It was a real 90’s conversation.
I’d bumped into Marty and James outside My Buddie Color Lab and Batik Boutique on Patong Beach, and we stood in the dusty street, sweating in the mid-afternoon sun and getting jostled by passing sailors and their girls because Marty and James are in friendly competition as professional photographers: Neither one wanted to step inside and risk the other catching a glimpse of what he was having developed.
So for the sake of James keeping the secret of how he lights the seafood buffet for a condotel brochure and Marty protecting the anonymity of the model who will grace the cover of next August’s Tattoo Fancier Magazine, we stood on the hot bricks, shading our eyes with our hands like we were saluting each other, and talked about our women.
I normally avoid going to Suckerville. I know that Patong Beach is the mainstay of The Rock’s economy and I should be grateful, but there’s something depressing to me about a place where the prettiest women are all boys. And I don’t like being taken for the kind of farang who goes to Patong. These days you do see a lot more respectable tourists than you used to: bus loads of Singaporean families, European honeymooners, even Christian Youth Tours, but it’s still a fact that, if you are a farang male walking alone, everyone assumes that you’re looking for IT, and everyone wants to be the one who sells you IT, because guys looking for IT will pay almost any price for IT because they just gotta have IT.
Still, Patong is home to My Buddie Color Lab and Batik Boutique, the only developing shop on Phuket that changes the chemicals in the machines more often than the Army changes Prime Ministers, and if you don’t want your pictures to look like the ghost of Salvador Dali haunts your camera you drive over the mountain into Diddleburg and take your film to Phi Lek at My Buddie. That’s why James and Marty, who are very careful on this little island not to tread on each other’s professional toes, inevitably run into each other outside My Buddie about once a month.
So there we stood, me with my two rolls of Fuji chronicling my wife Mem’s herculean efforts on behalf of her team in the Seventh Annual Phuket Lady Executives Inter-Hotel Volleyball Tournament, James with his thirty-one rolls of Ektachrome covering the various charms of the soon to be soft-opened Nouveau Riche Grand Emperor Garden Wing Plaza Condotel and Country Club, and Marty holding eleven rolls of Kodak’s finest exposed last night in Blazing Snake Tattoos and Piercing.
“How’s yer wife?” James asked me.
“Still schizo,” I answered. “Missionary Mike told me he saw you with a new sweetie.”
“Yeah! Man, she’s great. Flight Hostess for Thai International. She’s gonna move in with me next month. Speaks perfect English, makes good money, goes away for three-four days at a time and has a beautiful Aiwa CD system.”
Marty and I said “Ooooh” and “Wow” respectively. “How about you, Marty? You got a permanent lady yet?”
“Aw, Mite! Ya gotta see her! She’s got **** as big as yer head, legs that go all the way from her feet to her ***, likes to **** with my **** and could **** the **** off a ****!
That’s what is known as an “Australian sonnet,” and in Modern English means, “I’m in love with this girl.”
“She teaches aerobics at the Golden Body Gym downtown, ‘as a degree in Political Science from Chula, an’ lives in this incre-e-e-edible house that used to be a shadow puppet theater! Mite, I’m tellin’ ya, ya gotta see her!”
As we talked I was struck by two impressions: First, that while the three of us were dripping with sweat the vendors who hawk their wares all day on that same baking sidewalk were so fresh you could still see the baby powder between their fingers; and second, that here, in the heart of Phuket’s Cafeteria of Sin, were three men bragging about how they had all found Miss Right and were ready to settle down.
We talked on and on about our women, about how they were employed at respectable jobs and could afford to pay for their own drinks, how they spoke English and had something worthwhile to say, how they came with appliances: refrigerators and stereos and motorbikes, the dowries of our age.
And of course, being men and all, we talked about sex. We were standing on a busy street corner surrounded by hundreds of strangers, so it was natural that we would discuss the most intimate details of our sex lives. Being men and all.
After a while, James told us that he had an appointment and left. In the international code of the professional freelance photographer, “I have an appointment” means, “Marty, I know you’re up against a deadline with those tattoo shots, and my condotel doesn’t even have grass on eleven of its fairways yet, so you can visit My Buddie first.” Marty and I went into the store, where the air-con froze the shirts to our backs and gave us both pneumonitis. Marty signed his rolls of film over to Phi Lek’s care with detailed instructions and rushed off.
As Phi Lek filled out the slip for my volleyball exposures, I noticed some odd photos being extruded by the big printer. It was a series of snapshots showing a smiling young Thai man caught by the flash of a cheap instamatic camera lying naked on a hotel bed. He was thin and well muscled and one hand demurely preserved his modesty while the other beckoned to the camera.
“Jeez,” I said, “I thought this kind of stuff was illegal.”
“It is,” said Phi Lek, “but the tourists don’t know that. I get that kind of stuff every day. If you want to know the truth, I print about one thousand pictures every day, and a little cheesecake makes a nice change from the endless shots of sunset at Phrom Thep Cape. Want to see more?”
Being a man and all, I said yes. Phi Lek brought out a shoe box from under the counter. I took off the lid and saw a pile of some thirty or forty pictures. “That’s just from this week, and it’s only Thursday. You oughta see what comes in over the weekend.” The top photo was of a farang man and Thai woman on an anonymous hotel bed. The next couple of shots showed a surprised farang woman caught in the shower.
“What do you do with these?” I asked.
“Oh, make copies of the really unusual ones, not all of them, just the interesting ones. About once a week this guy from Bangkok comes and buys them; I suppose he sells them overseas, but I don’t ask. All the photo shops do it; we get a lot of stuff like this.”
“You want to see something I won’t sell?” Phi Lek picked up a waste basket from behind the counter and dug around in it. He pulled out of the trash a photograph and handed it to me. At first I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, then it suddenly snapped into focus and my gut dropped.
It was the face of a young girl, about six years old. She was dressed in her school uniform: white blouse, blue skirt. She was seated on a concrete bench in some kind of paved courtyard. She was looking up at the camera with a very odd expression. She had a man’s erect penis in her hand, and she was holding it up near her face. The photo had obviously been taken by the man who had put his foot up on the bench and pulled up the left leg of his shorts and offered her his organ.
I dropped the photo like it was hot. “What the hell is this?”
Phi Lek looked at me, gauging my reaction. “I get this stuff all the time, too. But I don’t sell it. I pull the film and the exposures and throw them away. Nobody has ever come back to complain that photos were missing.”
“Do you have the rest of this roll?”
“Sure. He’ll come back tonight for them.”
Phi Lek searched in his bins and brought out a blue envelope containing prints and processed film. There was an invoice attached for about fifty baht. He offered me the envelope.
Typical tourist stuff, typical anyway of a certain kind of tourist. Fat man in a bar, feeding a gibbon. Fat man in a bar, drinking with friends. Fat man on a motorcycle too small for his weight. Shots of bar girls dancing on the bar. Then shots of the little girl sitting by herself in her uniform on the stone bench. The penis shot must have been the last on the roll, before Phi Lek threw it in the trash.
“Don’t you have to tell the cops about this?”
“I’d have to be calling the cops every day.”
“Can I have these?”
“Sure. I can make him another set.”
So I drove away from Patong Beach with kiddie porn in my bag. I felt like people were looking at me oddly. The bag seemed real heavy.
When my wife got home from work I showed her the photos and asked her what I should do with them. “Throw them away!” she said. “Why did you bring these into our house? Now we have this bad karma in our house. How could you be so stupid?”
I called a man I know who works at the Phuket office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I described the photos to him and asked if he knew a cop I could give them to. He hemmed and hawed but finally said, “Meet me at such-and-such tonight at about ten.”
I showed up at the appointed place at the appointed hour and found my TAT man in a booth with two men who were dressed in street clothes but had “cop” written all over them. One of the men looked at me and the other never took his eyes off the door. I showed them the photos. They sifted through the stack and paused only for a moment at the penis photograph. The TAT man put the photos back in the blue envelope and they exchanged a few quiet words in a form of Thai that I could not understand. Then the TAT man thanked the cop and got up to leave. I figured I should do the same. My guide picked up the blue envelope off the table and handed it to me. We walked out to the parking lot.
“They’re not interested,” he said when we got outside.
“But we have the guy’s face. We have the bars he hangs out in. That may even be his bungalow in the motorcycle shot. And we know the school the girl goes to; the crest is clearly visible on her shirt. What’s stopping them from making an arrest?”
“First, these guys work in Phuket Town. Not Patong. It’s not their territory, you see? Launching an investigation in Patong would cause a lot of Patong cops to lose face. Second, that photo was taken at the school. No farang gets onto a Thai elementary school campus without the help of a teacher or administrator. So it’s not just the farang who is in trouble here, it’s somebody at the school, too. And everybody in government in Patong is related; the guilty teacher probably has a brother or uncle who is a cop. You’re asking these guys to make powerful enemies for the sake of catching one farang. Unless that farang is very wealthy there’s nothing in it for these guys but trouble. It’s not worth their risk.”
My TAT friend said goodbye and I was left standing alone in the parking lot of a seedy Thai bar with kiddie porn in my bag, and two cops inside who knew I had kiddie porn in my bag. I dumped the blue envelope in a dumpster and drove away as fast as I could.
When I sent this column to The Nation in 1994 my editor said, “Are you sure? This could be dangerous for you.” I said “Hell yeah. Run it.” So it appeared in the Sunday edition and the response was: nothing. The paper claimed a readership of 100,000 on a Sunday in those days, and if we assume only one in ten read my column that means about 10,000 people read this. But it generated not a single phone call. Not a single letter. Nothing at all.
To put that in perspective, when I wrote a column teasing the Chalong Bay Yachties for their sloppy dress and lazy hygiene the guy who owned Latitude Eight told me I could no longer eat in his restaurant. In 1993 I wrote a column exposing a condo scam on Patong Beach; I got threatening phone calls and a dead dog was dumped on my front lawn. In 1996 I profiled the guy who runs a web site called “Travel and the Single Male;” that got me an hour in a windowless room with three members of the Crime Suppression Division, and the mongers wrote letters to the paper calling me a “jack-booted fascist.”
But that same year I wrote a column describing how, in a hut on Patong Beach, I had been offered a little Eurasian baby, a girl about ten months old, for $400. When that story ran in the paper there was no reaction at all, from anybody. Silence.
I cannot talk about what happened 20 years ago, but I can say that today, and basically for as long as I have been in Thailand, the police DO act on cases of underage when they are made aware of it. It is taken very seriously. One only has to read the press coming out of Pattaya where the police are doing a great job arresting foreigners involving themselves with minors.
Times have changed. Again, I cannot comment on how things were in the past but today most people simply won't tolerate this sort of thing. Fiddling with minors is considered reprehensible by 99.9%+ of people and anyone seen to be involved with clearly underage girls or boys may find themselves set upon in public although with that said, vigilantism shouldn't be encouraged.