G.I.s, Girls and Us

Pattana Hotel (30 baht)
Maha Sarakam
11th January 1986

The swing through the north-east is almost complete. Having to rendezvous with M on Ko Samet, some business to do in Bangkok, and possibly seek a month’s extension to my visa, fot the moment I have absorbed enough.

Since Loie, travelling with Jamie and Paul the path as been easier. Here we appear to be the only westerners in town. In other places we have been able to count other westerners, if there were any, with our fingers. Naturally we’ve stood out, me especially. Many is the time I’ve turned round to find a young Thai measuring his head height against my shoulder or wherever he reached.

Last night we were surprised at the clarity of English one passing girl produced, almost as if some people are genuinely pleased to see us. However, the reactions of girls, particularly at places we’d chosen to eat at,  were a little more familiar. To cover their confusion and, perhaps, their embarassment, every word, every glance, would produce a fit of the giggles.

The atmosphere in these Mekong towns is one of subtle decay. They’ve all seen better days,  as is seen in the concrete box hotels put up to cater for the American troops invading Vietnam and Laos.  This hotel is the first one where we’ve been thanked for staying. The staff were helpful too in directing us to the local snooker hall where we discovered a potting ability which defeated our strategic play.

As in most provincial towns the world over, there is not a vibrant nightlife here. The food stall area, with its tempting range of colourful chili-fried foods, closes down at around 8.30 with thje cinemas. The sweet and pudding stalls seem to to delay for a while, at least until stocks are sold. A coffee bar, all formica smartness and swing seats, allows us concessionary prices – the last few baht squeezed for the day.

After our snooker, wandering past the radio booster tower illuminated in the national colours, red, white and blue, there is evidence of desultory life in what we take to be the red light district. Rickshaw drivers circle a card game while we were invited, without much interest, into a shanty shack, perhaps a mechanic’s knocking shop by day.

The Yanks have gone home, and the prostitutes cannot now expect a fortune, to be carried off to the mid-west by a military man. Few can even aspire to reach Bangkok: they may have children to feed. So even fewer can dream of being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy westerner and taken off to a land of plenty, a place which our mere presence in their town demonstrates we are from.

Not that the towns here seem to suffer from shortages, but en route between our overnight halts we are whisked briskly through the rice paddies of the rural areas, and the dreams of those who live and work there are well hidden from our perceptions.

A sad and pathetic life if not taken up by choice. A short job, I’m told, would cost 30-50 baht: all night 100. I suppose the aptly named Bangkok would cost more, with the ancillaries of entertainment, expensive cheap bubbly and glitter.

At least prostitution in Thailand is not a matter of censure: take it or, as I do, leave it. It is a service industry which exists in a very male dominated country. The princesses and generals’ wives are involved in charitable ‘good works’, but not the government. Women are expected to supply a man’s needs: housekeeping, children and recreational sex.

I’m told that where the pickings are richer, as in Bangkok, the pros earning good money save enough for their eventual retirement at 30 or so, when they open up a shop or food stall in their home town. Madame San, in Nakorn Phanom is one such lady. Tightly corseted, she cosseted us with peanut munchies and Pepsi as we shared a bottle of SangSom rum. Practising her English, she told us that she quit her former business in Bangkok eleven years ago as the Americans quit Thailand. Her establishment is very clean and neat and her welcome genuine, but business is slow. Just occasionally a couple of westerners pass by to remind her of busier times.

So our passage is noted and sometimes remarked upon. Off the tracks beaten by the not-so-lonely travellers we are seeing a Thailand that is not ripe for exploitation. The Thais are serving their own needs in thse towns. Why should we come here? they seem to ask. What our language barrier prevents us from telling them is that by understanding their lifestyle better we are better able to appreciate their warmth, their humour, and their humanity.

And to achieve that understanding, free from the encumbrances of our own society and culture, is surely the raison d’être of travelling.

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About Jakartass

A Brit Abroad
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