Ko Lipe is an island in the Andaman sea under the dominion of the kingdom of Thailand. Travelfish.org gives it a 3.5 out of 5 star rating. “The food scene is exceptional and a clutch of bars present a more mature nightlife alternative to Ko Phi Phi, without the seediness found on parts of Phuket”. I found the food to be exceptionally lackluster, but I did manage to find a few charming little corners on this small, over-touristed island.
About two days into my stay I witnessed an old white man, he looked either Dutch or German, walking down the island’s crowded “walking street”. He held about his body a camcorder and not even the slightest trace of self-consciousness as he conspicuously recorded everything in sight. Walking slightly ahead of him was a Thai girl–pretty, tanned, and dressed like a rebellious teenager. She walked slowly, examining baubles for sale at various tourist shops, occasionally glancing back at the camera shyly. Their visages invoke in me a feeling of sadness.
I imagine being in the living room of this man in Leipzig or Eindhoven or some other dismal Western European suburb. Outside the apartment the sky is cold and gray. Inside, the decor is charmless and cheap. The man insists I watch the recording of his trip to Thailand, of the twenty three year old escort he paid 150 Euros a day to accompany him. She loved anal and gave incredible, mind-numbing blowjobs, he tells me. His tired, worry worn face appears frighteningly alive. His usually pallid, weathered skin flushes red with excitement as he recounts the resorts they stayed at and the islands they visited.
I am both afraid of this man and glad he has found some happiness. The cause of the fear is easy to diagnose. It stems from seeing something in him of myself, of some potential future there. The happiness arises from the same reason. Because for four weeks he got out of the dismal European weather and got drunk and sunburned in Southern Thailand. It was the highlight of his year.
My discomfort has nothing to do with the morality of this couple’s relationship and everything to do with their demeanor. It’s the innocence with which the man filmed an absurd amount of his holiday, the brashness with which he captured every mundane detail. The common reaction to arrangements such as his from Westerners is, unsurprisingly, one of disgust and disdain. ‘She’s less than half his age. It’s disgusting.’ Unsurprisingly, the majority of these criticisms stem from women whose own youth and beauty have long since faded. If you’re able to transcend such moral judgments you’ll notice something. In the man it manifested itself in the calm way he filmed every inch of the pathetically narrow and overcrowded walking street. In the girl, it was in the slight, shy smile she turned toward the camera trailing her. What I’m describing, what I observed, was a subtle, pleasant form of happiness.
One could argue that the girl was paid to smile and to be happy. While not untrue, this fails to acknowledge the fact that the difference between a smile demonstrating a real feeling of goodwill as opposed to a false smile meant to simulate the fact are easily distinguished to anyone with a modicum of social intelligence. The smarmy false grins of the stripper and the barista are clearly disingenuous. They are toothy, over the top, and never touch the eyes of their owner. Real smiles are subtle and exist without the need to proclaim themselves. The economic motives of the girl in this situation change nothing. Throughout history, but especially in the 21st century, all sexual relationships have maintained an economic component. Some are just more transparent than others.
The genuineness of the couple’s affection for each other was painfully obvious. It was a real public display of real intimacy. It was almost unbearable to behold.