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.
“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.
The 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.