There are two kinds of people: people who stay and people who leave.
I’m not judging people who stay. Someone needs to keep the home fires burning. Close ties and family must come before travel for many. I am grateful that my brother has been here to keep connections to whānau alive. On my last visit to my daughter’s grave I saw the chunks of streaky pounamu and black pakohe, Whanganui River stones, that he’d been leaving over the years. Deep aroha tinged with guilt rose up within me.
Still, staying wasn’t for me. If the world is like a book, why would I only want to read the first page?
I have a vivid memory of being ten years old and gazing at the green hills that surrounded Hautu Village where I lived, and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I felt a visceral, profound yearning; a lump in the throat that was almost painful. I wanted to get out, get away from those verdant hills hemming me in and see something, anything, different. Even at that young age, I felt like I was trapped in a box and everything in it was too familiar. My family were poor, so international travel seemed like an impossible dream. I didn’t even get to the South Island until my early twenties. But then, the Fates intervened, and at twenty-five I was offered a lucrative opportunity to be an exotic dancer in Tokyo, flights and accommodation paid. I took it. I didn’t accept the job due to a lack of education. I had a bachelor’s degree, was the valedictorian of my year at art school and had landed a respectable job in arts administration. I was simply tired of working hard for peanuts and was eager to have an adventure, and at the same time make some real money.
I left in 1999 and came back in 2016. Since my return, I’d only been out of New Zealand once to organise shipping all my stuff from NYC that had been in storage for months while I travelled around, figuring out my next move.These past two and a half years have been the longest I have spent in one country since I first left all those years ago. That old emotion of feeling stifled by ‘home’ began to resurface. I knew I had to escape before I lost my tiny mind, so this month, I went to one of my favourite places in the world, the Kingdom of Thailand. Siam. The Land of Smiles. Sawadee ka!
The moment of take-off is a deep release. That feeling of leaving everything, your life with all its petty hassles, behind. It’s not only transportive; it’s transformative. Up there, above the clouds, no one can reach you.
It’s my last day in Thailand today. I spent six nights in Koh Samui at a five star resort and three nights el cheapo style in Bangkok. Or as a fellow New Zealander we met on a boat trip called this energetic, delicious, snarling metropolis – Bangers. My hotel is steps away from chaotic Asoke intersection, which is choked with scooters, tuk-tuks and taxis that take traffic signals as suggestions only. I’m in love with the massive shopping mall, Terminal 21, designed to look like an airport with each floor named after different parts of the world. I spend most of my time inside this air-conditioned consumers’ wet dream, constantly snacking. The food market here is just like depachika in Japan, those magical wonderlands of gourmet delights found in the basement of department stores. Skewers of succulent meats and vegetables. Sweet sticky rice with mango. Cups of fresh tropical fruit ready to be blended into delicious smoothies. All kinds of Thai street food, including the lightest, freshest and reputedly the best pad thai in Bangkok for $2.50 New Zealand. Coconut soft serve? Don’t mind if I do! Can I possibly avoid saying that this place is a feast for the eyes? There is even a Japanese bakery where, joy of joys, I procure my favourite Japanese treat, mitarashi dango: glutinous rice balls on a skewer glazed in a sticky soy sauce syrup that reminds me of the spoonfuls of malt extract my mother would make me eat when I was a kid. I didn’t particularly like the taste back then, but now, drizzled over rice mochi, I can’t shovel it in my fat face fast enough. I know how much I will sorely miss this vast array of cheap, tasty, and plentiful food options when I’m inevitably confronted by bulky paninis and the same cafe stodge everywhere back home. Twenty New Zealand dollars for lunch in AKL would get me four lunches in BKK. Not for the first time I think, why didn’t I move here? Bum around South East Asia for a year or two? I love you New Zealand, but you’re too damn expensive, which is hard to understand when you’re basically a giant farm. New Zealand produce often sells for considerably lower prices overseas. We’re all getting royally fucked at the supermarket cash register. Why?
I decide to have a night out and head to Soi Cowboy, a short pink and red neon-lit street packed with go-go bars. A friend suggested I head to trendy Thonglor instead because it’s nicer, but I am hungry for some red-light realness. You can take the girl out of the club, etc … I stroll around looking for a place to hang out. Suzie Wongs, Deja Vu, Kiss, The Dollhouse … Clusters of scantily clad women mill around, waiting for business. I sit down outside at a bar called Lighthouse, and a woman with a worn face sidles up and says ‘Drink for me?’ She is wearing a white strapless cocktail dress with a sweetheart neckline. It has some lace on it and looks kinda eighties, like something Molly Ringwald would wear to the prom.
I could use some company, so I motion for her to sit and light her cigarette. From my hostessing days in Tokyo, I know her drinks will be more expensive than mine and that she is trying to make a little extra cash at the beginning of the night until she gets a real customer. She must be a prostitute as she isn’t dressed like a go-go dancer or hostess and looks too old to be either. She tells me her name is Nong and that at forty, she is an old lady. She laughs when I tell her that I am forty-four. Nong makes a joke in broken English that I think must be about anal sex because she acts out being fucked from behind. I chuckle along with her to be polite. A dancer sits down and asks for a drink too. She is pretty and has honey-colored hair. I check the price first and agree. Nong tells her friend that I am forty-four, and she says to Nong that she looks ten years older than me, which makes me feel sorry for Nong.
‘Why you look so young?’
‘Because my mind like child,’ I say, and tap the side of my head. She wouldn’t understand the word ‘immature’.
We discuss Thai boob jobs, and the dancer invites me to feel her fake tits. They are very soft. I ask where the bathroom is, and Nong takes me inside, where a UV-lit stage is packed with young women dressed in white bikinis wearing numbers. She leads me upstairs, where the floor is glass and you can look down at the girls on the stage below. I try to surreptitiously take a picture through the glass, but Nong catches me. I feel bad, like a sleazy farang, and offer to delete it from my phone.
‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘No one see.You my VIP.’
Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to New Zealand in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.