Bangalore Road in Phuket's nightclub district of Patong Beach was a completely different prospect during the day. By night there was music pulsing out of every bar lining the street that all blended together in a cacophony of noise. By day the dominant sounds were more horns honking from cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes, and the sound of people chattering in languages from every corner of the globe. By night there were signs flashing on and off bathing the road and the dark night sky in neon colours. By day the signs looked garish and shabby. There were only a few constants- the unsavoury smell of Phuket island's sub-par sanitation system, the desperate hawkers accosting people on the street, sidewalk and inside the bars or restaurants, and the festive atmosphere. During the day Bangalore Road seemed cheap and dirty, the young girl thought as she made her way down towards the intersection that would lead her to the beach strip. But it was, after all, home now.
At fifteen, two years ago, Dao had left her family home in Laos where there was little work for a girl like her and travelled to Thailand to make money which would mostly be sent back to her family. Unlike many cultures Dao's had been one where families hoped children would be born female rather than male because the females could go to tourist areas and make good money. It wasn't uncommon for young girls to leave and go to a country which had more tourists and therefore more opportunity to make money as a teenager. Sadly many of the young girls would end up working in salubrious establishments as they had little skills. Dao had been lucky however.
A family friend had paid for her to spend a month learning various massage skills in a school in Bangkok and afterwards she had moved to Phuket and began work in one of the many massage parlours throughout the island. Hers was a reputable establishment- there were no dirty massages offered or accepted, just massages and beauty treatments like manicures and pedicures, facial treatments and waxing. Any man coming in with the hope of a special massage was quickly sent packing.
Dao lived about twenty minutes from Patong Beach and her work establishment in a run-down home in which she shared a room with five other young girls. Two were from Laos, one from Vietnam, one from Singapore, another from Malaysia and one from Det Udom in Eastern Thailand near the border of Laos. Some of the girls worked in massage parlours, one in a bar, and another selling her body at night. For the most part the girls got along. All worked hard and long hours.
Dao had never really considered whether she was happy or not until recently. After all it didn't exactly matter if she was happy or not because she did what she had to do. She hoped to one day marry and have children but if she did it would not be for a little while yet. But an American sailor from the US Navy aircraft carrier moored a few miles out from the Royal Phuket Marina who came for a remedial massage on his sore back had brought up that subject. "Do you like your job?" He'd asked, speaking slowly as many English speaking people did assuming that locals only spoke English at the bare minimum of standard needing to communicate when, in fact, English was spoken so widely in Phuket by tourists that most Thai's and people living there from other Asian countries had learnt to speak English quickly. Without it they couldn't survive given that tourism provided up to ninety percent of their custom and money.
"Mostly yes." Dao had replied, pushing her elbow into his sacroiliac joint.
"So you are happy?" He'd asked, wincing slightly as Dao got deeper into his joint.
Dao considered that for a long moment before speaking. She knew the answer she'd been schooled to give by her boss was that yes, she was very happy working here. That was the answer she gave automatically, drilled into her by route, whenever asked. But this man's question was slightly different. Dao didn't think he was asking her if she was happy with her job but rather something a little different, bigger, all-encompassing and asking was she herself happy, within her heart. Nonetheless the right answer according to her boss Hanuman would be yes. After all, he told her when she was new to the job, the tourist doesn't care about your life, your goals, your desires, your thoughts or emotions. They care about getting value for their money and about being able to walk down the steps and onto the street feeling better than they were when they walked up them to enter. They don't want to know about you.
But, for some reason Dao couldn't understand let alone articulate, she knew what this man was asking and she gave him the truth. "I don't know. I have clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and food in my belly." She said in her halting English.
"But inside you, deep inside, are you happy?" The sailor had pressed.
"I don't know..." Dao had repeated. The fact that she didn't know struck her as both odd and sad.
Perhaps the man would have asked more, perhaps he would have been able to word his questions to help her decide whether she was happy or not but Dao would never know because right then two women from England came clattering up the stairs, laughing loudly, and Dao's colleagues hurried to greet them.
"Sit, sit Madame." Lek, Dao's closest friend at work, said, directing the two women to recliners seated side by side while one of the other girls handed the two tourists the list of services and pointed out the special- manicure, pedicure, foot massage and dead skin removal for 700 baht.
The sailor had finished the massage in silence, paid her the 550 baht price plus a 100 baht tip that he decreed go only to her but which she would put in the tip jar to be shared amongst the girls because it was the policy and because the girls all looked out for one another.
And now, three days later, a hot October day, Dao was still thinking about the sailor's question. Was she happy? Was happiness attainable to a girl like her?
She crossed the road to the beach, blithely walking in front of traffic rather than waiting for them to stop which they would never do, not here. Sometimes a police officer would help tourists cross the road by stopping traffic for him but, for the most part, he had other things to do- like pull tourists over on motorbikes and demand payment for any number of real- or imagined- infringements, the Thai police being the most corrupt in the world. Dao had lost count of the number of times she'd seen a policeman relieve a street vendor of their merchandise if they couldn't afford to pay the money he would demand of them.
On the beach many of the lounges were occupied by tourists, most underneath the umbrellas that would be continually adjusted by the boys on the beach as the sun moved throughout the day. Hawkers walked up and down selling everything from food and drink, coconut or aloe vera to rub on the red skin of tourists, clothing, henna tattoos, day trips to islands by boat or on elephant treks, knick-knacks like glowing clocks or back-scratchers and everything in between. And in the water were swimmers, a couple of boats that regularly hoisted parasailing tourists and workers into the air. While the tourists were safely harnessed in and wearing lifejackets the workers had no harness, no protection and clambered about the sail lines as though they were monkeys. All of this had fascinated Dao when she first arrived in Phuket as a innocent young girl who had never seen anything like this. Now, however, she was somewhat jaded. She knew that there were two Phukets- one that was on show for the tourists, that was the shiny, happy one, and one for the locals, that was the darker, gloomier one.
But what she didn't know, could have no way of knowing, was that in less than five days her life would inextricably change. Nor did she know that her life, her fate, was bound up with that of a young woman she had never met before, a woman who knew nothing of her existence, just over seven thousand kilometres away in country Australia.