Chiang Mai's an interesting town: a lot like Bangkok, but on a much smaller scale. Hundreds of coffee shops. Great boutiques. And old white men with young Thai girls. Absolutely everywhere. Old hippies with Thai women in their 40s, and adorable little hapa kids. Bald and bearded bikers with chubby teenagers. Backpackers with stunning beauties. It's not as offensive as it was in Hua Hin, but it's twice as pervasive.
At the UN Irish pub, I joined a group of four older farang, each of whom turned out to have come to Chiang Mai for the women.
Derek, a 76-year-old cockney, works as a tree surgeon's assistant back home. He's been in Chiang Mai on and off for forty years, but for three years he's lived here more than not. "I went into a bar," he says, "And this bird sits down next to me and asks me to buy her a drink. Now she wasn't what's normally my type. I like 'em small, you see, and this one's big. She's got some weight on her. But I said, why not — thinking to myself it's just one night. And we had some fun. Well, that was three years ago, and we're still together. Thirty six years old, she is." She's less than half his age.
"Yow," I threw out, my eyes opening real wide, the way they do.
"But you have to be careful," he went on. "A lot of them have husbands back home, in the village. Regular actresses, they are. Could win an Oscar. An Academy Award. This one girl, back in 1971, I thought we were in love. I wanted to bring her back to England. Now they'll only come to England for one reason. They hate the weather, these girls, and the food tastes like shit to them. They only come for one thing: the money. Now I'd heard that some of these girls, because they've worked in bars, they won't let them in, you see? Won't give them a visa. So I said, well, let's get married. We had a little ceremony, got married, and — you know what — it turns out they still don't give them visas! Well, when I got back to Thailand, she was gone. Disappeared. I never heard from her again. I suppose I'm still married to her."
"What was her name?" I asked.
"Her name?" He paused, and looked down at the table, rubbing his head. "Her name? It was…" He really looked confused. "Oh, bugger. I… I guess I don't remember."
Skip, a round American in his late fifties who works for the Parks Department, had only been here for three weeks, and was getting ready to return to the States. "My wife and I, it's pretty much over. Almost completely. Has been for twenty years. But I wanted to see the youngest through college, and she's only got a year and a half left. Which is how long a divorce takes. So I figure, time to find a new home. And I have some buddies who moved out to Thailand. Man, they love it here. Told me to check out Pattaya, but that's too much. Chiang Mai seems just about right."
"Have you been to the bars here?" (Everyone seems to use the word "bar" as a euphemism.)
"Oh yeah!" He raised his glass in drunken enthusiasm. "I've had a different girl every night! It's great!"
"I'd watch out, son," advised Derek. I waited for him to give Skip some sage advice. Maybe that prostitution is unsafe. It's a scourge. It's immoral. It's to be avoided. But his advice covered none of these. "First time I was here, I took one of them ladyboys home by mistake." Whoa. As a reminder, Derek is the 76-year-old. This was like an anecdote from Trainspotting, but from a septegenarian.
"What did you do," I threw out.
"What could I do? I didn't want to offend her! … But I'll never make that mistake again." I've left out a sentence or two — knowing that Gubba will surely read this.
68-year-old Tony, another cockney who'd been here for years, was horrified. "I don't believe you. If that had been me, I'd never tell a soul. Not one soul! And here you are, blabbering on about it… You can tell from their voice, Andy. And their hands. But the best test is you go in for a feel. No disguising that!"
"Can you do that?"
"Oh yes. You're sitting in the bar, you squeeze here, grab there. They like it!" Hmmmm.
Skip was chuckling away. "I can't see why I wouldn't move here!"
"Be careful, Skip," warned Tony. "They won't let you buy property, these Thais. Only 49%, they'll let you have. The other 51% has to be owned by a Thai, so you have to buy into a business. And you know what that is? Your girl." Derek chuckled knowingly into his beer as Tony continued on a story he'd obviously told before. "I did that once, bought a place. Worst mistake I ever made. Bought a house with some Thai bird, thought it was the real thing. Thought it was love. Went back to England for a visit, and when I come, she's shacked up with another bloke."
"So what did you do?"
"I just walked away. Nothing else you can do. Just walk away."
Even with these horror stories, there was a clear consensus that this was the thing to do. The right thing. The only thing. I don't know if these men had been burned too many times, or what, but there was no alternative to them. When I commented on a cute white girl who'd walked in the pub, Harry, a New Yorker in his forties, smacked my head with the back of his hand. "Andy, you've got to get past this! Falang women are nothing but trouble. They're just not worth it. A constant headache. Move on, already!"
Later, as we drunkly said our goodbyes, Tony, Derek, Harry and Skip and I promised to meet the next night, so that the ex-pats could show Skip and I "the bars."
At the proposed meeting time, I sat in my guesthouse, sipping my herbal tea, and wondering what the evening could have been. And not really regretting my choice.