Sunday, November 9, 2008

In the land where pickup trucks are taxis and scooters own the roads...

Pattaya. The moonlight was above us, and just below it, the building tops of Walking Street were engulfed in a web of neon lights and power lines. The city's hot spot was preparing to show us what it was made of, and it'd surely be something we'd never laid eyes on before. Not to mention, the scantily clad locals and Eurotrash we'd come to know and associate too well with the nightlife of this city was not something I'd first expect as a way to spend a family Christmas vacation. Cue Chevy Chase. Yet, here we were.

Two days prior I'd been at work, on my last day at a job I'd given up after tirelessly searching for an occupation more to my personal and financial liking. On that night in Pattaya I thought about the last meal I spent with my former colleagues, and how we had turned the company's kitchen into a red and green haven best suited for elves and holiday dwellers. A pot luck luncheon full of tables adorned with pumpkin pies, savory casseroles, and cookiescookiescookies. All I could imagine people were eating for the winter times - warm, homey, comfort food. We left all of it behind when we stepped onto the pavement of Pattaya, and welcomed with open arms the cozy warmth of tropical sunlight.

The heat of the day, having subsided, left the warmth of soupiness in the air, offset with a mild breeze coming off the water of the bay. Chris and I, alone on our first adventure there, and acting as sidekicks, meandered through the outer crust of the town streets. The closer we came to the action, the more the air became filled with the smell of taxis, or Baht Buses, as they're called. All lined up ready for the night of work ahead of them, catering to the vehicle-less patrons ahead.

A Baht Bus: Picture a pickup truck, beat to shit by a Pennsyltucky good ol' boy, and given shoddy seating in the bed. Attach to it a slightly open aired cage of metal structuring allowing minimal passenger protection, and you've got yourself one of Thailand's most popular forms of transpo- the Baht Bus. The Baht, of course, comes from the name of the Thai currency. The trick, and part of the adventure in riding in one of these vehicles, is the negotiation of tender. There is no flat rate on a Baht Bus. No meter. Only a driver speaking in varying fractions of Thai/English sentences while debating with an unknowing American about a formidable price for shelling out the bumpiest ride imaginable. Before they even enter the bed of the vehicle, it's the rider's job to propose a price they're willing to pay. Then the driver will counter offer with higher price, usually much higher than the would-be passenger is willing to agree upon immediately. Sometimes the two sides will argue according to the number of passengers, and sometimes there will be more than one party of passengers at stake. There are several variables, but one thing became certain after my first Baht Bus experience with Vera, Chris' Mom. Bargain. Bargain your ass off. Stand your ground. They will do their job, and argue with their best interest in mind. They'll make every attempt to upsell you and raise the price. But this ain't no episode of The Price is Right. The audience won't help you, and your wallet IS at stake. Never agree with the number they utter right off the bat. They want your money just as much as your drunk ass needs a ride. It's an unnerving experience at first to have to bargain. I don't think we're used to it, as Americans. Not on the scale of how much bargaining there exists in Thailand, at least. If you're a foreigner, you are upselled, without question. But with that healthy portion of American ego I was dealt from the get go, I have no qualms about speaking up. Just so's ya know.

We made our way down Ocean Drive, moseying parallel to the bay. Everywhere were the bright lights of bars, clubs, discotheques, and establishments that, if considered in any other country, were of questionable legality. Being amongst the crowd of locals and tourists, and in such abundance, forced our walk to seem more like moving as sheep in a flock. We moved in subtle unison and meekly made our way out of the pack several times to stop and oogle at sidewalk merchandise or have a cheap lager at a bar (it seems that lighter beer is all they imbibe, apparently). Eventually we came to the strip that all the hubbub was said to have taken place - Walking Street.

It has something for everyone, which seems like a vague description, but it's as accurate a statement as any. Whether you had planned on buying a postcard, a plate of fried rice, or some sex, this was the place to do one (or all) of those things. Now this is not to say that I come from a family modeling itself after the Waltons, but it's a bit eye popping to see, for the first time, a woman openly selling her body to a stranger. Woman...probably still a girl. I give her that title only based on her experiences and heavy makeup, that of which has only been remotely comparable to my 8th grade homeroom teacher.

We hadn't really meant to stop, but the hapless herd of bodies had allowed us to take in an extended viewing of a building on our left lit almost solely in red neon. It appeared like a cheap hotel plucked straight off the strip at the Jersey Shore. The kind of place that's your last resort when the Holiday Inn and DoubleTree are all booked. Maybe even then you might just drive home rather than stay a night in that hellhole. In the center of the second floor had attached to in a cascading staircase that led directly to the spot on the street where Chris and I were standing. Lining each side of the widened staircase were the petite and perfectly situated bodies of Thai women, all dressed in their apparent uniforms: a skimpy red party dress. There they were, every other step or so, posing in mirrored images of each other, eerily alike, yet all beautiful.

I turned to Chris, "What the hell is that place? A Thai funhouse of horrors?" Without even missing a beat, he pointed to a middle aged European man wearing a cheap suit that was approaching the staircase. "Look, you see?", Chris asked. The man began his ascent and carefully looked up and down each side, as if appraising the selection in the supermarket cereal aisle. He stopped, took one by the arm, and led her up the stairs, through a door, and out of our sight. "He was shopping for the right one. Apparently, she was his choice of the evening." I'm fairly certain that my jaw was planted firmly on the ground. Although I shouldn't have been at all shocked, I found my provincial, Puritan roots a bit overcome by the shamelessness of it all. We as Americans hide this blatant form of sexual exploitation, but in Thailand, it's in the open, for all to see.

The spirituality of the trip had all but lost me on that evening, and made way for a new kaleidoscopic view of the people and their trades of the night. No longer on the forefront of my mind was the Golden Buddha we had laid eyes earlier that day, but the young woman, who'd never laid eyes upon the man whom she was about to conduct the most obvious of transactions. The very thought of what transpired in her mind as she left the staircase to follow a stranger into a dark room left me speechless for a few minutes. I found myself unable to hold steady conversation about any of the spectacles we would see for several street blocks to come. Another thought seeped it's way into my mind as well: I bet, silently to myself, that that girl could make enough Baht in one night to support an entire family for a month.

We strayed from Walking Street to take in our first Mai Thai boxing tournament, and we did so while sitting at a collection of bars designed to surround the ring. We watched, we laughed, we played Connect Four in between fights, and we drank the cheapest beer we'd ever drink.