Undressing the Thai bar girl scene
Words & images © Paul Ransom
This is a journey I did not want to take. I informed my disappointed friend and gave my reasons, but as I heard myself say it a voice inside piped up. “Go because it makes you uncomfortable.”
Thus, before my friend’s eyes I flipped from refusal to acceptance; and now, in less than two days, I will fly with him and another to Thailand for two weeks of…who knows.
So, why the psychodrama? Put simply, sex, and the selling of such. In the so-called ‘land of smiles’ the skin trade abounds. My travelling companions have tasted its pleasures previously and are going back for seconds. I have no idea what I am going for, other than to confront temptation and the constructs of self.
- For a more personal context, check out 10 years without sex elsewhere on this site.
At 57, I have been girlfriend-less and celibate for a decade. In a way, the women of Pattaya may be one of my few remaining options for physical intimacy. But I do not see myself as that guy – the sweating, desperate farang paying a stranger to help him act out his fantasies. Part of me wants to visit the fleshpots and float above the obvious lure, to prefer the quiet of Buddhist temples and contemplating sunyata.1 Another is prepared to do the opposite. Get high. Dance. Fuck. Maybe even fall in love.
The beauty of deciding to fly into discomfort, rather than away from it, is the uncertainty of its resolution. Thailand will be a vivisection. An experiment on me, and who I think I am. As though I were an existential traveller. (Which might just be a fancy way of saying sex tourist.)
Either way…here goes.
One night in Bangkok
Morning. The aircon hums – too loudly – in a spacious but decidedly dog-eared room on Soi 4. It still seems surreal, like something I am watching from the outside. The early day quiet on the street, the jumbled echo of last night’s brimming 2am crowd; with its tuk-tuks and street hawkers and the mish-mash of disparate songs, (with honking horns and human voices for contrapuntal accompaniment). Each element silken in the deep humidity.
And already, the grabbing hands. Bony fingers on my wrist. As if I am being plucked. Which I am. The smiling eyes, the close attention, the unmistakable hustle. One of the girls – an ancient looking lady with wise-seeming eyes – looked directly at me. “You happy,” she said. “Inside.” That, at least, was her way of explaining to the small crowd of curious onlookers why I was declining of her sinuous offer of instant explosion.
Sitting on the sidewalk, beer in hand, freshly stoned, exhausted from a long day in transit, I was indeed happy. It was easy to be there, another traveller at Mai’s improvised outdoor beer bar. Opening the senses up to the saturated and novel carousel of a sweltering Sukhumvit night.
Late. Another night is descending. Satin relief. The creatures are already out. Down there. In the broiling river.
My sense is to dive back in. To park myself in a corner and enjoy the propulsive writhing of a city lit with survivalist vigour. Every hustle going. A watch. An arse. A tuk-tuk to God knows. There is, in this entrancing mess, a beautiful order and deep silence. It is easy to lose oneself in it.
There perhaps, the true holiday. From self.
Skin on skin
Woken early by the sound of thunder. Went down to the café next door for an Americano. Felt the cool breath that sighs after tropical rain.
And the smells: tarmac and dampness.
On this, the third morning, the BKK sensory overload is momentarily muted. This morning’s downpour cleansing, yet somehow sealing in, the grit and grizzle of human endeavour. Or is that our shared folly; and how we all swim in it?
“Oh darling,” the Lady Boy beams. “Hullo, hullo,” the street girls coo. “I take you; I take you,” the wiry and smiling taxi guy pleads. Promises. “Anywhere.”
In this place, whatever is not immediately available – for special price – can likely be arranged. “Later,” as the shirtless stall holder outside the temple gates assured me, with a smile that seemed knowing.
- Btw, his shopfront was a hole in wall with two fridges selling bottled water and beer; but don’t let that fool you. Every human whim can be catered to. You just need to ask the right guy.
And all of this splatter and swirl…stoned. Sukhumvit is now a cannabis paradise. Grams and pre-rolls on every second corner – for skinning up on balconies or sitting down kerbside with beggars and other sellers to watch the skin get traded. Feeling the energy and, tellingly, in small traces detectable beneath the kaleidoscopic brightness, its detailed sadness. The hollowness at the heart of so much human desiring.
Have I been tempted? Curiously, no. Strange to say, but there is something decidedly unsexy about it all. Thus far.
So now I think of reclining Buddhas and sunyata…and there is a space inside me that no longer requires filling. Amidst the sizzle of sensations, I find myself becalmed. Who would have thought that the Bangkok cacophony would lead me to a new level of quiet.
When closely observed, the spectacle will reveal the stillness.
Into the ocean
If Sukhumvit is a river, Pattaya is the sea – or so I am told. As our Bangkok sojourn ends, and we prepare for a 90-minute cab ride down the coast to our new digs at the Bayview Hotel, I reflect upon littering fines2, mute beggars and fake watch peddlers. I also find myself thinking about last night; playing pool with the kindly and maternal waitress who smiled patiently at the inept bumbling and poor Thai of yet another farang fly by.
Moreover, I ponder the visceral fact of touch. In the back of a shop offering laundry services, hairdressing, pedicures, (and who knows what else), I had an hour long traditional Thai massage. With her insistent elbows she worked out the knots, but it was the warm nearness of her that reminded me. I have not felt the tender gravity of a woman’s form for years. This too, is part of the mix. The potent part. The thing that can sometimes be mistaken for loneliness.
“Where you go?”
When in Pattaya, etcetera. Except…not quite.
The inevitable go-go bar experience was, predictably, a one drink cringe. Young women dancing topless on a raised platform. Kitschy cheerleader skirts and cornball moves. Naughty schoolgirl antics for a room of red-faced men. An adolescent porno panto. Sex through a filter of cheese.
Once again, not sexy. Just tacky, and somehow redolent of a deep lack – something we so often look for in others yet rarely find. Because the idealised lover has a habit of becoming real. Or merely a cliched stand-in.
Thus, watching the dancers last night, it struck me: this is no longer my fantasy, (if indeed it ever was). I do not need to ‘deny myself’ the readily available pleasures of their taut young bodies, because I have not yet felt the hunger for them. Whatever it is I long for, I do not believe this is it.
But there are several days ahead of me, and an entire sprawl of streets and sellers to weave their various spells. Like the rumble of thunder, and its promise of warm deluge, the air is silky and soft with all manner of possibility.
NB: The street food, however, was a 100% ‘fantasy fulfilled’ moment. Served by a pair of no-nonsense, but still slightly flirtatious grandmas, and eaten in the teeming courtyard at Tree Town, it was rustic, spicy, and joyous. Soulful. Indeed, there was more love on that cheap, chipped plate than there was to be seen cavorting shiny and half naked on stage.
“I go with you.”
Here we are now…entertained. The carnival of human want playing out in sun bleached technicolour. The heavy heat sitting like carnal varnish, shining the surface of emptiness.
The Pattaya ladies – young, boozed, sweet, masculine – have placed their hands upon me. Vines. Wrapping around my wrists. Skimpy dresses, lacy bras, collagen plumped lips. Little girl pseudonyms. A mirage, shimmering and vaporous, like a curtain of allure on the threshold of an imaginary room.
If I had once anticipated a wall of temptation, the wall is now a window, and the temptation is nowhere to be seen.
Has my libido died? Is this the onrush of aged ennui? Why am I not horny? My travel buddies are ‘filling their boots’ as I type – listening to Lana in the crisp aircon of a hotel room – but still my switch has yet to be flicked. Likewise, I am neither disgusted, appalled, or outraged. It is not that any of this is intrinsically wrong. Or sinful. Indeed, it is a compelling watch. I wish the participants well. But I would rather dance.
“I go dancing with you,” one of the ladies said last night, as if perhaps she thought that the euphoria of the musical body might be better that way.
A couple of sweaty, ecstatic nights in clubland have reminded me that ‘being as one’ with the overpowering music is better than almost all the sex I have ever had. This, I think, says less about the sex than it does about the oblivion of movement. The body in motion allows no other presence. At 57 I still experience the cleansing lightness of dance. Into the embrace of this siren I will gladly crash again before we leave this sensual city.
She, more than any other, will lift me up. And my body will sing her praises.3
Thus, in her songful language, I find myself calling out, as if from a rectangle of shade on a hot sidewalk, “I go with you.”
Meanwhile, reminding me not to vanish too far up my own behind, Lana croons, “I heard that you like the bad girls, hun-ney. Is that true?”
Curiously, less than an hour after writing the section above, as the swirl of the scantily clad streets flowed around me and the evening heat gathered like dense fog, it occurred to me. Like a good Thai masseuse, Pattaya has worked out the last knot. The remnant portion of a lifelong addiction to the ‘sexy soul sister’ fantasy has finally and irrevocably dissolved – and its darker hearted twin, the fear of loneliness, at last convinced. Touch, sex, and a semblance of intimacy are always available. Short time, long time. Whatever it is you desire…and are prepared to pay.
More pleasingly, my entrenched God complex has not yet kicked in. It flared briefly last week in the presence of a classically broken angel on Soi Buakhao. A few years back I would have been duped by a combination of stratospheric conceit and doomed sexiness – but I see the saviour fantasy for what it is now. Neediness.
Thus, to the ladies (and boys) I declare, kop khun ma krap. Thank you very much.
Yesterday, my travel buddies and I took a cab to the Sanctuary of Truth Museum; a mini theme park dedicated to the idea of the universal human condition. It was beautiful, not merely for its exquisite carved centrepiece but for its very conception. Here, in a city that hums with ephemeral, external pleasures, an oasis of reflection.
However, the Sanctuary has served to sharpen the contrast. Out here, the dominant motif feels more like universal dehumanisation. Objectification. Commodification. Girls selling fantasy to their cash-cock clients. Suck and fuck for a buck. Any dick. Any hole. Close your eyes and bank it. Boom-boom.
I say this knowing that the seller/buyer terrain in the skin trade is always more complex than simplistic moral or ideo-political formulation. Yet, across the last eleven days in Thailand I have seen the glaring hollowness of the exchange.
- The girl in the beer bar on Soi 6. All bubbles and coquettish posing. Not just corny but leaning into cynical, even cruel. Hard eyes, despite the giggly girl act. Playing us for dick-driven idiots – which, in her defence, we may well be.
- The thick set, Mediterranean looking guy with his svelte Asian babe. His smile, so thankful, so amazed. Like he had won the lottery. She seemed like she was into him; until he went for a loo break and her brightness turned at once to boredom and steel. Tapping her phone, puffing out her cheeks. She seemed to age in that moment of quiet. Become a woman. Then, he returned, beaming, and she clicked back into rote. High school fantasy in tight shorts. Act II.
- The lady who approached me while I lingered in the nocturnal heat. A few words. Shuffle play compliments. I barely had time to fashion a reply before her hand reached out to grab my cock. I laughed – what else? – and made to mirror her forwardness, feeling for her breasts. But our eyes briefly locked, and she saw at once that I was not up for it. She politely withdrew, spinning on her heels. Ten seconds later she was rolling out the same routine with another anonymous revenue stream.
Saying this, I acknowledge the effect of my private prism. Others have different lenses. The psycho-sexual and economic landscape is too nuanced for easy stereotype and knee-jerk judgement, or for one person’s experience to fully encapsulate. Everyone here is a human being and has their own motives. There are, after all, many forms of sanctuary; and countless reasons to seek it.
36 hours to go
Our Thai sojourn has coincided not only with the final days of the 2023 election campaign but with an unusually intense heatwave. I am inclined here to draw curious parallels. On one level a contest of seemingly oppositional worldviews, on another, an ever-present sensuality that equalises everything. Heat reminds us of skin, which in turn reminds us that we all sweat – dry and divisive ideas notwithstanding. In the tropics, that thing we call nature smothers us with its abundance.
Cue: a city fuelled by sex, drugs, and hedonism. Even after yesterday afternoon’s heavy, electric deluge, Pattaya buzzed till late. From my hotel room I could hear the hubbub, a song echoing long past midnight. A sweet froth of sound, wet with storm and pleasure.
But there was no hooker in my bed. Because I was not hungry. (Or hungry enough.)
For just as travel often reminds us that exotica and novelty revert to a deeper familiarity, my fortnight of sex tourism has eroded any last vestiges of lack. Right now – on a relatively cool Wednesday morning – a decade of celibacy seems less like ‘going without’ and more like the gift of distance.
I stand aside from you, so that I might see us both better.
NB: Please do not infer from the above any form of enlightened spiritual practice or religiously inspired body-hatred. I have drenched myself in physical joy here. Food, dope, coconut smoothies. Massages on the beach. Walking fast at night through the velvet heat. And dancing. One last workout at a laser-lit club called Insomnia. The body in flight. Catching the smiling eyes of the young, as they filmed the crazy old person going off in front of them. In dance, there is no such thing as lack. Rather, presence. Oblivion.
“Fuck, what’s up your arse?”
To some it will seem ridiculous. Single, long-term celibate spends two weeks in notorious Thai sex playground and somehow fails to get laid. WTF!!!
As someone who fits the classic sex tourist profile, my ‘failure’ to fuck may well be revealing of serious psycho-emotional disturbance, quite possibly of a Freudian nature. Either that, or a glaring example of misguided ethical calculation. Or maybe I’m just taking myself way too seriously. (Then again, I could be lying; and this post a desperate rear-guard scramble to prevent the naked truth from derailing my carefully manicured reputation for being monkishly above it all.)
You may perhaps have your own theories – or judgements – and to these I shall leave you. After all, a monger who doesn’t monger is indeed a curious thing.
And yet, I have no regrets. Neither am I relieved, proud, or furious with myself. However, I am glad. Why? Because I embraced potential fracture with open eyes and the process has altered me, even if only slightly. I took my various wounds into the fray, knowing they might re-open, prepared to bleed a little more, but I have emerged instead lighter and with an even greater clarity.
- For context, I have a long and lurid history of making poor choices, behaving foolishly, and repeating self-destructive behaviour patterns when it comes to love, sex, etcetera. In addition, my record reveals a rejection percentage well north of ninety. If I have never been a playboy, it is mainly because the girls didn’t think much of my game.
However, the sex workers of Thailand made it easy for me by never once being genuinely sexy or tempting. This is not to criticise them as individuals or to make comment on their looks. As a cohort, the girls were generally young and slender. Breasts pert, tummies flat, skin smooth. Their services were affordable, and they offered a range of options, from quick blow-jobs to multi-day girlfriend experiences. Indeed, some of them even had penises. But none of them could sell me the one thing I may have considered buying. Because I did not need to purchase an orgasm. Nor was I in the market for an ego-stroke. Likewise, I did not need my masculinity validated. Least of all by women who were so obviously faking it.
If the dominant girly-mag aesthetic wasn’t off-putting enough – with its crass, sexist assumptions – the over-riding economic imperative at play simply made it impossible to take seriously the handsome man patter and cutey-pie poses. These women were not ‘into me’ for anything other than to pay down debt, meet the lady-drink quota, and earn the rent. Fair enough too. Those things matter. I did not. I was just a means to an end. None of which was alluring, or even tempting as an item of curiosity.
That not one person emerged from the pack to break my ten-year drought tells me as much about the nature of the skin trade as it might reveal to you about me and my catalogue of delusions.
I have no ideological opposition to shallow, performative, transactional sex – it’s just that it does not truly turn me on. Neither does the stench of dehumanisation.
Once I saw that it was not real, I was not moved to buy the fake.
In the end, the skinny young girls in their tight-fitting mini dress, with their lustrous complexions and boom-boom promises, were like the faux-Rolex bargains of a thousand roaming street hawkers. Simply not worth it.
Saying this though, I zoom out from my own conceit, and imagine how this would pass the so-called pub test.4 I picture blokes at a bar, chins dropping into their beers in disbelief. Two weeks in Thailand without a bar girl bang is a catastrophic man-fail. They are aghast. Laughing in disbelief. “You can’t be fucking serious, mate.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But I have had a unique travel experience. The celibate sex tour. I wonder if I could pitch it to Pattaya’s brand management people. After all, there is a market for voyeurism.
PS: There are, of course, aspects of the sex industry in Thailand that remain problematic. Beneath the hedonic playground shine, there are murkier seams. I have chosen not to explicitly delve into these here but – after hearing one of my travel buddies read it out to me on a ferry ride to Koh Larn – I now draw your attention to Why I Don’t Blog About Thai Bar Girls from the ‘Thailand Life’ blog. What convinced me to share this was the following encapsulation of Bangkok’s notorious sex mall, Nana Plaza.
“Rather than thinking, ‘Wow, look at all those hot women,’ I thought, ‘Man, this must be one of the most soulless places on the planet, one that exists for one reason only: for the desperate to feed off the desperate.”
1: Sunyata is a Buddhist version of the void. Not so much a refutation of reality but an understanding that reality has no permanent or essential quality. As a ‘void contemplater’ and self-declared ecstatic nihilist I am deeply attracted to the sunya. And yeah, what a contrast to the throb of Bangkok streets and commodified sex.
2: Yes, I was indeed fined 1000THB for littering on Sukhumvit Road. I knew of the Thai penchant for handing out such infringement notices to tourists and, despite my attempts to be discreet, a nearby cop saw me secret two small globs of pork fat onto a patch of dirt under a tree. He huffed and puffed and pointed to various warning signs, but in the end accepted my 1000 (rather than the advertised 2000). Gosh, have I just bribed a policeman?
3: In a club called The Mixx a blond Scandinavian sounding DJ leant close to tell me that she loved watching me dance. “You have the spirit of techno,” she said. “Watching you reminds me why I DJ.” I mention this not simply as a boast but rather to underline the beauty of letting go. When I was younger, I wanted the dance to look good. Now I only want it to feel good. Which entails a form of surrender. From there you can join the dots.
4: Here in Australia, ‘passing the pub test’ is meant to indicate a form of common sense, everyman approval. Politicians and pundits are rather fond of pub tests as a litmus.