After a few sips of iced latte a women’s voice asked, “Where are you from?”
Cocking my head toward the sound I noticed bare brown shoulders against a thin white top that started half way down her cleavage and ended an inch or two above a feminine belly button. An intricate flower tattoo sprouted from her right shoulder and another all black tattoo resembling flames lapped up her shoulder blade. Further south faded denim cutoffs wrapped around shapely hips. The shorts were scant. The frayed hems were cut so high the white front pockets poked out from below and rested deliciously against her cinnamon brown thighs. It was a hot day in Kanchanaburi and Kalaya was dressed for it.
Kalaya was also an efficient talker. In a couple breaths I learned that her two marriages “broke”, why they broke, that the city was full of gossips and that she would happily leave town with the right man. Despite her batting average she assured me she hadn’t given up on marriage and emphasized the point by giving my upper thigh a friendly tap with her warm, soft hand.
Then she said, “I’m 42 years old. Yes, I want to get married but marriage is not just physical intimacy.”
Kalaya didn’t say physical intimacy, that would be inefficient, she said the “F” word with “ing” at the end. The lively conversation continued as did the friendly taps and bumps, and within minutes the space between us shrunk to the point that light struggled to get through.
At moments like this I become confused. The innocent in me says this poor woman married two jerks and is now a lonely single mom still dreaming of a happy ending. The sailor in me says wake up junior you’re in Thailand, the sharks are circling and this could get dangerous.
In Thailand prostitution is common, visible and contrary to what you may have heard, illegal. Nonetheless it generates over six billion dollars a year which is 10% of the country’s GDP. Despite its evils prostitution appears to be socially acceptable. A fling with a prostitute is considered more family friendly than keeping a mistress and some wives believe it’s natural for men to occasionally seek a change of scenery.
With 93% of Thailand being Buddhist and a temple 5 minutes in any direction I wondered how prostitution fit into such a religious culture. Per Wikipedia the book Disposable People by Keven Bales, argues that in Thai Buddhism woman are viewed as inferior to men and that Buddha told his disciples women were “impure, carnal, and corrupting,” and thus unable to achieve enlightenment. This view is disputed by other Buddhist scripture as well as Tibets’ Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. Bales also points out there are ten kinds of wives listed in the Vinaya, or rules for monks. The first three categories of women can be paid for their services and this may also account for why Thai women are tolerant of husbands having “empty sex” with prostitutes. There are other theories but the above were enough for my curiosity.
In America preachers, priests and even a US president have been known to pay for sex or pay to hide the fact they had sex. My guess is economics is more strongly linked to prostitution than religion is.
Thailand is a poor country, some experts estimate the average income is $8,000 a year and most rural folks earn far less than that. With limited education and job opportunities it’s not surprising that roughly 300,000 men and women work in massage parlors, karaoke bars and as freelance prostitutes to attain a life sustaining income.
I wasn’t sure if it was the innocent or sailor who made the correct assessment of Kalaya. Nevertheless I was uncomfortable and that inspired me to clarify that I was alone but very much married. Still, I wanted to hear her story so I stayed and talked. At some point the physical and verbal dynamics between us changed, we both relaxed. She began to tell me about her beautiful rebellious teenage daughter with almond shaped eyes and coveted pale skin. Kalaya attributed the alluring eyes to her Indian heritage. She complained that all she inherited from that side of the family was a broad nose and excessively dark skin. She noted that in Thai society those traits are aesthetically and socially looked down upon.
It was unclear to me with whom her daughter lived or how Kalaya earned a living. When directly asked she said she didn’t have a “regular job” but sometimes ran cigarettes from Burma to Thailand for the black market. As our words grew more honest and intimate I told her about my wife and she told me about the young Swiss man who she had recently fallen hard for, still loved, but was long gone. But her greatest desire was not to find a new lover or get married, it was to move to Germany.
“I know it sounds crazy,”she said firmly,“but I feel I’m German, not Thai. I visited Germany with my first husband, the Englishman. That felt like my real home. I should be there, not here.”
Toward the end of our visit, almost in passing, Kalaya said, “My biological father was German.”
She didn’t elaborate and hinted she didn’t want to. When I asked about an escape plan she said, “I have a friend who knows someone who can get me into Germany.”
“What about a job?” I asked.
She cast her eyes at the floor and in a voice absent of the enthusiasm and conviction of her earlier rant she mumbled, “I can always do massage.”
Just before parting Kalaya wrapped her dark arms around me, pulled me toward her thin white top and squeezed tightly. The hug felt sincere, not shark-like. I thanked her for the company and she thanked me for listening. Then she grabbed her helmet and joined the endless ribbon of motorcycles.
It was a hot day in Kanchanaburi but I’m glad I took a long walk instead of a train ride. I learned a little about Thai culture, found some guitar picks, and by chance spent the afternoon chatting with an interesting and attractive stranger – that’s serendipity.
Thanks, Brick! I admire your staying through your discomfort and being sincere and honest in your conversation. I bet she doesn’t get that gift very often.
Hope you are gathering these blog entries for a book! Chao, Val
Hi Val. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good story, so I sat and listened. Thanks for the encouragement, these blogs are adding up. Keep smiling! Brick 🙂
I think you’ve just described the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist. A tourist would never have that experience, and probably wouldn’t want to. No question who gets more out of visiting a country.
Hi Dave. It did make for an interesting afternoon. Thanks. 😊
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Oh how I enjoyed this travel essay, Thomas. Your writing is such a pleasure — the descriptions, the momentum, the story and its beginning, middle and end. I laughed outloud at this sentence: “The sailor in me says wake up junior you’re in Thailand, the sharks are circling and this could get dangerous.” Thanks so much for this vivid and loving picture of life in Thailand.
Hi, Jet. Thanks! I appreciate your sweet words and I’m glad it made you laugh. It was a good experience for me too. Best wishes. tom