Life on the Street in My ‘Hood: Part 2: Whores & Johns
One of the things I like about my neighborhood in the morning is the number of whores walking past my apartment building, on their way home after an overnight with one of my neighbors. They're walking proud and looking fine, two or more crisp thousand-baht
notes in their purses, talking on their cell phones.
They are followed by the men, first the resident whoremongers (sexpats) going to work—white shirt and tie, no jacket, laptop in a shoulder bag—followed by the holiday-makers (sex tourists) in tee shirts and cargo pants, looking for the day's first beer.
This is a story about how these people came to be in my 'hood. In numbers large enough to be called packs. It has been clearly established that prostitution in Thailand was not invented by foreigners and history shows that the sex industry still mainly serves the local population, but the media and fiction writers, unsurprisingly, focus on sex involving foreigners. (Nobody back in the States or Manchester or Perth wants to read about Thais having sex with Thais.) And for more than 70 years, Thailand has been welcoming those outsiders in such a fashion that Bangkok and Thailand have become known (ostensibly for other reasons, but…) as the City of Angels, the Land of Smiles.
With some three hundred thousand Japanese troops stationed in Bangkok during World War Two and some thirty thousand British and Indian soldiers arriving as a transition force after it, Thailand quickly developed a lively commercial sex infrastructure accustomed to providing for foreigners. Reportedly, there were eighty-five cabarets spread across the capital, along with a nine-story brothel in Chinatown, touted as the world's largest, and in one block of houses and hovels elsewhere, some 2,000 more women ready to become a new best friend.
With the withdrawal of those military forces, the number of sex venues fell, until the early 1960s when the US government made Bangkok one of nine approved R&R destinations during the American war in Vietnam and coordinating with the Thai government, oversaw the construction of a five-kilometer-long row of bars, massage parlors, cheap hotels and other facilities distant from the city's downtown. (And not far from my neighborhood.) At the war's peak, 17,000 men went on R&R every month and Bangkok was the preferred destination.
Thus were created Thailand's first sex tourists, men who came from elsewhere on holiday for what they called "intercourse and inebriation."
Hostilities in Vietnam lasted eleven years (1964-1975), making it America's longest war, and to support it there were an additional forty thousand servicemen actually based in Thailand, most of them Air Force personnel on seven air bases, others what were called REMFs, or "Rear Echelon Motherfuckers," serving in Bangkok offices and port facilities. The loss of revenue that resulted when the war ended and again a military force went home spurred a government campaign to attract European holidaymakers to take its place and in this fashion, perhaps, make sex tourism a permanent part of the GNP.
Concurrent with this government push was the emergence of a group of foreigners who decided to make Thailand home, largely on the basis of the sexual availability and affordability they encountered during holidays. The first were Vietnam vets who decided not to return to the United States. They were joined by others, mainly from Europe and North America and then East Asia, especially Korea and Japan, who began to build factories in Thailand. These were called sex expatriates, or "sexpats."
By the early 1990s, when I arrived, there were two red-light districts in the neighborhood I chose to be mine—the older Soi Cowboy, a block-long strip of beer and go-go bars named for an American GI who called himself and his bar "Cowboy," and the newer Nana Entertainment Plaza, named for the street it was on (which was named for a local politician who once owned much of the land). For the purposes of this story, I'll confine my remarks to the latter, a 12-minute walk from my flat.
There were 16 bars at the three-story, horseshoe-shaped "Nana" when I started frequenting them. Now there are 40, with some 1,500 young Thai women working in them. The soi, or street, that runs past Nana had two bars in 1993; now there are about 30 with another (I'm guessing) 500 women, give or take. They're looking for short-time friends, too, as are the dozens who work the street. And this is just my neighborhood. Add other red-light districts in Bangkok (there are several) and more in Pattaya and islands in the south. Add all the massage parlors and escort services, and as Yul Brynner said in The King and I, "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!"
By the mid-1990s, Thailand had earned a reputation as one of the world's most popular destinations for sex tourists. Rolling Stone magazine in 1991 headlined a story about AIDS and Bangkok "Death in the Candy Store." Two years later, the British company Longman published a Dictionary of English Language and Culture that described Bangkok as a city known for its Buddhist temples and as "a place where there are lots of prostitutes." Not long after that in a story about Thailand's economy Newsweek quoted a Western diplomat in Bangkok as saying, "Thailand has two comparative advantages—sex and golf courses."
Thailand's government was not amused, but there was little its leaders could, or wanted to do. It contributed uncounted millions of dollars to the economy. The cops, so poorly paid they had to buy their own weapons and bullets, depended on the bribes paid by the bars for a living. There is a three-level shopping mall in my neighborhood built by the cop who was the bagman at Nana and some of his friends. Prostitution has been illegal since the Fifties, a status forced by their scurrilous American friends, but it's a law nobody tries to enforce.
A friend of mine who worked for more than 25 years in Asia's tourism industry, and who once called Thailand "a whorehouse with temples," said if the government actually did enforce the law, it would put half a million people out of work, affecting dozens of businesses, from hotels and airlines to beer manufacturers and tailor shops. No one knows how many whores there are (men as well as women, and half of the men working in the gay venues are straight; it's just a job for them), nor how much money the business earns. Some say as much as 13 percent of the tourist revenue is sex, it depends on who's doing the wild guessing.
Even with so many working to produce this cash flow, in the 18 years that I've been here I suppose it is inevitable that I sometimes encounter someone I know, holding someone else's hand. Usually a quick and furtive smile is successfully exchanged, but once I saw Nuen approaching with a strange man. Automatically and naturally, we embraced and I realized what a mistake that was and for the next minute or two I babbled. I said Nuen was from my village—what must he have thought of that!—and was a close friend of my wife's. I even showed the guy my wedding ring. (Ha! He had one, too.) In fact, I never dated Nuen. She WAS my wife's friend and from my wife's village where we have a home. But do you think that guy believed me?
One thing is clear: it gives my neighborhood oomph. In what is otherwise an upmarket mixed residential and commercial area, with the most expensive per-square-meter property in all of Bangkok and five-star hotels on every block, the sidewalks are crowded with whores—standing and looking for a date, plucking at your sleeve as you pass; walking hand-in-hand with white men double and triple their age, the males' faces showing loopy grins; and in the evening, arriving as a gentle tide from 7 o'clock onwards on motorbikes, in taxis and from the Skytrain afoot, ready for another chance to prove how welcoming they can be. With sidewalk vendors selling XXX videos if you've got a DVD in your hotel room, along with a selection of Viagra counterfeits and toys, and condoms aplenty at the numerous pharmacies. (Consumer's note: the Viagra sold at the pharmacies is also fake, but half the price.)
One of my favorite street scenes occurs nightly at 9 or thereabouts when the vendors break down their stalls, packing the goods in carts that they leave on the side streets until the next day. (Knowing that no one, ever, would think of stealing the stuff. How long do you think one of those carts would last in New York or LA?) At the same time near Soi 4, where Nana is, others are erecting stalls and racks hung with sexy little dresses, see-through blouses and micro-skirts. They are for the girls to ooh and ahh over on their way to some nearby hotel room and make the guy a hero if he buys something for her.
Adjacent to this are the illegal sidewalk bars: carts with every kind of booze and mix and so many tables and chairs you have to walk single file to pass. Nana and the other bars close at 2. The sidewalk scene goes until dawn, watched over by a pack of ladyboys.
Some say the men look foolish. If that's so, it's mainly because of the way they dress. Aside from that, I approve. I applaud the way most of them behave, congratulate them on their rediscovered adolescent vigor and happiness, and thank them for giving the women their money, much of which goes home to their families and villages. I call it the farang-to-whore-to-Isan express and money damned well spent.
Jerry Hopkins, Bangkok, Mar. 10, 2012
For sure, your neighbourhood is well known amongst both foreigners and Thais for what goes on late at night…and the spillover from that at other times of the day.
What I find interesting – and absolutely a good thing – is that while once Bangkok might have been known in some Western countries for its spicy nightlife, that image is not that valid today. Today Bangkok is a great place to visit for shopping, for eating out and for its vibe. For the naughty nightlife? In terms of overall visitor numbers, I don't think many come for that reason these days.