Roughly half of my four-day trip to Bangkok was spent mingling with prostitutes at their neon-lit establishments – proof that either I need to rethink my friendships or that the shadow of sex trafficking can’t be escaped in The Big Mango.
Two and a half hours after landing, myself and my host, who works at the city’s premier English-language newspaper, were already at a happening bar called Tuba, sipping happy hour cocktails in margarita glasses the size of our faces.
Shortly after, I was promised we would see a Pat Pong show.
I could already feel myself easing into the city, which is like an amalgam of Manila and Jakarta in the way it sprawls as an unstoppable jungle of concrete, steel and crowds.
I mostly stuck to the sights and sois (back streets) of the city’s longest road, Sukhumvit, going up and down, up and down like a panicked pole dancer, for the duration of my stay.
Pat Pong was wet from the rain that evening, but the streets were pulsating with life from the night market and the side streets populated by clubs.
Nearing the heart of the market, a man in a leather jacket thrust a laminated menu in our inebriated faces. It listed the fruit, fauna and implements that women could projectile-thrust from between their legs. My host pointed to the top — table tennis balls — and the man shot off, motioning for us to follow him.
Down he went past the tablecloths of tourist goodies, then up some stairs, and deposited us into the mouth of a dark den of questionable repute.
It was like an ampitheater, with a circular stage ringed by stainless steel poles, to which were attached some rather bored dancers. The UV lighting made their skin look indigo and their bikinis glow neon pink.
The routines were without fanfare — at one point, one of the girls did a slight shuffle, dancing to no one in particular, then proceeded to birth a five-foot-long glowing cable of love beads, which she tied around the poles to make a triangle.
The Pat Pong show itself, which is terribly unsafe on many levels, consisted of one shapely woman in a black two-piece who made it a point to be “our” Pat Pong artist after we slipped her some tips along with the symbolic glasses of Coke an attendant placed on our table.
A middle-aged Brazilian couple came and sat in the booth beside us, and we formed a locus of special attention as the gazes of the Chinese men across the room waned.
The Pat Pong artist took her position. Moments later, Justin was hit by a slippery frozen banana, which bounced off his head and landed on the table. Then, ping pong paddles were placed in our limp hands, to hit the balls flying at us. There was also a failed experiment with fizzy water.
Finally, there were darts. They made us hold up papaya-shaped balloons over our heads, which popped on impact. It didn’t register that we could’ve been hit in the face, or that she could’ve been cut.
Total cost of drinks plus depressingly unhygienic show plus a swarm of ladies who came at us with baskets taped with a sign, “Tip Please!” was US$140. That seemed at once too much (for us) and too little (for the girls).
“Our” Pat Pong artist chased us to the door, waving her basket, asking for more. We slipped away, too drunk to feel guilty.
Two nights later, I met a former HK colleague on Soi Cowboy. You can’t miss it — there’s a huge, arched sign on one end of the street that says “Cowboy”. From afar, it’s like the whole street is giving off this magenta glow.
He said he would be about an hour late. I caught a whiff of the general goings-on — a whole lot of men on the prowl; a whole lot of semi-nude women; a whole lot of ogling, beckoning, talking, laughing, drinking, kissing and cavorting — and I felt like I wouldn’t fit into the rubric unless I had a specific purpose for being there, that is, having an expert show me around.
Close to our meeting time, I dipped my toes into the scene and ended up retreating into The Old Dutch bar, watching the quieter end of the street, on which cabs and tuktuks would spit out all manner of characters.
As I tucked into a plate of bitterballen, I looked at faces. There were your older not-quite-gentlemen clutching much younger women. There were pimply, underage-looking white males in knee-length shorts, socks and sandals who looked like they were just discovering purchasing power. There were extraordinarily pretty girls buying greasy, saucy snacks from the food carts. There were men dolled up like women, wearing blonde wigs and pulling mobile kiosks strung with stuffed Hello Kitties. Lots of women in male-gaze costumes that wouldn’t look out of place on Halloween.
And, finally, a familiar face ready to buy me a beer.