About Nok, My First Thai Girlfriend
I was in Thailand on a very extended holiday. Six months. I was due to stay in one guesthouse for two weeks, another for forty days, and then I'd rent a house for the remaining time.
Nok was the cook at the guesthouse and she was an excellent cook. She wasn't the chef, she didn't design the menu or the dishes, she just cooked them and she did it with a skill and consistency that made the guesthouse famous among gourmands in the area. Thai food or European food, it didn't matter. Cooking was simply a skill and she mastered it. She had tiled the pool at the guesthouse, too. She could build a house by herself, plant and care for and harvest a rice field, and do any job that her life required. Cooking was just a job, and while I'm sure she enjoyed the praise she got for it, I'm not sure she always understood it. She didn't taste the dishes she made. She didn't need to. Her boss had showed her how to make the dish and she could repeat that endlessly.
Nok wasn't beautiful or sexy but she was small and cute and had a smile that lit up a room. Guests universally loved her and she got a lot of tips. It was a small guesthouse so for breakfast and lunch, she was usually the waitress as well as the cook.
One evening coming home from a short time, I ran into the owner / manager of the guesthouse, an Isaan woman who spoke excellent English. "Why are you bothering with bargirls?", she asked. "You're going to be here for six months. I know you, you've stayed here before. You're a nice guy. Take Nok or Fon to live with you while you're here. Give her a little money each month and don't worry about it. Either of them will take great care of you, and they're both honest. If she's lucky, you'll marry her. If not, she'll still have doubled her salary during high season. They are here looking for farang husbands. Take either one, whichever you like best, but don't waste so much money on bargirls."
To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I must have looked like a buffalo, staring at her with my mouth open. Even though I'd spent six months studying the Thai language at home, I was a total neophyte. To me, she was pimping out her employees. The whole idea of what she was saying was so foreign that I had no idea how to react. I stared, nodded, and went off to bed.
Three days later I asked Nok to spend the night with me, and two days after that she moved in with me. I didn't know the Thai word 'mae baan' (maid or housewife) and certainly didn't know the different shadings of the word. Although Fon was the better looking and sexier of the two, I liked Nok better. She was just the kind of person that it is pleasant to be with. I offered her 5000 baht per month to live with me and take care of me. She looked at me like I was incredibly special.
As a live-in, sleep-with mae baan, Nok was great. Always cheerful and affectionate and very hardworking. When I rented a house, if I was at home during her break, she'd come blasting through the house like a little brown tornado, cleaning the house, washing the clothes by hand, cooking my lunch and usually dinner, too. She had one goal – accumulate 100K baht to rebuild her mother's house, and I was helping her meet that goal. This was so far beyond the girlfriend experience it was unbelievable. Sexually, she was normal, just fine, but obviously not an experienced bargirl. She was always willing. Sex, because I was always satisfied, became unimportant. It was all the other stuff that mattered. She was at work sixteen hours a day with a two hour break each day. Even with that limited time, she took care of me like I couldn't believe. She made my own mother look like a slacker.
I sometimes traveled, and she knew I would go with other women when I traveled and she just said, "be careful". That covered everything. Don't get drugged and robbed, don't get HIV, but otherwise she made no claim on me. She knew I was fascinated by Thailand and Thai culture and took me to any event she could or told me where to go and when if she had to work. I was falling in love with her. If she wasn't the most beautiful woman I'd ever lived with, she was certainly the kindest and most hardworking. And the food… She joked that she wanted to make me fat – she'd think I was cute but other women wouldn't be interested.
A couple of weeks before I went home Nok quit work and we went diving once (she just rode along) and traveled to Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Lopburi and then to very rural Korat for her birthday.
We got to her mom's home in Korat two days before her birthday and had her birthday party the night before her birthday. When I say rural Korat, I ain't kidding. From the city centre, we had to take two buses and travel in a weird truck with a tractor engine to get there. We were in the middle of nowhere. Even by pickup, the provincial capital was more than an hour away.
I gave her 32,000 baht for her 32nd birthday. She cried. Combined with what I'd paid her as my mae baan and what she'd made at the guesthouse, she had almost 100K baht. She saved every satang. I'd gone with her to set up the account and she always showed me the passbook after I paid her or the guesthouse paid her. There were only deposits, no withdrawals. I paid her 5K per month as my mae baan, and she made 4.2K plus tips at the guesthouse and she was doing well. I was on holiday and the money wasn't important. She'd been a good companion, her mother's home was a hovel, and if I could make a difference, I was happy to do it. Going there was the first time I'd seen poverty in Thailand. Altogether over six months in country and I hadn't seen how so many people live.
The morning after her birthday party I woke up to everyone cooking and bustling around. I asked what was going on and Nok just said we were going to 'baan Buddha'. I thought maybe that was Isaan slang for 'Wat' or temple. Making merit on one's birthday is common so I thought nothing of it. We all piled in the pickup (taxi) with a shitload of food and took off. I asked several times what was going on but Nok just kept saying don't worry about it.
We went to a mor pii's (witch doctor might be the best word) house. Nok sat up front and I sat well away from her and took some pictures. All the food was arrayed between her and the mor pii. The mor pii sat in front of an altar with all kinds of weird shit all over everywhere. The mor pii and Nok talked for a while. I was a little surprised that we hadn't gone to a temple, but from a cultural or anthropological standpoint I was fascinated. This was real Thailand.
Then she called me over. I was a little shocked, but went and sat beside her. I really didn't want her to lose face, but I was very embarrassed being in front of fifteen other people and having no idea what the hell was happening. The mor pii did some kind of ceremony with the tying of white strings, sprinkling water on us, and a bunch of other stuff. I was getting seriously freaked out but didn't know what to do. I was alone in deepest darkest Isaan – WAY out in the country, and I was in the middle of what sure as hell looked to me like a wedding performed by a mor pii. Honestly, I was afraid to do anything but co-operate. I don't remember the ceremony well because I had gone into kind of a daze.
When it was over I got Nok away from everyone and asked her in English, "What the [email protected]#$ was that?" I was livid. She knew I planned to return to Thailand, so she said it was just a ceremony to make sure I traveled safely home and back to Thailand. She told me not to take off the string.
We went back to her mother's shack and everyone but me ate the food they'd taken to the mor pii. I was too upset to eat but tried to act normal. They took me to the bus in the early afternoon. As soon as I got on the bus and Nok couldn't see me, I tore off the white string. When the bus started moving I called a Thai girl I knew in Bangkok and described what had happened. The first thing she asked was, "Did you eat any of the food?" I said no, and she said "Good, you'll be okay." That was reassuring (sarcasm). She and I met up in Hua Hin a couple of days later and she said the ceremony was like a black magic wedding to bind me to Nok. She had a vested interest, so I don't know if that's true or not. It sure as hell felt like some kind of ceremony to bind me to Nok.
I knew the minute I got on that bus that I'd never see Nok again. As my mae baan, she'd been the kind of girl I would have married – she really was that good. A wonderful, cheerful hardworking companion. But when she got me in the middle of nowhere, where I was very vulnerable, she'd lied and tricked me into doing something I would never have done voluntarily. She knew I would co-operate to save her face.
Years later and maybe knowing a little more, I can feel more forgiving. When I was with Nok I was on extended vacation and spent money like water. When we talked about how much money I made at home, she just about shit herself. She had hit the lottery and wanted to seal the deal. The irony is, by trying to seal the deal, she broke it. If she hadn't taken me to that ceremony, I'd be living with her today.