Down And Out In The Big Mango
He was sitting on a shop front step some fifty meters from the Nana BTS Skytrain Station on Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road; not unusual for a farang in that notorious part of town, and he barely registered as I descended the steps to the street. But as I passed by him, my eye caught the crude cardboard sign next to him:
NEED MONEY FOR FOOD SHELTER
A tin cup stood by the sign. I paused in my stride. I put him around fifty five. Dressed in a khaki shirt, shorts and a wide brimmed bush hat, he reminded me of a photograph I’d seen of the film director, Francis Ford Coppola on location for the movie, Apocalypse Now. He returned my gaze with sheepish smile. It was Friday, two in the afternoon and 39 degrees in the shade.
Now, a farang, pan-handling the streets of Bangkok is wasting his time. As Thais firmly believe that all farang are rich, he could expect little pity, much less money, from the amused throng passing him by. Of course, the sign, being in English, was aimed at foreign expatriates and tourists and the Nana area teems with them. Even so, I put his chances of success as a little less than an ice cube in hell on a very hot day. I picked up the can; it contained a fifty baht note and some coins. I put in another hundred. “Would you like a beer?” I asked him. He smiled widely, grabbed his pack and came to his feet. We shook hands. His name was Alain and he was from France.
I found a bar close by, took a table and ordered a pitcher of Singha beer. It was a quiet, well air-conditioned, place and we were the only patrons. A pretty service girl brought the pitcher and filled the glasses. Alain drained his in two long pulls. “Nectar,” he said, with a smile. “Thank you.”
“So, what the hell happened to you?” I asked, refilling his glass.
“It is a long story,” he said, wiping his face with a serviette.
I strongly suspected a woman was involved somewhere in the mess he’d found himself in and I was eager to hear about it. “We have time,” I said. “Tell me.”
He took a long draught of beer, settled back in his chair and closed his eyes; he looked very weary. I noticed the heavy beard stubble, the matted hair, and he smelled rough. I decided to wait for my story. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
“I am,” he replied. “Very.”
From the bar menu I ordered for him khao phat gai, fried rice with chicken, nothing for myself; I settled for the beer. Normally, I never drink before sundown, but I was in the mood and this beer was going down like cold, fresh cream.
Alain ate like a Frenchman, with measured gusto. His plate cleaned he went back to his beer. “When did you sleep last; in a bed?” I queried.
He shook his head. “I really can’t remember.”
He looked well and truly bushed, and I sensed a little disorientated.
“You’re tired, Alain,” I said. “You need some sleep. I’m going to get you a room.” I ordered another pitcher.
“You are really very kind,” he said shaking his head. “You don’t know me at all.”
“True,” I said. “But I’ve always dreaded ending up like I found you. I really couldn’t leave you there. But the price is you tell me your story. We can do that tomorrow, after you’ve rested. Is that a deal?”
“That’s fine,” he said, smiling. “It’s a deal.”
As a traveler, my worst fear has always been that I’d find myself on some lee shore, far from home, dead broke, with no money, no traveler’s checks and useless credit cards. And to top it all, no air ticket home or friends to lean on. It’s a nightmare that doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s never happened to me, but I dread it. And to cover such a catastrophe I always travel with an emergency fund of last resort in the form of six gold coins, Canadian Maple Leafs, stashed in my belt. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in coming across anyone who had experienced such an event. Alain was the first.
Back on Sukhumvit, I purchased for him a couple of shirts and some shorts and underwear from a market stall. Then, I booked him a room in the Bangkok Inn on Soi 11 and arranged to meet him in the lobby at noon the following day. I went back to my hotel feeling good about myself. I’d played the Good Samaritan and done the decent thing. I’d made merit and pursued good karma. I showered and changed and set out to attend to unfinished business and then meet a lovely Thai lady, my future wife, for supper.
Normally up at first light, I slept in the following morning and was late for our rendezvous. Alain was waiting in the lobby reading the Bangkok Post. A different man, he’d bathed and shaved, his thick auburn hair was washed and brushed back and he was wearing the clothes I’d bought for him. He smelt clean and of fine cologne.
“Paco Rabane,” he grinned when I commented. “I have a little left. But, it’s almost gone.”
Sleeping late, neither of us had taken breakfast, so I suggested a good lunch was in order. We dined at the Food Center on Sukhumvit before repairing to a resto-bar on Soi 7 I often frequent that serves decent wine. We took an outside table in shade and relaxed in seats of well cushioned wicker beneath a fan. I ordered a bottle of Italian white wine on ice.
I put him at ease by telling him of myself, my work, the log home I’d built in Quebec, Canada and the guesthouse I was building near Chiang Mai. He spoke excellent English in a careful, circumspect manner with a strong accent. He was fifty nine years old and from Bretagne. He’d taken early retirement following a career in civil engineering that had taken him worldwide, working freelance, with high remuneration and paying little taxes. He’d worked five long years in Saudi Arabia; hated it (no, wine, no women), but made big, tax free, money.
“I can’t complain about the money,” he laughed. “But I couldn’t stand the place. Every few months I’d take an exit visa and get back to France to maintain my sanity.”
Though an engineer, he’d acquired many interests and over the years had taken university courses on such diverse disciplines as history, political science, philosophy and social anthropology. He was intelligent and exceedingly well read. I felt that Alain had reflected often on the meaning of life and why men are born. We had much in common. And the wine had the desired effect and we both became increasingly expansive. We discussed many things, but mainly we spoke of travel, South East Asia and Thailand. We talked of women, Oriental women and especially Thai women and the hypnotic, Siren like, allurement they have held for Western men since sixteenth century European seafarers and adventurers returned home with tales of their captivating beauty. Alain was also aware of the dangers of involvement; like me, he knew the stories and we shared some.
Alain first came to Thailand after the death of his wife. She’d died of ovarian cancer leaving him with a daughter, Lisa, who had graduated from university with honors as a medical doctor a few months before her mother’s death. Grief stricken, and on Lisa’s advice, Alain decided on a year of travel and Thailand was on the itinerary. He came for three weeks and stayed three months. He returned again the following year for four months. He liked Pattaya and began spending the European summers there. But when, Lisa came across photographs of her father with young Thai women, this led to a bust up.
“She called me a sex tourist and hasn’t spoken a word to me since,” he chuckled.
He took a photograph from his pocket and slipped it across the table. I picked it up. It was a professional studio portrait of a Thai woman, a very beautiful lady, with a superb smile. “Kab,” he said.
“She is very lovely,” I said.
“Yes,” he smiled. “She was.” He fished out more snaps of her. Some were with Alain, others with a small child, a girl, and others with Alain and the child. They looked a happy family. But this was the woman, I was sure of it.
“Where did you meet her? I asked.”
“In a Jomtien bar; a good bar.” he said. “I’d started to favor Jomtien, the town south of Pattaya because it was quieter, less raucous. I had a sweet apartment there near the beach and quite inexpensive. The bar was on a nearby street. I’d dropped in for a few beers and to watch some football,” he smiled. “Chelsea versus Liverpool. She was working there. She was the manager and mamasan. It was a quiet night with few customers and she was going to close when the game ended. She spoke good English and looked so lovely in her black business suit with shirt and tie. Her figure was superb. I bought her a drink. She invited me to select a girl. But they were a dull bunch of bargirls, non attractive. But she was.”
“So, you hit on her,” I said.
“Yes, I did. She seemed shocked. ‘I’m thirty six,’ she said. ‘I’m old.’ I told her she was lovely. Yes, I made a pass. She agreed to come. Sent the girls home, closed the bar and came back to my place. And,” he smiled. “I never saw the ending of that football game.”
“And that was the beginning?”
“Yes. I saw her again the next night and again took her home. Within a week she’d quit the bar and was living with me. I decided to upgrade and signed a lease on a furnished house with three bedrooms, a home gym, a pool and lovely garden. I paid for everything, of course, and gave Kab 8,000 baht a month to spend as she wished. I also set her up with a market stand selling clothes and shoes; it made a little money on top of her allowance and gave her an interest.”
I smiled. “She must have liked that?”
“Yes, she did. We were happy. But soon enough my time was almost up. My visa was expiring and I was due to fly home to France. But I didn’t want to go. I made a snap decision and let the ticket expire. I went down to Penang, Malaysia and got another visa for a year.”
On his return they traveled north to Issan where he met her family in a village near Khon Kaen. He refurbished her parent’s house and bought her father a Honda scooter. Kab’s daughter, Fon went back with them to Jomtien for the school holidays. Life seemed idyllic and he privately debated whether he should ask Kab to marry him.
A month later a debit card was declined at an ATM. As he used four, he thought little of it. He’d experienced ATM computer glitches before and they normally corrected themselves. But this did not. Two weeks later a second card was declined. This time he was concerned and annoyed. He kept note of all withdrawals and was well aware of what the balances should be and he knew he was well in the black. He composed handwritten letters to both French banks asking for explanations and posted them registered mail. Then, in quick succession, his remaining two cards failed; the last one while he was in Bangkok visiting friends. He now had serious problems. Unable to make headway by e-mailing and telephoning the banks, he needed to fly to France. Unfortunately, Alain used only debit cards and had no credit cards. But, as a careful man, he had a reserve of cash that would purchase his ticket.
“I can interrogate my bank accounts on the internet.” I told him. Could you not do that?”
“No,” he said. “You have to fix it with your bank personally before leaving home. I neglected to do it. You can’t arrange it from overseas.”
Alain returned to Jomtien where any anger he held for his banks and their systems dissolved into shock; Kab was not home. He phoned her, but her phone was dead. Preparing to shower, he noticed her toilet things were gone. And in the bedroom a further shock; her entire wardrobe was cleared out. She’d left him. At his desk he found the locked drawer where he kept his personal things had been forced and the reserve fund, 100,000 baht, was gone. He realized now that the debit card problem was not a bank computer glitch; Kab was the problem.
“But I don’t know how,” he said. “I never allowed her to use the cards. I never disclosed the pin numbers, nor did I ever write them down. The numbers are in my head. Only I know them.”
I couldn’t begin to imagine how he must have felt. Cleaned out by a woman he had loved and trusted. He needed help badly. His French friends in Pattaya were found wanting. “Drinking buddies,” he described them bitterly.
“What about your daughter, the doctor? She would fly you home, surely,” I asked.
He laughed. “She would, no doubt. But I would never live it down. Could you imagine the triumph, the contempt? I’d got what I deserve; the wages of a sex tourist. I’d be under her thumb for life. No, Lisa is out. My only hope is Sacha, my brother. But Sacha is on a six week long wilderness canoeing vacation in northern Canada; he’s not contactable. And he won’t be home until the end of this month.”
“What about friends in France?”
“I do have them and they would help me, but I could not stand the shame, the humiliation. They would need to know how I got into this mess. And it wouldn’t be long before Lisa would get wind of it. No, Sacha is my lifeline.”
With his rent due, Alain moved out of the house, ditched most of his things and moved to Bangkok. His plan was to pan-handle sufficient money for food and if possible lodgings until the time his brother would be back in France. He worked the Khao San Road and the backpackers before moving to Nana. It was hard, hot and humiliating, but worked to some degree as some days he picked up enough to get a dormitory room in some rough dwelling. He was doing that when I’d found him.
Two days later, I took a chance and put Alain on an Air France flight to Paris. He promised he would refund me when he got home. And he did. Two weeks after he left, a deposit covering the ticket cost arrived in my bank. He followed this with a letter thanking me for my help and trust.
Almost a year passed before I heard from him again. It came in the form of an e-mail; he was back in Thailand, in Jomtien and invited me down.
I took a bus down the following week and we met for lunch at the Pattaya Beer Garden. Alain, immaculate in ivory slacks, a blue tropical shirt and Gucci loafers and exuding the familiar Paco Rabane cologne, looked the picture of health and contentment. He gripped my hand vigorously. “Wine or beer?” he grinned.
“Wine,” I replied. “Red.”
He ordered the wine, a Wolf Blass from Australia to be followed by a large all dressed pizza. We made small talk and bantered in general on many matters. He had healed the breach with his daughter and they were back on speaking terms. But he’d found France cold and miserable and the people, in contrast to Thais, as unpleasant as the weather. He’d been back in Thailand for three months and glad of it.
The pizza came and was promptly devoured and a new bottle of wine ordered. As we drank, he announced that he had a new lady. “She’s from your territory; Chiang Mai,” he said. “Her name is Sunisa, nickname Kung. She’s a schoolteacher. You will like her.”
I met Kung that night and did like her immediately. She was forty two, divorced with an adult son and daughter. She had a lovely Jomtien condominium, low rise and spacious. We sat out on a balcony terrace that overlooked the bay and enjoyed a fine meal consisting of many Thai dishes accompanied with copious amounts of wine from France. Kung was small with an athletic, shapely figure and a pleasant intelligent face. I enjoyed watching her going about her house business and fussing over Alain and myself. I found her very attractive, though not even close to the surreal beauty of Kab. But then Alain wasn’t looking for that anymore.
After supper, Kung cleared away the dishes and left us alone to talk and enjoy the wine. Alain talked of France, Europe in general and its miserable weather, its cold unfriendly people and how unpleasant it felt after Thailand and how happy he was to be back. But, impatient to know the endgame of the Kab affair, I changed the subject. “What happened about your money?”
He paused, drank a little wine. “It was devastating,” he said. “My bank statements showed Kab had withdrawn huge amounts of money, some days the daily maximum on the cards. I couldn’t believe it. Inside a month she’d almost emptied the accounts.”
“But how could she if she didn’t have the pin codes?”
He chuckled. “Oh, she had the pin codes. But I never gave them too her.” He refilled the glasses. “It took me a while to work out how she’d done it.”
Intrigued, I said nothing, sipped wine and waited.
He gave me a long smile. “She used the child,” he said.
“Fon, yes, she used her.”
“Whenever I went to a bank ATM to make a withdrawal, I’d often take Fon with me. Afterwards we’d maybe take a walk home along the beach and I’d buy her ice cream. I enjoyed the girl and having her come along. And sometimes, at the ATM she’d ask me to lift her up and watch me work the keypad and out would pop the money. This seemed magical to her and made her laugh. Sometimes I even let her push the buttons. You can guess the rest.”
“Fon then told her mother the pin codes,” I said. He nodded.
“Christ,” I said. “You’re positive?”
“It’s the only valid explanation. I kept the numbers in my head as we all do. I never needed to write them down. But I foolishly gave them to the kid. It was a game to the child, but serious business for Kab. Arriving home, Fon gives her mother the pin number as part of the game. And at the first opportunity when I’m not around, Kab takes a card and makes a big withdrawal, 10 to 15,000 baht; a lot of money. I do believe she may have brought Fon down to stay with us just for that purpose.”
I thought I’d heard all the stories, but this was a new one, using a child in that way; definitely one for the archives. Alain never disclosed to me how much he had lost which leads me to believe it was a very heavy amount, many thousand Euros. Yet, he remained cool about it and displayed no bitterness. Seeking Kab and retribution did not enter into his mind. He no doubt realized it would be a waste of time. He’d moved on.
I returned to Jomtien four months later for Alain and Kung’s marriage. There were two ceremonies; first a Buddhist and a then Catholic one. We keep in touch and meet often. We have a true and lasting friendship. I took a chance, offered a helping hand and was well rewarded for it.