In front of me was Bangkok’s famous Patpong red light district. As I approached the main street, a feeling of uneasiness crept through me. There was nothing subtle about what lay in front.
On both sides of the street, there were bars, go-go bars and night clubs. Hordes of skimpily dressed women sat in groups immediately outside these joints , looking you up and down, giggling and inviting you to come in. A number of Thai men were walking on the streets holding up placards above their heads. On some of these boards were pictures of naked women in different sexual positions, and the nightly rates. Other boards advertised live sex shows.
The unabashed nature of it all fazed me a lot. But I wanted a story. Even before leaving India, I had decided that I wanted to write a story from the perspective of a Thai sex worker. And for that, I need to talk to one. And that is why I had come to Patpong. To speak to one of the bar girls.
Even standing at the street’s entrance made me feel jittery then. With all these inner thoughts bouncing off each other and mixing with the music and the hawking of the pimps and the flirting of the tourists and the girls, everything just became a blur.
As I began walking, I could feel some people calling out to me. Or maybe they were calling out to the other tourists. In the din, I could not be sure. Even my walk was guarded, as if I was ready to push off anyone who came too close. The songs kept blaring in the clubs. Thoroughly uneasy, also disgusted, I left the place and went back to my hostel.
The next two days in Bangkok I visited palaces and Buddhist temples and parks and went nowhere near Patpong. A few days later, I left for Phuket.
The last night in Phuket, I went to Patong – the most active centre in town. This was probably my last chance at getting a story, because I would be leaving for the town of Chiang Mai the next day for some jungle trekking.
I entered Tiger Bar. A massive place, under one roof there were many bars here, each with their own bartender and bar hostesses. After walking past many women, I finally sat down at one bar and ordered a beer. A girl came and sat next to me. I did not walk away was because she made no attempt to come onto me, or suggest anything sexual in nature.Surprisingly, she wasn’t as skimpily dressed as the others. She asked if I was from India and I nodded.
We started talking. I asked if she would like to drink something . When she nodded, I ordered a beer for her. In these bars, they give you the bill as soon as you order. I noticed that though we were both having the same drink, mine cost 100 baht and hers 300 baht. “If you order a drink for a bar girl, it is three times the cost”, she told me sheepishly. Funnily, her drink did not even look like beer. “It’s apple juice” she told me. So, this is how it works. It’s the bar girl’s job to keep talking to a customer, and to make him keep drinking. If he orders for her, the bar earns even more. And they give the girls apple juice so that they don’t get drunk and can focus on the job at hand. I shook my head in mock amusement. But, it was the price of my story, I figured.
She asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She laughed and asked me if I would ever write about her. I told her I would.
The funny thing is, it did not feel as if I was talking to a sex worker at all. The way we started speaking it was more like two acquaintances, or someone I’d meet in a hostel or on a bus tour.
The bar had a pole, and two girls in bikinis were going up and down the pole, each raunchier than the other. And though they were hardly dancing a metre ahead of me, I was least interested. Noi and I kept talking, now discussing her village and people in North Thailand.
The bartender asked me if I would like to pay a “bar fine”. A bar fine is when you want to take the bar girl with you back to your hotel or some place, and are willing to pay the bar a said amount for the night. I shook my head. Noi laughed and told the bartender that I was a writer and that I would write a story about her. Not surprisingly, the bartender, her friend, did not share her enthusiasm at all.
Noi, like many of the girls working in the bars of Pattaya and Phuket, originally hailed from North Thailand. Living in a poor province, her parents had a small farm and lots of children. By the time, Noi was twenty she was madly in love with a local boy and married him. Over the next few years, they had two kids. Money was still hard to come by, and the all consuming love between husband and wife was now reduced to daily fights. His womanizing ways did not help matters and one day he left, never to return. It is the story of most of these girls, not just hers. Noi tried to find work in the village but earned practically nothing. A friend told her about the bars in Pattaya and Phuket and soon both of them, left for this part of Thailand.
Enough western tourists come to Thailand every year. They visit the bars, pick up girls and often ask them to spend the entire holiday with them. Some of these foreigners , or falangs as they are known in Thailand, would come for four five days, whereas others would come for a fortnight, a month or even longer. If they picked a bar girl for the holiday, they would treat her well, pay for her meals, go out, shop together and even buy her gifts. Of course, they would have sex too.
A lot of these men are lonely and want companionship. They want an ego boost – want a girl to find them good looking, want a girl to raise their self esteem. Sometimes, they even fall in love with the girl and take her back to their country and marry her. The girls, too, hope to fall in love with a falang and live in a rich country where she can have her own house and a better life. That’s the dream. Noi hoped too that she would fall in love with a nice Falang and that he would take her away with him.
Not every girl’s knight in shining armour is Prince Charming. Some are from different countries, some are almost her father’s age, some are lonely and some are just fooling her or being fooled by her.
The bartender was clearly not happy that we were just talking, and not even drinking, and asked me if I was done for the night.
I liked how Noi didn’t try to come on to me at all. It made me comfortable enough to crack jokes. She asked me if I would like to see her children’s photographs. When I nodded, she took out her phone and showed me some pictures from her Facebook account. “Can I add you”, she asked hesitantly.
When I nodded, she looked happy and exclaimed, “now I will know when you write a post about me”. It’s been over a year, but I hope my post finds its way to her home page feed.
Another bar girl was walking up and down the aisle next to us. Every time a tourist crossed her, she tried to pull him to sit down at the bar with her, but they would all push her away. She took it good naturedly and would just flash us a grin or say something funny every time she was rejected. She had come to talk to us a couple of times and kept teasing me to go have sex with Noi. I told her that I wasn’t looking for that.
She was shorter than Noi. Her hair was a mixture of gold and brown, and the clothes she wore left very little to imagination. As one more guy brushed off her hand, and walked off, she came to us and in good humour, pushed up her breasts to reveal a little more through the thin top and quipped “I’ll get the the next one!!”
I smiled at her, and pointed towards a guy strolling in our direction, and asked her to “go get him”. She laughed and left. To be honest, I can’t believe my mental state in those moments. Here were two women moving raunchily on a pole next to me, and another wearing close to nothing, and a fourth with whom I was sitting, and there wasn’t a single sexual feeling in me. The only emotions I felt were those of a friend. I wanted them to be able to get some guys to sit with them, because I knew that only then the bar would pay them anything. Never ever in my life had I imagined I would be sitting talking to sex workers , talking about their families and asking one to “go get a guy”.
The truth is that behind those smiles, and makeup and flashy clothes, lay young girls who were mostly poor, who had to necessarily smile at any man of any size, shape, age and who had probably been ravaged and hurt by hundreds of men. They had to lie to their families about their “work life”, they were judged and looked down upon by those who knew what they did, and most Thai men would never marry them. Worst of all, their own souls had taken a huge emotional beating and been left scarred and a lot of innocence had been sucked out of their lives forever.
I asked Noi if she had ever been in love. She smiled, and nodded. There had been a Brazilian guy she had fallen for a few months back. He was much younger than her, just 26 years old. They spent a happy month together, but he had maintained that he had no interest in marriage. When he flew back to his country later, he was sad to leave her. She cried for many days.
I left half an hour later. We hugged warmly and I wished her every happiness in life. She wished that I have a great trip ahead. I told her I’d send her a postcard.
The two girls on the pole were still gyrating, making seductive expressions but not being able to hide the absolute disinterestedness in their eyes. I walked out of Tiger Bar, and realized I had not taken down her address for the postcard. I walked back to where we had sat at the bar.
From afar, I noticed there was already a man sitting with her, and playing with her hair. I turned back and went to my hostel. I hope she made some money out of him.
------------------------ THE END ------------------------------------------
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