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Free food, a Go Go bar, and one crazy night in Bangkok...
"That's my girl," I said proudly, pointing at the stage. "Number 25, Jaw. Do you see her - the cute one with the red fringe on her boots?" Forgetting myself, I continued on. "Yep," I heaved a haughty sigh, "she's my girl... the best one up there, as a matter of fact. Wouldn't you say?" I might as well have rocked back on my heels and tugged at the waste line of my pants in the proud way a man does when bragging to his friends about his shiny new sports car or the sudden windfall of cash won in a bet. But seated as I was, I could only wink and flash a sly smile to my new friend Michael. My boyfriend and I met him and his pal, Bruce, on our way to the bar.
Jaw giggled, coyly placing a tiny hand over her mouth. I waved to her with fluttering fingers. She grinned, waved back at me, and giggled again. The blinking neon lights above her flashed, shifting her dark hair from a wash of red to blue. And then Jaw receded from our view, as the revolving circular stage took her away and brought other girls into sight.
Was that really me who said that or has a cocky 18-year old boy possessed me? No, no... it was me who said those things, acting rather boastful if I do say so myself. How did it happen? When did I turn from nervous to brash? Oh my God. Somehow, I'd become one of... them!
They were the men I'd been silently judging all day... the ones I'd mentally labeled as 'cradle robbers' and 'card carrying losers'. They were the ones with stubby arms and atrophied muscles; the ones with beer guts that pour over their elasticized 'sans-a-belt' trousers; the ones without an ounce of fashion sense, wearing white tennis shoes with dark argyle socks pulled up to their knees, hiking boots with running shorts, or pants hoisted up under their armpits as if they were strapless evening gowns. They were skinny and fat, old and young, bald and furry. They looked like frat boys, military dudes, Vin Diesel wannabes, and Colonel Sanders impersonators... They were the ones, I thought, who can't get a date back at home.
Looking back, it's the free food that set my course for the night. When it comes to free chow, it doesn't matter what kind it is... or how nutritious it is (and free food is usually not very nutritious)... and it often doesn't even matter how tasty it is. If it's free, I'll be there eating it, if for no other reason than it's a 'good deal'. I was brought up to appreciate the value of a buck and if I could save one by eating soggy deep fried spring rolls and chintzy bologna sandwiches at no cost, then by God I would do it. For free food, I would go anywhere - to the ends of Earth and back if necessary - and in this case, it was a Go-Go bar in Bangkok's famous Nana 'Entertainment' Plaza, where girlfriends are for sale, be it for one drink or the whole night.
So there I was, sucking on a wrinkled chicken wing with Benjamin, and two real estate tycoons who were in town for a convention. We met Michael and Bruce at a different bar, back when we were chasing down happy hour prices on beer, before the call of free food summoned us to Nana Plaza.
I busied myself with removing the gristle from a chicken wing so as not to stare, slack-jawed, at the large men groping a girl just down the way. I'd never set foot in a 'men's club' (aka strip bar) back at home, although I'd discussed doing it with some girl friends at one time or another. I always wanted to know what goes on in those sorts of places. But my friends and I decided it was the tequila talking and abandoned the plan in favor of sleep.
I looked over in time to see the largest man, the one with 'meat head' lettered across his forehead, lift the girl's skirt and smack her ass. A chorus of appreciate grunts erupted loudly from his bevy of accomplices. She looked as interested in the whole thing as I was with my gristle. In fact, all of the girls in the joint had the bored, listless expression of a housewife washing dishes for the seventeenth time in a day. The girls on stage looked so unenthusiastic about dancing that I was fearful they might fall asleep and tumble from the platform. Thank God they had a pole to hold onto, to break the fall.
Benjamin and I speculated on what the girls might rather be doing. That one over there, #32 was day dreaming about scrubbing mildew from her bathroom tile... and that one, #15, she would rather be picking up cigarette butts from a sewage drain. But then the stage, ever so slow in its mechanized rotation, brought Jaw into view. "She looks like she's having a little bit of fun," I mentioned to Benjamin, "at least her eyes are open and... wait a minute... she's smiling at us."
And that's where it all began, with a simple smile and a plate of picked over gristle and bones that had lost their intrigue. I guess I shouldn't omit the rum and coke. That probably had something to do with it, too.
I beckoned to Jaw with a wave of my hand, inviting her to come over and sit with Benjamin and me. I figured there was no harm in hanging out for a little while... it would be innocent enough, the three of us chatting about this and that. And a drink wouldn't be much of a commitment... we buy her a drink, we talk, she leaves. Simple. At worst, I thought she might sit on Benjamin's lap for a few minutes and wiggle around a bit... I could handle that.
She pointed to herself like wall flowers do in the movies, "Me? Really? You really mean me?" She turned her head and looked around, following the script perfectly.
"Yes, you," I nodded with a smile. And, just like they do it in the movies, I cocked my head in the exasperated way that says, "Gee whiz, silly... of course I mean you. Could there be any other?"
Jaw scampered over and sidled up right next to me... on the opposite side of Benjamin. I hadn't given much thought to the seating arrangement when I called her over. I guess I assumed she would sit in between us - or on Benjamin's lap, like I mentioned. Maybe she was confused. I'm not sure how often a couple comes in and buys a girl a drink. And it's not like I knew what I was doing, either.
What have I done? What do I do now? How does this whole thing work? I thought Benjamin would take the lead... he's always better at initial small talk than me... Why did she have to sit next to me? Wait - I know what I'll do...
"He wants to buy you a drink," I said while hitching a thumb in Benjamin's direction. "Thank you," she said and skittered off towards the bar.
"What just happened?" I asked Benjamin. Bruce, who was taking in the whole situation from the table next to us leaned over and said, "You just bought her a drink, young lady. You. Not him." And then he leaned in a little closer and added with a wink, "I hear Western women get more attention than the men in these places."
The panic set in. This was supposed to be a 'shared' experience... and an innocent one at that... a simple conversation over a drink. Oh, I'm sure it must have looked 'unusual' to others, the woman up in the back row getting herself a bar girl, right there with her boyfriend in tow. Or maybe they thought Benjamin and I were swingers or one of those mysterious couples who advertise for threesomes in the classifieds of the newspaper.
I really should have thought this through. I really don't
Jaw returned with a drink in hand, right back to the empty seat next to me. I moved over a little to make room between Benjamin and myself. I patted the newly available seat. "Why don't you sit here?" I asked sweetly. I didn't want her to feel uncomfortable, like we were some freaky couple on a sex tour of Thailand. I'm always polite like that, concerned for others' feelings. She rolled her eyes and climbed over me, taking the sliver of seat in between us.
She was like a snuggly puppy... tiny, cute, and affectionate. As she sat there, I began to understand the allure of the bar girls. They seem naive, innocent, and child like. I felt almost parental, wanting to protect her from the atrocities of the cruel, harsh world. And with all of the attention she was giving me, I also felt like a super star. I could see how this 'dynamic duo' of emotions could ensnare a lonely man's heart (and wallet). It's a sad fact that these girls work these sort of jobs to support their impoverished families in the countryside. In the seedier places, the girls might even be enslaved by the bar owner with no free will or choice in the matter. It was all the more reason to feel protective.
"How are you, what is your name, where you from?" She asked. And with that, we'd exhausted the full spectrum of words in her English repertoire.
After we got the conversation out of the way, Jaw turned her back to Benjamin and threw her arms around me, hugging me and rubbing my back and planting tiny little kisses on my lips and cheeks. "I like youuuu," she cooed, "I like you a lot." I felt as stiff as a board, which, under normal circumstances, is the intended effect. The clientele are usually male, after all. But I wasn't having any fun; feeling uptight makes me uncomfortable.
The night went on in this way. Occasionally I looked to Benjamin for help, but he'd given up and had found his own 'friend'. She was a tomboy, the kind of girl who would rather arm wrestle than bestow her attentions on a man. I could see he was a little jealous with all the fuss that I was receiving, but what could I do? Even though what seemed like a decade had passed since she sat down next to me, Jaw's drink was still full. I knew it was going to be a long night. So I did what any other woman would do in the same situation, I ordered another cocktail.
Eventually I loosened up, even put my arm around Jaw and gave her a few quick pecks on the cheek. Bruce had told me to try to enjoy myself, to have fun with the situation. And that's just what I was doing... and somehow, in the thrill if it all, in letting myself go, I even became a braggart, what with all the 'that's my girl' stuff.
Intermittently, Jaw returned to the stage for a few songs, but she always came back and tried to talk with me, but I couldn't understand anything she said except her constant murmurs of, "I like yooooou..." I tried to keep my replies to what seemed like questions evasive. I didn't want to nod my head in agreement or say anything that could be misconstrued as, "Yes," in case she was asking if I'd like to take her home for the night, the weekend, the month. I didn't want to have a scene at the end of the night with an angry mamasan barking that I owed her $200.00.
I don't know why Jaw kept coming back. I didn't buy her more than one drink. I reasoned that spending her evening with me must be much better than spending it with the meat head down the way who'd only want to grope her and smack her ass. And at long last, having beseeched Benjamin, "Please, can we go?" after Jaw tried to stick her tongue in my mouth, the night finally came to an end. Jaw put her palms together and bowed her head in a traditional Thai wai as I bid farewell.
I awoke the next morning with a hangover the size of Thailand and trudged over to the corner of the room in search of the repugnant smell that had permeated the room overnight. It was my clothes, full of Jaw's cheap perfume.
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