Life of Dirty Brian

By Steven Lewis  - Freelance Writer -  As Featured in the South China Morning Post

(click here to go directly to the Spicy Girls reference)

As a retirement community
Pattaya isn't the first place that springs to mind

IT IS EASY TO dismiss Pattaya. Despite the best efforts of municipal tourism officials to portray the city as a family resort, it is known internationally as a city that makes its living peddling vice, which is a Bad Thing. Except when it's not, of course. After all, Macau is a genteel weekend getaway and Las Vegas has its special tacky charm. But that is gambling, and Pattaya sells sex, which is much seedier than taking someone's money at the roulette table. Yet many expatriates are retiring to Pattaya, and having the times of their lives.

So what is its appeal? Accommodation is cheap and goods and services are about a quarter of the price of their Hong Kong equivalents, so even meagre pensions go a long way. It is relatively easy for a man over 55 to obtain a one-year visa (it is not a place that appeals to women), although many retirees do not bother with the long visa, finding the alternative, a three-monthly trip across the border to Penang or Cambodia, adds variety to their lives. The bridge club meets every Monday. The Pattaya Sports Club offers tennis, softball, tennis, darts and cut-price green fees for the 17 or so international-standard golf courses within 45 minutes of the city. At night, apart from more restaurants than it would be possible to sample, there is everything from the local pub to girlie bars, clubs, karaoke bars and the glitzy lady-boy shows.

Surnames have little place in the nomenclature of Pattaya's expatriate community, thanks to the city's international reputation for excess. Nicknames are a common way to distinguish people. Dave becomes Dave the Thrush because he is irritating. Roy, who likes to sleep with other people's favourite bargirls, becomes Roy the Rat, which distinguishes him from Evil Roy and Very Evil Roy. Given their tendency to the unflattering, many nicknames are not used around the people to whom they are given, so I was surprised when a man stood up, thrust out his hand and introduced himself. 'Dirty Brian,' he said affably.

Dirty Brian has the pallor of someone who is not in Thailand for the sun and sea. He also bears a remarkable resemblance to John Bull, the 18th-century caricature of the typical Englishman as bull-necked with a physique betraying a love of the good life. In his own ranking of falangs (foreigners) in Pattaya, Dirty Brian has reached Level Three, a Yoda among expatriates.

'Level One,' he explains, 'is the package tourist who gets off the plane to find more sex than he has seen in his life. The guy thinks, 'This is great.' After that he will probably move to Level Two. The guy comes to live in Pattaya for a while, usually because he has had some trauma at home - a divorce, lost his job. He shacks up with a Thai lady from a bar and learns the hard way. He thinks it is cheap until he works out how much she is costing him. It is the constant drip drip of requests for money.

Or he comes home one day to find the fridge has gone. The conversation goes like this: 'Where my fridge?' 'Mamma come, she like fridge. She take.' 'But now I no have fridge.' 'You falang, you buy new one.' 'F*** off.' So I lost a fridge, but you can't get to Level Three without learning the hard way.' A design engineer specialising in the petroleum industry, Brian started visiting Pattaya when he was based in the Middle East in the 1980s. 'It was a great place to get the sand out of my lungs. After that coming here became a habit.' Eventually he based himself in Pattaya between short contract engineering jobs. After living in Pattaya on and off for a decade, Dirty Brian speaks fluent Thai. It is this, he says, that accounts for the 'dirty'. 'The conversations I have with the Thais seem dirty to a falang when I tell them what I am saying, but sex to the Thais is just another bodily function. They don't think I am dirty.

THE ELEPHANT & Castle is one of the many bars in Pattaya with names designed to conjure a sense of 'home' - next door is the Rover's Return, named after the pub in the English soap opera Coronation Street. The decor is Pattaya-standard, concrete tables and benches painted in vibrant oranges and yellows to suggest wood grain, and behind the bar is a mural depicting elephants in human clothing, quaffing beer, smoking and flirting. The Elephant & Castle's English owner, Mickey, spends his evenings sitting here with his regulars, who can order a taste of home from the menu: pies, chips, mushy peas and gravy. But home to Mickey is Pattaya. 'I wouldn't even contemplate going back to the UK on holiday,' he says.

'Why would we?' chips in Evan, a retired miner from Newcastle, Australia. 'It's cheap here, the weather is good and we are having fun.' Evan came to Hong Kong after his wife of 20 years died and admits he is having arguably the best time of his life. He lives with a Thai woman who speaks no English (he is learning Thai) and plays golf three times a week with the Pattaya Sports Club. He sees no reason to ever leave. 'I can play golf whenever I want, cheaply, the medical facilities are first rate, and if I need someone to look after me when I am older, well, that's cheap too.' Mickey's Bar, as it is known to all who use it, is a nexus for expatriates from from levels one to three. As an experienced resident, Mickey acts as a sort of ad hoc citizen's advice bureau. When a regular comes in with a burn on his lip caused by a girl putting a cigarette into his mouth the wrong way round, Mickey tells him which pharmacy to visit and what cream to ask for.

Mickey has been in Pattaya for five years, and for the five years prior to that he visited five times a year. In Britain he worked at a car dealership and, on the side, helped out a call girl whom he befriended on a train. On hearing she had trouble getting a lease on a house from which she could operate, Mickey agreed to take one out for her: 'Well, she was beautiful, definitely Page 3 quality,' he says. Their unusual relationship - she used the house during the day and Mickey slept there at night - turned sour when she refused to let him in one night because she was in bed with her (female) receptionist. 'Next day I threw her out the door - stark naked. Then I started throwing her stuff out of the window: uniforms, vibrators and other paraphernalia. There she was on Preston dock, naked and surrounded by the tools of her trade. Pattaya was the only way to follow that.' Mickey came to Thailand with his life savings, investing half of them in the bar. 'The other half was a nest egg in case things went wrong,' he says. 'Of course, they started going wrong immediately and the other money was gone in six months. When I first started I was only taking HK$84 a day. Now I am making a profit.' Alan, a 50-something divorcee from Britain, on his fifth trip to Pattaya, is on Level One of the Dirty Brian scale. He owns a metal trading company in Britain, where he works an 80-hour week, and comes to Pattaya for a week twice a year. 'I love Yorkshire, but it's great place t'leave. I've already 'ad one 'eart attack.' This week Alan will take home a different girl every night. He has already booked his hotel for Christmas.

Terry, another of Mickey's regulars, has reached Level Two. A former British Army weapons instructor at Sandhurst and professional bodyguard, he goes to Pattaya between assignments, and plans to retire there. The burly 63-year-old chain-smoker has worked for the late King Hussein of Jordan, and now freelances as a driver for an Arab princess in London. 'There are 17 cars in the convoy everywhere she goes. Her car's bulletproof but mine ain't,' he says. He claims he has been told that Yasser Arafat and President Clinton will be assassinated in the next six months: 'I can't tell you who told me, but when they're whacked, you'll know I'm right.' He is trying to persuade his daughter to let him bring his 16-year-old grandson to Pattaya on holiday. 'But she said it'd be over her dead body. If she knew how much fun I was having here, she'd kill me,' he says, laughing.

IN ARMCHAIRS at another local bar sit publican Tommy, a 63-year-old retired London dustman, and six of his regulars and friends. Thai law prohibits foreigners from actually working in their bars, although they can supervise. Tommy is an old friend of Dirty Brian's. 'I was on the dust for 25 years then I 'ad an 'andy accident. I was liftin' a big bin and dropped it on me leg, gashed it quite badly,' he explains. 'I played it up a bit and they offered me a small pension and early retirement. It isn't much, about £90 a week, but it pays for me visa runs and the bar pays me bills. I don't make a lot but if I 'ad a million quid I couldn't eat no more, drink no more or f*** no more than I do now. I don't 'ave a care in the world.' It is just another of Pattaya's ironies that Tommy, the retired dustman thousands of kilometres from his former life, should choose to open a bar next to the city's municipal tip.

'The first time I came I was goin' through my second divorce,' Tommy explains. 'I was very down and some of me mates asked me to come to Thailand with them. I'd never seen nothin' like it.' He returned on holiday for the next eight years before moving to Pattaya, where one of his ex-wives' brothers-in-law ran a bar. 'I didn't know he had a drinking problem. I put a couple of thousand quid into the business but 'e drank the profits. He used to start the day with four fingers of rum, that was breakfast while 'e was deciding what else to drink. He drank himself to death within a year and I moved to this place.' This place is named for what it is, Tommy's Bar. It is a simple affair, with whitewashed walls and ceiling fans. The spartan walls carry framed pictures of two regulars killed in a car accident in the Middle East and the obituary their friends placed in the Pattaya Mail. The talk is mostly complaints about the Thais, the lingua franca of the expatriate community. Tommy tells a story of a regular who went home one day to find his Thai girlfriend had pawned his possessions. When he called her, she gave him the chits but he had to buy the goods back from the broker himself. Three months later she was living with him again. 'This time she only nicked 'is camera,' says Tommy. But the complaints are simply part of the banter. 'I've never had a day's regret. I went back to London on holiday and it was the same faces playing cards in the same pubs.

They don't have sex no more, and I see some lovely creatures here,' he says.

DIRTY BRIAN AND I leave Tommy's on the back of two motorcycles, usually shunned by wise expatriates in favour of the cheap and relatively safe 'Baht' buses - covered pick-up trucks with two side benches - that ply the one-way circuit that runs north-south down the waterfront on Beach Road and return south-north down Second Road. Tommy's Bar, however, is off the circuit so motorcycle taxis are the best option. The first time riding pillion tyre to tyre with the unyielding traffic of Pattaya is terrifying. After that it is merely frightening.

Our destination is Pattaya Land, a name that conjures up images of a child-friendly amusement park. In fact it is a complex of three streets containing little other than go-go bars. Go-go means the girls dance, and they also 'go': for a bar fine of HK$50 or more (to compensate the bar for the absence of a dancer) customers can take a girl upstairs to a 'short-time room' or out of the bar. The customer negotiates directly with the girl for what happens next. Her services range from about HK$100 to HK$400, depending, says Dirty Brian, on what you want, how much she thinks you will pay and whether she likes you ... if she doesn't like you, she will say no.

Onstage at one of the bars, three naked girls gyrate around poles. 'You couldn't call this sleazy, could you?' asks Dirty Brian leaning into my ear to be heard over the music. To be honest, I probably could. If this is not sleazy, it is hard to imagine an occasion when I could use the word. On the other hand, viewed with an open mind, the atmosphere in the bar is less X-rated sex show than racy pantomime. (There is no man in a dress but Pattaya has no shortage of those.) It may be an act, but the girls seem to be enjoying themselves, and there are enough sullen bargirls in Pattaya to make it unlikely that the girls in this bar would bother to pretend they were happy in their work.

Nearby is Spicy Girls, a go-go bar run by two Englishmen, Martin and Ewan. Both married - and divorced - Thai women, who now live in Britain while the men returned to Thailand, a country they love. 'The UK has a higher standard of living, but Thailand has a better quality of life,' explains Ewan. He arrived in Thailand 10 years ago for a fortnight, and stayed for a year. After that he travelled back and forth between Thailand and Birmingham, where he worked in information technology, until he and Martin took over Spicy Girls, then called Papillon A Go Go. Martin had also come to Thailand 10 years before, as an elephant trainer sent out by the World Wildlife Fund.

The two rent the four-storey building that houses the bar. 'The girls are incidental,' says Martin. 'Sure they bring in a lot of custom but we worked out what we could make from selling drinks, and that is how we make our money.' Sitting at one end of the customary red-upholstered benches facing a raised stage is a 135-kilo moustachioed Frenchman with frosted blonde hair. The air-conditioned bar is obviously too hot for him: glistening with sweat, he undoes his shirt to the navel. Then he strips it off. Next go the shorts to reveal a turquoise, tiger-striped G-string, and he joins the girls on the stage. 'Dangling' is the word that comes to mind as his G-string fails to restrain him as he gyrates. Fortunately, that which might cause most offence is generally concealed beneath the fold of his enormous gut, briefly revealed only when a more energetic move causes his belly to fly upwards.

Such customers are unusual, says Martin indulgently. 'We've tried to create an atmosphere where anyone feels welcome. We get a lot of couples in. Some Western women think they won't be welcome, that there will be hostility from the girls, but it couldn't be further from the truth. There was a couple in last night and the girls paid more attention to the woman. They liked her long blonde hair. The one criterion for the girls here is to have fun. They are here because they wanted to try their hand at it; most of them are supporting families. We don't ask any of them to do anything they don't want to do.' As in all go-go bars, the girls of Spicy Girls do 'go' and the bar has short-time rooms on the first floor. But to those who might suggest that Martin and Ewan are less bar owners with a kosher business plan than brothel keepers, Ewan says, 'If they think that, they haven't been here. The attitude is different. The girls are happy.

BACK AT MICKEY'S the bar is empty. Mickey has led one of his field trips to the go-go bars of north Pattaya. The only customer remaining is a 14-year-old Liverpudlian named Paul. He has been in the bar every night to talk to one of Mickey's younger waitresses, Nok. Mickey will not allow Nok to 'go', a source of sore disappointment to Nok, who is eager to be allowed to find a falang boyfriend.

At the moment her wallet contains a picture of Paul, although he knows it will be gone when he is but he is enjoying her company for now. His family leave him in Mickey's Bar every night to talk to Nok while they go to elsewhere, arranging to meet him at the hotel later. It may be that Pattaya is a family resort after all.


© Steven Lewis 1999

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