Danish author Henrik List (born 1965) has been keeping it real - and writing the books about it! - for more than three decades, staying close to his own brand of homegrown, Danish ’dirty realism’ laced with punk, gonzo and Beat Generation antics.
He is the acknowledged but also controversial author of 18 fiction and non-fiction books titles + one graphic novel.
In 2016, following his Tropical Noir novel “Solen skinner aldrig på en go-go-bar” (“The Sun Never Shines In a Go-Go Bar”, 2014), List was awarded the highest national litterary endowment, a three year working grant, from the National Arts Council (Statens Kunstfond).
In 2016, List converted three of his short stories from the collection “Pussyland” (2001) into a graphic novel, “Pussyland Express”, illustrated by three of the most talented comic book artists in Denmark. The raw, autobiographical sex, drugs & rock’n’roll stories of “Pussyland Express” is inspired by the writers’ own trips around the US as a young man in the 80’s and early 90’s, offering a distinctly European view of and an hommage to the seedy underbelly of American urban life back then …
As a staff writer for Denmark’s oldest daily newspaper Berlingske from 1991-2004, List wrote the infamous ‘Henne om hjørnet’ gonzo columns as well as covering international underground/independent litterature, comics, music, and film. List has been sending dispatches from life on the edge of modern, urban life, celebrating the outsiders that challenge the rules and standards of political correctness – from Thai ladyboys, Tangier hustlers, and Tokyo goth lolitas, to
Danish porn stars, strippers and prostitutes.
List was one of the very first serious rave and club promoters in Denmark in the early 1990’s, hiring big-name dj’s like Little Louie Vega, party-crews like Jackie 60 and bands like Underground Resistance to come to the country for the first time around.
He co-founded the electronica stage at the Roskilde Festival in ’90, and was part owner of the bar Imbiss (now Riesen) in the Copenhagen red light district of Vesterbro later in that decade.
In the last few years, Henrik List has had numerous new books published by major Danish publishing houses:
”Kære fucking dagbog” (”Dear Fucking Diary”): A novel about a young Emo/Scene-girl in Copenhagen in 2007, when the politicians and the police wants to close down the old, squatted building, where she and her marginalized, teenaged punk friends hang out. Based on interviews with real teenage girls and the violent street riots following the demise of ‘Ungdomshuset’ in Copenhagen’s gritty Nørrebro neighborhood in 2007. (Read more about the book and check out some of its artwork and illustrations: www.kaerefuckingdagbog.dk!)
”Scener fra Sunset Boulevard” (”Scenes From Sunset Boulevard”): An extensive and deeply personal drive-in travel essay about Los Angeles, it’s people, it’s cultures, it’s landscapes, it’s neighborhoods, and it’s movies/litterature/art since World War I.
”Pussyland”: An autobiographical short story collection about a young wannabe writer’s journeys on the wild side in 1980’s and 90’s America. (Read more about ”Pussyland” on www.pussyland.dk!) READ THIS EXCERPT FROM ”PUSSYLAND” IN ENGLISH!) LINK TIL NOVELLEN PÅ ENGELSK!
“Bangkok Ladyboys”: Part gonzo travel essay and part polemic, postmodern gender study from the sexual twilight zone of Thailand, rolled into one controversial book and illustrated with 48 pages of vibrant color photography by London-based Danish photographer Anders Askegaard.
“Solen skinner aldrig på en go-go-bar” (“The Sun Never Shines In A Go-Go Bar”): A famous, elderly Danish artist has allegedly used underage Thai girls as models for a Gauguin-inspired nude photo shoot for an exhibition at the National Gallery in Copenhagen. “Sex scandal!” roar the headlines at home, as the artist disappears from his Thai exile, near the infamous sea-side resort of Pattaya. Two completely different male Danish journalists are on his heels, each telling their own separate half of the story – while trying to keep cool in a steamy, tropical noir setting full of corrupt policemen, social contrasts, alluring women and Buddhist mystique…
"The Sun Never Shines In A Go-Go Bar" is a hard-boiled, satirical and sexually charged novel about media hysteria, men in mid-life crisis, and Western political correctness clashing hard with a totally different world in South-East Asia.
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK (FROM THE FIRST PART, ”FARANG”, NARRATED BY 30-SOMETHING, AMBITIOUS BUT RATHER INEXPERIENCED REPORTER RUNE MATHIAS LÜTKEN, FLYING IN TO PATTAYA FROM COPENHAGEN TO COVER THE WILLIAM FLEMMING SCANDAL FOR A BROADSHEET MORNING PAPER):
The scenery whizzed by in a haze. Luckily, the driver had turned down the radio since the rest stop. Those “Gangnam Style” covers could turn your brain to mush after a while ... Through dark sunglasses, reality outside the cab was distant and beautiful, like an arty, abstract music video in a minimalist hotel lounge, fading from his field of vision in pleasant sepia hues of brown and copper green.
Now and then Rune nodded off, only to wake with a start shortly afterwards whenever the taxi, which seemed to have little or no suspension, hit another pothole at 100 miles an hour, catapulting the shock up into his brain.
His neck was stiff from the 11-hour flight, and it didn’t help having to sit with his head bowed in the back seat. Mainly ’cos he didn’t want to bang his head off the roof again, but also – truth be told – because he was quite ashamed of what had gone down before.
By now, his clothes were cold and clammy with the blasts from the air-con vents. His curly hair stuck to his forehead; his beard was itchy; he was incredibly thirsty and could smell himself …
No, the foul B.O. wasn’t emanating from some package-tour loser on the plane. The stench of stale sweat came from his own armpits, and he hadn’t reeked like that since he was a teenage hormone-bomb. Maybe that was why the driver kept inhaling from what looked like some kind of lip balm, which he’d stick up one nostril after the other as if snorting coke from that tiny plastic tube?
The burning, stinging sensation in his rectum verged on the intolerable, even though he had done everything he could think of to relax and ignore it; fighting the urge to reach back, stick his hand down his trousers and scratch himself like a monkey, while forbidding himself even so much as to think about what had happened to the Henrik Vibskov scarf back in that smelly cubicle.
Restlessly, he kept shifting about, trying to find a better position: on one buttock or the other, leaning forward, crossing his legs… but nothing soothed the itching or made any real difference. A couple of times, the driver stopped to pay tolls at turnpike borders to unknown territories, where Rune feared he would feel even more lost and alienated, even further away from … home?
Realizing there was nothing he could do about the situation, he remained tensely passive behind his dark Tom Fords (with no desire for further eye contact in the rear-view mirror), enveloped in his own B.O. and apathetically listening to the driver chat and joke with the uniformed guys up in the glass boxes. They were probably all conspiring to con him out of as much money as possible.
Plumes of smoke puffed from tall chimneys dotting the horizon. Antennae, palm trees and shiny new apartment blocks jutted up here and there, and passenger jets circled low over the water, waiting for clearance to land from the control tower at Suvarnabhumi.
Rune had lost almost any sense of place or direction. It didn’t help that they were driving on the wrong side of the road, the way they did in London ... To the right, which had to be the west, the coastline was marred by electricity pylons, container cranes and rows of concrete blocks – factories, oil refineries, power plants? To the left, the east, lushly green, jungle-clad ridges rose, now and then with a temple or pagoda tip pointing up amid the tangled luxuriance.
The traffic on the freeway puzzled him, with all its overloaded trucks and vans, roaring away with wildly flapping covers and huge, wobbling loads. Sometimes with a few young men sitting cross-legged on the top, pretending to be all fine and dandy.
Occasionally, the taxi driver also grew impatient and changed lanes, driving faster and faster, letting his pale, uneasy passenger swing helplessly from the hand-strap, as there was no seatbelt in the back. They raced along a dirt road down below the four-lane blacktop, where skinny boys aged maybe only eight, nine or ten sped about on mopeds or scooters, not wearing helmets, and often with a couple of other kids or bags and boxes piled up behind them to make matters worse.
Shaking his head in mild astonishment, Rune watched as one – 12 at most, shirtless, dark-skinned, with a cigarette dangling from his lips – drove off on a moped, one thin arm around the baby on his lap, while a slightly older girl in school uniform and a grown woman (the mother?) clung to him and each other on the back.
How on Earth could children be allowed to smoke and ride mopeds, exposing themselves and their loved ones to such risks? Did these people have no fear of crashing, getting hurt or worse?
The taxi sped past villages with bamboo huts on rickety stilts, around which other half-naked children played with feral-looking dogs; past groups of road workers wearing balaclavas or straw hats in the glaring heat, sloshing indifferently through hot asphalt in their sandals; past an almost continuous backdrop of mega-billboards plastered with Thai characters and smiling models advertising pick-up trucks. Nine times out of ten, for some reason – pick-up trucks.
Closer to Pattaya, the billboards gradually changed: the young Asian models with their fake, gleaming Hollywood smiles being replaced by luxury developments in pastel-colored virtual idyll, without a single smoking schoolboy or infant in mortal danger to spoil the indulgence of the penthouse infinity pools.
The language changed as well, from predominantly Thai to English, German and Russian, and even in his numb state, Rune was convinced he spotted Japanese, Korean and Chinese characters too.
Apparently, if all these projects were under construction IRL, most of the region was being cut and dug up, paved over and cast in concrete. In the same area and at the same time, there were to be new gated residential neighborhoods of villas, bungalows, townhouses, hotel apartments and studio condos, offering all kinds of health, sports and wellness amenities, marketed with special offers (“ONLY 1 MILLION BAHT!”) and keywords like “freedom” and “security”, “paradise” and “sea view”…
Rune had reached no conclusion about how all those big, gas-guzzling pick-up trucks could be sold in such quantities to small, poor Thais (how could they afford that kind of imported vehicle?), and he was equally confused about who the giant property ads were trying to seduce.
According to the brief web research he had managed to squeeze in before take-off, the Western sex tourists typically came here for a few weeks’ holiday a year – to drink and whore in the center of town, basically – and it was hard to imagine any of those beer-bellied clones having the means to invest in property in such a distant country anyway. It was even harder for him to fathom why anyone with money from Russia, Japan, Korea or China would choose to buy a house or a condo near this infamous resort city, forcing themselves to holiday next to loud, obnoxious, drunken white men ogling their bikini-clad teenage daughters. It just didn’t add up.
At one point, the otherwise silent driver broke loose from his speeding trance to point eagerly through the windshield, babbling something in Thai. He repeated it with a grimace as he realized that the stupid tourist had no clue what he was trying to draw attention to. The third time around, it dawned on Rune: the man was saying “Pattaya”, but pronounced it in a different tone and with more elongated vowels (“Pah-tae-jah”).
He nodded, feigning enthusiasm, and carefully leaned forward between the seats, wincing with rectal discomfort. At the end of the driver’s nicotine-stained fingernail, a cluster of chalky-white or steely, glimmering skyscrapers soared up through a veil of smog, at least 40–50 storeys high – approximately where Pattaya Bay cut into the mainland south of the Naklua neighborhood, if he remembered the Google Map correctly. It wasn’t the kind of architecture he had associated with this destination up until now.
Between two of the tallest skyscraper silhouettes, he could barely make out the sea and an island a few miles off the coast – but it couldn’t possibly be the one William Flemming inhabited. Surely Flemming’s Robinson Crusoe island had to be further north, back before the airport? Once more, he tried in vain to visualize the map – he didn’t have the energy to check it on his iPhone, which is what he would have done instinctively under normal circumstances. So far, nothing about Thailand seemed normal.
The fragmented landscape morphed into something more urban as they left the freeway, heading down a smaller but busier highway. Slums and decay kept intruding next to brand-new, modern-style buildings, and he wondered why the developers or owners, let alone the residents’ associations, put up with the mess: canals glistening with a film of oil and sewage; piles of kitchen waste rotting in empty lots behind rusty barbed wire; multi-storey buildings with crumbling Greco-Roman columns and mold fungus breaking out through layers of peeling primary colors like a bad skin condition.
Seen in glimpses from the car, the whole place struck him as some mutation of a third-world favela, a Mediterranean holiday ghetto and an Eastern European concrete suburb before the Wall came down, populated by an ethnically mixed throng of Thais and white foreigners. Especially younger Thai women together with middle-aged or older white men, of course, but looking closer, he also noticed lots of serious-looking Sikhs in turbans, big-bottomed African women in colorful muftis, not to mention a surprising number of Muslim men in robes, with long Taliban beards.
The cab driver took a sharp, unannounced right, tires screeching, throwing Rune against one of the side doors, and continued down a boulevard flanked by new hotels and condo buildings, hi-tech gyms and supermarkets much like those in any other city. Down the side streets, most of the commercial signage included the English word “MASSAGE”", though, hinting at a darker side beneath the surface … After a prolonged standstill in a rush-hour queue, they finally made it onto a roundabout, circled a dolphin statue, then swung onto Beach Road.
The sea stretched out, pale blue and grey, beyond a tiled promenade, rows of parasols and lounge chairs, a strip of weathered, tattered palm trees and a miserable beach, not much more than four or five yards wide, from which most of the sand had been sucked away into the Gulf by the waves.
The municipal authorities had tried to tackle the erosion by stacking gravel, cement and sandbags on the water’s edge. It made the beach look like a makeshift military installation, a defensive bulwark against an enemy poised to invade the country from amphibious vehicles at any moment.
Cars, motorbikes, mopeds and scooters, a few tuk-tuks, double-decker buses and a special kind of covered truck with two rows of benches in the back, where passengers sat crammed thigh to thigh, moved at a snail’s pace down the one-way beach boulevard, through clouds of choking, leaden exhaust fumes.
The ticking meter in the taxi had topped 2,000 baht, thanks to the involuntary break at the rest stop, but the newspaper was paying. He tried hard not to worry about the unforeseen travel expense and slumped drowsily back in the seat, watching the life under the palm trees along the waterfront.
That was what really woke him up, making him forget his sore behind and take off his protective sunglasses for the first time since exiting the airport. Cos just out there, right on the promenade, the essence of all the rapidly read feature articles, statistics and demographics of his research materialized in flesh and bone. In broad daylight, only a few feet from the slow-motion traffic, dozens of old, white, more or less unkempt men in wife-beaters and baggy shorts, clutching big, 25 fl. oz beer bottles, loitered around small groups of visibly younger, flirtatious Thai women in near-identical small tops, short skirts or denim hot pants, and high heels not made for a beach picnic.
Devoid of any of the grace of the Siam Airways hostesses, the tough-looking women out there nonetheless attracted these men like moths to a flame. Strangely enough, neither the men nor the women seemed to be the least bit ashamed or shy about approaching each other. Now and then, one of the old men simply stopped in front of a woman, making instant contact, jiving and laughing with her, and then, a minute or two later, a newly formed couple would head up into town, probably bound for some sleazy nearby hotel room.
Rune had never seen anything like it; never seen such blatant prostitution out in the open. The red-light districts of Copenhagen or Amsterdam had nothing on this, and he’d observed no signs of such activity on the streets of New York when he was there.
On the other side of the window lay his first, yet-to-be-written reportage as a foreign correspondent, with a cast and setting straight out of a feminist op-ed piece in the morning broadsheet: the predatory male sex tourists from the privileged Western world vs. the degraded women of the poverty-stricken Third, forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive. Exploiters and exploited alike, the puppets of globalized sexual capitalism ... Mikala had been right about that whole scenario after all – but for some reason or other, he was glad she wasn’t there to gloat about it.
Infused with fresh energy, he fumbled around in the pockets of his jacket for pen and notebook, feeling like a real writer from back before everything went digital. The old white men with their silver-haired comb-overs, flabby beer-bellies, lobster complexions and disgustingly hairy, weakening legs, orbiting around the women displaying themselves, could easily be compared to greedy farmers with bulging wallets at a cattle auction.
Jotting down these first notes, he laughed quietly, satisfied with the metaphors. Yes, this was literally every sex tourists’ low-budget paradise. If it was William Flemming’s hunting ground too, the famous artist had hit rock-bottom, personally and career-wise. Jesus Christ!
“A discount Riviera for Western losers,” he scribbled away, even though the notebook was so damp and dented after many hours in the flax jacket that it was hard to write anything legibly on its wrinkled pages: “The dark side of sexual globalisation”; “A Mandalay of sleaze for lonely white men”; ”Where the men no Western women want come to score at last”; “The city where even geriatrics got game – living as players on humble pensions” ...
Evening was fast approaching under a darkening sky, and the driver suddenly turned up a narrow alley or side street without any pavement, at the same time as neon signs started to light up in all directions.
A 20-feet tall cartoon babe with cat’s ears, latex suit, pointy breasts and long, slim, boot-clad legs, swung her whip in bluish neon sparks over a stream of men milling around the street – mainly younger guys, just a few years older than himself, more tanned and fashion-conscious than the horny codgers on the beachwalk. What were they doing here, of all places?
The crowd of men dawdled, carefree, in the middle of the road in their casual white summer wear, sipping Tiger beer or Bacardi Breezers, their party mood making them oblivious to the lashes from Catwoman’s whip as well as the line of honking cars trying to get through. Rune reassured himself that this was only a shortcut to somewhere better, certainly not the street where he was due to stay and work for the next few days – or weeks.
For the first time, he noticed a washed-out color portrait of the smiling king – revered by all Thais, as far as he had read – cut out of a magazine, taped onto the sunshade above the driver’s seat; alternately bathed in electric blue or sultry red neon light glowing through the windows. Then they stopped in front of a small, four- or five-storey hotel that looked suspiciously different from the one he had booked on the internet the day before, solely on the recommendation of the freelance jazz/crime/beer critic and travel writer from the paper: the arts and culture section’s own self-proclaimed Thailand expert.
He immediately broke out in a cold sweat, and the itching and stinging flared up beneath him. It was definitely the wrong address, a misunderstanding between him and the taxi driver down to the language barrier, but the centrifuge in his gut slowly and nauseatingly started to churn again …
The Thai man clicked the meter off, took another hit from the small nasal tube and rubbed his palms together with undisguised glee. His sly, rakish grin, when he turned around from the front seat, killed off Rune’s last hope that there were two hotels in Pattaya called Siam Exotic Palace.
Wednesday, 23:00: Candygirls-a-Go-Go – Walking Street
The six or seven teenage chicks in front of Candygirls-a-Go-Go waved their cardboard placards (“DRAFT BEER 50 BAHT ALL NIGHT”/“TEQUILA ONLY 100 BAHT SHORT”) to lure customers inside, giggling and flirting like a bunch of knock-kneed boarding school girls on a first night out in the city – free of parents or teachers for the first time ever.
“Hey falang!” the girls shrieked in high-pitched, teasing voices at every white man in the crowd – even the fat, the ugly, the liver-spotted, wrinkly geriatrics. However, their excited chatter became more enthusiastic when younger foreigners jumped into their ranks, snapping drunken selfies from a “golf holiday” with the guys that never would make it into any Facebook updates or family slideshows.
So this was the habitat of the white male douchebag in the sleaze capital of the Far East, Rune thought, slightly unnerved by the rowdy goings-on. The air was so thick with the smells of cooking, the stench of sewers, the whiffs of fermenting garbage and the clouds of exhaust fumes from waiting mopeds, pointlessly revved up-up-up on street corners by Thai men in numbered orange vests, that a bad, insipid taste stuck in his mouth if he breathed too deeply.
The maybe two-mile long pedestrian street trembled like one long, rolling conveyor belt of tourists on their way home to the hotel or out into the city after a long day at the beach, pool, bar, golf course, whatever.
As expected, the two most visible demographics were, again, those scantily clad, heavily made-up local women and their older white suitors in ill-fitting sportswear, leering at the moving buffet of female flesh or hovering about in front of the numerous nightclubs, working up the nerve to enter.
Plenty of men of other races were out and about, too, for that matter: dark-skinned Indians and Pakistanis, Arabs, blacks, different kinds of non-Thai Asians (well, they were speaking different languages at least). Not forgetting a surprising number of European-looking couples and families with kids, strolling hand in hand, guzzling ice cream, candyfloss or fast food along the neon-lit façades – as if on an outing to a tourist site found in some guidebook, without acknowledging the misery of the thousands of young, native girls who had to sell their own bodies to Western men just on the other side of the curtains in this depraved theme park.
Wearing school uniforms like the ones in dirty video clips on the web – cute, mini clip-on ties, skin-tight, revealingly small tops, pink-and-black-checkered miniskirts and white, knee-length platform boots that would have been trendy at a disco in his dad’s heyday – the nightclub’s street-marketing patrol looked like a gaggle of girls who really shouldn't be up so late. Especially not in the middle of a red-light district way after dark.
It didn’t help that they had been styled either by a pedophile pimp (disturbing flashback: Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver) or a hysterically chic French fashion magazine: dolled up with false eyelashes, pigtails, braces, lollipops and caked layers of powder (to hide traces of acne?). Several of them were no more than 14, 15 or 16, but how … How could the authorities allow underage girls to be working this kind of job in such a dodgy area – as police patrols openly passed without intervening?
He’d make a point of asking the police major about it once they were somewhere indoors and quieter. Wasn’t this the very form of sexual exploitation of minors his unit was supposed to combat?
Another urgent question: What was going on with that whole underlying, recurring pedo-theme that he’d also registered between the odd, age-inappropriate Thai-Danish couples on board the plane yesterday ... last night? Fortunately for the story, though, observations like these only reinforced a suspicion that unpleasant secrets were also hidden beneath the brushstrokes of William Flemming’s otherwise perfectly bohemian CV, and reinforced his own belief that he was the right journalist to scratch his way below the surface paint and reveal them. Even if he had to do it with his fingernails.
To his surprise, Rune had already noticed how tipsy he was getting as they tumbled down the stairs from the Boom-Boom Bar and out onto the street earlier. He had stupidly thought just to cool down his brain in the salty sea breeze. But there was no fresh air or any salty breeze for miles around. Despite there being no more than half a mile to the beach as the crow flies.
The temperature was stuck around 80–85°F, even this late at night. The sauna-like heat had mixed with the billowing steam from countless woks, gas burners and barbecues fired up along the narrow Soi 15. On the walk over here, he had found himself soaked with a kind of greasy, drizzling, lukewarm rain. He normally didn’t like air-conditioning, sure about its unhealthiness, but during the short walk he had started to long for it.
They crossed what a travel blogger had called “the world’s most sinful pedestrian street” – a phrase he knew, he would have to sample – and walked straight through the boisterous mob, parted by the two plainclothes police officers running crowd control on each their flank. A litte bit like bodyguards bringing a VIP pop star, politician or sports millionaire through a horde of fans, stalkers, demonstrators, paparazzi photographers.
It was also the two young policemen who, at the last minute, saved Rune from a handful of scary street hookers with Botox lips and silicone breasts, who briefly blocked his way, grabbing his behind and forcing themselves on him with obscene, aggressive suggestions. Only their towering height (Rune was 6’3”, after all!), strong, square shoulders, Adam’s apples and rasping, distorted voices revealed that they were … “ladyboys”?
The jazz/crime/beer critic and travel writer had talked about these gender-bending nocturnal creatures with a mixture of horror and fascination back at the office, naturally: “Be damn careful not to stick your hand down a girl’s panties in Thailand unless you’re absolutely sure she really is a girl! Ha-ha-ha!”
In honor of his reluctant listener, his younger colleague, the older man had wallowed in unnecessarily graphic detail about the genitals he had “accidentally” touched, once in a hotel room in Bangkok. Rune had no problem with transgender people – of course not – but he had no plans to dip his hand into anybody’s panties on this trip.
At any rate, the night was starting to spin out of control. In a city he didn’t know – especially this one! – it certainly felt safer to have the three alert, burly Thai men around. On the other hand, they were also calling the shots about where they were heading and what they would do when they got there, without asking for his opinion on the matter at any time. Much like with that con-artist of a taxi driver outside the airport earlier, he just couldn’t muster the energy to resist any more.
Slowly but surely, they made their way towards a huge neon lollipop blinking diagonally up into the air. The two young assistants or officers made sure they were not stopped as they dribbled the last few meters through this open-air meat market of beseeching prostitutes and prowling falang men, sunburnt charter tourists and fawning Thai hustlers whispering about “pussy show” or “ping-pong show” as they passed. The annoying older colleague at the paper had finished off his man-of-the-world “mentoring” by describing a show like that, but Rune did his best to block out the images it had left etched into his memory.
They passed two different duos of local uniformed cops patrolling their beat, immediately straightening their backs and saluting sharply as soon as they recognised police major Khun Manot Wongwai. Which didn’t exactly tone down his 100-watt smile or high spirits in general.
The police major with the Elvis hairdo jovially patted Rune on the shoulder as they approached their destination, but since the music from dozens of other nightclubs on both sides of the street converged into one deafening inferno of Thai polka, hip-hop beats and Sunny Beach summer-techno, it was impossible to hear what he was saying. Still, it was pleasing to note the pointed cowboy boots worn by the small Thai man with the large ego, to make him appear taller than the 5’8” or so he seemed to be. In stocking soles.
After the unpleasant incident with the hissing in Boom-Boom Bar, Rune had made every effort to pay lip service to Khun Manot. Which had been effective as far as it went. Right before getting up to leave Boom-Boom, the secretive man had at least revealed that William Flemming, when he was in town, usually hung out at a specific strip joint – or rather, one of the ubiquitous “go-go bars”, aptly named Candygirls-a-Go-Go.
The dancing girls in its “Rori Rounge” on the first floor “looked velly, velly young”, the Thai man had said, in a knowing, insinuating manner that seemed inappropriate, considering the seriousness of the issue at hand. “Hmmm, yeees, that’s why the bad, diwty falang, like your compatriot Mistah Fremming, he always go there, oh-ho-ho …”
It was the first statement with any substance, though, the first chunk of raw journalistic meat Rune had been given that night, and it bucked him up immensely. Yet he had been sober enough to hide his enthusiasm from the major on the other side of the table earlier on. If his Thai police liaison was going to play his cards so close to his chest, Rune would have to learn how to bluff, how not to be too easy to read and too easy to … manipulate?
They weren't going to the nightclub for fun either. It was all business, not pleasure, as he had somberly stated to the immigration officer in Suvarnabhumi Airport upon arrival. He was fervently opposed to the whole set-up, but was there on duty and in the service of truth – to put it a tad pompously. Just needed to keep a cool head, watch from the sidelines and jot a few quotes and poignant observations down, while recording a few more statements on the iPhone.
Since Flemming seemed to have gone underground (the major thought so, too), they were hardly going to bust him in flagrante in that lounge, totally baked with an underage stripper riding on each arthritic knee … Then again, they might be lucky enough to find one or two girls on the staff who’d perhaps slept with the artist or modeled for him, it had eventually been implied back at the “office” while they emptied their last mugs of beer. The two plain-clothes assistants would find out if that was the case, their boss had assured him, in a somehow vaguely threatening tone of voice.
When the Candygirls-a-Go-Go’s doorman spotted Khun Manot, he wai’ed so deeply he was almost on his knees. As soon as the police major approached him, he wai’ed on and smiled with closed eyes. Every sentence that came out of his mouth was peppered with a machine-gun salvo of “kaps”.
A heavy, burgundy red plush- or velvet curtain was pulled to the side. The doorman, quivering uncertainly but servile and eager to please, ploughed his way through the smoke, the noise, the crowd and the semi-darkness inside, shining a torch in front of them and blabbering hectically into a walkie-talkie.
A pair of long-legged Thai models with retro beehive hairdos, dressed only in black corsets, panties, suspenders, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, swiftly joined them, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to receive a delegation of foreign guests in this manner. Scented, smiling sweetly and without introducing themselves, their butterfly-light fingertips affectionately and almost imperceptibly brushed the lower backs of the policeman and the foreign journalist. Probably ordered to do so by the bouncer, Rune guessed with inherent skepticism.
From between all the other men craning their necks and standing on tiptoe to see what was going on further down the deep but narrow space, he caught sight of an elevated catwalk on which were a line of chrome poles, a few feet apart.
Just then, a techno track exploded quadraphonically over the crowd, boosting and focusing the vibe of the room. Feline shadows crept out of a circular black opening at the beginning of the catwalk, in the rear of the room - one by one, in a carefully co-ordinated choreography brought further to life with smoke and wind machines.
Synced with the electro beats, strobe lights flashed epileptically through the artificial mist, bouncing from mirrored wall to mirrored wall. One moment, Rune was paralyzed, frozen to the spot in total blindness; the next, he hurtled helplessly toward the stage in a hallucinatory quantum leap…
From this new spot, he followed, dumbfounded, the parade of slim, topless young women marching past in ranks, with long, flowing dark hair, smooth golden-brown skin, pert quivering breasts, soft, wiggling hips and long, thin, perfect legs, heading toward the last pole – the one closest to him.
His mouth was dry, bone dry, despite the unusual quantity of beer he’d felt pressured to consume earlier in Boom-Boom Bar. The cloud of cigarette smoke over there had really sandpapered his mucous membrane, and he was relieved that Khun Manot wasn’t talking to him in that moment, as his voice would probably sound rough and hoarse, like that of an anonymous heavy breather on the phone.
When the first girl reached the end of the catwalk, she slowly lowered herself down with a come-hither look from under mascara-laden eyelashes, smiling seductively to the men on the floor, but that alone was enough to get them shouting, whistling, clapping, whooping and nudging each other. The girl dangled limply by one arm from the pole, swinging slowly in circles around it with a dreamy look in her eyes and a sleepy sensuality glowing under her skin. It could be felt all the way down in the abdomen where Rune was standing, he grudgingly had to admit, almost letting out an embarrassingly anguished moan.
Judging by the looks on their faces, many of the other men, standing shoulder to shoulder in the dark, were already ripping the micro-size g-string and flimsy stockings off the Thai girl and throwing her to the red-carpeted floor of the catwalk, while unzipping their pants … in their imaginations, at least.
The stripper (or should that be go-go dancer?) was impervious to the testosterone overload. Sliding a half-turn around the pole, her back turned to them, she struck a few blows with the shoulder-length, raven-black hair.
Another coy but unfocused gaze back over one shoulder; another wistful, yearning smile sent in their direction. Then she wiggled away on her stilettos, with tight, cellulite-free buttocks, jiggly-jiggly, down toward the black hole from which she had emerged like an animated CGI character into the pornographically staged virtual reality that ruled unfettered in Candygirls-a-Go-Go.
Right before the darkness would have swallowed her up whole, the girl stopped abruptly at the very first pole, striking a pose with one hip thrust out to the side in a teasing, titillating way, which the other girls copied, one after another, when they reached each their own designated pole. She was the Queen Bee.
Once they all had taken their places, they stood there like large, beautiful dolls, stock-still on the catwalk, while the men below threw bundles of cash at their feet.
For fractions of seconds, in the darkened implosions between each new, crackling cascade of silver light, the dancers’ silhouettes burned their way though his optic nerves – as if exposed in a photographic emulsion smeared all over his cornea …
In the Loli Lounge above (no, not “Rori Rounge” – why did the allegedly American-educated police major insist on mixing up his l’s and r’s?), a dozen girls at a time shuffled around the poles on a square, sunken dance floor without a great deal of joie de vivre, understandably enough.
More spectacularly decadent than their timid performance was the dancefloor itself, made of thick bulletproof glass, so you could see the slightly more adult women do their thing on the catwalk below. And from down there, from certain angles along the long bar, you could stare straight up the dancers’ tartan mini-skirts, if you were that type – which most of the clientele undoubtedly were.
The fact that several of the girls weren’t wearing any panties, Rune had learned when one of them – with dark skin hidden underneath pale make-up, with no top and a lot of small, barcode-like tattoos on her back – eagerly tried to sit on his lap after five minutes in the place.
Shocked and flushed, he had noticed as she spread her thighs slightly, as if by accident, shamelessly showing a small, shaved crack, like a doll’s, under the skirt. All while he had clumsily fought to push her away without touching anything down there, desperately smiling and apologetic, trying not to make the scene even more awkward. He didn’t want to be thought of as a sex tourist by the police major – or the girls, for that matter.
Afterwards, it bugged him that the knock-back had ended up seeming so panicky – in her eyes, perhaps even harsh. Or as if he were afraid of her or disgusted by her desperate advances. Maybe that was why a laughing Khun Manot had given the girl an orange 100 baht note, as a kind of consolation tip, smacking her lightly in the butt before letting her waltz away, pursed-lipped and offended, but with the money tucked into a garter? To smooth things out after an insensitive white foreigner had showed off his lack of Fingerspitzengefühl for Thai culture and mores?
It was hard to tell whether the way the major had treated the go-go girl, indeed the whole of his conspicuous unwillingness to distance himself from the deplorable activities around them so far, was just him playing to the gallery – his attempt at method acting – to make them both blend in with the other customers. Or whether it was actually socially acceptable for a middle-aged man, a senior authority figure, to behave like that out in public while under the influence of alcohol.
When the two elegant 25–30-year-old women with their hair up (some kind of VIP hostesses?) had followed them up the spiral staircase to the first-floor lounge, the police major, just as openly, had slipped them some baht notes and then waved them away, impatiently or even condescendingly, as if they were too old to fit in this department. If the man was playing to the gallery, he was a good actor.
Rune presumed that “Loli” was short for Lolita – a nasty indication of the one theme and purpose of the first-floor lounge. Otherwise, the ambiance was more deliberately exclusive than on the ground floor, reminding him of a discount version of the gentleman’s lounges in old, noble hotels in London, Paris and Stockholm, where he as a reporter had interviewed rock and movie stars.
The customers sat on all four sides of the glass square in oversized lazy-boy armchairs that tilted back and forth, padded with the same plush or velvet as the curtain by the front door downstairs. You could reach out for your drink or cigarette in the ashtray on the side table without taking your eyes off the dancers for a split second.
He had no idea where the police major’s two silent henchmen had gone. They were nowhere to be seen … As well as the usual single white men in sportswear and gold chains and a bunch of military-type, crewcut Americans that Khun Manot quickly went over to greet (some of his “good friends”?), the room was mysteriously packed with middle-aged and elderly Asian men. The policeman explained that these were Korean and Japanese tourists or businessmen: “’Cos the Korean and the Japanese man, ehm, he only want young, smawl, skinny school girl, okay? He want girl with no tit almost, uih-uih – young girl with white skin, you know?”
Rune didn’t like the man’s suggestive undertone or they way he objectified the girls on stage at all. Nor did he understand what hints to himself had lain in the comment about white skin – did the major think the Scandinavian journalist was a racist?
The girls’ smooth, black hair shimmered matte under the small spotlights in the ceiling. They wore the same school uniforms as the street team and looked about as old. Or rather, as young. Something about the girls’ aura and body language was also significantly different from the femme fatale models prancing about on the catwalk on the ground floor.
The dancers in the Loli Lounge somehow made the impression of being a lot more shy and insecure. They stumbled awkwardly around between the poles in their tiny sneakers; hesitated a bit each time before they took off their tops, which they presumably were supposed to do when the DJ faded out a track ... blinking modestly and giggling with their hands clasped in front of their braces when one customer or the other leaned in over the plastic railings, giving them a tip or inviting them up for a drink.
If you gave them a “lady drink”, as they were called, then hey presto – they were on your lap in a studiously childish, naively amorous performance that evoked such vile subconscious images that Rune had to look away.
“Tell me, sir,” he asked Khun Manot, his voice quivering with indignation and straining to control himself, “how old are these girls? They look very young indeed.”
The Thai man slowly scanned the dance floor with his black, inscrutable eyes. Without losing his smile, the eyes came to rest on the girl closest to their chairs: a beautiful little thing with too much make up and blond ringlets, strangely big eyes, powder-white doll face, anorexically prominent ribs and breasts that were little more than a pair of light-brown swollen nipples. Rune had her down as about five feet tall and 80 pounds.
The girl wai’ed with veneration, beaming with innocence and cheerfully smiling back to her new admirer, the Interpol police liaison of the Chonburi province – a man old enough to be her granddad.
“No, no, no pombim, Mistah Luna, they all at least 18 year, kap,” replied the “grandfather” finally, looking him sternly in the eyes without blinking, until he averted his gaze – more reluctantly than at any previous point.
“That's what you falang call ... eh, you call lole praying, no, he-he? You need ID card proving that you 18 to work in go-go bar in Walking Street. Those are the rules. Everybody check ID many time, understand, and if bar have girl working who not 18, police come and close down bar.”
“Look, Mistah Lunah, listen: It’s velly LUCKY for girl like this – for smawl, skinny girl who look like she not real woman yet, kap – that she can work in place like this. Because customer in here, he like girl like that, you see? They want lole praying, oh-ho-ho, like big man and liddel girl. And lemember, girl she only do this to help family back in village in Isaan. They good daughters when they work like this.”
“Most of you man falang, uih-uih, you want big blonde lady. Big blonde lady with big-big tit and long-long leg, no – yes, like lady you see in porno movie from Den-mark, he-he. And when falang customer him not want smawl, skinny girl from the country, normal Thai girl, then what can she do? How can she help family survive?”
By going to school every day and getting a decent job when she grows up, Rune would have liked to rebuke, sharp and concise, but he didn’t. In spite of the alcohol, he also hoped that his facial expression was controlled enough to hide what he thought of such male chauvinism. Not that he didn’t know the drill.
Just keep the poker face and stay cool, buddy, he ordered himself. It’s taken me all evening and half the night to build up some kind of rapport, some kind of mutual understanding with this horrible guy. So don’t mess it up now, please!
It struck him as utterly unlikely that girls like these, night after night, would volunteer to dance half-naked and panty-less on a glass floor, ending up in the laps of drooling old men, come on. Instead of going to high school or university, that is. Instead of living with their families. Instead of having a normal life with a boyfriend their own age; shopping trips to the mall for the latest fashion; going out at the weekend with their girlfriends, drinking alcopops, gossiping and dancing.
“Are you sure none of them could be victims of trafficking?” he asked stubbornly, feeling kind of defiant for a moment. The turmoil inside was getting stronger than the fear of the other man’s reaction. He felt unsettlingly provoked by the major’s phlegmatic attitude, more and more so, as the Singha beer and Sang Som cocktails gradually ate away at his inhibitions … like a slow, rolling tide ...
If anybody knew what really went on in this Babylon, it had to be Mistah Khun Manot Wongwai, even though this question had only made him snub his cigarette out in the ashtray and shake his head forebearingly, before reverting to his usual creepy, servile smile.
Then he had turned his attention from the foreign journalist to the dancefloor, absent-mindedly smoking and silently gesticulating (why and to whom?) with his gold and ruby rings … In spite of his moral scruples, the policeman’s visible change of mood, his seemingly less receptive aura, unnerved Rune. Basically, he wanted the man to like, or at least respect him. That was the main thing, that he didn’t come over immature and youthful, too demanding or ungrateful – given the scoop that the Thai had handed to him on a silver platter this evening. A scoop that almost had jumped into his own lap with all the ease and impulsiveness of an underage Thai stripper wearing no panties …
Khun Manot’s not exactly subtle hand gestures, flashing his bling, his Buddha amulet, his expensive Rolex (or “Lolex”, as he pronounced it), soon attracted attention. Several of the girls – including the baby-doll type with the princess curls – broke away from their somnolent pole-shuffling. They leaned in, chattering to each other, from one pole to the next, all sparkling eyes and pointy breasts peeping out from under school ties, taking turns to cast shy glances in their direction.
They weren’t gossiping about the cutest, most popular boy at school, but about a chubby, middle-aged man with a face like a crocodile-skin handbag, who dressed like a low-rent Elvis impersonator. How sick was that? What was that all about, if he might be so bold as to ask? Weren’t all the unhappy little Thai women in Pattaya supposed to be looking for white men from the West – for their ticket out of this hell-hole?
Okay, he hadn’t had time to shave at the hotel himself, and, in all fairness, wasn't looking his best tonight, to put it mildly. Not to mention the still visible shit stains on his suede shoes ... But still, he was younger, taller, slimmer, better looking and more tastefully dressed than the police major, so why weren't they flirting with him? Was it just because he had so callously humiliated one of the other dancers?
With a nagging doubt in his gut, he surmised that it had nothing to do with him or the shoes. They might already know Khun Manot as a powerful police officer and were bowing to his authority, or perhaps his ostentatious appearance simply marked him out as a rich player, a potential customer or sugar daddy.
Just then, Rune’s widescreen view of the dancefloor was blocked by a pair of perky, slightly upward-tilting breasts with goose-pimples around the nipples and big, oval, light-brown areolas. Pink nails tweaked the small, soft nipples to stiffen them, with immediate success.
He could smell her fruity chewing gum and equally sweet, infantile perfume. He could feel the heat radiate from her body while she fingered his beard (he really should have trimmed it), nibbled his earlobe with small rabbit teeth, drilled her narrow butt down into his lap, and intertwined her arms in a stranglehold around his neck, without him being able to see her eyes or face yet.
It was the same girl as before, it turned out – but this time she was impossible to calm down or fob off, at least not without causing a really embarrassing scene. Or maybe his own resolve was starting to wash away with all the beer and booze of the night?
He had felt bad about his behavior the first time, trying to ignore her ever since, and now she was intuitively playing on that same guilt, on that unarticulated desire to get her to appreciate that he was not like all the other men. Appreciate that he actually realized that she didn’t work up here cos she liked it, was a cheap slut or found it intellectually stimulating.
Anyway, it became harder and harder to resist, as she gradually drained all power from his sweaty, aching, jet-lagged body with her lips and caresses. He didn’t dare even think about or acknowledge the existence of the small, dark, smooth crack under the plaid skirt. Limp and dizzy, he let her grope his crotch, massaging a completely improper semi-erection into a regular bulge in his pants, pounding like a morse-code signal against her nifty, dexterous hand.
The armchair was transformed into a plush, skin-warm carousel, swirling round and round. What should he do? Should he feel ... violated? Even if she, overall, in the big picture, was the victim?
It was as if an implosion of hunger hollowed out his stomach. His blood sugar had hit bottom and he felt uncommonly weak now, anemic. If only he could sneak away unnoticed; drink a gallon of ice-cold, fizzy mineral water; eat something fresh and healthy that wouldn’t make him sick again; just be alone on the bed in his room, sinking into sleep in seconds …
With what must have looked like a sheepish smile and meekly pleading eyes, he sought moral support from his local guide and mentor, but Khun Manot, quite incredibly, was also leaning back in his lazy-boy recliner with a girl on his lap: the anorexic with the blond curls and big manga cartoon eyes, giggling and jumping up and down, whispering into his ear.
All of a sudden, as if she could sense Rune’s gawping, the small blond turned and met his gaze with coldly matter-of-fact eyes, in a fraction of second peeling away the veneer of demure innocence to reveal the self-awareness of a much older, much more experienced woman underneath.
That glimpse of raw, honest reality – of some other kind of truth? – shook him up a lot more than anything he’d seen so far in this totally corrupted town. And when Khun Manot, without attempting to be discreet, pressed his business card, wrapped in a 500-baht note, into a little back pocket on her schoolgirl skirt shortly afterwards, it didn’t surprise Rune anymore. She could be one of his informants, after all.
The girls out on the transparent dance floor took another, uninspired turn around the poles to the tune of Marilyn Monroe’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy", in a faster, bouncier Ibiza remix. Calm had returned to the school playground now that Khun Manot, the alpha male, had made his choice ... “Dad, Dad, Dad – Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad-dy …”
At that very moment, Rune was stunned by a silent flash from the right – unable to make out anything but the outline of one of the major’s two young henchmen, who’d just reappeared to take a snapshot of him and the girl with his smartphone. For the first time since the hotel, the young Thai man in the black clothes was grinning from ear to ear, for some reason giving Rune the thumbs up.
The pale, curly blonde had ceased goofing about, working over the police major with an intense lap dance. The girl on Rune’s own lap kept rubbing the bulge in his damp flax pants with practiced fingers, her tongue tickling, probing deep into his ear, as if she wanted to suck the brain juice right out of his skull. Glimpses of wet, naked, glistening meat in film clips he’d seen on the sly flashed into his mind’s eye – sequences featuring himself, brutally pumping away between the thin, spread legs of the moaning, quivering go-go girl. No question about it, he had been incurably infected, his firewall penetrated, the virus everywhere by now …
Uneasily, Rune broke free of her warm embrace, stood up and lurched out to the toilets to pee and splash some cold water on his face. His erection softened and his bladder was relieved, of course, but the water didn’t help a lot. He saw a blurry ghost of himself in the mirror as he straightened up from the sink, heavy-headed and sort of out of focus.
Standing on a stool, a homunculus of an old Thai guy with a wrinkled, ape-like face massaged his shoulders while he painstakingly washed his hands, over and over. All thumbs, he then dropped his wallet on the floor as he made to hand the dwarfish man a tip. He fumbled around for it – on his knees on the wet floor – for a while.
When he got back to his seat at last, it took a few sluggish, sleepy minutes, during which he was close to nodding off, to realize that Khun Manot, the baby-doll blond, his own topless friend and the two henchmen/bodyguards had disappeared. They were all just gone. He was alone in the deep, oversized armchair, unable to process this new situation fully. The chair seemed larger than before, making him feel a little bit like a kid who’d climbed up onto his dad’s comfy chair, which was far too big, and was now unable to get out of it or off of it again.
The party had simply moved on, vanished without even saying goodbye, which not only seemed rude but also felt like a personal humiliation. The few remaining girls shuffling around the chrome poles on the dance floor didn’t even flirt with him, as if they wouldn’t go near him even if he were the last man on Earth. They looked at him with a kind of pity – which ought to be his prerogative, after all.
It slowly dawned on him that the room was more or less empty, apart from a few closely intertwined couples on benches up the back and a few waiters fiddling about, gathering bottles, glasses and ashtrays from the tables.
Just as he, not without some difficulty, was about to struggle to his feet, escaping the gravitational field of the chair and determined to get out, the topless girl with the back tattoos returned, jumping straight back up onto his lap and pushing him down again … down into the soft springs and the thick, fluffy pillows …
She had ordered another shot and a beer for him – as well as “ladee dlink” for herself – while he was out, it seemed. Energetically, she snatched the wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket to pay the approaching waiter. Without objecting, defeated, he let her take the notes – including a pink one (500 baht) – and sneak some of them into her knee sock. It felt like some sort of atonement. Surely that would be enough for her to forgive his insensitive brush-off a few hours ago?
Hey, whatever, man! The newspaper was paying, alright, so there'd be no incriminating statements from the credit-card company arriving at the apartment that Mikala might open while he was away. For some reason or other, this hypothetical nightmare scenario made him cluck with a bubbly laughter that had long been fermenting in the hollowness inside.
Was it his own or another man’s hands – or a 3D projection from the stream of porn fantasies in his head – that were kneading these amazingly pert breasts heaving up and down in his field of vision, making him totally cross-eyed and nauseatingly horny?
Rune’s tongue rolled about and saliva seeped from his lips down into his beard when he tried to say something in English. It doesn’t matter, buddy, he thought recklessly. She doesn’t understand fuck-all in English but I turn her on anyway.
He laughed out loud, mad and happy, and the chick giggled as if she could read his mind. “Uuuh, you hab ham yai, hi-hi, velly big cock,” she whispered breathlessly into his ear. No other girl had ever said that to him before.
The words flowed sweetly into his big, empty, stupid skull, where they were soon drowned out by the echoes of his own laughter. He laughed so uncontrollably now that tears rolled down his cheeks, laughed and laughed, without knowing why, and without being able to stop – even if he wanted to.
Still groaning with laughter, he leaned forward and reached for his drink, the girl heavy on his thighs, but knocked the glass onto the floor and broke it. Oops!
The girl jumped right off his lap and started to shout angrily in Thai with her Minnie Mouse voice. That only made him laugh louder. It all sounded so funny, sorry, and he had never before had an earful from a raging topless Asian girl in a nightclub either.
Perhaps the crazy little bimbo thought Rune was laughing at her or her body? Which was so very, very wrong, a huge misunderstanding, which he was keen to correct at once, now that they had just made up – although it was impossible for him to explain that to her in his weakened state ... She shook her head in disdain and looked down at him as if he were truly mad, a foreign lunatic on the run from an insane asylum.
The girl with the dirty mouth, the fabulous tits, the nimble fingers and the shaven doll’s pussy turned her back and wiggled off towards the toilets. Boo-hoo, sneered a strange, sarcastic unknown voice inside his head, twisting his face muscles into a scornful grimace. Oh my, the little Thai whore actually appears to be in the huff!
After that, it wasn’t long before strange male faces started to circle him, barking viciously in those high-pitched faggot voices – down through a sort of woozy porthole – in their incomprehensibly primitive language. His local contact, his new chum the police major, was the only one who would be able to save him from this predicament, he understood with a flash of panic cutting through the blurry fog, but … but where the fuck was he then, and why had he let him down like this, for Christ’s sake?
A couple of the Thai men took hold of Rune with strong arms, lifted him out of the armchair and led him tottering to the stairs that wound in a spiral, down, down, down …
He had finally stopped laughing, but the go-go girls kept dancing, glowing ultraviolet beneath his thick, heavy eyelids.
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK (FROM THE SECOND PART, “DUKKHA”, NARRATED BY VETERAN TABLOID FREELANCER AND FAILED NOVELIST ROBERT “BOB” LARSEN – AN OLDER, SLIGHTLY DOWN-AT-HEEL EXPAT LIVING IN SELF-PROCLAIMED “EXILE” FROM HIS MORE AND MORE POLITICALLY CORRECT NATIVE DENMARK):
Tuesday, 14:48 (THA): Luckie-Suckie Café – Second Road/Soi 13, Pattaya
The topless Thai lady’s head kept bobbing up and down. Slobbers of saliva and spit dangled in fine, long threads down over her saggy breasts, stretch marks glistening like silver in the glow of the video screen …
Who knew if, anywhere else in the world, there was a place like this, where a poor white guy – in the 21st century, for fuck’s sake! – could sit in a bar, smoking, drinking beer, watching Casablanca and getting his cock sucked at the same time? All in peace and quiet, on a random, lazy Tuesday afternoon, without having to be a gangster, rock star or IT billionaire, that is?
If there really was another such place, he certainly didn’t know about it. Which for some reason made him feel both as sentimentally proud of his city as only a newcomer can be, and as pleasantly surprised as only a pessimist can be – every so often.
He was well aware that those recurring internal stocktakings, weighing the pros and cons of Pattaya up against those of other cities where he’d been – especially the one he had left, obviously – were like spells against any nagging doubt, against the invisible but mischievous little goblin who went along for the ride wherever and whenever people emigrated. And yet, this was exactly the kind of curious everyday experience he had come to love about life in Beach Babylon.
The blow-job bar, tucked away in a dingy side street between Second Road and Beach Road, served as a repertory cinema in the sluggish afternoon hours. The old Thai-Chinese owner, Mr. Charlie, was a proper film buff with a propensity for classic golden-era Hollywood movies of the ’40s and ’50s, and he usually only swapped those for skin flicks on the DVD player later on, when the less discerning punters turned up.
Otherwise, Mr. Charlie was a graduate of the old hard-knock school. He’d been on the entertainment frontline since Patpong in Bangkok in the ’60s, when the first American GIs and officers started arriving in droves, on much-needed R&R from the Vietnam War via their air and naval bases in Thailand … longing for cold beer, hot chicks, long showers, soft, clean beds and a couple of days of happy, air-conditioned oblivion.
After the Yanks fled Saigon, Charlie quickly sold his place and rebooted the same basic concept in the – at least then – fresher, saltier air of seaside Pattaya, whose potential he claimed to have spotted right from the get-go. In the original Bangkok branch of Luckie-Suckie, Charlie had screened Danish or Swedish 8-mm and 16-mm fuck films, bought on the black market, but a paradigm shift occurred when he (according to myth, thanks to a US supply officer who owed him for a whole week with the best-looking girl in the bar!) had gotten his hands on three boxes of real Hollywood studio movies. In one fell swoop, Mr. Charlie’s cinematheque stood unparalleled. Very likely in the whole kingdom at the time.
The neon sign was turned off outside Rick’s Café Américain, just as a searchlight slid across the façade … Bogart left alone in the dark inside, engulfed in cigarette smoke and marinated in bourbon, with empty, empty eyes on his beautifully ravaged face: a man who no longer hoped for miracles or happy endings (except after a deep-tissue oil massage). A man, no doubt, who would down his drink, take a drag on his cigarette and laughingly blow back the smoke right into the face of anyone talking about “the meaning of life”.
He’d like to see himself like that: like one of those men who had reached the other side of his own youthful hopes and dreams; one of the walking wounded, trailing a string of personal failures behind him, who didn’t expect a gold watch as reward for faithful service from anyone. One of those, on the contrary, who every morning stared defeat in the eyes in the foggy bathroom mirror, but took it like a man and made the best of the day anyway … Now, that was a very seductive illusion, but rarely one that lingered long after the movie ended, the music stopped and reality was turned back on.
The Thai woman was deep-throating and gagging tirelessly now down there, south of Casablanca, and he felt rock-hard. He closed his eyes to focus entirely on the interaction between the two warm, breathing human bodies, interconnected so vulnerably via her mouth. It was easy enough to tune out Bogart, but that image of the fucking Undertaker (all wavy hair, steel-rimmed specs, unctuous smile and obligatory tan gabardine suit) faded back up behind his eyelids like a pop-up on a PC screen, promising you a larger penis, a world of adoring females and a first-class trip around the world if you click “OK” – only to rip open a Pandora’s Box of contagious viruses and software cancer …
“Have you thought about your next of kin?” it had said on the front of the brochure, featuring a brownish black-and-white photo of the Undertaker with the modestly melancholy eyes. There had been nothing else in the mailbox in the lobby when he went out this morning – and pretty much never was. Except for stray, dried-up gecko tails, fast-food flyers and bills for water, electricity, cable TV, wi-fi.
“It’s about time to give you and your closest relatives true peace of mind. Write a will before it’s too late. Don't leave your assets to the Thai government. Leave them to your nearest and dearest instead.”
It was already too late now, forget about it, and he really didn’t need to think about how little he had to leave behind, how few people he had to leave something to. It was the Undertaker’s damned fault. The Undertaker fucked with the flow. The Undertaker fed the Western disease of the mind … Restlessly shifting around on the tall bar stool, tilting backward on the seat and shuffling his feet in the air like a small boy in a grown-up’s chair, he felt cold sweat trickling down his back – drop by drop, all the way down between his cheeks.
Fuck the Undertaker, he thought, absurdly enraged – or maybe he actually mumbled it out loud to himself? Luckily, nobody heard anything over the film soundtrack and the Thai pop blaring in the background, it seemed. “FUCK THE UNDERTAKER!”
The woman down below just intensified her rhythm, sucking her cheeks in every time she pulled back up, causing waves of pleasure to stream from his prostate and balls out to the tenderly throbbing head of the cock. That got him back in the flow in a matter of seconds. Oh yeah, that sure did the trick … He was about to shoot his load, leaving the Undertaker way behind, sinking into oblivion. She would heal him again, suck the venom and fever out, as so often before.
“You played it for her; you can play it for me,” Bogart sneered at the black pianist on the screen above. He’d be better off dropping by Luckie-Suckie instead of hiding out in loneliness, slowly drowning himself in booze. And now, now, it was so close now, but what the ... no-no-no, please, no. No way. You’re kidding, right?! Afraid not. Just before the cumshot, building up for so long in his loins, the mobile phone burst into life, buzzing and blinking on the aluminum counter: a mutant, metallic insect ominously crawling towards him in small, jerky moves ...
The woman under the counter munched and slurped away, unconcerned, even though his cock went a bit limp as soon as he recognized the caller ID. Finally, his insistent gestures made her take a timeout. He carefully forced his sweaty, semi-swollen genitalia back into the trousers, hands shaking lightly and body wincing from a familiar uneasiness.
After four years in Pattaya, he was no shrinking violet when it came to sex (if he had ever been), but shooting his load into the bar girl’s mouth while breathing heavily on the phone to the editor-in-chief was a step too far, after all. Besides, he often had the vague notion that in this South-East Asian Sodom and Gomorrah in particular, it was crucial to lay down some ground rules, a personal moral code that you’d never break, even if everything else fell apart. At least if you wanted to avoid ending up as a stereotypical dirty, old Farang, OD’ing on cheap liquor and young pussy – yet another whored-out sexpat up to his neck in the quicksand of insatiable lust oozing under a thin coat of asphalt everywhere in town.
Resigned, he watched the buzzing metal insect as it moved, for the sixth or seventh time, gradually inching toward the edge of the counter. Not until the last second, right before the smartphone hurled itself to the floor and shattered into useless pieces (letting it was unspeakably tempting), did he sigh, palm the phone and take the call.
Casablanca still flickered away up on the screen, drowned out from time to time by the folksy luk thung pop from the bar’s stereo. Bob instinctively turned his phone off after the call from Copenhagen, fearful of further distractions.
For a few seconds he sat there, listless on his bar stool, gazing absent-mindedly in the direction of Bogart and a tearful Ingrid Bergman without really seeing them, waiting for the ventricular extrasystoles to drop to a normal level – or at least to a level considered statistically average for an unhealthy, overweight, chain-smoking and fairly pickled middle-aged wreck like him.
So his legs twitched uncontrollably and he nearly fell off the stool when the Thai woman, without any kind of warning, dexterously unleashed his slack cock from the open fly to try to get it hard again. Nobody was going to accuse her of not being a consummate pro!
Bob didn’t doubt it was a matter of genuine professional pride to her, but knew it also had a lot to do with Mr. Charlie reportedly docking the pay of his working girls if a customer didn’t ejaculate within 30 minutes of oral stimulation. He was said to time the ladies with a stopwatch, lurking behind a peephole inside his office like some devious Fu Manchu character – at least according to rumors among the foreign “film connoisseurs” who preferred to visit the joint in the afternoon hours.
The first time, it had felt downright bizarre in there, almost too kinky – getting a blow-job at a long bar divided up into small, individual sections by makeshift curtains, with Mr. Charlie behind the peephole, unknown strangers with goofy faces getting sucked right next to you, with Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Cary Grant or Veronica Lake as ghost-like witnesses on the 60-inch Samsung LED monitor above. Most of the customers felt that way the first time, he believed. Now though, he always got up on the chair without hesitation, unfazed by the weird setting and with the air of a seasoned player, a man of the world. Or so he liked to think on his better days.
The topless woman working him under the counter was named Bai. She was small and dark, with lively eyes, high cheekbones, big white teeth and a slender but muscular, sinewy body showing the signs of three births and a childhood and youth spent mid-thigh in muddy water in the family rice paddy, beneath the fierce sun of the north-eastern Isaan region. A delta of stretch marks branched out into lighter shades from her brown, raisin-like nipples, and her untrimmed muff reached a vortex of wrinkles around the navel. At 32, like most of the staff, she’d long since achieved veteran status.
But she wore the scars on her body with the quiet pride ingrained into underclass Thai women. You rarely heard them whine, complain or fish for sympathy cos of the hand life had dealt them. And at her age, in this city, a woman were approaching her final sell-by date, except at the countless happy-end massage parlors, blow-job dumps or beer-bars, where the clientele tended to be older, poorer and inherently less discriminating foreigners.
She was too well worn around the edges to be pole-dancing underneath sharp spotlights and laser beams in the fancy go-go bars down in Walking Street, where the catwalks groaned with skinny-legged young girls aged 18 to late 20s, strutting their perfectly perky tits and sensually bouncing hips. They were forever flocking to Pattaya from the rest of the country – an apparently inexhaustible supply of newer, younger models who hadn’t yet had the Christmas lights in their eyes extinguished by too many long nights of leering grins, groping hands, pounding techno beats and endless tequila shots; by too many drunken, florid declarations of eternal love turning into just another lubed-up quickie with a moaning, sweating farang stranger in some bland hotel room.
Bai had been around the block a few times already. She mastered fellatio as an art form, always managing to suck Bob totally dry, down to the very last drop of “miwk”, as she called it. In no time after she had started over, steadily licking and softly chewing his cock between her gums, it got as tumescent as before, tingling with blood rushing back into the hardening shaft …
Her raven-black hair, with the white incision of a middle parting, soon pumped up and down in an accelerating rhythm once again. Then she slyly launched her final offensive, clenching her teeth down by almost an inch, so they scraped back and forth over the most agonizingly sensitive parts of the cock, the silk-smooth purple skin around the urethra, while pulling back his foreskin with one hand and gently massaging his testicles with the other.
Puffing and panting deep down in the chest, he sensed the tightening of the abs, the tensing of his thigh muscles as they prepared for release. In the very moment that he emptied himself, the water in both ears from a swim the day before burst with a synchronous, stereophonic “PLOP!” in both Eustachian tubes ... Shuddering, he pulled out of her hot, moist, sticky mouth, leaning back into dizziness.
As usual, Bai had swallowed his load, and that was one of the reasons why he chose (or was chosen by?) her, even though she was no spring chicken any more. The fresh young chickies on the night shift acted all precious and spoiled, insisting on condoms, expecting bottles of bubbly and hefty tips on top of the basic fee. Fair enough. Indeed, that was their right and privilege in this ancient exchange of money and bodily fluids between men and women. This was simply how the market worked, to put it more bluntly. Or realistically.
Bob pulled up his fly, infinitely slowly, tooth by tooth, afraid of the zipper biting into his naked, shrinking flesh. The task completed without accident, he routinely raised his empty Singha bottle from the bar counter, and in five-six-seven seconds, a new beer had been dug out of the icebox, popped open and slammed down in front of him … dewy, frothy, refreshingly cold.
“You oh-kay, na ka?” Bai inquired with a cunning smile, looking straight into his eyes. For her, men like him surely had to be an open book, he assumed. While he never had a clue about what she or any of the other ladies felt on the other side of the bar … “You tink too mutt.”
A remark he had heard many times before from local bar girls, dancers and masseuses. Among the Thais this wasn’t an expression of a perceived ancient Oriental wisdom, just common sense, really. Thinking too much about things you couldn’t change never led to anything good. Quite the opposite, in most cases. And he had an inkling of that being viewed as some kind of character flaw or even latent mental illness by many natives.
For them, first and last, it was all about having as much sanuk – fun, partying, happy moments – as possible, while struggling with harsh realities and poverty. It was about laughing so loud that it would drown out the whispering of demons in one’s ears, and about smiling, smiling, always smiling, even in the face of the worst adversity.
On the other hand, they had at least a dozen different kinds of smiles, varying from the almost mental to the maliciously gloating. The smile was a blurred subtitle for a language you didn’t really get anyway – hermetically sealed and hard to decipher for foreigners, even after decades in the country. And if you didn’t smile back, you made the other party lose face – and when Thais lost face, things could get really ugly, really fast.
“No, no, I wasn’t thinking about anything,” he replied, half truthfully, this time with an only slightly strained smile. Mainly because he couldn’t be bothered with Bai’s usual indignation that he and all the other, in her eyes, rich and spoiled farangs wasted their time on what she considered trivial concerns, instead of relaxing and enjoying the sweet life … preferably with a Thai girlfriend or wife by their side.
“What happen, will happen, ka,” she used to end these discussions, trumping him completely every time. “You cannot change fate, Khun Bob. So only cha cha, okay – take it easy!”
“Well, I’m trying to keep up with that Humphrey Bogart movie,” he said apologetically, at which point Bai followed his gaze, probably without recognizing some ancient American actor in an old black-and-white film made before either of them was born.
“Blumphrey Low-hard?” she repeated lazily, as she lit a cigarette – under a “NO SMOKING” sticker the size of a vinyl LP – and dug one of the newest, most expensive and certainly thinnest HTC smartphones out of her Louis Vuitton Bag. The phone looked convincingly real; the bag, not so much.
Why Westerners worry so much about what problems might hypothetically arise in a week, a year or right after we leave this bar is plain incomprehensible to Bai, he thought. How to explain to her that there was every reason to fear that your well-being might soon be spoiled after such a therapeutic, healing moment – indeed, that sooner or later you are always punished for simply enjoying life without shame and guilt, even for the briefest moment? How to explain that every upturn is followed by a downturn, according to hubris and nemesis and all those sleepy echoes of Greek mythology that Bob remembered from classical studies at school?
That way of looking at the world was alien to a Buddhist woman whose academic career had ended at sixth grade in the village school, who lived in the moment, fatalistically at ease with her lot in life and pragmatically facing down her own mortality. (Which might also be a little easier if you believed that the samsara carousel spun around for all cosmic eternity, and that she herself would just be on her way to the next life when she kicked the bucket in this incarnation.)
Bai put the phone down with a sniff after replying to some text messages, shaking her head despondently with a look that said more clearly than any words, “They’re crazy, those farangs!”
She put her bra back on (despite Western notions to the contrary, Thais in general were a very modest bunch), pulled a T-shirt with the bar’s logo down over her head and quickly checked her hair in the mirror. She grabbed a dingy cloth and wiped her mouth, gurgling some Colgate mouthwash and spitting a mixture of the pink fluid, her own saliva and the remnants of his thick, hot “milk” out into the sink.
The music on the stereo abruptly stopped. Mr. Charlie was still hiding in his office, and as the two other women were getting busy with customers, nobody had time to put a new Thai CD on. In the silence that followed, the dialogue from the film overlapped the intimate sounds of the bar, two parallel soundtracks merging together.
“I’ll die in Casablanca,” Bogart drawled out into the room, accompanied by six people who made up a breathless, subdued chorus of lust, as if they could only keep each other alive that way. “A good place to die.”
Humming to himself and leaning against the concrete wall with one hand, Bob had been emptying his bladder – after a serious bar-crawl from one go-go joint to the next in Soi LK Metro – when he heard the voice behind him in the darkness: “You finished pissing soon, snitch?”
It almost gave him a heart attack. He’d thought he was completely alone on the narrow asphalt path from Soi Diana Inn down to Soi Buakhow 15, a handy, though pitch-dark shortcut (without a single lamppost) to his condo.
Even in his drunken state and with his back turned, he had sensed how the atmosphere changed with a mere electric-synaptic snap of the fingers. It was as if the sound had been turned down on a giant transistor radio somewhere in the background, silencing the clicking geckos and rasping cicadas, whooping bass lines and whistling palm tops ... The melody in his head (“Love is in the Air”) turned into white noise. Love wasn't what was in the air any longer.
The stranger had asked the question in Danish, in a neutral, everyday tone that didn’t fit in with its crudeness. The fist that hit Bob on the temple a split-second later did, though, and it landed before he had time to shake his cock and zip up, let alone answer the insidious question.
The sound of the skull being hit hard by knuckles: “THUMP!” A muffled, compressed explosion like a banger going off beneath the lid of a steel trashcan. Bob’s legs disappeared from under him, the asphalt catapulted upward, and like a big rag doll, he sank to his knees, warm piss soaking the khaki trousers.
As a teenager, a sharp wit and quick tongue had bailed Bob out of a lot of scrapes, but neither brain or mouth worked in the seconds after the first shocking blow out of nowhere. The next one had the full power of an extended arm behind it, hitting him from above as he lay on all fours, instinctively lifting his head to find his bearings ... to find something to cling to in the tilting upside-down universe ...
The second punch struck downwards, into the right side of his mouth, the lower lip splitting like an overcooked sausage. His head dangled woozily, deep down in wet blackness, blood dripping from the lower face ... All he could make out were two broad-shouldered outlines of the men bent over him, darker than darkness itself. They both laughed, spitting on the street and dancing on the balls of their feet, only getting started.
“You will NOT write any more fucking articles about the Danish bars here in Pattaya for that bullshit gossip paper. Get it, RAT?” the other one shouted. Or at least it had sounded like a different, more excited voice, he told himself from far away.
Both voices belonged to young Danes in their early 20s, couched in a flippant, sneering tone. It was the way you had to talk all the time, if you were a minor thug with big dreams of Harleys, blonde strippers, four-piece leather sectionals, genuine gold chains, freezer bags full of cocaine, and maybe even a patch on the back as the crowning glory.
Two on one, there was no point trying to resist. Forget about it … Bob was queasy with a misplaced seasickness at the bottom of a black hole, in a puddle of his own piss, at the base of the cement wall separating the alley from a large hotel. The Peeing Wall, as it was known locally, cos motosai drivers used the blind spot halfway down to jump off their mopeds and relieve themselves before speeding off again.
The bottom two or three feet of the wall were furry, tainted absinth-green. The stench of ammonia ripped his nostrils as he crawled around on all fours, dazed, like a drenched, filthy street mongrel, sniffing about – at the mercy of much bigger dogs.
It had been a rhetorical question, of course, but as he remembered it, he had felt the urge to mutter something in the affirmative, something vaguely apologetic, perhaps in the hope of softening their approach. He snuffled at least, something like “Yeeeah-yeeeah, take it easy, please?”, choking on his own blood and daring only to look up for a quick glimpse of his unknown assailants.
Above the silhouettes of the two bald, beefy young guys, the night sky twinkled endlessly like in a Disney cartoon, and although it seemed absurd when he thought back later, what had puzzled him most just then was that the stars seemed so much bigger, brighter and closer to Earth than in his home country.
The pair were not quite satisfied with his response. Maybe his tone of voice hadn’t been apologetic enough; maybe he really needed to … plead? One of them shook his head regretfully, and in a disturbingly sensuous flash-forward, Bob envisioned how he’d be chewing on broken teeth and fillings, on a mouthful of crunchy porcelain shards, with raw, bleeding gums a few seconds after. Then the surprise kick hit him under the arm on one side instead. Two or three ribs bent softly inward toward the lung with a deep, searing pain that made him moan out loud, unable to contain himself any more.
“Shut up, bitch! People are tired of your snitching,” said the first one, who wasn’t nearly as noisy or vociferous as number two. It sounded like he talked through clenched teeth.
“You will stop with those ridiculous, lying articles and find some other shit to write about, understood? Otherwise we’re gonna sort you out properly next time around. Got it, you fat little fuck? We know where you live. We know all about you. We’re rolling with The Club, and they are watching you. Okay?!”
From the darkness below he couldn’t clearly make out their faces or clothes, but he didn’t need to see them in the bright lights of a police line-up to know all about them too. Oh yeah, he sure as hell did.
He knew they would have skull-rings on thick fingers; fake gold chains around massive necks; Hooligan or Pitbull T-shirts tight around swollen biceps; tribal tattoos like meat sleeves from wrists to shoulders. Just as he knew how their eyes would simultaneously be beady with adrenaline and glazed over with coked-up numbness; how the ADHD restlessness would crackle around them like static everywhere they went; how they would be sweating pure booze, coke and steroids out of their pores at that point.
Bob had grown up with men who could have been their dads, uncles, cousins and big brothers – and with a whole range of like-minded homeboys his own age: the violent football casuals, small-time hashish and speed pushers, future nightclub bouncers, wannabe gangsta rappers, biker supporters and assorted members of ethnic street gangs. These were the kind of guys he had mucked about with in his teen years, playing soccer, shoplifting from the supermarket, breaking windows at the school, racing tuned-up mopeds down quiet streets and secretly smoking weed in the park. The same boys who were on his case later on when he rejected their clique in favor of …
No. It hadn’t been sort of heroic like that. Truth be told, he basically didn’t have the balls or the nerve back then to graduate to the next level of that suburban school of aspiring criminals – by nicking cars for joyrides, burgling houses in better neighborhoods, mugging old drunks outside the bars after last call or whatever else the others went on to do. With the strong support of his mother, Bob first and foremost had let himself gravitate away from the street life and into high school instead, because he became more and more aware how different he was from them, even though they shared a similar background.
Maybe he had been laying unconscious for a while, down there at the foot of the Peeing Wall that night? Or perhaps his tormentors had taken a well-deserved smoke break after the physical exertion in the stifling heat? At any rate, some time had passed – with him apathetically awaiting his fate – between the kick to the side and the approaching noise of an engine.
At first, the sound was distant, infinitely far away, like a spaceship preparing to land, but then it came closer and closer, finally drowning out the disinterested banter of the two goons and the monotonous, drone-like humming inside Bob’s aching head. The roaring scooter that suddenly raced directly towards them on the path down from the Soi Buakhow 15 end, with its bouncing, dazzling headlight, breaking with screeching tyres a few feet away.
In his experience, it was never the beating as such that was the worst part of a stretched-out present that seemed to last an eternity, but strictly speaking was over in a minute or two. Unless the assailants deliberately were out to cripple you, that is. Adrenaline and alcohol were excellent instant painkillers, he had learned in his teen years, and the abused body only started hurting when you came to … afterwards.
No, the worst part of a beating was actually the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that paralyzed you while it was being administered – in this case, by a pair of overgrown boys, pumped up with anger, testosterone and bad cocaine, who could do whatever they wanted with him. All in their own good time.
And how would their clog dance on his poor, bloated body have worked out if the Thai man on the scooter hadn’t butted in at that particular moment in time? After all, one could never be 100% certain a pair of thugs like them would be professional enough only to go as far as they had been told to by their employers, i.e. teaching “that freelance reporter” a lesson, making him drop his tabloid exposé of the town’s shadier Danish bars.
Anyway, what flipped the script was the arrival – fortunate, auspicious, coincidental? – of a small, stocky Thai man in his 40s with a big heart, a gold-toothed smile and gonads of galvanized steel, dashing out of eternal darkness and right into Bob’s life on his well-kept, cream-colored ’60s Vespa. Perhaps only seconds before the hired muscle otherwise would have split open Bob’s skull, cleared his mouth of teeth or transformed him into a lump of broken, bleeding meat.
Normally, local Thais kept out of internal nightlife fights between drunken farangs. Not out of fear, but because they considered most of the white, partying foreign men farang ya jok anyway– not worth spending their karmic energies on: alcoholic, unshaven bums and sleazy sex tourists, the scum of charter tourism, whether they were in fact destitute expats, British hooligans or Scandinavian biker clones. But luckily, this guy was different from most of his countrymen, it seemed.
With unconcerned resolve, the Thai man in the flowery, traditional Songkran-shirt had dismounted the scooter, sniffling loudly through broad nostrils, and sauntered straight over to the three foreigners caught in the blinding cone of light from his now-purring parked Vespa. Even though both the goons were over a head taller than him, and a lot wider and meaner-looking.
“Now you stop that, kap, you stupid farang!” he shouted in a flat, nasal, slightly feminine voice typical of Thai males (and so easy to be fooled by), aiming his index finger at the largest of the proud, young Scandinavians. One of them, sweaty and short of breath, with an anabolically enhanced chest bulging like a stripper’s fake tits, wore a tight, black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL CHAPTER” plus the logo of a motorcycle club with chapters in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya.
Aha, so that’s how it all adds up, Bob soberly observed at that point, without being shocked in any way. The biker gang were apparently the real owners of the bars he had been writing some lame pseudo-exposés about, running illegal liquor, drugs and women on the side, no doubt – within the confines of the tiny reservation they were allowed to manage by the local cops and gangsters. For a price.
The biker dudes looked startled at each other with raised eyebrows, exchanging comically exaggerated, uncomprehending looks, as if they couldn't in their wildest dreams imagine that a gook midget like this would dare to stand up to them. As if they’d give him a fair chance to slip away while the going was good, since the fool obviously had no idea who they were.
The one with the impressive male tits, who had also been the loudest, most vocal when they were battering Bob, raised his muscular right arm to strike, as if it were second nature … but a split second before the signal from his reptilian brain reached the huge, sore-knuckled fist, he froze solid in the scooter light. Eyes wide open, mouth drooling, shaken by multiple convulsions – like a sudden epileptic fit. From his own frog-like position and twisted perspective down below, all Bob had been able to see was how the Thai man pressed a short, thick black rod up under the guy’s lower left rib, not pulling it back out until the much bigger white man jerked to the ground with a pleasurably heavy thud … only a few feet from where Bob lay, unable do anything but hope the asshole next to him was stone dead.
“What the fuck, man? Get out of here, you little Thai faggot!” the other assailant hissed, his voice no longer neutral and restrained. Despite the aggressive statement, he slowly and awkwardly backed away though, inch by inch, while eyeing his knocked-out buddy.
Bob had a better recollection of what befell the second of his attackers. As the painful throbbing in his head had been waning a little and his vision was getting slightly less blurred, he’d managed to drag himself away from the melée at last, propping himself up against the Peeing Wall. Its spiky concrete tore up his t-shirt and the skin on his shoulder blades, but he was too absorbed by the pot-bellied Thai man facing off against the much bigger opponent to feel anything yet. The outcome of their standoff would seal his own fate – that much he realized, with a weirdly humbling clarity, feeling like some limp-wristed damsel in distress in a movie scene.
The young guy’s eyes somehow turned inward beneath a forehead glistening with sweat. He was just as tall, but physically not quite as beefed-up as his fallen comrade – leaner, hungrier, a sinewy type. The pale face turned redder and redder, contorted in a grimace that pulled the blemished skin so tight over his cheekbones that he looked like the victim of a cheap, botched face-job by one of Pattaya's many plastic-surgery butchers. When he unfolded his switchblade, his opponent was long since ready – armed with a .38-caliber revolver that had been tucked into the back of the waistband under his loose, colorful shirt.
The dry, metallic click as the gun was cocked broke the silence. The Dane immediately stopped waving his knife about. A nerve trembled tensely on one of his temples. Sweat kept rolling down into his eyes, forcing him to blink frantically in an attempt to see against the sharp, fixed light …
Sensibly enough, it seemed like he was starting to wonder how to get out of this duel before it was way too late. Maybe he was aware of the harsh realities of life behind the scenes in the Land of Smiles? Aware how little a foreign low rent-goon like him mattered in the game in this brutal city, how little chance there was that the police (or The Club) would ever find the Thai stranger who had dumped his body in the darkness behind a tourist hotel, in an alley stinking of piss from both men and dogs?
After a few seconds of stasis, shrouded in a cloud of mosquitoes circling the scooter headlight, the knife finally clattered down on the asphalt. The young man stood for a moment, slack-jawed, licking his dry lips and looking at his now-silent partner in crime, prostrate on the ground, as if unsure what would happen next. Unsure if he was going to live or die himself.
Almost gleefully, Bob had watched his compatriot raise his empty hands as he took a few furtive steps backwards, before turning on his heels and running north, in the direction of Soi Diana Inn, as fast as he could. The last thing Bob heard before he blacked out was the cheerful laughter of the Thai man under a thousand soft, blinking cartoon stars.
A couple of girls stood round the back of Soi 8 with a big, home-made sign in large, childish ink letters: “Hello Farang! No boom-boom = no money me = mai sabai = no good :-( ”
One of them quickly stepped out in front of Bob, making him stop in his tracks. She giggled and smiled up with cheeky eyes, patting his belly with one hand and asking, teasingly, “When you have baby, mistah?” It was one of the standard lines when chatting up beer-bellied farang men but it still offended him a bit every time.
Soi 8 was at boiling point. Tonight’s countdown was accelerating fast, with less than an hour to midnight at the meat market. Bob looked in vain for Miss FUCK ME and the pink scooter on the way back up towards Second Road, but had to head home and write his first article anyway – like a good, well-brought up boy (his mother would’ve been so proud!) … or rather like a tired, fat, ageing man with a jai dee of purest gold under the otherwise worn, wrinkled exterior.
For him, the countdown ticking away was to his own deadline. No need to tempt destiny by exceeding his abilities. Given the tattoo on her pretty little ass, he should be able to find the pillion passenger on the pink scooter again – or hire Dusit to do it, as soon as he came into some money for the William Flemming stories. If everything went as planned.
Even though most of the bars didn’t shut until 3 or 4 – or even later if the licensee paid extra tea money to a senior police officer in the district – a lot of the bar girls were already impatient if they hadn’t yet convinced a foreign man that he should take her home to bed, short-time or long-time. “Up to you, na ka?”
In a corresponding red-light street in any Northern European metropolis, guilt and shame would cloud the women and men loitering in the shadows. The midnight air would be charged with a different kind of desperation, with hard drugs, short cons and latent violence – the perfect setting for one of those cheap, grimy tabloid-TV “documentaries”, shot with concealed cameras, that made decent citizens tremble with outrage in front of their flatscreens at home.
Outdoors, under the moon, stars and palm trees in this silky tropical night, there was a lightness or even cheerfulness about the proceedings that made it all seem so delightfully natural, informal and acceptable. No matter how contrived or staged it actually might be. Yes, sex was being bought and sold out in the open in side streets like these, but the general attitude seemed to be “So fucking what?” None of the working girls were forced at gunpoint to be here. None of the cruising punters were out to harm any of them. The Universe wouldn’t implode because of this critical mass of raunchiness. Why be as miserable about it as they are in the West. Come on?!
The game played between the searching men and the alluring women was a kind of perverted flirting, albeit with much better odds for the man than on the normal singles scene in Europe or America. But even if you could buy your way to a better chance of scoring the kind of girl you’d never get near in your hometown, money wasn’t enough on its own. On the contrary, you needed some luck, energy and charm too, as Bob had learned by now. The hard and expensive way.
Thai girls had to be seduced, some way or the other, before you were allowed to buy their services for a few hours or a whole night. They wanted to make as much money as possible, of course – that’s why they were here! – but they also wanted to have fun, while sticking to their own opaque codes. They looked after each other, helped their less attractive “sisters” get customers too, and definitely had their limits (unfortunately, usually to do with anal). No matter how much cash one flashed around their cute little noses, Bob had hardly ever seen a Thai bar girl let her herself be pressured into sex with someone she found repulsive.
Conversely, every straight man in the world would have his limbic system carpet-bombed to oblivion on a night-time walk up or down a soi like this. You literally ran the gauntlet between two living, moving walls of sexily clad (or half-naked) women, cooing and smirking, winking and whistling, blowing air kisses and making obscene gestures, showing off their curves and bodies, some of whom would rush out into the middle of the street from time to time to embrace and fondle passing younger men who turned them on. Even a monk would be tempted in this cauldron of feminine flesh, wiles and hormones.
Bob was always especially amused by the rookies, doddering around in a blissfully overwhelmed, happily lobotomized state. He’d felt that way too, when he first came here many years ago. The first couple of nights on his first trip to Thailand, he had also, paradoxically, ended up going home alone to the hotel, drunk, jazzed up, unable to narrow down his choices between all of the lovely girls. It was the yellow fever of old-time sailor’s lore; an incurable infection by the sex tourist’s version of Stendahl's Syndrome.
In all fairness, none of the greenhorn beginners had probably ever seen as many sexy young women in as little clothing at once, other than on a computer or video screen. Into the bargain, most of them were quite available and surprisingly often gladly accepted your invitation to chat, drink, dance, flirt or play a game of pool. Hardly the reaction most of these guys got from the females they tried to chat up at the weekend back home.
But that wasn’t the only reason all sorts of single men – the good, the bad and the ugly – endowed this town in the Gulf of Siam with a mythical status as some modern-day Mandalay, or made their way here as a last resort, for that matter … when they had run out of options back home.
First of all, it was a hell of a lot cheaper to party as a player in Pattaya than in Ibiza, Dubai, Miami or Rio de Janeiro. Even for all the hopeless losers who didn’t have a Brad Pitt six-pack, a bright red Ferrari, a million in the bank or a suite at a five-star luxury resort.
Secondly – unlike, for instance, at the French Riviera – you could smoke, drink, whore, eat junk food, skip shaving, wear droopy shorts, be a little overweight, tell dirty jokes, sleep the day away and follow your heart’s desires, as long as you complied with fair laws and unwritten rules and inflicted no collateral damage on innocent bystanders. And as long as you didn’t make any Thai people lose face in the process, obviously – a sin worse than breaking most laws in these latitudes.
On top of that, middle-aged or older single white men were met with suspicion almost everywhere else on the charter circuit these days. In any sunny, carefree holiday paradise populated by romantic couples, relaxing families, partying youngsters and innocent children, he was at best regarded as an intruding gatecrasher – at worst, a genuine threat.
Guns ’N’ Roses slid into the chorus of “Live & Let Die” just as Bob walked past one of Soi 8’s last small bars. The loud, wildly cascading electric guitar sound made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, fueling a defiant us-versus-the-rest-of-world-feeling inside. He pumped a fist in the air like some adolescent rebel without a cause, grinning back at the barmaids on a high porch, all headbanging together, their long hair flying, throwing devil’s horn signs to punctuate the breaks of the song …
Even after the Russian charter invasion, even with the council’s longstanding efforts to clean up and rebrand their infamous city, it would be very, very stressful for anybody harboring issues with single white men to take their vacation in Pattaya, of all places.
Wednesday, 21:49. The southern end of Walking Street
The PATTAYA sign blinked, letter by letter in alternating colours, from the north side of Pratumnak Hill … or Buddha Hill, as the mountain between Pattaya and Jomtien Beach was known among farangs, after the statue of the Enlightened One perched on its top.
The sculpture sat high above the city, cross-legged in the earth-touching position – right hand pointing vertically downwards, left lying upturned in its lap – like the vagabond prince Siddhartha Gautama, waiting deep in meditation to be enlightened under the Bodhi Tree.
According to legend, Siddhartha endured a series of trials during the 49 days under the Tree of Enlightenment before he was finally able to break the samsara cycle of craving, unhappiness and eternal, karma-taxed reincarnations. The king of the demons, Mara, tried with all his might to sabotage the process.
Mara bombarded the prince with an arsenal of terrible storms, crashing rocks, flaming spears and seductive sensual dances performed by the demon king’s three beautiful daughters. But the aspiring Buddha resisted all the plagues and the temptations … not least, thanks to Mae Thonaree, Thailand’s Mother Earth, who eventually drowned Mara’s army in the water she wrung from her long, braided hair.
Was that why this particular Buddha was always smiling up there, seemingly so sure of his own determination? Or was the beaming grin merely a grimace of silent, ironic resignation due to the profane noise and light from the nightlife at the foot of his mountain?
Still, the view from up there really had to be amazing right now, even for a Buddha. Colourful lanterns and crackling garlands of light radiated from restaurant junks in the bay, while laser beams and spotlight cones swept across the sky from hi-tech discos in the south end of Walking Street, near Bali Hai Pier. The neon discharge from the whole triple-X Blade Runner scenography was so massive that it was probably visible from the Moon.
One night in Bangkok made a hard man humble. One night in this street, however, could peel layers of dust and reserve off even the most politically correct Western male, leaving behind little more than a rutting ape in the Skinner box of the subconscious.
Oh, those smouldering red nights in Pattaya, thought Bob, invigorated by the crowds, shot through with a tickling, tingling sensation, something he was not yet too blasé to savour every time he returned. Walking Street va-va-voom!
Smartphones glowing like small, digital flares in the hands of lurking shadows. Everybody on the way somewhere else to meet somebody else, more often than not somebody they didn’t know (yet). The restless pulse was too strong and magnetic to let you go home on your own – and damn it, why would you? To end your evening alone, in front of the computer screen, looking for some grim release?
Nobody needed internet porn here. It was difficult to stay lonely in the Walking Street zone. Mara’s three daughters had multiplied to a legion of temptresses, whose seductive siren song (“Helloooo, handsome man!”) chimed from about 50 go-go bars plus a dozen beer-bar complexes within one single, tight square mile.
The air was charged with lust – lust for sex, money, affirmation, oblivion. All over town, people queued up to buy condoms in 7-11s and withdraw money from rows of ATMs. In a few hours’ time, a river of sweat, sperm and lube would flow through these gutters, soiling and soaking the soft white sheets of every second hotel room in a five-mile radius.
[ … ]
As Bob walked east on Soi BJ – like the nearby Soi VC, another street name smacking of Vietnam War and GIs on leave from the front – deliciously refreshing drops landed on his boiling, close-cropped pate for the first time that evening.
Rainwater from that afternoon’s monsoon shower still dripped incessantly from the interlaced pipes, cables and wires at first-floor level. No wonder that problems with TV and wi-fi signals were more the rule than the exception, including in Bob’s condo. It wouldn’t surprise him if telegraph wires from before the Tet Offensive still stretched between the sooty buildings. Obsolete wires were usually left dangling when replacements were installed. As time went on, they all became tangled with each other in low-hanging nodes and bundles from which cascades of sparks sometimes sprinkled down onto the streets below …
Foreigners might flee in a hurry, but the Thais just laughed as they stood or sat under tin roofs, flogging their food, goods and services, coolly devil-may-care, as if it were just naughty kids playing with sparklers on a balcony higher up: Mai pen rai!
Deeper down the teeming side street, he turned into an even narrower alley by a booth with a boom-box pumping out dub reggae. The corner stall’s owner was a pierced and tattooed Thai guy around 40 with an afro, who never bothered wearing a shirt and proudly let his beer-belly drape over a belt-buckle the size of a dinner plate. As well as the usual assortment of souvenir junk from the global bazaar, he pushed ready-rolled joints for local street kids and curious Western backpackers who had strayed into this side street in their hunt for more authentic experiences.
The stall backdrop ought to have been enough to get even visually overstimulated members of Generation Me, Me, Me to yank out their cameras and perhaps, for once, take something other than a selfie. It was a disturbingly bizarre silk-screen print of Bob Marley, raising his hand in a peace sign, side by side with a heiling Adolf Hitler – both life-size. In the West, this would only be allowed in public if it were presented as an “installation” by some highbrow, self-important art students.
Pattaya was dirty, sleazy and vulgar, no doubt, but also totally honest and straight-forward. It was a city with its own perverted beauty, its own kind of magic – if you were able to see it as it really was.
(END OF EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK!)