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How I Became a Private Eye in Bangkok

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Harlan Wolff Private EyeThe question I am always asked is how I became a private investigator in Bangkok. I typically put on my ‘man of mystery’ look and changed the subject as quickly as possible. Not because all of my stories contained deep dark secrets but simply because keeping confidences had become my habit. Now, more than twenty-five years has passed and suffering an annoying amount of pressure from my publicist I have finally agreed to start recording some of the things that I was involved in over the years. I will not be giving up real names and will mix up locations to protect the guilty and innocent alike, as is expected of me, some habits die hard. This is the first in the series and as it is one of my more innocent tales, I have left little out.

It all began during a time in my expatriate saga when I was down but not out. The time between meals was getting longer and longer and I weighed thirty kilos less than I do now. By then I had already dabbled in export, owned a couple of bars and been the right hand man of a Democrat MP in an election campaign against the incumbent gangster in Samut Prakarn. An interesting life but nothing to do with our subject: the life of a Bangkok PI. Hepatitis in my early twenties had put me out of action for a while and left me alone on the sidelines. I was desperate to get back in the game, any game.

A friend was contacted by a private investigation company in England and asked if he knew anybody capable of handling an unusual missing persons case. For some reason, mine was the only name that sprang to his mind so he came looking for me. In his hand he was holding a low-resolution black and white fax on that very thin paper of the time and he told me a story. A Sunday colour supplement, I don’t remember which, had run a story about a sixteen year old girl, with a picture of her on the magazine’s cover. She was claimed by the UK based journalist to be working in a bar in South Pattaya where she was destined to have her virginity sold by the evil mamasan to a fat German tourist for the claimed amount of approximately three-hundred English pounds. Why German was the question that first leapt into my head? Perhaps it would sell more magazines.

A rich industrialist had read the article and wanted to save her from such a dreadful fate. He immediately contacted his local private eye with the brief, ‘find this girl and money is no object’. I now know that such a client was a PI’s dream but I knew little of the scarcity of such people in those days. The story unraveled and fell into my hungry hands. He didn’t want to have carnal relations with the subject, he didn’t even want to meet her, his sole intention, I was told, was to send her a monthly stipend so the Germans wouldn’t win. Fascinating stuff to a young expatriate that was down on his luck. That there existed such people who could throw such large amounts of money around on a whim, concentrated the mind of this innocent abroad. The light at the end of this tunnel did not look like the oncoming train that I had long grown used to.

There was a small obstacle to this altruistic endeavour; there were no personal details in the article and not even a real name. I took the flimsy faded fax from his hand and saw that it didn’t show a clear face just a dark smear but immediately recognized the beer bar in the background as one I had been known to have a drink in on the notorious South Pattaya strip. Well I would in those days, wouldn’t I? The game was afoot and I wanted in. “Tell me more about this money no object part of the story,” I asked my elderly friend. We went to his office and called the UK, a complicated process in those days. I failed to mention during the negotiations that I was familiar with the bar and sat nodding confidently instead, insisting that everything was possible. I was a natural and knew how the game was played from the off.

We settled on one hundred and twenty thousand baht plus expenses. I remembered the ‘plus expenses’ from watching the Rockford Files as a child. Amazing what you could learn from television in those days. One hundred and twenty thousand baht was a small fortune back then, think of it as two years rent. I went home, packed an overnight bag and boarded the bus to Pattaya. I was off to sin city with pockets full of money. Things could be worse. Come to think of it a few hours before that things had been worse, much worse.

So that was where it all started, an open and shut case as they say in the vernacular of my new profession, a slam-dunk, a cakewalk, or was it? The first lesson in investigation work is nothing is ever quite what it seems. I arrived at the Carousel Bar and showed the flimsy fax with the bar in the background.

“I am here to talk to this girl,” I told the most senior looking painted lady.

They all remembered her but told me she had only stayed a few days as the bar’s dishwasher. She had found Pattaya intimidating and had left hurriedly without apparent hindrance from the non-existent evil mamasan or the overweight lustful German. So, not only was there no witch holding her captive with the intent of selling her to the next Teutonic tourist that passed by, but there also appeared to be no threat to her alleged virginity whatsoever. I am not saying that such dreadful people don’t exist or that such things don’t happen in this land of smiles, I am only saying they were not true in this particular case. The whole thing reeked of a journalist creating a mountain out of a molehill to sell more of his words. Had he even been there or did he latch onto somebody else’s holiday snap? Such things happen in the cynical world I had just entered.

This may have been my first dance but I certainly was no virgin, and I wasn’t going to back down when there was so much money on the table. My job was to find her and not to pass judgment on the journalist’s ethics. My way was more lucrative so was obviously the right way. Having become streetwise over the years and not being short on empathy I thought of the girl’s few days in Pattaya and what they would have been like.

“Who did she confide in and call auntie?” I asked in the strong confident yet polite way of speaking Thai that the politicians use. The way of speaking to people that assumes everybody will give them whatever they want without delay.

“We don’t understand.”

“Simple,” I told them, “a young girl alone in a place like this would have put herself under the sympathetic wing of an older experienced woman. She would have called her auntie, or possibly mother.”

“You mean the cleaner, old Yai?”

“That’s exactly who I mean. Where is she?”

“She comes here early in the morning. You should come back early tomorrow,” I was told.

“Five hundred baht to whoever can bring her here in the next thirty minutes,” I said loudly.

Chattering began and a girl was dispatched on a motorcycle. She returned ten minutes later with a fat elderly woman on the back. This woman was far more suspicious of my intentions than the bargirls had been. I told her the story and explained that there was a pot at the end of the rainbow that was full of gold. She was hooked. She blurted out everything she knew which turned out to be almost nothing. She knew the girl’s nickname, which had been in the magazine article, but not the real name. She had only talked to her for a couple of days and didn’t know much beyond the province in the North East that her family originated from. Then a glimmer of hope; when she left hurriedly on the bus to Bangkok she was so distraught at what she had seen in Pattaya that the old woman had got on the bus and accompanied her to the safety of her sister’s wooden shack at the end of a lane in Thonburi.

I immediately offered her three thousand baht to take me there. She, of course, accepted. It was only halfway to Bangkok she admitted that she had a very poor memory and had no recollection of where the sister’s house actually was except that it was in a lane off a very long main road with lots of shophouses and other buildings. I increased the offer to five thousand on the condition she went up and down every lane until we found it. She looked at me like I was quite mad, a lot of people do you know. Determination is something I never lacked when skinny, the fatter I got the less determination I seemed to have, or maybe it’s an age thing.

We found the wooden shack amongst several other wooden shacks much later at around two in the morning. I had momentum with me so going away and coming back the next day was not a possibility I entertained. I had ‘auntie’ with me and they had met her once so she would make the situation less confrontational. I banged on the door and woke up the entire slum. What came next was leaning toward good old-fashioned farce. There I sat on the linoleum floor telling the Cinderella story to the entire slum. Except, of course, there was no prince, no slipper, just a skinny foreigner claiming he was a private investigator and if they trusted him there would be monthly deposits to the young girl’s bank account with no strings attached. I overcame their cynicism with the simple argument, ‘what have you got to lose?’ I won them over.

There was only one problem; they had no idea where she was. Apparently she had stayed one night and then up and gone. There were no mobile phones in those days and people disappeared regularly, especially family members. In front of the entire slum I dissected her family’s history and present dynamic. There was obviously some problem in the family and they were not close. The older sister eventually admitted that her young sister was only close to her father and had issues with the rest of the family. She told me that he would have most certainly received a letter from her with her present location. Brilliant, where was he? Seven hundred kilometers away near the Laos border I was told. I was tired and needed some sleep anyway. I gave the sister a thousand baht and told her to send a telegram to dad that would say that if he met me in Bangkok in forty-eight hours there would be ten-thousand baht in cash for him. I left and told them I would be back in two days.

The following day I got up late and had a huge breakfast at my neighbourhood French restaurant, steak in wine sauce with good old pommes frites if memory serves, and then went out and got completely drunk and eventually laid. I was in Bangkok and had pockets full of money, what else should I have done? The following afternoon, slightly hung over, I crossed the river to Thonburi and found ‘dad’ eagerly waiting for me. He was the smiling, emaciated, short and dark leather skinned upcountry type. His permanent grin showed brown teeth and he didn’t think it at all strange that some old foreigner the other side of the world wanted to send his sixteen-year old daughter money on a monthly basis. All foreigners are mad you see. Everybody in Thailand knows that. I had brought a car and we all got in, as many as would fit, and went off on a family outing to Samut Songkran an hour’s drive to the South where the youngest daughter was working in a ceramics factory.

After asking several people directions we found the place, and there was youngest daughter living in a twelve square meter wooden shack at the back of the factory. There was, of course, no air-conditioning and no toilet. At least she would be grateful for the money. Wrong again. She was very upset at the thought of some old man in England that she didn’t know intent on sending her money. The rest of the family had been a much easier sell. She refused to believe that nothing was expected of her beyond receiving funds to her bank account. She didn’t even have a bank account she told me. After hours of persuasion I made an appointment to come and see her the following day to take her to the bank and open an account in her name. I eventually won her over using the same argument, ‘what have you got to lose?’ She was still not buying what I was selling but eventually agreed to let me open a bank account for her with me bearing whatever costs that would entail.

I took a photograph of her (still reluctant) and me standing outside the bank holding up the bankbook. This photograph and her full name and account details were packaged up and sent to the UK. I paid dad and left and never spoke to any of the parties again and have no idea of what happened next. I like to believe he sent her money with no strings attached for the rest of her life. We private detectives are quite romantic when it comes to money you see. The client must have been satisfied as I was paid in full and, like I said, one hundred and twenty thousand baht was a small fortune. I had found a new game and I wanted in and haven’t been hungry since. That’s how I became a Bangkok private investigator.

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About Harlan Wolff

Harlan Wolff is from London. He has lived in Thailand since 1977 and is a successful Private Investigator and troubleshooter specializing in major crime and serious corporate issues. He began writing after his 50th birthday claiming he had at last acquired sufficient ammunition for his pen. The first book in the series 'Bangkok Rules' is a gritty and real account of a Bangkok based PI's milieu. Harlan is presently working on the second book which will be published early 2014.


  1. Great story, thoroughly enjoyed it (o:

  2. Though French is my mother tongue, I love reading your books, your great fascinating biography and your free way of thinking. Your comments on our world where cynicism and greed seem to be more valued than the objectivity of analyzing “the naked truth” refusing the hypocrisis reigning all around us. You give wings to our mind! Thank you!

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