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In Bangkok: Fitting Right In

08/04/2014 04:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

Bangkok, listen. Bangkok, no. I say, no. I do not want a suit that's specially made. I rarely tie a tie. My wife may gawk at fitted Chinese dresses, she may touch their magically thick twill. She will not buy.

When we travel, a few years back, to the world capital of silk, I am being firm. This goes on for about three quarters of an hour. Everywhere we look there are tailors at work behind glass doors and flaps of exotic fabric pinned up like flags above sidewalk stands.

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Soon we are at a famous, fancy store called The Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company and while I am weakening slightly over a display of tropical shirts, Kathy decides to pull out a card for a shop called "Queen Thai Silk" in a place called Ruamchitt Plaza.

Where did you get that? I say.

"I'm going, goodbye," she replies, and when I catch up with her outside, I am counting the Baht in my wallet and waving it around.

"What about other souvenirs?" I say. "Celadon bowls, Singha beer, I don't know. What about lunches and dinners and, um, late-afternoon snacks?"

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I find out that the friends who are along with us, Kevin and Martha, are on her side. Nobody listens to me as Kathy leads the way up stairs to Bangkok's sky train for the ride to Ruamchitt.

Kevin is so far gone he wants to have a tuxedo made here for himself. "Don't be a jerk," he says. "I read in Worth magazine that it's an unbeatable deal."

"Yep," says Martha. "And Bangkok silk's a million times better than at home. It's better, in fact, than Hong Kong's."

I'm beaten, so I sulk and look around at the sky train as we ride. Walls and seats and shoes and shiny toenails in stylish flip-flops: everything has a sheen. Is this why people want clothes here? I think. There are a dozen or so supermodels pretending to be regular people in my car.

Somebody's beautiful blue cell phone pipes up with "Take me Out to the Ballgame" and I'd like to listen, but we're almost to "On Nut" station and it's time to get off.

Ruamchitt Plaza isn't a plaza at all. It's a mildew-speckled building with a dividing hall. On one side of the hall are respectable stores. And on the other is a sky-lit brightly explicit bar: wiggling hot-pants, guys clustering and touching, and drinks with splayed-out toothpick umbrellas spilled in puddles on the floor.

Queen Thai Silk is quiet as a museum. Kevin and I look longingly back at the bar, but Kathy and Martha force us to focus on the dress patterns in a book. The dress I pick causes both of them to smirk.

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What does she want? It is a Mandarin-dress-with-collar decides the quiet owner of the shop, who tells us that her name is Toy. "I am only part-owner," she corrects. "Only 99 percent is mine."

We are here because a person named Nancy Riley, someone my wife once worked with, gave her the card. But when we mention her name, Toy just blinks and stares. "Nancy Riley, Nancy Riley," she repeats, and we repeat it back.

Nancy Riley. Nancy Riley.

"She sound nice," says Toy.

Despite the confusion, Toy gets busy pulling bolts of silk from roof-high shelves, arranging them at angles, kaleidoscopically, which makes me want to sit down.

I see floating dragons instead of simple designs on cloth. A woven phoenix is on the verge of popping to life with scarlet coals clutched in its claws and delicate wings of ultramarine. I point to this design. "That's kind of neat," I say. I glance at my wife, who shakes her head. "I can't wear giant birds," she decides.

What she can wear, and the three of us agree, is a flowery design in turquoise, red and gold. It works. Just works. And since the silks themselves are all about the same rich thickness--this one's "medium"--it's a perfect choice.

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Out come two surprisingly tiny women from a room in back. Measuring tapes are stretched. Secret custom numbers are penciled down, and they are done.

That can't be it, I say.

"We check with the second fitting," says Toy. "You come back in three or four days? This style dress is 5,000 Baht."

155 dollars. Is that the best you can do?

"That is Nancy Riley price," says Toy. "Exactly that."

* * *

It is afternoon. The sky is white and hot. Kevin's tuxedo mission means either a sweaty walk or ride, and we pick tuk-tuk because we guess these things will guarantee a breeze. The ones we see are all a little different--customized like Chinese dresses but with the classic components: motorbike in front with eager driver, weirdly-welded rickshaw in the rear.

Martha is the one who flags one--parrot green--and tries to explain to the driver where we want to go. "This is wobbly," I say, testing the seat in back. It is wide enough for Toy and one of the other tiny tailors we met at Queen Thai Silk. The third would have to walk.

The driver instructs all four of us to scrunch in.

"This probably isn't safe," says Kevin, but his voice is torn away by barks from the muffler-less motor. The tuk-tuk jets into a jerking lane of traffic.

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Wives are in laps and Kevin and I are desperately feeling for pieces of the tuk-tuk to grab on to. But there is only blasting air, no doors or sides. We tilt. We tail a police car. We bounce over a curb on a bad corner. We eat exhaust. We slam to a stop.

It feels like we have flown in an F-16, and it is tricky to stand. But Kevin's tux place, "Raja's Fashions" on Sukhumvit Road, has a couch and armchairs. The owner, a Sikh named Bobby, hands us each a beer.

"The Holiday Seasons TUXEDO SPECIAL," we read aloud from Raja's flyer. "Featuring the LAVISH 8-PIECE OUTFIT in Italian Cashmere or English Wool."

While Kevin is trying to decide between The Classy Double-Breasted Notch (Style JK660) and The Classy Demetrios 3-Button Black Cutaway Peak (Style JK375), Kathy and I look at autographed 8 x 10 glossies of American brigadier generals and framed testimonials from famous happy customers nailed up on Raja's wall.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has sent a glowing note. And Kathy points to a gold-edged "Certificate of Appreciation" from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. For "fine craftsmanship," it says. I make a note to ask Bobby later if he also outfits a lot of American customs agents and cops.

Kevin has made his pick--it's the Classy Notch.

Men with turbans are going to work on him with tapes as Martha talks to Bobby about the deal. "Usually you can negotiate here," she says after they're done, "but not with the Holiday Special. Kevin gets his tuxedo jacket, pants, pleated shirt, black silk bow tie, burgundy bow tie, black silk handkerchief, burgundy handkerchief and black-and-burgundy cummerbund, all for $275."

Does Raja's make Mandarin dresses? I ask, but Kathy shoots me a glare.

Just as I am about to open my mouth to Bobby about some boxer shorts, or maybe a tie, he holds up his hand. "I am sorry," he says. "The ambassador just walked in."

I think of the testimonials and glossies. Here is one in real life: U.S. ambassador to Thailand Darryl Johnson patting Bobby on the arm and introducing him to Loren, his 20-something son.

While everyone is fussing around dad, I have a talk with Loren in front of a rack of jackets. How come you're here? I ask, just trying to make conversation. Need a suit for work?

"Well,"says Loren. "I'm actually not sure."

Oh, I say. Um, any reason you picked Raja's Fashions instead of one of the other tailors in town?

"Is that what this place is called?"

Loren's dad has more or less forced him to come here, I find out. "I work in software?," he says, "in Seattle? So I don't have any use for a suit."

Seattle, I muse, heading back to Kathy, Martha and Kevin who are ready to go.

Maybe Raja can sew something that's waterproof?

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* * *

"I'm worried," says Kathy quietly.

It is our final night in Bangkok, and while Kevin's Holiday Special tux has shown up at the hotel front desk in perfect shape--all eight interchangeable parts--there is no dress.

The last we'd seen of the Classy Notch it was a wad of pinned-up fabric shot with dashes of white thread. Now Kevin could be mistaken for an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. For a brigadier general, even, with a glossy 8 x 10.

We decide to head out to dinner, and to aim for somewhere distant so Kathy won't keep checking with the desk.

"Suan Thip Baan Suan," says Martha. "It's that place that's pretty far out of town. The one that guy at Citibank in Hanoi keeps telling me about. The one you get to by boat and with Mr. An."

Mr. An? I say. Who is Mr. An?

"Mr. An," says Martha, "is the man who dispatches the boats."

I'm always game for boats, especially Bangkok longtails which are like Venetian gondolas that have been stretched out and sunk down so you are riding low. Instead of slogging with the push of a gondolier, you're ripping through waves thanks to an outboard motor at the nub of its steering tail.

Following Hanoi instructions to the letter, we cross over the Chao Phraya River just as the sun is beginning to drop. Martha is reading from her Citibank email and is leading us up to the glass-doored, portico-topped main entrance of the world renowned Oriental Hotel. Maybe Mr. An works here, I think.

But we don't go in. Martha is rushing off around the side of the building, past where trucks are backed up at the hotel's crate-piled dock, and we are a couple of footsteps behind.

We're in a weed-choked alley, stumbling over landscaping tools. There is a puff of fragrant steam from somewhere--it smells like towels and a chlorine pool. And there are mighty, tiger-roaring air-conditioning stacks belching hot air out of the hotel.

"This can't be right, Marcia," I say, using the Brady Bunch name that makes her mad.

Although we make it to a couple of longtails tied up in the shallows along the bank, there is a problem.

No one knows the whereabouts of Mr. An.

In fact, no one around here has ever heard of Mr. An.

We are hungry and it is almost dark. One of the longtail pilots flashes his flashlight at us. On. Off. On. Off.

Is this a signal? Morse code?

He wants us to come aboard, says Martha, and when he sputters over, we load in and go.

The pilot tells us his name is John. John is hanging off the side of the jumping, slashing hull like we are a yacht in a race, and swinging the beam of light out front. The flashlight shows us river traffic about a second before we hit it, and John slams our tail to slalom around various ferries, hotel shuttles and barges that are completely black.

Kevin is getting sluiced down with oily Chao Phraya water. Soon we are watching moonlit temples behind eerie foliage on the shore, and John shouts up that he could use some gas. Should we stop for a beer?

No, no, we yell, although we are thirsty and tired. Can we please just try to find the restaurant up ahead? Before long, John's flashlight lands on a little dock, and we are miraculously there.

Dinner, itself, is a blur, though this is not the fault of Suan Thip Baan Suan. It is like a garden gazebo, open to the air: You cross your legs and sit on platforms of polished teak. Instead of piped-in music there are the hums of jungle insects and birds.

Allow me to propose a toast to Mr. An, I say.

"And one to Nancy Riley," Martha adds.

"And allow me," says Kevin, "to toast the tuxedo. And the, er, Mandarin dress."

I can see that Kathy is a little sad, but we clink and swallow. Clink and swallow. And after a trip by plain old taxi it is midnight, and we are back at the hotel.

Still no dress at the desk.

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There are nearly tears, and when the concierge is told what's happened, he gets on the phone. "Queen Thai Silk," he says, rooting through some phone books and scraps. "You know it is middle of night, on Friday," he says.

We know.

"Well, let me see what I can do."

Although I don't remember sleeping that night, I must have, since I recall the knock on the door of our room, and rubbing my eyes to see that it is dawn.

Like Christmas, Kathy is up and tearing into paper. The dress at last. She is excited over finishing buttons, and over tucks and darts. There is a revealing slit I like, right by the knee.

She is holding it up, and sliding on a shape that clings and wraps but doesn't bulge.

Behind her silhouette is Bangkok sky. I see the day outside. And I see Kathy coming towards me in a sun of silk.

Here is morning.

It is turquoise and gold.

Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).