After spending a week in Bangkok’s backpacker district of Khao San Road, I’d had my fill of Red Bull and whiskey buckets and decided to explore another of Bangkok’s well trodden districts, its red lights district. A chat to a few in the know expats the night before, that returned an extremely comprehensive review, I was directed an hours tuk-tuk East of Khao San Road, called Sukhumvit, Soi 4.
Arriving in Soi 4 for the first time and with a large backpack in toe, must be the same experience one feels when arriving into prison for the first time. The Soi (Thai for street) is a long and narrow Soi surrounded by towering beer bars that have been raised 6ft off the ground. Each with names such as Big Dogs, Hooters and Hillary, all filled with middle aged men directly staring down at you below, creates a feeling of intimidation to any newcomer.
As it’s only 10:30am and with a 2pm check-in for my hostel, I decide to venture inside on the many bars to kill a few hours. This doesn’t take long, as only the second bar I pass I am instantly pulled inside by a group of scantly dressed girls each pushing me a menu and into a stool back overlooking the Soi.
Ordering the local draft I sit back and look around the bar, the scene is as expected, the punters are largely older white men, accompanied by young Thai women. Befriending an in the know regular who informs me that most of the girls come from Issan a district in the North-East. Known as the poorest part of Thailand, low education and early pregnancy are the most common factors for young girls moving to work in Bangkok’s red light district. I am also told a majority of the girls will send more than half of their pay back to assist their families repay gambling debts, medical bills and sibling education.
Whilst officially Thai law bans prostitution in any form, the most reliable survey conducted by the US state department in 2008, listed over 75,000 prostitutes working in entertainment establishments around the country. However, NGO’s place this figure at over 200,000.
Checking into my hostel I am greeted by my fellow roommates, a very different type of traveller from the 20something backpacker of Khoa San Road, has now been replaced by the 50something sexpat. However, after meeting and talking to this type of traveller in Cambodia, I am quick to hold judgement and agree to join them for a beer in the hostel lobby. A few beers later, I am of the same to conclusion as I came to in Cambodia. They are not all sex crazed dirty old men attempting to sleep with the youngest girl they can find. Most regale stories of loneliness and dissatisfaction with their lives at home, and the validation that occurs with being able finding a partner in Thailand.
As the night rolls on I decide to bid farewell to my roommates and armed with some in the know tips, venture back into Soi 4. However, the street that only a few hours before had been awash in the strong Thai sun, is now flooded with a mass of neon lights and tuk-tuk headlights that illuminate the Soi just as well.
It must be said walking down Soi 4 at night is an experience. The thumping music, down and out foreigners, rows of scantily dressed women and the 6ft lady boys grabbing at you as you walk pass, sets the tone for the night ahead. I had been advised that the place to go is Nana Plaza, an huge alcove off Soi 4 and only a short walk from my hostel. As I enter Nana Plaza and pass through a security check consisting of a bag search and a pat down, I look up to read “Nana Plaza: The Word’s Largest Adult Playground” proudly blazed across the entrance rafters.
I am later told over few beers by a local bar owner that the complex was originally built in the 1970’s as a shopping centre. Built by the then deputy Prime Minister Lek Nana nicknamed ‘the landlord of Bangkok’, for his extensive property holdings predominately in the booming Sukhumvit area. When in 1984 the first bar opened, many more quickly followed changing the once family friendly complex to that of a single man’s domain. In 2012 the plaza was sold for a reported US$25million price tag after the death of Lek Nana, by his seven sisters who stated the sale as for “wanting nothing to do with the sex trade”.
A few beers down and I’m feeling confident enough to venture behind the curtains that block the bars inner workings from the rest of the world. As with most things in life imagination far exceeds reality, however this was the not the case. I was truly taken aback by the sheer depravity of the begin sounding ‘half hour live shows’ that I just won’t be able to go into detail on.
One story not too beyond the pale, is on my third bar of the evening I stumble into the aptly named Spanky’s Bar. A nice looking establishment with a good looking mix of clientele inside. With the music pumping I innocently order a beer through the young waitress serving my table, the young girl yells back ‘a Spanky’s Beer?’, not quite understanding I nod and give a thumbs up.
Second later after receiving my beer I am viciously attacked by serval women wielding large styrofoam batons, with loud jeering from the other customers and the offending women shouting ‘Spanky’s’. The ordeal (and yes it was an ordeal) only lasted a few seconds however it took me a good 10minutes to recover from the fight or flight response that was pulsating through me, before I began to see the funny side of the joke. To then as a new customer entered through the curtains, I was waiting for the infamous ‘Spanky’s beer set up’, and with delight took part in the crowd jeer as the unsuspecting man was walloped as served his first beer.
This is the key to enjoying Bangkok’s red light scene, the need to at all ties maintain a light hearted humour with the absolute mayhem and sometimes downright questionable antics occurring around you. A need to the truly understand the phrase TIT (This is Thailand).
Next Stop: Bangkok – Street Food