One of the things that draws Western men (and a few women) to Thailand is the availability of relatively inexpensive sex. From Phuket and Pattaya in the south, to Chiang Mai in the north -- and, of course, with Bangkok in between -- there are literally thousands of bars, brothels, "private clubs," "no-hands" restaurants, massage parlors, and other variations on the meat
market where the children of the poor, both male and female, go to sell their beauty.
One of the primary continuing characters in my Bangkok books is Rose, now the wife of my western travel-writer protagonist, but previously one of the most beautiful women in the most garish and raucous of Bangkok's bar areas, Patpong. This stumpy little road -- the longest short street I've ever walked -- is quiet and mostly abandoned by day, but at night Patpong is all bars. There are perhaps thirty of them and some of them employ 50 or more women, so we're talking about a lot of women. And tucked into the darker streets behind Patpong there are ten or twelve go-go boy bars.
The basic format doesn't vary much from bar to bar. Bad music played too loudly, raised stages, dancing women in abbreviated outfits, drinking men, the time-tested architecture of soft pink light on soft brown skin. Smiles, the ravishing smiles for which Thailand is famous, being bestowed lavishly on the customers, an unimpressive gathering of males (mostly) who are mostly middle-aged, mostly overweight, mostly drunk or on the way to being drunk.
And always the smiles. Many of the customers fall for the smiles, take their invitation personally. The smiles make these customers feel for the moment that they're attractive, that there's something different about them, something that sets them apart from all the other losers in the room, although of course, there isn't. But they believe there has to be something real, something genuine, behind smiles like those.
And there are: poverty and powerlessness. To the left is Isaan, in the northeast, where my fictional Rose, and virtually all the bar girls and boys, come from. It's the poorest part of the country, the only place in Thailand where rain is so scarce that only one rice crop can be grown each year. The families who live here work and scrape all year, on land they can barely be said to own, to raise that single, sparse crop, in order to sell it to a rice cartel that manipulates prices mercilessly.
Some families in Isaan survive on less than US $400 per year.
These Isaan girls are playing checkers. They're using bottle-caps for checkers and they've drawn the board onto the bench. They own nothing. They're wearing probably one-third of their total wardrobes; each of them is likely to own three T-shirts, two or three pairs of shorts, and a pair of flip-flop sandals. They'll go to school until, perhaps, sixth grade, with time out when the crop must be planted or harvested, and then -- what?
They're an expense to their families. Unlike sons, whose duty it is to take care of their aging parents, daughters are honor-bound to take care of their husband's parents. What can these girls do, when they turn 18?
Well, they can support their families. This little girl, standing in front of her house in Isaan, may, when she's eighteen, go down to Bangkok to work in a bar, where she can make more money in a week than her father earns in a year. If she does take that heartbreaking route, she'll send most of that money home to keep her younger brothers and sisters in school beyond sixth grade, to give them a better chance in life, and to help her parents establish a more secure old age in a system where there's neither health insurance nor social security. Once in a while, she'll go home to her village in her Bangkok finery, looking like a movie star, and other little girls will look at her and consider taking the same leap.
When one does, she'll be entering one of the more benign forms of the world's oldest profession. The bar girls have no pimps, keep all the money they earn, are free to change bars or quit whenever they want, and -- perhaps most important -- they can turn down any customer. If he's too belligerent, too drunk, too anything, or if she just plain doesn't like or trust him, the bar girl can say no. Some women eke out a living on the commissions they're paid every time a customer buys them a Coke.
But to send money home, the girl (or boy) has to say "yes" sometimes. She or he has to smile. So what's behind a bar girl's practiced smile is an innocent girl like the one above who's turned her back on poverty for herself and her family, and who has become someone she barely recognizes as the unworldly village girl she used to be. Behind her smile is the unrelenting, unsparing, soul-scraping grind of poverty.
Tim - Sunday