“An Iranian pastry here in Pattaya, a place that is considered one of the sex capitals of the world?” I thought to myself.
She must’ve read my mind.
“It’s a gift from an Iranian customer,” she explained with her poor English, which was mixed with Thai and an ever-accompanying smile.
Foam was in her early 30s. It was over a year since she had started to make a living and to send a bit of cash-help to her family by selling her body for sex. Since then, she hadn’t been able to meet her family who were living in a remote village in the southern part of the country. Foam had several rivals in the business, but each found their very own way to get customers’ attention. As for her, it was luring Iranian sex tourists into her bed using pieces of cultural advice and few Persian words thanks to Karim, her new Iranian roommate.
Karim, a young single man in his mid-20’s, left his home in Isfahan, Iran, on his way to immigrate to Australia; at least this is how he introduced himself the first time we had met a few days earlier. He added that Foam found out about his story first, and when she shared it with the rest of the team, no one hesitated to invite Karim — who was hopelessly lost in Thailand — to live with them.
Foam came to me with a tea tray and a pack of Nabat, an Iranian pastry which is saffron-flavored and saturated with sugar. It is usually served with tea in Iran. Imagine my wonder when I saw this motto written in Persian on its pack: “a proper souvenir for Imam Reza’s pilgrimages.”
Nabat is a typical souvenir from Mashhad, my hometown, a famous religious city for Shia Muslims because it houses the Shrine of Imam Reza, an essential figure in the history of Shia Islam. While stirring the nabat, I was thinking about the ironic situation.
Considering the thorough religious education I had in Iran as a generation born after the Islamic Revolution it felt strange and out of place to be served with a pastry known for Shia pilgrims by a sex worker.
“I hope their prayers are fulfilled” I said to Karim, smiling. He smiled back and lighted up his joint.
Nowadays, considering sanctions and the increasing inflation in Iran, it is difficult to save enough money to travel abroad and also challenging to get long-term visas. For this reason, it means a lot to meet a fellow Iranian traveling in another country. Maybe that was why Karim and I soon became good buddies, so much that he invited me to his place.
“I’m a guest here, but they’ll be happy to meet and host my friends too,” he said, believing that we have a lot to share.
“One day, you need to write their story,” Karim asked me right after telling him that I’d studied journalism. “No one knows them properly, not even those write about them for the sake of the paycheck,” he added. He insisted that he couldn’t survive in this country without his female friends, “we are now a family!”
Karim was staying in Thailand illegally. He lost most of his savings and also had some health issues due to an addiction. I could see Karim had tremendous respect for these girls: “They all experienced hard days, so when they see someone shattered, they recognize it quite fast”. He continued after a long pause: “They saw me in the same boat and instantly understood that I was hanging by a thread “.
I looked around the room that they called home. Their pieces of stuff were scattered all over the place like an Expressionist painting. There was a small toilet at the corner of the room separated by a small wooden wall. There was a big blanket near the only window of the room, where they all needed to squeeze together in a friendly way to fit beneath it: “We don’t have sex; we are just friends” Karim said, thinking he needed to clarify their relationship to me. Other girls laughed at his sudden claim and confirmed it with their blushed faces. I was surprised that even though they were all sex workers and I didn’t expect them to be shy around stuff like this, they quickly became bashful. Maybe because it wasn’t working hours?
The Nabat was melted enough in my tea, so I had a sip when a phone vibrated and a newly published music from an Iranian pop singer, Chavoshi, played with it.
“Someone is calling you, Karim,” I yelled.
“It’s not mine, but hers!” he pointed to Kamon, one of the girls probably also in her early 30s wearing a white t-shirt with a Micky mouse picture on it and old pink shorts. “Chubby is a fan of Chavoshi!” he added.
“Chubby” was Kamon’s nickname, or I could say it was what Karim used to call her cause she was a bit overweight, so I started to call her Chubby too, trying to find my way through their group and act like one of them.
It was a call from Kamon’s child, and as usual, all their talk was all laughs and smiles. Chubby passed me the phone to talk to her child: “Suadika (Hi),” I said, waiting for an answer. “Suadika” she responded; it was the voice of a little girl, around five-years-old. I followed up her greeting by trying to communicate the way she did by repeating her words and adding some Thai-English sentences with a big smile. I gave the phone back with a compliment: “how cute she is, “and Chubby grinned back joyfully.
Karim suggested we go to the beach; probably the smoke refreshed him cause he looked much brighter. Kamon and her two roommates had been checking their phones for awhile by that point. They accepted and changed their clothes. Seemingly beach time meant work time, or they hoped to find a customer while they were out because their new outfit turned Chubby from a mother whose eyes glitter as she talks to her young daughter into a sex worker; just her smile was still there from the previous character. So we went back to Pattaya’s cascade of scenery, where everything looks neat, energetic, and modern; a city that works hard to wipe down these girls’ sad life stories from its sparkling surface.
When we reached the walking street, it wasn’t as crowded as before. No sexy girls were waiting outside the bars. There was no sound of lips smacking to advertise an “unforgettable night.” Instead, there were police in every street corner, watching to make sure everything was under control. It was just like a typical street which made it abnormal for the place proudly made this slogan for itself “Good boys go to Heaven, bad boys come to Pattaya”!
The third girl, Noam, who was older than the others and played the big-sister role, went first to see what was going on. We were waiting near a trash bin filled with plastics and two big half-eaten sandwiches. After a few minutes, she returned with the news: the member of a family close to the king had passed away; therefore, many things suddenly became prohibited; even shops couldn’t sell alcohol for tonight,
“They won’t like to see us either” added Noam in despair. “For them, we are the symbols of joy!” and sighed in her conclusion.
However, they stopped me from asking more questions about the king’s orders because they were not looking for trouble!
“Politics shouldn’t be discussed even between friends,” Karim noted; “The King doesn’t have much tolerance! They are afraid of him even in their privacy.“
I’ve experienced mandatory respect to the king, once in a cinema in Bangkok. According to the law, a clip in honor of the king should be shown before all screenings; and people should watch it while standing. Now, I was experiencing another forceful respect to the “mighty” king!
There were no customers for the girls, so they decided to sit on the only clean spot near the street. That was when Noam took out her old phone from the pocket of her very short jean shorts and showed me a picture of a middle-aged European man. She introduced him as her fiancé. She said he wanted to take her to London where they can stay together, and she can work as a masseuse in a spa centre.
“I can leave this life then and start living my dream,” Noam said with faith, half in English, half in Thai.
But somehow I could understand everything she said. Karim nodded his head and said:
“There are people who sleep with them and promise them some help, probably out of guilt while they are totally drunk. But in the long-term these lies, make them feel worse.“
He looked at Noam’s eyes and then changed his sight to me and continued: “He is not her first one!”
Foam proposed to eat ice-cream, but as they couldn’t work for the night, they didn’t vote for it in order to save some money. Karim gradually developed a bad stomachache; I didn’t ask nor know why, but I assumed it was a side-effect of his weed smoking habits. He said it’d be better after a while, but he just got worse. He needed my help to walk back to their so-called home. We stopped on our way by the pharmacy to buy some pills.
I noticed a ladyboy (what they call a transvestite in Thailand) who was sleeping on their couch when I opened the door. No one mentioned anything, but I had the feeling that s/he was their partner in business and sometimes worked in their home while everyone is away. Karim felt better after the pills and follow with a glass of water, started talking with others. The whole group was worried about the financial issues they might face due to the temporary new rules. It was apparent that they count on every night’s money.
“Buddha will help you; Buddha is kind!” Karim said, sharing some words of optimism. He explained to me that they are sincere Buddhists, and these types of hopes are relaxing to them. Later I figured out that they all came from religious families. Foam’s parents were Muslim, and the rest were Buddhists.
“Of course their families and children know what they do; it’s a shared secret that everyone agreed to accept and not talk about it,” Karim again informed me in Persian to hide our conversation with others. Foam went to the toilet to shower, or let’s say to clean up; she used limited water so that it wouldn’t run in the room.
After a while, Mohsen Chavoshi started to sing Rumi’s poem once again:
“Forget the safe zone.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Foam wrapped a towel around herself and came out of the toilet and answered the phone; at first she was solemn and grumpy on the phone, but her chin slowly moved up into a widening smile. I could see her eyes became brighter.
“I found some customers! They were two Iranians I met before, and now they want to be with me for tonight!”. She shared the news after hanging up. Everyone became happy and congratulated her. Karim patted her on the back: “You made it, you are the princess!”
She smiled back.
Following her departure, I could feel jealousy in the room. After we set an appointment to meet for the next day, I also hugged them goodbye. On the way to my dorm, I thought about the princess role she was going to play for the night! I thought about those two fellow citizens who are feeding and budgeting them by their way of travel. I thought about the word “freedom” affiliated with these types of experiences, which obviously ends in these girls’ slavery. Hundreds of thoughts and guilty feelings surrounded me until the morning.
It’s hard to believe sex-workers make 10 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Is it the system that leads them to this life, or is it their own choices? Or shall I look back to history? Are US forces to blame because they used this place for their “rest and recreation” during the Vietnam war?
Or should I point at the Japanese who used girls like them to make some of their notorious “comfort women” camps in Thailand during the Second World War?
Shall we aim our blame at the health ministry that ignores the fact that HIV and other STDs infect a significant portion of these girls? Am I allowed to point at the king? Or to the people who support this economy by their way of having fun?
“Be realistic; you can’t change anything!” I thought to myself. “This has deep roots, what a single normal person can do?”
I kind of convinced myself in this way to be able to sleep. I remembered a small pack of saffron that I brought from Iran, “red gold” which is used to bless others.