For the observant, dining at local restaurants in Phuket, Thailand can be a spectator sport. You will notice a phenomenon among other diners. There is the Western man, the sunburned farang, either European, Australian or American. And then there is the silent Asian woman, perhaps young enough to be thought of as a girl.
I first made this discovery while dining at Savoey at Patong Beach. After my wife and I select the fresh giant prawns, lobster and mahi mahi we will eat from their icy heaps behind glass, we swoon with joy at our table. A beach breeze ticks at our napkins, swaying palms in the courtyard. We spent the day sunning and frolicking in Indian Ocean, then grooving on the Buddhist temple vibe and the scent of Plumeria, while flexing muay thai kickboxers on the back of a truck advertised fights at a local stadium. We have the loose grins of those experiencing peak joy. We are in love, and we love this place, and we talk greedily about the wonders of our day.
But around us, the dining scene is tense and silent.
First, you must understand the Thai girlie bar. These are open air bars, in Pattaya, or Patong Beach, or Ko Samui, where women sedately nurse waters or beers and when a lone Western man comes down the sidewalk they swarm and cackle like vultures, “Date? Date!” I don’t know how much money is involved or when this is negotiated, nor have I ever negotiated such a thing myself. But the next step is dinner.
At one table a red-faced, balding Englishman in a flowery shirt. Across from him is a dark-skinned Asian woman, probably Burmese. She wears jean shorts and flip-flops, and no makeup. He is edgy, sipping his beer and staring at her. She is catatonic — a lack of expression similar to those with bad medical test results, or who have lost homes in earthquakes. The waiters come and go, food arrives. Still nothing is said. It is clear nothing will be said. At another table a big doughy Swede consumes spicy flounder, glancing rarely, and cautiously, at an Asian woman, whose blank gaze does not extend beyond her plate. A mousy American fellow, a cubicle jockey, wearing shiny new shorts and sneakers — his tropical vacation ensemble — has a prime two top near the courtyard. He has carefully combed his thinning hair. He sits on the edge of his seat, alert, seeming to catalogue things he might say. His date, a Thai girl, looks off into the night. He looks hopefully at her. Her eye occasionally wanders to her water glass, then tracks the busboy away from the table. She is hibernating in bored, irritated thoughts. He nods his head to the music, as if it’s a natural conversational break, yet as the music changes from Journey to Air Supply, he is more and more crestfallen.
I’m an enthusiastic eavesdropper and an incorrigible starer (my wife tries to curtail me; she cannot), and this is the most fascinating dining I have witnessed.
These guys! I sense these are normally frustrated men. Struggling with social skills, with feminine whims and judgment, and suffering from the finicky rituals of dating. They were frustrated and flummoxed enough to travel halfway around the world for some action… and they are entirely unequipped to deal with the Girlie Freezeout. You kinda feel for these guys. For a lifetime they have imagined the smiling, beautiful, nurturing Asian girl of their dreams. The demure girl of Old World values, eager to ingratiate herself with the rich, impressive Westerner (and she seemed enthusiastic fifteen minutes ago). Or perhaps this is naive. Maybe his dream, with knowledge of the poor women he will encounter, is one of taking out frustration on this purchased person.
Which brings me to the sex trade on the Asian continent. (Louise Brown’s Sex Slaves details the cruelties, rape and violence involved, how girls are “seasoned” to break their will.) The rule of thumb is that many Thai women in Bangkok and places like Phuket are in the girlie bar trade voluntarily to make a quick buck (social psychologists might argue about economic desperation and the term “voluntary”). But there is another side. A vast criminal network of sex traders buys girls from poor villages in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, or tricks them into prostitution. They work in brothels visited by locals, but might end up servicing sex tourists in Bangkok or elsewhere. Are the women around me volunteers? With this knowledge, the dinner ritual becomes creepy and colonial and ethically dubious. “Bad karma,” I’d like to say, “it might be headed your way.”
Short of that, I would say: Is it worth it? Does this seem happy? Do you care about this human being and what her story really is? Are you this desperate? Have you never dined with a lovely girlfriend and had pleasant conversation and anticipated passionate and entirely voluntary sex? Because if you had, you’d know this situation is unnatural.
It is difficult to know the hearts and minds of others. Who am I to say what is transpiring between the Englishman and his silent lady friend? Perhaps later, after the mahi mahi has been eaten and the bill paid, something unexpected might happen. Maybe understanding or affection will be exchanged rather than raggedy Thai bahts. But if the dining is an indication, they will not be.
**KNOWN THING NO. 22: You can buy dinner and drinks, and you can buy sex, but you cannot buy lively conversation.
**KNOWN THING NO. 23: People do things differently in other places and different opportunities exist, but this is not necessarily a justification to do them yourself.
13 replies on “The Phuket Dinner Ritual: What is Your Name and Why Won’t You Look At Me?”
Hi Rob ~:) Hope you and your wife are still enjoying the visit here in Taiwan. Great website I’ll keep reading it. I’ve got a blog but most of the posts were written in chinese (just so I could practice how to type in Chinese)which will probably appear on your screen as blocks. My old blog is http://www.911chic.blogspot.com... I admire writers. :) my cellphone number is __________ in Taiwan, maybe if you and your wife are free, we could have supper together?
It was great meeting you Jay. You live in an amazing town, and you’re across the street from Longshan! The next time we are in Taipei we will give you a ring.
Fascinating post. Really felt happily transported, then felt–as you pointed out–a combination of feelings regarding the “dating” ritual. Respect for the culture of others, yet knowing there are some things that aren’t “right” anywhere.
Well said. It’s really a complex issue without easy answers. That’s one of the great things about experiencing other cultures.
You write so vividly and honestly; I felt like I was really sitting there in that restaurant. I think I’m sensitive to the incongruence of some people vis-a-vis their relationship, as you do. This part of your vignette particularly struck me:
“She is hibernating in bored, irritated thoughts. He nods his head to the music, as if it’s a natural conversational break, yet as the music changes from Journey to Air Supply, he is more and more crestfallen.”
Surprisingly, I’ve seen these ‘two’ in many restaurants, in many cities over the years, in various permutations/relationships. The chasm is sometimes too wide to cross, yet there are always so many who try, who pretend…
Keep writing and safe travels,
Yes, there is something about the formality of dining that gets your attention and mine. A couple has to sit in one place and confront each other (or not). When else does this happen? Couples on vacation also tend to fight in restaurants.
Hey, Robb. Your blog is inspirational. So much so, I found myself starting my own.
I like your knack for observing your surroundings. I find myself doing this quite often. I always imagine there are interesting stories to be told from those people around us in various settings.
Your artwork is unique. Mine is more conventional. But in the end, if you’re like me, you find the exercise cathartic. Without a doubt, I wouldn’t mind doing it for a living.
I noticed on your FB that Dr. Zhivago is a fave of yours. Same here. I once described to a friend my interpretation of the movie. Lara is representative of Russia. Pasha is the proletariat, Komarovsky is the aristocracy, and Zhivago is liberalism, and all three are attempting to lay claim to her. It’s a powerful movie regardless of the deeper meaning.
Thanks for directing me to your blog. Good stuff.
Hey, thanks for that Lyle. Go for it. I’ve found the art and design aspects of blogging to be satisfying. WordPress is a good customizable choice.
I like your Dr. Zhivago theory. I appreciate Zhivago’s unflagging optimism and humanity in the face of horrible circumstances. It always kills me at the end when Lara says, “Oh Yuri, it’s a horrible time to be alive,” and Zhivago says, “No!”
I have just now become a fan. The piece on Phuket not only took me back to my trip there in 1987 (!) when I was pregnant with my daughter but it also beautifully expressed precisely that unpleasant, unsettling aura in the girlie bars where, when I was there, there was an eternal cycle of Stallone films on televisions behind the bars. The sex trade, the oppression and abuse of young girls (and boys), is deeply disturbing on so many levels, one of them being the fact that they succeed because there are men willing to pay for these people, men with so little sense of empathy, so little sensitivity to the plight of others less fortunate than themselves, they can convince themselves that these are fair transactions, that the girl is a willing cohort. Anyway, I am happy that I have found your blog and you have also inspired me to look differently at my own–I struggle with the question of whether or not a blog has any value–you have certainly convinced me that it does. Thanks.
Thank you so much Corinne! Thailand is a magical and unusual place.
I think everyone who blogs experiences questions about the value of their blog (is it lost in a vast internet sea? do people care? how many hits do I have?) Don’t lose sight of the intrinsic value, to you, of expressing yourself. In the old days people (like me) kept journals and the intrinsic was all you had. Nobody read it. A blog is basically an open journal. When you express yourself, you can also harmonize with other people, and that is a more powerful thing than you realize.
Thanks for the reply Robb. I just haven’t gotten a grip on what I want to blog about–using it as a journal is certainly one approach (and obviously one that you do well!) but, again, I’m not certain that is the direction I want to take. Meanwhile I guess I’ll just keep puttering around, trying different approaches until one ‘feels right’. Thanks again :-)
Terrific writing style, Robb. Not sure how I ended up on your blog, but this Phuket piece caught my eye since I’ve lived in Thailand the last 12 years. Your observations are dead accurate. However, your observation would be different if you were in a different place. The whole scenario would have been reversed if the guys had taken the girls to a Thai restaurant (not a Farang catering joint), but where the girls go to eat, a hole in the wall down an alley.
Having lived here so long, it seems that I’ve met every type of tourist and Thai personality. All the things you and your commentators have to say, first blush, about the underbelly of the sex trade, is true enough. But it is so much more complicated than the blush Westerners, especially women, put on it. I won’t get into a debate, because, you are right in the hidden message, that there isn’t any virtue here, but it’s far from black and white.
One of my girlfriend’s girlfriend, had a very interesting take on her job, which was a bar girl (aka prostitute): “Farang girl, so funny. She go bar, meet man, sleep with man free. I work dance in bar maybe 3-4 hour, go with man choose 1-2 hour. I make money more one day than two week work hotel. Falang man nice to me, never hit, never say bad thing, buy me what I want. I send half money back to mama. My whole family live good.”
This is not an endorsement of a lifestyle, rather a different view, one from a red plastic stool in alley noodle shop.
Thanks, Stuart. Yes, you have given the bar girl side brilliantly. It’s the cultural flip that can be difficult to get one’s head around. Other cultures also treat sexuality differently than the Anglo-Protestant way.