Living my life in a slow hell
Different girl every night at the hotel
I ain't seen the sun shine in three damn days
– "Picture" Kid Rock
Bangkok, he decides, is a drug. It is, in fact, all drugs, an adaptagen that becomes whatever he needs.
If you go to Bangkok to become enlightened and "find yourself" among the golden Buddhas, you will become enlightened. If you walk the streets of Bangkok looking for self-destruction, you'll find that too. Bangkok is speed and heroin, hallucinogen and narcotic, stimulant and depressant. It is all that.
It's said that a man's true character reveals itself when he's given power and money. The same can be said of Bangkok. If your true nature is that of an id-driven hedonist, that side of you will come out and perhaps take over, leading to a downward spiral of alcohol, drugs, and nameless women. If you're essentially good, then Bangkok will show you that part of your nature as well.
But like most of us, his character falls somewhere in the middle. He is neither a hardened sinner nor a pristine saint, neither devil nor angel. Bangkok shows him both sides without blinking and without the filters of Western civilization.
The exploration of Bangkok, he discovers, is the exploration of self. You may indeed find yourself, but be warned: you may not like what you see.
Bangkok doesn't care either way.
Pattaya: Home of the Wanted and the Unwanted
If Bangkok is a drug then Pattaya is crack cocaine. This small resort town, located about two hour's drive away from Bangkok, has been called Patpong on steroids, the sex and sand capital of Asia, and Fun City. It's estimated that Pattaya has more sex workers per square mile than any other place on earth. Thais themselves will tell you that Pattaya isn't the "real Thailand" but rather an Asian version of the Wild West. This cowboy spent three nights there.
Like the red light districts of Bangkok, Pattaya gained popularity during the Vietnam war when troops went there for a little R & R, or as the case may be, a little I & I (intercourse and intoxication.) While I was there, the US Marines and some Navy guys were in town doing their best to rid the world of beer and lonely bar girls. To celebrate their arrival, many of the go-go bars dressed their "hello girls" in quasi-military uniforms complete with mini-skirts. God bless America.
Since World Cup mania was also in full effect, many of the girls wore soccer shirts or flag bikinis representing all the countries competing. By the way, you know the English are true soccerholics when you see them sitting in go-go bars watching the World Cup while the forty half-naked cuties dancing around them are being ignored. (You could always spot the Americans because they kept their eyes on the girls, even during the rare goal.) I tried to explain to the soccer hooligans that in order for it to be a real game, the field needed to be cut in half, tie games should be eliminated, and that cheerleaders should be added. They didn't find that very amusing but were far too drunk to beat me up.
Pattaya also has a large concentration of expats. The town is cheaper than the already cheap Bangkok and a retiree can live nicely on his retirement and social security checks. He can also sleep with lovely girls one-third of his age on a weekly basis. I had a hard time deciding whether these old farts were pathetic or the smartest men on the planet.
Bar Girls and their Feks (Customers)
Most bar girls tend to be in their 20's, but I ran into one that was 36 and reportedly many work into their 40's. Many get into the profession after being divorced from Thai husbands. With a limited education and often a child to support, she turns to the bar scene. Before this, she may have worked in a factory, a hotel, or as a food server where she made 65 cents an hour. At the bar, she can make more in a couple of nights than most Thais make in a month. This money goes to support her and her child, and much of the rest goes back to her family.
She usually comes not from Bangkok or one of the larger cities but from the Isaan region, meaning that she's essentially a poor farm girl. If you ask her, she'll say she's only been in the bar for a few months, but this is probably a line. Some bar girls don't drink alcohol while working while others are staggering drunk by 10pm.
The first day or two in Thailand I was shocked to see so many old, fat white guys holding hands with young, beautiful Thai girls. I knew this was strictly a mutual business relationship, but it was still hard to swallow. The average customer is 20 to 30 years older than his temporary girlfriend. He's usually gray or balding and overweight. He may be in Thailand on business, on holiday, or, as mentioned, he may be an expat living there.
Keep in mind, this kind of man (old and fat) is exactly what most bars girls are looking for. Many of the girls I interviewed were very straightforward about this. Older men tend to have more money and, as the saying goes amongst bar girls, "money number one." (There's even a single man's survival guide to Thailand of the same name.) Sure, the girls prefer to sleep with athletic younger guys, but they tend to not pay as well and are usually more demanding. A young hunk may be surprised to see a bar girl abandon him when a 60-year-old fat guy walks in.
Thais are also very prejudiced when it comes to skin color. Even darker Thais are thought to be ugly compared to lighter Thais. You won't find any tanning beds in Thailand. As such, blacks, Latinos and others of darker skin tone may find it a bit tougher to pick up a willing bar girl. But in reality, that only means it'll take ten minutes instead of five to find a companion for the night. I met a black American there one afternoon and we met up later that night to go bar hopping. Despite the race issues, he still ended up with the best looking girl in the bar. (His girl would coo in his ear about how she much she liked her "chocolate man.") Last time I saw him, he'd paid her bar fine for the next three days and was taking her to Bangkok with him.
The girls also tend to prefer Americans over other nationalities, though those from England and Scandinavian countries are also popular. The girls tend not to prefer the Japanese (which they say are usually sexual sadists), Germans, or Indians. I sat with one Irish fellow who couldn't seem to hook up with any girl at the beer bar. I asked the lovely young thang I was dancing with what the problem was and she said he talked too fast and the girls felt uncomfortable. She said she liked me because I talked slow like a cowboy. Yee haw! (Keep in mind that most of the girls only know of two places in America: New York and California. If they ask where you're from – and they will – tell them America, specifically California. This usually causes them to squeal with delight. I was perhaps the only "Californian" who used the word ya'll in Thailand.)
I quickly found out I was considered quite a catch on the bar girl scene. I wasn't too young (read broke) and wasn't too old, was in good shape, wasn't cheap with the lady drinks, and, as many bar girls told me, had a good-heart. They would often decide this after a few sniff-kisses on the cheek. Having a "good heart" is prized by bar girls, much more important than looks, but still not as important as money. Of course, having a good heart is often directly related to how much money you give them. On another level, I think they deal with so many drunken jerks who mistreat them that they appreciate a nice guy. In Thailand, being a nice guy may actually pay off!
In Thailand, a 200 pound guy who's fairly lean is considered a real choice specimen. Thais are naturally small and although I only weighed about 205 at the time, I was thought to be a giant. (The average bar girl weighs around 100 pounds and is very short.) The girls were constantly rubbing my arms and chest and flexing their little biceps to compare. Remember, their average customer is over 50, fat, and has a hairy back. The average T-mag reader who lifts weights and eats clean most of the time would be Arnold Schwarzenegger in Thailand. I never sat alone for more than a minute and usually had two or three competing for my attention. Sure, they were hookers, but it felt nice anyway!
To gather info for these articles, I'd buy lady drinks for several girls and find one that was cute and spoke decent English. Then I'd bar fine her, take her out to eat, shoot pool, listen to live music (usually Thai bands playing classic American rock or Elvis covers), pay her double her usual rate and then send her home. I got to know several girls in this manner and it's easy to see why so many Westerners fall for them. I felt the need to rescue several of them, take them to America, educate them, and show them the world. Of course, this is part of the bar girl trap.
"You've got to ask," said James, an American who runs an export business out of Thailand, "who's really the predator and who's really the prey? Don't be fooled into thinking of these girls as victims. They're fuckin' entrepreneurs!" John was sitting with his 18 year old son, Steven. They'd both taken girls home the night before and were comparing notes, smoking and drinking Carlsbergs. "Man isn't monogamous by nature," James explained. "And don't regret anything. These girls are mercenaries."
In many ways, he's right. Bar girls are generally sweet, adoring and as cute as proverbial buttons. Or at least, that's what they want you to think so they can get their claws into you. You see, while some of them really are poor farm girls trying to support their families and perhaps find love, most have other things in mind and are making tactical plays straight from the Bar Girl Playbook. These girls are skilled actresses, professional cons, and ruthless manipulators. "Like fleas on a dog," one Australian told me after his bar girl hit on me as we all shared a taxi. "She's already lining up her next kill!" he laughed.
The cold truth is that your sweet new mistress sitting by your side, cutting your food, might have a boyfriend or husband at home who knows what she's doing. You may pay her well to support her four year old son when, in truth, you're only supporting her gambling habit or her husband's love for whisky.
A big score for a working girl is to hook a farang who'll agree to send her money "so she won't have to go with men." This lovesick gentleman will send her a monthly salary so she doesn't have to work in the bars or to help her family take care of the sick buffalo back home. (Yes, this is really a common line!)
Unbeknownst to the Westerner, his lovely "girlfriend" has two other farangs on the line doing the same thing. She leads them all on and continues to go with men every night at the bar, looking for another kill. There are even form letter e-mails these girls copy word for word and send to all their farang suitors around the world. These letters are filled with words of love and hints for more money. She knows her time as a high-paid bar girl is limited and she's taking full advantage of it.
These angelic looking bar girls may rob you, may steal your credit cards, or may bogart your cell phone, run up the bill, then sell it. She may have a disease and not tell you. She may sell the gifts you give her. But worst of all, she may take your heart and crush it under her platform go-go boots. It's so common that a couple of expats have set up bar girl investigation services. For a fee, they'll go check up on your girlfriend when you leave the country to see if she's still working in the bar and getting bar fined. The news usually isn't so good.
The girls prefer unmarried, lonely men because they're more likely to win their hearts and therefore their wallets. But it really doesn't matter. After telling one hostess I was married, she said that it didn't matter because I could have a Thai wife and an American wife. She then placed one of her rings on my little finger and said she was now my second wife or mia noi. She told me she very much wanted to come back to the hotel with me and then in the morning I should take her to see Spiderman. (We shot pool and drank Heinekens instead.)
Bars girls getting married to farangs isn't that uncommon, but the relationship is seldom successful. Even if the girl is sincere and has truly fallen for you (not likely, but you'll never be able to tell the difference), the relationship is usually doomed to failure for a variety of reasons. Talk to men who've been in these relationships with former working girls and you'll hear the same thing over and over: "You can take the girl out of the bar, but you can't take the bar out of the girl."
I used to think these lovesick foreigners were buffoons for falling for these girls, but after a week in Thailand I completely understood the temptation. When in Thailand, keep your wallet in your front pocket and your heart tucked in the safe deposit box back at the hotel.
I walked into the bar and was immediately snatched up by two girls. They led me to a seat and began asking me the usual bar girl questions: Where you from? How long you here? Where you stay? How old are you? This is sometimes the first English the girls learn to speak and they may or may not understand your answers.
The girl on my left was the typical Thai vixen: She looked all of 18, but was probably 24 or 25. Thai girls always look much younger than they really are. Most legit go-go bars require that the girls be at least 20, but a 20-year-old Thai girl looks 15. This one was petite, even for a Thai, with nice breasts, a firm tummy, long black hair coming to her mid back, and a bottom that looked like a fitness model's, only one-half the size. Her silky skin was flawless and light, the epitome of Thai beauty. I was in lust.
The girl on my right was taller. Suspiciously taller. She was quite good looking, but already my radar was returning mixed signals. Thailand, you see, is the sex-change capital of the world. A newcomer learns the signs quickly: lady-boys, or kattoeys as they're called, are taller then real females, have larger hands and feet, and have Adam's apples (unless they've been surgically shaved.) Their voices will be a bit husky, despite the hormones, and their faces still look distinctively male.
But unlike Caucasians, Thais make eerily convincing trannies. Male Thais have no body or facial hair to begin with and their builds are slight and already on the feminine side. Sometimes katoeys are tough to spot and I'd heard stories of farangs spending the night with a fully converted lady-boy and never knowing it until someone else told him. I'd heard other stories of men getting a surprise when they reached down between their bedmate's legs and found a shriveled penis lying there. And this was after oral sex and heated foreplay with the "pre-op" (a lady-boy who hasn't had all his operations yet.)
In Bangkok, the surgeons at the "gender reassignment centers" are cheap and skillful. Their work can easily fool the casual observer and one popular Thai surgeon says his work with the scalpel has even fooled gynecologists. They're so skilled that first-time visitors to Thailand are often warned not to approach the really, really good looking women. "If they're too good looking, they're probably katoeys," the saying goes.
I'd been in Thailand for several days and had had many run-ins with lady-boys, who seemed to be everywhere. Usually freelancers, they'd paw me in the crowded streets or approach me in the dark while walking along the beach in Pattaya. I could spot most of them easily enough. Usually they weren't allowed in the go-go bars or outdoor beer bars so they were nothing to worry about. The chances of accidentally walking into a gay bar were small as well, since most of these places had obvious names like Screwboys and Throb. Touts in front would try to invite you into these bars with calls of "You want sexy boy? Sexy young boy for handsome man?"
It's important to note that gay bashing is an alien concept in Thailand. There's even an openly gay and popular Muay Thai fighter. To Thais, there's no judgement, only a noted distinction. After several nights of walking the red-light districts and going to go-go bars, this began to rub off on me. I'd simply tell the katoeys "no thank you" and walk on. They'd feign a pout, smile, and that was that. After a few days, I became numb to them. I'd never been threatened by homosexuals anyway and was quite secure with my manhood. I'd just let them know I had "no plans with a man" and move on.
While sitting with the petite girl and her tall friend at the bar I began to take notice of the dancers on stage. Most of them were female, but a couple were obviously lady-boys. This was the first time I'd actually seen lady-boys in a bar. I turned to the tall one who'd snuggled in close and put her arms around me. "Lady-boys?" I asked and motioned toward the stage. "50/50" she said. Thais always speak in percentages. "But I all lady," she said, and before I realized what she was doing, she'd stuck my hand down her bikini where I felt a tiny mat of pubic hair and nothing else. "See, 100 percent lady." I removed my hand, still not convinced. Thai girls were seldom that sexually aggressive, at least not in public. Katoeys were much more forward.
The girl on my left spoke okay English and we began to talk about how and why she'd ended up in a go-go bar. She was shy and sweet in a way that only Thai bar girls can really pull off. She held my hand and struggled to tell her story. I ordered her a drink. Apparently not liking the fact that the other girl was getting more attention, the next thing I knew my right hand was placed inside the tall girl's bikini top where I felt a pretty realistic feeling tit. "All lady" she whispered again into my ear. This convinced me that I was indeed being marked by a katoey. Bar girls seldom go to such extremes to convince you of their womanhood. They don't need to.
If this had been my first night in Thailand, I would have bolted from the bar. But I was getting used to the "anything goes" sex scene and the fact that I was indeed sitting with a transsexual didn't bug me too much. I wasn't planning on piddling her, so why not chat with her? Unfortunately, I didn't get much info because she was pissed I'd figured out she was formerly male.
As with most Asian countries, Thais are very aware of saving face. It would have been insulting to the lady-boy if I had jerked away and left the bar. So I told "her" that I thought she was a very pretty girl, but had not been born a girl. "I not say," she said, but she knew the gig was up. I paid for the drinks, tipped both girls (one a little upset I didn't bar fine her and the other really upset I'd seen through her rather well done sex change) and left the bar.
I'm told that many expats who live in Thailand eventually succumb to the lure of lady-boys and begin to prefer them. These men, who claim to be as straight as an arrow, will laugh and say, "Well, once you've had a blowjob from a katoey, you'll never go back. A man knows how to please another man!" It seems appalling to me, but in Thailand the lines of sexuality are blurred. Hell, I'd almost been fooled myself. Oh well, being groped by a katoey in Thailand is something I can at least tell my grandkids about, if they get me liquored up enough.
Walking back to the hotel that night, I saw the katoey coming out of another bar. Apparently, she hadn't fooled anyone else either or she hadn't found a suitor with that particular kink. But it was only 3am and that meant the night was young. She would probably not sleep alone. I just hoped all the Marines in town had their beer goggles off when that one trolled up and asked for a lady drink.
A couple of nights later I'm at a bar in Pattaya having a Singha and watching the girls on stage perform simulated lesbian acts with one another. This is nice because in most places the girls just shift from side to side and look bored. I have one girl on each knee, both dressed in leopard skin bikinis and knee high leather boots. One has just shown me her breasts after looking down my shirt and inspecting my pecs. "Handsome man, so big," she giggles. "See, same same" and she puts my hand over her boob to show me that my chest is bigger than hers.
The girl on my other knee had just removed her tongue from my ear and was explaining in broken English that she would go for free if I wanted her to. This wasn't true of course but it was a nice touch. She pointed upstairs where there was undoubtedly a short-time room. Her seductive tone changed as she spoke rapid fire Thai to the girl on my other knee. Apparently they'd decided to share me if I was up for it. Now they wanted me up in the short-time room and were discussing how they'd split the profit. Then they went back to work on me, one dropping the sweet little sniff-kisses and trying to get her tongue in my mouth while the other was checking to see if I was erect yet.
I was bored to death. The nightlife in Thailand does that to you after a week. It spoils you. Yesterday's erotic fantasy becomes today's missionary position with the lights out. What I really wanted that night was a good steak. It was about time to come home.
Based on the picture I've painted here, you probably think that Thailand is either the greatest place in the world for a man or a complete den of sin. (It's both, of course.) But it would be an oversight not to mention the true dark side of the Thai sex industry. Although much of this problem has been cleaned up, it still exists on some levels. The problem is child prostitution. And I'm not talking about a 17-year-old just months away from being a legal adult, but girls and boys as young as eight being pimped out to pedophiles and kept as modern-day slaves.
Chances are, you'll never see this side of Bangkok or Pattaya's nightlife, even if you wanted to, but it's still there to some extent. Thanks to organizations like ECPAT, End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, this activity is on the decline. Many countries such as Germany (for some reason, many Germans reportedly come for children) have also cracked down on gray-area "sex tours" being offered in the backs of porn magazines which target pedophiles.
I was also shocked to see so many children roaming the streets selling gum and flowers at two and three in the morning. Many of these six and seven-year olds could be found selling their trinkets inside go-go bars. Apparently, child labor laws are virtually nonexistent or not enforced in Thailand. Even with the music, the neon lights and the scantily clad women, I couldn't help but watch these street kids and wonder what their lives must be like.
As with most drugs, the withdrawal from Bangkok is painful. He feels it on the plane ride back to the US. He feels it when he gets home. He catches himself standing there in a suburban mall, surrounded by its sleepy banality, its orchestrated safety, and its papier-mâché morality, longing for the edge he felt in Bangkok. Here it's like he's only barely breathing; living, but on life support.
Thailand was a little dangerous; he had to be aware, alive, absorbing everything in his environment and reacting. But not here. Here he's just sleepwalking through his day, going through the motions of this facsimile of life, this plain vanilla existence.
An addict doesn't realize the extent of his addiction until he's cut off from his drug. Bangkok is the same. He didn't realize the city had him hooked until he left. And like hard drugs, he knows Bangkok could be the death of him, but he wants it anyway.
This is the dance of addiction and withdrawal. Bangkok could easily eat him alive, but at night, in his bed, he'd slide down its gullet smiling.
And despite himself, he can't help but think of the girls – what they're doing right now, who they're with, if their customers are being good to them. But they're on the other side of the world and he'll likely never go back. It would be best to forget them, he tells himself, but he knows this will take time. Like ghosts, the women drift through his mind. Like ghosts, their voices call to him.
Thailand has left him haunted.
Part Three of the Thailand Trilogy, to be posted next week, will report on the steroid trade.