“Where’s all that cash I gave you?”
“I want to put it in the safe before we head out today.”
“It okay,” Noom – my bar boy friend and current love of my life – assured me, patting his back pocket where he’d tucked his newfound riches safely away. That little reminder – not of his wallet but what lay directly beneath it – made me momentarily forget my goal. As he knew it would. Money in the bank is one thing. A incredibly beautiful ass bulging with muscle quite another. And when you carry your riches with you, a wad of baht of any size is of little concern.
No problemo. I have a trick or two up my sleeves of my own. “We’re going shopping,” I told him. And if there’s one thing Noom knows it’s that the last thing he needs on a shopping excursion is his own money. But I’d lied. Kinda, sorta. ‘Cuz it’s rare that whatever we do for the day in Bangkok doesn’t end up including some shopping in one form or another. That’s the problem with a city whose streets are filled with sidewalk vendors. Especially when your bar boy friend is in a constant state of need.
Years ago we’d started a tradition of taking turns taking the other guy to some place in Bangkok he’d never been before. Without forewarning. And without revealing where we were going until we got there. Doing so, I’d opened Noom to the many wonders his city holds. He usually returned the favor when it was his turn by cheating. I’d enjoyed the experience of riding in three different types of buses and a canal boat in the past, each of which qualified under Noom’s version of the rules. But I have to admit that canal boat trip, my first time using the waterways that crisscross the city as a way to get around town, almost made up for him being the sneaky little bastard that he is.
Today was my turn. He just didn’t know that yet.
Allowing my focus to drift from its usual target, I noticed the sandals he’d put on. “Um, no, today you have to wear shoes,” I told him. “With socks,” I added because it was necessary. I didn’t specify clean socks. But kept an eye on those he pulled out. Just in case.
Noom began to balk at that imposition. But then his brain processed the request. And arrived at the wrong conclusion. “Oh, shoes!” he exclaimed with a sly smile. Noom likes shoes. He may have been Imelda Marcos in a former life. And having heard shopping and shoes mentioned so closely together, he’d deduced he was in for a new pair. Wrong, Grasshopper. Kinda, sorta. ‘Cuz with that yearning in his eyes I knew no matter how big of a hit our destination for the day turned out to be, we’d probably be stopping for a bit of shoe shopping before returning to our hotel.
On the second day we’d spent together – far too many years ago to count – I’d bought Noom a pair of Adidas. He hadn’t asked for them. Or even made a sly attempt of putting the idea of that purchase in my mind. But we were out at a mall and I noticed the tired, worn condition of the shoes he was wearing. And with that $125 purchase on my Visa card, for Noom, it was love at first swipe. I think he became a bit more fond of me that day too.
He donated his old pair of tennies to another guy working at his bar. And kept his new pair carefully wrapped in the box they came in, stored in his locker at work, only to be taken out and worn when circumstances warranted it. It was the night that I noticed one of his ‘brothers’ walking out of the bar with the customer he’d landed for the night, his feet decked out in Noom’s new shoes – and the proud look of satisfaction on Noom’s face – that it dawned on me just how extraordinary owning a brand new pair of name-brand sneakers was for most bar boys. And how much status they gained from it.
Since then I’ve indulged Noom in his shoe fetish. He owns at least a dozen pairs now. Including a garish pair of custom-made Nikes with his name imprinted on each heel. All carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in the boxes they originally came in. Most of the time he just wears flip flops. Or when he thinks he needs to dress up, sandals. Today’s excursion required a step up from those. Even if it was more about a shoe of an entirely different shape. And having coaxed Noom into slipping a real pair of shoes on, I turned my attention to Dave – my not a bar boy boyfriend and current love of my life – to check out his attire for the day. Sometimes – singular or plural – having a boyfriend can be a lot like having a child.
“Come on dude. I know you have a shirt with a collar somewhere in your suitcase, it’s time to ditch the T-shirt.”
Noom snickered. On general principle. And then quietly changed into a shirt with a collar himself. I told ya I had a trick or two up my sleeves of my own .
Properly dressed, finally, off we rode on one of my favorite mounts in Bangkok – the BTS – to hop off ten minutes later at Siam Station. Noom’s smile grew in appreciation of his superior abilities in predicting what the farang was up to. “Oh!” he attempt to say nonchalantly when his pride in himself said otherwise. “MBK!”
Noom is big on traditions. And/or sucks at directions. I’ve never been quite sure which applies in this case. But in his mind the Skytrain station for the MBK mall is Siam. So whenever we’re headed to MBK and I let him take the lead, we get off at Siam. And then wander a bit. And then get back on the next train that pulls in to take it to National, the next and final stop on the line and the station that leads directly into MBK. Not so today. I headed to street level instead. And Noom’s smile dimmed by a few watts.
Now if you’ve never been to the Royal Bangkok Sports Club for an afternoon of horse racing – or if you have a Thai’s sense of direction – you’d think your best bet would be to get off at the Ratchadamri station. It’s the closest station, even if the race track is close and visible from Siam Station. At times, once you’re at the track, it even appears the horses are racing with the BTS trains using Ratchadamri. But your bet would be wrong. Just like most of those you’ll place on the races. ‘Cuz Ratchadamri is on the wrong side of the track. Both literally and figuratively. Siam is you better bet. Then it’s only about a ten minute walk to the club. Or, if you are really in a gambling mood, you can take a tuk-tuk.
We opted for walking. Not just to keep our destination secret from Noom as long as possible, but because otherwise, with a tuk tuk, he’d insist on providing the driver directions and then who knows where we’d have ended up. And it worked. We were practically at the club’s entrance before Noom figured out where we were headed. Maybe it was the scent of horses in the air. More likely it was the scent of money. Because his smile – the one that had become nonexistent the further we walked away from the shopping malls of Siam – suddenly reappeared. In full wattage. “Oh! We make bet!”
Which should clue you into why I’d started the day attempting to wrestle away his wad of baht. Because Thais, like most Asians, consider gambling a deeply religious experience. Regardless of the cost. Which may explain why proper footwear and a collared shirt is required at the club (you can ‘rent’ either at the entrance if needed) just like when entering a major wat. Although that comparison quickly dims once you pay your 100 baht entrance fee and make it inside. Which is really more about being outside.
There are no gold encrusted statues to the gods, no red carpet covering the floors, no teak wood carved dioramas from Buddhist tales. Instead there’s a lot of dirty concrete rising into the stands. In fact, those are the stands. And the seating too. All decorated with spalling, trash, and puddles of spit. There’s barbed-wire encompassing parts of the arena too, just for a bit of color. And while the inhabitants may share an age with the venerable Buddhist monks you’d find at a wat, it’s quickly obvious that there is little holy about this group. That almost ever spectator is chain-smoking cheap Thai cigarettes alone should be a clue. Especially since they wash them down with copious amounts of beer and rot-gut whiskey. There are few women in evidence at the track. Nor many farang. It’s mainly older, local men. The kind whose thoughts make them wake each morning with a longing that seldom finds satiation.
A program is available in Thai for 10 baht, or in English for 100 baht, the only dual pricing scheme available at the track. Neither is really necessary. Because even if you are a horse racing aficionado back home, handicapping the field in Thailand is a lesson in futility. A tip off would be the ‘D’ and ‘M’ designations on the guide. They stand for ‘doped substance’ and ‘medicated substance’. Because to a Thai, why wouldn’t you use performance enhancing drugs in a sporting event? No problemo. The horses aren’t exactly thoroughbreds anyway, so much as they are one stop away from the glue factory. And the safest bet at the track is that each and every race is fixed.
Not that that stops the crowd from placing a wager. Even if the local custom is to only do so when there is only a minute or two left before a race begins. Everyone bets on one of the two top mounts. Because one of those two always wins. And then so may you. Which, despite knowing nada about betting on horses, Noom was eager to try his hand at. After reaching it out towards me first.
“I need 1,000 baht.”
“Why? You can place a bet for only 50 baht.”
“I win more.”
“Yeah, but if not I lose more.”
“I know. But I lose, it your money.”
Huh. Whoever it was that said honesty is important in a relationship needs to be shot. They shoot horses for much less serious offenses don’t they? Meanwhile, Dave had paid the 100 baht for a program in English and after studiously pouring over the form had decided he’d handicapped the field and knew who’d be the winner in the next race. Because the horse’s name stirred some pleasant memory in his soul. Noom used a much more scientific approach. He took the advice of the old Thai man sitting next to us who’d been busy pounding back shots of Mekong whiskey all afternoon. Not sure if the lady at the betting window would understand quintella in English (even though it is one of the only four bets allowed) I wheeled mine for a trifecta, betting every combination of the top three horses on the tote board. It’s my version of that old adage about there being safety in numbers.
The horses run on Thai time. Not only in the speed used to get around the track but in how long they wait at the gate before each race begins. The track announcer – screeching in Thai like a cat caught in a cuisinart – begins a countdown to the start of the race so everyone can suddenly decide it’s time to place their wager. (Making sure you are not standing between the crowd and the betting windows is your safest bet.) And then, almost as an after-thought, the barriers at the gate drop and the horses take off to the accompaniment of a thousand fans screaming at the top of their nicotine-laced voices. So it’s more of a throaty rumble. Punctuated by a lot of coughing.
It’s quickly obvious that the horses running in Thailand are all on their last lap. The diminutive jockeys not so much. They look young enough to make a Sunee bar boy proud. And appear to be just as skilled at their chosen profession too. They don’t steer their mount around the track so much as hang on for dear life. And for photo-finishes the track probably still use a Polaroid camera from the ’60s. ‘Cuz there’s usually enough time between when the first and second horses cross the finish line for you to order your choice of the numerous cheap Thai snacks readily available in and around the stands. If anyone attends the horse races at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club with a claiming race in mind, they must be a rep for a local pet food company.
Not that you could tell from the amount of noise my companions were making. Noom reverted to his native language, hoping that would more quickly reach the ear of the Buddha to whom he was fervently beseeching for an assist. Just in case that wasn’t enough he employed some hand gestures too: a sweeping encouragement of his entire arm, shooing his horse along to what he hoped would be a happy ending. Dave had reverted to his native language too, a choice selection of cuss words that I hoped others nearby wouldn’t understand. Mostly because it sounded suspiciously like a power bottom’s bad dialogue from a gay porn movie from the ’80s. I took that time to decide which of the two would be more fun to make go collect my winnings once the race concluded. But at least the two were getting along well for a change. Assuming the punches to each other arms and backs were all thrown in the spirit of friendly competitiveness.
Dave quieted down first. His horse was far back in the pack. Like still at the gate. Noom’s was doing a bit better. Although I suspect the advice he’d received from our friendly neighbor was more about keeping the odds in line than a serious tip about who would win. Or place. Or show. And hey, fourth place isn’t anything to sneeze at. Even though Noom kept looking at the betting slip in his hand like it was contagious. Or that by some miracle the number would change. I let Dave collect my winnings for me. And then handed over another 50 baht note for Noom to try his luck on the next race. Because it’s not about winning. It’s about who is funding your gambling addiction.
Fortunately for Dave’s wallet we’d only made it to the track for the last five races of the day. His subsequent bets fared no better. Noom on the other hand is no dummy. After watching Dave saunter off to collect my winnings twice in a row, he waited for me to place my bets and then followed suit. So at least Dave had a companion on his after-race trips back to the betting window on my behalf. I’m sure he appreciated that.
Noom came out a winner, pocketing just over two hundred baht for the day. He pulled it back out and counted it – loudly for Dave’s benefit – several times during our walk back to Siam station. It stayed tucked away in his wallet however when we hit the BTS and he reminded us of where we were supposed to be headed with an exuberant cry of, “MBK!”
‘Cuz you may be able to lead a horse to water – or the correct Skytrain station – but you can’t make a bar boy pay for his own shoes.
(If you want to try your luck, the horses run weekly on Sundays in Bangkok, trading off between the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and the Royal Turf Club, although you should check each venue’s website first because assuming a race will be held when and where it is supposed to be is never a sure bet. This is Thailand after all.)