The sign is glowing blue and undeniable.
Welcome to Patong Beach.
The road is barricaded against traffic and the street is filled with thronging bodies. Conflicting pop songs blast out of open-front bars with fluorescent, gaudy signs hanging above open bar stools. My eyes are drawn to a small group of Thai women all jutting hips and ribs, sporting bras, short skirts, fishnet stockings, and what can only be referred to as stripper heels. I notice each woman has a number pinned to her bra. My eyes slide past them uneasily. I feel guilty, but I’m not sure why.
The jostling crowd pushes us forward and a tout steps in front of me. She tries to hand me a menu, but my hands are already up in what, I hope, is the universal ‘no, thank you’ gesture.
“Ping-Pong show? You go?” she crows.
I continue holding my hands up like a shield until I’ve passed her. There’s another menu in front of me. It’s for a different bar, but another tout is sporting a similar refrain. “Ping-Pong show!” The tout makes a noise with her mouth like water dripping. I shake my head and push past.
Beside me, Kelly’s eyes are wide. I can see the fluorescent signs reflected in her pupils. “Is this what Vegas is like?” she asks.
“No, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” I say. My eyes land on another group of Thai women clustered together at a bar. These women are wearing plaid skirts and comically short ties – facsimiles of a Catholic school uniform. I realize this outfit must be targeted to titillate foreign men’s fantasies in a Buddhist country. One of the women fawns over a blonde man in a polo shirt and jeans. He stands at least a head taller than her, although she’s wearing six-inch platform heels.
It clicks. I feel stupid for not realizing it sooner. The sex tourism on Bangla Road, like the welcome sign, is undeniable. The raucous street takes on a new hue now. It is thrown into tones of red(light district). I knew Thailand nurtures a thriving sex tourist industry, but I had thought that a tourist would have to go looking for it. I didn’t realize the goods would be, for lack of a better term, on display so openly.
Farther down the street – this time I am ready for it (or at least not oblivious) – ladyboys preen and pose with tourists in front of the flash of cameras snapping photos in the dark. Their bodies are long and lean, not unlike the bar girls. Gaudy headdresses perch above their expertly painted faces. They resemble showgirls from Vegas.
Touts harass us as we continue down the street. “What is the obsession with Ping-Pong tournaments here?” I finally ask in exasperation, after dodging a particularly aggressive tout.
Kelly laughs and her cheeks color. “I don’t think it’s for Ping-Pong games.”
“What?” Another menu is shoved in front of my face. I stop to look at it. The photos on the menu crystalize into graphic pictures of women. It immediately becomes clear to me what a “Ping-Pong show” is. The tout makes the wet, popping sound with her mouth and I finally realize what that sound signifies.
Again, I feel naïve and stupid.
We turn off Bangla Road onto a quieter soi. There are bars on this soi too, as well as bar girls, but there are fewer clients. We choose a bar and order drinks. The two bar girls do not approach us. Instead, they play Connect Four at the far end of the bar.
“This is not what I thought Bangla Road would be,” I confess.
I look at the menu and I notice a “Lady’s Drink” that is three times the price of anything else on the menu. I would learn later that this is the drink a client will buy for a bar girl for the pleasure of talking to her. Over and over again, Bangla Road proves that I’m not ready for it.
My mind drifts back to when I used to work night shift at a hotel that, while it wouldn’t necessarily be labelled seedy, tended to cater toward a less refined clientele. Past midnight one evening a woman sauntered into the office. Her face was flushed and her eyes glassy. She wore a pair of dark wash jeans and a well-fitted t-shirt. She had a long (fake) ponytail cascading down her back and a swipe of kohl above her eyelashes.
I asked her if she would have any guests with her. She said, “Yes, but once I’m done later tonight, maybe I’ll come back to see you.”
She ran a finger down my jawline, giggled and winked, picked up the key, and bounced out. I watched her ponytail sway back and forth as she turned and disappeared while the realization dawned on me that a prostitute had just propositioned me It was a unique sensation of bewilderment and surprise.
I snap back to the present. My drink is in front of me, sparkling with condensation. I’m not sure what to make of the brazenness of this street, much like I was never quite sure how to mentally file away the experience with the woman in the hotel office.
We finish our drinks and begin the walk back to the hotel. I find myself eyeing every man we pass as a potential sexpat and wonder if they are here for the beaches or the girls. Sex tourism brings people to Thailand. This is not why I am here. Bangla Road might be what some tourists are looking for.
I, for one, will not be coming back.