Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Bangkok Bar Scene

Bangkok. An apt name for a city full of go-go bars in a country known for sex tourism. There are plenty of seedy places with girls for rent; plenty of "shows" where women shoot bananas and darts from their privates or, more curiously, smoke cigarettes 'down there'... but there are also a lot of seemingly harmless bars with armies of bar girls on hand (no pun intended) for a little bar stool companionship.

Benjamin and I have found one of such bars on Soi 7-1/2 that advertises cheap beer and 'no hassle'. "Sometimes a guy just wants a drink," the owner says.

On the surface, the vibe at these kind of bars is more like a slumber party than a place of sexual debauchery. The girls all hang out, giggling, doing each others hair like kids giving makeovers at midnight. But when a man intrudes on the party, one or two or three of the girls are sent into flight, smiling and batting their eyelashes while helping him to a seat and a cold drink. They then spend the rest of the night lavishing attention on him as if he was the center of the universe. It's all fake of course, well... at least most of the time. People do have their own personal standards, and it goes against reason that the bar girls actually find any or all of the men they dote their attention on deserving of it. But it's part of the job.

I spent a little time getting to know these women at our bar of choice, the 'No Hassle Bar' I'll call it, and I learned that they are more than just girls-for-sale. They're real people, and many of them mothers. You can see it in the flabby, stretched skin of their bellies, which they exhibit with as much shame as a woman back home would point out a gray hair. They pulled their shirts up and patted their paunches to complain about it. "I'm fat," they joked. I pointed to my butt, which one girl had already pointed out was big, saying, "I like it (bless her heart), mine too small". "I'll share with you," I told her, grabbing imaginary hunks from my hips and handing them over.

Once the jokes were out of the way, the girls told me about their children -- who are usually living elsewhere, in the poor village of Issan where many of the women come from. "Do you miss your daughter?" I asked a woman I'll call Lek. "Yes, but we talk once a week on the phone," she told me. Her daughter is 11 and lives with her ex mother-in-law. I'm not sure what happened with her husband or the husbands of the other bar girls for that matter; questions on that are usually met with a grimace and the words, "bad man".

"No husband, but I have boyfriends from France and Spain," Lek admitted. I never quite understood the concept of bar girls and their boyfriends until talking more with Lek about her 'Boyfriend Number One' (from France) and 'Boyfriend Number Two' (from Spain).

I asked, "Is boyfriend number one your favorite?" To this she answered, "Yes." Boyfriends are ranked on a scale, according to how much she likes them -- which entails a number of things I might not ever comprehend. My first assumption was that there's a direct correlation to how much money he has spent on her, but upon a closer inspection, I have come to understand that it goes deeper than that, despite the profession that should dictate otherwise.

"I thought I was in love with Number One," Lek told me, "but him a butterfly." She said this with a scowl. I didn't know what a 'butterfly' was, so I asked her to explain... "He came to Bangkok for one month and only saw me once. He go here, he go there, he go so many other places, so many other girls."

"Ah," I understood. "You shouldn't call him a butterfly. It's too pretty, too nice. Call him a rat," I told her. She liked this and laughed. We'd bonded. But I don't think she'll take to using this new term. It's not very nice. It's not very flattering. And the bar girls are all about flattering the men who frequent their place of business. And maybe it's also a little more than that.

Perhaps the term is, ironically, too correct and absurd all at once. A man visiting girls at Bangkok bars is not a man you expect a commitment from -- empty promises of a commitment, yes -- but a real commitment, no. And maybe the actuality of this is something the girls would rather not deal with. If they do form emotional attachments to one of their customers, or 'boyfriends', it must be easier to think of his fluttering behavior as a butterfly instead of a cheater, as 'rat' implies. It can't be 'cheating', can it, when companionship is paid for. Most Western women would consider the pay-for-girl activities of these men 'rat-like' in and of itself, but the Thai girls don't see it that way. It's just the way of things. It's "normal". That said, not all Thai society considers this activity 'normal'; there are plenty of girls who won't be seen with a Westerner because she doesn't want to be perceived, wrongly, as a prostitute.

This is where the old adage, "Live and let live," comes to mind. Getting to know the girls, I've come to realize they are just regular people trying to make a living. It may be the only way they know how. And they are adults and can make choices for themselves. Granted, there are some places in Bangkok where the girls may have fallen victim to the sex-slave trade. But I'm talking about the 'No Hassle Bar' and the like. That said, I have seen rather reluctant girls whisked away for the night, for a fee, against their desire. You can see it in their body language. It begs the question, how much free will do they really have?

I watched one girl shake off the advances of a red haired, middle-aged man over the course of several hours. His kisses were forced: he practically had to hold her head in place as he smooched her tentative lips. And often she would slyly twist away from his hand which was moving down her back and under the waistline of her skirt. It was obvious she wanted nothing to do with him, but he was a paying customer and she had no choice. This sort of scene brings things back to perspective. Every woman knows what it's like to ward off unwanted advances and it's not fun. Imagine having to tolerate it to keep your job and worse, having to go off for an overnight tryst. I watched this particular young woman leave with the red haired man after he handed over a wad of cash to the bar's mamasan. She left with a fake smile and a look in her eye directed to her friends, the other bar girls, that looked akin to a shared misery.

There's another problem with the bar girl scene. I was surprised to see the number of children walking the street, in and out of bars, selling flowers, lighters, and gum to drunk men with girls hanging on their arms. They are growing up (and working) in an environment which, to them, is as ordinary as couples strolling in a park. One little girl, who told me she was 10, had picked up a shocking sales pitch to sell her roses, "No money, no honey, no pussy." I asked her if she knew what it meant. "No," she admitted. She'd obviously picked that line up from the 'role models' on the street. Another little boy, who was 7, surprised me by answering a cell phone that was almost too big to fit in his tiny pocket. The call was made by an adult -- his parents, perhaps -- to make sure he was busy working and not fooling around. This was 11:00 p.m. when he should have been at home, in bed, dreaming about flying airplanes.

It's easy to find 'innocent fun' in Bangkok's bars. Especially for me, being a woman. The girls have a tight knit bond and welcomed me right into it. Gossiping, laughing, making jokes, dancing... but I have this internal dilemma about participating in the scene by spending time there, having a few beers. I wonder: does my participation support it and how do I feel about that? I'm not so naive to think that boycotting the bars will make any difference in the grand scheme of things. And I'm not sure I want to. But as a woman, I wonder...


Anonymous mike said...

Cool post. I like the intellectual musings... I'm headed to Thailand in a couple months... you've whetted my appetite. Thanks!

12:05 PM  

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