From Denver, With Love

Page 6 of 14

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.

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Luke Turf

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