Continuing on in Thailand with something that seems a little more light-hearted, but is actually pretty disturbing.
On New Year’s Day, 2008, we hired a hotel-appointed babysitter so Robby and I could get a taste of the much ballyhooed Phuket nightlife. Back home I don’t think we’d ever leave our kids at a hotel with a perfect stranger, but Thailand had cast a spell on us. We’d fallen in love with the Thai people. Their warm smiles, genuine hospitality and gentle nature encouraged us to relinquish my fears and trust that nothing bad would happen to our children.
First we grabbed a quick bite to eat at a boutique restaurant next to our hotel. After dinner, we stepped out into a teeming sea of people. Though we walked hand-in-hand, we had to do so single file. With no agenda, we followed the herd and shouted over the noise.
As we snaked our way through the crowd, I heard a distinct American accent say, "Well that’s a sound you don't hear too often." Suddenly, I was elbow to elbow with a man, and I immediately put the face to the voice. He was handsome, but short. His blondish gray hair glistened next to his tanned skin, sea-blue eyes and sparkling veneered Hollywood smile. He looked to be about 45 and had a California casual air about him. He kept his hands deep within his pockets and dragged his heels as he walked in leather thong sandals.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The American accent. It isn’t something I hear very often.”
“Oh, yeah, I know. I think you’re the first American we’ve seen since we got here 2 weeks ago,” I said. I tugged on Robby’s hand and turned down a less crowded street.
We made the proper introductions. His name was Mike. He was originally from southern California, but now he split his time between Hawaii and Thailand. I learned he was a commercial real estate broker in Hawaii and a residential real estate developer in Thailand. As we walked, he pointed out a few high rise apartment buildings that were his projects.
We sauntered down the dark street and continued the “get to know you” chit chat. Every other storefront was a massage parlor. Girls sat on the stoops while they waited for customers to arrive. Some were gossiping, some were sending text messages and others tried to lure us into their lairs tempting me with a five dollar pedicure and the men with five dollar massages. We politely declined their offers and they replied, “Maybe tomorrow?”
It was such a welcome departure from the aggressive vendors in Shanghai.
As we walked away from the chaos, other tourists were walking toward the crowd with eager smiles. Some were groups of young guys who looked like they’d just rolled out of bed. Others were groups of young girls dressed to kill. I looked down at my simple sun dress and said, “Wow, I’m feeling a little under-dressed.”
“Not at all,” Mike said. “These girls are kidding themselves…all dressed up for nothing.”
“Whaddya mean?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. Mike turned into a convenience store and asked if we wanted a beer.
“Sure,” Rob said. “…but let me get that for you.” Robby reached into his pockets and pulled out some Thai Baht.
“Nah, I’ll get the first round…it’s less than a buck for three Singhas.” Singha is the Thai beer.
“It’s amazing how cheap it is once you get here,” Robby said.
“Totally…isn’t it awesome?”
“Yeah, we’ve fallen in love with Thailand….I’m trying to figure out a way to move here,” Rob joked.
Mike went into the store and returned with three chilled beers. We did a U-turn and headed back toward the crowds.
“So, we’ve heard some crazy stories about the Tsunami a few years ago…we you here then?” Robby asked.
“Yes I was. I’d spent the night at my then girlfriend’s apartment. Technically we were safe because we were on the 2nd floor, but we still had to go out the window and climb up a couple of balconies to get to the roof.”
“So crazy, man. We’ve heard the most unbelievable stories of survival.”
“Oh yeah, our story was tame compared to most. Like I said, we weren’t really in any danger at all, but my girlfriend…she never really recovered. She was so freaked out about it that she moved home to her village shortly after.”
“Oh…she was Thai?” Rob asked.
“Of course,” Mike smiled. “I don’t know how to say this without offending you, Jennifer…” he looked at me and flashed me his big, fake smile.
“Go for it,” Robby said. “She’s pretty hard to offend.” I nodded in agreement, took a big swig of my beer and flashed him a big smile.
This oughta be rich.
We continued down the road and he continued with his story. "I realize, now that I am 44 that I worked my way through the years when I was supposed to meet someone, settle down, and have a family… realistically, if I was to date or marry an American woman of an appropriate age..."
"And what age would you consider appropriate?" I asked trying to hide the fact that his story had just begun and I was, indeed, already offended.
"Well, I can't date a 22 year old - I wouldn't be able to relate to her on any level..."
"Except one," Robby said with a grin. I elbowed him in secret while Mike continued his story.
"Okay, my point is that all the girls between the ages of 35 and 45 are either married, or have more baggage than I am willing to put up with. Like kids, ex-husbands, you know. Or, finding a single 35-45 year-old and actually going out on a date with her is more like going to a job interview. What do you do, what kind of car do you drive? Why haven't you ever been married? And I’m like, hey, why haven't you ever been married, honey?!?"
By this point, I was seething. Did it ever occur to him that a single girl at 35 or 45 was doing the exact same thing he’d been doing for the last 20 years? Establishing careers, making money, living their dream? Maybe if he hadn’t been so far up his own ass he might’ve realized that he could actually relate to one of those girls on more that one very important level.
We got to the crossroads where our sleepy street turned into chaos. We stopped and huddled together before we took the plunge so he could finish his story.
"It is just easier for me to have a girl, and to know - point blank - that she wants me first, because I am white. And second, because I am rich. No bullshit and no false pretense of love."
Mike led the way down the busy street but after one block we took a right turn onto an even busier street.
He held up his hands and said, “Now this, my American friends, is Bangla Road…shall we?” He strolled ahead of us which gave us a quick moment to converse.
Robby looked at me and smiled. I looked at him and frowned. “Come on, Honey, it’ll be fun. This guy knows the ropes.”
“Yeah, but he’s a total jackass.”
“So what? It’ll be an adventure.”
“I’m sure it will be,” I said under my breath. He squeezed my hand, kissed my forehead and we ran to catch up with Mike, the Ugly American, our unlikely host for the evening.
I popped into another convenience store, and bought three more beers. As I distributed them, Mike continued with a story he’d been telling Rob. “So I keep my current girlfriend in my apartment, and it’s a win-win, ya know? When I’m at home in Hawaii, or traveling, I have someone to look after it. She gets a free place to stay…plus a sense of security…even if it is a false sense of security.”
I chugged some beer down and tried my best not to choke on it.
“Whaddya mean, false sense of security?” Rob asked.
“Well, again, Jennifer, I don’t want to offend, but my current girlfriend is kind of old.”
“How old could she be? 30?” I asked.
“Not quite. She’s 27, but that’s old for a Thai girl.”
“Old? How do you figure?”
“Well, she was a bar girl from the time she was 16 until she was 25…and it’s a fast life.”
As I tried to translate what he was trying to tell me in terms I could understand, Robby repeated his question, “What did you mean when you said, ‘false sense of security?’”
“What I meant was I’m never going to marry this girl. I just…I’ve been traveling so much recently; the current situation is working for now.”
"Here, I'll show you." He pointed into what looked like a food court with his empty hand and took a quick sip of beer. “Each one of these storefronts actually has 10 or so bars within them…see look.”
We looked into one of the alcoves. It was still early so most activity was happening in the street, as opposed to the bars. There appeared to be about 10 stalls each with a different sign and gimmick. Some had stripper poles going down the middle of the bar, some had girls dressed in lingerie while another had girls seductively hula hooping while blowing bubbles with their chewing gum.
“Basically what happens is… you sit down and a bar girl will join you. You buy her a drink for each drink that you have…usually they drink shots of this god awful blue liqueur. Your drink will run about $2.50, but hers will run about $5.00. She gets half the price of her drink…so, the more she drinks, the more money she makes.” He turned and looked at me then added, “Now do you understand why these girls are old at 27…lots of hard drinking six nights a week…You up for it?”
“Sure,” Rob said. We walked in and the girls went to work, each one trying to coax us into their mini world with drink specials.
“How do we choose?” Rob asked.
“I don’t know….what’s your fancy?” Mike said.
Robby looked at me and smiled. “Whaddya think, Honey?”
“Personally, I don’t think it really matters, so let’s just take a seat. I’m feeling a little exposed.” I looked around and noticed every eye lined in glitter was staring at us with big Bambi eyes. I sat down on the closest bar stool I could find and the men followed my lead.
The bar I had inadvertently chosen was called The Black Orchid and the girls were dressed in red plaid skirts with pressed white shirts unbuttoned to varying degrees.
Ah, the creepy school-girl fantasy knows no boundary.
There were a couple of stripper poles with girls upside down and twisted around them. Within seconds of sitting down a beautiful, young girl with flawless mocha-colored skin and long black hair hopped off of her pole and greeted us with a shy smile.
I took the lead and ordered the first round of drinks. Three Singhas and one mystery shot for our hostess.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now we play games,” Mike replied. He had a quick chat with our girl and while we chatted, she set up a game of Jenga. He explained to us that Jenga was the only chance we had of winning. The girls were way too good at Connect Four.
“Now, like I said, the girl gets half of what her drink costs, but the real coup for her is to go home with as many guys as she can in a night.”
“You mean these girls are prostitutes?” My voice raised an octave.
“Well, yeah…if you want to put a label on it…each time she goes home with a guy she gets about $5. Jen, this is why all those girls are dressed up for nothing. They’re not as good looking and they cost a lot more.”
“Well…what do you mean as many guys as she can?” Rob asked.
“I mean, she’ll leave for an hour, come back and start all over again with someone else,” Mike said.
“Oh, so if you’re gonna get busy with a bar girl it’s best to do it early in the night,” Robby said.
“That’s disgusting!” I said.
“But true,” Mike laughed.
“Shit!” Robby said. He’d knocked over the tower of wooden blocks.
So this is Phuket? Drinking beer and playing Jenga with hookers?
Robby pouted, “This sucks. If we're gonna stay here, we’ve gotta make this a little more interesting.”
“What, like a bet?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Robby said.
“I’m all for making things more interesting…what’s the bet?” Mike asked.
“Loser has to…” Robby looked around; one of the girls- who was hanging upside down - waved at him. “The loser has to do a pole dance.”
“Fine,” I said. I knew Robby thought it would be me on that pole, but there was no way in hell I was gonna lose.
“Awesome…I’m in,” Mike said. He smiled and ordered our girl to bring another round of drinks.
Upon her return, we put our game faces on and as luck would have it, Robby went down in flames again. The highlight of our big night on the town was my husband doing a pole dance with several drunken hookers by his side.
Dodged that bullet.