By Andrew McCarthy
“What do the stars next to the numbers on the badges mean?”
“Those are the one’s who give you a bath first.”
“You want that.”
“Sure,” I said, my head nodding up and down.
We were looking through a large picture window at twenty or so women sitting on tiered benches. They were dressed in evening gowns. It was 3:30 in the afternoon.
“This is where the politicians come, so you can relax,” David said. I must have looked puzzled. “So they’re clean,” he went on. I nodded some more—it was my first time in a bordello and I guess it showed. “Maybe we ought to have a beer first,” he suggested, and crossed into the empty bar.
David was an America photographer who had escaped to Southeast Asia years earlier. We had met in Saigon and agreed to hook up for a couple of nights of good clean fun in Thailand. But I hadn’t had a drink in years and a whorehouse in Bangkok on a wet Tuesday afternoon didn’t seem like the place to start.
“You know what, David, I think I’m gonna get that train up to Vientiane after all.” I had been considering a trip north, to Laos.
The northern Thai border with Laos had only recently been opened and there was a train from Bangkok every evening. It arrived in Nong Khai, on the bank of the Mekong River on the Laotian border, before dawn, where, I was to discover, entrepreneurs stormed the train, woke you from a sound sleep, grabbed your bag, and threw it on the back of their tuk-tuk as you gave chase through the pre-dawn mist. They then demanded a dollar, deposited you on a waiting bus that drove a few hundred yards and unloaded you on the Thai side of “Freedom Bridge,” which you walked across under the watchful eye of armed guards, after which you went through a version of customs and were released to fend for yourself among the eager capitalists of Laos at daybreak.
But before I was to learn any of that, I first had to get out of the whorehouse in Bangkok.
I left David at the bar to mull over his options. I hurriedly checked out of my hotel, crawled through the Thai traffic, and was at the train station with nearly an hour to spare.
The short time spent in the brothel had depressed me. The more ladies the host had offered, the more lonely I felt. So as I sat back on a hard wooden bench in Hualamphong Station, watching the crowds mill anonymously by and listening to the tracks called out in a language that was indecipherable to me, I was glad to be getting out of town, glad to be on my own again. I began to take willful pride in the fact that no one I knew in the world could find me. I was a stranger in a foreign land. Alone. The relief of solitude masqueraded as contentment.
I was suddenly starving. An exhausted looking conductor confirmed there would be no dinner on the train and a quick search of the terminal revealed one forlorn restaurant. I opened the door. The place was deserted except for a group of what seemed to be staff members sitting around a large bowl in the center of a table. I took a seat on the other side of the room. A stout woman got up from the table, came over and conveyed to me in Thai that the place was closed. My head sunk. She touched my shoulder, said something I couldn’t understand, and went back to her bowl with the others.
I gathered up my bags. As I shuffled towards the door, the woman waved me over to their table and an older man with thin white hair got up and dragged over a chair. The two younger ones slid their seats closer together to make room. I demurred. They insisted.
One of the younger men handed the woman a bowl, she filled it and placed its steaming contents in front of me and they returned to the business at hand. The silence of a good meal being well eaten ensued and I realized I was sitting among three generations of a family at dinner. Conversation eventually filled the table—words I could not understand followed by laughter I could. The large bowl in the center of the table emptied. The last drops went to me. I finished my fish soup and looked at the faces around me, strangers no more.
Ten minutes later, walking down the platform, I found myself sad to be leaving Bangkok. I stepped onto the train and said aloud, to no one in particular, “That may have been the best meal I ever had.”