My Journey Through Thailand
Like many people who have traveled to Thailand over many years, I wonder how my experiences in Thailand have shaped my present life. I have written on this site about some of my experiences, but I haven’t really reflected on their significance. I believe that we can trace our lives back through a critical path or journey of knowledge and experience to our first memories. I now know my experiences in Thailand have changed my life’s path from the one I imagined as a young man. Was it for the better? Who knows if it’s good or bad, the Buddha said. See, I wouldn’t have known that had I not traveled to Asia many years ago. Now, as I slowly get closer to retirement and making my home in Thailand, I thought I should take a moment and reflect on how I got here to this point.
The thread of my current existence started in the year 2000. I had just accepted a job on a world-wide team of an American software company. I had expectations of trips to the grand capitals of Europe and eating exquisite food. Instead, my first assignment was a two-day trip to Thailand. Or was it Taiwan? No, it was Thailand and to a city I had never heard of called Bangkok. Such was my complete stupidity of Asia when I walked into a Barnes & Noble and looked for books about Thailand. A couple of weeks later, I was flying from the eastern US via London to Bangkok, reading my books more diligently than my slides, about this strange place I had never heard of. Walking out of the plane, feeling the heat in the jet-way and smelling the aroma of the airport, I knew there was going to be more to Thailand than what I had read in my books.
This was really my first foreign travel (not counting Mexico or Canada) so I had no idea what to expect. After immigration, I met my Thai escort who bowed with a strange prayer gesture. Next we were in a limo racing through the city to my hotel. It was called the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, where I had booked a room and where the conference was being held. My room was full of unusual but uniquely designed furniture. I looked out the window and saw a courtyard with beautiful gardens. I heard a knock on my door and opened it to a petite, smiling woman in a hotel uniform offering me snacks and small drinks. I accepted them, showered, and left for my first session. Walking down the hall, I wondered what lay in store for me. Little did I know, it would be a day unlike any other.
After my sessions were completed, a middle-aged Thai man introduced himself to me as our company’s sales manager in Thailand. He said I should go to my room to rest as we would be going out to dinner in a few hours. As jetlag was catching up to me, I gladly accepted his offer. Three hours later, his phone call awakened me from a dead sleep. I showered again quickly and was ushered into his small Honda. Driving through the rainy streets of Bangkok, he spoke in American-accented English about his long career with the company. Next he shifted to the topic of how he spent his money. With some pride he pointed out he split his paycheck into four equal quarters: one for himself, one for his wife, one for his children, and the last to his girlfriend. He called her his mia noi which I didn’t understand. I thought it was a great joke until I see his still prideful face looking at me. He was dead serious. I swallowed my laugh; I knew I needed to go with the flow if I was going to survive this trip.
We soon arrived at what looked like a restaurant decorated with many colorful bright lights festooned around the windows. He ordered dinner and drinks for us, terrific tasting Thai food and a strange beer called Singha. Afterwards, when I thought we were going to leave, he asked in a very clear voice, “Would you like to have a woman now?”
Again, I thought he was joking, but when I see his serious face, I know it was not a question as much as a strong suggestion. I think I mumbled “sure” or something like that. He threw down some money for dinner and after we rose from the table, he grabbed my arm and walked me to the back of the room. Along the way he said he had a regular girl here. Your mia noi, I asked?
“No, no, she is too good for this place. This is just a woman I like to visit”, he replied.
Now I’m completely confused. What the hell is going on here? All was soon revealed when we walked through an archway and entered a large room with a glass enclosure, behind which were two dozen beautiful, smiling girls. It didn’t take too much prodding at this point, as I was enduring a bad marriage of five years, the last three without sex. I tipped the tall and sturdy male overseer of the fishbowl and asked him to pick one for me. He smiled and nodded his head to one of the girls. She was short, shapely, and with a smile that could light up a room. Her name was Mai and I will never forget her, as she made me feel like a man again, after three long years.
Although I thought I knew what a whorehouse would be like, what happened next shocked me. Mai was kind, gentle, and yet fun. It was more play and games than sex. When the lights went out for five minutes, she hugged me tightly like I was her protector. After our two wonderful hours, I gave her a big tip and we walked back to the restaurant. She held my hand until the very last second and then went back to the big room. At the table with my friend, we congratulated each other on a good night. On the drive back to the hotel, we didn’t talk much. I wondered what had just happened. Was this real or was it bullshit meant to fxxk with a westerner’s mind? Or was just a different way of life? These Thai people seem to seek pleasure, no matter what the circumstance. What about fidelity and morals? Did they exist here? I was totally confused.
When I returned home, I tried to convince myself that my short journey to Thailand was just a passing dream. But late at night, after closing my eyes when I am completely alone with myself, I knew I wasn’t the same person. In fact, it reminded me of person I once knew.
Thinking back to when I was a child, I remembered I was always trying to explore the greater world outside of my safe and secure suburban enclave, where everybody and everything seemed to be the same. When I was 10, I would walk alongside a creek behind my house for miles, enjoying every new twist and turn of the water, while gazing at the strange creatures in the water. Our family vacations were always to visit relatives in the city of Johnstown. Boring to my siblings but it had a train that went straight up the mountain, which I never tired of riding. At the top, I could look down at an entire valley of smoking coke furnaces and huge warehouses. My favorite magazine was National Geographic which I always read cover to cover. And my favorite movies were James Bond’s because he went to strange places and had sex with women so very different from my Mom. When I got a car at 16, my first of many long car trips were to Ocean City, on the eastern seaboard and some three hours away, where I would spend the day walking the beach before returning home.
After graduating from college, I didn’t purse a life of exploration. Maybe I always thought I would grow up to be like my Dad. He had served in the Army during WWII (which he never talked about), went to college on the GI Bill and then married a pretty young woman. After getting a good job, they moved to the suburbs where I soon appeared on the scene. It was a story common to all the families in my neighborhood. I decided I was destined to do the same; fight my war (Vietnam), attend my college, and marry my pretty wife. Except for the war part (classified as 4-F) that’s pretty much what I did.
But the wheels of my scripted life soon started to come off. I had a good office job but computer systems were starting to be installed everywhere. They were exotic machines that intrigued me so much, I enrolled in the local college for beginning computer classes. Later, I was taking more advanced classes in programming and soon had a better job in the computer industry. I moved up the ladder and started to travel; stressing my marriage, which by that time was starting to unravel. After my first trip to Thailand, I realized I had been born with the disease of wanderlust that had been simmering in my soul since early childhood days. Now the fire started to burn again.
The wife and I agree to split. After a few more business trips to Asia, the General Manager of Singapore wants me to stay on staff with a full ex-pat package. The wife refuses to come so off I go. After a week of looking at condos, living at the Stamford Hotel, and eating delicious food at Boat Quay, I arrive for my first day of work. My GM wants me to go to Bangkok to deal with a sticky situation. It’s a large account we were about to lose, but by using my western charm, they change their minds. I stay on for the weekend and decide to visit a familiar venue, the Hard Rock Café. It’s Friday night and as I was finishing my meal, a band arrives, the tables are moved, and soon the place is a jumping disco. I decide to stay and while drinking at the bar, I meet an electric young woman named Noi.
She is from a place called Issan, and is in Bangkok visiting her sister she said, and she loves to travel. So that’s what we did over the next few weeks, with her guiding me to many of the well-known destinations in Thailand like Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai, and Hua Hin. She also takes me to smaller venues along the Mekong River, like Nakon Phanom and Nong Khai, with their beautiful temples and spicy Issan food. When she visits me in Singapore, we go to the resorts of nearby Indonesian and Malaysian islands. We even visit many times to that Thai island in Singapore – Golden Mile Complex – for relaxing lunches and Thai grocery shopping. Reading the news of the world, I peer at an America in a fishbowl with boring fish swimming around mindlessly. I am glad I am not there.
After more than a year of this wanderlust high, I realize something is very wrong. I start to pick up the tell-tale signs that my girlfriend is becoming increasingly interested in money. This surprises me as I had always been generous with her, even paying her a monthly stipend. But now, as the date approaches when I have to go back to America, the requests for money became more frequent and with ever increasing amounts. Her absences became longer, with one week going completely black. She doesn’t believe I will send for her when my divorce is final and complains I am leaving her forever. It’s really an excuse for more money. When my last day arrives, I leave her with a half-hearted, sad good-bye, and then never see her again.
Back in America, I am now swimming in the fish bowl instead of looking in it. San Francisco is a fantastically beautiful city, but it’s also an in-between world for me. I lie awake at night, alternatively plotting my impending divorce or making furtive plans for returning to Asia. But either course will take time, which I spend in my neighborhood Thai restaurant. I get to know the Thai manager, who is disappointed I am not gay, but we strike up a friendship anyway. One day he introduces me to his sister who is visiting from Bangkok. Her iridescence smile and lovely figure instantly transport me back to a Thailand I once reveled in. A week later we have our first date and six months after that, we are married in Yosemite National Park.
I am incredibly lucky. My wife is smart, resourceful, funny, and incredibly sexy. But back in Thailand, she would be doomed to the life of a spinster, as she is divorced, in her late thirties, and with two children. Thai men can be stupidly short-sighted when it comes to women. Most are obsessed with big boobs and white skin. They think they run Thai society yet it is the groom’s family that pays sin sot. Why? Because beneath the bravado of the Thai male, it’s clear the Thai female is smarter and harder working. Without the male kleptocracy system, Thailand would be ruled by a meritocracy of over-achieving, strong willed Thai women. My new wife is a good example; hardworking, self-effacing, and dedicated to anyone who shares her vision of a happy life. I have bought in to this vision 100% and she is a giant step up from my needy and ungrateful American ex-wife.
Don’t get me wrong. My Thai wife is the nicest person you will ever meet. She is considerate to a fault and has a wonderful sense of humor. But I have learned to respect the inner strength she seldom shows in public. It’s the strength from having grown up in a caring family steeped in the traditions of duty and Buddhism. I have been studying Buddhism for some years now, but in my wife I now see the result of being committed to a “good” life, as so clearly articulated by the Buddha. It is this life I now want for myself as well.
After years of immigration hassles, my wife finally gets her permanent residency. Soon afterwards, her father dies and we immediately travel to Thailand for his funeral. Her family lives in Southern Thailand, close to both the Burma border and the Pacific Ocean. Her whole family is there and they are wonderfully like my wife. Even her Thai brothers seem happy and monogamous. But her mom, a 90-year old dynamo always making food for friends or holding my hand, is my instant favorite. It’s clear how my wife’s father, a poor school teacher with six children, was able to thrive. Everyone in the family worked together, producing three college graduates and a family of well-adjusted people. I am glad they like me because I like them as well.
I don’t mean to imply that my extended Thai family are examples of “real” Thai people. Thais are very different, just like the landscapes they live in. From modern urban areas to beautiful resorts to dirt poor farms, Thailand is remarkably varied in culture and people. Just like many other countries in the world. But for some strange reason I do not fully comprehend; it is Thailand that stokes the smoldering ashes of my wanderlust more than any other place. Living there every day and with every-day Thai people is a journey I am looking forward to. Who knows if it’s good or bad?