“Hello, police? Customer not paying. Yes, India.”
Inside a dingy room at Patpong, the famous adult-entertainment neighbourhood of Bangkok, I was waiting for this nightmare to get over. I surely had not penciled in my vacation calendar, a midnight appointment with half-a-dozen angry Thai matrons who, I knew for sure, were capable of breaking each bone in my body. I’ve marvelled at Thai women’s physical strength far too many times at the country’s most reputed massage therapy centres to be naive about their short frame.
And far too many tourists have been killed in Thailand in recent years for any naivete to survive.
What Led to That Night in Bangkok
Curiosity and academic interest in Thailand’s sex tourism finally got the better of me on 16 April 2019. During my previous visits to the country, the thought of visiting a red light district always elicited a psychosomatic response: retching and mild fever. I could never muster the courage to visit even the ‘respectable’ bars in the posh Sukhumvit area in Bangkok or the Chang Khlan Road in Chiang Mai.
The sight of scantily clad underage girls, mostly from the economically backward northern villages of Thailand, has sent my monkey brain racing to my daughter and nieces. Almost one-thirds of the total sex workers in Thailand are yet to turn 18.
In 2015, UNAIDS estimated the number of sex workers in Thailand to be 1,47,000. Other estimates peg the number much higher.
That night, however, I was resolute. I had spent the last four days walking the streets of Bangkok, making small talk with bar girls and beauty salon owners. I was armed with knowledge to take the plunge. My reluctant partner-in-crime, who visited Patpong in the late 90s, failed to dissuade me. He has poor negotiating skills anyway. Many a taxi and tuktuk driver in Thailand has made a fortune out of his generosity.
Around midnight, we arrived at the Patpong market and immediately got accosted by agents showing us the “menu” cards. We took a stroll across the night market before choosing a go-go bar.
It’s China, Yet Again
A managerial-looking (read fully clad) matron greeted us with a big smile. The usher then showed us our table and gave us the drinks menu. I ordered a beer and my teetotaller companion called for a Diet Coke. I signed our slip for 300 Baht. In front of us was what I can safely label a parody of burlesque. Most of the girls—extremely thin and displaying different degrees of nakedness—looked bored. One of them, probably the bar’s star, came towards our table. Ignoring the two of us, she sat on the lap of the young white guy we shared our communal table with.
By this time, I had managed to banish the spoilsport thoughts of my daughter and other young girls back home. I was now focused on the countless stretch marks that criss-cross my body. The star girl next to me had flawless skin. Jealousy was vying with loud music to reach crescendo first.
“All these go-go bars used to be full of white tourists earlier, now you see the Chinese everywhere,” my companion’s observation made me focus better on my surroundings. Scenes of solicitation, lap dances, drunken men, and no woman guests except me. And surely, there were only a handful of white tourists at the bar.
The Chinese have certainly taken over the world. China’s contribution to the Thai tourism industry is significant: 27 percent of the 9,194,057 tourists the country received in 2017, were Chinese.
A little later, when a batch of three white men entered the bar, the star girl was signalled (with the help of a green laser pointer) to join their table. Either she misunderstood or she knew better than her guide–the girl chose the single Chinese man seated next to the white batch.
The World of Illegal “Have Beens”
Two days back, I was told by a bar worker that many sex workers save money and go back to their families when they are past their prime. Or, they get other jobs at bars they once charmed. The managerial matrons at this bar were perhaps burning the dance floor once. Their body language, however, was markedly different from the young girls. Later in the night, this very body language would turn into my nightmare.
When the star girl was up again to grace the pole-dancing area, I noticed a small tear in her fishnet stocking. This torn stocking became a metaphor for the grimness of Thailand’s shiny, smiley sex tourism.
The legal framework of Thailand criminalises prostitution through three acts: Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996, Penal Code Amendment Act (No. 14) of 1997, and Entertainment Places Act of 1966.
The previous night, a chatty cab driver nicknamed Lek, had told me how the Thai couples are not producing enough children, which is creating a labour crisis of sorts in the country. The Thai birth rate is 1.48 as against the desirable 2.1 number. No wonder, then, that the organised crime groups have smuggled around a million women into Thailand for sex trade from China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam: the same countries that provide manpower to meet the Thai labour demands.
We demanded to pay our bill and decided to leave. Before the bill came, a smiling matron started to make small talk and asked about my lipstick shade. She repeated the phrase “sexy lady” a few times, and I responded with a flattered smile. We paid the bill (300 Baht) and got out. The same woman yelled a cheerful namaste to bid us adieu.
From Burlesque to Grotesque
So far, so good.
Emboldened by the experience, I decided to turn the heat up and told my companion that I wanted to go for a ‘ping-pong’ show. He acquiesced, obviously. We only had to allow ourselves to be led by one of the many “menu” carrying agents in Patpong. Our chosen guy, like the rest, told us that beer was for 100 Baht and there were no cover charges. Our night was proceeding admirably frugally and we were not straying off the main street, so it seemed safe too.
As we climbed the stairs to reach the ping-pong bar we chose, something struck me as odd and I turned around to ask my utterly bored companion, “Nothing will go wrong, na?” He answered cynically with a counter-question, “Listen, it will be gross but that’s what you wanted. No?”
We entered this dark bar on the first floor and ordered our usual beer-Coke duo. The show was in progress and, apart from ours, just one more table was occupied. Two middle-aged Thai women with a sullen expression. I’m not going to give details of the show, Google is there for that.
My expressions changed with each trick performed, and at the end of the show, the two of us were impressed enough—and moved by pity—to decide on a large tip for all the performers. My admiration for the performers’ agile vaginas was at odds with the feminist concern that these middle-aged women began training as young kids to perform these tricks. They perhaps had no choice.
We called for the bill and it arrived with not one but three employees.
The Moment of Reckoning
For one pint of local beer and one can of Diet Coke, we were expected to pay around 10,000 Baht. What? Why? We were told 100 Baht for beer, surely there is a mix-up. And before we knew it, we were gheraoed by more than half a dozen women yelling “Madame, pay the bill” in different pitches and intonations. The two women we initially mistook for guests were part of this gang. Two performers had joined in, too. We were trapped.
I looked at my partner-in-crime who, like a good non-confrontational Indian man, whispered, “Let’s pay them and get the hell out of here.” No, this was not to be.
We had been conned and the thought outraged me. I said firmly, “No madame, I won’t pay for anything other than the beer and the cola.” One of them, presumably the owner, shouted repeatedly, “You think my bar free? You no pay? This is not India, this is Thailand.”
After a few minutes, my ‘Made in Delhi’ survival kit got activated.
“No, it’s not free but I won’t pay for things we were not informed about,” I said.
“You no asked us,” she shouted.
“It was your duty to inform us. You have not even kept any menu cards or mentioned the show fees anywhere,” I tried to reason.
Curiously, they were not saying a word to my partner. He was ready to pay, anyway.
I decided to call the police and told the bullies so. As if on cue, a performer started shouting into her phone, “Hello, police? Customer not paying. Yes, India.”
The Grand Finale
Yeah, like I was born yesterday. I used the trump card. “Do you know who I am? Don’t even think of touching me. You call the police and I call the embassy. Let’s settle it.” I sat down with a flourish and gave them a hard stare.
“Ok, ok, you pay for one, not him,” one of them said after minutes of cacophony. The threat of police and embassy joint action was working. I shook my head. The bullies were being bullied now.
“Ok, you pay for drinks.”
“I’ll only pay for my beer and Coke. Not these glasses that you’ve put on my table.” We were billed for five glasses of “single malt whiskey” that the performers had left on our table after enthusiastic CHEERS during the course of the show. As a whiskey lover, I was more outraged by that pale piss-like liquid being passed off as Macallan 18 years.
We finally paid 600 Baht for our drinks—much lesser than what we had decided to leave as a tip for the performers—and left but only after I had patted the cheek of the biggest bully.
My companion’s final words that night, “How were you not scared?”
I was. But sometimes, fear is not an option.