By Gary Barbour
Obi Wan Kenobi would describe Pattaya as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy. Also whores. Lots of whores.” The fact that I have turned a party town into a Star Wars reference probably explains why I found myself in a skin bar just off of Pattaya’s infamous Walking Street without an escort on either arm.
Earlier in the night, I lost the majority of my friends amid the crowd of increasingly-drunk tourists and lady boys. We had already finished a bottle of local whiskey with high enough proof to cause a pre-hangover. The restroom was situated behind a boxing ring, and returning from it to my friends, instead I found an empty square. I wandered up and down the strip looking like a lost child until I saw a familiar face in the distance. Instead of the group I had come with, I found another group of friends, including Scott, from the same hotel.
Scott, like me, was a new teacher in Thailand. We all felt thrilled to be in Pattaya and Thailand. Everything was new, interesting, and hidden in what we all assumed was culture. After a week of work orientation in a nice hotel, we were all ready to see the darker side of paradise.
So I elected to follow them to the aforementioned strip club, my first ever. Walking in, I expected dim lighting, gyrating pelvises, and hairless vulvas. And boy, did it deliver. We grabbed a seat with a view of six or so girls who danced arrhythmically on a long stage. On the other side of the stage, a group of older travelers laughed loudly and sloshed their drinks while some bar girls smiled and laughed along with jokes they couldn’t understand.
Since I was drunk enough to say “Oh, honey, please” without irony, the bar girls gravitated toward my friends, leaving me room to contemplate the anthropological goldmine that is a Thai titty bar.
I watched the expats around the room, the older men on business, the Russian gangsters wearing gold watches and Armani Exchange. The dancers wore identical glittery g-strings and the same bland stare. Overall, the workers seemed mostly bored. And the men never noticed.
Later, members of my original group, Natalia and Sally, stumbled into the strip club. They looked shell-shocked. Natalia looked around disoriented. They made eye-contact with a pair of nipples before spotting us in our dank corner.
“We saw a ping pong show,” Natalia announced in her posh London-by-way-of-South-Africa accent. “I need a drink.” Sally mentioned wanting some air. They both appeared deflated by their adventure.
We stepped outside into the bright lights of Walking Street. We shuffled across the street to an open air bar where a Thai rock band played 80s hits. Natalia and I ordered another beer. I half listened to their account of popped balls and razor blades.
At the table next to us, another older gentleman sat with a bar girl. She faced away from him while he drank and spoke loudly to another guy. Occasionally, she would sip from a whiskey and Coke. As many sips as she took, the glass never emptied. I watched her face when she wasn’t entertaining. In the minutes between fumbling, drunken advances, she appeared to be a thousand miles away. But the moment, the man ran his hands down her thighs she would turn on a smile and giggle.
As Natalia and I discussed the night’s shows, the conversation turned toward sex trafficking in Thailand. Natalia dreamed of working with human rights organizations to help those forced into sex slavery. Even teaching them English would be a huge improvement. With an estimated 2.8 million victims in Thailand, Natalia wanted to be a champion for the downtrodden. I didn’t know which girls in Pattaya were victims or if they chose their work, and by the end of the night, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach.
On the flip side of sex workers, a colleague of mine who worked in Thailand for 20 years told me a story about frequenting a bar in Bangkok that doubled as a brothel. He didn’t go as a client. He just enjoyed the company of the girls. He claims to have never taken one home because he saw them as surrogate daughters. They would talk to him about their lives, their families, and their plans. They came from villages in other provinces. There, they lived on a few hundred dollars a month, but in Bangkok, they could make thousands. Oftentimes, they took home more than foreign teachers.
People assume that the service industry means bussing tables or serving coffee. But sex workers adhere to the same principles. Smiles lead to better money, and it’s better than starving. It’s not necessarily proud work, but some people do it really well. It’s hell on the knees.
Waiting tables taught me to smile at irredeemable shitheads. Prostitutes in Thailand (and around the world) learn the same lesson.
Gary teaches English to Middle Eastern students at an American school in Malaysia. Read about the convergence of this cultural mishmash on his blog, Collecting Sparrows.