Stu Bykofsky: Thai hospitality, with a dark side

Stu with Paul DeCeglie, an old Brooklyn College buddy who finally succeeded in getting the columnist to visit him in Thailand.
Stu with Paul DeCeglie, an old Brooklyn College buddy who finally succeeded in getting the columnist to visit him in Thailand.
Posted: December 09, 2011

PATTAYA, THAILAND - If you are going to run from your troubles, run far.

In the wake of a personal hurricane that tore apart my life, I ran all the way to Thailand.

Every journey is both external - where you went - and internal - how you felt. I am feeling good - and bad.

My journey reconnected me with my college friend Paul DeCeglie, who ran here to something, not from something. It's now his permanent home.

He ran to weather he liked, a lower cost of living, a laid-back Thai lifestyle and low-cost, no-guilt sex.

It was my first time in Asia, exotic and different - the language, the architecture, the sounds, the smells, the customs.

But . . . during the 90-minute taxi ride on Highway No. 7 from Pattaya to Bangkok's airport, from where I'd fly to Chiang Rai up north to visit an elephant camp, driver Somsak Rittiya apologized because his radio couldn't get music.

I whipped out my iPhone and hit the music button. "Elvis!" shouted the 29-year-old driver.

He knew Elvis.

From the right-side driver's seat he sneaked a peek at me.

"iPhone! No. 1! Steve Jobs! No. 1!" He knew Steve Jobs, too.

Thais have a reputation for friendliness. Their Buddhist faith may explain the country's tolerant attitude toward most things.

Thailand has one foot in the Old World, with street vendors selling a dizzying variety of food off motorized street carts, but it also has supermarkets and malls as modern as Minneapolis. There's a constant buzz from the swarming motorbikes, plus gongs clanging from nearby wats, or temples, and the smell of fresh flowers and the stink of dead fish.

If you want contradictions, Thailand doesn't disappoint.

DeCeglie finds Thais simultaneously friendly and infuriating, polite and cunning, sometimes shiftless and lacking intellectual curiosity. He'd been inviting me to visit for a long time, and for a long time I couldn't or wouldn't. Finally, to help heal, I ran here.

Thai women tend to be slim, with soft features and thick black hair. Thailand's No. 1 export to the U.S. may be wives.

If the No. 1 industry isn't catering to sexual tourists, I don't know what is.

Prostitution is terrible; poverty may be worse. Thailand is poor, with the average salary about $2,200 a year.

An endless supply of girls with no marketable skills, but rentable bodies, heads for cities to work in the sex trade. Although prostitution is officially "illegal," it flourishes and Thais tolerate it.

Just about everyone in a bar or club - from dancers to hostesses to servers - is available to go, after you pay a "bar fine" to compensate the bar for reducing its work-force. That happens after you agree with the woman on a price, what she will and won't do, for how long and where.

Bar fines are $10-$20, girls in bars charge $50-$100. Streetwalkers along Beach Road and the infamous Walking Street charge a fraction of that. Few are drug addicts. There are no pimps, and each woman is an independent contractor who also shares in the bar fine and any drinks bought for her. She can earn in one night what a clerk makes in one week.

But when I see a young woman walking with a farang (foreigner) who looks like a Pop-Pop leading his granddaughter by the hand to a Toys "R" Us, I feel bad. They are not headed to the toy store. They are headed to his bedroom.

He's rich, by her standards. She's poor, selling her youth and beauty to support herself or her family. Nothing is forcing her, except maybe circumstance.

That makes me feel bad, but every journey is external and internal. It's true for me, DeCeglie and the Thai bar girl.


Email stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. See Stu on Facebook. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Byko.

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