There are carrots, spring onions, lettuce and cabbage. Also string beans. I plant the vegetables in November. I sell them at the local market. I also have lemon trees and big papaya fruit!
Tis’ the season to be jolly, and few Bangkok establishments reflect the holiday spirit better than the dozen or so bars at the foot of Soi 4. The ones clustered around the entrance to Nana Plaza in particular are packed with reveling expats and tourists most nights cheering on some English Premier League contest on the big screens. Or maybe nursing a Tiger beer on one of the stools facing out onto the sidewalk, swapping raucous stories with fellow boozers as they watch the jet-lagged, gawking new arrivals wander by.
Despite earnest efforts, I have never become a bar regular here. For one thing, I don’t care for soccer (excuse me, football). A bunch of sweaty fellows running about kicking a ball back…and…forth, back…and…forth, and if you can endure this monotony for a half hour or so, you just might see a goal scored. Nor am I fond of beer, a beverage totally alien to my sweet tooth. (Some people throw up after consuming five or six bottles. I can vomit after but five or six swallows.)
But it’s not the booze or cable sports that draw people to the Soi. Such enjoyments are commonplace in any Western nation. One doesn’t need to fly halfway across the planet just to guzzle down a Heineken. What attracts the customers is the exotic female presence that garnishes these watering holes. For newcomers fresh off the plane, these bar companions can appear very alluring (and become even more so after the third round of drinks has been consumed). I was myself overwhelmed my first few weeks here back in 2011. It’s a kid-in-a-candy-store experience. But recently I’ve noticed a disturbing change.
It began when I found myself able to walk past the bars with barely a glance at the women seated out front. At first I thought I had finally become numb to the ubiquitous boozing and sex trade that is the hallmark of my neighborhood. But then when I started taking a closer look at what was on display, I realized the girls are simply not that pretty anymore. Meander through a Bangkok shopping mall and your neck will be sore from swiveling your head from side to side as one slim beauty after another passes by. Alas, that kind of eye candy is now absent in the bars, some of whose occupants are just plain dumpy while others have a trashy air about them — even by Soi 4 standards. Personally I’m glad they keep their heads buried in their smartphones instead of trying to entice the passing tourists. The few times one of them has looked up and beckoned to me, I’ve had to repress a shudder.
It is not just me who has noticed this deterioration. Other long-term ex-pats are complaining too, and a local blogger has devoted an entire post to the problem (see below link). The best explanation is that because of Thailand’s improving economy, young women now have more opportunities and are increasingly opting for jobs that do not require them to have sex with aged, potbellied Westerners. If you can imagine that. This leaves the ones who are usually less ambitious (and, quite possibly, less concerned about their personal appearance) to man the Soi ramparts. The dregs, if you will.
For those still seeking a measure of beauty, the go-gos are probably the best option, though it sounds like they are also are suffering from a decline in quality. But it is all relative. For example, I’d take an average looking go-go dancer over a “cute” bar girl (an oxymoron nowadays) any time. Gyrating in front of customers night after night under the flashing strobe lights requires a firmer body and better looks than what’s needed to skulk on a bar stool in some dark corner of a drinking joint.
For those contemplating a visit to Bangkok in the near future to sample the “cuisine”, by all means stop in at a one of the street-side bars and take in the atmosphere. Just do your…shopping elsewhere.
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Stickman Blogger: Woof Woof!
Holiday Vacation Notice: Next posting will be Sunday, January 12, 2014.
Nicky, a mid-thirties, attractive Thai woman, runs a local travel service / internet cafe. I have gotten to know her over the years and have used her to provide translation help whenever I have to do any serious business at my Thai bank. Nicky can explain what mysterious hoops the teller is requiring me to jump through and double-checks any paperwork, which of course is written in Thai. She does an excellent job and I always make sure to compensate her — though I often have to talk her into accepting the money.
When I heard last month that there was going to be a birthday party for Nicky, I made sure to mark it on my calendar. I had already attended a couple of these shindigs, which take place out in front of the cafe, and have always had an agreeable time. Nicky and her staff are good people; when they look at me there aren’t dollar signs in their eyes, which makes it easier to share an evening with them.
During the week leading up to the big night, I twice came by the cafe to try and confirm the party details, such as the starting time and what the girls’ drinking preferences are. (I didn’t want to show up empty-handed and contributing to the booze stockpile would be nice gesture.) Nicky however seemed almost embarrassed by my attempts to pin things down. Maybe she didn’t want to be reminded of getting a year older.
Because the festivities started sometime around seven, I decided to make my appearance at eight o’clock and hang around until ten. These affairs always run into the late hours and at a certain point I start to sag underneath the table.
There turned out to be no problem at all escaping at a reasonable hour. When I arrived at my planned time (toting four bottles of sweet Breezer wine cooler), there was nobody around. The store had been closed and the outdoor chairs leaned against the table. I was dumbfounded. There wasn’t any way I could have mistaken the day — Nicky’s birthday is the same as my mother’s. Plus, I’d made a point of confirming it.
Now in the U.S., when connections are somehow missed, the involved parties usually get in touch to figure out what happened. But this kind of analysis, with its implications of someone having screwed up, would not play well in this country where people are concerned about saving face. I certainly could not barge into the cafe the following day demanding what the hell went wrong. Probably would not get an honest answer, especially if they thought it might hurt my feelings.
Since this is by no means a life-or-death matter, I believe I’m going to simply let things slide. Maybe wait a few weeks before I go back to the cafe. Sometimes, attempting to untangle what appears to be a simple misunderstanding between people from different cultures only escalates into a larger disagreement. I don’t want to risk that. Besides, there’s always next year!
As the posts in this blog have shown, I am prone to opening up my wallet for my Thai ladies far beyond the call of duty. I think it’s a combination of a kind heart (jai dii) and sense of fairness: they have next to nothing while I am quite comfortably well off.
When it comes to my belongings, however, my attitude is somewhat less generous. I don’t have a lot of “stuff”, but what I do have is important to me. When I loan something out, I expect it to be returned, and within a reasonable timeframe. But the girls, who see this rich farang who wants for nothing, do not always share my concerns.
Noy was my first “borrower”. She’d worked in the Swan IV bar just down the street. An intense lover with a compact, petite figure, she was by far the best that sordid drinking hole had to offer. Our first little get-together held the promise of more enchantments to come. But then, as she was leaving, she asked if she could wear one of my t-shirts home in order to cover her sexy attire. This seemed a reasonable request and so I graciously accommodated her. It was only afterwards that I found myself wondering why, if she was so concerned about appearances, she did not bring something modest with her to work to change into.
The next evening, anxious to retrieve my clothing (I only had maybe five serviceable t-shirts at the time), I marched into the bar and zeroed in on Noy. She promptly retreated to the back room and brought the shirt out in a paper bag, all nicely washed and pressed. Although no harm had been done, this little affair didn’t sit well with me for some reason and I never again took her back to my apartment. We did, however, develop a comfortable friendship and I’d on occasion stop by the bar to buy her a drink and chat.
That turned out to be my best lending experience.
Som was a girl who also worked in a bar further down Soi 4, but as a waitress, meaning it was difficult to take her home, management not keen on losing its workers for the night. She’d served me drinks on various occasions and it was clear we were fond of each other. But the affection never went beyond light touching. Then, two months ago, I ran across her in Soi Cowboy where she’d started work as a “greeter” for the Country Roads bar. This new job allowed her to go home with customers and within fifteen minutes after exchanging pleasantries, we were hailing a cab to my apartment to unlock our pent-up desires.
I’ve never been one to rate a woman’s performance in bed. At my age, I am far more focused on my side of the ledger. But Som’s enthusiasm and acrobatics had me almost applauding by the end. I felt more like a spectator than a participant. There was no question she was going to be one of my regular dates and when she hinted about needing something to slip over her slinky black dress, I nearly tore the sleeve off one of my t-shirts yanking it off the closet hanger.
This time I would not reclaim my temporary gift for almost two weeks. It took two trips to Country Roads (not finding Som on either visit) and a grouchy text message before I could arrange a handover meeting. When I finally got the shirt back, it had not been washed and still carried the scent of her perfume. Some men might have found that a turn-on. I was disgusted.
But the most frustrating transaction to date has been with Newt, the massage girl next door. Our friendship had warmed recently and I’d let her borrow a couple of my horror DVDs. The true horror, however, occurred when I tried to retrieve them. I must have stopped by the massage parlor four times over the course of three weeks. Only once was Newt there, and on that occasion was unable to return the discs because they’d been lent to a friend of hers who had locked them in her work locker, then quit her job. (This sequence of events sounded so outlandish I wondered if it had been made up.)
Because Newt works right next to my apartment complex, I decided to curtail my futile recovery efforts and simply wait to see what happened the next time I ran into her taking a cigarette break out front. Either she would give me the DVDs then, or have to provide another convoluted explanation as to why she was unable. When this encounter finally occurred, to my surprise, she hailed me over and handed the movies back with no fuss or drama.
I think the best approach in this country is to not lend anything to the locals. But if you must, be sure it’s an item you are willing to do without, possibly for weeks on end. As for my two tardy delinquents, Som I won’t be seeing again and while I cannot avoid Newt, I’m going to hold off on the treats I occasionally surprise her with for awhile.
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The New Newt
In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that Pretty Lady Go-Go in Nana Plaza — one of the few locations where one can enjoy vintage Rock & Roll — was being remodeled. The work finished in early November and a couple weeks ago I ventured in for the first time. The new name of the place is Spellbound.
The main floor is x-shaped, giving a clear view of the girls and avoiding the crowded cattle-like shuffling that passes for dancing in such places as Rainbow IV. The music also appears to be unchanged. On the surface, it looks like a winning renovation.
Until you try to sit down. The person in charge of the go-go’s makeover must have had a prior career designing church choir lofts. Climbing the steps past the stark, narrow “pews”, I half expected to see hymnals lying on the seats. Not very inviting.
This style is not unique. Many other go-gos are infected with it. The problem comes when you try to sit in one of their upper rows where there is no room to stretch your legs. Then when you bend them, your knees are pressed against the stanchions. This is not quite the case at Spellbound — I still had a good three to four centimeters clearance —but I’m not a large person. It’s hard to imagine tourists and my fellow ex-pats, many of whom would never be mistaken for fitness fanatics, being able to wedge themselves in and maintain this exacting posture for long periods.
The new cushioned seat backs at Spellbound are another concern, with little give and positioned at an uncompromising ninety degree angle. It results in this weird feeling of leaning slightly forward, somewhat like those sedated captives in Alien Resurrection whose heads were forced out over the waiting eggs.
This disregard for comfort is partially understandable. The typical go-go customer in Bangkok is usually a half-soused European or Aussie who may not even recall the names of the places they’ve visited during the evening, much less whether they had a good time. So who cares if they can actually relax so long as they keep buying drinks for themselves and the girls? (And if they end up taking one of the dancers back to their hotel room, any and all prior annoyances are quickly forgiven.) But with Nana Plaza nowadays seeing a influx of tourists who are not into the sex trade — meaning they might actually have standards — this attitude is becoming outdated.
I’ve occasionally read about the money and effort it takes to operate a go-go in this city. Just keeping the girls in line can be a full-time job. But I have to wonder if any of these business-savvy owners ever actually sit in their establishments or try to discover what their customers prefer. Too many subscribe to the same tired formula of cramped seating and overpriced drinks while featuring a few halfway-cute girls listlessly moving about to obnoxiously loud music. Take it or leave it. If they tried to run a business in the U.S. in this fashion, they’d last maybe two months. Probably end up managing a popcorn stand in some shopping mall.
It would be refreshing to see an owner with vision and originality enter the nightlife game here in Bangkok. I think there’s a crying need for a new direction.
Ui is a regular fixture on Soi 4 and can be found most nights waiting on the sidewalk around the entrance to the now-closed Nana Liquid Disco. I imagine I’d passed by her dozens of times before curiosity finally got the better of me last year and I took her back to my apartment. She was at that time working in a factory and supplementing her pay by going with the occasional customer at night. Since then she’s quit her day job to be a full-time lady of the evening.
I imagine that around a decade ago Ui would be considered reasonably attractive with her long black hair and dark complexion. But at thirty-eight, age is beginning to take its toll. One time she came to my place on a pre-arranged date without any makeup and I was surprised at how worn out she looked. But I still appreciate her figure. She is taller than most Thais and doesn’t have the usual beanpole legs and float-a-supertanker pair of breasts that frankly turn me off. (I prefer a more balanced arrangement.)
From what I can understand, Ui was once a wild woman, using heroin and mixing with the bad crowd that the drug trade attracts. Then she was in a serious motorbike accident which landed her in the hospital, unconscious, for most of a month. With neither of us speaking the other’s language beyond three or four word sentences, I haven’t been able to piece together what happened after that. I do suspect the accident impaired her facilities — in even short conversations, she’ll sometimes repeat herself. Reminds me of my father when he started coming down with dementia.
Despite this background, Ui is the kindest and least-demanding of all my Thai lady friends. Simple and completely without guile. One time when I was ill, she stopped by to see how I was doing — an act unimaginable to the many grubby and greedy women who inhabit the bars and sidewalks on Soi 4. Nor has she ever pestered me for money, despite a mother whose care she is solely responsible for. For these reasons, she survived the Stalinist purges of my harem last month. In fact, I continue to provide modest amounts of cash on occasion, entirely on my own initiative.
Though I always keep an eye out whenever I’m strolling by her hangout, it is Ui who usually spies me first, stepping out from the shadows with her arms extended wide, looking like a lost child who has finally located a friend. I get a brief hug followed by a near-pleading “Go home with you? No mon-ey.” This not a manipulative confession; it means she’s willing to take care of me free of charge, partly because of my prior generosities but also because she’s quite fond of me.
Our dates have their own distinctive style. Early on I discovered that she, unsurprisingly, is not into “the act”, so we’ve learned to enjoy each other by indulging in vices and special desires (Current Perversion: slow dancing). On the occasions she stays over, we sleep like brother and sister. Yet I do not feel deprived; it’s refreshing knowing someone whose motives never need to be second-guessed.
I try to avoid worrying about the women here that I’ve befriended, many of whom are struggling to support themselves, a child, and sometimes an ailing parent. I cannot magically turn their lives around — a bitter lesson I’ve had to learn. Ui’s future appears especially grim. Because of her memory problems, it’s hard to envision her working at anything more than menial jobs once her looks have faded away. And the hope of some Western suitor finding interest in her is almost cruel to contemplate. I can only do what I can, brightening up her life every few weeks with a fun evening and surprising her with unexpected gifts of money.
When my birthday rolls around in five months, the driver’s license issued to me by the State of Washington will expire. Not being a bona fide Seattle resident anymore, I decided it was time to bite the bullet, so to speak, and get one issued from the country I’ve been residing in for most of the past three years.
Up to now my dealings with Thai bureaucracies (outside of Customs) has been limited to the annual visit to Immigration to get my retirement visa extended. That process runs fairly smoothly assuming you have all your paperwork in order. Now, however, I would be mingling with the masses, trying to decode procedures designed for the locals. Fortunately I would have an American ex-pat with me (Tod) who speaks the language and specializes in escorting fellow farangs through the labyrinth of rules that must be followed here to get something done.
The fun began at the Department of Land Transportation Office, a large and rather imposing-looking building located a good five minute walk opposite Sukhumvit 62/1. Crossing the threshold into the cavernous main area is like entering a giant ant hill with waves of Thais scurrying about in all directions. I came to an immediate stop, dumbfounded as to where to begin. A girl at the nearby Help Desk, taking mercy on me, provided directions and the required form.
Paperwork is a necessary evil when interacting with any level of government, but the officials in this country have an insatiable appetite for it. I had brought five pages to feed to the lions covering my health, residence, passport info and current driver’s license. But even that meticulously put together package did not keep me out of trouble. After waiting in a shifting column of people for some fifteen minutes to get to a clerk, I discovered that my Certified Letter of Address from the Immigration Bureau needed to be “re-certified”. (WTF?) For this transgression, I was banished to an upstairs office for the procedure, which cost me my hard-earned place in line. Tod fortunately got us back in the ballgame when we returned by butting in and tossing my paperwork on top of a stack of forms waiting to be processed. I would not have had the audacity to try this, which is why I brought him along. Getting a Thai Driver’s License is not for the fainthearted.
I now had to wait for the clerk to call out my name and return the papers Tod had sneaked in. A number of anxious minutes passed as I watched one Thai after another solemnly march up to the desk to receive their documents. It was like witnessing a graduation ceremony. Then the clerk began reading off names in an uncertain voice, indicating that she was now working through the packages of foreigners who had applied. If no one showed up right away to claim their prize, she quickly moved on to the next name. I edged closer to the desk and when I heard my mangled surname, nearly pounced on her.
Besides all the papers and forms I had brought, the returned bundle had a mysterious blue tag attached to one corner with a number written on it. With no signs directing us to the next station of our quest, we decided to go over and join a bored-looking crowd milling about in front of a pair of closed doors. On closer inspection, both had an attached sheet of colored paper containing a range of numbers that changed every fifteen minutes or so. This had to be the place. We settled back to wait for what would be my Big Moment: taking the Thai Driver’s Test.
There was a knot in my stomach some two hours later as I and around fifteen other applicants finally entered one of the sacrosanct chambers to match my driving skills against four machines which would determine my future. To my relief, the first test was simply identifying the colors of a traffic light. I would have liked to have replied in Thai, but feared making a pronunciation mistake. For example, there’s a slang term that sounds very similar to the word “yellow”. It means a kind of adhesive. Thus, I could have ended up answering: red, green, red…sticky?…which might not have earned me a passing grade.
The second challenge involved depth perception: aligning a pair of upright chopsticks from ten meters. I found this annoying, not because of any intrinsic unfairness, but because the cutlery reminded me I had not eaten since an early breakfast.
Tod had prepared me for the next — and most dreaded — ordeal: the infamous Gas Pedal Machine. One puts their foot on an “accelerator” and gently depresses it. A few meters away, an ascending serious of white lights begins to build until a red one suddenly pops up, requiring you to immediately take your foot off the “gas” and put it on the “brake”. If your reaction time is on the slow side — say more than fourteen milliseconds — you are in trouble. According to Tod, this fails more applicants than the other tests combined.
When the red light came on for me, I hit the brake pedal so abruptly and decisively my right foot was sore for the next half hour.
The last hurdle I like to call A Visit to the Optometrist. You get seated, then gingerly lean forward until your forehead touches a bar. Off to either side lights begin flashing and you tell the operator when you see them. This seemed straightforward enough and I eagerly settled in, positioning my chin on a metal base and easing my forehead into the bar. Wrong! It was not my chin, but my nose that needed to be touching the base, which was yellow with wear. Gross. What are they testing here, one’s peripheral vision or immune system?
It was at this final contraption I had my only real trouble, missing a flash or two. The lady in charge pointed out the errors in an annoyed tone, then reran those sequences so I would learn my lesson.
Limping out on my aching foot, but with “pass” marks on all my tests, we happily journeyed to the final stop at the opposite end of the hall where a Thai license would be bestowed upon me. This was simple and straightforward: heft up the bale of papers I’d accumulated onto the main reception table, receive yet another number, and wait to be called. Unfortunately, the fellow at the desk I was assigned to didn’t speak hardly any English and had a difficult time communicating that I needed to push my chair back a bit for the photo. (Tod came to the rescue.) But that was the final bit of confusion. All that remained was confirming my personal information on the computer, whereupon the long-sought plastic card was birthed out of a small machine in the center of the work area.
There is always a sense of relief after I’ve navigated the obstacles of Thai officialdom. These people hold my life in their hands and if so inclined could make it truly miserable. But that has never been the case and unless one of my former Thai girlfriends gets a job with the Transportation or Immigration Departments, I anticipate continued smooth relations.