Brendon’s Bar is one in a small strip of bars set along is the flat, brown swirl of the Mekong River in Nong Khai, a small town in the northeast of Thailand. When Brendon first came to town 10 years ago, there were about 20 foreigners in town, now there are at least 200 .
Today the bar is full of a motley assortment of these elderly men -- jowly and be-khakied -- their age-spotted heads withering like apple dolls in the thick tropical heat. They are all living here for the women -- either they have met one already in the bars of one of Thailand’s famous sex districts or they’ve come directly here to look for their special lady. I think I see one of them wink at me as I walk past.
I have a complicated relationship with sexpats. I wrote a story about the men who go to Bangkok’s sex districts once for Slate and received ridiculous amounts of threatening hate mail, most of which concluded that I was jealous of the attention these Thai women received from western men and that I was most likely a fat lesbian. Living in Bangkok on and off for years has taught me a lot about how mean these people can be to western women who essentially remind them of their failed relationships/mothers back at home. I like to keep my distance.
But when I pass by the men again, someone calls out “Hello! How bout a beer?” Like we’re old friends and they are happy to see me in the neighborhood. I stop and smile. I love a beer.
They clear a place for me at the chipped plastic table. Terry, the winker, is my immediate favorite. A fit 60-year-old, he has the white-haired good looks of an older Anderson Cooper. Terry found his girlfriend Kae in Pattaya, a decrepit Thai beach town famous for it’s booming and tolerant sex trade and the only place I have ever seen pedophiles prancing about openly.
According to Terry, Kae has won the jackpot with him. “I make about 40,000 baht a month from my pension. To me, it’s not much really, but to her I’m a millionaire.” In exchange for being his companion, Terry gives Kae a free place to stay and an allowance of several thousand baht a month.
“But I’m not building her a fucking house.”
In Isaan province, Western men not only cover their partner's expenses, but they usually pay for the girl's family as well -- buying them household items, water buffalo and sometimes building them entirely new homes. In the year Terry'd lived in Isaan, he had six friends who built their new Thai families houses only to have their wives cheat on them and send them packing, keeping the house (which was built, according to Thai law, under the woman’s name) and moving on to another man for more.
“Most of us know that when they look at us, they see an ATM machine.” Terry made the motion of putting a card into a slot. “They don’t love you.”
James laughs and agrees. “I am 75 years old. Why would a 25-year old want to be with me? I look in the mirror in the morning and I don’t even want to be with me.” He laughs heartily at this, then wheezes and slaps his knee several times.
Terry buys me another beer doing a little shuffle dance as he sets down the bottles. I can tell Terry and the others like hanging out with me. I can buy my own drinks and cheap high heels, which somehow makes conversation with me more fun. He tells me about the tests he’s laid out for Kae to see if she is a “good girl,” leaving money out various places in their apartment and seeing if its still there later. I cringe. So far she has proven trustworthy.
As the sun goes down, Brendon’s fills up with more retirees. There is a sudden commotion on the road in the form of one sobbing old man. He walks past us quickly, his thin shoulders slumped with age and misery, but his moans carried on until he is far down the road.
“Girl left him,” Brendon says to the table, with a head wobble. “Third time it’s happened to poor ol’ Billy.” The men shift uncomfortably and look into their laps, each thinking of their own little lotus flower back at home, hoping that she will still be there waiting at the end of the night with comforting cooing noises and a fresh pot of curry.
Even if it is unjustified, even if he is a misogynistic jerk and had it coming, it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little pity for an elderly man hobbling around and sobbing in the dark dirty street with his distended belly and white knee socks.
“Well, right. Who wants a beer?” Brendon asks and the old men snap back into action.
Late in the night, Terry’s girlfriend Kae shows up in a black spandex mini-dress and the three of us wander across the road to an almost identical bar named Ice to play more pool. Kae’s friend Jing is standing by the pool table, completely drunk. She tells me in gusts of wine cooler scented breath she’s been dating a Swedish man for two months. She is also excited to tell me the price of her new dress and shoes. “Two-thousand baht!” she whispers excitedly into my ear as I bend over to take a shot.
“I want to get married,” she says, her eyes wet and dreamy. “I wish he ask me.”
“Do you love him?” I ask.
She smiled slyly. “No, something, I don’t know how to say,” she stumbled backward a little bit and steadied herself with her pool stick. She waved her hand in front of her face, searching for some word. “Not same as love.” She says finally and giggles.