Category: Bangkok Diary

Pitching In

Today I received an SMS from one of my streetwalker acquaintances, Gai, informing me she is “yaritai”. This is an informal Japanese word meaning “want to do”. Want to do what, you may ask. Well let us just say she’s not coming over to my place to debate drone strikes in Pakistan.

I’ve known Gai for over a year, but had gone awhile without seeing her until we bumped into each other down on Sukhumvit Road a few months back. I was returning home after an evening of Eight Ball while she was just beginning her “day”. Upon seeing me, she gave me a big hug, telling the other ladies that I was jai dii — good hearted. (I appreciated the compliment.)

Like most Thai women in her profession, Gai’s life has been difficult. Her husband died a dozen years ago, driving while drunk, leaving her to raise their daughter. Thailand can be a hard country, especially for single mothers. Though wages have risen noticeably in recent years, most women still only make ten thousand baht a month at best ($300). Not the kind of money that leads to a better future.

Both this year and last, I have paid part of the school tuition for Gai’s daughter. This was done on my own initiative. By Thai standards, I am unimaginably wealthy and there are occasions when helping one of them seems like a good idea. Admittedly, there’s no shortage of Bangkok bar girls and go-go dancers who are simply out to see how much money they can extract from a naive farang (white foreigner). But the solitary streetwalkers who linger on Sukhumvit into the pre-dawn hours are in general far less predatory and manipulative (and, unfortunately, less attractive). In some cases they have been dealt a very bad hand.

Such as Gai. This year, her seventy-six-year-old mother has become very ill and is possibly dying. Though it sounds like there are numerous children around to help out, the primary responsibility for her mom’s care has fallen on Gai, meaning she can no longer work the streets and thus has no money coming in. Again, I have provided assistance by paying for two hospital visits, the most recent involving a CAT scan. Nowadays, whenever we talk on the phone, Gai has her mom say a few words of simple Thai to me, expressing her gratitude.

Guess I truly am jai dii.

Tourist-Friendly Thailand

The word is out! Thailand is becoming the destination for people visiting Southeast Asia. In response to this, the country is striving to present itself as a safe and friendly place. The effort appears to be paying dividends. Two years ago, I could take an evening stroll through my beloved red light neighborhood and the only Westerners I’d encounter would be my fellow horny, middled-aged compatriots. But now some misguided men are actually bringing their families to take in the sights (“Look junior! There’s a pros-ti-tute!). It’s a bit much for an old-timer like myself

On the other hand, I can understand the newfound interest, at least here in Bangkok. Name almost any kind of mainstream international cuisine and chances are there is a restaurant somewhere that features it. (And if you into Indian cooking, welcome to nirvana!) For sightseeing, there are temples, museums, parks and open markets galore. Enough to keep a tourist busy for a month with the skytrain and subway systems making getting around an easy proposition. And for those with a hankering to see more of the country, the city’s central location is a convenient springboard.

But if one is going to spend some time here, it’s important to understand a little bit about the Thais themselves. An illustrative example would be the manner in which they endured World War II. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran much of Southeast Asia. The resulting occupation was harsh and brutal, engendering a bitterness that in some places lingers to this day. So what did the Thais do? Well, they more or less collaborated with their new rulers. Maybe that is too harsh a characterization. Let’s just say they put up with them. An American acquaintance of mine, who speaks the language, says the Thais don’t give a sh*t about foreigners, an attitude I believe allowed the country to emerge comparatively unscathed from the war.

This means a visitor here will not be hassled. You won’t be gawked at, or have people pointing their fingers at the silly farang (Thai word for foreigner). At least not in Bangkok. But this indifference should not prevent you from being friendly with the natives. The Thais are also a shy people, meaning it’s up to you to smile first, often to be rewarded with a genuine one in return. The country is in fact known the “Land of Smiles”. This doesn’t mean they are all Happy Harrys, but interactions with them (taxi drivers excepted) can be pleasant and worthwhile.

The World’s Oldest Profession

The sight can be entertaining, enraging or downright depressing depending upon one’s background and point of view: a lumbering, overweight Caucasian, sporting a Goodyear Blimp for a belly, walking down a Bangkok street hand in hand with a small Thai woman. If an earthquake would suddenly hit, the guy could easily topple over and flatten her. They’d end up having to scrape her remains off the sidewalk.

What are we witnessing here? Is it a deep, lasting bond between two cultures? Or perhaps a wayward tourist needs directions. Sadly, it’s neither. What we are privy to is a glimpse of an occupation that has been around as long as Homo sapiens. No, not soccer, but (gasp) prostitution. Right in the heart of the capital city of Thailand. Who would have thought?

Actually, it turns out that a lot of people (or at least a lot of men) have contemplated this. Procuring a lady for the evening can be done in practically every country of the world (with the possible exception of Iran). It’s largely a matter of knowing where to go and whom to ask — a task I never was up to during the course of my many journeys. The Thais are simply less coy about the whole process. It’s as if they are saying: “Let’s cut through the BS, big boy. We know you aren’t here for the food. The ladies are waiting, so quit dawdling and make your choice!” It’s almost as easy as going into a 7-Eleven convenience store, which can also be found on almost every street corner in my neighborhood. (Indeed, one wonders why the Thais have not discovered a way to combine the two services.)

I grew up in a small town in the midwest U.S. where, I think I can state with little fear of contradiction, a fellow did not stumble across available companions on the way to the grocery store. I also, for some unknown reason, happen to prefer Asian women, a condition indelicately referred to by a fellow blogger as “Yellow Fever”. Residing on the fringe of a bar-ridden red light district in Bangkok has therefore presented some overwhelming temptations. At times I’ve contemplated purchasing a pair of horse blinders to keep me focused on my tasks, but that would be defeating one the reasons I chose this area to live in: taking in the sights. At least I’ve trained myself to stop drooling when I see a woman who strikes me as particularly alluring. And when I encounter a fellow Caucasian strolling down the Soi (street) with one of them, my first reaction is now one of curiosity as opposed to condemnation.

Interestingly enough, the longer I stay here, the more natural these everyday pay-for-sex affairs appear. My wholesome all-American upbringing, by contrast, strikes me more and more as being rather uptight and not as healthy as I once imagined. But that is one the reasons why we travel: to gain new perspectives.

Seedy Sukhumvit

Two evenings ago, unable to sleep, I decided to take one of my strolls down Soi 4, then out along Sukhumvit, one of the main avenues of central Bangkok. After 2 a.m., when the bars and go-gos close for the night, dozens of tiny street-side bars mushroom along the quarter mile stretch of road running from the near side of the Asoke Skytrain Station to a few blocks beyond Nana Station. These impromptu establishments usually consist of a cart containing a surprising variety of hard liquor circled by a mini asteroid belt of plastic chairs and uncomfortably small tables. Most also feature a rudimentary sound system which provides a thumping soundtrack for the cacophony of shrill Thai voices interspersed with the occasional drunken mutterings from some slumped over Westerner.

It’s the kind of environment Caligula would feel right at home in.

I’m unsure why I try to navigate my way through this jungle of aggressive, bawling hostesses (“WELCUM!”) and intimidating gatherings of ladyboys, who can be stroking your arm with one hand while the other is slyly searching for your wallet. I guess I am still amazed, after over two years in this city, at such blatant depravity.

Yet all is not total despair. On occasion, I’ll pass a streetwalker standing or sitting by herself. Maybe we exchange a brief smile, or she gives me a shy hello. I continue on down the block when, suddenly, the urge hits. I turn around, go back, and give her one hundred baht ($3), saying the Thai word for “breakfast”. The woman is often confused at first, not being used to unconditional kindness. But I smile and maybe lightly touch her arm, trying to convey my sincerity. Usually the message gets across and I receive a look of genuine appreciation. Should the topic of my taking her home arise, I explain (in simple, moron-level Thai) that I’m just out for a walk.

The street jamboree continues until around five in the morning, when the first streaks of light appear behind the forest of high rises. The garbage workers, whom I have real sympathy for, begin sweeping up the refuse as the bar proprietors reluctantly fold up shop. Slowly, inexorably, the city puts on its day face with sleepy commuters and clogged traffic, becoming just another Southeast Asian Metropolis with no memories of the wild night.

A Novice?

I paid scant attention to the woman coming up the steps. Even in the middle of the night, people are always coming and going in this part of the city (Sukhumvit Road, near Nana Station). As she went by, she playfully tapped me on the back. Continuing to the far side of the overpass, she paused, seemed to make up her mind about something, then began walking back my way.

Her name was Naan and it was hard to tell what she was up to. For one thing, she wasn’t wearing a short skirt or stiletto high heels, which are standard attire for many of the women strolling about at that hour. This made it hard to discern her figure, which from the glances I could steal appeared nondescript. Her short hair was finger-combed to one side and she appeared quite comfortable in a light lavender top, worn jeans and moccasins. Almost looked like she could do a granola commercial.

When it’s coming up on 3:30 in the morning, casual chitchat becomes arduous. I therefore wasted little time in discovering she was offering to give me a massage for the ridiculously cheap price of one hundred and twenty baht ($3.60). I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of this and told her I’d instead pay five hundred baht, similar to what is charged at the ubiquitous massage parlors here. Why? Well, I liked the way she had found the courage to walk up and talk to me and felt she deserved the going rate.

I brought her back to my apartment and to my delight, received one of the best massages of my time here in Bangkok. When she left, sans any hanky-panky, I gave her a one hundred baht tip and a hug. I also got her phone number — something I often neglect to do — and later texted her a thank you, though this didn’t earn me a reply.

In fact, getting any response out of her proved to be a problem. Over the following week, I twice sent an SMS asking if she was “working”. The first time I heard nothing and on the second occasion, after waiting an hour, decided I’d had enough and deleted her from my cell phone.

It wasn’t fifteen minutes later that I got a return text from Naan, asking me what time I’d like to have her over. I deliberated on this for a bit, then elected not to reply. When trying to get to know a woman from another culture, it’s important they respond to my messages and calls within a reasonable time frame. To be halfway punctual. Naan had not shown herself to be that kind of person.

That really should have been the end of things, at least for that particular go-around. But no, Naan soon called and quickly hung up. I did nothing. Another fifteen to twenty minutes went by, then a text arrived: “I sorry.” Obviously she wanted to see me again, and in the past I might have been moved to answer. But I have discovered that my initial impressions of these women off the streets are more often than not correct, and in this case I needed to be moving on. It wasn’t like I was breaking off a relationship, or so I thought.

Two days later, I received what I hope is the final round of fun in the form of two more messages. The first was a simple afternoon hello which I ignored. The second came four hours later and read: “f*ck you  ha, ha, ha.” I’ve never been treated to the “f” word from a Thai lady before — it is considered incredibly rude here and when combined with the absurdly cheap massage price she initially quoted, makes me wonder if perhaps I was one of her first-ever customers. Or, there might be some deeper, darker issues at play. In either case, I’m glad I didn’t get further involved, possibly ending up in a starring role in some Thai version of Fatal Attraction.

Asian Versus Western Women

Why are so many Western men becoming romantically involved with Asians? Put that question to some of my American countrywomen and you can get some provocative responses:

“They just want their own little slave.”

“They cannot deal with an independent woman.”

“No American lady will have them.”

The first opinion makes a nice starting point for this discussion: the notion that Asian women are docile and submissive creatures. Indeed, it is this misguided impression that often initially draws unknowing men into the fold. What they don’t understand is that their new, exotic girlfriend, while on the surface appearing to accede to their every wish, actually has her own agenda along with some subtle means of pursing it. Far from being a master/slave relationship, it’s more often a case of the man experiencing the illusion of control even as he scours the fresh produce at the local market on his way home after work, searching for some out-of-season tropical fruit that his loved one has shyly requested for that night’s dessert.

The second and third viewpoints imply that Western men seek out Asian companions due to personal problems or deficiencies. While there’s some truth to this, I think it’s also a case of them wanting a more traditional partner. Less opinionated, perhaps. Asian cultures, with their emphasis on family, education, and aversion to take-no-prisoners confrontation therefore have something to offer. For many “nice” guys, who often struggle to decipher the expectations of the fairer sex in their home countries, this can be an intriguing alternative: a woman from a stable background with a degree, who does not expect her husband to have an opinion about Hillary Clinton. Someone with a genuine appreciation of kindness and sensitivity in a man, while offering in return an enticing sexuality.

Which brings us to what is probably the biggest motivation for men to longingly gaze East: appearances. Almond-shaped eyes, raven-black hair and lithe bodies…well, sometimes. Regardless, the gene gods have certainly been kind to what has been described as the world’s most feminine women. At the same time, their Western counterparts (read: Americans) have become super-sized — a condition for which they have only themselves to blame. Happily, McDonald’s is attempting to level this playing field by opening cholesterol-saturated eateries in every Asian country this side of Inner Mongolia, though the West retains an imposing, belt-busting lead.

Ultimately, it’s a tradeoff. Yes, a lonely western man can hook up with an Asian girlfriend whose looks cause traffic pileups, but she will require a special kind of caring and understanding. In return, a whole new world can open up for both people. One complete with unusual cuisine, comical misunderstandings and fresh, thought-provoking perspectives. It’s also an opportunity to discover a few things about oneself, perhaps emerging as a more flexible, self-aware person.

No guy is totally immune.

And you don’t need to be famous!

I goin’ kick your ass!

So proclaims Rat, one of the Thai girls who works at Sports Academy, a pool hall down on Sukhumvit. That attitude, combined with long black hair, shapely legs and a face that causes double takes, makes her not only entertaining to play Eight Ball with, but easy on the eyes as well. When I first began playing with her, those looks intimidated me; I’m far more comfortable with women who have a kind of girl-next-door appearance. But as I’ve gotten to know her, I no longer feel like a high school dweeb trying to hang around the homecoming queen. In fact, I would not mind mingling with her outside of work, except for the fact that her American boyfriend, who makes irregular visits to Bangkok, is a gun enthusiast.

S A Drinking v1

A second girl, Newt (far left), has also become one of my regular pool opponents. Like Rat (sitting next to me), she has the long hair and well-proportioned figure, but the pretty face lacks the hardness that so many girls in the entertainment (and pool hall) business acquire. There’s also a certain kindness in the way she suggests what ball for me to shoot at next, even if it is to her detriment. Perhaps she simply feels sorry for me. On the nights where she wears her ruby high heels, I sometimes feel like I’m playing against Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz fame.

But we are not in Kansas anymore. Both of the hostesses are seasoned, no-nonsense pool players. This comes from taking on the farang customers night after night. They are especially adept at pocketing long shots on the nine foot billiard tables, a feat I approach with trepidation. (When I ponderously line up one of these, the girls begin chalking up their cues.)

My favorite contest is when I team up with a fellow American expat named Alex, who worked with me at the same company back in Seattle long ago. Once each week we square off against the Duo Damsels, gleefully vowing to show them who’s boss. Idle boasting. After but twenty minutes we are hopelessly behind, the girls are sticking their tongues out at us, and Rat is crowing about the damage she is inflicting upon our glutei maximi. To try and salvage what little dignity remains, we start buying them Rum & Cokes, reasoning that our chances will improve if our opponents become a little tipsy…


Sometimes this tactic works: one or two of them begins to feel no pain. But there have been occasions — and this is kind of scary — where the more the girls drink, the better they play. I on the other hand, having had but a single shot of tequila, am leaning against the table to steady myself. The cue ball is blurred.

Despite the inevitable outcomes, I enjoy the outings and always tip Newt and Rat one hundred baht each ($3) at the end of each mauling. Being soundly thrashed by better-playing women is not something that threatens my masculinity. Quite the contrary; the challenge only serves to motivate me for next week’s clash. One of these days Alex and I will show those haughty girls what a pair of doddering middle-aged men can do.


Making the Rounds

After a yet another late evening shellacking at the hands of Newt and Rat at the Sports Academy Pool Bar, I was ready to call it a night. However, I happened to recall that another of my Eight Ball opponents at a place just down the street was going on vacation soon, and that I should stop in to say goodbye.

Fern is a sweet and simple young Thai woman with a nondescript figure and face that reminds me of a long-ago girl from my hometown. She began work a few months ago to support her year-old daughter. Though we keep score when we play, our matches are not the cutthroat, in-your-face battles I have at Sports Academy. Fern isn’t by nature a competitive person and not that good a player, either. So instead I try to make her laugh, which makes for a fun, lighthearted evening.

The girls who work at the pool bars receive a misery salary to the point where they rarely can afford their own apartment and have to live with friends or family. With Fern taking four unpaid days off to see her parents in the provinces, I figured she could use some extra help. Because of her child, and no boyfriend or husband around to provide assistance, I’ve always given her a nice tip, usually two hundred baht ($6). But this was a special occasion so I upped the ante to one thousand ($30).

By happy coincidence, it turns out that the bus fare home for Fern and the baby comes to almost the same amount as what I gave her: 1,080 baht. Upon hearing this I grinned, opened my wallet, and theatrically counted out four twenty baht notes to make up the difference. As Fern began to giggle, I then got out my coin purse and solemnly handed over three more baht, telling her to be careful with it. On that note I said goodnight and started on my way home.

For the past month, I had not seen Newt #2, a massage girl who works in the building next to my apartment. I would often run across her in the late evening, sitting on the curb taking a cigarette break. She speaks in a languid monotone that sounds computer-generated. I’d had her come to my apartment a couple of times two years ago for massages. On the second visit, she showed up in a dark silk dress. Leaning over as she kneaded my arm, her wild hair splashing on my face, she informed me of her price for any extracurricular activities. I almost succumbed. Almost. Corny as this may sound, there has to be a measure of affection — real or convincingly faked — from a lady before I take the plunge. 

Since then, Newt has seen me come and go with a number companions, a fact she has remarked upon. To try and stay on reasonable terms with a person I must stroll past two or three times a week, I started occasionally bringing her fruit drinks from the 7-11 a block away. Later I discovered she has a hankering for chocolate.

So when I ran across my old sentinel and renewed acquaintances — she had been visiting her family — I wasted no time hurrying on to my apartment to retrieve a small package of chocolate cookies I had stashed in my cupboard. When I returned with the present, Newt was already back at work (sort of), slumped over a table, half-asleep. Still adjusting to the night shift, no doubt. I gently placed the sweets between her outstretched arms.

Newt, like Fern, works well past midnight, six nights a week and is paid but a pittance. While I have no inclination to become involved with either of them, both are certainly deserving of a little kindness.

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Zimmerman Verdict

At Sports Academy Pool Hall

Rat (Chalking up her cue): You not say much today, kun-Montre**. You have girlfriends problems?
[** “Montre” is the way my Thai friends address me, which is the closest their language allows them to pronounce my name without twitching.]

Me: No. President Obama want Americans to not be angry about Zimmerman, so I am quiet.

Rat (Preparing to break): What is Zimmerman? 

Me: Hispanic man. In America he shoot black man (mimic a gun firing in conjunction with Rat’s energetic break). Kill him. But not get trouble. 

Rat: His…pan…ic?

Me: Family from Mexico; come work in America. Some Americans not like.

Rat (Smartly banking the one ball while still looking puzzled): What you mean?

Me: Same same Cambodians come to Thailand. 

Rat: Ah, kao jai. (Thai for “I understand”. The Thais, like many Americans and perhaps most people in the world, look down their noses at their neighbors.)

Newt: Why Americans angry?

Me: If Hispanic man shoot black man, or white man shoot black man, not good.

Newt: If black man shoot black man, Americans angry?

Me: Ahh, mai ben rai. (Thai for “not a problem”. Might as well try to be honest.) 

Newt: Are you angry?

Me: Yes! I miss easy Eight Ball shot last game. Very stupid.

Rat: Let’s have another tequila round! Make you feel better about Eight Ball and the Zimmerman.

And so life manages to go on for me here in Thailand’s capital despite the verdict, though CNN seems determined to keep the controversy simmering. Living overseas, it’s harder to grasp (much less explain), the way cross-racial violence and justice continues to be a flash point in the U.S. and the manner in which it detracts from more serious concerns. While many Americans are outraged over the shooting of an unarmed black by a Hispanic, each year over thirty thousand of their countrymen (Hispanic, black, white) are in fact killed by guns. Yet nobody gets upset, aside from the occasional schoolchildren massacre, and even then the resulting outrage is fleeting. Far easier to let CNN define what one should be angry about.


Rescuing Rasamee (Again)

I don’t believe my Thai ex-girlfriend of two years ago would mind seeing her name in one of my posts. Especially since I have recently sent her a generous amount of money paying off the remaining debt on her house, with the leftover proceeds intended to help her son and daughter finish college.

Somebody had to do it…

Rasamee and I met in October of 2010. I had just moved to Thailand and was living in a simple studio apartment in the city of Pattaya, which is a kind of sexual Disneyland for middle-aged Western men. She was working as a hostess in one of the neighborhood bars, going by the name of Lawt (easier for the soused customers to remember) and claiming to be in her late thirties. Though she was in fact some seven years beyond that, her dark looks fooled me completely — and this was before I’d had anything to drink.

Both of us being new arrivals in Sin City, we quickly hit it off. I found her very easy to be around, mostly because she wasn’t some calculating twenty-something Thai girl who views foreigners as winning lottery tickets. This was simply a woman trying to make extra money to pay off her debts and send her children to a local university back home. Besides the bar, she was also working overtime at a nearby restaurant. I admired her commitment and was soon pitching in to help the cause.

Though she was technically my girlfriend, I didn’t have her move in with me, preferring a measure of privacy. Nor did I support her full-time. She continued to work at the bar and sleep in a large dorm-like room nearby where most of the girls stayed. At times, when she was especially tired, she’d use my place as a crash pad for an afternoon nap. 

It was a pleasant arrangement for me. For our “dates”, I would pay her bar fine and we’d go out to eat and play some pool. Later, we’d retire to the apartment for maybe a movie and night together. In many ways I was a good friend, always willing to lend a hand such as when she needed a new foam sleeping pad. We went shopping and I purchased one for her, then proceeded to drag the unwieldy item seven long blocks in the suffocating heat back to her room.

Unfortunately the good times did not last. After six months together, I moved to Bangkok and broke things off when I decided I didn’t want to get serious. However, I continued to provide her with money when crises arose, such as last year when the bank was about to repossess her home. Rasamee’s ex-husband, whom I hope someday ends up with testicular cancer, had years before left her and the kids for a younger woman, not bothering to provide any support whatsoever. Though it took some persuading, I eventually stepped in and paid off most of the outstanding loan. A sister covered the remaining amount and though this saved the house, it still left Rasamee with what was by her standards a large debt to her sibling — a condition I have just rectified.

Despite my good deeds, I am no saint. As the post title implies, I am not always thrilled at what seems to be a never-ending stream of problems and requests for help and often wish it would all go away. At the same time, I recognize that having a place to live and providing one’s children with a good education are not unreasonable wishes. It’s clearly a time in her life when some charity can make a difference.

Rasamee with Family
The Reluctant Bread Winner & Family