I spent the past rainy week at home after my recent trip to Phuket. Last night, I decided it was time to get out of the house and socialize before I regressed into a modern-day cave man. Once the rain looked like it was going to subside for a while, I clicked on Agoda.com and made a reservation at a cheap hotel in the city. When I drive my motorbike into the city, and I figure I’m going to have a few drinks, renting a room has become standard procedure. It actually costs about the same to get a room as it costs for a round-trip ride from my house in a Grab car (Grab is the Uber of Asia), about $12 - $15. Once the room was arranged, I hopped on the motorbike and headed to my usual spot, the Rainbow Bar.
I’m somewhat of a creature of habit. I tend to find a restaurant or a bar I like and become a regular. I normally go out about twice-a-week, and when I do I tend to go to the same spot. When I first came to Chiang Mai, I went to a few bars until I happened upon the Rainbow Bar. It’s a small place … one of many bars all located under a single roof, similar to a big warehouse, known as the Loi Kroh Muay Thai Entertainment Complex. There is a kickboxing ring at the end of the structure, where they have real Muay Thai matches two or three times per week, and not-so-real matches on the other nights.
The owner of the bar, Yada Mayurawanpong (everyone calls her Oi), is a self-proclaimed “Tom Boy,” which is what the Thais call masculine lesbians. She doesn’t know, or care about any special pronouns. She is who she is, and one of the wonderful things about Thailand, is people just accept each other without judgment. In addition to Oi, there are usually two or three women working there, all over 30, which is in sharp contrast to all the giggling 20-somethings in most of the other bars. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, most bars in Thailand have women working there to drink and talk with customers, and for their time, they make a little money from each drink.
Over the past two years, Oi and the other ladies who work at the Rainbow Bar have become my friends. I once told Oi it would be nice if I had a little plant garden at my house. A few days later I heard some noise outside and there she was, planting a garden with plants she had paid for herself. I wanted to hire someone to come over and take care of my yard, rather than buy all the equipment, and now her brother comes over and takes care of the mowing and clipping. If I go out of town, one of the ladies will water my plants and feed the fish. Once, I came back from a visit to Phuket, and in addition to my taking care of my plants and fish, my house had been cleaned from top-to-bottom. When I needed to update my motorbike registration and insurance, one of the ladies took me to the office and helped me through that process. It’s the kind of relationship I am only used to having with family members and close friends. Here, it’s a way of life.
Of course, I try to reciprocate. In addition to buying plenty of drinks for Oi and her employees, I’ve helped them when they’ve needed a little extra cash for their kid’s birthday, or needed to have their motorbike fixed. I bought a Bluetooth speaker for the bar, so they can play music from their phones. It’s all very symbiotic.
When I show up to the bar, everyone greets me with a big smile. They already know what I’m drinking (usually San Miguel, a beer from the Philippines), and whenever I ring the bell, Oi will give me a shot of something. When I say “ring the bell,” it’s not only a euphemism for buying a round for the house, bars in Thailand actually have brass bells for this purpose. I don’t normally buy drinks for other customers, but if there aren’t any other customers, I try to make sure the ladies don’t go home broke.
They always make sure I’ve eaten, and often have food at the bar. Most of the time, once I settle onto my favorite barstool, one of the ladies will give me a shoulder massage … after all it’s a tough, 30-minute motorbike ride from my house! J The Rainbow Bar is my favorite place, but I’m quite sure if you venture over to this part of the world, you will find your own special place. This kind of hospitality is the norm here, especially once people get to know you.
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles,” and the warmth of the people make it so. There are many tangible reasons to retire in Thailand, such as the lower cost of living, but it’s the intangibles that really make Thailand special.