October 1, 2011

“Tread softly, and with Joy” (ancient Thai saying) ~ Ben Ralston

Part 3.


After my unwitting incursion into the world of child prostitution – part 1 – and my near-death adventures with amphetamine-crazed truck drivers and Thai gangsters  – part 2 – I was feeling pretty lost.

I’d been traveling alone for about a month and I was lonely.

As I was driving through town one day on my rented motorbike I started to feel ill again. The fever wasn’t quite gone yet. I pulled over to the side of the road and found myself sitting at a table outside a small bar. I ordered a drink and before it arrived I realized I was outside some kind of brothel.

There were about 5 or 6 girls in the bar, lounging around and leaning over a couple of Dutch sailors.

The sailors were about 50 years old, heavily tattooed. I really wish I could remember my conversation with them because it was both hilarious and very interesting.

The expression on their faces (and the faces of all the men I saw in that bar) stay with me though. They were like young men ‘on the pull’ – that strange kind of desperate intensity in their eyes (sexual desire) and a kind of assumed (false) arrogance. They were trying to look confident and self-assured. In short: they wanted to be found attractive. I recall finding this very amusing: they were in a brothel. They knew they only had to pay for what they wanted, and yet they still went through the suffering of the ‘chase’.

The girls were an interesting bunch…

There was Jo-Jo: a very young, extremely sexually precocious girl who was clearly interested in making as much money as fast as possible.

There was a tall, beautiful but strange-looking girl. Later, I found out that she was a transsexual. I don’t know if it’s politically correct to say ‘a transexual’, but that’s what she was: a boy, pretending to be a girl. I also don’t know if it’s p.c. to say ‘pretending’, but that’s what s/he was doing, to be honest. ‘Her’ name was Sumalee. She was very sweet. I liked her a lot. When I came to the bar a few weeks later to say goodbye to them all, she went upstairs and came back with a beautiful silver necklace which she gave to me, tearfully.

Just like this one.

The Thais have an incredibly generous heart…

There was also ‘Miaow’. She was quiet, and sad looking, and beautiful in a mysterious, sulky kind of a way. I remember thinking that she probably didn’t make much money like that…

I visited the bar again the next day – it was far more interesting than all the temples I’d seen.

The girls all ‘flirted’ with me of course, and I played along. I had no intention of hiring their services, but I was enjoying the fun and games too much to spoil things. I was the only guy there at the time (unless you count Sumalee!), surrounded by laughing and joking girls. At one point Sumalee asked me if I was going to ‘make one of the girls happy’. So I had to explain that I had no interest in paying for sex. I’ve never understood how someone can pay for sex. To me sex is about intimacy, and you can’t buy intimacy, can you? They all looked disappointed, apart from Miaow, who looked at me somehow differently after that…

They invited me out with them to a nightclub that evening, and I happily accepted.

I only remember that the music in the club was awful, and that we all got pretty drunk. Sumalee tried to seduce me, and I ended up going home with Miaow.

She came up to very nervously and asked me if I’d like to spend the night with her. I told her that I’d love to more than anything else in the world, but that I just couldn’t bring myself to pay for sex. She looked a bit pissed off, and just said:

No money, just night together.”

That’s how my time with Miaow began.

We spent the night together in her tiny room, and she was incredibly shy for a prostitute. We didn’t sleep much. We had sex, and talked a lot. She was very gentle, shy, and kind.

After we slept a little she told me she had to go to work. I didn’t like it, but what could I do? When I asked her not to go she impatiently snapped:

No worry. I no go with man”.

Then she left, and I was alone again.

Later that day, when I saw her, she asked me if I would like to spend some time together. I said yes. So she told her boss that she was taking time off work, and we spent the next two weeks together.

Miaow had a small, brand-new, beautiful motorbike. A guy she had met from New Zealand had bought it for her.

She was very smart. She didn’t sleep with anyone who came to the bar unless she liked them. The other girls sold themselves to anyone, and made some money. But Miaow would choose clients very, very carefully, she told me. She told me that she was lucky to have a boss who allowed her to work like that. Not only did she have a beautiful motorbike, but she also received money every month from various former ‘clients’ around the world. When I asked her why she worked like that, she told me she had a son, and asked me if I’d like to meet him. I said yes.

It wasn’t easy. We were both young (I was 21 but oh so immature for my age). Miaow was a little older but didn’t speak very good English. There were jealous arguments and misunderstandings.

She took me to the Chiang Mai night market, where we ate the best food I’ve ever tasted in my life for the equivalent of a few pennies. She chatted animatedly to the locals, and I felt like the luckiest person in the universe. I was sitting there experiencing life on another planet as if I belonged…

After a few days, we drove on her motorbike to her hometown, in the rural Northern midlands of Thailand. She let me drive, and I remember her suddenly making me pull over, and then screaming at me for a while by the side of the highway. I had no idea what was wrong. Finally she told me in English:

You too fast”.

When we set off again, she whispered in my ear:

Every girl want feel safe”.

When we drove into her hometown, everyone stopped and stared. Groups of children ran alongside the motorbike. They’d never seen a Falang (foreigner) before.

The houses were small, wooden, raised above the earth on stilts.

We stayed there with her Grandmother and son. Grandma had no teeth, and just smiled at me all the time, non-stop. She raised Miaow’s boy. His Father had been an abusive alcoholic, and Miaow had left him years ago. The little boy had a few teeth more than his Grandmother and that’s all I remember about him.

While we were there it was my birthday. There was a huge celebration and people came with gifts – bottles of whiskey, a watch, and various dishes that they’d prepared. It was a feast. We all sat on the ground around a sheet spread out underneath countless delicious Thai treats. They laughed and sang. I remember feeling incredibly humble. I was wealthy compared to these people, and yet they gave me these relatively expensive gifts… I was confused by my feelings. Why was I made so uncomfortable by their generosity? Looking back, I know why:

It wasn’t just their gifts that made me uncomfortable. It was their generosity of spirit. They gave me some things, yes. But they gave me all of their attention. They were totally present. I’d never met anyone in my life before that wasn’t in two places at once. I certainly didn’t know how to be so present – even at my own birthday party.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that meal under a perfectly dark, star-filled night, was the first of my two great lessons in what wealth really is. (Read the last paragraph of this post for the second lesson).

I also remember the local policeman. He sat all day outside his shack, whiskey bottle in hand. Miaow told me that’s all he did: drink, and accept bribes.

It was 17 years ago. I was young; arrogant; naïve; foolish; immature; irresponsible; selfish. I stepped into worlds that were completely alien to me. I trampled through them carelessly. Thum once told me that he could hear me coming a mile away. My footsteps were heavy. He said that the Thais have a saying:

Tread softly, and with joy

I’ve thought about that saying many times over the years.

When the time came for me to leave Thailand, Miaow drove me to the bus stop. I would be getting a bus and then a flight home halfway around the world. She would be going straight back to work.

It was a strange moment, saying goodbye. We’d perhaps both used each other, and there was a total lack of sentimentality on her part. We kissed briefly and awkwardly, and I told her I’d write. She didn’t look impressed. I felt guilty.

I did write, once. She wrote back. Her written English was so bad that I could barely understand anything. I felt very, very sad getting that letter.

She told me that her real name wasn’t Miaow. It was Surya.

I hadn’t even suspected.

I’ve thought many times over the years of trying to track her down, but what would I do? I like to think that she probably achieved what she hoped to achieve: met a kind older man who whisked her and her boy away and gave them a life of material security. She was smart enough to achieve that. She deserves at least as much.

Wherever she is, I hope she’s happy, and feels safe.


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