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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Son of a beach

Pattaya, Thailand, 2003: Sixteen long years ago, in January 1987, Antony and I took the then seventeen hour flight to Thailand courtesy of the Evening Standard. He'd won their cooking competition (the first of several) and the prize was a week in Bangkok followed by a week in Pattaya. It was my first visit to the country and although the details have faded, I remember being entranced, seduced, amazed, whichever cliché you prefer, by the
colour, history, clamour etc etc of of its capital. By day we went from temple to palace, shop to market, squeezing through traffic and pollution in tuk-tuks, and by night explored its nightlife  -  mostly the boy bars but once, out of curiosity, a girl bar in the middle of Patpong. There we watched several young women demonstrating muscles in the unlikeliest places, and were briefly surrounded by buxom beauties until they realised, despite our best efforts at deception, that the most they would get out of us was a drink and a polite smile.

The second week, at the Royal Cliff Beach Hotel, was more relaxing. Yes, the boy bars at night, but a late breakfast and the swimming pool in the morning, followed by a taxi down to Pattaya in the afternoon to swim, ride on jet skis or take a glass bottom boat to watch a few tired fish swim desultorily beneath our feet. One afternoon we had the taxi take us south rather than north and in a few minutes found ourselves on the almost deserted Jomtien Beach. The afternoon passed slowly. A fruit seller came by and cut up some pineapple for us. I munched slice after slice to find my mouth filling with blood, the acidity in the fruit being much greater than in the weaker varieties that reach British shores. I stopped eating, the disintegrating-body-horror-movie sensation passed and a sense of peace returned as we watched the sun fall slowly towards the horizon.  

Fast forward to January 2003. Antony has died and his partner Chris and I are in Thailand, partly for a holiday and partly to see if we want to move there for a year or so. We've come to Pattaya for a couple of nights and booked ourselves rooms in the middle of town. With only a distant memory of the town, I have no preconceptions. It's lunchtime and the first thing we notice as we pass the beach is the FGs - Fat Germans, although I later estimate that only half the FGs are actually Teutonic, the rest being Anglo-Saxon and Russian. Then as we drive up the narrow soi (alley) to our hotel, I see the first of hundreds of girl bars. Almost empty at this hour, these open air establishments with their horseshoe counters with room for no more than twenty closely entwined couples are almost identical, so each must proclaim its separate identity with one or other gimmick - a happy hour that lasts half the day, faded football scarves from faded English teams, offers of bratwurst, sauerkraut or menus in Russian.

We left our luggage and headed for Jomtien. Chris had been there four years previously, staying with Tui, the owner of a recently opened gay hotel. He recalled not the deserted beach that Antony and I had found, but little development other than a dirt track and a few deckchairs scattered on the sand. We arrived to find a beach covered with neat rows of chairs and parasols. Crowds of holidaymakers and vendors ambled to and fro. Men-only in Chris's memory; now women wandered around. Tui's Place had doubled in size. This is the way the world goes in the twenty-first century, a time when beauty, peace and quiet are all in a state of entropy.

We took a seat in Tui's open air restaurant, asked for Tui, was told he was in town. We drank our beer - and there is nothing so refreshing as the first beer on a hot day at the beach - the hotel and took pleasure in the fact that the immediate surroundings were still gay and the FG quotient pleasingly low. (A less than pleasant sight on a gay beach is the occasional overweight man in mini-speedos; most fat heterosexual men have the decency to wear shorts.)

We drank, we ate and in a mellow mood moved towards the rows of deck chairs. We found two seats on the edge of the gay section, frequented by couples or those men content with their own company or that of their companion. Despite our fringe status, within half an hour Chris and a young Thai had half-recognised each other. And so Nin came over, a thin and lithe brown figure in brief clinging green trunks, with a shock of hair and broad smile on a feline face. Long-time-no-see, said one, how-are-you said the other, and conversation progressed as it does when you meet someone again after several years, and you have not much language in common.

Nin was followed by Nan, equally thin but well-defined, in blue shorts rather than green slip and with jewellery where Nin had none. Nan was older, we would learn, twenty-six to Nin's twenty-one. He was less good-looking, with too prominent lips and teeth and his voice was louder and higher pitched. But he was welcome and it was not long before he invited himself onto my lap. The usual pleasantries were exchanged; where we were from, how long we were in Pattaya, where we were staying why we weren't staying at Tui's place (we had tried, Chris explained, but there were no rooms.)

Underlying the conversation was the knowledge that Nin and Nan and the other young men who passed the edge of our vision lived off older white men such as ourselves. We said nothing, but it became clear that while Chris and I welcomed companionship, we would not pay for it beyond the occasional drink or ice-cream. And so Nin, with a smile moved on. Nan lingered, testing my muscles and paying me compliments before wandering off to greet other friends. For the rest of the afternoon he shared time between ourselves and two Canadian men a few feet away. 

The day finished, as days at the beach do. We finally met Tui, who finally recognised Chris. We said goodbye to Nan who promised to meet us that night in Boyz Boyz Boyz, the only gay disco in town. And so mid-evening we made our way to Boyztown, the soi with most gay bars, where we drank in Panorama, ate in Amor and watched the show in Splash. The explicit sex that used to be a feature of Thai bars has gone and is unlikely to return. Splash, an underwater show where lean swimmers glide and tumble between each other's legs and around each other's bodies was the most erotic display we had seen since we had arrived in Thailand. (Its companion show, Throb, with its drag Geri Halliwell and classic Thai dancers, was the wittiest.) And of course we ended up at Boyz*3, where we were bored by an old-fashioned glitzy drag show and entertained by Nan and the other young men who surrounded us. We were not the only object of their attentions, of course. There were as many older farangs, white men, as young Thais and the atmosphere was a mix of hedonism and suspicion as the older men watched over their investments.

The next day we arrived on the beach shortly before noon. We were still pale and the sun was high, so I slathered on the lotion and made periodic forays into the sea and sunlight. Swimming was more exhausting than in the pool I usually go to, but I found my stroke and bounced along the incoming waves. I even hired a windsurf board for an hour, the first time in five years, and blamed my initial failures to sail away from the shore on the wrong sort of wind.

When I returned, Nan had joined us. Nin could be seen a little distance away, alone, apparently distracted and unhappy. Away from his friends, Nan was quieter, more serious. I noticed his eyes, remembered Nin's and saw a wariness underlying the friendliness in both. Five years ago, Nan had come to Pattaya and found a job in a hotel, paying 2,400 baht (35 / $50) a month. The cost of living is cheap, but 2,400 baht does not take you very far. Friends said he should try the go-go bars, where young men (20 is the minimum legal age) in shorts parade for customers hour after hour, night after night. The pay is the same, 100 baht a night, but if a customer wants you, you can earn much more. For almost three weeks, no-one chose Nan, then a North American took him back to his room. An hour later Nan had 2,500 baht in his pocket, and by the end of the week, when the farang went home, another 10,000. 

Of course he would never go back to the hotel. In trepidation he called his mother to tell her he was now a go-go boy. She was less shocked than he had expected and her primary concern was disease, but Thailand is as open about condoms as it is about sex and he was always able to protect himself. Time passed and money came in.

But the problem with go-go bars is that you cannot refuse customers and after a couple of years he decided to leave. (I could sympathise; I have sat in more than one bar watching unhappy boys pawed by drunken FGs.) He now lived off the beach, where he could choose the men he went with and where he was free to talk to people he liked, whether or not they paid. And life did not appear to be bad. His relative wealth was apparent in the gold necklace, bracelet and rings he wore. He had been to Bali and he had been able to afford the trip to Sydney as a member of the Thai volleyball team in the Gay Games. When times were rough he had the companionship of the seven others he lived with Pattaya. "We're always there for each other," he said, "in life it's important to have friends" and a phrase that was a television clich suddenly became thick with meaning. 

That night we met again in Boyz Boyz Boyz. In the last hour before it closed, Nan and his friends - boys that we had seen or momentarily talked to on the beach and boys that we were seeing for the first time - danced with an energy and style that only youth can bring. On the beach he had been distracted, looking for men who were more generous then me, but in the nightclub his gave me his attention again. He moved energetically next to me, thrusting his body against mine, letting his hands wander in and out of my clothing. I was tempted, but I was tired and, although I knew there would be no obligation, that he never asked for money but relied only on gifts, I knew that whatever I gave him would be too little, would be a disappointment. Or, to be honest, I did not know that, but it was the rationalisation that allowed me to smile and gently turn him away.

The next day Chris and I spent two hours on the beach before returning to Bangkok. I had a temporary tattoo of a dragon applied which I later decided to have made permanent. Although others we had got to know came and talked to us. Nan had not appeared. We were finishing lunch at Tui's Place, about to leave, when I saw him walk by. I ran over and he came and joined us. We had little to say and he was once again distracted, but he paid us the compliment of spending time with us and for that I was grateful.

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