It was the first time I had visited Thailand. It had never really been on my destination wish-list, but I found a cheap flight and decided that I wanted to see the ‘long neck ladies’ of the Karen tribe.
So it was a sleeper train up to Chang Mai, and then a short tuk-tuk ride to one of their villages on the outskirts of town. It was a dispiriting experience. The ‘village’ was clearly mocked up to accept coach-loads of tourists, with rows of ramshackle stalls selling brass rings and other trinkets. The women slept in the shade, wearily rising as I approached to be photographed. It was clear to see that these people were barely scraping a living. Their menfolk have been waging war against the Burmese state since 1949, so I guess these women are refugees and living in exile. As I was leaving I was offered sex with a girl who couldn’t have been more than 12 – her neck was hardly stretched at all.
So, what next for my week in northern Thailand? That evening I had a walk around the town to see what was on offer. Just as I was about to give it up as a bad job, I came across what looked like a giant covered market – a huge hangar-like space with a metal roof. Inside were dozens and dozens of open-sided girlie bars, and at the very centre of things was a Thai boxing ring.
I wandered round being cat-called by the working girls (and lady boys) before I eventually came to one bar full of very pretty girls who looked different to the average, and didn’t squeal at me. (Sweet seductive smiles are so much more effective than a shrieked “weelcoome!”)
I sat down and chatted and discovered that all the girls in the bar were Lisu people, an ethnic minority that occupy highland regions of Burma, Southwest China, Thailand and parts of India. I learned a little of their culture. They said how their history is told in the form of a song, which now – as life and politics get more and more complicated – takes at least one whole night to sing.
I was enjoying chatting and flirting and having the girls all to myself when six huge muscular American chaps piled into the bar. The leader of the pack, slightly older than the others, introduced himself as Tommy, and told me they were part of a special forces division that had just finished a tour of Afghanistan. “Tonight we’re going to let loose buddy,” he said. “And you’re gonna come with us.”
With that he pulled out a huge roll of cash and paid the ‘bar fines’ for all the girls. (Bar fines are what punters pay the establishment to take a girl off her shift.) So, with the bar now closed for the evening, we piled out to find a fleet of tuk-tuks to take us to an edge-of-town nightclub recommended by the girls. Tommy had an inspiration. Waving a large banknote in front of the drivers, he said: “Whoever gets us there first, wins this tip.” What followed was one of the most delightfully terrifying journeys of my life, and we were at the club in next to no time.
The next couple of hours are all a bit of a blur in my memory. I know there was laughing, dancing and lots and lots of drinking. My next clear memory is walking back towards the town centre. One of the girls, an especially pretty and pale-skinned girl called Annie had been complaining of her feet hurting, so had jumped on my back to be carried.
“Take me to your hotel,” she said.
“I’d love to,” I replied. “But I’ve got no money, and…”
“No money! I want to stay with you.”
Of course, I was flattered, and I agreed – even though I doubted anything would happen in our drunken state.
But how wrong could I be. As soon as we got to my room she seemed to sober up, and launched herself at me like a tigress. It was an exhausting night, and next morning she shook me awake and ordered me to a shop over the road to buy more condoms…
That evening, after a day of recovery in my darkened room, I returned to the bar. I was chatting to Annie and was staggered to discover that she was the owner of the bar, and ‘mamasan’ to all the girls. Mamasans are usually older women, past their ‘working’ prime, who act as strict but protective mothers to their girls. But Annie was only 23, and perhaps the prettiest girl in the whole place. I then came to understand her core of steel. The previous night I’d noticed some scars on her arms, and now she told me how she’d picked them up while fighting a gang of lady boys who tried to muscle in on her bar. “Seven of them,” she said. “They never came back.”
Throughout the evening, she was constantly running chores, and hinted to me that I should take another of her girls. I suppose as a businesswoman that’s her job, and it almost felt like a favour to her that I took home a very cute girl called Kwan. Again, it was a long evening, with a day of recovery to follow.
That night when I returned to the bar Annie was acting very strangely. Was she angry with me? Jealous that I’d been with Kwan? It seemed unbelievable. But by now I was friendly with all the girls, and enjoyed an evening of boozing and flirting with them. I decided to go home alone, and asked for the bill. When it arrived, I was stunned. It was at least double what I expected. I questioned it, and it seemed Annie had been taking free rein on my account. I was angry and upset by this, but I knew there’d be no point arguing, so I just slapped down the money – the entire contents of my wallet – and with a few choice swearwords marched out.
I had a drink round the corner to compose myself, and began to walk home. About half way back I heard somebody calling me. It was Kwan. “I come with you?” she said. I laughed bitterly, and reminded her that I had no money.
“No money,” she said. “I come with you.” How could I possibly refuse?
Soon we were naked in bed, and Kwan was asking for me to find a condom. Just at that point there was a knocking at the door. Without thinking, I got up and – not being able to find my boxers – I put my legs through the sleeves of a t-shirt and answered the door wearing just that. I don’t know who I was expecting to see there – but as I turned the latch the door was kicked open and Annie came flying through like a banshee.
She leapt onto the bed and started giving Kwan the most savage beating. She had pulled off the sheet and Kwan cowered there naked, taking blow after blow. For some reason, she was shouting in English. “When I brought you from the village you were a water buffalo! I teach you to dress, wear makeup, make money. You’ll never work for me again. You’ll be on the street. I have you killed.”
All this happened so quickly – and I’d fallen over because of the t-shirt round my ankles – but as soon as I could I got between the girls. Then, suddenly, whoosh! I was up against a wall with a stiletto heel pressed against my windpipe. How she did it I’ve no idea, but I could see in her eyes the effort of will not to tear my throat out.
She then became horribly calm and began in speak in sing-song little-girl voice. “Tomorrow when you leave Chang Mai – because you will leave Chang Mai tomorrow – I may or may not have somebody with a gun waiting for you. Nobody ever disrespects me in my bar. Goodnight, dear man.”
And that was that. Kwan was sobbing in the bed, and I was left bewildered and more than a little frightened. But it was even odder in the morning. Kwan woke up as though nothing had happened.
“What will you do now?” I asked, expecting her to say she would return to her village or skip town.
“I’m going to work at the bar,” she said, without a care in the world.
“What about Annie?” I asked.
“Oh,” replied Kwan, “she’s always doing that.”