Western men have a terrible reputation in Thailand
, especially among the women. I learned this from a charming Thai family, though they never said anything explicitly.
My plane had landed at 6 am in Bangkok after a 12-hour flight from the UK. A minder from the Thai government was due to meet the flight. In fact, there were two: both women. One, very correct and proper-of a certain age. Her assistant, for so I guessed at their roles, was in her 20s. If this were a Yahoo chat room, I might call her an Asian Uber-Babe.
There were some very limited introductions, but I was too tired and confused to take on board what was said.
During a light breakfast at an airport cafe, it quickly became clear that things were not exactly as they seemed. The older woman appeared to be more of a figurehead, for she knew nothing of the plans for the next few days while her assistant ran through the schedule with polished professionalism.
After a quick wash and shave in the rest rooms, I changed shirts and emerged to follow the two women downstairs to the waiting Land Rover. I still was uncertain what was going to happen next.
Bangkok is one of the most congested cities on earth. We ploughed through the traffic, sometimes directed by police wearing gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and masks over their mouths, sometimes finding a gap just wide enough for a Land Rover to push its way through. The traffic is less homogeneous than London, my home town. The vehicles are the same: cars, bikes, trucks and buses, but in my town, most vehicles are 4-door saloon cars and they all look the same. Here in Bangkok, the pick-up truck is king, but with an infinite variety of shapes and constructions.
Some have a flat base, but are stacked 15 feet high with crates of fruit and vegetables. Others have battered fibreglass bodies, in which five or six or more people are riding. Still others have huge, fat, chrome roll bars, and the bed is empty. Some are 20 years old-or look that way-and many are brand new, with a double cab and luxurious fittings. The economy can't be doing too badly. On the journey, I have plenty of opportunities at look at the people, the cars, and buildings to form an impression of the place. My overwhelming feeling is of youth. Young people driving new cars, building work on every corner, and continuous, chaotic noise and action. Nothing stands still here for long.
Eventually, the buildings start to look like government buildings and we turn into a car park. The guard salutes.
Minder Senior promptly goes to a Buddhist shrine, and places an offering in front of it. Uber-Babe walks in a hip-swinging way into the building. Minder Senior departs elsewhere.
Up on the 10th floor there is a large, open-plan office. It is still before normal office hours, and few people have arrived, and so Uber-Babe introduces herself properly. Her name is P______. She will be responsible for me for the next four days. I choose not to ask about Minder Senior, hoping all will become clear. P_____ has some work to do, so I am shown to a computer, and start checking e-mails, while P___ greets some of her colleagues, who are just starting to arrive at their office. They are all women and all appear to be in their 20s. There is much giggling, accompanied by half-hidden glances in my direction. Thai giggles appear to be exactly the same as European giggles, and I find them just as hard to read.
I bury myself in the computer, exploring the network. It does not take long to realise that the machine I am using is infested with virii and spyware, with a favourites folder full of porn. I change machines, and discover the same symptoms. Every machine in the building must be as bad. Somehow this is revolting to me. Is it the word, "virus?" Do I think I can somehow catch some illness from circuit boards and silicon chips? Am I so finicky about computer hygiene that I can't even use an infected computer? Whatever the reason, I choose not to send those e-mails after all. I go and read some paperwork I have brought with me.
Eventually, I am introduced to some of the fluttering eyes. P____ has the best English, which, I guess, is why she is stuck with me. R____ is taller, and like all of them, has long black hair, elegant fingers and deep, almond eyes. She seems to be a special friend, or close colleague. It appears that she will be accompanying us, though she barely speaks English.
We stick around for another couple of hours, with more giggling behind cupped hands, and eyes which always look away just as I think they might meet my own. Eventually, it is time to set off. P____ and R____ come back and we take the lift down to the car park, where Minder Senior meets us. A young man arrives, and soon after, the driver comes along as well.
We jump into a minivan. Six of us. We drive through Bangkok, and out into the suburbs. Whatever conversation is started, Minder Senior always takes the lead, She is clearly in charge.
We stop for lunch by the river, and Minder Senior asks what I would like to eat. "Anything," I say, "but I find Tom Yam too spicy." They accept this, and Minder Senior orders. When the food comes, she fusses, just like my Mother-in-Law, making sure my plate is full, shelling the prawns, asking if the fish is too spicy, helping me place hot chilli sauce on this dish and sweet sauce on that one, cutting my vegetables and ostentatiously giving me the large battered prawns reserved for herself.
Then the bombshell drops. P______ is Minder's daughter. Minder is a dentist. Nobody mentions chaperones, but that is what she is. Protecting her daughter from the round-eyed sexual predator. Me.
A thousand images flash through my mind. The inevitable nudge-nudge-wink-wink that comes when I tell people I am on business in Bangkok. The sex trade. Asian Babes on Yahoo. I catch P________ eyes and she gives the slightest, most imperceptible nod, without a trace of her characteristic smile. She knows I have realised, and she knows what I am thinking. This is the other end of that nudge-nudge-wink-wink, and the sex trade. This is why a mother will take a week off work to protect her daughter against the probable sins of an unknown stranger.
This time I catch the mother's name. S_____ says, slightly embarrassed, that I should not tell the people we are visiting about this, and I should maintain the illusion that S_____ is with the government team. She is so sweet and so motherly and so very very proper about it all, that I can't resist. I am determined to play the gentleman for the next three or four days, so all my comments are addressed to S________, and I talk a lot about my wife and children. I am desperate to talk to P_____, however, if nothing else, to see if S______ is as insensitive to her daughter's need for freedom as my mother-in-law is to her own daughters. I think it quite likely.
We make some visits, travel more in the minibus, and I discover that there is another minibus trailing us, with a film crew on board, who are trying to make a promotional film about Thailand's rubber industry. These are bright young things, wearing Italian sunglasses, and designer labels on baggy street clothing. They appear disgusted by the smells and the dirt in this old-economy industry, and film things which to me seem irrelevant. They choose the wrong machines, and look at processes which contribute nothing to the real manufacturing business. They do not even pick the most visually exciting activities. It is hard enough to film this business anyway, with its black, light-absorbant materials contrasting with highly-polished steel machinery. The noise is ever-present, but comes in rapid pulses, so the noise filters on the sound equipment cannot react quickly enough to mellow it down. I doubt the film will present a particularly positive view.
Later, as night starts to fall, the minibus stops at a themed restaurant. The theme is the rainforest, and it is mostly in the open air, with a river running through, and waterfalls and cicadas and huge trees spreading over us in landscaped grounds. The river is so densely populated with fish that you can almost catch them with your hands.
A few Thai families are there, with small children running around happily in the warm, humid air, though the restaurant seems to be aimed mainly at tourists. S_____ chooses a table by the river, and we order drinks. When we are half-way through, S_____ looks at the sky, and sees rainclouds. Then she notices that we are at table 13. We spend five minutes choosing another table in the near-empty restaurant while she fusses about which is in the right place, and has the right number and won't get wet if the heavens break.
After we are settled, and as we eat, we talk some more, and I get the impression that S_____ and P______ are from a good, middle-class family. Modest, hardworking, successful. P_______ has an MBA, and is still studying hard, but lives at home. I see the first signs of slight tension between mother and daughter.
We drive a little further to an hotel. It is a beach hotel, part of an international chain. It is 8 pm, and everyone goes to their rooms. I am grateful, because my body is still not adjusted to the time zone. I sleep like the dead.
Next morning, we wake early and set off for another factory. The film crew is already there when we arrive, but are sitting, waiting in their bus. The factory manager is not expecting us and does not speak English. We are a major interruption to his day. There is some negotiation in Thai, and he takes us on a tour.
This factory processes raw latex and turns it into rubber. It is one of the smelliest processes in the industry. They use ammonia which is unpleasant enough, but the real stench comes from waste latex. It is a natural material containing proteins and bacteria, which breed quickly in the warm, nutrient-rich liquid. It is, in many ways, like milk. Milk goes off. Think of gallons of rotten milk in huge open tanks, and you have some idea of how a latex factory smells on a bad day. This is a very bad day at the plant.
The film crew is not happy. There is nothing appealing to film. The floor is a mess of unidentifiable colours, liquids and semi-solid lumps. P_______, S______ and R______ all tread very daintily through the spills and mess on the floor, trying hard not to let the disgust show on their faces.
I talk to the factory manager, and it turns out his English is rusty, but more than adequate. He is happy to talk about the plant, and how it works. How the local price is set, who he sells to and what makes the plant tick. He does not like the film crew who have crashed in, demanding to film something.
Another plant. Not a latex plant this time, but one making industrial components. The owner is a Thai, famous locally. He employs a Japanese salesman to sell to the local Japanese auto companies. We talk a lot about the differences between Thais and Japanese. How good timekeeping is vital if you want to retain any credibility at all with Japanese customers.
We have lunch with the management team of the plant. They are an international team, with a global perspective and we talk more about the Thai economy and how it can change from an agricultural basis to something more industrialised.
Afterwards, there are no more visits planned, so we return to the hotel. S______ asks me what I want to do in the afternoon, and I say I want a massage. I see the looks passing among the women. Their ideas have been confirmed. Western men really are after only one thing.
On a previous trip, my (male) host explained the difference between traditional massage-where the masseuse has trained for five years in a school close to the royal palace in the stately, manicured part of Bangkok-and the non-traditional massage, where the training is a lot shorter.
That time, we went into a massage parlour near Pattaya Beach. He had told me to look out for the words, "traditional massage" over the door. The place he took me to did not say that-at least not in English script.
When we entered the building, I had seen them in the corner. As I remembered the scene, it struck me that the giggling girls up in the 10th floor office looked just the same, except that in the massage parlour, the women did not have smiles on their faces. Instead, they were eyeing two new punters suspiciously. My host had said a few words at the cash desk, and we were shown to a room. Empty, except for twenty or more mattresses all lined up, each with a curtain around. Two women came in, and we were told to take off our trousers. I looked around for guidance. My host took off his shirt, unbuckled his belt, and then dropped his trousers. He put on the silk shorts offered and lay down on his front. I copied. The curtains remained open.
Traditional Thai massage is wonderful. Very physical. It almost hurts at times, as the masseuse uses her feet, hands, knees and thumbs to push hard into your muscles. She cracks every joint in your body-not just the knuckle joints, but the elbows, spine, knees and toes. She pushes her thumbs as hard as she can into the sole of your foot, she kneels on your thighs, she places a foot in your groin and tugs at your leg, she walks on your back and she pushes at your neck, finding the Chakra points. And through it all, you almost fall asleep, because despite the discomfort, it is so relaxing.
So back at the hotel, I tell the ladies that I want a traditional Thai massage, and mime some of the actions involved. P_____ and R_____ are still laughing in their eyes as S_____ tries to tell me that what I really want is something much less physical.
Eventually, the appointment is made and I make my way to the beach-side pergola at the appointed time, climb up on the bed-in full view-and strip down to swimming trunks. The masseuse starts, and it is everything I remember. I quickly fall into a near meditative trance as she works my under-used muscles like so much dough.
Afterwards, I give her a generous tip and go for a swim in the pool to work off some of the energy she has given me. It is a wonderful sense of deep, worthwhile energy. Not a short adrenalin buzz, like you might get from a bungee jump, or abseiling, but something that you can feel building in your body and radiating out, restoring the spirit and feeding the soul.
We are all more relaxed. Dinner is in a beach-side restaurant. We eat soft-shelled crabs, salad, more fish and yet more prawns, all with appropriate hot and sour sauces. S_____ is still fussing, making sure I have the lips and cheeks of the fish (they are the softest, most tender parts, apparently), selecting the biggest prawns and putting the last two crabs on my plate.
S_____ tells me they went for a walk on the beach, and watched the masseuse at work. She adds that she had this type of massage once, and it had hurt so much that she thought it would be too uncomfortable for me. We look out to sea, and P_______ tells me that the islands off the coast are especially beautiful, renowned for their beaches, woodland and small inlets and coves.
The next day, we set off late in the minibus, and get lost trying to find a factory. This one is a full-scale Japanese plant, and the manager is a very proper, formal Japanese. We have arrived over an hour late, but he does not let his irritation show. I bow deeply, apologise profusely and hope that he is not too seriously offended.
Lunch, and another plant tour. S______ meanwhile stops the minibus to buy strings of jasmine flowers, designed as offerings to the Buddha. They are draped around the steering wheel and mirror.
We arrive back in Bangkok, and P________ takes control from her mother. She is now on her home territory, and comfortable. We go shopping, and she is like any 20-year old in a smart shopping mall. She helps me choose some silk to take home for my wife and some carved animals for the children. Then she chooses a sushi restaurant for dinner. It is one of her favourites, and she greets some girlfriends as we arrive. Her mother is no longer in control and feeling a little uncertain about protocol and etiquette. The disposable table mats are advertising wedding services, and I wonder what people think as they see a mother, her pretty daughter and a western man in there, eating together.
As we eat, I try teasing them a little, fighting back gently as S________ tries to help cut my salmon, and saying that I wonder if she lets her daughter do anything at all. P_____, on her own ground, smiles at me and tells her mother it is true, she can be a bit over-protective. I sense it is a debate they have had before.
The next day, more visits, and the next, and then at last, my flight home is due in a few hours. After we part, with a friendly smile a professional handshake and an exchange of gifts, I go down to the health club in the hotel, have a long shower, and ask for a massage. The girl on the desk looks at me, sizes me up and says they have many girls, pretty girls. I look at her, and reply that pretty is not important. I only want an expert. The appointment is made, but the meditative trance does not come as easily. There is something wrong. As the masseuse reaches my neck, and nears the end of the hour-long session, she strikes up a conversation, "Do you like Bangkok... Do you like massage...and do you like extras?" I wake suddenly from my reverie and, stupidly, ask what she means. "You know," she says, "extras", emphasising the last word. I am too short with her and say no.
I don't tip her and instead of spending the next few hours enjoying the energy from a massage, I think about P_______ and her mother and know that their caution was justified.