Five balding white men and a sixth wearing a hearing aid sit around a bamboo table in a Bangkok bar, under swaying fans and a neon Johnnie Walker sign that casts a faint red light over the group.
The six, all Americans, are waiting for Richard Beals. Each have paid $5,950 to Richard's Denver-based business that takes men on marriage tours halfway around the world. The minute they stepped off the airplane in Thailand, all six seemed younger, wealthier, better-looking than they had in the United States. All six are seeking Thai brides.
All six share a distrust of love American style.
Fifty-five-year-old Greg Sefchik, the man with the hearing aid, is the only one who's taken the marriage tour before. Richard gave him a $2,500 discount on this second trip.
Greg lives in Ohio, where he works at a Ford manufacturing plant. Tired of American women, he traveled to Thailand last spring to find a new wife.
Thailand Romance Tours takes men to three Thai cities to meet women whom Richard has screened personally and deemed good wife material. But on the May 2005 trip, Greg ran off with a 38-year-old woman who was not on the tour but worked in a hotel in Bangkok, the tour's first stop. Richard had a feeling she was a former "bar girl," a woman who'd learned English while selling sex to Western men in bars, and he pleaded with Greg to get back on the tour. "I'm trying to find you a good wife, not just a bed partner," he told him.
Greg rejoined the tour on its last stop, in the city of Khon Kaen. But not before he gave the woman from the hotel a $3,800 ring.
In Khon Kaen, Greg again fell quickly, this time for a 24-year-old he showered with gifts during their few days together. After he left Thailand, Greg sent her hundreds of dollars. A few months later, ignoring Richard's warning about showing too much generosity too quickly, Greg went back to Thailand and gave her the $3,800 ring that Richard had rescued from the first woman. After that, Greg continued to send her money.
By Thanksgiving, Richard could see that Greg had spoiled a good woman rotten. At his suggestion, Greg finally ended the relationship.
"These women will knock your eyes out, running around on those motor scooters with their black hair in braids," Greg explains.
On this tour, he vows, he's going to make sure that women are attracted to more than his money. "Trying to weed that out, that's the hard part," he says. "They're all looking for someone to take care of them; it's just the way. I plan on handling it different this time."
Lee Laidig is a 53-year-old former police officer who worked in Greeley for nine months, then in Illinois for eleven years. After 9/11, he joined the Transportation Security Administration. He wears glasses, and though he keeps his head down as he speaks, his blue eyes are looking up, like those of a cop interrogating a suspect. Lee has broad shoulders and plays the tough-guy role in this group, but back home in Illinois, he's lonely. He says he eats TV dinners by himself every night.
Lee had a sweetheart in high school, but the two split up when they went to different colleges. She married another man and had two kids before her husband got hit by a car and was hurt physically and mentally, Lee says. After they split up, Lee fell in love with the children and married his former sweetheart so that he could be part of their lives, although he denied that when his wife confronted him. They stayed together in a not-great marriage for 23 years before divorcing.
Lee has a friend back home who's married to a Thai woman. When Lee showed her the photos on Richard's website, www.thailandromancetours.com, she said that the women were all whores who were after money, not love. Lee asked if she knew anyone she could hook him up with, and last year the two flew to Thailand to meet her 35-year-old niece.
Lee married the niece last April. A wife visa normally takes about a year to obtain, so Lee wrote his congressman, asking for help in speeding up the process because he feared his new wife would be murdered by her former lover. In the meantime, Lee bought her presents, including a computer, sent her money for English classes and helped put an addition on her family's house.
On December 6, Lee's bride arrived in Illinois. She hated it, and a day and a half later, she had Lee put her on a plane back to Thailand.
On this tour, Lee's first order of business was to divorce his Thai wife. With Richard's help, he was a single man again after he paid about $200 for the half-hour procedure.
In the backpack that Lee bought for the trip, he found a white Valentine's Day teddy bear with a heart that says "I Love You." He doesn't know how the bear got in the bag, but he hopes to give it to someone special on this ten-day marriage tour. "I fully intend to come back engaged. It's an awful lot of money not to," he says, thumbing through about two dozen profiles of women that he printed off Richard's website.
Fifty-six-year-old Sammy Gallant isn't so sure he'll get hitched on this trip. Sammy, who smiles a lot and likes to wear black, was born in the Indiana countryside and moved to the Washington countryside when he was thirteen; today he's a corrosion specialist for a pipeline company.
He was married for 27 years -- until the day his eighteen-year-old son called him over to the household computer, where he'd found pornographic photos of Sammy's wife with a man in his twenties. Sammy says he lost about $190,000 in the divorce. Sammy started dating again but complains that the scene back home is filled with lazy, 45- to 55-year-old women who are set in their ways.
Sammy's always been attracted to Asian women, so he thought about finding a wife in China. A woman he got to know online seemed like she might be right, so he hired a Chinese attorney to help him with the paperwork and bought a plane ticket. But when the woman said that a wedding would cost between $15,000 and $20,000, Sammy canceled the trip and told her to forget it. She kept writing back, dropping the price, but Sammy had moved on. A second Chinese woman he met online looked like good wife material -- until she sent Sammy an e-mail addressed to another man.
After that, Sammy responded to a woman's online ad and wound up on Richard's site, looking at the Thai women profiled there. He signed up for a tour.
So did 58-year-old Thomas "Scooby" McClenon, a chain-smoking New Yorker with a thick accent who loves to dance and is always telling jokes and cracking himself up -- until the smoker's cough kicks in. Scooby says he's had three heart attacks and was once declared clinically dead.
He works in construction now, operating a crane, but he's worked a variety of jobs, including deejaying at a strip club. He says he's prepared for any scams these Thai women may bring to the table.
Scooby had planned to come on an earlier tour but had to postpone the trip when an ex-wife sued him for back payment of child support last year at the last possible moment, when their child turned seventeen. (He insists he'd paid support informally all along.) Scooby's been divorced twice and has an adopted daughter with cerebral palsy, a situation that's often a deal-breaker with women back home. Like the others, he feels he's been beaten up emotionally by American females.
One man on this tour, a conservationist from the East Coast named Ben, was physically beaten up by his American wife, a kickboxer of Filipino descent. "The kind of attack like a tiger, where they come in to kill and don't stop unless you can get out of there," Ben explains. "If I wouldn't have left the house one night, she would've killed me."
Seven times during their eleven-month marriage, simple disagreements spiraled out of control. She'd scratch and claw him, Ben remembers, pull out blunt objects and knives. Ben would retreat to the other side of the house and hide behind a locked door. Sometimes he had to call the police.
Three years and $60,000 later, Ben was again a single man. His ex-wife got the 3,000-square-foot house he'd paid for, but he got full custody of his now-three-year-old son. "After all that, I just have to keep the faith that there's a good person out there for me," he says. "And that's why I decided to come here."
The sixth man in the group, Bobby, is a California native now living in Colorado, where he works in telecommunications. At forty, Bobby is the youngest man on the tour and the only one who hasn't been married and doesn't have a child or stepchild.
Bobby has already been to Colombia eight times. He was looking for love, he says, but wound up a sex tourist. "When I'm on vacation, the red-light district is my exercise," he says. In Colombia, he saw so many women attractive in so many ways that he couldn't commit to just one. Bobby describes himself as the loner type, an independent person who isn't needy, which is why he's never been married. Although he prefers Latina looks to Asian, Bobby thought it was time to try somewhere new and signed on for the Thailand tour because he thinks he's ready to settle down if he finds the right woman -- one who's fun, likes to dance and responds well to his silly ways.
"American girls are just such a pain in the ass," Bobby says. "It's like every place you go is a lesbian bar. There's no difference between straight girls and lesbian girls; you wind up dancing alone because they're all dancing together."
Richard has made it clear that his tour is a marriage tour, not a sex tour. "If Bobby wants to make his trip a red-light tour, he's welcome to, but he can't red-light on my tour; he's got to go off it," Richard says. "And you can get that tour a lot cheaper than mine."
The women he'll be introducing tonight aren't prostitutes, he points out, and while any of the men can go over to the red-light district or bring a bar girl back to the hotel for as little as $50 a night, "I will warn the women that he's a player," he says.
But for now, he has some warnings for the men.
"You have to be real careful about your generosity, because in this culture they cater to the man," he tells the six men sitting at the bar, sodas and water before them. (Only Bobby drinks alcohol regularly.) He talks about how he loves eating food prepared by Thai street vendors, how the culture emphasizes hygiene and cleanliness, how he never gets sick. Once he even tried chicken butts on a stick, and they were gross -- all fat and bone. Nonetheless, Thai women eat them up, Richard notes, "so if you start feeding them caviar..."
It's all right to be gentlemen, to pull out chairs and open doors, he continues. But in Thailand, the women expect you to be dominant, to wear the pants while they wear the aprons. "If you make a doormat out of yourself, they will walk on you," he cautions.
At Richard's suggestion, the men have brought photo albums dating back to their baby pictures, which will show the women where they come from and help communications, since few of the women speak good English. And then there are the universal languages of love and money.
"In Thailand, love's not blind -- it's blind, deaf and dumb," Richard warns. "On the back of my card, it says, 'If she asks you for money, do not date her, do not marry her.'"
Richard is expecting about fifteen women on this first night. Sometimes women who are invited don't show, and sometimes uninvited women do. In Bangkok, Western faces are fairly common, and foreigners -- farangs in Thai -- aren't as hot as they are in other parts of the country. That's why Richard includes two more stops on his ten-day tours.
One of the first women on the scene is thirty-year-old Wan. But she's not available; she met a postal worker from Texas on one of Richard's previous tours, and she thinks their future looks bright. Wan says she's given up on Thai men because they are unfaithful. They are "butterflies," going from flower to flower.
Da, who came with Wan, lost her Thai man when she lost her job. Now she wants a farang because they like smart women, whereas intelligence intimidates Thai men, she says. Also, Da has dark skin, and she says Thai men prefer women who look Chinese.
Women like Annie.
Twenty-three-year-old Annie, who speaks English well and serves as the evening's translator, is popular with the American men, too. She has a bachelor's degree from a Thai university and works for Target as an executive assistant, coordinating a team of twenty people. She likes working for a Western company and wants a Western man, she says, because Thai men are infamous for cheating on their women.
Annie has brought her younger sister along. She's hoping to get her to dump her Thai boyfriend and go for a farang. But the sister speaks no English.
Annie says she knows that most Westerners who visit Thailand are just after sex. But she trusts the men who tour with Richard and went to dinner with one member of an earlier tour. While she's skeptical about the odds of falling in love in just a few days, she's also open to the idea of moving halfway around the world to let a relationship grow. Although Western men have asked Annie to come home with them before, she's always passed. "If the guy's not right to me, I don't want to go with him," Annie says. "That's why it takes a long time to get the right guy for me. He could be a good husband, and a good dad for my children."
Annie makes a date with Ben for two days later.
Except for Annie, the men think the women they've met so far are a bust. Lee and Greg flirt with two women in their forties who aren't too shy to touch the farangs. Each woman knows exactly one English phrase.
"Welcome to Thailand," says one.
"I love you," says the other.
Richard Beals's father was a butterfly.
When he was growing up in New Jersey fifty years ago, Richard sensed that his father was cheating; so did his mother. But in those days, Richard says, a bad husband was better than no husband at all.
Richard's mother, who'd been a mechanic in the Women's Army Corps, wound up playing the role of father, teaching her son to rebuild an engine when he was ten. Four years later, Richard's father went to the Indianapolis 500 and bought a bar. He moved his family to Indiana but didn't spend much time with them. He was too busy with cocktail waitresses, barflies and whoever else he could get his hands on. "He was after George Washington's title -- 'father of our country,'" Richard says.
After high school, Richard went to Indiana University for three years, where he studied business and psychology. His mother finally left his father and bought a bar of her own. Richard worked there as the daytime bartender. Now 58, Richard says that his father's behavior has always made him more sensitive to a woman's situation, that he's been more friendly with women than men throughout his life.
When he was 26, though, Richard got a woman pregnant -- and he wasn't in love with her. The woman tried to hide the pregnancy as punishment, he says, and after the child was born, she kept Richard away from his daughter.
In 1975, Richard moved to Colorado, a place he'd fallen in love with on a trip when he was eighteen. His first job was at a Beau Jo's Pizza, and then he sold cars while going to real-estate school. The real-estate business kept him interested for almost eight years, and then he moved on to network marketing. Through his assorted careers, he continued to race and sell radio-controlled boats.
In 1995, Richard started playing professional poker. He made money, but not millions. Still, he liked the odds of poker better than the odds of American marriage. He saw that marriage had a 50 percent chance of failure, and with men losing half of everything they earned to divorce, the stakes were way too high. Richard vowed to stay single forever.
Then Seow walked into the Black Hawk casino where he was playing in September 1999.
Seow is of Chinese descent but was born in Malaysia. She was almost 25 when her 59-year-old American boyfriend was laid off by a computer company. She moved with him to his ranch in Montana in 1996. He was married, but afraid to divorce his wife because he could lose everything.
When Seow's boyfriend died, his brother agreed to put her up in his Nederland home, and she scored a job at a Chinese restaurant in Boulder.
A cook and a waiter there were both addicted to Texas Hold 'Em. They bought a tip book but couldn't read English, so they had Seow translate. Then they took her to a casino.
Seow decided to play. When she sat down at the poker table, several of the players, a couple of the dealers and the pit boss were all watching her. "But for whatever reason, she liked me," Richard remembers.
He asked Seow if she'd like to go on a motorcycle ride.
"Is it a big one?" she asked.
"Yeah," Richard said. "It's bigger than a Harley."
"I thought Harleys were the biggest motorcycle in the world," Seow countered.
"No, this one's bigger," Richard assured her.
Soon after, Richard picked Seow up at the restaurant during her lunch break, and the two drove up the canyon to the Pioneer Inn, where Seow had a beer and he had a Coke. Richard couldn't believe how Seow saw American women in the same light as he did -- overvalued -- while the men were undervalued.
Cruising down from Nederland, Richard realized that he wanted to be exclusive with Seow. She proposed marriage to him a few months later, and they were wed on January 6, 2000, in Las Vegas.
Richard got back into the car business, buying and selling wholesale with Seow's assistance. More than a decade before, he'd gotten to know his daughter back in Indiana, and he didn't plan to have another child now. Seow was taking birth-control pills that a friend at the Chinese restaurant had given her when she was trying to get pregnant. Instead, it was Seow who gave birth, to a girl named Venus.
Richard and Seow decided to take a family trip to Malaysia. Seeing how happy they were, two of Richard's friends asked if Richard could help them find wives as loyal, loving, serving and caring. Unfortunately, no one in Malaysia struck either Seow or Richard as good wife material.
On the way back home, Richard decided to check out some beach property in Thailand as a retirement possibility. But in the airport alone, he saw a half-dozen women who might work out for his friends.
Women in Thailand know all about sex tours, and they fear sex trafficking; as a bald, middle-aged white man, Richard might as well have had "sex tourist" tattooed on his forehead. But mixed baby Venus worked like a magnet with Thai women, many of whom asked Richard and Seow to find them a Western husband. Thai men were butterflies, they said.
Richard started thinking about all of the American men he knew who'd been destroyed by divorce, and he started Thailand Romance Tours in July 2003. "It's a mutual rescue mission," he says.
The first four tours consisted of men from Colorado and Wyoming, but word of mouth and the Internet soon helped recruit clients from across the country, as well as a few civilian employees in Iraq. Seow was skeptical of the business at first, but she's finally starting to feel the magic of matchmaking.
Of the 41 men that Richard and Seow took to Thailand before this twelfth tour, sixteen got married. Although one is now separated from his wife, Richard says he was against that marriage from the start. According to him, nine men are awaiting their bride's arrival in the States. Eleven are not yet engaged but are still talking with women they met on the tour. Some have returned to Thailand to visit their sweethearts.
Just four of the men have given up on the Thai bride idea.
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.
At sunrise, he meets Scooby on Khaosan Road. Travelers who land in Bangkok quickly learn about Khaosan Road. The street is lined with hotels, street vendors, bars, discos, Internet cafes, camera stores and jewelry shops. You can get a one-hour massage for $5. Even at this hour, monks in orange robes are going door to door collecting food donations; transvestite prostitutes known as "lady boys" are trying to solicit sex from the last men standing from the night before.
Lee is ready to drop off the tour; he expects to love Nat by day's end. He'd like to propose to her, then spend the rest of his time in Thailand with her family, helping load water bottles onto the truck, happy just to be by Nat's side. "There's no need to look elsewhere when you've found what you're looking for. I already know I just want to talk to her," Lee says. "It's really difficult trying to make a life decision in such a short period of time. There's a good chance she'll get that little teddy bear today."
Lee pulls out a shiny new ATM card for an account he set up for his future bride. He plans to leave the card with Nat when he returns to the U.S.
At breakfast, Lee catches up with Greg, who had a good time the day before with a woman named Jum. After the visit to the Palace and the canoe ride, the two went out for drinks, dinner and dancing. Although Greg plans to see Jum again, he's going to continue with the tour -- as he promised himself and Richard he would. The next stop is Udon Thani, a town famous for beautiful women and their marriages to farangs. Jum knows all about Udon Thani and doesn't want Greg to go, but he's going anyway.
"And if she doesn't like it, too bad," he says. "I'll find someone else."
Bobby says he had a great time with Eve, too. After their date ended the night before, Bobby told Eve he'd call her. Now, much to his surprise, she shows up for breakfast. Somewhat reluctantly, he winds up spending the rest of the day and evening with her.
Eve tells Bobby not to go on to Udon Thani. She asks him to call her every day and not to get a girlfriend. She pulls closer and he backs off. "I'm starting to get a big reminder why I've never been married," he says.
Ben comes down to breakfast with Joy, a woman who is not part of Richard's tour. On his Asia friend-finder account, Ben had been talking to four women in the six months before the tour. He'd asked Richard if it was okay to invite them to meet him in Bangkok. Of the four, only Joy showed up.
Joy has a political-science degree and works in cosmetic sales. She was married for fifteen years before she lost her husband to cancer, and is raising her nine-year-old son alone. She's ready to move to the U.S. and hopes that her son and Ben's can grow up as brothers.
Since Joy's English is extremely limited, she and Ben have been talking through an electronic translator. Still, Ben likes Joy, and he decides he'll use her to set the bar. If he doesn't meet anyone he likes more, when he gets back to Bangkok he'll ask Joy to spend the rest of her life with him. "This whole process, I'm really just concerned about hurting women's feelings," Ben says.
Scooby and Sammy don't have any serious prospects, but they're enjoying their vacation anyway. They spend the day taking in as much of Bangkok as they can.
Ben and Joy, Bobby and Eve, Greg and Jum, and Lee and Nat spend the day holding hands.
Ben, Bobby and Lee head out for a triple date to an outdoor market, but then Lee and Nat go to pick up her fourteen-year-old daughter and her daughter's friend. The four pose for pictures. Nat tells her daughter to say "I love farangs" as the flash goes off.
Nat is Lee's number-one choice, but Nat has been number one before. Both times, the men have moved on to the next stop at Udon Thani, and both times they've found new loves, leaving Nat behind.
Back at the hotel on Khaosan Road, Lee and Nat stop for coffee. Nat's daughter waits outside. Through the window, she can see Lee, on the verge of tears, talking to her mother.
"I love you," Lee tells Nat.
Nat doesn't reply at first. She points to goosebumps on her arm.
"Nobody ever said that to me before," Nat finally says.
"Will you marry me?" Lee asks.
"It's too soon," she replies. "I need more time to think."
Lee offers to give up the rest of his trip and stay with Nat, hauling water, getting to know her.
"Go to Udon Thani," she tells him, adding that he should stay away from other girls.
Super Bowl Sunday is actually Super Bowl Monday in Thailand. The Steelers are beating the Seahawks as some of the men gather in Richard's hotel room for a pep talk from Seow.
"Don't beg for their love, even if you're desperately wanting them," she says. "Don't show it, or they'll take control. You tell her when you want to see her. Even if you want to spend all seven days here, don't show it, and don't give her any money until she proves to you that she really wants to be with you."
The men all think that the photos on Richard's website don't do Seow justice. At 34, she's young enough to be the a daughter of the men she's lecturing, young enough to be her husband's daughter. Seow says that Asian women like older Western men because even though they're technically from different generations, their cultural eras are the same. When hip-hop swept the U.S., she explains, Asian countries were listening to the Beatles; when we got color television, they got black and white. The men should have their new wives adapt to fit American culture today; the men don't change for the women.
"It's easier for Asian women to change to American culture," Seow tells them. "Demand her to change for you. You are the leader, you are the man, you are the boss. You need to take charge; she has to change for you. Let her make coffee for you, let her cook for you. It's not a slave thing; it's her showing her love for you. That's how we show our love. It's not a slave thing."
After they meet their future bride, she says, they can send $200 -- but no more -- to the woman's parents once a month. Children are the social-security system in Asia, she explains, and it's all right to keep that tradition going. It's even expected. Later, after the woman has proven her love is genuine, they can be more generous. If they have children together, it'll only make that bond stronger.
"If you let her step over you, why you come to Thailand for a wife?" Seow asks the men.
"Really, what Richard want, what he is about, is waking you up, making you be the boss," she says. "Strength is what they're looking for. They don't care about your looks, they don't care about your age. They want to be secure with you."
Seow suggests they take it slow, moving from town to town and woman to woman until they find the right one. The more time a man spends with a woman, the more he'll know if it's a good match.
"You tell them when you want to be there and when you want to leave," she says. "You need to be a strong guy. Women like stronger guys, emotionally and mentally, not necessarily physically." Order cheap stuff off the menu for her even if you can afford more expensive dishes, she adds. It's okay to piss them off.
And if a man does propose marriage, he should insist on a prenuptial agreement. "Don't kiss ass," Seow concludes.
"I probably fucked it up really bad, huh?" Lee asks Seow.
"Yeah," she replies.
Udon Thani is like the second wave of the tsunami, Richard tells the men. It's the big one.
The hotel here is nicer. Little tables and chairs are scattered across the marble floor, and there are pink roses everywhere. Thirty-four women filter in and out of this lobby the first night. Thirty-four not including Marsha and Cindy.
Cindy doesn't stand out too much, but Marsha's breasts are barreling out of her low-cut black cocktail dress. A few men ask Richard about her. He tells them they're too far away to see Marsha's Adam's apple and her big hands, too far away to hear her deep voice. While Cindy is now officially a woman, Marsha has yet to have the final surgery to seal the deal. This is the first time that a lady-boy has shown up on one of Richard's tours, asking to be a potential bride. Richard doesn't want to be rude, so he takes their pictures and asks them to fill out the application/profile, knowing all along that Marsha and Cindy will never be posted on his site, never be asked to come meet the men.
Thirty-four women are almost too many, the men agree.
Welcome to Udon Thani, Richard tells them.
Sammy didn't meet anyone he liked too much in Bangkok, but a 28-year-old from Laos now catches his eye. Richard introduces them. Her name is Viant, she has two young children, and she speaks no English. Through an interpreter, Viant tells Sammy that she left her Thai husband because he cheated on her. Butterfly.
Within minutes, Sammy asks Richard if it would be more complicated to bring Viant to the U.S. because she is from Laos.
Sammy and Viant are holding hands. Sammy is crazy about her lips.
"So you sell fruit?" he asks through the translator.
"Yes," Viant says.
"Is it cut up or whole fruit?" Sammy continues.
"Whole," Viant says.
"Oh, I like fruit," Sammy says.
Sammy, Viant, the interpreter and two of Viant's friends all go to dinner on Sammy. He invites Viant to come back the following day for breakfast and an all-day date. He plans to buy a Laotian-to-English dictionary first.
Meanwhile, Ben meets Boom, a 27-year-old with a two-year-old son and, unlike Joy, one of Richard's tour girls. There's instant chemistry between Ben and Boom. "It's not manipulation," Ben insists. "They just want to love someone. They're not just fooling around; they want to show you they care for you intimately. I wasn't prepared for that, and I'm not complaining. It's flattering."
Lee is talking to Kung, a widow with two grown boys. A retired X-ray technician, she's now studying massage. "She may start up the first Thai massage parlor in the U.S.," Lee says with a wink, as the two hold hands.
Greg shows a young woman his album, complete with pictures of his trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He asks if she's heard of Dolly Parton. He points to a photo and tries to explain the humor of finding bears digging through a restaurant dumpster.
The girl smiles and nods.
Greg quickly moves on to Aoy, a 31-year-old nurse technician with a young son. Greg would prefer a woman without a child, but Richard thinks Greg and Aoy are a match. Aoy has reasonably good English skills and she's ambitious, wants to go back to school to become a full-fledged nurse. "I might consider that as an option," Greg says.
Bobby sits back in amazement, watching the progress of his fellow tourists. "Everyone becomes instant players on this trip," Bobby says. "That's why the women in Bangkok say 'No Udon.'"
Bobby starts talking to Aoy's sister, 29-year-old Aom. She's never been married and has no children, although she's been cheated on. "Thai man very butterfly," she says. Aom speaks good English, which she learned on the Internet and at work. She quit her last job to get a master's degree in marketing and isn't working right now. She could find a job in Bangkok but wants to stay close to her family in Udon Thani -- although she's ready to move if she meets the right man.
"I like USA, big country," Aom says. She'd like to see snow, and Bobby says Colorado is perfect for that.
Bobby and Aom, Greg and Aoy, Lee and Kung, and Ben and Boom have dinner.
As if Seow had never said anything to him, Lee lets his date order a steak.
Bobby's trying to move slow with Aom. Greg is still considering Aoy. Lee is quickly falling for Kung. And Ben, who seems to have forgotten all about Joy, is discussing a possible future with Boom. "She agreed to come to America with me, and she's agreed to bring her son so we can be one family," Ben says later.
After dinner, Bobby and Aom and Greg and Aoy join Scooby for a trip to a club called Mambo. The club is empty at first except for the four-piece band and six backup dancers, who change costumes with every song. One of the male singers dresses in drag for one song; even in high heels, he's athletic enough to jump off the stage. For his next number, he changes into gangsta garb, sporting fake bling but still wearing blush as he covers Black Eyed Peas in English. The next song is a Dr. Dre cover with Thai lyrics.
All the men have fun, but this time it's Sammy's turn to wake up in the middle of the night. He asks himself what the hell he's doing.
"I don't need no nine-month-old baby and four-year-old," he says. "Viant is really nice and pretty, but no English would be a problem."
When Viant shows up for breakfast, Sammy breaks it off. That leaves him free to meet 35-year-old Yuvaree, a teacher and administrator at the elementary school where the men are going today to pass out gifts and clothes they brought from the States. The school is rural, but this countryside looks very different from the countryside where Sammy lives. It's lush and quiet, but dotted with palm trees and patches cleared for farming.
Sammy had picked Yuvaree off of Richard's website as his number-one choice. Yuvaree had helped a cousin translate her own profile, met Richard and helped him come up with a plan to donate gifts to the 145 students at the school, then wound up on the marriage tour herself.
Yuvaree grew up on a farm, 25 acres of rice fields that her father plows with ten water buffalo. Yuvaree's father worked hard to put her through college, and Yuvaree has dedicated her life to the school. She was married once. Her husband started drinking heavily and she heard around town that he was cheating, but he denied it for five years.
Then one day he came home and told Yuvaree that his girlfriend would be moving in with them, an acceptable Thai practice until recent generations.
When Yuvaree objected, he beat her.
In order to get a divorce in Thailand, the husband must agree. After Yuvaree accepted responsibility for the $25,000 debt they'd assumed to pay for land and a car, her husband agreed. But he kept the land, and the car, too. Yuvaree has been tutoring two students to help pay off the debt. Of her $300-a-month salary, $200 goes to the loan.
As Yuvaree hands out the presents to the kids, Sammy gazes at her. She's never been someone's first choice before. She's never even considered herself a serious candidate. Yuvaree has seen Thai women fall fast for men on Richard's tours, but she doesn't understand how they can move so quickly. She says she wants to take things slowly.
Yuvaree once spent almost a year in Vermont with an American family. She dreams of having a similar family of her own one day. "Love me, this is very important," she says. "Not only need something, love me. I want to be the last woman in his life, not the next, not the first or the second or the third. I want to be the last."
Sammy and Yuvaree go to dinner and the mall that night. They talk and hold hands.
"I like her, her only," Sammy says.
That evening, everyone's hooked up except Scooby.
In walks Kid, a rice farmer who smiles a lot. It's okay with Scooby that she speaks no English, but she has a two-year-old girl and a fifteen-year-old boy, and Scooby knows he doesn't want to raise any more children. "So he goes upstairs, and I can see he's kind of depressed," Richard says.
So Richard asks Kid if she's open to leaving her children in Thailand with their grandmother. Kid says yes. And Scooby, who was considering cutting his trip short, comes back downstairs with a smile on his face.
But there's a new problem: Three gold diggers have shown up, in the company of a woman whom Richard and Seow like very much, as well as the woman's husband -- a man who'd been on one of Richard's tours and now looks ten years younger. Rudeness isn't an option, so Richard keeps an eye on the gold diggers.
Kung arrives, and Lee starts bouncing up and down, again disregarding Seow's advice.
A nineteen-year-old walks in with her mother, father and aunt, who want to play a role in any match. Greg takes a liking to the girl and shows her his photos, while Aoy waits patiently in the background.
Richard tells Greg that judging from how close she stays to her mother, the girl is probably a virgin. He guesses that the family will want a $10,000 dowry, and Greg frets about having to take out another loan. Richard advises Greg to stay in touch with the family if he's serious about the girl, calling every couple of days. "You can make it work with this family, because they're looking for a provider," he says.
"So if this does work out, I could probably take her for a pretty low price?" Greg asks.
"Maybe $5,000, hopefully, but you don't pay her until after she comes to the U.S.," Richard warns. "And don't fuck this up."
About fifteen women show up this night, including one who claims to be eighteen but looks younger. With Greg momentarily on the loose again, she says she's ready to go up to his room -- if he'll have her.
Greg's eyes glaze over in what Richard refers to as the "college-quarterback syndrome," referring to an abundance of choices. Richard tells Greg to go to his room while he checks the girl's age. She was born in November 1988, so she's seventeen -- old enough to get married in Thailand with a parent's permission. But not old enough to get a U.S. fiancée visa.
Richard calls up to Greg's room and breaks the news.
Greg comes downstairs and tells Richard that he's screwing up by going after these young girls. He's got a good thing with Aoy, he says, and shouldn't let that slip away. Fortunately, Aoy is still in the lobby. She understands that Greg needs to explore his options, and says she's lucky that he's considering her at all.
Greg grabs Aoy by the hand, and the two get in the elevator. Richard has the interpreter explain to the seventeen-year-old that she can be on the tour next year.
She sits on the couch, slowly turning the pages of Greg's photo album. She studies the photos of his life in Ohio, of his sons, of NASCAR races, of bears rummaging through dumpsters, of Gatlinburg.
"Lost in a dream," Richard says.
The lights in the lobby shut off.
It's now the sixth day of the marriage tour, and everyone catches up at breakfast.
Lee had a rough night. He burned his mouth on some KFC hot wings and went to bed -- which gave him plenty of time to think. He's decided to propose marriage to Kung. She's already told her eighteen-year-old son about him and that they're in love. This will be his second proposal of the week.
Ben was sick last night, too, and Boom played nurse all night long. That's something his kickboxer of an ex-wife never did. "We just showing our love," Seow explains. "She wants him to see."
Boom can relate to Ben's rocky marriage. Her husband left one day and never came back. She's been working as a 7-Eleven manager six days a week, twelve hours a day, to keep her family in their middle-class home. Ben is considering marrying Boom.
And Greg's serious again about Aoy. "I'm not the handsomest guy in the world and she's not the prettiest, which is probably better, because I don't have to worry as much about Richard Gere or someone stealing her or her running off," he says. Aoy isn't a teen, but she's still younger than Greg. She's educated and speaks good English.
"I think Aoy's a more practical choice," he says.
Richard and Seow notice Bobby "kissing ass." He's holding Aom's hand and kissing it; she looks upset.
Scooby is excited about his possibilities with Kid.
And after Richard tells Sammy three times that Yuvaree really likes him, it's finally sinking in. Sammy gets teary-eyed and walks away. He doesn't want anyone to see him emotional.
Richard says he feels a chill up his spine. "You don't find your mission in life," he explains. "It finds you."
Ben leaves the group for the day and goes with Boom to her village. He meets her parents, and they get engaged. They stop at a rental shop packed with smiling transsexuals to get traditional engagement attire, then go to Boom's home, where her parents send him to a back room to rest. Ben wakes up to a door cracked open and forty Asian faces trying to get a peak of the farang who's going to marry the girl from their village. They tie strings around the couple's wrists as a sign of good luck.
Ben's happy. He's finally found the woman for him. "She and I have already expressed what I feel is genuine love from the start," he says. "It's not an arranged marriage; it's true love."
Boom is quiet, but when pressed to share her feelings, she says through an interpreter that she's glad to have found a good man with a good heart. She knew it when Ben looked at her and winked. She's excited about going to another country, excited about her son meeting Ben's son and them all becoming one big, happy family.
Ben pays Boom's parents a dowry of 9,999 baht, or about $250 U.S. The number is symbolic, because the Thai recognize the Chinese tradition of nine's significance of eternity.
Back at the hotel, Lee has proposed marriage to Kung. She's accepted, and says she feels like a young girl. Her hands are in Lee's lap; she buries her head in his chest and sheds a couple of tears.
Kung knows that Lee was divorced just a few days ago, but she doesn't know that he proposed marriage to Nat and was refused between his divorce and his proposal to her.
It was a rough week, but Lee feels at the top of his game. "I got hit on today, too," he says. "First time in my life." He plans to ask his congressman to speed up the visa process -- again.
Not to be outdone, Greg puts down the sausage on a stick that he's eating and drops a breath mint. Then, as casually as a co-worker might ask you to grab a burger for lunch, he asks Aoy to marry him.
She accepts, and they arrange an engagement ceremony for the next day.
All three couples met on Monday, and all three were engaged by Wednesday.
Three down, three to go.
"You can fuck this up, and I'm deadly serious," Richard tells Greg over eggs the next morning. "Do not be overly generous. If there's going to be any public displays of affection, it's going to be her to you."
Affection is seen as a weakness, and if Greg is overly generous with Aoy, he'll spoil and lose her like he lost his first two Thai loves. "The Thai like their men strong," he continues. "She's stronger than you when it comes to hell and high water; she'll get through it better than you. She's built that way. She's Thai."
Richard urges Greg to watch a PBS special on lions. He'll see that the female lion hunts and brings the food back for the male, the king. The king eats all he can while the female waits her turn. Then he walks away. Maybe he gives a flick of the tail, maybe a certain glance, but the female knows it's now okay to eat the leftovers. Then the hyenas show up. They want the scraps and will fight the females for them. The king doesn't protect the female; he wants to make her stronger. It doesn't even faze the lion king when the king hyena insults him -- at least, not until the lion detects the females questioning his dominance. Then he attacks.
Like the lion king, males married to Thai women should lie around and get fed and get fat -- until they're really tested by a hyena. "Your job is to bring security to the marriage," Richard says. "Without the alpha male, the females are fucked."
Men are visual creatures, Richard explains. In the U.S., no man ever looks at him and Seow and says that Seow was the lucky one. But she's getting the best of the bargain, he says, and she knows it.
All women want to marry Daddy, Richard continues. In Thailand, Daddy pays for the clothes on your back, the roof over your head, the food in your belly, and also puts put love in your heart. "If you give her your American Express card and say here, go have fun with it 24/7/365, you have created an American woman," he says. "So don't blame me if you turn her around."
After the lecture, Greg goes to the lobby to meet Aoy and her son.
"He got himself some baggage," says Bobby, one of the last three bachelors left.
For Bobby, Thailand has been like Colombia: The greater the choice, the greater the search for perfection.
He liked Eve until she got too attached, calling him constantly and threatening to fly up to Udon Thani. He likes Aom, but isn't as attracted to her as he is to Eve. If only he could cut and piece together traits from different women, he always thinks.
Sammy and Yuvaree have agreed to move slowly but already plan to take a holiday together in March. With her government status at the school, Yuvaree can get a visa quickly.
The night before, Sammy's phone rang at 12:30 a.m.
"I so scared, I so scared," Yuvaree told him.
"If you don't like me, let me know, let me know now," Sammy said.
Yuvaree said she likes Sammy and enjoyed their romantic dinner that night.
Sammy still hopes to meet her parents today. But he's not planning to propose, because he's worried he'll scare her off.
Scooby is waiting for Kid, who's coming at noon. He wants to teach her to dance. Instead, she buys him a shirt. She massages his legs. They get engaged.
No translators are available, and Seow wants to get Kid's visa application taken care of for Scooby. She goes to a bar to find some help. The bartender says she'll call her brother, who speaks English. The man who shows up is a tourist policeman dressed in plain clothes.
Scooby wants to help make sure that Kid's children and parents have enough money to live on. He offers Kid $200 a month through the tourist cop, who says it'll cost him $2,500 up front and $375 a month. Scooby is ready to give up on both the marriage and the tour and heads back to the hotel.
Richard can tell that Scooby's upset and still thinking of Kid. He tracks down the tourist cop, figures out it's a scam, gets Scooby back with Kid. Her aunt, uncle, mother and father return that night and sit down with Scooby, a real interpreter and Richard, who does the negotiating.
They agree on the lucky 9,999 baht, or $250, as a dowry. Scooby still looks nervous, so Richard tells him that they won't talk about the monthly payments now. That will be explained to the parents once Kid is in the U.S. "There's no reason to get into that now, because it'll just muddy the water," Richard says.
Richard does make it clear that Scooby doesn't want to raise Kid's children but will pay for a wedding in Thailand. He'll make the dowry part of the ceremony.
After the deal is done, 34-year-old Kid says her only fear is that her new husband will sell her to someone else. Scooby struggles with this, but Richard assures him that in a society of sex trafficking, her fear is genuine, and no reflection on her future husband.
The front of the house has tile floors and a roof but no walls. A breeze blows through, ruffling the traditional white clothing that Greg and Aoy are dressed in for their engagement ceremony.
About two dozen people watch as Greg offers a jasmine wreath to Aoy's parents for their daughter's hand. Aoy makes the same offering to Richard, who's standing in for Greg's parents and is also respected as the matchmaker, an important role dating back to the days of arranged marriages.
Usually Richard doesn't get to attend these ceremonies. He's moved on to the next town, the next match, the next marriage.
"This is the real payment," he says.
Then family members and friends, including Lee and Kung, Ben and Boom, Bobby and Aom, move into the house. They kneel on the hard floors under a picture of Thailand's king, before a burning candle, and chant. There's a pause, then Aoy's father launches into solo prayer.
Bobby is considering taking Aom back to Colorado.
Since all of her family is already at her sister's engagement ceremony, it would be easy to turn it into a double ceremony, Bobby jokes.
"Can you loan me that suit?" he asks.
Richard is grateful for everything that Thailand has given him. He feels that he's doing both Thai women and American men a great service, and he's able to do it only through the Thai culture of sharing. He walks the streets, and when he sees something that looks good on someone else's plate, Richard isn't scared to ask for a taste. A taste that the Thai are always willing to share.
The Thai are proud that they've never been colonized, but Richard sees the globalization of their economy as a type of colonization. Some Thai women have fallen in love with Western culture. They wear jeans and tight tops, they watch Sex and the City and Friends, they eat Pizza Hut and KFC, they drink Pepsi and whiskey. Another type of Thai woman, what Richard calls "original Thai," has yet to succumb to the ways of the West. These women don't speak English, and they don't eat Western foods, wear Western clothes or watch Western television.
Both types make good wives. It's the women who only care about money who are trouble, and it's Richard's job to separate the good from the bad.
Richard says he's interviewed 540 Thai women, and 320 have made it to his website. He has another forty candidates who aren't yet posted. "If they go over on their own," he says of American men, "there's two things that are going to happen. They're going to meet the wrong girl, and they're going to pay too much."
Without Richard, Lee's divorce would have cost more than $200. Scooby might have lost his bride or fallen prey to the cop's scheme. And Greg would still be out $3,800 -- because it's Richard who goes to Khon Kaen to get Greg's ring back for the second time. When Richard asks Greg's second fiancée for the ring, she hands it right over without a story, telling Richard she wants to stay on the tour. He believes she tried to love Greg but couldn't. "He created that monster," Richard says. He's going to warn Greg not to give the ring to Aoy too quickly. If Greg does, Richard won't rescue it again.
Without Richard, Sammy and Yuvaree would not have met. Richard's just gotten the news that Sammy and Yuvaree are engaged. That means five of the six men on this tour have found brides.
In the lobby of the hotel at Khon Kaen, Richard meets with a smooth-talking millionaire from Texas who found his fiancée on one of Richard's earlier tours, paying a $12,500 dowry. He's ordering double Scotch and sodas before boarding a plane back to the U.S. Since he got engaged last May, he's visited his fiancée and her family every few weeks; he hopes the fiancée visa comes through soon.
"It's not for losers," he says of Richard's service. "It's for men who are sick and tired of American women."
In the airport lounge, waiting for the flight back to the U.S., Sammy is still struggling to believe how fast and hard he's fallen in love. "All I really want is love, and somebody to love me in return," he says. "These women here treat you so great -- there's no comparison. I don't know how you could find any better; you certainly couldn't find any more beautiful. Am I going to let her go? No, she's the most wonderful thing in my life to happen, and I'd kick myself in the ass for the rest of my life. She's funny, she's smart, she's wonderful and I love her."
When Sammy asked about a dowry, Yuvaree said that was up to him. He decided he'd assume the $25,000 debt that her ex-husband stuck her with. "It's still worth it to me, every bit of it," he says. "Hell, I lost $190,000 in my divorce."
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"Just like everything else in Thailand, cheaper than America," Bobby points out.
Bobby's the only one going home without an official engagement, although he's still considering Aom for a wife.
He arrives back in Colorado in time for a cold, lonely Valentine's Day. "It's so hard for me to settle down on these trips," he says. "It kind of backfires. I don't want to say player..."
Aom called him a butterfly.