Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Sleep Walking Tour of Chiang Mai Night Life

Now. It was raining. Late.

My tuk-tuk driver sized me up in the rear view before asking me, you want lady? 

No. Not really. Just take me home.

No, you come first, free. Come see. You like. You come and see first.

I didn't agree but without much warning he was whipping into a parking spot in front of a karaoke club.

It was a karaoke bar not far from my guest house. Well, hell, let's where this is going, OK, let's have a look.

Tuk tuk driver followed me in to show his Mamasan and door guard goons his face (I bring farang. I want my cut).

Well well well--a chubby little mamasan waddles in and immediately starts to steer me to a table. You. Sit. You Sit.

Two or three prostitutes moved in on me, massaging my shoulders, steering me towards a table. but I refused to sit--let's go Mr. tuk tuk driver. . .now!.

Chorus of please stay we give good masshage, buy one lady drink. raining now, just stay, sit, have one beer.

In sex-pat speak, they're referred to as LBFMs. From the Philippines to the Bay of Bengal, white guys shouldering the burden and rifles used the phrase when spinning stories about how they spent last month's salary. 

I first heard the term when older brothers of my friends returned from 13 months in Vietnam. This would have been my early teens to mid-teens. Mostly, the older brothers weren't much interested in talking about the war. They were mostly interested in getting on with their youths. They would rather not talk about it unless they wanted to shock us with stories about the sex and the drugs, you know, remembering the best of times.

They returned with stories exotica, stories of government issue vials of amyl nitrate and the ease of buying China white heroin, or what a hoot it was to zone out on Thai stick while under attack at night, mesmerized by the tracer rounds zapping back and forth which lit up the night sky like a shower of shooting stars. They told us about furloughs in Bangkok where these good  American boys paid for sex tricks like "the swinging chandelier" which required at least three prostitutes to make it happen. These prostitutes were referred to with a military-like acronym--L.B.F.M.s.(Be careful how you use it and who you use it around; it is the South East Asian "N" word". A very, very bad word).

We. the younger brothers thought that if the war ended before we turned 18, we'd be lucky--we were not impatiently waiting our turn to join the fight--this was 1968, 1969, 1970, not 1917 or 1941. But. If still being drafted in 1973, '74, '75 and the U.S. was still calling on us to stop the Southeast Asian red dominoes from tumbling, the odds, we thought, were on our side for coming home in one piece and there was a place called Bangkok and there were these L.B.F.M.s we'd heard so much about waiting for us. 

Acronym speak is military speak. For example, a sergeant barks, "Before you climb into your A.P.C. remember to collect your TA-50, a three day issue of C-Rats, and you F.N.G.s don't forget to keep your M-16s on safe. We will be encountering V.C. and N.V.A. and I do not want one swinging dick coming back K.I.A. or even W.I.A. so for tonight and the next four weeks, Jody, not you, will be hugging and kissing your L.B.F.M."

L.B.F.M.--Little Brown Fucking Machines. On the one hand, yes, of course, a truly offensive term, no argument there. As I've said,  a Southeast Asian "N" word. On the other hand, in many villages throughout North Eastern Thailand, Isaan in particular, many, if not all families have at least one daughter who is destined to become one day an L.B.F.M. The family depends on it. They should expect to work as prostitutes the way other family members are expected to grow and harvest the rice or the better yet, work even more thoughtlessly, on auto-pilot, more mechanically, like a machine, like a tractor or a rice thrasher, a not-quite-human mechanical object that works for the family in an occupation that did not, as I was taught in college, come about as a result of the days when L.B.J. sent in the U.S.M.C to fight the N.V.A. 

Thailand is a country never colonized by white guys. It is one area where white guys were not expected to carry a burden.

Thailand is a country with a history of concubinage, not so unique in Asia. And places like Isaan, not too far from Chiang Mai, are areas in Northeast Thailand where those who had it all used to shop around for their concubines because Isaan produces not only a lot of rice and some finger licking good rat meat, but Isaan has always yielded a bumper crop of extra daughters whose destiny was (and still is) upon reaching puberty to leave the family and go hang out somewhere, day-after-day, night-after-night, waiting to be fucked in order to support her family. It was and still is the duty of at least one daughter. And it is not anything new.

Families whose daughters left home were and still are thought of by kinfolk as not much more than farm machinery and like all farm machines, they help to ease the workload of toil, sweat and the real possibility of famine. The day these chosen daughters leave home is a day that gives their families a promising future of the La Dolce Vita.

Today, concubinage is officially prohibited but there's a work-around. Prostitution is unofficially a socially accepted (or socially resigned to) occupation. It is seen by these farming families as not so different than helping out, milking cows, gathering eggs, swinging a scythe in the rice paddies. They send their earnings home to the family who these days are not just content with golden rings and an iron rice bowl; the brothers need electric guitars and motorcycles, the sisters need an education and Hello Kitty sneakers, the parents need satellite dishes and H.D. TVs.  The liquor cabinet must have a well-stocked supply of Johnny Walker Red. 

I think more accurately they might be referred to as L.B.F.C.s--the "C" standing for cog, because in a society that has functioned for a thousand years like the same machine it is today, where Maslow's hierarchy of needs peak at "saving face" (gaining the admiration of respect of your neighbors). The household needs stuff, and the family must be the talk of the town, renowned for being a family who can afford to do a lot of hanging out, sleep late, wake up late, gamble often and one capable of throwing parties legendary in the retelling.

Self actualization (a western conceit) is realized by having more neat stuff than the folks next door; I see much of Thailand thinking of itself as a society which runs like a well maintained, highly profitable farm, and a well maintained, highly profitable farm is one which usually profits best buy skillfully implementing the use of all family members in its well-oiled machinery, including in some rural areas at least one daughter whose chores do not include getting up before dawn, but getting home just before sunrise.

On the way back to Guest House, Tuk tuk man asked me to give him a miss call--in case I ever needed a tuk-tuk, I'd have his number. It's a burner sims card anyway that will not leave Thailand. It's not an uncommon request. So I miscalled him

I put it out of my mind; however, about ten the following night, the phone rang. Mr. Tuk Tuk called, was waiting outside, in the rain, much to the contemptuous scowling and evil eyeballing of the 3 tuk tuk drivers who'd already staked out the territory and have probably been parked out there every night for ten years waiting for some clueless farang to ask the 64,000 dollar question--do you know where I can get a lady?

I was already in bed watching my bootlegged copy of "Salt". But then, I'm on vacation. I'm looking for adventure. Ah hell, let's see where this little adventure takes me. I put about 10 USD in Thai Baht in my wallet, pulled on shorts, a t-shirt, sandles, and left the room putting Angelina Jolie's pouty lips and 9 millimeter on pause.

Away we went.

First place--another karaoke bar. As soon as I and my nearly empty wallet approach the door, swarms of LBFMs crowd around pulling me this way, that way. I start slapping my pocket. Wallet. Check. Watch still on wrist, check. Still got my ten fingers and ten toes? Check.

I go inside and ask the main Takin' Care of Biness question to show I mean biness to chubby lil Mamasan. How much?

2000 Baht. 120 bucks.

For a wank? Ah. Nope. Thanks. (I don't have any money on me anyway--if she'd known, I would not have left the place walking)

Me to tuk-tuk man, lezzgo matey. I've seen this rerun. I know how it ends. I left the place to a begging, pleading, whining chorus of please buy me one lady drink, please stay, I give good masshage.

Maybe so, but not this chump, not today.

How about a beer bar, tuk-tuk driver suggests. I'd read beer joints here sort of function like BKK Blow job clubs. I'm broke, anyway. Whadda fuck. Lezzgo. With each stop, I actually feel like I'm a pretty darn swift adventurer/ con artist.

So we pull up to some beer palace. Remember now, it's pissing hard, nearing midnight. They, the club workers and owners and assorted hanger-ons haven't had a chump, er, customer all night. It's like a village full of starvin Marvins waiting for a bottle of fresh water and a bag of rice.
So, I climb out of the tuk tuk and as I enter the stanky beer hall, an entourage of LBFMs in tow, I noticed upon entering, three hefty looking fellows standing by the door. The door doesn't get locked behind me--a good sign.
"Bring me a Leo, no ice?" I tell a goonish bartender.

"And what shall the ladies have?"

I hadn't noticed but about a half dozen LBFMs had joined me.
"You buy beer and you must buy lady drink too."

Three fellers at the door started to close ranks. Nope. Forget the beer. Thank you. Maybe I come back. (Please no, stay, buy lady drink, I give good masshage. You want boom boom, sucky? Two lady?)

Fortunately, Mr Tuk Tuk is still with me waiting for his baksheesh, so using him as a shield, I quickly pushed my way out the door crouched behind him. The three goons looked at each other--how can we keep him and let the drive go? What do we remember from our training?  We can't kidnap him and the tuk-tuk driver. While they were working on their plan of action, I made it out the door and onto the streets. Take me home Mr. Tuk Tuk driver. I guess this counts as my adventure for the evening. Angelina Jolie was still on pause back at the Guest House Hell in the middle of busting some caps on some bad guys with most of her boobs in mid-flop.
"No wait, I know another bar, you like, beautiful lady too much."

The poor chump doesn't know I barely have enough money in my wallet to pay him for the tour at this point. Had he known, I'd still be walking down from the mountains asking directions to the nearest clinic.

Chiang Mai ain't no BKK. Hell, it ain't even Siem Reap.

Which is a good thing, and I mean it. A Thailand town that doesn't have its prozzy business operating with maximum efficiency means there are a lot of women in town who have enough self respect--even with absent fathers and many hungry mouths to feed, to not tip the balance in favor of more supply than demand.

Chiang Mai is not on the sex-pat itinerary as far as I can tell, and even though its wireless connections stink, it's surrounded by misty mountains and triple canopied forests, and so far, I haven't experienced one rolling black out.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Hung Up and Hanging Out

I met up with my friend alt. country loving buddy Kevin (also known as Doctor Pool) here in Siem Reap and found out that he's gone somewhat troppo, but in a good way. He's acquired near native-like expertise at hanging out.

Part of his evening, afterwork beer ritual begins by going to THE supermarket in town--the Angkor Market--buying a bottle of the good brew, and taking it outside the market to sit on a bench and hang out. He goes to people watch the tourists or to hang out long enough to meet and greet friends, other ex-pats who each night always seem to have a need to swing by THE supermarket on their way home. Could be they need quart of milk, a dozen eggs, a bottle of wine, a fresh loaf of bread, maybe some cat litter and/or other house hold staples that they've run low on and that need to be topped up mid-week.

I do what I do each day, read, forage for lunch, practice a few riffs, maybe chill in my room watching TV (and I literally mean "chill" because my hotel room's a/c has two settings--morgue or off), then evengingish I go to THE supermarket and hook up with Kevin and we hang-out.

Forget about Apsara hand dancing, hanging out is an art form the Khmers are masters of.

Hanging out is one of the main things about his countrymen that chapped Pol Pot's ass to the extent that the country is still up to its ass and elbows in skulls with back of the head bullet holes. If you've seen the Killing Fields or if you've seen Spalding Gray's one man show, you know the story--the Khmer Rouge blasted their way into every town and the first order of the day was to make hanging out a bullet-in-the-brain capital offense. Year Zero began when all non-Cambodians were deported and with all Cambodians being given the choice to either develop a German work ethic overnight or. . .well, one day (though they didn't know it at the time) have their back-of-the-head bullet holed skulls wind up in a glass enclosed mountainous skull pile in a museum. A tourist who does not pay five bucks to see the skulls before leaving Cambodia would be the same sort of smart ass who would visit Amsterdam and refuse to be hustled through the Anne Frank House. I've not seen the skulls up close,but I have been hustled through the Anne Frank house. I'm only a half-assed smart ass.

It would be a dim banality to make the assumption that Cambodians are genetically pre-dispositioned to indolence. (Guilty!) But this is what they do, it is their way, their reason for being and they do it so well--hang out. 

Lookit. I live in a Gulf Arab country--and I used to think nobody could hang-out better than a Gulf Arab, but they can afford cars, gas is cheap and so they are these days in motion most of the day. Oh. They still do a lot of hanging out, but it's never in one place for too long because they have to drive somewhere and meet someone else to hang-out with.  Or they have decided that the car is the new tent and that driving is the new hanging-out.

Cambodians are still hang-out in stationary posture most of the time. While they do have transportation--motor-scooters built to seat two but can seat a family of five and at the same time carry a couple of pig carcasses and a half dozen squawking chickens, but a bottle of Johnny Walker Red full of petrol (empty whiskey bottles are reborn and recycled as gasoline containers) ain't cheap. Not when you are trying to get by on a buck fifty a day hoping that if you ask ten thousand barangs with back-packs if they need a ride on a motor scooter, that at least three will take you up on the offer. That's a good day's work. So if you have a good hang-out spot, settle in mid-morning, make yourself comfortable and stay put, hang, wait till ten or eleven o'clock at night, call it a day, hop on your scooter and scootch home; come back tomorrow to do it all over again. Day after too hot too humid day, this is a living, this is a life.

I've done what I've come to Siem Reap to do, that is, hook up with Kevin, play our blend of alt. country tunes and 60s songs that we just can't let go of in some touristy pubs for free drinks. Time to move on, head south to Phnom Penh and do whatever it is I have to do there (what "it" is hasn't been revealed to me yet).

I'd be in P.P. now, but I've got a laptop in a shop and it won't be ready until 2 today (I've been told this for four days now--come back tomorrow at 2).

If today is the day, and my machine is good to go, or, at this point, I'll settle for good-enough to go, then I will immediately use it to book my room in PP near the river, go buy a bus ticket and a bottle of fortified cough syrup because getting on a bus around here is like getting to an airport in Prague and finding out your connecting flight is on a Tupolev--you're not just gonna a need a drink, you're gonna need a lot of drinks, or, if you can get the good stuff, a bottle of killer cough syrup. It's best to pre-board a Russian airliner or a Southeast Asian bus pre-anesthetized.

So, now I'm watching the clock, waiting for 2, then I'll go back to the computer guy and try my best to gently turn up the heat and to not go American on him, i.e. "let me see the manager". This would only sound the death knell for my laptop.If I'm at the very least able to plug and pray with my Dell Latitude, I'm hitting the road tomorrow.

But tonight, for the last time this year, around whenever : thirty, I'll head for THE super market, buy a bottle of the good very brown brew and sit outside with Kevin on a bench, and, oh, I don't know. Maybe we'll just hang.