I have spent enough time in Bangkok to know that if you spend enough time in Bangkok, someone, or something, at some point, is going to make you wonder why it is you keep on going back there. Never believe that you’ve seen it all. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when I’m there, I just don’t expect it to reach me while I’m sitting 6,000 miles away at home in London. Maybe it’s my own fault.
I first met Ladda about five years ago. She was working at one of those little outside bars on Patpong that is a part of its better known go-go bar. I had taken to walking down there in the afternoons for a couple of beers and to watch the world go by. I’d chat and joke with the girls on the afternoon shift and buy a couple of beers for them. Now and then one of them would take a face towel from the fridge and cool me down. Music, at that time of day, played softly in the background as a fan whirred overhead. It was a pleasant way to spend what remained of the day before dusk settled over the city, before lights started to flicker on along the street, before Patpong plugged itself into the mains, before another night, like too many in the past, was lost to the neon glow of bar girls, beer and loud music.
It wasn’t long before the girls started looking out for me on those bright, hot, sunny afternoons. I then discovered that they had given me a nickname. As soon as I was spotted walking in from Silom Road there would be a shout of “Su da taan” as they all seemingly jumped into action. A beer and “pa yen” (cold towel) would be ready before I’d even sat down.
“How are you, Su da taan?“, they would all want to know, wiping my face and lifting the glass up to my lips while another would adjust a fan to concentrate its cooling breeze directly on to me. “Su da taan” wasn’t a word I’d ever heard before. I chose to believe that it wasn’t an insult. Their joke, it appeared, was that I was like some sort of Sultan (Su da taan) with a harem of women taking care of me. I’d been called worse and it was a change from “farang”. I actually quite liked it.
The clattering sounds of metal poles and shouts of the night market vendors, setting up their stalls for another evening, usually signalled the time for me to be moving on. Back for a shower and then head across town. But I enjoyed those easy afternoons and each time it became a little harder to leave.
“One more bia, Su da taan?” became a question, a plea and an order all rolled into one when they sensed I might be downing that last drop before leaving.
“Okay one more”, I’d say, as though I’d given it a lot of thought. They’d all cheer with a gesture towards their empty glasses and bottles on the bar. I know how the game is played.
It was around this time that Ladda would show up for the evening shift. For a while I didn’t pay too much attention to her, just “Hello” when she arrived and “Goodbye” when I left.
As the days went on, she started to show up a little earlier. So I’d buy her a drink along with the other girls who, unsurprisingly, were more than happy to stay on for another rather than finish their shift and go home. Once they had drifted away it would be me and Ladda with a couple of girls from the evening shift. Soon those bright hot sunny afternoons began to melt into dusk before dusk itself then blended into darkness without me noticing. I’d suddenly realize that the volume all around had increased and that the market was in full flow. The neon glow of bar girls, beer and loud music would be upon me.
For a while I was still able to tear myself away mid evening with most of my brain cells still intact and money in my wallet. I had no ties with any of the girls other than having a few drinks and joking around at the bar with them. I guess I should have left it at that.
But on my next visit from London things just picked up from where they’d left off. Only this time, because Ladda seemed capable of giving a massage that felt as though she knew what she was doing, I asked if she would like to come by my hotel one afternoon if I was to give her a call. I had known a girl a few years before who I used to see for a massage. She had gone back to Ubon and I’d never found anyone to replace her despite my best efforts. Ladda appeared to be strong enough to ease my aches and pains.
And so, ultimately, one more doomed Farang / bar girl relationship began. Strange that it ever started at all really. Although, as is often the case, it slowly crept up on me. Just a few drinks at the bar. Then a call to come over to Soi 8 one afternoon where I was staying for that massage. Then to suggesting that she didn’t go to work afterwards and that I’d pay the bar fine so we could go out for the evening. Then staying over for a night. Then staying over for a couple of nights so we could go somewhere during the day. For a girl who had danced on stage in the bar for a number of years and then worked at the outside bar even longer her English was still at basic bar girl level. “What your name?” Where you come from?” “What you dink?”
Ladda was in her mid 30s. A strong-looking girl from Si Saket with long black hair and minimal make up. She had one tiny tattoo that I could live with. Apart from being seen with me it was perhaps the only real visual as to her occupation. Dressed mostly, whether she was working or not, in normal looking shorts and loose fitting tops. If she wore a skirt it was usually because I had suggested it if we were going out somewhere nice for a meal or cocktails at some rooftop bar. She didn’t strike me as a girl who’d been taken out that much. For a while it seemed to come as a surprise to her that I would want to take her out at all.
The first time I gave her some money, before having to get back to London, she couldn’t believe it. She looked mystified at the crisp B1,000 notes I’d pushed into her hand. Looking at me almost in disbelief before looking back at the fistful of cash she asked “Khun hai chan mai?” (Are you giving it to me?)
“Chai hi Khun” (yes, I’m giving it to you) I said, surprised that she was surprised and wishing I hadn’t given her quite so much
Ladda lived in a small, windowless box in some apartment block around Pratunam. No TV, no radio, no CD player. She didn’t appear to have any real knowledge of what was going on in the outside world. I got the impression that just getting by in her own world was enough to contend with. She would take a bus to work each day, through the late afternoon rush, then home again around 3:00 AM or 4:00 AM and sleep most of the day seven days a week. Maybe once or twice a year she would go back home to Si Saket for a few days if she had the money.
Why would she worry about what was happening elsewhere? Any ambitions she might once have had for her life had evaporated long ago. I once asked her what she would like to do if she won the lottery. Expecting her to say that she would stop work and live in luxury, or something similar, all she could think of was to go back home for a couple of weeks and give most of the money to her mother before going back to the bar. Sometimes I would chat with Noi, one of the other girls at the bar, who read a newspaper each day, watched the news on tv and had been abroad. She spoke excellent English and knew what was going on in Thailand and beyond. I enjoyed talking with her. It always made me smile when Ladda would scowl behind her back and whisper to me “pood maak” (talks too much).
Back in the late 80s, on my first couple of trips to Bangkok, I often felt that I was on a mission to rescue girls from bars. I was a sucker for the ones who maybe weren’t the most beautiful looking, the ones who looked as though they were never taken out. I know now that they were the ones who gravitated towards me because they could see that I wasn’t yet the cynical old git I was later to become once I realized how it all worked.
“No money, no honey” wasn’t just a meaningless phrase on a T-shirt bought from a Khao San Road stall, I discovered. Maybe somewhere deep down that feeling was still there with Ladda. I enjoyed taking her out to places around Bangkok where she’d never been before which, other than Patpong, was just about everywhere. Conversation might not have been up to much, with my limited Thai and her even more limited English, but it was always fun. Though maybe it involved more alcohol than was good for us at times.
Most girls I’ve travelled with in Thailand usually make getting around a little easier. Any information you need, or negotiations to be done, is much less hassle when you can leave it with a native to deal with. With Ladda this was rarely the case. I usually ended up having to do it myself. But I loved the fact that mostly, whatever bars or restaurants we were in, she had a way of becoming friends with anyone who worked there. In the bars especially she would be exchanging phone numbers in no time at all with any girls that took care of us as if they’d known each other for years. This often had its advantages in that we were always welcomed back, like old friends, and looked after by more attentive staff. Now and again there would be drinks on the house or an invitation to meet for lunch with people the following day. The disadvantage, of course, was that I was buying more drinks for everyone and leaving tips all around. Not that I minded, most of the time. Ladda empathised with the girls and I was happy to play the part of a two week millionaire. I know how the game is played and you either play it or you don’t. It’s more fun to play. Though once in a while it would start to spiral out of control a little.
Country Road Bar on Soi Cowboy was already packed by the time we got there. The band on stage had people up dancing and clapping along to the music. Tables overflowed with drinks and a happy looking crowd. Knowing us from previous visits, because of Ladda, a table somehow materialized amidst the chaos. A couple of the girls were waving us over as they cleaned, and guarded, the table while another two or three girls shepherded us towards it through the throng of flailing dancers.
Walking into a place like Henry Hill enters the Copacabana night club in Goodfellas always makes me smile, even though I know I’ll be leaving more like Benny Hill at the end of the night.
Beers for me and Ladda and, knowing they were on to a good thing, drinks for the girls taking care of us. Earlier we had been down at Sam’s 2000 for drinks and something to eat. Almost instantly Ladda became friends with the girl serving us there who had only just started her life in the neon world. She, as it turned out, was also called Ladda which then gave them a real bond. She was also one who, many years ago, I would have been sure to rescue. Drinks all round and somehow we were joined by a gay bloke who also worked there. A few drinks for the four of us and we said goodbye and moved along the soi.
If you order food in Country Road Bar it comes from Sam’s 2000. So after several beers with Ladda and the girls taking care of us in Country Road Ladda, from Sam’s, then appeared with food for a nearby table. Spotting us through a sea of people she came over and it was Tequilas for the two Ladda’s along with more beers. Once back at Sam’s she had obviously passed the word on to our gay friend who then soon arrived with another food order for someone else. Acting as if he was surprised to see us he minced his way over just in time for another drinks order. But it’s a happy scene, the music is loud, every table is jumping, the dance floor is full, the lights are swirling and drinks are sloshed around without a care.
Ladda disappeared for a few minutes to go and say hello to a friend who worked in The Corner Bar opposite. It came as no surprise that she was able to join us for a drink. By now my drinks bill had more pages to it than The Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand. The beer was flowing in what had seemingly become my own private little party along with the two from Sam’s who were making suspiciously frequent appearances. Ladda then said she was sure she knew the bass player with the band on stage as they often played near her bar on Patpong. While the next band were setting up I went to take a leak. I returned to find that he had joined us and already had a tequila lined up ready to go as soon as he’d thanked me and said cheers.
“Mai pen rai“, I said, as we chinked glasses and another bill was stuffed into the pot.
The lead guitarist with the band then found his way over. Ladda looked at me with a slight gesture towards our newest friend. “Sure, why not”, I replied, with a bigger gesture meaning drinks for all.
Returning through the crush after my next trip to the hong nam and we had been joined by the lead singer. She, along with her fellow band members, all had Tequila waiting to go.
“Kop Khun ka“, she said as they were all knocked back in one before I could say
“Okay chok dii“, and raise my glass. I looked at Ladda.
“I buy for she”, she said, looking at me with a frown.
“You buy or I buy?”m I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Oh, you buy”, she said, her face breaking out into a big smile.
Settling the bill I tell myself that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing. Once back home in London on a cold winter’s day I knew I’d be glad that I’d had a good night out to look back on. At least I’d had enough cash on me to cover it that time around. There were occasions when I didn’t.
No matter how many times I’d say to Ladda, “I don’t want to have a big bill tonight okay?” whenever we went down to her bar on Patpong she would always reply, “Okay I take care you”.
And no matter how many times I said, “We’ll just stay for a couple of beers”, so she could say hello to friends and show that she’d snagged herself a Farang, I knew, she knew, and everybody working there knew, there would be no escape for me.
If we arrived there early evening with every intention of moving on later, it was odds on that we’d still be there after the market had packed up and gone home. More often than not we would still be there long after all the other bars had turned out the lights and closed for the night. Patpong is then left to the rats that scavenge around in the gloom amongst leaking bin bags piled up in the street.
Drinks all around, as it had been on those bright hot sunny afternoons. Even the DJ, an oily individual, would suddenly appear from inside the bar.
“Su da taan, how are you?”, he would ask as if he cared.
“Okay how are you?”, I’d reply, knowing what was coming next.
“Thirsty”, he’d say holding his throat, “Maybe you buy me one drink for good luck.”
“Good luck for who?”, I’d continue with the game.
“For you”, he’d say. And so it went on each time.
Late into the evening, after more than enough to drink already, mamasan would then make her nightly appearance.
A crafty old girl. She knows I know it’s all a game, I know she knows I know it’s all a game, but we play along anyway.
Every time, without fail, just as I was about to make my escape Ladda would place another beer in front of me and say, “Mama buy you”. I am then the only one with a drink.
I then feel obliged to buy one back for mamasan which is the whole point of the exercise. Then another for the girls who all joke around banging on the bottom of their empty bottles to get those last drops out. They’re all in it together, even Ladda.
Another trick to keep me there, knowing that I liked crisps (Lays), or peanuts, to munch on with my beer, was for mamasan to despatch one of the girls down to the nearest 7-Eleven. She would return with several bags of crisps and other assorted snacks that were then all poured out on a plate for me. By then I had usually given up on the idea of moving on with Ladda and she, I knew, was more than happy to stay.
Many times I would say to her, “I didn’t want a big bill tonight”, long after it was already too late.
“Okay I take care”, she would say, taking the fistful of bills from my pot and looking at each slip trying to add it all up.
She always gave up half way through.
There were occasions, when the time came, that I didn’t have enough cash to cover it. I know it’s insane letting a bill mount up in a place like that. Even while I’m sitting there doing it I know I shouldn’t.
I’ve no doubt it also gets padded out a little. But by the time I’ve reached that point I just think well I’ve had a good night out and, in the grand scheme of things, once I get back home what will it matter. At least I was always trusted to pay what I owed next time around.
I know I would be classed as old school. I don’t pretend to be Mr Hi Tech, far from it. I don’t do internet banking and I’ve never booked a flight online. I have never owned a smart phone. The mobile I use in England is old enough to have friends frequently scoff at it suggesting that I get something more up to date.
The battered little Nokia I use in Thailand is the next model up from two tin cans and a piece of string. It makes and receives calls, it sends and receives texts and that is pretty much it.
To my way of thinking it’s just one less thing to worry about while I’m there. Nobody is ever going to steal it. But it does attract attention. When I lived in Bangkok with Boom, she would often ask me not to use it in public as she felt embarrassed by it.
“Please”, she would mutter if we were sitting in a restaurant or bar and I received a text, “Don’t show your phone”.
I always made sure as many people as possible could see it whenever she said that.
People openly laugh at it. Girls in bars have taken it from me and pretended to pose for selfies with it.
Others have said it was “cute”. I recently took it back to MBK, from where I bought it years ago, to see if I could still get a new battery for it. The young shop assistant was barely able to conceal her amusement as she called someone else over to take a look. As they rummaged in a little cabinet beneath the counter for a battery I could hear them giggling.
As well as having the oldest phone in Thailand I still, just to add to my old school credentials, use travellers cheques. This comes as a surprise to most people as they can’t believe such things are still in use. It often comes as a surprise to the people working in the currency exchange places around Bangkok as well despite having big electronic boards showing the exchange rates for them. I’ve used them since I first travelled across America in the 70s, when I was 18 years old, and never got out of the habit.
Admittedly they are getting harder to use now. I flew in to Cambodia a while ago only to find that they no longer accepted them. Same in Vietnam. But in Thailand they are just about clinging on. I feel I must be just about the last person using them.
It used to be such a quick and easy transaction at an exchange booth. These days it has turned into a long-winded process involving the teller typing all of the relevant information into a computer before calling a number and punching a series of digits into the phone.
This sometimes can take several attempts. Many of the bank girls who do a stint in those booths, outside the main branches, don’t know how to deal with them anymore. Or, as I suspect, many say they don’t because they can’t be bothered. A girl working at the Bangkok Bank branch in Nana just lost it completely with me one day. She seemed to be there every time I went to cash a cheque. I was a little taken aback when, halfway through proceedings, she suddenly raised her voice and demanded to know, “How many you have?”, as she scowled at me through the glass.
Before I could answer she continued, “Every day you come, why you not change all?”, she wanted to know.
I’d had some stolen before and managed to get them replaced. Still a little surprised to see a girl in her position reacting as she was I started to explain about them being more secure than carrying a load of cash.
She glared at me and continued with her tirade. “Every time Bangkok Bank call me and want to know why you come every day?” Knowing how important it is for Thais not to lose face I kept things calm and polite and let her carry on losing hers.
“How many you have?”, she continued, her twisted features looking as though she would kill me there and then if she could.
She carried on with the rest of the transaction muttering to herself, jabbing at the computer keyboard and slamming paperwork down on the counter for me to sign.
“So is this going to be a problem next time I come?”, I asked with polite sarcasm.
“No, no ploblem”, she spat, with what bordered on sarcasm of her own.
I saw her again a few days later as she went to lunch at a street stall on Soi 8. She nodded and smiled sheepishly when she spotted me. I found a less convenient place to cash my remaining cheques for the remainder of my stay.
Between trips to Bangkok I would keep in touch with Ladda via Google Translate on Facebook messenger or with phone calls and Facetime. She never asked me to send money until, thinking that it’s nice to be nice, I sent her some as a surprise for her birthday so she could enjoy herself with friends at the bar. She had never heard of Western Union until then.
Once she found out how easy it was I started to receive more messages with a request for money so she could “pay for loom“, or “pai klap baan“, or see a doctor because she was “mai sabai”.
While I was working it was okay. I would send B1,000 now and again but not every time. I had known her for five years or so by then. I didn’t always believe her but I knew she struggled with money even at the best of times. As always it’s Catch 22 for me whenever a bar girl asks if I can send money. I feel like a c**t for sending it and a c**t if I don’t.
As with all bar girls there is always that grey area of their lives that you are never going to be able to tap in to.
There is what you think you know and what you actually know. What you think you know is nowhere near as much as you imagine. That massive grey area is something that you know nothing about and never will.
As Coronavirus cast its ever lengthening shadow across the globe Ladda’s little world within it became even smaller. She left it too late to leave Bangkok and just got left behind. Her friends at the bar, who all seemed to have husbands and kids, or other family members to stay with, all got out of the city before lockdown and went back to their respective hometowns.
Requests for money then became more frequent. I started to dread logging in to Facebook Messenger and seeing another message from her waiting for me to open. Talking with her on Facetime was always a challenge. The first five minutes were usually spent with me trying to get her to switch the camera around so I could see her rather than one of the four walls in her room. She is even more lo-tech than I am. The signal was always bad which then makes the language barrier even greater. But there was no doubt, seeing her pretty much trapped in that tiny little room, she was barely keeping her head above water.
I had been made redundant, for the second time in my life, before Coronavirus kicked in so I only had unemployment benefit coming in myself.
But I couldn’t just cast her adrift. At least I was getting something. She had also missed out on the Thai government scheme to pay people who couldn’t work for a while. She wouldn’t have known how to apply for it anyway.
She was not my responsibility. Yet as much as I didn’t want to be sending money to a bar girl I felt some obligation to help. Requests for money kept on coming. She would hold up a packet of Mama soup to the camera and say that that was all she had. Or messages would say that she hadn’t eaten for two days “please can you help?”
I resigned myself to helping her until the bar re-opened, if it ever would. I know a little can go a long way food-wise so I would send some when she asked. I tried to convince myself that some good karma would be coming my way as a result.
Then there appeared to be a chance that she could take a train home. She asked for money for a ticket so she could go. I wasn’t so sure myself that the trains were running but I sent more in hope than anything as I really wanted her to go. It came to nothing as I feared. Then there was the chance to get out with a friend who was driving. I know for sure she had done this in the past. I sent some and once again it didn’t happen.
I knew she was struggling but there was always that nagging feeling of being taken for a mug. I let a few messages go by unanswered. They became more desperate as the days went on. I felt bad about it but I was hardly making money myself.
And then it happened. A long rambling message in Thai. Even Google Translate seemed to be saying you’re on your own with this one. I went through it a few times. Sandwiched in the middle of the message was a photo that I couldn’t make out. I didn’t bother to open it for a while as I was too busy trying to decipher the message. I then clicked on the photo to fill the screen to see if it would shed more light on things.
At first it didn’t register what it was that I was looking at. I could see my signature on something. Slowly it began to dawn on me. I was looking at a Traveller’s cheque. It was signed in the top left-hand corner, by me, as you are required to do upon receipt.
My jaw just about hit the floor. She was showing me one of my own unused £100 cheques. The message began to make a little more sense. I didn’t want to believe it, having known her for that long, but she had obviously stolen the cheque.
I could only imagine that at some point, probably while I was in the shower, she had seized the opportunity and taken it from the middle of the stack so that I wouldn’t notice.
The message was saying how sorry she was for taking the thing and how bad she felt about doing it. Not really understanding what it was she had obviously soon discovered that it was useless to her. She would never have been able to cash it. Deep into lockdown things had obviously reached the point where she was truly desperate for money.
The message continued on to say that she wasn’t scared to admit to what she had done. But if I was to send her some more money she would give me back the cheque next time I was in Bangkok.
I stared at the screen for a while in disbelief. My first thoughts were, well there goes another bar girl relationship.
But I sat for a while longer and strangely, although I was pissed off, I couldn’t help but smile. Just when you think you’ve seen it all. When it comes to the world that these girls live in there is always something new. This I was sure had to be unique.
A mate suggested that she was holding my cheque hostage. If I ever get it back he suggested putting it in a glass case with a sign that read – In Case Of Emergency Break Glass.
Trying to read further between the lines, once I had taken it all in, I think she had probably taken the cheque not long after I had first invited her over to Soi 8 all those years ago. I imagine her thinking at the time was that once I had gone back to London she would never see me again. But then finding out that I visited Bangkok frequently, and that she actually enjoyed being with me and seeing different places, there was never going to be a good time to come clean about it.
If I had discovered at the time what she had done I would never have seen her again. I would probably have gone down to her bar and told everyone about it. But Covid 19 had changed my way of thinking. I wrote messages ready to send telling her what I thought and that I wouldn’t be contacting her ever again. But it just wasn’t in me to send them. I could see she was only just about hanging on by a thread.
On Facetime I tried to look and sound angry but I think even with such a bad signal she could see, and sense, that my heart wasn’t really in it. She looked awful. With strands of hair plastered to her sweaty looking face it looked as though she’d been sleeping in that room for days.
“Chan mai mee satang“, (I don’t have any money) she said as the picture broke up on screen before re-assembling itself again.
Although it was hard to imagine things being the same between us, if ever we were to meet again, I just couldn’t cut an already fraying lifeline and leave her to it.
I concluded that what she had done in owning up to stealing from me was out of desperation.
She’s not my responsibility I would tell myself but I sent her some money anyway for food. Catch 22 gets me once again.
A week or so later she asked again for money to go home by train. I checked as much as I could online and it looked as though it was going to be possible. I really wanted her to go. I really wanted to believe that she would go. I sent a little more in the hope that she would.
The last photo she sent to me was a selfie from the train. I looked closer at the face mask she was wearing. I magnified it a little to see the words Louis Vuitton, with the LV logo stitched into it. I convinced myself that it wasn’t genuine.
I long to get back there. I know how the game is played. But as Thailand’s borders remain closed and Bangkok’s neon night time glow fades a little more each day I’m not sure that there will be any game left to play by the time I get back.
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