Losing Your Innocence Abroad: A Night in Bangkok’s Red Light District

By the time my beer-buzzed mind had registered the fact that we were parked at the southern end of Patpong, Bangkok‘s infamous nightlife district, it was already too late. Dripping sweat and reeking of chilies and lemongrass, my friend Mike and I stepped cautiously from the small three-wheeled vehicle and tried to make sense of our new surroundings. The extreme humidity told us we were still in Southeast Asia, but we remained somewhat disoriented. The Surgeon General should really warn people not to mix alcohol and jetlag.

After several hours spent consuming the single hottest soup I’ve ever tasted, a chaser of spicy papaya salad, plus a plastic baggie of stir-fried insects (washed down with several bottles of Chang lager), Mike and I considered ourselves ready for anything. So when our Thai host assured us he knew where to go next, we climbed into a tuk-tuk without a second thought. Chomthawat – who went by the much-easier-to-pronounce Pat – had been the lead guitarist in our rock band back in New York City, and could reliably find a party at any hour. Having come through with entertainment on many a concert tour, there was no reason to expect anything less on his home turf. I’ve since learned that on occasion, a dash of apprehension can be a good thing.

Fifteen or twenty feet away, Pat spoke with an energetic young tout apparently intent on luring two American farangs into the maze of alleys on the other side of busy Thanon Silom. All I could make out from their conversation was the phrase “lady boy” and lots of gesturing in Mike’s direction.

streetwalk

“I really don’t want to see any lady boys tonight,” Mike protested to everyone in earshot as he tossed the last of our fried crickets onto an overflowing pile of garbage. Instead of responding however, Pat set off down the soi, leaving us no choice but to follow. Then and there I wished I’d remembered to pack a phrasebook. With the tout in the lead and Pat close behind, beckoning us deeper into a noisy warren of wickedness, we tried to prepare for an experience most tourists would have difficulty even imagining.

I may never look at a ping-pong ball the same way again.

Dodging another pile of trash from the night market that shares space in crowded Patpong, Mike reiterated his request, this time more emphatically: “Seriously Pat, no lady boys. OK?” Our pace had slowed by now, and yet we continued to trail him until he abruptly came to a stop beneath a large neon sign suggestively glowing two words: Super Pussy. Subtle advertising, I thought.

Before I could voice a protest of my own, Pat was inside the club. Feeling dumber by the minute, I trudged up the staircase after him, hoping to discover nothing more than an air-conditioned bar and another cold drink. The bored and tired-looking women we had glimpsed through open doorways along our trip down the alley held little appeal. In fact, simply wandering around this area of the city felt like a cliché. But going to Bangkok and denying having an iota of curiosity about Patpong is like traveling to Vegas with the pretense of avoiding casinos, or visiting a Ponderosa Steakhouse and swearing you’ll skip the buffet. Knowing full well what you’re in for, you attempt to rationalize that unlike millions of others, you won’t fall prey to the same ploys.

Which is to say I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t partially complicit in the current situation. I hadn’t exactly proposed spending the evening at an elegant hotel bar sipping expensive cocktails high above the Chao Phraya River.

“Let’s just stay for one drink,” I mumbled to Mike, attempting to reassure myself in the process. Emerging into a large, dimly-lit, and mostly empty room, we hastily selected two seats close to the stage. This decision was no less foolhardy than the others we’d made thus far. Unfortunately, it wasn’t any smarter either. Within seconds six clingy dancers descended upon us. Despite the temperature-controlled club, I began to sweat anew.

Minutes later, a Singha appeared in front of me and I immediately became intensely aware of the wallet in my back pocket. Glancing at Mike on my left, I could see a similar expression of concern spreading across his features. I took a swig of beer to calm my jittery nerves. Effectively boxed in by a half-dozen insistent saleswomen peddling a variety of disturbing – excuse me, erotic – tricks we had no desire to pay for, I scanned the room for Pat. We needed an escape plan. We needed a rescuer. He was nowhere to be found.

dancer1The women pressed closer, awkwardly massaging my thighs, my chest. One of them, and I’m pretty sure she was actually a she, offered to let me watch her do everything except drink from the bottle in my hand. “No thank you,” I found myself repeating robotically as I tried to get Mike’s attention. My determination not to make eye contact with anyone present greatly increased the difficulty of this task.

Mistakenly, I glanced at the stage where another woman produced a pack of cigarettes, shimmied out of her bikini, and squatted in front of us. She started speaking, and I leaned forward slightly, thinking she had something to say. Evidently, she wanted to show me that she didn’t need to use her mouth to blow smoke rings. Mike’s head swiveled towards me, eyes open wide. “Let’s get out of here,” I shouted to him over the music, “like, now!”

At that moment, I longed for a pair of ruby slippers in size 13. This wasn’t exactly the kind of party we had set out to find, I told myself while fumbling for enough money to cover whatever we might have inadvertently bought during our short stay.

Prior to departing for Thailand, another friend had warned us about its seediness, although here we were, shelling out cash in the middle of the night at a strange go-go bar with a name fit for a pornographic action hero. Instead of girls going wilder, we watched economic refugees performing masochistic acts for a few hundred baht. Adult entertainment here had traded seduction for shock value. More than that, it had devolved into freak show. All we were ready for anymore was a couple of aspirin and trip back to our hostel. We had stumbled around a foreign city, drunk with cynicism and morally superior voyeurism, only to suffer from a guilty hangover. Disillusioned by this version of the City of Angels, we quickly sobered to our circumstances and left our drinks unfinished.

On our way out we devised a new plan of action and kept it simple: put some distance between the strippers and our impressionable, if not-so-innocent-anymore psyches. We could figure out how to get back to our guesthouse later. Ideally, we’d also track down the guy who abandoned us at Super Pussy in the first place. Descending the steep stairs, we started to move to the right for a person climbing them from the market level – until we recognized him.

“Where the hell were you?” Mike demanded, clearly exasperated. Nonplussed, Pat took a swig of the beer in his hand. “What, no lady boys?” he replied with a grin.

Ever had an eye-opening experience in an unexpected place? Tell us about it in the comments.

photos, top to bottom, by: phtgrphy,drburtoni

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Older comments on Losing Your Innocence Abroad: A Night in Bangkok’s Red Light District

undefined
20 October 2010

Wow, it sounds exciting, i want to go!!!
nice post!

Stephen Bramucci
20 October 2010

How innocent were you? It sounded like you pretty much knew what to expect going in. It also sounds like you were not forced or unduly coerced. Prostitutes and sex workers in foreign countries work the exact same way as every single economic system in the entire planet::: supply vs. demand. You wanted an experience, you sought it out (no matter how quasi-reluctantly) and you got it. You supported that system. Here’s the thing– you went looking for a story and they gave it to you. The “wild night in Thailand worthy of a travel article” is what you “demanded” and it was “supplied” to you readily. Right? Most people are looking for the same thing more than they are looking for actual sex– the experience that sounds wild to tell their friends back home about. Which is probably why the show you’re describing has become full of “disturbing tricks”. Again– it developed that way because people demanded it, voting for it with their dollars (or baht).

I’m not trying to crucify you. I read the whole article, which is what any writer wants. I just cringe at the “can you believe this happened???” aspect creeping in. Can I believe that three young men went searching for a sex show and found it in a country where the American dollar goes an incredibly long way and where sex-work is one of the most viable options for young women to support themselves? Yes. I can believe it. I can believe it very easily.

Do I think it makes you three bad people? Not really. I think everyone (including the women in Thailand) have the right to make informed choices about how they make money. And you have the right to make choices about how you spend it. Of course, the success of the mainstream (legal) sex trade in Thailand has made it a “sex-tourism” destination which has in turn led to more deviant visitors going there to look for illegal sex trafficking and the forced prostitution of minors. It might be interesting to trace back how the sex-trade in Thailand developed and how we can prevent people from being exploited:

http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/learn/globalissues-stp

But that leads us into a much bigger discussion of much bigger issues– when all you were trying to do was tell a ripping travel yarn.

I’m just glad that the women who are featured in your story sound like they actually got paid by you that night (lest we forget, they were at work when you visited them!)— because the loss of innocence that you experienced doesn’t really compare to the loss of innocence that comes from spending hours practicing blowing smoke rings with your vagina because rich Westerners demand it.

AnonymousTraveler
21 October 2010

This article is incredibly offensive, and I’m more than a little disappointed to see it featured on BootsnAll.

Not only does the writer paint himself as the victim — constantly trying to excuse his own poor decision-making while at the same time participating in exploitative behavior — he also demonstrates no understanding of what drives the situation of sex workers like those in Bangkok. Women and girls who have limited or no economic opportunities are not engaging in this work because it fulfills them to entertain young tourists. They are trying to support families despite enormous daily obstacles to financial security, as well as structural challenges, in the society in which they live.

What is exposed in this story is sexual exploitation, forced prostitution and trafficking. The writer is complicit in that. His time would have been better spent understanding the very real struggles of women and girls living in Bangkok today. Or skipping the experience entirely. No one is enriched by his sophomoric point of view and his lack of respect for the dignity of others.

LittleKati
27 October 2010

I agree that this post sounds a bit of offensive. Any girls in any regions might experience the very same economic problems in their hometown and want to seek for aid, to earn living for both her self and her family, from the big city, like Bangkok. When there is no choice to do, they are forced to fight for live by prostitution and trafficking.

It’s too bad that you had experience such a moment, but glad to see that you some how manage to take the story as a warning. This story can possibly bring more attention to the victims of such a place, the women. You can help lessen these kind of business by encouraging people not to visit the place.

Cornelius Aesop
27 October 2010

“I may never look at a ping-pong ball the same way again.” This had me laughing.