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.