Love in Pattaya

She eyed me over the top of her glasses, through the glass panel that separated her in her thinly lit florescent office and the dark foyer of the condo. There was something in her eyes that showed she was unimpressed with foreigners. Who could blame her? Pattaya was tourist land, and I—just another face of thousands she had seen come in and out of this condo. Welcome to my rented apartment for the next week. It was obvious this had been a stunning building back in its day—but I struggled to find a semblance of warmth in this austere, barren place. There was something strangely disparate about the building—a lone, imposing 40 story tower that hugged the bank of one of Pattaya’s residential beaches. It stood silently in the distance, past the guardhouse at the gate, down a straight 150 metres in from the main road, through sprawling foliage from old trees that flanked both sides of this barren concrete road. It was literally as if the development planner had taken a ruler and drawn a straight line perpendicular to the main road. It was a tower to be reckoned with, by the beach, with the most breathtaking view of the sea, and yet stood detached and aloof from everything else. There were no shops or amenities within walking distance. You had to use a vehicle. Hence the conversation.

“You want motorbike for rent?” she repeated again, this time frowning over her glasses as she eyed me up and down.

“Yes! Uh, yes! Do you have bikes for rent?” I smiled widely back. I was hoping if I showed her more of my smiling teeth, she might be a little friendlier.

The edges of her lips pursed. “Wait. I introduce you my friend. She have extra bike. You come back here fifteen minutes. I call her now.”

Ten minutes later, Gai came through the old lift of this condo. It was five in the afternoon, and she was still in her pyjamas—her hair was dishevelled, and her glasses looked like they were resting crookedly on her face. She was a short stocky lady with tanned skin and long round cheeks that were framed by a bob that was waving back with a life of its own. Her beady eyes looked at me, and the three of us walked across the car park to the motorbikes, where she rolled out a mustard yellow scooter.

“You have license?” she asked. I nervously bit my lip—the closest thing I had ridden was an e-bike in China that had a frame that resembled a real scooter. Technically I didn’t have a license, and given a choice, I would have preferred to take the local bus or hire a taxi to get about. But the condo was literally in the middle of nowhere, save for being 5 minutes from my tournament venue. I badly needed food and taxis were too expensive on my shoestring budget. Gai rented the bike to me for SGD$10 a day. I spent twenty minutes puttering nervously around the car park—learning how the brakes, throttle and engine worked.

By the time I had unpacked and settled into my new apartment, dusk had fallen and it was time to get food. I walked out into the pitch-dark car park, feeling twigs crunch under my tennis shoes and the cricket of toads hidden deep in the bushes nearby. Mosquitoes were buzzing about my ears, saying hello. I nervously started the engine. The main road by this condo was an 8 lane stretch, with cars whizzing past at 120km an hour. It was effectively a heavily used highway, and my palms were sweaty as I turned on the headlight and slowly rode down the road towards the end of the condo path, praying like crazy that I would get back home in one piece.

That night, I probably rode 20km an hour on the emergency lane towards the nearest 7-11. I shovelled down tasteless chicken rice at a roadside stall, felt a little sorry for myself and did as much grocery shopping as I could at a convenience store that sold drinks and cold, processed food.  Later, while loading my bike, I mistook the throttle for the brake and almost drove my bike into the ditch, and then later into the shop window, all while spraying my grocery bags across the pavement. When the motor revved and my bike lunged forward, thankfully I was strong enough to lift up the front wheel. On hindsight it looked comical—I probably looked like a madwoman trying to tame a mechanical horse! But on a more serious note, and I say this with the absolute most honesty—thank God for the heavy lifting at the gym.

Still, muscles don’t stop car accidents. Scared the crap out of my bike, I rode back home that evening at 10km/hour.

Thankfully Gai spoke and understood English rather fluently—she worked as a hotel receptionist, and dealt daily with tons of tourists on the frontline, from all over the world. She was awake most nights as she pulled night shifts at the concierge, and that explained why she slept in during the day. I texted her apologetically that evening, telling her what had happened. I had scratched the bike a little—and if I needed to pay for damages I would understand completely. Heck, I would have empathized if she wanted to scrap her rental altogether.

But to my surprise, Gai simply reminded me to ride carefully and started checking on me every day. Contrary to initial impressions, Gai revealed herself to be a caring soul, with a hearty sense of humour. She drove me to the local market to get fruit, and we texted in between her shifts and my matches. Often, partly because the condominium was so quiet, my apartment had a strange feeling about it, as if there was a presence in its very space. It felt like the energy of the building had sad stories stored in its walls, not spoken of, only felt. At times, when I left my front door open to ‘clear’ the air, it opened up wind currents in the apartment that only slammed the doors back shut. This happened more than once. I never saw anything strange in the apartment, only felt it. But the presence was so palpable, I couldn’t take it after a few days and asked Gai if she might have an extra room in her apartment I could rent. “No no Sarah, I want give you stay with me but cannot. I am too dirty, my house, vely messy!” She laughed by voice note text. “Don’t worry. Where you stay is ok. You will be ok.” Talking with Gai helped me ride through the loneliness.

Gai was a single mother with two sons. Her first son had passed away, and the second, a ten- year-old boy, lived with her mother up north in rural Thailand. “What happened?” I asked the question tentatively—unsure of how she would take it—the curiosity itself was sensitive and painful even to me. “Speeding on motorbike” she replied, her cheeks hung down glumly. She had probably told the tale many times, but I’m sure it was never easy sharing it again. “Many young boys ride fast motorbike in Thailand.” “They tried call me from hospital, but I sleeping. My friend came to my house. Knocked on my door. Woke me up.” Her eyes flashed with memory and I could see her living it out in her head. “At first I thought he only break his arm.”

“But by the time I reach hospital,” she trailed off… “he already died.”

Out of grief, Gai had come to Pattaya to work. On a few occasions, she offered to drive me to the courts in her little car en route to her afternoon shift, and she always rocked up a totally different picture. Her hair was always coiffed into an immaculate bob. Eyeliner and red lipstick defined her features. Powder framed her face. Her hotel polo shirts were well-fitting, always pressed to a T. She took her work seriously.

On my last day, Gai insisted on sending me to the Pattaya bus station, but not before showing me one of her favourite Buddhist temples atop a hill. As we drove there, winding through Pattaya city with my Tour bags weighing down on her little buggy car wheels, there came an ease about her body that told me she was relaxed. It is funny how these last moments we spend with people sometimes unravels hearts to the core like a ribbon to a spoon.  Many times I feel these moments are what our hearts really beat for. I was glad she enjoyed my company as much as I did hers. I wanted to ask why Pattaya had such a dark side to its economy. It has been well documented that sex tourism is one of the biggest industries in the city. Gai worked as a hotel receptionist. She was also a resident of the area. She probably saw a lot in her job. What was it that made this an option for many Thai women? What pushed them to these choices? Were these cultural, accepted as a part of normal life?

Gai sighed as she turned her steering wheel, cranking the car up another slope as we edged closer to the temple. “Many women in Pattaya,” she said, “are single mothers. So many have vely bad luck in love.” She said it matter of factly—resignedly. I understood what she alluded to. It is so easy to see and condemn actions at a superficial, moral level—but often, perhaps, true humanity is better expressed when we seek to understand these deeper forces that drive these needs. We are all human, after all.

The temple was indeed a beautiful sight. The steps that led up to the pagoda yawning long and upwards, were painted in a litany of bright colours, fitted with flags both big and small that lined the balustrades. On top, you could see the entire lay of Pattaya from city to shore. It was such a different view from infamous Walking Street chocked full of neon lights and gyrating, pulsating dancers. Here, it was all picturesque, beautiful calm.

It was a calm that emanated on the face of every believer that moved silently between bells and joss sticks, flowers and offerings. Together, they were a united tapestry, and yet all alone in their sacred, private connection to the eternal. It was a beautiful, meditative moment between shade and shadow, and it made me think about the deeper connections we are really meant to hold within, for the people around us.

Gai moved slowly between the rows of candles as she dropped an offering.

“I say a prayer for you, Sarah.” Gai smiled, as she lit a candle amongst the row of many petal framed ones by the altar.

“Pray you good journey onwards. Always safe, and much success.”
Sisters of Sarah

Sisters of Sarah is a story series in collaboration with The Best of You movement, born from the lives of some truly incredible women Sarah Pang, a Singaporean professional tennis player, met while travelling the world playing Tour. This project is an overture to helping one another realise that there are deeper dimensions to people than just the jobs they do.