It started off with a random guy who made eye contact with us at a bar. “Hi, are you Thai?” Minutes later, this British expat close-talker had me awkwardly pinned against the back of someone’s chair, practically touching my face with his as he excitedly talked to us about how much he adores New York. After asking us what we were doing later and getting a vague answer, the friendly fellow recommended a few go-go bars that “aren’t boring”. We closed up the bar at the early hour of midnight and ducked into a cab with our new friends, Power, a Taiwanese friend-of-a-friend and Rebecca, her German friend.
The cab stopped in front of Soi Cowboy — the red light district of Bangkok — and we made our way down the narrow street aglow in a rainbow of neon lights from the big signs above. Scantily-clad young girls sat or stood by the bars that lined the street, calling out to the (usually Caucasian) men looking for a good time and a happy ending to the night. Power pointed out a bar she’s been to and we were made to order our first round outside the bar as an “entrance fee”. While we waited for our drinks to be delivered, we sat outside and people-watched.
A loud group of white guys in flower print shirts caught our attention and Rebecca called out to one, asking him why all of them are wearing a similar floral print pattern. “We’re here for our friend’s bachelor party and we had to wear the ugliest shirts we could find.” It was interesting to note that the majority of the shirts are perfectly nice, and the men wearing them clearly had zero taste. The guy chatted up our German friend, asking her if she teaches English in Thailand. She laughed and his drunk eyes steadied on mine as he slurred, “You’re very beautiful.” We all laughed at this poor drunk guy and headed into the black light of the club.
A stout woman wearing a Japan soccer jersey (for some reason, the Thais rooted for Japan during the World Cup) gestured to the stools by the brightly lit stage and we sat ourselves down. We looked up at the girls in white shirt-sleeved shirts and tiny skirts and realized they weren’t wearing any underwear. Neither were the girls on the floor above, standing on the plexiglass floor and swaying back and forth. So this is what Power was talking about at dinner. I looked at them for a bit as all of them stood on the stage unenthusiastically shuffling around like cattle at auction and I felt like an involuntary perv who enjoys looking up girls’ skirts.
Power suggested we check out the second floor and we headed up the narrow stairs to a stage surrounded by lounge chairs. When N was ushered to sit on a lounge chair that was half-occupied by an older, obese white gentleman, he freaked out and shooed her away, thinking my poor wife was part of some Thai scam with the strippers to rob him of his life savings. She should’ve but she’s a classy lady. We shot him dirty looks and left the guy fumbling with his fannypack as the girls edged closer like vultures spotting a large meal.
We finally ended up on the third floor which had the least number of patrons. I guess it’s too much of an effort to climb the stairs if you have plenty of eye candy on the first floor and you don’t mind rubbing elbows with other customers. Another portly lady in a Japanese soccer jersey gestured for us to sit down on a couch and we settled in and looked out at the topless girls dancing on the stage. One briefly caught my eye as the cutest one in the room and she was immediately onto me. Power called a girl over that N thought was cute from the back of the room. She wasn’t and while N blatantly ignored the poor girl after she bought her an obligatory drink (called a “lady drink”), I was stuck making small talk. The girl mistakenly thought I was interested, and upon excusing herself to dance some more, made intense and unnecessary eye contact with me as she grinded on the pole. I smiled to be polite while my wife and my friends carried on what looked like an engrossing conversation.
We sat and joked around about taking a girl home. “Come on, I’ll take you back to my house and I’ll make you a nice meal.” “You’re too smart to be doing this. Here’s some money to pay for school.” But it’s also presumptuous for us to assume that sex work is forced or demeaning to these women, because many of them are perfectly happy with their work. In return for company and/or sex, these sex workers have financial security for themselves and their families, at least for a little while. It is a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both parties.
Not too long afterwards, a group of rowdy, flashy, middle-aged Japanese men who looked like gangsters sauntered in with Thai girls on their arms, plopping down in a booth close to us and loudly egging each other on. Two quiet Asian tourists wearing fannypacks sat in the booth next to them looking lost and uncomfortable, and the girl I made brief eye contact with earlier came over to sit with us. She asked N the usual questions while batting her eyelashes at me and when N told her we were married (cockblock!), she was horrified. She laughed and shook her head. “Noooo! But you are two tomboys!” And I realized she was referring to the strictly followed Thai lesbian culture of toms (butch lesbians) only dating dees (feminine lesbians).
As with all salespeople in the world, she immediately singled me out as the sucker in the group. She flirted and flattered because in Thailand (and unlike these establishments in the rest of the world), a lesbian is also a potential customer. Another dancer saw an opportunity and joined in, mock-fighting the cute girl for my attention and I wondered if they all work together to help each other “seal the deal”. Two European guys sat leaning over their beers, watching the girls playing with us. The cute girl sat on the arm of my chair, leaning against me and I realized we were the wrong clientele in the wrong place. The girls were just putting on a show while trying to cinch the real deal of trying to get someone to take them home. The customers were there because they were shopping for women to take home. We were there because it was a world we didn’t care to immerse ourselves into but wanted to witness. I had lost count of the number of drinks I had and my age was telling me to call it quits for the night. I extracted myself from the women — their one last effort to make me their sugarmommy — and stumbled downstairs into the red lights of Soi Cowboy, and into the comforting embrace of an air-conditioned cab.