I consider myself to be one of those guys who can go with the flow, but I admit I do have a few nuggets of wisdom I prefer to keep: (1) Floss every day; (2) Keep the rubber side (cars/bikes) or lead side (sailboats) down; and (3) never order dinner at a brothel - just to name a few. These have served me well over my years, and if you told me I was sure to violate just one of these rules in the Year 2018, I would have said “Impossible!” These are the rules I live by. But, one thing leads to another in these situations, and you can bet this story isn’t about the day I failed to floss.
This day began like any other. I awoke when the glow of morning broke through the hatch centered above my bed, ground my coffee beans, boiled my pot of water for coffee. I sip from my Blue Owl Mug from the comfort of my Captain’s Bean Bag, and I marveled at the end of 2018 breathing down my neck. How is it December already? When Leslie joins the world of the awakened ones, I hand her the Orange Owl Mug and nudge her along until we can raise anchor and make our way to the shores of Ao Chalong, Phuket.
As we arrive, a giant Buddah looks down on us from the mountain side. It’s too late in the day to get much of anything done, so instead we wander into town and look for a place for dinner. We pass scuba diving shops, a place selling dresses and swimsuits, and a fruit smoothie stand. Then, we see an establishment that looks perfect to me: an open air bar with a handful of little bar stools across from a bar tender, a beer tap, a row of liquors on a shelf, and several Buddahs smiling down on the patrons. A pool table is nestled in the back corner, plants dangle from pots in the doorway, tables are positioned in a row on the street, just under the shade made by the building. Seated at one table is a group of five local women eating their own dinner and hanging out together. “This looks like our kind of place.” I say to Leslie. There is no dissent coming from The Wife, so from this point forward I argue we have joint responsibility for the turn of events that happen next.
The woman inside the bar sees us hesitate and waves us over. She motions with her hand the International Chirades symbol for eating: whirring a hand holding an imaginary fork in a circle that seems to go from imaginary plate, to mouth, to plate again. “Yes!” I say, and she shows us to a table. She serves us two very cold beers, and when I look at the little menu she hands me, the beer price is listed at an economical 17 Baht. That is 50 cents, in US currency. I smile. I knew this place was for me.
We peruse the menu until an Australian man with skin crusting over from leftover sunburns of the late 1970s comes over for a chat. He leans over Leslie, spitting in her hair a bit as we pick his brain for all the scuba diving recommendations he knows. He’s obviously one of those old fellas who surfed and scuba dived his way to Ex-Pat status in various South East Asian countries, eventually landing here. He is knowledgeable and strange, two characteristics I predict I will enjoy at retirement age, so Leslie continues to let him spittle in her hair as he talks. Soon, though, the group of ladies eating their lunch at the bar call to him, wave him over, and guide him into the bar establishment to seat him next to another man of similar ilk.
To my surprise, a quick glance across the street and to the second story of an apartment with open windows exposed me to the vision of naked woman passing by. “There’s a naked woman in that window,” I say, sharing my “well, I’ll-be-damned” observation aloud with Leslie. By the time she turned to see what I meant, the woman had gone.
Now, at this point, I admit there were a handful of clues beginning to emerge about the nature of the establishment at which we are currently holding menus. (1) Thinking back on it now, I have never, not once in all of South East Asia witnessed a group of women enjoying each other’s company in a state of childless leisure. All women we have met out here are in some state of serving food, cooking food, watching a child, weaving roofing materials, washing, hanging or folding laundry, running businesses, etc. while they spend time with their friends. It’s a “kill two birds with one stone” structure of socialization. The women hanging out around that table eating their dinner should have looked out of place to me. (2) The Crazy Old Codgers hanging around and being led here and there by the group of leisurely women eating dinner? (3) At least one naked women toddling about the vicinity. But, hindsight is 20/20 and the very cold beers they were serving were so incredibly cheap! Therefore, the clues did not gel and we blithely put in an order of Seafood Pad Thai while we sipped our second round of beer.
Soon, the group of ladies finish their dinner and turn to speak to us. Just like in every other place we’ve ever been they ask: Where are you from? How long are you here? Where are you staying? When we tell them we are on a sailboat, they ask all those normal questions about how long it took to sail here and were we scared on the big open ocean. After a while, the group starts talking to another Old Codger, but one woman breaks off and continues to talk to us. She saunters over to our table, and we ask her about herself, too. She’s from the North Central part of Thailand, has two nieces that she and her mother care for, she likes fishing. Of course, she does. None of this seems strange. The woman manning the bar pops by and asks if we would like another beer and we say sure. We offer to buy our new friend a beer – they are 50c each, people – and with this she says “Really? You will buy me a beer?” She checks with Leslie twice. Leslie says, “sure.” They are 50c, people. Our friend does a happy jig – aren’t I the man of the hour for buying a round of beers?
The Seafood Pad Thai arrives, and our friend sits with us while we eat, writing a list of Thai words and phrases we might need to use while we are here: Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, No thank you, I don’t want that. How much for money does that cost? Etc. Some of the basics you always need. As we eat and chat, a group of three women who had previously been eating at the table across the way begin blow drying and styling their hair in the mirror just behind the pool table. This might be considered clue #4, but food and health regulations here are not what they are in the U.S. and it still does not dawn on either Leslie or I what might be going on. We wrap up dinner, call for the check, take a photo with our new friend, and exchange Facebook connections, because that’s just what you do, right?
The bill arrives and it’s written in Thai-Squiggly, so I have no idea what is listed but the charge of $15US seems about right for two delicious Seafood Pad Thais and six beers. I pay up, don’t think twice about it, and we head back to Sonrisa. As we go, our friend says “Come back tomorrow for Thai coffee, and Ill make you a papaya salad. I’m a great cook!” We figure we need to come back in to grocery shop anyway, and so, we tell her we will head over for coffee around 10 a.m. Why not? She gives high fives all around, and as we leave, the three hair-styling women emerge from a staircase bedazzled in cocktail dresses for the evening. “This must be the pre-party spot.” I think.
The next morning, we find ourselves darkening the door of the same establishment. The same woman who manned the bar last night is there again. She greets us, leads us to the bar, albeit with a “hmm, doesn’t’ this beat all” expression on her face. She raises an eyebrow at us with inquiry, “what can I do for you?” We look around. Our friend is not here. No one is here, really.
“Do you have coffee this morning?”
“Coffee? Yes.” She finds two cups and makes us coffee, then she goes about settling Buddah’s offerings for the morning: clementine oranges, a burning stick of incense, a shot glass filled with water, and a wei (a bow with hands pressed together, a show of reverence/respect – for each Buddah statue. We sip our coffee until our friend from last night comes padding down the stairs in what appear to be pajamas. She’s trailed by two other women wearing pajamas. This is most certainly clue #5, and it is in this first instance that I start drawing lines between clues #1, 2, 3, and 4 to realize that maybe these women sell more than just excellent Seafood Pad Thai. But, here we are, and I’m not one to back out of an adventure in progress unless it will obviously kill me. When our friend sees us, she smiles and her eyes brighten with that look of “Oh yeah! I invited those weird sailors back for papaya salad.” She greets us and tells us to wait while she makes the Papaya Salad. She disappears again, and we are shuffled to one of the tables where we sit and wait for her to re-emerge with a scrambled egg, rice, and a papaya salad for our breakfast.
To her credit, it was very delicious.
“I forgot you were coming,” she says. “I had already chopped 34 chilis for my Papaya salad this morning, so I had to go pick them out.”
“How many are in here?” I ask. It’s a pleasant heat, not too much, maybe I could have gone with a touch more before my face lit afire.
“Oh, just two.”
“You eat this with 34 chilis!?” Leslie asks, looking a bit sweaty and red after eating her two-chili portion.
Every now and then, people walk by on the street, pause and look down at us. A conversation in Thai proceeds with our friend. I don’t know what they are saying, but the tone of it is: “what in the world are these two people doing here for breakfast?” They look from me, to Leslie, to me, and land back at Leslie. Thai chatter returns from our friend, and then she holds her hand out toward us and the other person shrugs as if this is a strange but they suppose reasonable explanation for their original question.
“I tell them you are sailors who sailed just by yourselves all the way from the USA.” Our friend explains.
Everyone involved in this exchange smiles and nods. Our friend returns to the list of ever expanding Thai words she is teaching us: cheers, numbers one through ten, qualifiers for one hundred, one thousand, and one million, until she looks up at us and smiles hopefully. “Will you buy me a beer?”
Leslie hesitates to look at her watch, but I can see her eyes darting downward wondering: what time is it?
“Sure?” We say.
“Sure.” Who are we to judge her for a morning brewski, I guess? And, it’s 50c, people. So, I contribute to the alcoholism of this particular young lady and buy her a bottle of hair-of-the-dog. The bar tender brings her the beer, and just like last night, she dances a little happy jig. She seems much happier than strictly necessary for a 50c hair-of-the-dog brewski.
We finish our papaya salad, say our thanks, then gather up to finish our grocery shopping for the day. “How much for the salad?” Leslie asks as we stand up and head toward the bar.
“Nothing? That’s silly.” Leslie says.
“No, no. Nothing, because I’m working.” Our friend says. The warm glow of a sudden understanding takes hold of both Leslie and I. She’s working….
“Ah, okay, great!” Leslie says, pasting that I-just-opened-a-big-box-of-poo-but-I-have-to-look-grateful smile on her face. I pay, and note the extra line item written in Thai Squiggly that I still cannot read, but now know for sure says: “Coffee – 17Baht, Female Companion – 150 Baht.”
High fives are delivered all around again, and we turn to go.
“I think ‘will you buy me a beer’ is code for something,” Leslie says as we walk a few blocks down the road.
“Yep.” I say.
You might think we’d feel cheated, but no. I feel strangely satisfied. While I did violate a long held personal rule by ordering not just dinner, but also breakfast at a brothel – with my wife along for the ride, no less – and, while I never expected to purchase the company of a “Female Companion” twice in the span of twenty-four hours for anything whatsoever, certainly, our grasp of the Thai “language” is off to an expansive start.
“Yep,” I say again, “there’s another notch in our belt.”