September 1999

Sam and Wichai




Last week, I was in Pattaya with my friend Sam. As is my habit every time I go there, I spend the days on Jomtien beach. Jomtien has a gay section that stretches for about 250 metres.

One of the easiest ways to identify the gay beach is to look out for the masseurs. The male ones work this section of the beach. The masseuses hardly ever stroll around here; they know too well that the customers want male hands on them, not long-fingernailed feminine ones.

On two consecutive days, Sam had a massage from Wichai, who had unusually good technique. We asked him where he learnt the trade, and it turned out that his family ran a kind of massage school. After finishing the in-family course -- four months long, he said -- he decided the best place to earn some money using the skill he had acquired was on Jomtien beach.

He arrived in Pattaya a month ago. Interestingly, he did not tell his family where he was going. He lied to them that he was going to some other town. Pattaya has a seedy reputation and decent families don't want their precious offspring working there. However, one of the brutal facts of life is that seediness often equals money, and when you're a 20-year-old young man starting out in life, money is what you need, seediness you can easily put up with. Perhaps even enjoy.

In truth, the massage is not seedy. It's done in plain view of others on the beach, and nobody pulls down your pants, though you should not flinch if the masseur works on your inner thighs or gluteus maximus -- hands on skin, not hands through clothes. Of course, if you're the type who think that another man's hands on your inner thighs is outrageous, then you shouldn't be in Pattaya in the first place!

A full hour's work-out is priced at 200 baht. The average masseur gets about 2 customers a day, and if he trawls the gay beach six days a week, he can make something like 9,000 baht a month (US$225 at today's exchange rate) net of direct costs. In Thailand, that is quite a good income.

In addition, masseurs can supplement that with some "overtime" work. Almost always, they pitch for this extra job at the halfway point of the one-hour massage, when the customer is fully relaxed and immersed enjoyably in the kneading from strong hands -- in other words, when his resistance is at its lowest. The masseur then asks him, in a whisper, whether he will consider another massage later on in the evening, "in your room". What is this? From what I've heard -- honestly, I've never tried it! -- this entails him coming to your hotel room at an appointed time, and gives you another session, with the delightful difference that this time, you're nude and he's nude. After the massage, what naturally follows, follows. For this, he earns 700 to 1,000 baht, (so I'm told) which is quite a bonus compared to the 200 baht for a beach massage.

It doesn't matter if the masseur is homosexual or not, and many of them are not -- they're all quite ready to do it.

Wichai said he was gay. At first, I wasn't sure if he was telling the truth, so on a second occasion, I asked him how many women clients he had had in the month working at Jomtien beach. (I've occasionally seen male masseurs do straight men and straight women too; they don't only do gay men.) Wichai said none. Why none? "I don't want, don't like. I don't ask them," was his reply. That to me was consistent with his earlier avowal that he was gay.

This made me wonder: was it money that lured Wichai to Pattaya, or was it more to do with the prospects for sex? This wasn't a question I could ask him, at least not until we got to know each other better, which was not possible in the short time of this trip. In any case, Wichai was Sam's masseur, not mine.

Sam rather liked Wichai, who was medium-built and slightly muscular, with hair on his legs and forearms. Hair turns Sam on. Or maybe it was Wichai's personality that did it: he was soft-spoken, a bit receding, one might say. But when he flashed his smile, it looked the sincerest, warmest smile you'd seen in days. At any rate, on the second day, Sam accepted the offer of a follow-up massage in the room. It was our last evening in Pattaya, and it was perfectly understandable to me if Sam just had to sample all the pleasures before we left.

Since it was already 4 p.m., Wichai agreed to follow Sam back to his hotel, rather than come over later. But as Sam and I were getting dressed and packing up to go, Wichai said he needed to make a phone call -- or so I understood -- and that he would go ahead first, and wait for us near the phone booth. It didn't unsettle me that I had no idea where exactly the phones were. As there was only one main gate out of the Jomtien beach, virtually everybody entered and left by that one gate. I could confidently assume that Wichai would be waiting for us somewhere there, where there were cafés, shops, showers and presumably, phones. As for Sam, this was his first trip to Pattaya, and he just trusted me to know where to find Wichai and the phone booth.

Fifteen minutes later, Sam and I were less than a hundred metres from, and walking towards the gate. I felt it might be helpful to share some of my thoughts with Sam before we caught up with Wichai.

"You may want to be very sensitive to how he reacts to you when we leave the beach," I said. "It's one thing to be a masseur on this beach, it's another thing to be following you into your hotel room."

"I mean," just in case I wasn't explicit enough in my previous sentence, "he may imagine that people are eyeing him as if he were a common prostitute. He may feel it as humiliating, especially as he's only been here in Pattaya for one month. Perhaps, he's not quite used to it."

Sam agreed. He too had seen that Wichai was not a naturally outgoing person, and so was possibly quite sensitive to others' perception of him.

Just about then, I spotted Wichai about a fifty metres ahead. "There he is, waiting for us," pointing him out to Sam.

Wichai seemed to be with another Thai guy, taller, stouter, darker, probably another masseur. They weren't speaking to each other, and were standing about 2 or 3 metres apart, but the body language told me that they knew each other. I was sure that Wichai had seen us approaching, but somehow, he didn't look in our direction nor wave to us. But he snatched an occasional glance at us, and I had no doubt that he was conscious of our approach. This avoidance of eye contact only seemed to confirm that he was uneasy about following us back.

When we were about 30 metres away and closing, Wichai started walking -- not towards us, but ahead of us, towards the gate. "This is strange," I remarked to Sam. "He should be coming to us, not walking away from us. He's not comfortable with being seen going back with us."

The other masseur, the darker guy, started walking too, but not before looking directly at us. I was sure now that Wichai had said something to point us out to him.

Sam and I picked up our pace a bit, in order to catch up with the both of them. When we did, I nodded to the other masseur -- let's call him Joob -- as a gesture of acceptance into our walking group. He nodded back, smiled a little, and slipped in step with us. None of us said anything, Wichai barely acknowledging our presence. How is he ever going to succeed in this business, I wondered, if he's so aloof from his customers?

Just outside the gate, an empty songtiew was waiting for passengers on Thaeprasit Road. Songtiews are similar to the Filipino jeepneys -- pick-up trucks with a canopy, and two benches along the sides. The four of us climbed in. Barely 5 seconds after us, a big white guy climbed in too, and as he did so, he looked at Wichai. Oh, I thought to myself, someone else thinks he's attractive too.

Sam, Wichai and Joob sat on the bench opposite me. The Big White Guy sat on the same side of the songtiew as I, but I paid him no further notice. Two or three other passengers came on board shortly, making up enough of a load for the songtiew to go. As we bumped along Thaeprasit Road back to Pattaya, Sam and I said a few things to each other, pointing out places along the way. Wichai and Joob might have said a few words to one another, but were mostly quiet. In any case, I wasn't paying attention to either of them.

As we approached the junction of South Pattaya Road, Joob rang the bell, got his fare out from his wallet and woke up his bag. This junction is a common alighting point, especially for the locals, for here they change to other songtiews going up South Pattaya Road. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

The songtiew pulled to a halt. Joob got up and moved, half-hunched (the canopy was low) towards the rear to disembark. Then Wichai whispered something into Sam's ear, and he scuttled off too. I looked at Sam. He looked at me, mouth agape, hoping I could explain what happened.

I couldn't, but clearly, we needed a private conference about this sudden turn of events. I crossed over to the opposite bench as the songtiew went back into gear, and sat beside Sam, where Wichai had been sitting just a few seconds ago.

"What happened?" I asked my stunned friend.

"I don't know," he said.

The Big White Guy sidled sideways to where I had been sitting, so that he was now opposite the both of us.

"Was he supposed to follow you back?" he asked, in a stentorian voice.

"Yes," Sam said.

"He was supposed to follow me back," he said, rather loudly, I thought.

And with unconcealed annoyance in his voice, he told us that he had arranged after a massage from Wichai in the morning, to go back together in the evening. He was just walking up to Wichai at the gate when he noticed that Wichai was going with us. So he followed our group into the songtiew, just to make the point that he had caught the rascal in the act.

That explained his looking at Wichai as he boarded the songtiew. I was so, so wrong. It wasn't that Wichai caught his eye, making his head turn, it was a determined glare. And now I recalled that subconsciously almost, it had registered in me throughout the journey that Big White Guy was looking repeatedly at Wichai. I had put it out of mind as the uncontrollable urge of attraction, but it was clearly the opposite: it was confrontation.

It also explained why earlier, as Sam and I approached the gate, Wichai seemed to walk away from us. My supposition was wrong again. It wasn't that he was afraid to be seen going back to a hotel with Sam as a customer; he had seen Big White Guy coming up behind us, and he was walking away from Big White Guy!

I asked Big White Guy whether he'd be going to the beach tomorrow.

"Yes, I most certainly will," he said, strongly, "and boy, will I give him a piece of my mind!"

Sam and I felt very sorry for Wichai. I wished we'd be at the beach too, so we could give him a little protection.

* * * * * * * * * *

There's no way for me to know, short of going back to Jomtien and gaining Wichai's confidence to ask him for his story, what went through the young man's mind that day. How he landed in such hot soup. But it's not difficult to make a fairly good guess. After all, we've all had our fair share of foolishness, cowardice and plain bad luck, and it's easy to empathise with someone in this kind of mess.

Masseurs may in the main, provide massages for money, but in life, things are not quite so cut and dried. Gay masseurs get a little bit more from giving massages to gay clients than money alone, especially if the customers are physically pleasing to them in the visual and tactile sense. Going back to the hotel with a customer is even more a swirling mix of pleasure and work. The money's good, no doubt, but the attractiveness of the customer makes a hell of a lot of difference between the masseur looking forward to it, and his wishing he didn't have to do this job.

In my opinion, Sam was physically more appealing than Big White Guy. Sam was also racially closer to Wichai -- and it is a fact that most people prefer sexual partners of similar race -- and my intuition told me that Wichai would have preferred Sam to Big White Guy anytime.

The problem was, he had promised Big White Guy after giving him a massage in the morning, to go back with him. So why did Wichai propose to Sam -- in the afternoon -- a follow-up session at the hotel? God and Wichai are the only ones who know.

Possibly, Wichai had not expected Sam to accept, or he might have intended the follow-up session for another evening, only to learn that this was going to be Sam's last evening. But faced with Sam's acquiescence, Wichai had a big, big dilemma.

He might have wanted to tell Big White Guy his evening session had to be cancelled, but couldn't find the courage. Perhaps he couldn't find the words. Wichai's English was halting, at best. Or maybe he just couldn't find Big White Guy.

More likely though, he just didn't know what to do, and froze into inaction, as so often happens to you and me when we're in a quandary. We do nothing and hope that somehow we can escape with a bit of luck or that everything will right themselves without our having to own up. Indeed, sometimes, this kind of lucky escape happens. Other times, alas, everything collapses into a heap.

This was one such heap. Wichai probably preferred Sam, and hoped to sneak away with us. The bad luck was that Big White Guy walked to the gate a few steps behind us, and caught him eloping with Sam. Worse, Big White Guy would not let his prey out of his teeth, and climbed aboard the songtiew, staring at him all the way. It must have been an excruciating journey for Wichai.

Sam loved Pattaya, and I'm sure he's going back soon. I hope he meets Wichai again, and gets the chance to tell him we understand, and that we sincerely hope Big Angry Guy didn't abuse him too badly the next day.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is a point to this story. It is that people who provide sex for money are as human as you and I. All too often, defensive about our own moral credentials, we cast them in two-dimensional terms, we label them, and we deny them any place within the bounds of humanity.

Wichai's impulses -- his lying to his parents about coming to Pattaya, his preference for a more attractive sexual partner, ducking a prior promise, maybe a lack of courage, freezing up in a moment of crisis -- are the very impulses we have all experienced, and suffered from.

Let's not think ourselves superior. They are no different from you and me. And they are no less deserving of our understanding and respect.

© Yawning Bread