Bangkok Vice: Buddhas, Boxers, and Bar Girls
It was 1 a.m., and, after searching for an hour, the fisherman and I had failed to find the Marine, who had rushed out of the pingpong show earlier in the evening and could now be just about anywhere in Pat Pong. Instead, we had bumped into the young woman from Cambridge and her Scottish boyfriend at one of the lean-to bars. I decided to join them because the night had the feeling of one that I would never forget but hopefully never repeat, and I didn't want it to end. The fisherman decided to join the table, because he wanted to rationalize all the sins he had committed when he had disappeared into the pingpong show's backroom brothel.
"The first girl was from the north—"
"The first?" I interrupted. "Dude, how many were there?"
"You were out to sea a long time."
"You have no idea," the fisherman said. "So, the first, she's from this really poor farm family in the north. With the money she earns, she buys her family water buffaloes. So, it's like I helped buy her family a water buffalo."
"So, you're saying it was an act of charity on your part?" I asked.
"Yeah, exactly, it was charity," the fisherman said. "I mean her family is really poor."
"You could have just given her the money," I said.
"I can't believe you fell for the water-buffalo excuse," Cambridge sighed, shaking her head.
Shaken by our lack of support, the fisherman squared his jaw, "Maybe she was lying, but I choose to believe her."
The table went silent. There's no arguing against articles of faith.
"So, the second one, she was from the south," the fisherman continued. "A Muslim."
"Where's the charity in that?" I asked.
Before the fisherman could complete his story about No. 2, our waitress, a plain woman long past her prime earning years, brought over an ancient version of the game Connect Four and challenged him to a match. The loser had to buy the next round of drinks. Up for any challenge that night, the fisherman quickly crushed the waitress. When she came back with our drinks, she was followed by the owner of the bar, a sharp-eyed Thai woman with a plump face. "I hear you are very good. Do you want to play me?"
Unlike the rest of us, the fisherman seemed completely unaware that he was being set up. Perhaps because the waitress had slipped one experienced hand around his back, while massaging his inner thigh with the other. The owner toyed with him, letting it look like he might have chance, before finally finishing him off. "Again?" she asked, as he fished out money for the next round. I stared in awe. They had managed to tap into the ultimate 13-year-old American male fantasy. Innocent, naughty, and competitive, all at once.
Prostitution has been a pervasive part of Thai society for centuries. Following the Chinese imperial model, the king of Siam had an extensive harem. Following the king's example, the country's aristocrats took on multiple wives. The lower orders had to make do with prostitution, which is the poor man's polygamy. You rent what you can't afford to buy.
Because prostitution is so common, it has lost most of its stigma, allowing for a great deal of social mobility. Bar girls can become second wives, and second wives can become first wives. This may partly explain why farang men find Thai women so irresistible. The prostitute you take home for the evening sees no reason why you shouldn't stay with her for the week or even take her home with you. And she expects you to be faithful. A common bar-girl refrain from the Vietnam era was, "Hey, GI, you no butterfly." It's like dating, only you have to tip at the end of every evening.
That's my theory. All I know for a fact is that I've personally watched a half-dozen hard-bitten, cynical bachelors and divorcés who make Bill Maher look like a romantic take a trip to Thailand and arrive back with a Thai girlfriend and some mush about how "She is too good for me" or "I don't deserve her." It rarely lasts, which may explain why, of all the books about Thailand, the most enthusiastic comment board on Amazon.com is for Thailand Fever, which was co-written by a male farang and a female Thai couple, in English and Thai, for other farang-Thai couples to help them overcome their cultural differences. In it, they helpfully explain several exotic Thai concepts like bun kun (honoring debts) and naam-jai (generosity), which as far as I can tell means that the farang should expect to build his Thai bride's parents a big concrete house in their village, and in return she will be very grateful and deferential.
Women's magazines and the self-help section of the bookstore dedicate a forest of pages to the question of how to snag the man of your dreams. Someone should explore the Connect Four scam, because it seems to work, regardless of age or attractiveness.
After losing three games straight, the fisherman turned to me: "How old do you think the waitress is?"
"The one wrapped around you? I don't know—at least 20 years older than you."
"I think I'm going to take her back to my hotel."
"So, this would be another act of charity?"
It was 4 a.m. As Cambridge, Scotland, and I walked away from the bar, we couldn't help but look back at the fisherman and the waitress. They were French-kissing in the middle of the street. It might not have been love, but they were certainly having fun.