Thailand in parts is a lovely country, and it certainly is very, very popular with tourists from all over the world. Okay, it is a developing country, and that part of it certainly shows with ramshackle buildings and electrical wires haphazardly connected to the poles (especially at the junction boxes which make a professional electrician's heads spin). I must admit a part of me likes that side of the country, though I have to say that I am not really a beach person (in the four days that I was there I went for a swim once, but that may have had to do something with the weather).
However, there is a side of Thailand that is actually really sleazy, and sadly it isn't actually hidden. In fact when you mention Thailand to people the usual images that come up (other than beaches) tend to be go-go bars and lady boys (in fact there is one guy that I know that seems to be obsessed with lady boys - but I suspect that it may have something to do with them being a tourist attraction in and of themselves). Before I go any further though I wish to make it clear that this post is not about having sex in Thailand, or how to go about it simply because there are plenty of other internet sites (I'll let you find them) that do just that. However, if there is one piece of advice that I will give and that is make sure your banana is always wrapped (not that it will do any good at times). Actually, stuff that, my advice is control yourself and keep your pants on (if that is possible where some people are concerned).
ProstitutionBefore I go any further I wish to say a few things about prostitution, and that is that I don't like it. As far as I am concerned prostitution is little more than the exploitation of women (and in some places, such as Sweden, it is considered a form of violence against women and the buyers, as opposed to the sellers, are the criminals). When I talk about prostitution I am not necessarily talking about girls who are kidnapped and forced to work in brothels, but also women who apparently claim to be doing it voluntarily. The thing is that while it may, in one way, be voluntary, it can be very difficult to escape once one is involved in the scene. It also has the effect of destroying one's character, let alone one's soul.
Okay, there are a lot of people out there who claim that there is nothing wrong with having multiple sex partners, however I am not one of those people. As far as I am concerned one cannot have such an intimate relationship with another human and not actually take a part of that human into themselves, and thus having not just multiple, but a lot of sexual partners has the effect destroying one's soul not just through the multiple intimate relationships, but also devaluing the act to a point that it is simply another physical act with no meaning at all. This in turns makes it much harder to actually form intimate relationships simply because the uniqueness of such relationships no longer exist.
The Australian Scene
I'd be lying if I said that I have never been to a brothel - I was young and curious once, but lets just say that it is a scene that I really don't like. There is one thing that a brothel lacks and that is intimacy. In our modern consumer society it is just another business that sells a product, in this case sex. Sure, there are guys (and girls) who have their favourites, but the thing is that nothing is ever going to come out of it. At the end of the day the sex worker simply goes home and thinks nothing about her clients, even if some of them are regular. At the end of the day this isn't Pretty Woman - she is not going to fall in love with you, quit her job, and run off into the sunset holding your hand. It just isn't going to happen.
Anyway, prostitution in Australia is highly regulated. It falls into the category of law known as decriminalisation - the government doesn't particularly like it but they feel that the law enforcement authorities have much more serious areas to focus their resources. That does not necessarily mean that all prostitutes fall into this grey area - they don't. To be tolerated the brothel, and the workers, need to be licensed, and also undergo regular medical checkups. Most importantly they need to be drug free. That doesn't mean that all prostitutes are clean, just the ones that operate within the narrow confines of the law.
This is another thing that I don't like about the legalisation of prostitution. It doesn't actually deal with the problem. Rather it opens the doors up to women who normally wouldn't consider becoming a prostitute due to the legal issues. However, this option is now available and she will see it as a quick and easy way to make a bit of money on the side, maybe to help her get through university (and by using the feminine article does not necessarily mean that I believe all prostitutes are female - they aren't, they just make up a large portion).
That does not necessarily mean, as I have suggested, that the brothels have cleaned up their act - they haven't. Okay, you now have legitimate, and illegitimate, brothels. You may not see many street walkers around anymore (I remember a time when Darlinghurst Road would be packed full of them), they have just gone underground. Okay, you still get a few wandering around St Kilda, however a lot of them have retreated to the internet to hawk their wares. As for the clients, not all of them are simply up for a wham, bam, thankyou mam - some of them want a lot more, and once again the internet has opened that marketplace up for them.
I want to say a few things about strip clubs (or as they call themselves: Gentlemen's Clubs, but I would hardly say that gentlemen frequent them) before I move on to Thailand. Look, I'm not a big fan of brothels because, well, I don't think sex is all that fantastic (and considering what they charge I have much better things to spend my money on), so I don't see the point when all you get is, well, sex. As for strip clubs, well they are even worse. Personally I find them boring, pointless, and a way to lose a lot of money before you realise it. Once again I would be lying if I said that I have never been to a strip club, but one of the reasons is because I had a friend that would regularly frequent those places.
In the end all you are paying for in a strip club is to have a naked woman gyrate in front of you - that's it. Okay some places you are allowed to touch, but they are few and far between, and even then it depends on the girl. Oh, don't get me wrong, if she likes you then you might get a special dance, but in the end your pants (and your shirt - they all have dress codes) stay on. Sometimes you will get girls who will want to talk to you, but once again they are few and far between. In the end they aren't paid to talk, they are paid to remove money from your wallet and put it into the cash register, and for as little as taking their clothes off and gyrating naked in front of you. Sometimes I wander if the girls laugh at all of the stupid men who are willing to part with their money for what is in effect nothing (though there have been instances of men complaining of being ripped off, but their complaints never get all that far - the best way of not getting ripped off is by not going inside in the first place).
The Land of Smile
When I first went to Thailand and saw them advertising it as the land of smile the first thought that crossed my mind was sexual, you know that glowing smile you have just after you get laid? I guess there is a bit of innuendo there, but unfortunately the country does have the reputation of a place where people go to have sex, and a lot of it. One particular image is the fat and balding sixty year old walking hand in hand down the road with a twenty something Thai girl. To be honest with you it is a reputation that no country should have.
Anyway, having been to Bangkok I thought I knew what I was going to expect when I arrived in Phuket - I wasn't. It turns out that Phuket (in particular Patong Beach) is Bangkok on steroids (and there is another beach resort that is even more full on than Patong Beach). In fact the bars are literally everywhere, and when you walk down Bangala Road you can't help but not see the huge bars full of women with some of them gyrating on poles on the bars (and one thing I have to say is that Thai Girls can't dance).
Anyway I spent some time talking to people around the place to find out about what goes on here (other than the prostitution that is). So, these are some of the numerous places where people end up having a happy time in Patong:
Massage Parlours: Not all massage parlours are fronts for a brothel - just the ones with private rooms. Okay, you do get these parlours in Australia, but they are illegal. However in Patong you cannot help but trip over them all over the place. The other difference is that in Thailand they will actively proposition you, sometimes coming out and grabbing your hand. They won't actually tell you that it is a brothel, they will offer you a massage (for around 300 baht) however they will suggest that they do have private rooms, which usually consists of a oil massage with a happy ending, though the ending does cost more (depending on what you can negotiate, though it is usually 1500 to 2000 baht). Many of the girls work in these places because the bars are just simply too loud, though they need to be able to give a good massage.
Street Walkers: You will encounter them, but not many. They generally do so because, once again, they simply do not like working in bars because they are too loud. They also keep pretty much all of the money. However being independent is actually quite dangerous because you never know who you are going to encounter or what is going to happen to you. If you go missing there is nobody to go and look for you (not that the bars particularly care anyway). However the money isn't always constant, and as such they are more likely that not to resort to stealing. The street walkers are no doubt the least trustworthy of the women in Thailand.
Go-go Bars: You can tell these places because there are poles on the bars with women gyrating on them. All along Bangala road you will have women trying to bring you into the bars for a drink, and possibly more. I don't particularly like the go-go bars because there is generally no room to actually talk with the girls. They might talk for a little while, but they have work to do so will generally go off and do that work. Also, as I have mentioned, Thai girls simply cannot dance (or should I say pole dance because I did dance with a couple while I was there), and I am not really all that interested in sitting down watching some woman gyrate around a pole. Actually, I remember the first night I was there and I was having a beer in one of those bars and a couple of girls came in, climbed up onto the bar, and actually showed them how one should pole dance.
Clip-joints: You will know these places because there are curtains covering the doors and people out the front trying to drag you inside. Some of them even hold signs saying 'no rip off' - they're lying. If you go into one of those places you will be ripped off - namely handed a grossly inflated bill and you will not be allowed to leave until you have coughed up the money. I did look inside a couple, but did not enter (namely because as soon as I looked in a room full of girls would suddenly turn to me and cry out 'hello' in unison, some of them were even topless - having a room full of girls all cry out hello is really disconcerting in my books). My recommendation would be that if you cannot see inside, do not go inside - there is plenty of fun to be had elsewhere..
Hostess Bars: I won't say that these are my favourites because I actually prefer the bars where you can sit down a read, and yes, there are some in Patong, but not many. You will know the hostess bars because there will literally be one girl per customer, and when you order a drink, one of the girls will sit with you and talk with you. One thing that caught my attention was when I sat down with one of the girls she pulled out a game of Connect 4 and asked me if I wanted a game. All I can say is that they are really, really good - never make a bet because you are guaranteed to lose. As somebody said, the day you beat a bar girl at Connect 4 is the day you say that you have spent too much time in Patong. Anyway, as I said I quite like these places because they tend not to be loud, and you have have an awful lot of fun with the girls. Okay, the drinks that you buy them tend to be more expensive, but that is one of the ways that they make their money.
The thing about Thailand is that it is very seductive, not only is it cheap, but pretty much anything goes. The girls (and the Ladyboys) have two options, a short time and a long time. Basically a short time is a quick trip to the hotel while the long time is basically a 24 hour period. For around 3000 baht per day (plus expenses and other goodies) you can literally rent yourself a girlfriend. You will also note that a lot of the websites will regularly advise you to make sure that your banana is wrapped, and the reason that they say that is because a lot of the girls simply don't care - it doesn't matter whether it is on or not, it's still on.
Personally I prefer the hostess bars, simply because you can sit down there, have a couple of drinks, and chat with the girls while playing a dice game or a game of connect four. That doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't interested in anything else, and they will make offers to you as well. However the girls in the go-go bars simply are not interested in talking. Sure, they will have a drink, but as soon as they realise that you are interested in anything else they will be off looking for the next opportunity. One of the bars that I was at the girl asked me multiple times whether I wanted to go upstairs for a short time, something which I simply wasn't interested in doing. Hey, you will even get girls at the massage parlours going off for long times as well.
What they really want are the long times, and in fact one of the girls that I was speaking to said that she only ever took long times, and wouldn't accept anything less than three days. The thing about the long time is that they will get meals paid for them, trips, and no doubt have clothes bought for them as well. As you wander around the streets you will notice that a lot of them are dressed really well - that is because their 'boyfriend's' had bought them clothes. Also note that they have mobile phones as well. Not all of the girls what long times - some of them simply try and sqeeze as many short times into a night as possible, but the problem with that is that the competition is so fierce that more likely than not they could go for days (or even weeks) without getting anything (especially during low season).
Another interesting thing that I have noticed as I perused the web is that numerous sites actively discourage ex-pats (and others) from forming relationships with these girls. There are two reasons that I raise this, and I will deal with the others (namely tourist) first.
The problem with 'renting a girlfriend' is that when you spend a week hanging around a beautiful woman that seems to think the world of you (and in many cases they do) then the danger of developing an emotional attachment increases dramatically. Sure they can be an awful lot of fun, and you certainly get the girl-friend experience, but then comes the time to go home, but she is staying behind. A lot of guys get caught in that trap and promise to send her money as long as she stays out of the bars - this never happens. In fact detective agencies have sprung up all over Thailand who make a lot of money keeping an eye on the bar girls and advising their 'boyfriend's back home' whether they are still working.
Most of these girls come from the small villages to the north, north-east, and east of Thailand and they come to Phuket (and other places) looking for work. Most of the money that they make is sent home to support their parents or children (a lot of them land up here after failed marriages and have children to care for - the children are left with their parents while they head out to make money to support them). When the love sick guy parts company, she does not see him as a boyfriend, or husband, but rather some idiot who is giving her free money. As far as she is concerned he doesn't know what is going on, so she does what she likes (until she is busted, of course).
I mentioned the thing about the ex-pats who come to Thailand to work. There are instances of them forming relationships with the bar girls, however there is one really big problem - they are prostitutes. Sure, some of them are really attractive, and also real fun to be around, but they are still prostitutes, and the locals know that. Imagine bringing your girlfriend to a formal work function, a girl that is basically as rough as guts (I was going to suggest stripper, but some of them are incredibly refined), and then introducing her to all of your collegues. Every second word that comes out of this girl's mouth is profanity, and when she talks with people she pretty much uses street slang - that is what the bar girls are like. Those of us who don't speak Thai simply would not pick it up, but you can be sure the locals do. A lot of ex-pats lose a lot of face amongst their peers in not realising this.
The Girl at the bar
I do find it rather intriguing that when people are in Thailand they will willingly be seen in public with the type of girl that they would not be caught dead associating with back home. I suspect it is because the differences are so subtle over there, and it is much more out in the open. The whole rent-a-girlfriend scene has people associating with the type of women that no doubt their parents would have a heart attack if they knew what she was really like, but the thing is that the language barrier disguises that. The bar girls actually speak reasonably good English, however the English that they speak is generic and the subtleties of dialect do not come about. However, things change with body language - that says everything. When the bar girl walks down the road puffed up with pride because the guy that she has scored is not some sixty year old fat guy, or she makes that thrusting movement with her hips, says everything.
I guess one experience was evident to me as to what these girls are really like. I wandered into a bar and I was wearing my Leonardo Da Vinci T-shirt - the one with the Universal Man on the front. All of the sudden the girls behind the bar began to giggle and one one of the pointed at the penis. To say that I was offended was an understatement, not so much because they pointed at the penis but rather because they reduced a work of art to some drawing by a dirty minded schoolkid. If you are looking for a sophisticated and intelligent woman you are not going to find them behind a bar in Thailand.
Sure, Thai men visit brothels, but like those of us back home, they are subtle about it. They don't walk down the street flaunting the prostitute that they have just bought, yet for some reason us foreigners are more than happy to do so. However what is interesting is who you see frequenting these bars - they are all European. No matter how hard I looked I could not find anybody who was not from a European country sitting at the bar. I even asked one of the girls one night and she told me that it is only ever white men who come to the bars - they never have Chinese, Indians, and definitely not Thai.
I should say a few words about the ladyboys, especially since they are a big part of the nightlife. There are plenty of sites that give you hints on how to pick a ladyboy, though they tend to stand out simply because they have had plastic surgery to the hilt. In fact they will stand out like anything because they are literally too good to be true. Sure, people talk about them being tall, loud, and promiscuous, but in the end it is the plastic surgery that gives them away. If she is too good to be true, then she is probably a ladyboy. Another thing, if you are in a bar trying to guess who are the ladyboys and who aren't, give up - they probably are all ladyboys.
While it may be the case that there is at least one ladyboy in every bar, the Mamasangs don't always employ them. One mamasang that I spoke to said that she would have nothing to do with ladyboys simply because they are way too much trouble. This isn't always the case, and the girls will even point them out to you if you ask them. The other thing about the ladyboys is that they generally will always tell you if you ask them, however they will never volunteer the information (for that is where the fun lies). I did find that a lot of the girls get really annoyed if you ask them if they are ladyboys, simply because everybody asks them. However, from what I was told, they are not allowed to lie - if they do then it is instant dismissal.
The Dark Side
There is no two ways about it - prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and it has been since the 60s. However the government tends to turn a blind eye (namely because they were forced to outlaw it by the United States, however did absolutely nothing to clean the situation up). However, it is still illegal, and this is where you need to be aware of the scene you are entering. You are dealing with the black market, and there is no regulation when it comes to the black market. You are opening yourself to a lot of trouble if you continue down this route.
There are people who make regular trips to Thailand, and I am not surprised. On my first night wandering down Bangala Road all I could say was that that place was much better than the Gold Coast (and I still think it is). Wandering past the bars with electronic music blaring out everywhere was my type of party town. However you need to watch your back because Thailand is not a safe place - bad things can and do happen.
One journalist wrote about how he moved to Thailand because he loved the place so much only to find his drinks being regularly spiked and even being attacked numerous times. To be honest I am not at all surprised. It is not just the scam artists who work the beaches, but it goes on in the bars as well. This is the black market, and people who associate with the black market are no doubt asking for trouble. Moreso the Thai people are becoming really annoyed with this tourist craze, and it is not just the families, but it is the men who regularly come here, and even live here, who get drunk and act like complete pricks. For some reason a lot of people simply have no respect when they are overseas - a friend of mine told me that Australians are regularly bashed in Croatia simply because they are such jerks. As it turns out, the Americans are by far the worst though.
A lot of the hotels in Phuket don't like guests, and will usually charge a premium if you want to bring one back. This hasn't always been the case, but in a way I am not surprised. Bar girls are trouble, and a lot of the decent Thai don't really like them. As I have suggested they are crass and crude and are generally looked down upon. Some hotels may be guest friendly but if they get one too many complaints then sooner or later their going to say no (or even charge a premium). I still remember the hotel I stayed at in Bangkok - the first thing I heard when I got to my floor was the extra loud moaning coming from one of the rooms.
I wish to finish off by suggesting, at least for the girls, that this is a very, very dangerous occupation in which they are engaging. Unlike Australia where there are panic buttons and bouncers, Thailand has little to no security. No doubt a lot of these girls are bashed, and many of them disappear. The mamasang that I spoke to told me that lots of girls go through her bar, many of them leave and do not return. They don't care since there are a lot more from where they came. While the girl has to hand her ID card into the hotel when she comes in, the male generally gives nothing in the way of identity. No doubt the number of girls who go missing is so high that the authorities have ceased to care. From my search of the internet I have only found two cases of a bar girl being murdered, and in both cases the murder was so horrific (the girl was cut up and dumped in a suit case) that it couldn't be ignored.
Oh, as I have mentioned, the Thai generally don't think much of these girls. If you are wandering why there are girls working normal jobs for little pay it is because they have self respect. The girls you find serving at the hotels and working in the normal bars are probably the lucky ones. Sure the pay may not be all that good, but at least it is regular, and the workplace is generally safe. Just because Thailand (and for that matter all of South-East Asia) is bursting at the seems with bar girls does not necessarily mean that all Thai girls are easy.
Bar Girls of Phuket by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.