When It All Went Wrong…
If you want me to put a date on when it all went wrong in the nightlife scene then I can do so surprisingly accurately and I can say the beginning of the end started in 1986. What I can't say is quite why – this was still pre-internet and mobile phones were like large walkie-talkies that had to be carried in a holster on the owner's belt so neither was yet to have an effect. I do recall that it was around this time that the chances of getting long time for 500 baht had disappeared (if you were doing the go-go bars) and suddenly 1000 baht was the norm.
I wasn't living full time in Thailand in 1985 and this helped highlight the change as things seem to have gone downhill between visits in a matter of six months. Most of the attractive women were suddenly absent from the scene and it became a serious struggle to wander through the neon looking for someone worth bar-fining (if you were used to beautiful women). For sure, there were always hot women around but they were quite vicious vixens under the looks who had already been through a ruinous number of men; some of them trained in the local brothels where ten guys a day was not unusual.
There is of course a difference in perspective generated by age – having hit Thailand when I was under 30 I am sure my experience would've been radically different if I could now somehow go back to those days when I am 60. However, there were plenty of old chaps around back then who seemed to do okay with the women and at least you could find some mutual respect between participants rather than the current barely concealed loathing. For sure, (younger) farang now have the option of good Thai girls who were all but invisible back in 1985. Back in 1987 I was so fed up with the b-girls that I actually put an advert in The Nation asking any interested women to contact me – I had one reply!
The Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Americans using the country as a base had opened up the country to Western influence and illustrated, along the way, the transformation ability of a quick influx of money. Whilst Thailand had its own mind-bending array of brothels and nightclubs for the locals, the girls involved tended to be completely ruined by the time they reached 20. The flow of girls towards the American R + R scene had set up an alternative for Westerners, beer bars and go-gos where young babes could turn up with empty pockets and if they got lucky end up having their lives transformed. Luckily, for farang, those short, 40kg dark skinned Isarn babes weren't to mainstream Thai male tastes (unless you were an Isarn lout out to live off your woman). The age of consent was (and is) 15 and plenty of girls down towards this age were working in farang orientated bars rather than being ruined by the locals until they reached twenty, the current minimum age. <I am not sure what the age of consent was back then i.e. if it has since changed, but today it is 18, or 15 with parents' permission. And if a lady works as a sex worker, it is strictly 18 – Stick>
In my occasional meanderings upcountry I'd noticed that a remarkably large number of families had more girls than boys – often there would be 6 or 7 girls to one male child! Nowadays, there seem to be more male than female children and families are much, much smaller. These upcountry towns then had no Western influence and were, like Bangkok in earlier days, blighted by incredibly vicious mosquitoes that would try to eat hapless farang alive, biting through two layers of socks and thick trousers! It would take a couple of decades before these places began to show signs of civilization and Bangkok itself was not a particularly nice place to live in the 60s and some of the 70s. So if you are looking for the golden years I would put it at mid 70s through to mid 80s, being extremely cheap to live but without much hardship and plenty of cheap sex on offer. Violence against farang was also extremely rare unless you had offended a b-girl's Thai boyfriend.
Bear in mind that during this period the girls turning up in the neon had mostly been barely educated and had probably been cutting rice since they were 10 and eating a diet of high protein fried insects and rice… this combination of hard work from an early age with a minimalistic but adequate diet generally gave the girls very svelte, strong bodies that had a wild sexual heat as if you were plugging into the mother-lode, sex at its rawest. Bodies had a rare lack of body fat. Also emotionally they tended to be somewhat lost souls as parents venerated boys and tended to give the older sisters the hardest time. The odd porker (actually slimmer than most gals now working the go-gos) had the option of going after the Arabs who back then were fairly discreet, if you did not know where to look you probably would not come across any. Neither were there any hardcore lesbian types (the ones with wrestler bodies who spend their time scowling at farang), though some bisexual girls who kept their girl-girl fantasies mostly behind closed doors.
There were always katoeys around but easily identified by their unlikely size and best avoided as they still had a strong patina of male violence – more likely to attack you if you called them on their gender than boast about still having a cock, as is the norm nowadays. I do think that mainstream Thais think it is hilarious that the nation is managing to off-load a huge number of fake women on to foreigners and probably hope that the katoeys can take over the whole neon scene, leaving them to enjoy the real women.
Writing about katoeys brings to mind HIV, which sent a scare through the Western world in the early '80s but didn't impinge on Thailand until a few years later. It does occur to me that maybe the fright of catching AIDS was probably prevalent by 1985 and did the more attractive girls in the neon, who had the easy option of getting a guy to take them out of the bar, do a kind of mass runner around that time, explaining the end of an era?
As to the go-go bars, outside of Patpong, back in the day you mostly had amateur owners who ended up running a bar so they could stay in Thailand and recruited the women through their Thai wife's contacts – there were actually owners who went out of their way to make sure the girls did not have local boyfriends. Patpong was a mix of American owners and Thai owners, the latter recruiting lots of ex-brothel gals and gradually taking over the scene – the owner of the soi would often base his rental demands on how much he liked a bar or the manager of the bar! Not exactly big business ethics but it was all leases so I guess Mr. Patpong was a happy chap on the back of mind-boggling land values on Silom. From the punters' point of view, ever larger and glitzier bars have been an unmitigated disaster but fine as a cheap form of entertainment if you ain't going to do bar-fines.
The business model for go-gos that worked was pack as many girls as possible in a single shophouse with the lights shining on the stage and everything else given a quick going over with matt black paint! With so many different owners' collusion on pricing was difficult and it was only when large groups took over and expanded the format into the current glitz that things began to go really hardcore and the girls were actively encouraged to have Thai boyfriends and treat the customers with contempt (the more money you give them, the greater that contempt), as that meant they were much more likely to keep working than permanently exit with farang.
As Stick notes, the current crop of Thai girls are reasonably educated and can do quite well by working in a straight job. Those that do poke their heads into a go-go bar find the ambience frightening – mamasans used to dealing with ex-brothel gals who are so venal and vicious that straight women won't even talk to them and a motley collection of sex tourists who must indeed seem quite beastly, bloated as they appear on an excess of Viagra and alcohol. Given that most areas in Thailand have Thai women who have married farang, it is much easier for attractive girls to talk to these families and get them to find her a good foreigner than go to all the bother of moving to Bangkok and working in a go-go bar. Word of mouth has thus taken a huge swathe of farang-inclined girls out of the scene, out of an ever diminishing pool of available women. And the internet dating sites take up a lot of the slack.
Nearly all these dancing girls have local Thai boyfriends or husbands, certainly not worth fighting over or paying serious money for. There are the street walkers who still do cheap sex but the air of disease and ruination is not that dissimilar to their Western sisters who do the same trick to keep themselves in drugs. Some poor farang souls are so deluded they go wife hunting in the smaller bar areas such as Soi 6 in Pattaya, notorious for its lack of medical checks and where girls with various diseases go off in the hope of finally getting lucky.
Thai girls generally are now well aware of how attractive they are to Western men and have little inclination to sell themselves short and have upped their expectations in terms of acceptable looks, relative age difference and income expectations. So in short, there ain't no going back to the good old days when Western men were able to get hold of highly attractive women (not just physically but in character as well despite working the neon) who they would never pull in the West and fund them on what passed for loose change.
Still, first timers who have never seen the like of Thai neon still have a blast and don't complain about how much they have to pay whilst you can sort of see the scene moving on to more of a pure entertainment than pay-for-play, perhaps with less girls dancing to live music and the hardcore hookers being moved into proper brothels as per the local scene (although foreigners will have to deal with much older hookers and however many katoeys the Thais can pass off as real women)… however, the very real sexual fit between white Western men and Asiatic women will remain a strong, addictive pull so never count the scene out.
If you want to go back to the good old days in terms of attractive women with good attitude who cost sod all to fund, willing to put up with older guys, then you need to find a quiet backwater in another Asiatic country and keep very quiet about it, as any noise on the internet will ruin it in short order.