I’m back to write another story that the folks at ‘Freshly Pressed’ won’t like. The story won’t include anything like the set of suggested guidelines as to how to become popularized that they publish on their site. There won’t be any cute photographs of myself doing goofy things in trendy spots with my credit card. It won’t be written in contemporary themes or a folksy whimsical font. It’s not a story about my latest packaged vacation, in fact it all happened long ago. This story is about a time and a place , built around characters who are probably all dead by now. The theme of the story is about individual misery and the small triumphs of poor people. It’s about the miserly way that fate can treat certain people, regardless of any dreams of innocence they may have had before realizing they’d been born to a certain life ill fated and not another more fortunate. It’s a story about people born to experience the malice of fortune and able to thumb their nose at the cosmic snub.
I’ve always had a soft spot for street people. I grew up in the street, ‘out of doors’ as we used to say, prostitutes, junkies, convicts , societies derelicts and cast offs were the people I called my friends and family. It was only natural that I escape that world as soon as I was old enough to obtain a passport. Odd jobs and an adherence to an enforced frugality most people could never understand allowed me buy my first ticket out into the world. I never had enough money in my pocket to rise above the streets wherever I traveled. I was just happy to be there. I didn’t do any of the ‘popular things’ or sight see the way today’s travelers do. I was quite content to be anywhere other than where I came from and watch the world go by with the sun on my face.
I would gravitate to the places in every city where I felt ‘the life’ around me, thieves , prostitutes, thugs and conniving hustlers all being herded by corrupt policemen and the mob. I left my ghetto only to live among the poorest people in the third world , it was all I could afford, at least it was warmer than what I’d escaped from. If any of you have slept in the streets of a North American city over the brutal winter, you’ll understand why ‘south’ became my personal mantra. I can attest to the fact that it’s safer to sleep in the parks of New Delhi than in Detroit or Toronto.
I won’t bore you with the years I spent wandering around the world in rags with nothing more than a backpack and underspending even the beggars and street trash of wherever I happened to be. From my years in the streets I had developed a confident vibe that protected me from attack or intrusions of any kind, so I could exist comfortably in the worst of conditions, sleeping on the floors of bars or backed into a corner underneath any convenient overpass. Street people and police will know what I’m talking about, there are the victims and ‘the others’ in the street, it’s all about how you carry yourself. If your vibe is right, thugs turn towards easier prey, it’s a predatory primal thing, welcome to the jungle baby.
By the early 1970’s I had turned the corner on poverty doing what I had read about in a book by Adam Smith. I had noticed that I could buy things cheap in abundance in the third world and transport them to other countries where they would fetch a decent profit. This practical revelation allowed me to turn my travel fantasies into an ongoing reality. In the years before guidebooks and mass tourism, (‘Damn You Tony Wheeler‘), the goods I could buy in India, Indonesia, Thailand and South America were rare and exotic, as such highly desirable and easy to sell in the flea markets, street fairs and ‘hip’ boutiques in Europe and North America. I never made a lot of money, but the lifestyle of an itinerant trader allowed me to travel and support myself without ever falling back into the street life which I so detest as having been my womb.
I arrived in Bangkok in 1972 after having spent a year traveling in in India buying select rags and jewellery/accessory items and shipping back to friends in the west who were plying the same trade. Bali and Thailand had just opened up as centers where trade goods could be found in abundance and there were very few traders or ‘thank God‘ any backpackers in the area as yet. The Lonely Planet guide hadn’t been published yet. As always I found the cheapest place in the city to stay by word of mouth from other business travelers, a run down hotel across the street and down an alley from the Bangkok Hualompong train station, the ‘Sri Hualompong Hotel’.
The area around the train station had my name written all over it, the winding alleys were home to the poor and dispossessed who came from the country to sell a few meager goods and their farm produce. As any Old Bangkok hand knows, the train station is adjacent to Yarowat, the China Town district. Because of the railways influence there is an abundance of street food in the area for the many travelers who pass through every day. Because the railway is the main route into the city for the poorest, the most desperate people from the interior of Thailand can first be found around the central railway station.
At the time I was working with a few goldsmiths in the Silom district, they were setting the stones that I had brought from India into rings and pendants of my own design. In the heat of the midday afternoon, as is the custom in Thailand, everyone goes home to eat sleep and make love. I would come back to rest in the cool foyer of the Sri Hualompong Hotel. The hotel lobby also happened to be a central meeting place for prostitutes from the interior and north to meet up and exchange news from home while waiting for the night. They would ply their trade in Bangkok and take the money they earned ‘Bai Baan’, back to the village, to their families. It was their custom to drink local Mekhong and Black Cat brand whiskey in glasses of ice from communal ‘Nam Khang’ buckets hotel maids would set down and keep filled as long as there were drinkers at the table.
The prostitutes were primarily street walkers, working the flashy strip in the Pat Pong district. These were girls who worked the periphery of that miserable quarter. That ‘street vibe’ I mentioned earlier came in handy and I let the girls know I wasn’t there for their ‘services’. Once we’d straightened out the fact the I wasn’t a ‘John’ they were just girls again, laughing and drinking the day away. Very few Thai’s spoke any English back in those days, but the girls had picked up a few words of pigeon-English from their trade with foreigners. The suckers were primarily current or ex-military and suppliers from the Vietnam war that would end in 1973. Bangkok and Pattaya were ‘R&R’ centers for soldiers and civic workers from the US and allied countries.
These girls, as simply educated as they were, were not dummies, they had learned a thing or two about their customers weaknesses. They told me of how many of them wanted the ‘girlfriend experience’. The luckiest one’s had even spent weeks in relative luxury with men at their hotels where the standard of living was like heaven compared to their shacks in the village. The girls used the boozy afternoons to discuss and teach what they had learned, all the tricks, the words and the gaffes that would lead the men they serviced to pay them more money and avoid the ‘short time’ sex that most girls found to be distasteful and grueling. Ask any working girl and she’ll tell you that she would rather spend two weeks with some odious boozer than spend every night prowling the bars and have to sleep with five or six odious boozers every night. The Sri Hualompong was like a university for prostitutes to learn their trade craft. The elder and more experienced girls told the younger ones what to say and do….right down to the very script they should use in any situation.
The real money was made by getting into the men’s heads and provoking ‘the love’ as it was called. From what I understood, the men were mostly easy marks who had never had steady sex before and they were easily led into proposals of marriage at best and at the very least to cleaning out their wallets when they left after their tour. They knew if they found the right sucker who could be turned by a night of sex then that could be turned into a trip to the gold shop.
The girls would tell the men that they were the best lovers, that they wanted to quit the business after their ‘love had blossomed’, that their mother was sick, that they were pregnant and needed support…… anything to get the sucker to ‘cough up’. The problem the girls had was that as soon as the man left they would go hungry again after they’d sold the gold necklace or bracelet and spent the cash they’d taken from his wallet while he’d slept. A lot of the girls would have to pawn their clean clothes to make it one day at a time.
I had an epiphany one day. I proposed a strategy that the Bangkok whores use even today, and they’ve even graduated to using social media and well run cyber-businesses catering to this specific trade, all from our boozy strategy sessions in the lobby of the Sri Hualompong Hotel. I designed the first ‘long distance love letter’ for the girls to use after first gaining the suckers home address, wherever he was from. Germans, Danes, Swiss, Americana an abundance of Aussies, in fact men from every nationality have fallen for this trick over the years.
I got the idea originally from a guest house host in Sri Lanka named Gamini Yahatagoda. His story was that he had once run on hard times and out of desperation had written a letter asking for help from a Swiss traveler whom he thought he had befriended. As I sat in the front room of his house one evening he pointed to a cheap wooden Cuckoo clock on the wall and said ” This was all the bastard sent me for my trouble’. We had a good laugh and I bought a round of beers from the shop next door and thought nothing more of it.
Sitting with the girls I realized that if the girls could wheedle the addresses of their longer term ‘boyfriends’, the ones they’d really wrapped around their fingers with frequent sex, that we could try this letter writing technique and see what happened. I had no idea how successful the ‘love letter’ writing campaign would become and how it would become a mainstay of the Bangkok prostitutes arsenal of revenue creation.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but addresses came pouring in within a few days of my suggestion, the girls all thought this was a great idea, they were eager. Within a week I began to spend my afternoons creating ‘love letters’ to departed and besotted johns the world over. Through some cooperative translation we worked at describing the guys weaknesses and how the girl had talked him into ‘loving her’. We repeated these themes over and over again in the ‘love letters’.
The Mekhong afternoons became raucous parties filled with laughter where girls would file in and detail their experiences with certain men. I would then write to the john, in pigeon English’ , of how the girl was entirely smitten with the john’s sexual prowess, how he was ‘the one and only’, how she would never go back to prostituting after his great loving, she just needed a little money to help her out until he came back. We described sudden pregnancies and even dental work that elderly fathers and infirm aunts in the country villages would need, how the family water buffalo had died and needed replacing before the monsoon or the family would starve. The girls created and I wrote.
Months went by while presents, love letters stuffed with foreign cash, along with letters in simple prose, almost written in tears, as to the johns undying devotion came pouring in. I don’t remember ever buying a drink in all the time I stayed with the girls at the Sri Hualompong Hotel. In the meantime I had traveled the width and breadth of Thailand buying goods, I had traveled to still mystical Bali and to ancient Burma to purchase more goods during my forced Thai visa runs, it became my time to return to my own world.
As time went by the storied success of my ‘love letter’ invention had spread like a wild jungle vine. The girls found professional letter writers among the offices and ‘juristic persons’ who had found that they could charge for the services that I was giving away for free. It seems that I had created a source of income and a new industry for Thai people and I was happy about that. Today almost every village and city neighborhood has an English speaker with an internet connection who works as a translator and letter writer for the prostitutes who live in the area. The business is quite well established, many of the translator/writers are ex prostitutes who have found a way to leave the trade through honest work as communicators and a go- between.
The businesses are very professional, the ‘guide’ will advertise a prostitutes picture and bio, but will not always describe the girl as a prostitute, only that she is available ‘for friendship’ while the ‘mook’ is in Thailand. This is every john’s dream…to find a Thai girl to sleep with while on vacation who is not a prostitute. If the girls find one of these suckers than they set the hook. Between them and their professional prostitute friends they will devise an elaborate scenario that will fool the sucker into thinking that he’s the luckiest guy in the world. They will begin an internet chat….describing how innocent but needy the Thai girl is…and in return how horny the man. The men often want to see body parts…the girls have stock photo’s of breasts and such on file to send. it doesn’t matter if they aren’t real.
This is all done by appointment with the prostitutes as regular customers of the translator. The businesses upload the information and monitors the traffic for the girl….there are many sites that offer introductions to innocent Thai girls ‘looking for a boyfriend’…..for a fee of course. The men will come to Thailand not knowing that their internet friend is a professional prostitute, she is instead portrayed as a nice girl, who is falling in love with the handsome farang. She will need some money, to set up a love nest, usually a small amount at first, a thousand dollars or two, just to pay the rent and get things ready.
The communications become more frequent and more suggestive as the date of the man’s arrival in Thailand approaches. She can’t wait for him, she’s having lusty dreams, she might even be a virgin. What the john’s seldom realize is that these enterprising prostitutes will juggle several men …even dozens at a time and have them sending money and promises of love. In fact many of these prostitutes are married and have families. A great many western men have not developed the reason or the ability to determine the age of Asian women and would be surprised to find out that many of these ‘innocent girls’ are in fact old enough to be their mothers. There are many men who arrive in Thailand to find that their ‘girlfriend’ has not met them at the airport as promised and the address of the ‘love nest’ is bogus. Just another farang who gets duped and shaken down for money by the sex trade.
I doubt the Thai government will ever recognize me as a pioneer or having played a role in creating an industry that brings in many millions of dollars. Not long ago I revisited the Sri Hualompong Hotel with my wife in tow to relive some of my past, she wasn’t impressed, the place is pretty grotty still. I guess I didn’t mind at the time, but Trisha assures me that I will not be going back anytime soon…..oh well…..and love letters from Bangkok prostitutes, that’s the story. If you receive one in the mail or in your email box, think of me.