"Pit fai pit fai (turn the light off) Mook pleaded.She was clinging so tightly to the towel she'd wrapped around herself that her little brown knuckles were almost as white as the towel itself.Unless i'd made a terrible mistake and was about to find out that she was in fact a he,the thought did flash through my mind,i guessed that it was either stretch marks she was trying to hide or,as in the case of one girl i know,a caesarian scar that had left her looking like a victim of Jack the Ripper.
The December general election in Thailand caused confusion for both Farang and Thai alike (no suprise there then) as to when you could, or could not, buy or sell alcohol. The bemused leathery old faces of a few hard drinking Farangs at the little bars on Sukhumvit Soi 8 with fizzy drinks and a straw was an amusing illustration of that. Now it's not that I was desperate for a drink, I could have stayed in to go through the contents of my mini bar if that was the case. But where would be the fun in that? I'm on holiday and being told that I could'nt go out for a beer just made me want to go out for a beer even more. And knowing that an illicit beer was going to taste that much sweeter I headed towards the skytrain.
On Patpong 2 there is one of those little outside bars that you step up into straight from the road. Not a place I'd normally go for a night out. If ever I'm there it's usually just to get one more for the road as they somehow get away with being open most of the night. So I'm a known face there at least, and, having been there before when there was a supposed alcohol ban, I suspected that they would remain a law unto themselves and carry on as usual. I wasn't dissapointed. As a precaution, which I'm sure would'nt have fooled a passing blind man, let alone any passing police, beers were poured into a glass inside a bottle holder so that the bottles could then be kept out of sight behind the bar. I'd then be urged to gulp down the beer that remained visible above the polystyrene holder before I could relax. The ugliest girl in the bar, though there's a lot of competition for that title there, joined me. As is often the case with girls like that Pen's English was pretty good. Even though I'd been there before I'd never noticed the name of the place until that night. S.T.V Bar. I asked what the initials stood for. "Sexy Thai Virgin" my new friend replied.
"Really?" I laughed. A few days earlier I'd been in The Star of Light Bar, almost opposite, doing some research. I was the only punter in the place at the time. The girls turned the lights down low and described it as being "more romantic". Anyone familiar with The Star of Light will know that it could be described in many ways but the chances of it ever being described as "romantic" are about as likely as finding virgins working at S.T.V.Bar. "So only virgins work here?" I asked Pen.
"Yes, virgin in the ass," she giggled, as she stuck her "ass" out and poked it with her thumb. She was an amusing girl and we had a few drinks together. A tough looking Korean, all angular looking in a tight fitting t-shirt, played connect four with one of the girls. His face so chiselled into a triangle of concentration that his eyes were just narrow slits. "Open your eye, open your eye", Pen kept telling him as she laughed while looking at me and pointing at the Korean. He won every game.
I was going to head home. I was tired, having been awake for most of the previous night. Sleep is at a minimum with Sai (see my story, Sai) and she'd left in a bit of a huff the morning before when I told her I was going out for dinner with a friend and wouldn't see her that evening. Having got to bed around 2:00 a.m. I was looking forward to at least seven hours without her of un-interrupted sleep to re-charge my batteries. At 3:45 a.m. Sai called. I'd forgotten to turn my phone off. "Richaad you can help me or not?" she asked before I could assemble any thoughts into words.
"You can help me or not?" she repeated, with more urgency.
"What do you want Sai?" I asked, falling back onto the bed.
"You can give me One Thousand Baht?" she wanted to know.
"Sai, I'll see you tomorrow okay," I said. Before I could hang up she was saying, "No, you come now, if I no pay I no come out."
"Where are you Sai?" I asked, as she wasn't making much sense.
"Lumpini Police Station," she replied, "police take many lady from Sukhumvit, must to pay One Thousand Baht for come out."
Now I understood. She'd been rounded up in one of the police sweeps along Sukhumvit, which they do now and again, and taken in. The girls unlucky enough to be caught then have to pay to be released. Of course they then have to go back to work Sukhumvit to try and make the money back that they'd just paid out in fines. It's a never ending circle.
"You can help me?" she asked again hopefully.
What could i do? I knew I was going to feel like a cunt if I did and a cunt if i didn't. Catch 22 gets me everytime in Bangkok. I stumbled out into a deserted Soi and tapped on the window of a sleeping taxi driver. I was at Lumpini Police Station within ten minutes. It was quite a busy scene for four o'clock in the morning. Taxi's and tuk tuks waiting out front, working girls and ladyboys milling around the entrance, either having just been released or, like me, there to bail someone out. I guess it was just another night at Lumpini Police Station. I expected to be springing Sai from some overcrowded cell but she was sitting at a table outside with a cop. He took the B1,000, Sai signed a form and we left.
"Mo hor mai?" (are you angry) she asked softly all the way back in the taxi as I looked grumpily out of the window. The inhabitants of a city by night were giving way to those whose day was just beginning. As we lay there in bed the first hint of dawn gave shape to the things in my room. "Mo hor mai?" Sai asked.
Having left Patpong I intended to get off the skytrain at Nana and go home. But wanting to see if i could find another place for an illicit beer I found myself on Soi 33. Though I'm sure if you couldn't find a place serving beer on election night you just weren't trying hard enough. Loong was a Mama San I'd known at one of the bars down there for a number of years. I hadn't seen her for awhile. She seemed pleased to see me, as business was understandably slow on such a night. She led me in to a stool at the furthest corner of the bar.
"What you like to drink?" Loong asked.
Three girls behind the bar hovered awaiting my answer.
"Can I get a beer?"
They all looked to Mama San to see if it would be okay. She nodded to the girls who jumped into action getting a beer, a glass, a beer mat and a cold towel. With Loong ordering a red wine for herself the other three looked hopefully at me. The one that stood out most I invited around to join me. Mook had a sadness about her that at times, for some reason, I feel attracted to. She bought back memories of times gone by when I was first in Bangkok and felt that I was on some sort of mission to rescue such girls from the bars. The fact that I was only rescuing them for a couple of hours at a time didn't seem to occur to me back then. As with most of the girls in the bars on Soi 33 Mook wore a long hostess style dress. She was fairly plain looking and couldn't speak a word of English. But even without words I could see that this experience was something new for her. She stood self conciously in front of me. I sensed some relief as my efforts to speak a little basic Thai made things a bit easier for her. But she then seemed to assume that I spoke the language fluently and made no concessions to the fact that it was just basic bar room Thai. Mook was from Chaiyaphum. She'd arrived in Bangkok three weeks before with her "Nong Sao" (younger sister) who was, I learned, one of the other girls behind the bar who appeared to be looking on with some concern. This was obviously new for her too. They'd been working at the bar for two weeks and being behind the bar rather than out front with the other girls they had little contact with customers. Mook told me she was twenty five but if she had said thirty five I would have believed her. Loong whispered to me, "she never go with Farang before". I could tell she wasn't lying. I tried to explain to Mook that it would really help her if she could learn some English. If she could talk with customers and move to the front of the bar she'd be able to make more money. She said that she would try. I promised I'd look for a Thai-English dictionary and phrase book for her. I should have left it at that but then I went and said I'd "pay bar" and take her "short time". A whispered consultation with her "sister" followed with even more concerned looks before she said "okay". I knew that a bar fine on Soi 33 wasn't going to be cheap. B1,200 to be exact.
"Why is it so expensive here Loong?" i asked.
"Here very high class",she replied.
Mook reappeared after getting changed out of the long dress and into a pair of jeans. She looked even more plain than she did before. She didn't look too sure either about leaving with me and I was having second thoughts about taking her. Worried that I'd lead her to the edge of a very long slippery slope, from which there'd be no going back once she'd launched herself down it, I went to the "hong nam" to reassess the situation. It didn't feel like a rescue mission anymore. While I was in there Loong spoke with her. I'd been with Loong a couple of times in the past. She'd worked at another bar before she became a Mama San.
"I tell her you very good man," she whispered again.
Walking to a nearby short time hotel Mook jabbered away nervously.
"Pit fai, pit fai," she pleaded, after taking a shower and laying down on the bed. Although I wanted to make sure that this wasn't going to be the worst experience she'd ever had a small part of me was enjoying seeing her squirm. I left the lights as they were. She snuggled up close and made it harder to loosen the towel. Very slowly, as time moved on, it loosened. Finally,with a half hearted last attempt to hold on to it, the towel fell away. Vulnerable and exposed she turned her face away from mine. She held one arm across her sagging breasts and with the other attempted to hide a stretch marked belly that looked like the skin of a rice pudding. This wasn't the body of a twenty five year old. But then with a scarred and less than perfect body of my own neither is mine. It was a slow but tender affair. And after the event, rather than the usual dash for the shower as is often the way in a short time hotel, she held me tight as though she never wanted to let go. It was around 5.00AM when I put her into a taxi on Sukhumvit. I wasn't sure where she lived and neither was she really. When I asked she said it was near Tesco Lotus, which could be just about anywhere in Bangkok these days. She knew her way to work and how to get home again, other than that she knew nothing of the city.
A few days later I found a dictionary and phrase book. Her face lit up as though I'd just presented her with a One Baht gold chain. She called me the following day with the words, in english, "where do you live now?" We met one afternoon for the first time outside the bar. The only place we could arrange to meet was the Seven-Eleven on the corner of Soi 33. There was nowhere else to suggest as she didn't know anywhere else. Although I'd taken her out of the bar a couple of times by then there was still a sadness and uncertainty about her. Mook just didn't seem to be cut out to be a bar girl. We sat under a shady umberella on a hotel terrace overlooking the river. The dictionary and phrasebook that she kept in her handbag were already looking well thumbed, which I was pleased to see. She had two kids as far as I could make out. I wanted to know more about her past but I feared that the sadness that Mook seemed shrouded in would overwhelm us both. As she knew nothing of Bangkok I said I'd show her all of it that evening. From The Sky Bar on the sixty fourth floor of The State Tower the city lights stretch for as far as you can see in every direction. Stepping out from its golden dome the view was beyond anything that Mook had ever experienced or suspected. "Yai maak," (very big) she kept saying, as if trying to take in the fact that this was where she now lived.
The last time I saw Mook was a couple of days before I had to return to England. She asked if she could come out to Suvarnabhumi to see me off. But taking a girl with me to the airport is one thing I've always avoided. That long goodbye, the pleading, the promises, the tears, and the girls are just as bad. Holding me tightly as we lay on the bed Mook cried quietly. Warm tears on my skin. I felt bad that I had let it get this far.
A couple weeks later one misty afternoon back in London Mook called to tell me that she'd given up the bar and gone back home to Chaiyaphum. She sounded happy with the decision and I was happy for her. Maybe I'd rescued her after all.
"Goodbye darling," she said, before hanging up.
It was only the second time I'd ever heard her say anything in English.