I have few regrets from my time in Asia. The things I do regret do not concern anything I did, rather the things I didn’t. And when I reflect on those things I did not do, one in particular comes to mind. And when I do that I ask myself this question: did I miss an opportunity, or did I dodge a bullet?
One of my minor regrets is not spending more time in India. Ok, so there’s nothing stopping me from going to the airport right now and getting on a plane for India, but it’s a whole lot easier to do that from Thailand than from New Zealand. My major regret is something that happened on the last day of my trip to Kolkata.
I’d just had lunch and had a few hours to kill before my flight back to Thailand. I was wandering around, shooting life on the streets of Kolkata. It was a magnificent day, temps in the mid 20s and a hazy blue sky, the perfect temperature and bright – but not harsh light – to snap life on the streets. I was reflecting on a few great days and already thinking about my next trip to India in much the same way we all did after our first trip to Thailand when a young Indian walks up to me and says in perfect English – not perfect Indian English, but perfect English – the most profound thing a stranger has ever said to me, “You look like a man who likes to photograph prostitutes.”
To say that comment caught me off guard was something of an understatement!
He was typical of the armies of young Indian men with bright white, piercing eyes softened by a warm smile and an almost ragged appearance, wearing dress clothes that should have been discarded months earlier. The combination of the question, his appearance and posh accent startled me but he seemed friendly enough and I didn’t feel any threat or danger so we got chatting.
He was 19 years old and lived on the streets. His appearance was not quite perhaps that of someone homeless but it was also obvious that he didn’t sleep between white sheets every night.
He would explain that he was a fixer and helped out foreigners visiting Kolkata. He hung around the Sudder Street area and approached foreigners offering to help them. In return he received tips which allowed him to live.
I didn’t have to be anywhere and this young guy was interesting and engaging so I offered to buy him a meal. He accepted and we wandered back over to Sudder Street for a chat.
“So do you want to photograph some prostitutes?”, he asked me.
Photographing prostitutes in India had never been part of the plan, but here was an opportunity and at the very least I had to hear him out.
He pointed towards the end of the street and where a few ladies were lingering outside a decrepit building. They were working girls, he said. I’d never have guessed but when I paid more attention I had to admit that their body language was very different to everyone else’s.
We could photograph them, or we could do it properly. We could take a trip to Sonagachi.
I knew about Sonagachi. It is not just India’s biggest red light district, but Asia’s – and probably the world’s. The small area is said to be home to around a thousand brothels and roughly 10,000 hookers, spread across a maze of streets and back alleys in an area that sounded like a more chaotic and congested version of Bangkok’s Klong Toey slums. For someone very much in to photographing prostitutes, the idea of a local guide helping me explore the area and capture it through the lens appealed.
In Thailand, I had developed contacts who allowed me to photograph inside their bars, sometimes without any restrictions. But this was another dimension again, photographing that same sub-culture in a country that had long fascinated me.
This was at the height of my interest in photographing working girls. There was little I enjoyed more.
He explained that Sonagachi was about a 40-minute drive away. If we left right away, I would have a bit over 2 hours to roam, explore and shoot and then it would be time to return to town, grab my gear from the hotel and head to the airport. It was enough time to do a quick recce of the area, get some snaps for my collection and probably enough for a first impressions article. But it would be frustrating as it was not nearly enough time to do it properly.
What was in it for this young guy? Just give him a tip.
What was Sanagachi like? Was there security? Are foreigners frequent visitors? What would they make of a foreigner taking photos there? Would I be welcome? Was it safe for an outsider? He was extremely positive – as most Indians are – and said nothing would be a problem.
I asked him why he thought I looked like a guy who liked to photograph prostitutes.
He explained that he had met another foreigner wandering around the area and that guy also had a camera over each shoulder. That fellow was the one and only person he had taken to Sonagachi and when he saw me with two cameras, that’s why he approached me and said that I looked like a man who liked to photograph prostitutes.
I guess it was plausible.
The cab fares and the cost of hiring this guy as a guide was basically nothing. Time, however, was a problem. We’d be coming back in to town around 5:00 PM. How would the traffic be? Would I have time to get back to my hotel, grab my stuff and then head to the airport to catch my flight? That was a concern because I had got a visa on arrival which was only valid for the duration of my stay and not a day longer. It could not be extended and no way was I willing to overstay.
Tick tock, tick tock……I pondered what to do.
How would I be received in the area? As much as I had enjoyed Kolkata and as welcoming as the people had been, visiting a third world brothel district in a city I was not familiar with, a city where I didn’t speak the local language was, I had to admit, taking a risk. I did not really feel like I would be too far outside my comfort zone, but there were concerns.
I had no idea about the legality or otherwise of prostitution in India. At the same time I don’t doubt many of the women are trafficked. And where there is trafficking there is serious criminality. Would a foreigner with two cameras and giant lenses really be welcome? I had my doubts.
The young fixer assured me I could take photos not just of the brothels from the outside, but of the girls inside. This was a fantastic opportunity. I’d never have gone to a place like that on my own, but would I go with a homeless young Indian guy I’d only just met? Was I willing to put my safety in his hands? Could I trust him?
I sat at that small outdoor Sudder Street eatery on a beautiful late-January Kolkata afternoon and thought long and hard about it. I was fully aware that every minute I thought about it meant the amount of time I would have to visit would be shorter.
Photographically it was a great opportunity, but while it didn’t feel wrong, neither did it feel right. I have always been able to rationalize in my own mind that what I photograph in Thailand is a not insignificant part of the whole Thailand tourism / expat experience. In Kolkata, I could not rationalise that….and that was a problem. Go to New Zealand and you photograph landscapes and sheep. Go to Thailand and it’s temples and neon signs. I don’t think Kolkata is saris and neon signs or working girls.
And I had to confront the idea that this was a scam. Lure the Westerner with the expensive camera gear down a dark alley and rob him, or worse. Or perhaps take the foreigner to Sonagachi for real and then the police (real or fake) come along and shake him down for some crime, real or imagined. I would be so far outside my comfort zone and so keen to avoid the inside of an Indian jail they could ask anything of me.
When it comes to fight or flight, I tend to go for the third ‘F’ and freeze. Better to do nothing and see where the chips fall. And so in the end I decided against taking the trip. The opportunity was gone.
I don’t make a point of telling people I don’t know that I photograph hookers – and I certainly never revealed that to the few people I chatted with in India so I wonder why he asked me that question right out of the blue. It’s such a peculiar thing to say to a stranger that I still wonder about it, even to this day.
Back in Thailand I searched online for any prostitute / brothel / bar district photography scam in Kolkata. My search came up empty.
I will always wonder…..Did I miss a great opportunity, or did I dodge a bullet?
Where Was This Photo Taken?
Last week’s photo was taken in the old part of the city. The two red sticks in the photo were the lower parts of the Giant Swing and the building behind it is where you find many monks supplies stores. While a number of people got it right, quite a number got it wrong, mistaking it for the gate in Chinatown.
Stick’s Email Inbox (The best emails from the past week.)
Cursed with a keen sense of smell in a malodorous city.
I’m not convinced that Thais have a more acute sense of smell than others, but if they do, I pity those who live in Bangkok. The city is among the rankest I have visited in Asia, with its fetid canals, overburdened sewers, pollution-spewing buses and motorcycles, durians, and locals with pla raa breath. This makes one wonder, why don’t the allegedly odor-loathing Thais clean up their city? Are they content to go through life with a yaa dom inhaler stuck up their noses and, in typical Thai fashion, ignore the elephant in the room?
I had to chuckle when I read the article that said applicants for a driver’s license must actually take the test themselves. The new enforcement doesn’t apply to my two anecdotes. First, a German in my building went to take the written test. The written test was in Thai. The officer asked if my German friend needed any help. My friend said yes. After 500 baht was slipped under the table the officer declared that my German friend had ‘passed’ the written test! Second, my wife (who is Thai) went to take the driving test. After two failures, she then passed. To celebrate, my wife brought whiskey to the driver’s license place and she and the officers drank the whiskey! In both of these cases the applicant was the actual person, no fraud. Only in Thailand!
The end of the road.
You know you have come to the end of the Thailand road when I read your column and find the photographs of the ladyboy girl of the week more attractive than those of your real girl of the week. Never tried the middle sex (or same sex for that matter) and never will, but what I do see are no visible tattoos, no braces, and pride in presentation.
Girl of the week thoughts.
It looks like your treatment of one of your girl of the week shots in this week’s edition completely botched the picture. The girl in question is the one in black tights on the treadmill. From what I can see there is no longer any visible dental rails, no fake colouring of the eyes, not a tattoo in sight and the body isn’t the usual stick figure that slim Thai girls tend to have. Surely you can redo the .raw file to recover the original features? She’s actually a genuine cutie, making me believe it’s almost surely not a girl.
Fewer hooters at Hooters.
Some time ago I mentioned my difficulty in simply ordering a Latte from the Thai staff in Hooters and I suggested they should hire Filipinos. I am pleased to see that is now happening. All they need to do now is to set reasonable prices for the food. When I mentioned this to the manager – probably the one four managers ago – and showed him a price list from Foodland he laughed. But given all the empty tables inside I feel I was right about prices which are apparently set by Americans back in the USA.
Good memories, not to be repeated?
Your comment about the nightlife scene slowing down had me thinking. I don’t have to tell you that what attracted me to Thailand years ago was how much fun you could have during a night on the town. If a girl liked you, she’d stay with you with little or no up charge for the extra time. At least, that was my experience. That was what helped to create an illusion of a more complete connection and was what made Thailand so different and enjoyable. You felt like you could go there and immediately find a temporary girlfriend to help you enjoy your time thoroughly. She even seemed to enjoy her time as well if you brought the right kind of attitude. The payment of cash was totally incidental. And each time I was there, I found a lady I stayed with for about three days who made the trips memorable. But I guess I’m projecting my attitude and experiences to the macro view of things, and that’s probably wrong. I could never find anything enjoyable about the current business model. And I can’t remember the last time I saw the word sanuk in your column, either. I believe that as that concept of fun fades in Thailand, so too will the industry. A man doesn’t need to go through the time and expense of traveling half way around the world just to get in bed for an hour or two with an Asian woman. There has to be more to it for the experience to be worth the trouble. If places like Cambodia and the Philippines had better infrastructure, food etc, Thailand would already have returned to being a nightlife backwater. I’m glad I got to enjoy the scene before it started fading from view.
Is your heart hard enough?
Your exposure of the bargirl’s pay summary reminded me of one of the many reasons I never followed up the idea of running a bar in Thailand. It seemed like a sort of ideal life setup until you start looking at the cons. Running a bar has some appealing perks and can provide you enough cash to sustain you pretty much indefinitely if you make a good enough go of it. The cons though seem to roll in like a Himalayan avalanche when you start paying attention. Keeping cashiers that don’t decide to go into business with you would be a first concern. Then maintaining a full staff of appealing bargirls could contribute busloads of headaches in itself. I’m sure the constant fatigue brought on by the many late hours you would be required to contribute to the success of the business would not be healthy. I don’t know if I would have the heart to watch these bargirls, day in and day out, as they cycle through the daily routines that over time erodes their health, looks and conduct. I guess I just don’t have a heart “hard enough” for profiting off what eventually becomes the misfortune and misery of the girls. The bar business can affect the well-being of your patrons also. Over time many regulars develop alcohol dependence and their lives take a high-speed plummet. When you really think about it, the bar business is destructive to all involved. The owners burn out, get robbed or die slow deaths from the pressures and pitfalls of bar life. The employees almost always end up racing down the path to self-destruction and ruin. Bar owners destroy the people dependent on them for success by providing the beverages and venue for them to develop impending bad health and financial maladies. All in all, I can stomach a few bar stops each week but that is about it for me. I think back over the 50 years I’ve been coming to Thailand and I can’t see where the bar business has anointed very many of its cast of players with much to show for the time and effort. I also think about the many premature deaths I have witnessed that befall so many of the players. I often hear it said that certain occupations are a young man’s game and I guess that is simply a way to describe a field of endeavor as something that makes you old quicker!
Girl Of The Week
Miss Leggy, gogo dancer, Billboard, Nana Plaza
Photos kindly provided by the Nana Plaza marketing department.
Popular freelancer bar Insanity has confirmed the date of the big move, when the original branch at soi 12 will close and the new location at soi 11 will get going, June 29.
The word is that the renovated Crazy House on Soi Cowboy features flashing lights of a type that might cause those prone to seizures to have an episode. How these lights are different to flashing lights in other bars I do not know, but I have been asked to make mention of this by one concerned reader, hence I am doing so.
Following on from talk that Hooters in Soi Nana has a lot of Filipinos working there, word is that there are now more male service staff during the day. What is that all about? I thought the whole concept of Hooters was sexy, busty service staff? Take that away and you’re left with good, but pricey burgers. I’m not sure that alone will draw punters in.
The bar in Sukhumvit soi 12 formerly known as The Den and before that The White Lioness, Monaco and a few more names I’ve since forgotten, has a for rent sign up again. Available locations on Sukhumvit are as rare as a virgin in Nana Plaza but don’t be tempted by soi 12. Like Sukhumvit soi 16, it has proven to be a graveyard for many foreign businessmen who have tried and failed.
The dancers at Dollhouse are full of energy, some sliding down the poles reminiscent of the old Raw Hide bar before it changed to Iranian ownership.
There is some buzz about the next Nanapong dance contest with dates yet to be decided.
Craft beer seems to be all the rage these days and an old friend and long-time Bangkok expat, Steve Sykes, has set up a new site, BangkokBeerGuru.com, all about craft beers in Bangkok. It’s still very much the early days but knowing Steve he will beaver away and develop a worthwhile resource.
Does the idea of being a bar manager in Bangkok appeal? If it does, this job advert could be just what you’re looking for. While the name of the bar is not mentioned, it sounds very much like The Londoner, especially when you consider that the firm advertising it happens to be owned by the same fellow who owns The Londoner. The one thing that surprised me is the salary range – both how wide the rage is but how low it is. 45K – 90K baht for the manager’s position at what is perhaps the most prestigious British pub in Bangkok sounds very low to me. I know plenty of British bar managers who were earning over 100K baht several years ago. In 2017, a salary at this level is bordering on insulting.
There are a handful of professions that Thai women on the fringes of prostitution may claim to work in but which should immediately raise suspicion. The obvious questionable profession is massage while many claim to work in hair salon but have only ever been a customer. Another profession women who freelance regularly but don’t wish to admit what they do (to their customers or even themselves) is to claim that they are a hotel receptionist, often alluding to working the night shift. That is a good one because they can always say they cannot be contacted most nights because they are working in a hotel….which I guess is actually quite true! If you have met a lady in a bar, she bonked you on the first night and things don’t sound quite right, claims to work in any of the aforementioned jobs is potentially a red flag.
I’ve never understood why anyone would get a tattoo in the Thai script. If you find the Thai script pleasing on the eyes – and I think with all its curves and circles that it is an attractive script – why not stick with a T-shirt with a slogan in Thai on it? Given the nuances and subtleties of language and the fact that so many words and concepts really do not translate well – read: accurately – between English and Thai, getting a tattoo in Thai strikes me as, well, a little silly.
The old Thai-girl-done-me-wrong genre of story used to fill the readers’ submissions section of this website and have always been popular. For some it is Schadenfreude while others find such stories therapeutic as they realise they were not the only one who has been through the wringer with a Thai lady. Fewer readers’ stories come in these days and even fewer of this popular genre – but this week a couple of such stories came in. If you enjoy these sorts of stories, you might like to check out:
Sweet Girl, Or Maybe Not That Sweet? by Mr. Brown
Patong Beach Love Story by Patong John
First it was reported in Thailand that the authorities are looking at making insurance compulsory for all travellers visiting Thailand, and then news organisations around the world picked the story up. Even our local tabloid, the New Zealand Herald, reported it. I have serious doubts about whether they really would introduce compulsory insurance – it would be a logistical nightmare to implement. Would they really ask every traveller if they had insurance and check it? Personally, I would not care as like so many people, my credit card has automatic travel insurance so long as the airfare is paid for with said credit card. Can you imagine the clusterfxxk at airports and border checkpoints if all arriving passengers were asked to show proof of travel insurance? And what would happen if they didn’t have it? Would they be told they have to purchase a travel insurance policy there and then before they can proceed to Immigration?! The administrative requirements would be a nightmare and even if a cheap piddly policy was offered on arrival at say a low rate of say, $5 per day / $150 per month, to some budget travellers that might sound like a lot of money and it might just be the difference between staying in a neighbouring country than (re)visiting Thailand. I just can’t see it happening.
I’ve written a few times in recent weeks about how there is a loose movement of Thais online who do not look favourably on foreigners residing in the country who behave in ways they don’t approve of, or who are seen to mock or look down on Thai people. This week a young American residing in Thailand who is not shy to play the fool has again found out what can happen when Thais get pissed off with a foreigner and how they work together to get a quick solution. It all started when a story broke this week about the young American who goes by the name My Mate Nate, no stranger to controversy, had uploaded videos that appeared to show him encouraging his cat to fight a scorpion. Nate is the guy who had previously caused an uproar when he uploaded videos mocking Thai women’s use of English after he asked them questions about sensitive subjects. And now Nate the knob could be in trouble because after the story broke this week, a petition online calling for Nate to be arrested has been signed by more than 120,000 Thais. An official complaint has been laid with the police and not just by an everyday Thai, but by a lady who is hugely popular in Thailand, the very lady who rescued Maew Asoke, a lady who has a massive following online in Thailand. It has since been reported that now the authorities are looking at Nate’s employment status with the words tax and work permit mentioned. Things could get messy for Nate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the Internet is now a very big part of Thai society and any foreigner living in Thailand who pisses off or annoys Thais may find the situation taken online where the masses turn against them and they ultimately find themselves in a situation they cannot win. More than ever, farang residents in Thailand ought to be on their best behaviour.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Steve Rosse (who else?!), “It Looked Good On Paper” where Steve opens up about his relationship with his Thai ex-wife.
Airports in Thailand are running well beyond capacity.
Thailand’s scorpion queen covers herself with arachnids.
The talk that travel insurance for Thailand might become compulsory for all visitors is being reported worldwide.
A Canadian who robbed a bank in Singapore is jailed in Thailand for the most serious crime of failing to declare the large amount of cash he brought in to the country.
A British man who is the main suspect in the killing of a Nana Plaza bargirl 2½ years ago is arrested this week, on an international arrest warrant in Spain.
A kidnapped Japanese businessman tortured for his ATM card PIN number is rescued from an Ekamai apartment in the nick of time by Bangkok’s finest.
Thailand ranks as one of the 20 most dangerous countries in the world for tourists, with high rates of crime and violence and low reliability of police services.
Ask Sunbelt Legal
Sunbelt Legal Advisors is here to answer your legal questions related to Thailand. Email them to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt and run the question and their response in the next column.
Question 1: In the column of 9th April 2017, question 1, Sunbelt Legal wrote about registering and ratifying a will in Thailand. I have never before heard that you may register a Thai will and the absence of registration is a sore point in my mind, as I want to make sure my wife is secure when I die. I cannot do so if my will is not found after my death. In my home country a will is registered and stored in the probate court and automatically found when a person dies. I would appreciate it if something similar could be made in Thailand. I have not found anything about the registration of a will in the Thai Civil and Commercial Code (CCC) section 1646 – 1672. Is registration only possible for Thai wills made outside Thailand and described in another law? How do I register a will and does a registration secure my will is found and applied after my death?
Sunbelt Legal responds: You register your will at the local District Office or Amphur. The Thai will needs to be witnessed by people who understand the language as does the English language will. The translation needs to be certified and then it can be registered with the local Amphur. Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors can assist you in writing a will that covers your Thai assets and register the will as well. Please be aware that your Thai will only covers your Thai assets and you will need a separate will in your home country for assets there.
Question 2: I plan to marry my Thai girlfriend in Thailand and we have already agreed that we need a pre-nuptial agreement before we go ahead with the marriage registration. It will be a very simple agreement that protects a few of our respective assets and our respective small business interests. As I understand it, each of us needs our own lawyer for this. Is that correct? Also, can you please tell if I was to engage Sunbelt as my lawyer, what would be the cost of drawing up a pre-nuptial agreement including all and any fees?
Sunbelt Legal responds: Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors is able to draft a prenuptial agreement for you, but your fiancée should have separate legal representation to review the document after it has been drafted. However, the drafting can be done by us and she can have it reviewed separately. It is important to note that the agreement must be registered at the same time as the marriage. If you are already married, then it will not be valid and it cannot be registered before the marriage. It is also important to know that the agreement can include all your assets abroad as well, and is not limited to, as in the case of a will, only Thai assets.
To draft the agreement, we will need: a copy of the Passport or ID Card for both yourself and your fiancée, a copy of the Passport or ID Card for the 2 witnesses is required (Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors can provide these witnesses if necessary), a list of all the assets you and your fiancée would like to not be listed as marital assets but as personal assets upon marriage – and proof of ownership of all the assets listed above. Here we are talking about, for example, a copy of the title-deed for a condominium or a copy of the bank books in question.
Our professional fees to complete the draft in both English and Thai is 14,500 Baht +7% VAT, but please get in touch with us to set up a free initial consultation with one of our legal team to go over your requirements for the prenuptial agreement.
Question 3: What does Thai law say about burning leaves and trash in residential areas? Is there an office that takes complaints about burning leaves?
Sunbelt Legal responds: This is not allowed in residential areas and a complaint can be filed at the juristic person if it’s a gated community or at the District Office. If you live in a municipality then you should file with the Tessban Office.
Ladyboys in Thailand are often looked at as an amusement, perhaps even a minor attraction by mainstream visitors, but for readers of this site ladyboys are polarising and I think it would be accurate to say that many readers despise them. I had that in the back of my mind when I featured a ladyboy as the girl of the week in last week’s column. I was expecting a backlash of nasty comments….but they never arrived. Amazingly, all but one of those who commented on the ladyboy featured in last week’s column had something positive to say about her! There was no shit storm in response to the inclusion of those photos. Could it be that attitudes towards ladyboys are evolving?
Your Bangkok commentator,