AWOL in Thailand

I still don't how my name turned up but the way it worked out was typical: a phone call from a publicist saying "there's a press trip next week with a spot open, wanna go?"  Usually it's to someplace like Florida, or if you're lucky, Spain (if you're really lucky, Ireland), but Thailand was a surprise.  I don't know who's sponsoring this trip or how I got invited -- the head of the p.r. agency that got me the plane ticket has insisted that an editor of one of the golf magazines has committed to running a feature about Thailand, though when I ask the editor in an e-mail he angrily denies it.  But I'm happy to go and taste some of that great food, play some golf, check out some Buddhist shrines, and, uh -- well, everyone knows about Thailand.  Everyone knows someone who won't shut up about the sex shows, or goes over to Bangkok once a year, or never returned after the second time, or married a Thai woman.  At a poker game I once heard about a guy whose teeth all fell out some weeks after he performed a certain shall we say, not- altogether-tasteful act upon a Phuket hooker.

In the Thai Airways lounge at JFK I spot a guy with a Golf Digest bag who turns out to be a golf-tour packager out of Atlanta -- think of the "Where's Waldo" protagonist chain- smoking in a bar -- who's as in the dark as I am, and after twenty hours of flights through 12 time zones we arrive at midnight into damp, hot Bangkok, dank recess of the world's prurient imagination.  Meeting us there is Kiki, our friendly little guide whose driver takes us to a big hotel which seems like it might be on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Except the city is so sprawling it all looks like outskirts, with streets densely packed with little motorbikes and three- wheeled open-air motorized taxicabs, called "tuk-tuks" after the sound they make.  Alongside the bigger arteries, you see vast road ramps pointing to miles and miles of concrete pillars -- half-finished highway projects abandoned after financial crises or corruption scandals.
Waldo and I are too disoriented to sleep, so we stay up in the hotel bar and watch a husky 55-year-old Australian with old sailor tattoos and dyed black hair whom we dub Barnacle Bill buying drinks for a petite woman earing six-inch platform heels.
Next afternoon we're standing at a mammoth tourism fair in an airconditioned pavilion on the outskirts of town, chatting with a pair of English blokes who package Thailand golf tours, though as their nudge-nudge brochures hint, there's more to it than just 36 holes a day.  They are are both sides of the pander coin: Derek's a bright-eyed, chipper, hale-fellow salesman type who can't wait to get out on the golf course -- while Jerry, dark and paunchy, with Uncle Fester circles 'round his eyes, sleeps late and then shows up at the clubhouse in time for drinks.  Veteran sexual tourists, they've turned their hobby into a career and look forward to returning to Thailand five or six times a year.
Jerry's giving the whoremongering lowdown on Thai brothels. "You walk in, and there's all these girls, eh?  They all got numbers -- sometimes they're behind glass -- you look'em over and you say, 'forty free.'  She takes you back to a private room, and gives you a bath..."  Etcetera.  All for less than the cost of a couple dozen Pro VIs, more if she speaks English.  To a single guy far from home, surrounded by travel salesmen from all over (Germany and Australia are especially well-represented) the idea of renting a smile and a few minutes of feigned warmth hardly seems criminal.  And so, the liberated lowlife's conundrum: what's the difference between marriage and prostitution anyway?  Isn't it preferable to pay over a bit of cash than to manipulate and feign caring or concern?  Most of all: failing love, why not?
Fortunately Jerry's there to snap you back to reality.  "Well, yehr, I got into it with one of'em at a bar, once," he says, blinky eyes hinting menance.  "Asked her to do the Ping-Pong balls, and she didn't want to.  She says, 'Buy me drink.'  I told her, 'Do the Ping-Pong balls, then I buy drink'  Finally she did, but it was half-assed, and I walked off, said 'get your own fucking Margarita.'"
Derek's slightly more sentimental -- one of those restless Brits who two or three centuries ago probably would have been a merchant seaman.  He'd seen his father divorce his mother to marry a Thai woman, and the two of them shunned socially.  He wasn't divorced yet, but confessed to a growing hatred of English women as embodied by his wife.  "She don't understand me, and she never will.  I hate her."
*        *        *
Taking up the Brits' invitation for a night out are Waldo and Biff, a teaching pro at a muni in L.A.  I go back to my hotel room, more from fear than anything like guilt -- since the woman I've been seeing for a couple months back home in New York City and I are halfway through writing each other off ever so sensibly.
Except by dawn I'm still sleepless, watching the mammoth rivers of roadway traffic seeping through the hazy, crowded skyline.  I find a copy of "The Teachings of Buddha" left, Gideon-style, in a bedside drawer.  Its soothing paradoxes offer a tempting refuge from Western scriptures -- as though life were full enough of misfortune to cloud with divine retribution:
  ...people make a distinction between good   and evil, but good and evil do not exist   separately.  Those who are following the path   to Enlightenment recognize no such duality,   and it leads them to neither praise the good and   condemn the evil, nor despise the good and condone   the evil.
Both cruelty and virtue are simply parts of life, like the sky or double-bogeys.  Then comes the payoff I probably was seeking:
  Buddha does not always appear as a Buddha.  Sometimes   He appears as an incarnation of evil, sometimes as a   woman, a god, a king, or a statesman; sometimes He   appears in a brothel or in a gambling house.
There it is: a spiritual reason to go out whoring.
*        *        *
The next morning our tour bus fills up with a couple dozen golf- tour operators and their buddies.  Few are particularly good golfers -- Luke, an 6'7" ex-hippie with a cable-access golf show in Vegas, cops to a 35 handicap -- but a couple can scrape it, including a pair of friendly Japanese brothers recently transplanted to L.A., one who's a mini-tour player.
A lot are armed-forces veterans -- like Larry, who's obviously carrying a lot of baggage: skinny, intense, and probably altogether too good of a soldier, he developed a taste for Bangkok furloughs while on leave from Vietnam during the war, which not very coincidentally was when the Thai government began to turn a blind eye to the sex trade.  Larry seldom seems to be far from someone who can keep an eye on him, on this trip his keeper is an avuncular ex-sailor we'll call Kit who runs trips out of Del Mar and can't stop talking about his wife.
Seated at the front of the bus dressed in a safari vest with a bottle of Black Label never far from his side, is Sala, our den mother, chaperon, and witch doctor rolled into one.  A representative of the Thai tourist industry, Sala is a cagey old master who's weathered several decades of political corruption, he is the Buddha-in-the-brothel.
Kiki, his lieutenant, takes a head count on the bus and realizes he's missing two.  Waldo's been spotted scarfing down breakfast, but not Biff, the muni-pro.  Hardly your cleancut PGA-badge- wearer, Biff's more the kind of guy who'd got too old to surf or lost his nerve for hustling, and took up shop at the driving range giving lessons.  (Considering how cheap he was, he might have had mob debts).  But when Waldo rushes onto the big black coach bus, and with wide eyes bloodshot eagerly unfurls his adventure from the night before (him and Biff making it to one of the number clubs in time for last call, where Waldo got his innings -- though, he whines, "Biff got an extra hour with his") he reveals that Biff finally came downstairs with the girl on his arm, and after all of them spent the rest of the night out, decided to go on the Brits' bus and was going to try to bring along his girl, who spoke English.
We're headed north to Chiang Mai, not far from the Myanmar border, the urban sprawl giving way to tropical plain, then rolling, remote forest with little hills bubbling upward suddenly.  The bus stops at the golf course and before we can file out, the luggage hold has been surrounded by a score of caddies, mostly girls under twenty wearing polyester uniforms, each pulling out a golf bag.  Somehow I manage to land the prettiest one, number 52 -- and though her English was as nonexistent as her ability to read a putt, her cheek translates well as she keeps the other caddie girls laughing throughout the round.
It was a hilly, short course -- the weakest of all the ones we played (they generally ranged from pretty good to quite good). Afterward I told one of the English-speaking caddies to ask 52 if she'd drive me over the course so I could snap some photos, and she cheerfully obliged, steering us through some shortcuts, and we decided to amuse ourselves by making a game of mock- conversing -- each in our own language, taking turns pretending to understand one another.  After taking us to the bottom of a maintenance cul-de-sac, she stopped the cart, appearing to be lost -- lost? on her course? -- and as she leaned over the steering wheel and looked around to regain her bearings, the idea this could be a ploy put me practically into a swoon.  In a flash I felt a rush of opportunity -- could I really pluck from this beautiful country one of its citizens anxious to please and apparently easily pleasable? -- take this gracious, healthy Thai gamine back to the States to raise little Tiger cubs?  That'd be nothing like prostitution -- or wouldn't it? since the only thing I had to distinguish me from one of the guys on the maintenance crew who stared jealously at me and 52 as she chauffeured me and across the course, was my expensive Nikon and my round eyes.  As I squinted at her in the heat, wondering whether to jump her and bring her back to my crummy little apartment in Manhattan, reality intruded by way of a cart full of caddies who rolled about fifty feet behind us, and started to mock us in crude English, calling out and giggling, "I love you!"
*        *        *
After dinner Kiki gave us the lowdown on the Thai perspective on pay-per-screw.  "In Thailand, most men have mistress, girlfriend, or go to prostitute," he says smugly. "I go home to my wife, I love my wife.  She never know about girlfriend or prostitute."  Frankly he looks a little guilty, maybe because he's not sure she doesn't know -- or because there isn't anything to know.
*        *        *
We returned to Bangkok the next day for a couple more rounds outside the city, then headed south to Hua Hin.  Stories circulate around the bus -- big Luke took advantage of his handy Betacam to tape his encounter with a callgirl, but couldn't seem to find the right wires to hook the camera to a tv set to show everyone, while Larry got one of the staffers in the hotel in Bangkok to help him arrange a tryst but felt as though he'd been ripped off when she wouldn't indulge him one or two of his fancies.
Next morning as the coach pulled out toward to Hua Hin, something Larry had eaten started to disagree with him, or else he'd simply drunk too much -- so he faded into sick, gray silence.  Word was that Kit was quietly losing patience with him, since he hadn't talked business with a single Thai representative.  (A few months after the trip, we heard Kit had let go of Larry, but that he'd stayed on in Thailand for a few weeks and moved in with a businesswoman he met at a reception.) Almost everyone was drinking -- after one of the parties another of the veterans, Ted, sat upright in the second row of the bus seats muttering threats about arming himself for the impending race war, due any minute in Sausalito.  Most of the guys who were married started looking homesick, and though most everyone got along, there were definitely divisions: a pair of tour operators who'd relocated to north Africa from Orange County seemed to stay aloof from most everyone (except, of course, kindhearted Kit) -- Roy, the fatter, older one, never removed his ugly straw hat and mostly seemed intent on eating, or reading spy novels and what looked like privately-published political tracts.  His partner Bob was a lot friendlier, but also seemed to harbor John Birch-style opinions.  Meanwhile the back had been taken over by the popular Japanese brothers, who were probably having the best time of all -- until the younger one's back went out on the 12th hole of one of the best tracts we played, a Nicklaus signature course called Khao Yai.  He needed to be helped off, half crouching in agony, and stayed in bed for a couple of days.
Our last excursion took us to the resort city of Hua Hin on the western coast of the Gulf of Thailand.   Inspired (or depressed) by my strange near-rendezvous with "52," I went along with Waldo, Kit, Biff and the Brits to the red-light district, which turned out to be a dead-end three blocks filled with eight or nine bars, most open to the air -- and not especially hazardous- looking, at least at first glance.  That is, until you start working on a beer and find yourself approached by a 12-year-old girl who appears to be trying to sell you plastic tatoos and postcards.  You begin to get more and more weirded out by her persistence, and look around to see if she has some kind of keeper who might whisk her away, until it dawns on you that you've got it the wrong way around -- her keeper won't show up when you're trying to <i>get rid</i> of her.
Time for a second beer -- as Waldo and Luke are on their fourth, Kit's snapping photos of heaven knows what and yakking about some trip he took to Greece with Mrs. Kit, and Biff's got his hands in his pockets waiting for someone to buy him a drink. Derek and Jerry are drifting in and out, Derek with his cheery look, slightly businesslike -- then beams as Jerry shows up with the girl for you.  You look her over -- attractive enough, petite, smiles readily enough, no English, which come to think of it is just fine by you -- and you suddenly want more beer, a whole case, enough for you to forget what's you're doing, or enjoy it more.
How much later I can't remember, but I was certainly drunk by the time we flagged a tuk-tuk bound for the hotel.  I help in my girl and Kit, who's almost passed out, and Biff sneaks on just as we start to pull away.  As I stand to wave goodbye to my cronies on the sidewalk, the tableau becomes travesty of a wedding, featuring Kit, with two large flash cameras strapped to his chest, as the father of the bride, and Biff playing best man.  Catching Waldo's eye I can see he's thinking the same thing and laughing hard, and as the driver slips into gear and pulls off Jerry produces a handkerchief to wave us happy honeymooners a bon voyage.
*        *        *
The transaction itself turned out to be about as uplifting as an oil change.  In an hour, a appealing, cheery young party girl turned into a tired woman in her mid-twenties, probably with one or two children, half-heartedly trying to conceal her boredom. Early the next morning, she made it clear she wished to be walked to the hotel entrance, which I did, then went back to my room and passed out -- almost missing the bus, which was taking us to yet another golf course, followed by a big celebration for what seemed like every travel agent in the Far East, with booze, singing and dancing acts, and enough of the phenomenal spicy and refreshing Thai cuisine to choke a herd of elephants.
Plate piled high from the buffet with a glass of whiskey under my arm, I push my chair near Sala, who's amusing the table with an account of how he once managed to get a harem's worth of callgirls by an officious desk clerk.  He answers a question about Thai politics by recommending a book.  "We have a very sad history.  Read 'The Revolutionary King' -- it's a very good book, illegal to sell in Thailand, but mostly correct."  "The Revolutionary King" is about Thailand's present constitutional monarch, the beloved King Bhumibol, who seems to breach his famously severe Buddhist dispassion only in time of genuine crisis, as when in 1973 he offered refuge to students under fire by the army, throwing open the gates of his palace to let them in.
"Thailand was the only country in southeast Asia never to be colonized, but we paid a terrible price," Sala continues, puffing on a Marlboro.  "The old kingdom traded chunks of territory to the colonial powers in exchange for independence." Which maybe helps explain why this enchanted, almost sadly accommodating country strikes you as uncertain how much pride it can afford, and meanwhile has decided to strike a bargain between beauty and the cruelest sorts of exploitation.
*        *        *
Back in Bangkok the last night, we assemble in the hotel dining room for dinner hosted by a striking young woman, one of the senior executives or maybe even an owner.  She is a slender Thai woman in her early thirties wearing an organdy-and-silk evening dress.  Despite her uncannily proportioned features she's not beautiful -- she looks exhausted, with a waxy complexion and something hard within.
The seating arrangement places me beside the head Bircher, Roy, who, taking the opportunity to speak to me for the first time, breaks the ice in a confidential tone by saying: "You know, all the Arab governments in northern Africa keep Jewish advisors," he says.  As Roy pays reluctant tribute to the international Zionist conspiracy, I find myself looking with envy at the hotel owner, who's smiling bemused, as content to be utterly stoned with these overfed American golfers as anywhere else.
*        *        *
Back in the hotel bar, Waldo and I are having our last few rounds of the trip.  I ask him if he thinks he'll ever com back.
"Hell yeah, I guess.  And you'll be back for 52," he says. "Dunno if I could sell tour golf packages here, though."  He stops and takes a swig, then sees something over my shoulder. "Look who's back tonight," says Waldo.
Behold, it's Barnacle Bill, looking fatter and cheerier than ever.  Only tonight he's got two girls, both completely sloshed.