By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
On the second day, the six men meet at the same bar for a buffet breakfast of eggs and ham, hot dogs and chicken, rice, yogurt and fruit, sweets, cheese, coffee and juice.
Richard has arranged for five women to meet them this morning.
"Dude, this is so hurting, not at all what I'm used to in Colombia," Bobby says. "I'm going to concentrate on seeing some sights and the houses." In Colombia, there wasn't as much competition, he adds, pointing to the five men now circling two women.
One of those women is Teeraporn, a forty-year-old telephone operator who has a twelve-year-old son and met Richard online. This is her first time on the tour. "I have learned enough about Thai men," Teeraporn says. "Eighty percent of Thai men like to have many, many wife. Selfish."
Many Thai women want a farang because Westerners have more money, she says. It's also difficult being a divorced single mother in Thailand, because Thai men wouldn't give her a chance even if she wanted one.
Ben likes Teeraporn's honesty. "So what do you like to do?" he asks.
"I like to go shopping, but when I have man's money to buy," she replies.
"You must know my daughter," Scooby interjects with a laugh.
Soon everyone piles into three of the women's cars and heads for the Grand Palace, a complex built in 1782 as the king's residence. It also houses the sacred Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where Thai people come to pay respect to the Buddha and his teachings. They bow and pray, while the surrounding flowers sweeten the incense-laden air.
The Thai women teach their American companions to bow their heads three times and then pray, hands together.
All of the men but Scooby have a woman on their arms as they stroll the palace grounds, but everyone keeps looking at Bobby's date, a floral arranger named Eve with light skin and high cheekbones. She's 37 but looks much younger, has no children and has never been married -- just like Bobby. She tells Bobby that she has two houses as well as the brand-new, four-door Honda with Hello Kitty paraphernalia inside that they drove to the palace.
The day is hot, so everyone buys mango juice or cold green tea. And despite the "Do not take canoe rides" sign at the palace's exit, they all head over to the canal and get into one of the long wooden canoes powered by engines.
Across the canal, a naked kid squats to pee near a man sleeping on the porch. People wave from the houses perched on stilts over the water, houses that fly both laundry and Thai flags. Some houses have lush gardens and glass windows; others have screenless squares and empty flower pots. A chubby child floats by on an inner tube.
A floating boat store pulls up to the canoe. A woman wearing a hat that looks like a lamp shade sells the canoe crew a couple of beers, and Lee buys a Coke for his date.
Lee's date is 44-year-old Nattamon, who works for her father's company, which produces drinking water. She got divorced four years ago and has two children, ages fourteen and eleven. Lee would prefer a woman without kids, but he's taken a liking to Nat. She gives Lee a kiss on the cheek, and he asks if it's okay if he returns the gesture. She says yes, so he does. He thinks about kissing her on the lips but holds off, worried that it's culturally inappropriate.
Just four women show up at the bar that night, when Richard had expected fourteen.
Panda is just 23, weighs about a hundred pounds and is wearing denim. Lee gets all of her attention. He already knows her name and that of her sister from Richard's website. That scares Panda a bit, but she still listens when Lee talks. She smiles, too, showing a set of braces.
Back home, some of the men on Richard's tours might not get smiled at by a beautiful woman for months on end. But in Thailand, the pretty young Thai woman behind the counter gives a man her undivided attention, even if he's a balding, middle-aged American.
People like Lee can easily mistake the attention for love.
Lee later tells Richard that if he'd just said the word, Panda would have been on the plane back home with him. But then Richard breaks the news that Lee has zero chance with Panda.
The Thai handle everything with a smile, Richard tells the men. Their culture is all about saving face, especially for their guests. He remembers reading a story about how foreigners were disgusted by Thai people smiling as they looked for their dead after the tsunami. Turns out the Thai were just smiling to keep tourists calm.
Thailand is known as the land of smiles.
Lee wakes up at 4 a.m. and grabs Nat's photo from the collection of profiles he printed off Richard's website. He sits in bed, staring at the picture. Nat is the woman he's dreamed of in his sleep for about a month now.