A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand

One Night In Bangkok

Scratching the Seedy Underbelly of Asia

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View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

WARNING: This blog entry has received a PG-13 rating from the Blog Rating Board due to adult content

Bangkok: Oriental setting
And the city don’t know what the city is getting

Actually, this city knows perfectly well what it is getting: tourists, in droves. Bangkok’s attractions along the Chao Phraya river are well-known, and we hit them: the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple.

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Bangkok’s gilded Grand Palace

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”This enlightenment stuff is hard work; feels good to take a load off”

But we had an impulse to dig deeper into what makes Bangkok tick.

This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or Reclining Buddha

For a significant portion of those who come to Bangkok, this city means one thing...

Sex.

Thailand, dubbed the “Land of Smiles” for the friendliness of its people, has built quite a business of putting smiles on the faces of lonely men (and yes, women too) from around the globe who come there for the sole purpose of getting their rocks off. The “sex tourism” industry -- and it is definitely an industry -- is practiced almost as openly in Bangkok as the silk trade. And it is just as smooth.

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In the lobby of our hostel

So as night fell we set off, curiousity piqued and guard up, to observe Bangkok’s nocturnal offerings.

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky, then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel walking next to me

Our first stop was the brightly-lit commercial strip of Sukhumvit Road, home to the Mambo Cabaret, one of Bangkok’s most famous floor shows. Muscular young Thai men in tuxes dance to hits Asian and Western with lip-synching chorus girls strutting their stuff in feathers and sequins.

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”You’re just too good to be true, can’t take my eyes off of you...”

It’s classic Vegas-style schtick, but with a twist. The chorus girls... aren’t girls.

They’re transexuals. Very convincing, and very beautiful, they are kathoey (“third gender”), or “lady boys.” This has a long history in Thailand and is an accepted part of the culture, and Bangkok has them in spades. Many of them practice the street trade, which could make for a big surprise for a unsuspecting customer, since many of them are impossible to distinguish from the real thing.

But the Mambo Cabaret is more cheese than sleaze; it’s just good clean fun with great choreography, flashy costumes, and... umm... chicks with... well, you know.

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”Dude looks like a lady...”

After the end of the cabaret show, we set off for someplace a bit darker, and more historic.

”Tea girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite”

Get Thai'd! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move's among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine

During the Vietnam war, American GI’s came to Bangkok on R&R, and the center of action was a soi (side street) that went by the name of “Cowboy.”

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Echoes of ”Hey Joe, me love you long time!”

Soi Cowboy is still going strong 40 years later, and remains an underworld circus of cheap beer joints, go-go bars (where the dancers wear bikinis -- ironically, Thailand is quite conservative about public nudity), and hostess clubs. In these establishments, “hostesses” are waiting to engage in flirtatious conversation with you for as long as you are willing to buy them outrageously expensive drinks.

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Waiting outside for customers

Hit it off with your new “friend”? Simply go to the bar and pay the “bar fine” to allow her to leave with you. Any further negotiation is between you and her.

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The girls come with numbers for easy identification -- and dehumanization?

Let it not be said that the Thais in this business don’t have a sense of humor, though...

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Now that’s what I call truth in advertising

And they aren’t lying -- we saw some real elephants on that street.

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I did say it was a circus, didn’t I?

You can’t visit Bangkok without noticing a certain phenomenon. There are a lot of older -- and often bald and pudgy -- farangs (foreign men) walking around with young, hot Thai women. This has become so common that there is a slang term for it: “Nana couples.”

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Oh yeah, she’s out of his league, alright

The name comes from the Nana Entertainment Complex, a three-story outdoor strip mall of bars, pool halls and dance clubs, all of them featuring women who are in business. Everything you could want, under one roof -- makes comparison shopping easier, I suppose.

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A veritable one-stop sin emporium

I asked the young woman who worked at the desk at our hostel what she and other Thais thought about this. Did they look down on their countrywomen who take up with farangs for economic reasons?

“Yes,” she nodded. “We don’t really approve. But at the same time, many of them come to Bangkok from very poor areas of Thailand, and they have no other skills. They are just trying to make a better life for themselves. So even if we don’t approve, we don’t really condemn them, either. I can understand their choice.”

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstacy

And as we walked around that night, and the days since, I started to notice a pattern in my thinking. I found myself becoming suspicious of nearly everyone that I passed on the street.

One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company

That well-dressed and attractive young Thai woman getting off the Skytrain...

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Is she just gorgeous and out for a night on the town, or is she open for business?

That older farang pausing at a food stall near Soi Cowboy...

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Is he just a friendly guy out for a snack, or a sex tourist taking a break between bar girls?

That Westerner and local woman sitting together at the restaurant where we ate dinner...

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Is the basis of their relationship love, or money?

Awareness can be a dangerous thing. When your eyes are opened to what’s really going on around you, it changes your perceptions. The “Land of Smiles” can all too easily become the “Land of Leers.” Sometimes maybe it’s better to keep your eyes closed.

I can feel the devil walking next to me

  • * *

Disclosure: Should go without saying, but most of the background information for this post comes not from personal experience, but from a website called “Stickman’s Guide to Bangkok,” which is recommended in Lonely Planet as a pretty palatable look into this world.

Song lyrics for One Night In Bangkok from Chess by Tim Rice. Copyright sometime in the ‘80s, but I’m pretty sure this falls under the fair use clause anyway, so who cares.

Posted by Bwinky 02:30 Archived in Thailand Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

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