A trip to Pattaya Beach wasn’t high on my list of priorities when I was traveling around Thailand. But I had a few more days than expected in Bangkok and felt like a change from the madness. ‘It is worth seeing first hand, even if you don’t like it’ advised my host. And it was pretty quick to get to. There were some lovely things to see – beautiful beaches and orchid farms. Then at night there was the town.
Far from escaping madness though, it felt like I had stepped into it. I was 23 years old and pretty naive. The endless bars with their scores of pretty Thai girls and drunken white men were a surprise to me. More of a surprise was how often the girls would catch my eye, sitting on the knee of a tourist, arms draped around his neck, giggling and flirting with him then looking over his shoulder to roll their eyes at me. ‘Look at this jerk’ they seemed to be indicating. ‘See what I have to put up with. Good job we all understand what’s going on here’. They didn’t come across as victims, though clearly that is how some of them end up. At quieter times I chatted with some of them about their families up country, about what they could earn and how they assessed risks. As an ethnographic experiment it had much to recommend it.
Looking back now I wonder that I didn’t feel more uncomfortable. I was young and traveling alone. Of course there were more than enough available girls so in a way I was invisible. And the tropical weather and busy streets made if feel safe. Sometimes naïveté is a blessing.
At dinner I got chatting to the 4 boisterous Australian guys on the next table. They came a couple of times a year. Self made businessmen with fancy lifestyles back home they talked firstly about the golf and then about the readily available sex. How they ‘needed’ the freedom from their wives and young children (‘she is only interested in the children now’). How refreshing it was for them to have sex with someone without having to speak to her or care about her. It made no sense to me as a point of view, but I was listening and learning. They bought me a beer or two. I don’t like the way we have structured society so that either people feel they have to stay in unfulfilling relationships or that men feel they can do this and it’s consequence free. The thoughtless hurt we all cause each other because we forget to notice or for fear of rocking the boat. But I do believe in understanding as much as possible about other people’s points of view.
As well as the Australians there were a lot of Arab men in the resort. One of them stopped me on my way back from dinner the following evening. He suggested I came back to his 5 star hotel. I think I probably just laughed and pointed out the massive array of readily available women all around us. But he wasn’t satisfied with that – the very fact that they were available made them less interesting while the converse was apparently true about me. He offered me a sum equivalent to my annual salary. I laughed again. ‘I’m not for sale!’ I told him without giving it a second thought, “Not at any price’. Despite the dodgy context we went on to have a conversation – more interesting data for me.
This trip was years before I realized the work that interest me the most is behavior research. At that time I was a marketing assistant in a multinational. But when I look back on episodes like this I realize I have been studying behavior all my life. Despite my introverted nature, especially when I was younger – or maybe because of it, I have always been curious about others and how their choices and priorities are different to mine, more motivated by understanding than judging. An outsider in most places I end up it can be easier to look more objectively at what is going on. Human society offers an endless adventure in this field and as an area of interest it is extremely convenient – there are nearly always some people to study wherever I go!