Ethical Travel Get Out There NGO-Land

Bangkok Days, Cowboy Nights


The women holding menus of sex acts in Thai, size them up in their own Northeastern dialect, saying to each other “Pull his arm, get the fat one in!”

     As seen in Glamour Magazine Bulgaria’s August 2011 issue:  Special thanks to editor Ani Mladenova and Maria Spirova for translation and advising. 
  As the Hangover II launched in theaters, those of us who live in Bangkok prepared for the ultimate cliche. The sequel has been the topic of dinner conversation for weeks. We predicted depictions of Bangkok streets crowded with elephants, monk mishaps, lady boys and bumbling cultural misunderstandings. We were right. The most memorable scenes happen along Patpong and Soi Cowboy, Bangkok’s notorious sex districts.
The reality of Soi Cow Boy is not wild, or glamorous. The Soi is an array of seizure inducing lights. Las Vegas vomited its tackiest signage on a cramped Thai street. Amid the blinking neon, shadows of women are piled on the sides blinking widely, standing in front of their club. Some have heavy eye make up and massive tread on their bodies, liver spots and early signs of disease. Some are too young to be out this late. Most girls  hiss and coo coercing patrons to come into their bar or check out  a menu of  sexual offerings. When they are not outright soliciting, they sit  in bikinis and wait. Sometimes they will have numbers pinned to their bikinis, and the customer can choose the girl he wants based on the number. To the novice sex tourist, this sounds like an lascivious playground of dark desires, but the reality is a lot less exciting.

As a researcher studying human trafficking and the sex industry in Southeast Asia, I am used to spending time on these legendary streets.  My nights consist of talking to the regulars, and the newbies, have a soda with the girls, to better understand the complexities of human trafficking and prostitution in Thailand. I sit at my regular bar and people watch, observing the movement of people and goods, (or people as goods) moving up and down the street.

I can always tell which group of men are  first timers based on the way they contemplate each doorway as a group, wandering back and forth, stumbling between the doors, looking at each other quizzically. They are shy, hesitant.  “Should I go into Spicy?” or “School girls?” as if he is buying a brand of peanut butter.  The girls holding menus of sex acts in Thai, size them up in their own  Northeastern dialect, saying to each other “Pull his arm, get the fat one in!” The guys look around as if they are being watched, will their colleagues find out? Their wives?  The men decides to take the plunge, a small  pale Thai women uses all her might to push him through the door.

I want to clarify that not all sex workers have been trafficked. And not all trafficking victimsare sex workers. Pop narratives make it seem like everyone is a victim in the developing world, and these story lines rarely discern that is a difference between forced trafficking and self-trafficking, some people paying up to 3000 USD to get to their place of work. It’s difficult for the Westerner to comprehend, but in many villages in the North, trafficking has been a way of life for decades. In villages in Issan, families encourage their daughters earn income by whatever means possible..The girls don’t tell their families what they are doing, and the families don’t question. All that matters is that they the children are sending money back to the village.

And so, on Soi Cowboy, the mix of two needs collide, one of money, and the other of sex. When I speak with the men who openly buy girls, it always spins my understanding of sex as a commodity. I have met downright creeps who “hate western feminist bitches,” and others who are pursuing their submissive Asian women fantasy. Some men are divorced, or widowed. Some are married and wear their rings into the club. Many are simply desperate. I even met one Brit who said, “Who will love me, I am hideous. At least I can pay someone. ” Other men argue that  they are stimulating the Thai economy, (and it is;  4.3 billion dollars sex tourism  brings in) and others are just curious and awe-struck tourists wanting to witness something they might never do in their home country.

Anytime my friends visit Bangkok, Soi Cowboy and Patpong are the most important stop on the tourist route. Friends make the case, that after visiting Wat Pho, Bangkok’s sacred reclining Budda, we absolutely have to head to Patpong to  watch a woman shoot a ping pong ball out of her vagina.

I may never understand this tourist fascination. Perhaps it seems glamorous or perhaps there is this quest for authenticity in a place that makes it seem perfectly ok to degrade and  exploit women. Either way, There isn’t much glamour in it. The novelty of being an observer of these shows wears off after the first time.

Inside the clubs there are some girls who, unlike their weary older sisters, still sport fake eyelashes and make the effort to flirt and smile. The girls are here, maybe  because they like the attention, or maybe it’s just the allure of money, used to fulfill familial duties and buy material goods. The older sex workers stay outside of the bars; their bodies are marked with a little make up and lots of wrinkles. Their tan skin, sharp nose, and round faces give away their rural Issan roots. Issan is one of the poorest regions in Thailand. Issan women migrated to Bangkok for the promise of a better future.

And that future is brought to you by, anyone who couldn’t get laid in their own country, for reasons of finances, disability, social ineptitude, or personality mutation. The general mass and character of the men make it easy to pass judgement at first. Soi Cowboy bound foreigners are known as LBH”s,  “Losers back home”. These men have gained this esteemed title by circumstance or misfortune. The men crawl to the underworld of cowboy with sagging faces,  and sometimes their walkers. It’s  a sad sight. The losers, the unloved, the broken, they all come here. These guys are the ones who wear shirts that say “Eat rice bitch,” as their Thai girlfriends nod. The man talks eagerly about how he is some rugby legend or how he will be getting his business of the ground soon or how he was in the CIA, but his work is to “top secret” to disclose. The Thai girls will flash a smile, then quickly calculate how much money they will make from this gig on their cell phones.

Where sex is open and apparent, there is usually an element of agency for the women. Or, the girls have grown so accustomed to the lifestyle after once being trafficked that once they,have paid off their debts, and stay in the business because it is the only thing they know. One friend from Issan explained that she arrived on Soi Cowboy because it seemed easy, fun getting to dress up and work in air-condition every night.

The girls who are really trafficked, who are chained to toilets and held against their will, they remain hidden, in the back Sois. In massage parlors and restaurants where a facade is kept to continue promoting the sale of human beings. These girls are the ones that organizations cannot provide aid to, simply because these victims are so hard to find. They are invisible and unspoken among the Bangkok served on a plate to foreigners, but certainly, if one wants it, it is easy to find.

A first glance suggests a dazzling meat market and ostentatious feel, but inside the clubs belie a rather well-lit strip of empty tables and bars. (Go on a Monday night and you’ll see what I mean, the atmosphere of emptiness and dinge abound.) The street embodies a ubiquitous pull of curiosity, desperation, and power. In the United States strip clubs elucidate an illusion of interest and lust; the dancers imagined to be unattainable. In Thailand, it is a known fact that anyone, everyone, and anything can be bought.

Super Pussy does not look that super during the day.

For my own research, I often accompany people into clubs to observe their behavior. Many of the girls know me now, and they greet me with a kind “Sawadee” knowing we’ll only drink cola together and talk shop. I’ll never take business away by talking to a girl, I just sit quietly and wait. The girls know can speak to me in Thai if they get a really bad client or are bored. Tonight, I arrive with a group of white friends, known as “farang” (foreigner). When I walk into the club with first-timers, the staff can smell their prudeness. I talk to the older bar ladies, the ones who have been around for six years or more, and they explain how it works in Thai and broken English. “Buy us drinks, and then she–“ they point to a younger, masculine looking girl in a wig, “will dance for your friend on table.”

 I observe the exploitation of these women every day. And yet,  what I have discovered is most of them consider these acts  just doing their job. There are organizations that work to Empower Sex workers, create unions, and educate them. To put it in perspective, for every two sex workers, about fifteen jobs are created on Soi Cowboy, from the hawkers who get people into shows, to the tuk tuk drivers, the issan fried insects sellers, and the waitresses, the mama-sans and the flower sellers. When the girls at the bar find their man for the night, they will take

Fried Grashopper and Worms, popular snack in Issan

them to these streets stalls, encouraging them to try a fried cricket, or eat Som Tom, Issan papaya salad. One can see newly minted customers holding their camera and saying ,“Take a picture of me eating this fried cockroach!” And his Thai girlfriend will smile and oblige for the third time this week. This is all routine. For the foreigner this is exotic, a story to tell the mates back home. For the girl it is a taste of the life they left back in Issan.After munching on some Thai kanom (small snacks) it is time to head back to the club. On a stage in the center of the room, about eighteen bored looking girls toss their hips from side to side, filing their nails, gossiping about their day. In Thai, I hear them talk about the coming rainy season. It’s obvious that they could care less about any of the patrons in the bar, except if money is involved.

A thin girl clad in a white bikini known as  Pi Yim,  is talking to me in Thai, she is ignoring my male friends completely She doesn’t want to be here, and welcomes the opportunity to chat with me when I stop by. It’s the same story I hear all the time; Yim’s family doesn‘t know what she‘s doing, simply working since the age of 16.  This whole racket of dancing was fun at first, but now she is tired. The shoes make her feet hurt, the mama-san gossips, and she wants to build a big house back in Issan one day soon. As we swap stories of our favorite foods, which is the most important conversation topic in Thai culture, my friends begin losing interest in the place. “This cant be the REAL Soi Cowboy…“ and they begin talking about the next destination —  the Thai ping pong show.

What is the fascination behind watching a woman shoot a ping pong ball out of her vagina or blow candles out with a muscle spasm? I will never know. I try to explain to the eager friends that in Thailand, this party trick could potentially be an everyday affair, and not worth the fifteen USD they are about to shell out. The friends remind me, for those who haven’t seen the underwhelming magic of a Thai Ping Pong Show it is one of the most “authentic experiences” in Bangkok.

The site of the Ping Pong show is a stale dark club playing Lady Gaga over again, the audience is mostly made up of old men who  nurse their drinks as if they are savoring a moment. Thai women lethargically stroll across the stage. They don’t have numbers pinned to their suits this time and this makes them seem a bit more human. The music flips to a fast Thai version of “Happy Birthday to You.” A naked girl with a round face and heavy eyeliner takes the stage without enthusiasm. My voyueristic friends comment “She looks like her dog just died!” As the performer takes her position, she inserts a plastic straw and, within seconds, blows out the flicker of a candle flame with a twitch. There is no applause, no encore.

The two other bar girls watch this with us and try to cheer their friend on.  Pi Boon, and Pi Dang wear no makeup, just the same cheap polyester dress with a diamond triangle every night. The dress is pilling at the sides, and and I can see age spots on their arms. They call a waitress over. She is small, hollow-eyed, and frail. No longer suitable to be sold out front, the sickly worker serves drinks, her body heavy with disease. The luminescence of her young counterparts is utterly erased.

On the stage, the girls continue to walk around fully nude.  They circle poles as if they were drones, tossing a hand up only occasionally and shaking the hips bored when they cannot gossip with friends.

Pi Dang and Pi Boon shake their non-existent breast as if my friends are supposed to be dazzled by this display. They look expectant. This shimmy is a cue to give the drink girls 20 baht a piece. They are used to doing this as often as possible to men who might be wowed by this. It is incredible what a person will do for 75 cents.

Signals are sent with eyes, trying to maintain the farce of fun. The ladies Thai smile is glued on, but their facial expressions suggest their mind is elsewhere. When they remember their work and pretend to have a nice time. “Are you happy?” they ask. “Are you?” I want to reply.

Pi Boon asks me if I have a fen-fen, a boyfriend.  I pull out my camera and struggle through pictures of temples, until I finally find my partner staring back at me on the screen. Pi Dang tells me he is handsome, and she asks if I am happy again. I reply, “Yes. Very. He is a good man.” She looks around the club longingly. A fifty something fat Australian holds a balloon as a woman on the stage launches a dart with her muscles.

My first-time friends are also bored and want to leave. They want to graduate and see  a “fuck show,” which involves two people have intercourse on a stage and occasionally a trapeeze.  At 4 AM, they will make me responsible for trying to find them a safe one on this well trodden route.

Throughout our visit they have remained awkward, gangly, and shocked at the sheer washed-up fatigue of it all. When they get back home, however, their stories will be different. Suavely seasoned, they will speak of ping pong and fuck shows with glitz and fun, perpetuating a culture of those who wish to spend their money on places like Soi Cowboy.

On my way out of the club, Pi Boon grabs my hand and says with longing hopeful eyes, “ Nong Fah Ka (Little sister Sky) if you know a nice Thai guy, or a farang, can you bring him to me ka?”

This question, asked jokingly, and desperately, is a camaraderie we have established over my visits.

I squeeze her hand with a Thai smile, and say, “Yes, I will try.”


 This article was featured in the August 2011 of Glamour Magazine (Bulgaria). 





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