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the fact that he got beaten up by the bar owner, but more that he pissed himself with everyone watching. He was a crazy fxxxer and not someone to let something like that go unanswered. A few nights later he was cruising around on his bike and noticed the car of the guy that beat him up parked outside a property with a party going on. He stopped, grabbed a lump of two by four, then snuck up behind the guy and cracked him over the head from behind. The guy ended up in hospital with a serious head injury and Brian high tailed it out of Hua Hin for a few months. When he arrived back in town he was pretty much flat broke; 6 years and he’d blown 25 million baht. He stuck around for a couple of months and managed to scrape together an air fare back to Canada. When he tried to pass through Immigration at Suwarnabhumi he was nabbed by the police for an outstanding arrest warrant. He was told he had to settle the medical bill of the guy he assaulted before being allowed to leave, and it was in the vicinity of 3 to 4 hundred thousand baht. He came back to Hua Hin and contacted me to see if I could help. I didn’t have that kind of money and told him so. Two days later he hanged himself in that hotel,” said Jim, with a dead pan expression.
“That sure is one tale of woe,” I said, as we continued our tour of the bar area.
The story of Brian was, like so many others we hear of in this unforgiving land, the story of a decline into self destruction. At the end of the day all foreigners who descend into dereliction, alcoholism, and suicide have no one to blame accept themselves. It is, sadly, a lack of personal discipline, over-indulgence in alcohol, and poor life choices which put them at the end of the road. I would add further that there are some people, due to their unstable natures, or addictive personalities, who should never come to Thailand because it surely will be death of them. Brian was one such person.
We turned into a busier soi and, about half way along, took a seat at a bar with a bevy of friendly looking bar girls who were hanging around a pool table within. They were cute and attentive and after taking a few photos Jim and I sat back to enjoy a soda in the warm ambience of the evening.
“You see that bar on the corner over there?” said Jim, pointing back up the soi.
“You’ve got another hair-raising tale to tell?” I said, looking towards a bar diagonally across the road from us.
“Yeah, and this one is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make this up,” said Jim raising eye brows.
“Do tell,” I said, focusing my attention.
“Well, it’s a tale with a familiar theme but a real gruesome ending. A few years ago a guy called Toby drifted into town with a pocket full of cash and it wasn’t too long before he’d allowed himself to be ensnared by a bargirl. She convinced him to buy that building over there and turn it into a bar. He shelled out 5 million for it and of course the ownership was in her name. They eventually had a son and things kind of rolled along smoothly until Toby found out his missus had a local cop as a boyfriend. She took off with the cop and Toby continued running the bar, eventually getting himself another girlfriend. Well his wife returned about a year later and after finding out that Toby wasn’t single, she must have got to thinking that maybe the new girlfriend was going to get the bar. Who knows? The mind of a scheming bar girl can never be underestimated.”
“I’d prefer to call it evil intent.”
“No doubt about that. Anyway, one night Toby gets a call from his wife telling him that their son is really sick and he needs to come and see the boy. She had a place up in the hills just outside town, so Toby drives up there and after that just disappears.”
“Is that it?”
A 5 million baht investment, gone wrong
“No. All Toby’s friends knew that his wife had something to do with his disappearance but nothing could be proven against her. The local cops weren’t doing anything to investigate the case so a couple of years later the local Brit expat community pooled enough money together to bring out two cops from Scotland Yard. After 6 hours of interrogation she eventually spilled her guts about what happened to Toby.”
“No doubt it wasn’t too pleasant?”
“No, not at all and, according to her statement, it was a premeditated plan to get rid of Toby. He arrived at the house and his wife and kid were nowhere to been seen. When he got out of the car he was confronted by three local thugs, hired by his wife, who then tried killing him with a hand gun. Apparently the weapon misfired so one of the thugs hacked into his neck with one of those farming sickles. According to her statement, Toby lay on the ground, in a pool of blood, screaming, and pleading for his life before they hacked him to bits.”
“Jesus H. Christ.”
“It gets worse.”
“To hide the evidence they hacked off his limbs, and head, and threw the pieces in Kreng Achan Dam. The wife bought 5 bags of charcoal and tried to burn the torso but because there wasn’t enough heat generated, only managed to char it. She then dug a hole next to the fire pit and buried the remains. She was given a life sentence but was released 4 years later and can be seen walking around Hua Hin today. She’s also still the owner of that building which is now worth a lot more and doesn’t show an ounce of remorse.”
“And people wonder why I say never get involved with a bar girl?”
“Especially if you’ve got a load of cash,” said Jim, nodding in agreement.
As we sat there looking across at the building which Toby had bought, the girls continued trying to engage us in friendly, light hearted banter. One even started getting frisky by rubbing herself up against me. They looked sweet and demure enough but the reality is it’s a well rehearsed routine; it’s all part of their job. I’m polite and friendly in return, and I understand the behind the scenes motivations for them entering the “industry.” I’m even honest enough to admit to partaking of their services occasionally but I’m also fully aware that a bar girl, and in particular one that’s been “working” for more than 6 months, isn’t relationship material; they’re just for fun. The thing to never lose sight of is that a bargirl will always put money before anything else and for that reason they can’t be trusted. The fact is that they have no other option than to be like this. The job hardens their attitude to customers and life. Nothing is certain for them.
It’s not like a normal job where there’s an element of security; they’re living by their wits from day to day. Theirs is a world of insecurity and they never know where or when the next pay day is coming from. They also know that it’s a profession with a short lifespan; their looks fade – and quickly. For these reasons, largely, they’ll do everything they can to maximize their earnings potential. Telling lies, deceiving and in some instances even murder become part of the game plan. There is the slim chance that you might find one that hasn’t become a ruthless mercenary and she might be worth the risk. But it’s a risk that many, to their detriment, have found was poorly assessed.
Some farang, mainly the new and naïve, come on here doing their best to convince us that bar girls are just complying with Thai culture; that they’re just doing the best they can to take care of their family and loved ones. No doubt being responsible is to be commended. Telling lies, deceiving, cheating and killing for improved social status and financial gain above and beyond putting food in people’s mouths, is not. That has nothing to do with Thai culture and it certainly has nothing to do with the decency of humanity. It is simply about greed, sloth, envy and selfishness; and nothing more. In the end, as the Buddha said, it is also these things that eventually lead to an individual’s demise. Tread warily. Be in control of yourself and your personal situation at all times and beware of the dusky maidens luring you, like intoxicating sirens on a far shore, along the Barbary coasts of this world.
Great report and hopefully it provides a little food for thought for those considering life in Thailand.
In fairness to Hua Hin, I bet that similar stories can be heard all over this country, and I imagine that wherever there's a large foreign community and bars you'll find similar horror stories.