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Letter from Bangkok

Drowning in the Fountain of Youth

By Scott Harrison

When I first moved to San Francisco several years ago (from the flat land of smog and cars to the south), one thing that really impressed me was how well traveled people in the Bay Area were. One guy really stuck out. His name was Joe. He rode a small motorbike and he came into my bookstore to sell me some books. The books were exceptional, if inexpensive and well worn. I couldn't offer him much. Joe mentioned that he was going to Thailand soon. Thailand? He didn't look like he could afford tickets to two baseball games. I wondered about him. He seemed so content to be poor, so cheerful, so balanced. We talked about several things, but one thing he mentioned was that he had met and married a woman from Thailand. He said she was great. Not like American women. She cooked great Thai food every day and was a wonderful companion. Did he mean slave?

That was more ten years ago and I've done a lot of traveling since then. Recently I've come here to Thailand a couple times. I find the Thai women especially beautiful. I am constantly finding Thai women smiling at me, seemingly very happy to talk to me or become friends.

Imagine a divorced man spinning his tires in the sand of middle age. Frustrated. Lonely. Feeling terrible about getting older. He comes here to Bangkok from North America. Soon after arriving, he goes out to get a cold Singha beer at one of the go-go bars filled with young women. On that very first trip to the bar, he meets a woman much, much younger than he is. She assures him, "Age, no probrem."

This really happened.

He pays her to spend the night in his hotel room. With her, he feels he is young again. He feels he has recaptured his youth in her arms. Not unlike Dracula, keeping his youth by drinking some young maiden's blood. She leaves in the morning, giving him a sweet note with her home address — a small poor village in Isan, Northeast Thailand. In the note she says she loves him.

With that single night and her note, he loses what marbles he has left, goes over the edge, and falls hopelessly into a lust-fueled infatuation (to the shock and dismay of family members and friends who hear about it).

Nevertheless, from the very night he meets her, he is certain he has found his true soul mate. He begins a relentless courtship. He gives her expensive presents, flowers, dinners, trips, and lots of Thai baht cash for her pocket. He even sends money to her parents and says he'll buy and build a new house for them, although he keeps dragging his feet on the project. He tells himself that this woman is his true love, the one he has waited his whole life for. And it would have been a fine relationship and a fine romance if this lovebird were flying with two wings. Unfortunately it wasn't.

No, this man isn't me. (Did you think he was? Shame on you!) This is the true story of a Canadian man by the name of Michael Schemmann, who wrote about his experience in a book called "Lady of Isan." Not only does he show what a fool he is; he also shows what a serious drinking problem he has, to say nothing of his problems with violence. The object of his passion left him, and he wrote and self-published the book as something of a love letter to try to get her back. Not only didn't she come back. While living with him, she had a second boyfriend, a Swede, whom she was seeing secretly and who was spending more on her than Schemmann did. The book shows a lecherous older man taking what he believed was a leap of faith but actually diving into a pool with no water. To try to get her back, he had put up posters all over town, thousands of color posters with her picture and the promise of a reward.

I think it's a good thing he wrote the book. I believe there is a national industry here in Thailand where women lure middle-aged men into mercenary marriages, and then strip their assets to the bone and dump them. At least if they read this book, they will be warned.

I'm not saying I'm better than anyone else. I'm certainly not saying I'm above making a total ass out of myself. But the thing is, I already did that in Morocco, so now I can take a back seat and watch others become lunch for the lions.

One day when writing emails, I took a peek at what a young Thai woman was writing on her computer, just inches from mine. I saw her write a love email to one man, then turn right around and write another love email to a second man. Did my snooping bother her? No, not at all. She started asking me all about myself and requested my assistance with English. When I left, she wanted to email me.

It happened again this morning. I was sitting here, sending out some emails, and a beautiful Thai woman was at the computer very close to mine. I couldn't help but notice she was writing about the complications of getting a visa and her recent marriage to an American. Then I saw her write: "I don't even like farang (foreigners)." Get your popcorn. The horror show for some sucker is just beginning.

I believe one of the stark misconceptions about Thailand is that it is a culture of quick sex and loose-to-nonexistent morals. I want to correct the record and say I'm sure the opposite is true. The Thai Buddhist culture (besides being stringently sexist) is excessively polite, discreet, private, conservative, and clean cut. I'd say Thai culture is a large step more conservative than American-MTV culture. To give one example, kissing, hugging, or public displays of romantic affection are not seen much. One indicator of attitudes about violence against women is that rape in Thailand occurs at one-fifth the rate of America.

Yes, but what about all the bars with young "available" women? What about the go-go bars with rows of young women dancing in bathing suits and holding poles? What about red light areas like Pat Pong and a whole city called Pattaya, which seems dedicated to prostitution (as Las Vegas is to gambling)? What about Thailand's world famous reputation as Asians’ top spot for sex tourism?

Good question. Pattaya, Pat Pong, Nana Plaza, and other such places in Thailand were not wildly sexual, exotic places that foreigners just happened to stumble on. The truth is quite the reverse. During World War II, the Korean War, and particularly the Viet Nam War, the U.S. Air Force sent thousands of bombing missions to Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam from bases in "friendly" Thailand. Literally tens of thousands of troops who had spent the weeks bombing the hell out of neighboring Asian countries came to Thailand to get drunk and pay the local poor girls to put out the last thing most had to sell. Yes, what I'm saying is that the invaders invented it. In 1964 a large military base was built at U-Tapao, 100 miles north of Bangkok. Not long afterward, the war was in full swing. The sex bar scene started booming.

Today you don't see American troops (they are doing their magic in Iraq). You see flocks of gray-haired middle-aged men. Men trying to buy back their youth with women almost half their size and age.

If you put your ear to the ground and listen carefully here in Thailand, you'll understand that sex workers have about the same social status in Thai society as survivalists and neo-Nazis have in our own country. One really cruel thing is for tourists to start treating all Thai women as if they are sexual property, available to rent. I do think the record needs correcting.

Yes, you can come to Thailand and pay for sex. You can easily find a Thai woman for a mercenary marriage. But keep in mind that the American government can show up someday for yet another Asian war and use Thai bases to bomb the crap out of yet another Asian country (North Korea this time?). It's not exactly what Thailand is about.

Joe? Oh, I saw him several years later and found he was divorced. I asked him what had happened. He was really upset by the question. All he would tell me is the marriage ended very badly. I guess the slave escaped.