Tales from Thailand 3 – Field Trip Report
Thailand tales for your reading pleasure.
So finally, the window to return to Thailand opens. Airport, check in, lounge, plane, wine, eat, sleep, landing, immigration, bags, car, hotel. Bye-bye, Brexit Britain (for a while at least). Can’t say I’ll miss the Brexit mess. Western media may criticise the authoritarian governments around the world, but the Western model is certainly creaking at the seams right now.
I have a short time in Bangkok to look after myself for 3 days. The plan is to tour the main a-gogo bars and because I can’t help myself but wonder why they do it, ask the working girls about themselves, their background, why they do this job and the commercial model for them i.e. what makes it stick. I don’t expect much, the obvious answers are ‘need fast cash’ and ‘have baby to support, me no husband’. But let’s see.
I’ve read a couple of websites in advance to figure out the most popular spots, so I have a rough list to run through. First, I head to the bright neon lights of Soi Cowboy. In the evening, all lit up, it’s quite the spectacle. Initial impressions are there are a lot of tourists here filling up the soi. It’s crowded and takes some maneuvering to head down to the end. The neon lights give the soi a carnival feel. Ladies dressed in show uniforms beckon you to enter their bars, sometimes grabbing you by the arm. Almost expecting to see a few midgets and dancing bears.
I spot the first bar on my list and enter. On entering, the staff quickly sit me down and take a drinks order. I have a look around and see the room format laid out with a central stage holding a few girls dancing. Customers are seated either in front on stools lining the stage or further back on terraced seating around the room.
I call a girl over from the dancers, order her the requisite ‘lady drink’ and ask about her background. She happily obliges and chats away. Only 20 years old, no children, from upcountry and been working here for a few months. Entry point was a friend working here introduced her in on the premise she would earn some good money. I asked about the economic model here for her. She gets a base salary of around 16,000 baht per month, plus 50 – 80 baht per lady drink commission (this numbers varied from bar to bar) and whatever they can get from customers if they go out with them, which goes straight into their pocket. Some bars gave them drink quotas, they had to get at least two or three lady drinks in a given night before they could get their drink tips paid out to them.
I asked her if she’s making good money, i.e. 100k plus a month, but it seemed not. She just shook her head. I pointed out the smart girls get a western sponsor to pay them as well. She looked at me oddly then, although admitted some girls have worked here a couple of years, have figured things out, and are earning well she said “100,000 plus plus”.
So we have a chat for a bit. I asked her about previous jobs before working in the bar. She worked in a factory near Chonburi for a year. Hard work, twelve hours a day six days a week, for not that much pay, about 14,000 base salary plus bonus and overtime. But some of that was eaten up with accommodation and food costs.
My take on her was she’s young, a friend got her into the bar and she’s earnings good money, compared to her benchmarks. Hasn’t been working more than a couple of months and seemed fairly normal. Fair enough. I look around and note that this bar seemed a bit sterile, as it’s geared to the Asian clientele, who seem to like cute girls just shuffling around. I then asked her if the 4-4-4 story about these customers is true (i.e. 4 inches, 4 minutes, 4 thousand baht). She laughed but then said easy money and sometimes they just want to go back to their room and drink with someone to talk to. I pay the bill and head out.
Walking back out into the soi I’m hit with the paparazzi. No less than three people, one with a pro video camera and two with mobiles, all sweeping the soi for pics. The whole spectacle is being recorded real time. Artificial Intelligence facial recognition has long since come of age, so expect all these videos to be swept by Google, Facebook et al, linked back to your social media account and held somewhere in their labyrinth databases. There is no privacy in the age of Moore’s Law.
Next bar, I beckon a girl over, she sits down, lady drink ordered. I ask her (in my tourist Thai) usual questions around where’s she’s from, why she’s working here. Just try to figure out what her story is. After she gets past her usual stock answers to questions, she opens up a bit. She’s 24 with a nine-year-old kid. Eh? That means she got pregnant at 15. I ask to confirm. Yes, sure enough, Thai guy got her pregnant at 15 and then fled, leaving her holding the baby. Then when she was only 17, an older westerner around 45 years old dated her for two years supporting her and her family. That ended, then she tried working in factories, etc. finally landing in a bar needing the money.
I asked about her parents and siblings, wondering why they don’t help. Father is sick, brother is at home looking after him, mother was divorced by father and she has three other brothers all who are not helping. She’s the breadwinner for this lot. You could see the weight of it in her eyes. The more she talked about her situation, the more she seemed to shrink into herself in despair. An awful lot of responsibility has been burdened onto her young shoulders.
Changing the topic, I asked her what she does in her free time. Well, she has to work seven days a week so the routine is go to work for 7:30 PM stay until 2 AM closing, eat with the other girls here, go home, eat again, sleep, wake up late, eat, muck about, go to work. Rinse and repeat.
This was a common theme on the bar girl stories is that the job does constrain them into a narrow routine and they are really bored. Mostly they come from upcountry and haven’t seen anything of Bangkok. They do get three or four days off a month, but claimed to spend that time catching up on sleep. This girl became quite animated when I started talking about the things to do in Bangkok, great restaurants, fun bars around Thonglor, music clubs etc. She was leaning on me to pay her bar fine so she could go out now and we could go do something fun and interesting. She said no need to pay her (somewhat tongue in cheek I expect of course) she just wanted to experience something. I can imagine the work routine is grinding and a chance to get out for a bit and do something interesting would be welcomed.
Well, that’s not the plan, so I pay the bill and move on.
Next place, same routine, call over a girl, ask her what’s up. Similar story, upcountry girl, but she states she’s now only 19! I blink – that’s really young. Yes, she has a baby and the Thai father has bunked it as usual. This is getting to be the central theme. She’s only been working here a few days and seemed to be trying to get her head around the situation. Needs fast cash, but a bit like a deer caught in headlights. She was coughing a bit and confessed to feeling sick. I felt her forehead and throat and she was burning up with a temperature. Asked her why she doesn’t go home and rest and she said if she doesn’t finish her shift she gets penalised her bar fine, docked off her wages.
While I left the bar at this point, writing and thinking about this now I wish I had paid her bar fine and sent her home. Poor kid.
Something felt not right here, this girl is a teenager and should be at studies, enjoying her youth, being with friends. I’m not worried about the older girls, they’ve made their own career decision as an adult. But this girl was way too young and was obviously unprepared for the tough reality of this job. My take on it stems back to the lack of family values. What kind of family allows their 19-year-old daughter to rent herself out? They know she works here. That for me is at the heart of it. The tacit support from the girls’ families. I know they are dirt poor, I have been upcountry and seen it myself. But Thailand is doing well economically, employment is strong, there are ways to make a living. Especially if the family worked together.
And another point on these upcountry families, where is the family planning for their young daughters? If they could stem the teenage pregnancies, that alone would solve a lot of the problem.
At this point the sob stories are somewhat getting to me, albeit I did ask the questions so I shouldn’t complain about the answers.
The next bar was a welcome respite. The format inside has a relaxed lounge type seating. The music was good, with the volume pitched nicely between loud enough to give some energy but low enough talking was easy. The customers were a mix of young tourists, who in some cases had bought their western girlfriends along, and older guys who appeared to be regulars. It had a good party buzz to it and it was easy to sit back, have some drinks and have a chat.
I spoke to a few of the girls here, and had a great laugh with many them. They were a bit older and more seasoned in the industry.
One of the girls was an older lady, about 40 and actually quite attractive for her years. A working girl professional, had been working in Soi Cowboy bars for at least ten years now. No hard luck story, she is an adult, accepted her occupation decision some years ago and has now perfected the art of squeezing money out of customers. She told me she targets going out with around 15 men per month and 30 in peak season. She earns a lot. I asked her where’s all the money then? She has already paid for a house upcountry and is working on a retirement fund. I was sceptical on the retirement fund as she didn’t look like the savings type as later she revealed a preference for high stakes card games. Soon she’s pouring out her life story. She had a western boyfriend for two years, during which time he paid her a monthly amount to not to work in the bar. They recently broke up, and he’s stopped paying, hence she’s back in employment here.
She said, “He says he still loves me, but if he still loved me would not let me work in the bar, so he must pay, or he doesn’t love me”. I found this a funny circular reference, and asked again as follows:
Me “Do you love your boyfriend”
Bar girl “yes”
Me “can you buy love with money”
Bar girl “no, love is in the heart”
Me “should your boyfriend pay you to stay out of the bar”
Bar girl “has to, or he doesn’t love me, doesn’t he?”
A relationship with such a girl would require you to exist in a multi-dimensional universe, where love and money are both separate concepts and yet bound tightly together! You could of course argue many relationships between men and women around the world are like this to varying degrees, so what’s the issue. But it seems in Asia love and money are more intertwined than we are used to in the West.
Speaking to another girl in here, she called herself a ‘Coyote’. Their deal is they get paid something in the region of 500 to 700 baht a night to dance and as long as they hit a drinks quota and they get money for each lady drink customers buy for them as well. Bar fines for them are priced out at 2,000 baht paid to the bar and also considerably higher sum for them as well, which is intentionally expensive I think. So they are quite relaxed, they can earn a living without selling sex, but if they want, they can choose to go out with a customer. It surprising how the dynamic changes when the girl is not under pressure to go with customers, she was happy, relaxed, easy to chat too.
There was an additional interesting dimension to her and other such ‘coyote’ types, which was once a rapport was established, she was quite pushy about getting my LINE ID. This was another common theme. While I noted the bar management confiscate their phones, these girls were going to some lengths to get my details, even using pen and paper. One did procure her phone back off the bench and on a glancing look at her screen, I saw she had a long list of suitors already stored in there. After some discussion, I had a sense the commercial model is to establish connections with suitable customers and then arrange appointments off duty. It seemed she was quite happy to work for the bar, dance around, have a couple of drinks, get paid 700 baht and otherwise not do much, but keep an eye out for the occasional high value customer for off duty revenue generation. She didn’t bother with earning bar fines here and when not dancing mostly sat out the back chatting with her mates. I can imagine this annoys the bar management no end.
Heading home from the evening, I reflected on the various bars’ business models. If you are an attractive, young Thai girl, what are you really going to think about an employment proposition where you get paid not much on base salary and have to have sex with a lot of random men to get any cash? Add to that the long hours, drinking and the grumpy, troll-like floor bosses patrolling the place with their fines, it’s not great. I can see how the more relaxed entertainment based venues will gain traction. In combination with the connections of social media apps it gives more personal control to the workers, as they are not constrained by the interactions one bar provides them each night.
The next day, for something interesting to do, I went to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre opposite MBK. They were displaying exhibitions from both local and foreign artists. Of topical interest, I came across a three-piece exhibition focusing on Thai sex workers.
The first piece was a neon sign saying “Good Girls Go To Heaven Bad Girls Go Everywhere”. If you looked closely at the sign, pasted on the backing paper were hundreds of small insect wings, carefully arrange in neat order. The second piece was interesting, it was a light cabinet which held pieces of metal from old manual sewing machines with strands of hair stuck into them. The title was “No More Sewing Machine” and the description was “Sewing machine spare parts, hair of Thai sex workers, light box”.
The last piece was a short video playing in an enclosed room. The artist had interviewed about twenty Thai sex workers in their respective bars or massage parlours, with the simple question of ‘what are your hopes and dreams’. The answers were varied, and not very compelling, but what was clearly conveyed is these are still people, and like anyone else they have hopes, albeit, they have ended up in a dire occupation.
That evening, I first popped into a small local bar for a starter drink, happy hour 70 baht drinks. Nice little bar, small, casual hangout. Struck up a conversation with a westerner passing through on business. We were working in different industries but on the same professional level, so good times swapping work war stories. Bangkok is great like that, a cross roads for many. Good times!
There were a couple of bar girls there, one was a lively lass and we bought her a few drinks and got to talking with her for a while.
In the course of the conversation, I asked the usual question, “Why this?” She told us she was working on getting to her quota of ten drinks for the night. Once she hit this number of sales, then she was allowed to go home early. Her base salary is 4,000 baht per month plus 50 baht per lady drink and any cash from customers if she goes back to their hotel with them.
She was quite nice, friendly, big smile, seemed a bit too normal to be working here. Again, same stories as before, upcountry family needed support, she was really bored with the work routine, didn’t like being a bar girl, hadn’t seen much of Bangkok. Yes, she had a serious westerner boyfriend for a while but that ended. I asked her if she has plans to stop working here, and she just said if she thinks too much about her situation right now she starts to cry.
I probably shouldn’t have asked, but it made me realise they generally don’t have a plan to get out of this situation, other than a white knight coming along.
Off to Nana Plaza. First impressions: it’s messy leading up to the entrance. Open-air bars and cluttered footpaths. Dark corners with trash piles lit up by flickering neon. People everywhere, going somewhere, weaving around. It’s like a scene from the original Blade Runner movie, the one where Harrison Ford chases the girl through a futuristic Chinatown.
Glancing into the bars lining the Nana entrance, quite elderly ladies look back. They stare back hard, try to lock your gaze like a tractor beam. The walkway is jammed with food carts and their hungry customers. Security guards standing at the Nana Plaza entrance were very polite and waved me through. They seemed to be looking out for a profile though stopping a girl in front of me and searching her handbag. Once inside, first impressions were not great, a gabble of crazed ladies standing around scanning for bait. Front staff at bars grab you to enter their lairs. The cacophony assails you.
Heading upstairs, I escape the ground floor medley and walked straight up the stairs to the top floor. Here I visited a couple of bars, both of a similar format (same owners I was told). These bars were money-printing machines. Packed with quite attractive ladies, they were equally packed with customers spending money with gusto. One bar was a bit much, it was really a voyeurs’ dream. The other bar was it bit more fun, the music was great and they even put on a live MC, which when I saw him I thought ‘oh no – dreadful R&B rap coming’. But actually, he was very good, pumped out just the right tempo and kept the energy levels high. Interesting to see two bars running as a highly successful business.
After this, headed out walking the length of the first floor for a nosey. Passed a small nondescript bar and I glanced inside, it was a throwback to the Vietnam days. Place didn’t look like it had been updated since then. Loads of old pics on the walls, funny memorabilia. ‘Have a drink’, the door attendant kindly promotes with a welcoming smile. Why not, try somewhere off-plan. I entered into a small, narrow bar. Old school. Two girls bounce over to me, the obvious newbie. After introductions, Tequila shots asked for, down they go in a flash. These two were professionals and have been working as bar girls for a couple of years and were easy to talk to. We had another round of drinks and a few laughs. They then pushed me to pay the bar fine take them out. I said that’s not going to happen, not the plan. Then they both went quiet and suddenly looked very thoughtful.
The human mind is a remarkable thing. A typical human brain has 16,000,000,000 neurons. In turn, each neuron can have multiple synapse connections and these connections can fire in varying strengths and patterns, all leading up to a phenomenally complex structure, capable of amazing feats of cognition, memory, pattern recognition and sensory processing. All of which enables complex, abstract problems to be solved in real world situations.
Well, these two suddenly had their brains in full gear. Decision time, dump this guy or not. You could see the intense concentration. If they were plugged into the mains the lights would have dimmed. Their inputs were: money from drinks from me so far, potential drinks money from me, no bar fine from me, time until closing, scan of other customers in the room, probability of money from them, need a new handbag, time to next som tum break, itchy arm. In that order! It was really funny to watch. You could see their eyes rapidly twitching left and right, brows furrowed.
While the full power of two brains belonging to the most advanced life form on our planet were bought to bear on solving this complex problem, I made it easier for them and tipped the decision by ordering another round of tequila shots.
These were thirstily consumed and with the warm balm of mankind’s oldest relaxation kicker bathing those pesky neurons, the decision was now quickly made to stick with me in the bar, drink and have a laugh until the early hours of the morning.
Honestly, it was a great night. These two were hilarious, they acted like they just didn’t have a care in the world. Also, the stars aligned and the few other customers in the bar were in party mode. One guy rang the bell twice, ordering rounds of drinks for the whole bar. Everyone was dancing, the music selections were perfect, brilliant time. One guy bought in his western wife who stared at us wide-eyed in disbelief like we were all loons, then joined in the fun. Eventually the staff switched off the lights and threw us out at 2:30 AM. A great finish to the field trip!
The next night I popped into Patpong to visit a bar in a different locale. I drank with two girls who appeared good-natured with good smiles. I was done with the research questions and just had a laugh with them, freely allowing them take full advantage of my drinks tab. They of course went crazy on it, having a party. It was light-hearted fun, all good.
By 11 PM I decided to go home. Sleep beacons, I’ve had enough.
The two girls saw me to the door. As I left I turned and smiled goodbye. They stood in the doorway, a bright tungsten street light revealing all beneath it. I paused and studied my companions. One was tottering in heels far too high, holding onto the door frame. Tequila drowning the sensory organs responsible for balance. The other blinking with half clenched eyes in the dazzling light, like a lizard emerging from the security of it’s cave.
The years working in bars had not served them well. Despite their youth, tired lines carved across skin weary from late nights and drinking. Tattoos mark their skin, some poorly done, blurry. They know ink marks them to other Thais as a working girl, yet they wear them with pride. I suspect more as solidarity with their working sisters.
It’s a tough job, you have to respect them for that. Imagine someone close to you doing this. On the surface it’s easy to write them off as, at best entertainment, at worst gougers. Westerners who have been stung financially will have an opinion on that of course. The Stickman back annuals are packed with bargirl did me wrong stories.
But that seems unfair. I didn’t see these girls dripping in jewellery or sporting designer clothes or expensive bags. Their stories were fairly consistent. The original impetus was often not for themselves but to fund a needy family or raise a child unsupported by a vagrant father. A job they entered to help ungrateful others not to enable personal extravagance. Many seemed to start too young and the job is grinding. Worst of all, their parents and families know they work here, but happily receive their funds rather than intervene. But a white knight I am not and neither should you, the reader be. Do not add yourself to the tales of woe.
On that, we end with a smile, and they disappear back into the gloom of the bar.
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