"We are here to drink beer. We are here to laugh at the odds. We are here to live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us." – Charles Bukowski
They told him he'd be changed. They told him the city would magnify his faults, amplify the dark half of his soul, and dull the things about him that were pure and good.
They said he'd forget himself.
They warned him not to get addicted, not to the drugs, not to the nightlife, and certainly not to the women. Better the drugs than the women. He said he wouldn't. Yeah, they smiled, that's what they all say.
But he knew the dangers. He'd read the books, you see. He knew the city could suck him in if he allowed it to. He knew he could get lost in its arms like those who'd come before him, those who now warned him of the dangers.
Somewhere in the embrace of Nana Plaza, the upstairs bars of Patpong, and the short time hotels of Soi Cowboy, a man could lose himself, or at least those parts of himself that mattered.
But he had resolve. He had a family back home. His soul was secure and locked up tight. The city wouldn't get him. As his plane descended at 3am, he watched the lights grow closer and he said it aloud.
You won't get me.
Outside the window, the lights grew closer and more defined.
Outside the window, Bangkok laughed.
The trick to surviving a motorcycle taxi ride through Bangkok is to hang on with your knees and keep them tight. If you don't you could fall off or, at the very least, bash your knees into the sideview mirrors of the cars you pass. For less than one US dollar, a motorcycle taxi will take you anywhere in Bangkok. You fly through the city's notorious traffic jams, pop up on sidewalks, and take turns that leave you nauseated. It's the cheapest, fastest form of transit in the city, and one of the easiest ways to die.
Three people die every hour in Bangkok traffic, but during the ride you don't think of statistics. With the city whipping by and the intoxicating fumes in your nose, you can't think much of anything; you can only feel. And what you feel is the sweaty exhilaration of being on the edge, of being outside yourself, disconnected, and liking it. This feeling comes to you quickly in Bangkok and is perhaps more dangerous than the motorcycle taxis themselves.
I'd arrived in Bangkok early that morning after being in planes and airports for over twenty-four hours. The lobby of the Dynasty Inn (the "Die Nasty" to expatriates) was filled with bored looking bar girls and passed out soccer hooligans who'd come to Thailand to watch the games live. It was 4am local time but my body's internal clock said it was 4pm. I hit the streets. Despite the hour, Bangkok was alive and humming.
The smell is the first thing you notice. Bangkok has 10-million residents and is one of the most polluted cities on earth. The garbage piles up and in its midst are countless food stalls cooking things both delicious and repulsive. Mix these odors with car exhaust and a hint of the overloaded sewer system and you have Bangkok perfume.
The city has been called a sexual amusement park and it's no secret that Thailand draws most of its visitors with the lure of cheap, exotic sex. At 4am, the amusement park rides are still open. In my first hour in Thailand, I was propositioned several times by freelancers still looking for punters after the bars have closed. Transsexuals, strung out bar girls starting to show their age, and young girls much too beautiful to be selling themselves on the streets, all called to me like Sirens in their sing-song voices and bar-room English.
In just a few blocks, stepping over the emaciated homeless and fat stray dogs that scattered the sidewalks, I'd sweat through my shirt. Thailand is hot and humid, even at 4am. The smell, the calls of the girls, and the groan of traffic suddenly overwhelmed me. The daylong trip caught up with me in an instant and I dragged myself back to the Dynasty and collapsed.
T-mag had sent me to explore the city, investigate the drug scene, and take an unflinching look into the sex industry that not-so-secretly fuels the Thai economy. But all of that would have to wait. The city would be waiting when I woke up.
Bangkok, of course, doesn't sleep.
Conflicts and Contrasts
Bangkok is a city of contrasts and Thailand a country of contradictions. Here anabolic steroids are sold over the counter just as in Mexico, but protein powders are illegal and not approved by the Thai version of the FDA. (Bangkok GNCs have creatine, fish oil capsules, and amino acid tablets, but that's about it for bodybuilders.) Hard drugs can get you the death penalty but androgens, anti-depressants, diet pills, Viagra, Valium and most other drugs can be had cheaply and without a prescription.
Once known for its heroin, Thailand now has a huge methamphetamine problem. Caffeine tablets are banned in many areas of Thailand and except for raw Ma Huang purchased in Chinatown herb shops, you won't find any ephedra-like products. In other words, you'll be hard pressed to find caffeine, but speed (one form of which is known as ya-mar or yah-ba and is popular with bar girls) is quite easy to obtain.
Looking back, these apparent conflicts aren't so strange. After all, I come from a country where a doctor would be unlikely to prescribe Testosterone, yet would be glad to prescribe estrogen and help me change my sex if I wanted. Thailand simply has a different set of inconsistencies.
The incongruous nature of Thailand is more apparent when it comes to sex. In Thailand, chastity is held in high esteem and women are expected to be virgins when married. After a divorce or death of her husband, a Thai woman has a hard time remarrying. At the same time, the country is driven by an extensive sex industry. There's nothing that strange about taking your business associates out for a nice lunch and a blowjob in a bar that caters to both hungers.
Likewise, over 90% of the population is Buddhist and women can't show too much skin at the wats (temples), yet these same girls may take to the streets of Patpong – one of the infamous red light districts – dressed only in bikinis and knee-high boots. A bar girl may wear a crucifix around her neck but have never heard of Jesus. She may spend the night with a different farang (foreigner) every night, yet be offended if one of her customers goes out with another prostitute besides her. She may call him a butterfly, an offensive term meaning that he "flies from one flower to another." If it's pointed out that she has sex with five different men a week, she'll sigh and say "But I working" as if that justifies everything.
All of this contributes to the culture shock experienced by the green farang on his first trip to Thailand. But the culture shock is only just beginning. The real shock begins when he takes his first close-up peek into the flesh trade.
The sex was inescapable. As a Westerner in Thailand, it was assumed he was there for sex. He was a farang and therefore a mark, a walking ATM machine with a hard-on. At the hotel, a security guard offered him his cousin for pocket change. "She young, clean, very nice. You want?" Taxi drivers wanted to take him to massage parlors. Waitresses offered sexual favors for tips. All this and he hadn't yet entered one of the red-light districts – Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy, Patpong. What would it be like there?
Thailand, he was discovering, was both Babylon and Xanadu, both Sodom and Gomorrah. Bangkok was a city of angels offering brief glimpses into heaven for a price. But he knew that behind the exotic beauty, these angels were demons, and the small price they charged wasn't a mere pittance, but a piece of his soul. He would not fall.
That night, a friend in Bangkok took him to a hostess bar. The girls there were classy, pretty, and they treated him like a king – feeding him, laughing, stroking his leg under the table and competing for his favor. He wasn't inexperienced when it came to women, but this kind of attention and adoration was new to him. At the Executive Lounge, he was a rock star. He knew he was enjoying this a little too much, giving in to the fantasy.
He told himself that despite the upscale surroundings, these girls were prostitutes. He tried to see behind their smiles, tried his best to recall the warnings he'd been given. But these thoughts were fading now, lost in a swirl of perfectly petite women and the caress of tiny hands in the darkness, both more intoxicating than the drinks that kept appearing before him.
It was midnight at a hostess bar in Bangkok. This wasn't real. His real life was nine thousand miles away in another country, another world. He'd told himself that he wouldn't fall, but tonight, here, he felt himself starting to slip.
The Pursuit of Little Brown Women
"It's not like buying a hooker," an American who'd been to Thailand several times told him. "It's like renting a really good girlfriend." Indeed, most bar girls (the generic term for prostitutes) prefer you take them out of the bar "long time" – for the night, for several days or even weeks at a time. During this time, she'll be your attentive companion, your guide, your translator, your masseuse, your housekeeper and, of course, your lover.
Her job is to please you and nothing else. If you have a good one, she'll dress you, feed you, and make sure your toothbrush already has toothpaste on it before you're ready to use it. It's no wonder men fall in love with bar girls everyday.
Prostitution, being the world's oldest profession after all, has a long history in Thailand. Although not totally accepted, it's not looked at in the same light as most other countries. Thailand has traditionally had a mia yai, mia noi (major wife, minor wife) system. In others words, it was okay to have a mistress or minor wife in the concubinary tradition. This has fallen out of favor in recent times, though wealthy Thais are still said to have plenty of minor wives. Also, most Thai men say they've visited prostitutes at one time in their lives. In truth, it's as common as going to the dentist.
Prostitution is technically illegal, but was decriminalized in 1992 so the girls would more openly seek treatment for STDs. Some bars do require their girls to get checked out for AIDS and STDs but this generally isn't reliable and should not be trusted as these "tests" are often just a cursory exam and not a real test. Some bar girls insist on using condoms while others couldn't care less.
There are some 250,000 to two million prostitutes in Thailand, depending on which source you believe. One-fifth of these are male and about 14% are reported to have AIDS. It goes without saying that any man visiting Thailand for sex should bring and use condoms. (And don't use Thai condoms as they're too small for most farangs and the quality is very poor.)
Go-Go Bars and Hostess Lounges
How does one go about renting a really good girlfriend? Typically, you go into a go-go bar, a lounge, or take a seat at an open-air beer garden. If you don't pick out a girl yourself, they'll start approaching you. If you want them to stick around, you buy them a "lady drink," usually a non-alcoholic drink from which she makes a percentage. At the more respectable places, it's totally up to the girl whether she leaves with you or not, although no man sleeps alone in Bangkok if he doesn't want to.
If you find the girl of your wet dreams (and there's at least a couple in every establishment), you must first pay her bar fine. This is not payment for sex, but compensation for the bar who's losing one of its drink-selling go-go girls or hostesses. Bar fines run 500 baht (about $12) typically, a little less at the outdoor beer bars and a little more for hostesses ("hello girls") as opposed to stage dancers. The girl will change clothes and she's yours for the next hour, the rest of the night, or for as long as you want.
Most girls prefer to go "long time," meaning at least overnight. If you'd rather "ball and haul," you can get the girl "short time." Sometimes the bars even provide a short-time room for a few dollars. If not, the red-light districts are lined with short-time hotels geared toward the skin trade.
Price for sex varies, but a night with a cute bar girl will usually run at least 1000 baht ($25), with 1500 baht ($37) being fair for both parties. Some claim to get away with only 500 baht a night while others dole out up to 3000 baht ($73) per night. (Keep in mind that policeman in Thailand make only 6000 baht a month, which is why so many girls work in bars and why the police are corrupt.)
Chances are if you enjoyed the girl and want to see her again, you'll at least go 1500. You don't want to be dubbed a "Cheap Charlie." Word will get around and you'll find that the best looking ones will start to avoid you. Price may be arranged beforehand or you can give them what you think they're worth the next morning.
For your money, you'll get just about anything you want sexually, though most girls won't go anal. (If you have a particular kink, talk to the bar's mamasan and she'll tell you which girls will suit your needs.) Oral sex is not a Thai tradition nor is kissing, but most bar girls pick up these skills sooner or later and oblige without you having to ask. (Instead of kissing, Thai girls get close to you and sniff you, then brush you lightly with their lips; strange, but when done properly, very erotic.) A skilled service girl will get you off once or twice that night and again the next morning.
She'll always take a shower before and after sex and you're expected to do the same. Thais are notoriously clean. Bar girls are, oddly enough, rather shy. This is simply a cultural thing. You may have picked them up in a topless go-go bar, but she'll usually get into bed with a towel wrapped around her, then remove it only when under the covers. "I shy" seems to be one of the first things they learn to say in English. The shyness ends promptly once the bedroom acrobatics begin.
Besides go-go bars, gentleman's lounges and outdoor beer bars, there are other places for white boys to meet brown girls and make boom-boom. You can find massage parlors on every street in Bangkok. This is because massage is an important part of Asian culture and most of these places are on the up and up (although reportedly, even legit massage pallor chains have girls that offer handjobs for a couple of bucks extra once they get you into the private rooms).
But if you want an "erotic massage" you don't have to look far. Chances are you'll be shown a brochure by a cabbie or tuk-tuk driver and he'll offer to take you to one.
He gets a kickback for this so the cabbies and street touts can sometimes be relentless in this regard:
"Take me to the Grand Palace and use the meter, please."
"You want massage?" the cabbie will inevitably ask.
"Very nice lady."
"No, thank you."
"She make sex with you. Fuck you, suck you."
"No, really, thanks."
"Clean girl, very nice."
"Okay," he pauses for only a few seconds before continuing, "You want fucking show? Pussy shoot ping pong ball? Pussy smoke cigarette? Pussy fishes in? Pussy..."
I had this conversation at least a dozen times a day.
An erotic massage can be as simple as a regular massage with a handjob or blowjob "finisher" or it can be much more elaborate. The most popular involves two girls who strip you down, soap you and themselves up while lying on a plastic mat, then proceed to slip and slide all over you until you're about to sexually explode. This is known as a "soapie." Intercourse, or at least a handjob, usually follows.
Some of these massage parlors can be huge. You walk in and see hundreds of girls sitting behind a one way mirror dressed in evening wear. You talk to the papasan, choose your girl by the number she wears buttoned to her, and retire together to a private room. If this is a "Turkish bath," you'll get a massage, a soaping down and sex. Other massage establishments seem to be straight whorehouses and there's little massaging actually taking place.
Prices can be cheap, a couple of hundred baht for the massage, then you can negotiate with the girl for any "extras." Two girl, two hour soapies, with sex might run up to 4000 baht, expensive by Thai standards, but only about $98 in US funds. (Imagine what an American man can spend in one night at a strip club and only come away blue-balled and sexually frustrated!)
It's interesting to note that some men who rather enjoy the Bangkok sex scene look down on many of these massage parlors because the girls don't really have a choice of who they go with or sometimes what they do. The whole "girls in a fishbowl" mentality smacks of indentured labor to many. And until recently, many of these places specialized in underage girls. More on that later.
Blowjob Bars and Freelancers
Getting into the really seedy side of Bangkok nightlife, you have the blowjob bars. Yes, blowjob bars. This is exactly what it sounds like. You walk in, sit down, order a beer, and get a BJ while drinking it. If you're a little shy about having your doorknob polished with a bunch of other guys around, small private rooms can be rented. A beer and a hummer run around 400 baht or $10. Needless to say, girls here tend to be pretty ugly or else they'd be working in a more respectable establishment. Blowjob bars are considered to be low class even by those who spend every night in go-go bars.
Freelancers are your typical streetwalkers. You don't have to pay a bar fine for these girls, obviously, but there are numerous extra risks. They may be too ugly, too fat or too old to work in go-go bars, or perhaps they'd been fired for whatever reason. Generally speaking, the risk of disease is usually greater with freelancers, they may be katoeys (transsexuals or "lady boys"), or they may rip you off (i.e. while you're in the shower, they grab your money and run.) Bar girls are less likely to do this because they don't want to lose their jobs at the bars for stealing from customers.
On the other hand, if a girl doesn't get bar fined, she may take to the streets as a freelancer after the bar closes at 2am. Still, while there are many, many risks associated with Bangkok nightlife, these risks are substantially higher with freelancers.
As noted above, it's almost impossible to escape the notorious sex shows of Bangkok. Walk down any of the touristy areas or along the red-light districts of Nana Plaza, Patpong or Soi Cowboy and you'll be all but dragged into these sleazy "pussy shows."
There you'll see man-woman shows, man-man shows, woman-woman shows, or woman-snake shows. Along with the sex, a variety of, well, vaginal gymnastics, are displayed. Shooting ping pong balls across the room, smoking cigarettes, tricks with fruit and live fish, writing letters and drawing, and stunts with razor blades all top the list of popular sex shows.
I'm not sure if anyone actually gets off on this type of thing or are merely drawn in out of alcohol-induced curiosity, but the shows seem to be popular. They're also an easy place to get ripped off so the wise thrill seeker will watch his wallet closely. I spent about twenty seconds in one of these places and walked out quickly.
In short, whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your particular fetish or desire, there's something tempting for you in Bangkok. Men can lose their money and even their hearts at these places very quickly.
It didn't take him long to fall. He'd met Jion at Emergency, a club where all the girls dressed like naughty nurses. Beside Emergency was the The Classroom where the standard uniform was a Catholic school girl's outfit. He'd gone in just for fun, just to look around, when she came up to him. What struck him were her eyes, deep and almond and focused on nothing but him. He thought of the old cliché of drowning in the pools of another person's eyes, a sappy romance novel standby he'd laughed at before. Now, at this moment, he completely understood.
Her English was good and they talked for an hour, getting closer every few minutes. Jion was 28, a little old for a bar girl, and had a ten-year-old daughter. She'd left her husband a year before because he'd hit her and drank too much. She'd lived with her parents until her mother had died and had then found work as a food server for 60 baht a day, not even two dollars.
Jion had only four years of schooling and was determined her daughter would have a better education than she. On the advice of a friend she became a bar girl at Emergency. She liked the uniforms there and didn't want to have to wear a bikini when she danced. She'd been at the bar for three months. Her daughter didn't know what she really did for a living. Jion told her she worked nights at a factory making clothes.
He knew bar girls often lied about how long they'd been working. He knew they wanted you to fall for the "knight in shining armor" scam and give them money on a regular basis. He knew all this and yet he still felt sorry for her. He wanted to take her away from the bar girl life. He wanted to save her. He also wanted very badly to sleep with her. His feelings of pity were matched only by his desire. Thailand had whittled away at him until only his raw emotional core was left.
Maybe, he thought, I'll pay her bar fine. But just to talk to her some more outside of the bar. He gave her 500 baht and she went to change clothes. When she came out he hardly recognized her. She'd taken off the tacky nurse's uniform and slipped into black pants and a short black shirt, both clinging to her tiny frame. Her hair was much longer than he'd thought. She was beautiful. Back in America, she'd be on the cover of magazines. They held hands like high-school sweethearts and walked the streets talking.
He thought to himself that he couldn't do this. He knew better. She probably had a disease. (Buy some condoms.) She'd probably lied to him about everything. (But how could he know that?) She was probably still married and supporting an alcoholic husband. (But did that matter tonight, here in Pattaya as they walked along the beach under a near full moon?)
"Where we go now?" she asked him, standing on her tip toes to sniff-kiss his neck and chest. She looked up into his eyes and smiled. And nothing else mattered.
Part II of Chris' Testosterone mission to Thailand will be posted next week.