Tao was a fairly typical, pretty, young Thai girl born grown up in Bangkok. Her college graduation degree in hand but still unsure of what her future would be. Some luminous idea would surely turn up in time. That after all is the Thai way to see or rather not see too far into the future. In the meantime her parents suggested a trial period in the offices of Diethelm Tours, a Swiss based tour company I often used as a subcontractor to organize tours tailored to the specific wishes of clients mostly in Indochina.
Soon it became apparent that her father had chosen wisely. Tao liked it. At first she was embarrassed almost frightened to meet the farang that held responsible positions in the company. But she got used to it and they were all nice and polite to her. What’s more she started to speak English, a language she had learned in school and was surprisingly good at it but only in writing. Like so many Thai girls, she understood much but not all that was said but was afraid and embarrassed to speak. The few Swiss national foreigners at work, by nature gentle and cautious people, gave her the necessary confidence to come out and speak. English of course but also French & German. All the while learning the ropes of the trade.
Tao was assigned to a lady she called Khun Nam. Among many others Nam treated or looked after our dossiers. So quite naturally the name of Phuket was often mentioned. Tao had never been out of the metropole further than Samut Prakan in the south, Prachin Buri to the east, Nakhon Pathom to the west plus on a single prolonged weekend to the north with her parents. Chiang Mai, the nearby Wat Doi Suthep with the large temple bells that impressed her most.
Phuket she knew was that southern paradise everybody wanted to see. After a while being under the wing of Khun Nam the two developed a friendly relationship although Nam was at least 20 years her senior. Tao mentioned often how much she’d love to visit that beautiful island the whole world apparently wanted to go and visit.
One thing led to another and when Nam asked me if I would be interested in taking on a stagiaire (trainee) for a few weeks I immediately agreed. It was the eve of high season and extra help would be welcome. Thais are not in the habit of thinking over, considering and reconsidering that kind of proposal but more likely to decide in the spur of the moment. Tao did. However she needed to persuade her father as she was still a minor at 19 by Thai law.
Who was going to be responsible for her wellbeing? Where would she lodge? How would she commute to her working place? Eventually Tao managed to convince her father providing his requirements were satisfactorily met. One of them was that her new employer was to meet her personally at the bus station. When Tao arrived I was not at all surprised when she descended from the bus her father in tow. Truth be told I had expected it.
Tao wai’d me and father shook my hand. We left to see the office, showed them the room she would share with Aom, another office girl, a small room with a single bed. That was no problem at all as Thais often prefer sleeping on a plastic mat on the floor. I learned that on our yearly promotion tours when the girls slept in one room they often argued over who could sleep on the folding mattress we always carried with us.
Khun Wisut stayed overnight in a simple Thai-Chinese style hotel as I had correctly deducted that he would not be comfortable in what he called a farang hotel. Before he went up to the room he came close to me and whispered in a low voice that Tao was not to go to a place apparently called Patong or something. I said I would do what I can and thanked him for the trust he put in me to look after his daughter. Before mounting the stairs he turned around once more and said it’s not the office or the tiny room to accommodate her that convinced him to leave his daughter in our care but the fact that I could talk in his own language, himself not mastering English. Sorry, a yet somewhat imperfect Thai, I replied.
Next morning after breakfast Tao and me accompanied him to the bus station. There is no public display on farewells in Thailand. A simple wai from Tao to her father and when Wisut lifted his arms it was not to shake my hand but his turn to wai me in proper Thai manner. There would have been no better way to express his approval and the trust he gave me. I was humbled and proud.
It was the middle of December and the busiest period ahead for the upcoming high season. Tao integrated in the team in no time at all, was well accepted and along the way improved not only her English but learned snippets of Français and German. That was not surprising as it soon turned out that one of her favorite tasks was to receive people arriving at the airport and send them to the respective hotels. Tao had overcome her shyness speaking foreign languages and must have blabbered away often non-stop to people on the way. Of that I only learned later when meeting customers at their hotels and was often told what a charming and talkative hostess they had on the way from the airport.
Though she somehow managed to live on her modest trainee salary, Tao turned out to be a big and much motivated help. Other than AP Transfers she helped in the office. Other times she accompanied the assigned tour guides on outings to Pang-Nga, Krabi, some of the nearby islands and even once up to Ranong where clients were sent for medical reasons to take daily baths in the much recommended healing hot springs of the town. Tao liked the journey up there but not the over 40-degree hot water she was persuaded by the clients to participate in one session. After all she reasoned, she didn’t have a back ache.
As I was absent myself often from our offices I relied on Aom to keep a watching eye on Tao and make sure for her not to get into trouble during the free time or evenings. Quite honestly I’ve no idea if they ever hopped over the hill to Patong or any of the other more seedy spots of the island.
My office was exclusively staffed by Thais so the question I once asked her seemed legitimate; did she meet any farang outside of her professional encounters which were to 75% middle-aged or sometimes elderly couples. Her answer was short and sweet. Yes! Not elaborating on it I left it at that. She was after all an adult. Or almost. And more importantly to me a valued help and always on time in the morning. That for Thailand residents has to be considered an absolute honor. I think I said this before: from where I come from being pn time means coming 10 minutes before the appointed time. Here it’s between half an hour and a day or two late!
Tao’s 20th birthday was approaching and with only two weeks left on the agreed time in Phuket, approved and consolidated by her father I decided that she deserved a modest birthday party before her leave-taking. Our small group gathered at Nikita’s bar and then moved over to Salaloy restaurant along Rawai Beach for the food part, dessert, cake and the inevitable happy birthday to you singing with the 20 candles to blow.
One of the office girls was married, the others had boyfriends. All are invited to come along I had announced earlier. I was not surprised when Tao presented her date for the party. He’s a school teacher from England, she said. Later she came over to me whispering in my ear and in English, “It’s not serious boss”. I laughed but found her words endearing. Or was it meant as a hidden invitation?
The departure date was getting closer. Arrangements needed to be made for her return. Like her father earlier, she refused my offer of taking one of the then emerging budget airlines. She would take the bus.
In those days around the turn of the century I frequently travelled myself in my comfortable Honda Civic to Bangkok. Leaving early morning and stopping only for food, coffee and fill up the tank I used to make good time and arrive mid-afternoon or early evening in the capital before sundown. Having some business to attend to around that time in Bangkok I offered to take Tao along with me in the car. But you have to get up early. I added. Tao was overjoyed, no problem, I’ll be happy to go with you.
But then, fate intervened again this time in the person of Carl. A friend who occasionally traveled along with me, mainly to share the driving as we needed to go to Bangkok for totally unrelated reasons and usually separated after arrival in the capital, sometimes meeting again for the return journey. No problem, I said, when he asked to come along, just be at the usual stop by the Pearl Hotel at 5 in the morning. True to my axiom I was there a few minutes before time along with Tao who had already installed herself in the backseat knowing that another person would come along for the ride to Bangkok. Carl turned up almost at the same time but in his tow a seemingly intoxicated bargirl. Carl himself was not in an entirely sober state.
They came off an all-night party, he said, and I realized that I would have to do all the driving myself. I was not pleased and said as much. Tao obviously felt the same way but kept silent.
The girl introduced herself as Kung and then almost immediately fell asleep in the back of the car. By the time we reached Chumpon both girls where awake and seemingly on speaking terms now. To lighten up the mood I took the drive down to the small town and further on down to the sea which was quite a stretch. An early lunch in a shady beach restaurant helped further to improve relations between the girls. Carl suggested a swim along the sandy beach that I was happy to join him. By the time we got back the girls were in animated discussion, the apparent discord between them erased.
Back on the road I fished out a kind of secret weapon in form of a CD that had been at the bottom of the pile. I had noticed earlier on that none of the two girls cared for my music tastes; Bee-Gees, Clapton, Queen.
Time to slip in MLTR as they knew the group with the Thais love for acronyms. An absolute favorite to all Thai girls at the time. Sleeping child, paint my love and more. When their favorite track take me to my heart, take me to my soul came on they were both clapping and singing along.
Michel learns to rock, a soft rock formation was big at that time in Europe. They tried to make it in the USA but did not catch on like the Beatles many years before them. Instead Asia and Thailand in particular became an important market to them. And possibly still is today.
But time was passing, we had spent too many hours on the beach in Chumpon. By the time we reached the outskirts of Hua Hin dusk was falling and heavy traffic aggravated driving conditions. Additionally I did not trust Carl whose turn it was to drive to negotiate the crowded roads leading into Bangkok at this time of nightfall. I made the spontaneous decision to stop at the City Beach Hotel along the road in the town center next to the police station.
Carl looked at me inquiringly? Don’t worry, the girls will sleep together and we’ll go for a Pizza and a beer or two. Carl had no objection to that. So we did. The girls blabbered along happily strolling through the charming little town. Then settled in one of the many pizzerias the town offers. Halfway through his second or third beer Carl left with his date Kung. My turn to look at Tao quizzically. I don’t want to sleep with that woman she said. Short, simple and to the point. I did mention that I was of her father’s generation or older and that she was my employee which meant breaking one of my golden rules.
I found no words to that. Technically I reasoned she’s not on my staff any more. Eventually I responded; Tao you have become more westernized in less than 6 month!
Breakfast and on the road again. By then I’d realized the girls had it all arranged the moment we drove into the parking lot of the hotel. Did I feel guilty? No, not a bit! Tao had had a good time in Phuket thanks to me and she probably felt it needed to be rewarded.
Carl was driving the last stretch to Bangkok. I relaxed and talked to Tao; what were her plans after coming back home, though I already knew part of the answer. Diethelm offered her a job as a regular employee now at much improved condition or maybe she’d join Asian-Trails a newly created tour co, also run by a Swiss guy. Improve her French or maybe even German. Great, plus enjoy being 20 years young, I added.
Later the girls found a new game to play. It was; what did they do for the first time while living in Phuket? Each tried to outdo the other.
First time drive in a car all the way to BKK. Go to Phee-Phee Islands, go to Krabi, go to Railay beach at Ao-Nang, eat spaghetti Bolognese, admire the views on Promthep-cape and the View-point above Karon, ride on Elephants back, go to disco. On and on it went. Finally they tired of the game. Or almost.
Tao reached forward were I had listened and occasionally smiled at their game. Gently stroking my arm she whispered in my ear; and first time intimate with farang. For the third time in less than only a few hours I found no words.
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