Top of many people’s to-do lists when they visit Bangkok is a trip to a go-go bar or sex show. If you walk along Khao San Road or head to the Pat Pong district in Silom then the roads are lined with men touting different ping pong extravaganzas and special deals.
Bangkok is sadly famous for its sex industry and it is very much out in the open. Because of this, there are times when Bangkok feels like the Disneyland version of prostitution, with fake happy faces and flashing neon bulbs. Just take a walk down Soi Cowboy and see what I mean, it is astonishing to see how well packaged the experience is.
But it doesn’t come as a surprise that behind the bright lights and polyester costumes there is a much darker world.
I have met plenty of visitors and ex-pats who don’t see anything wrong with go-go bars in Bangkok. In fact at least once a month someone will try and convince me how much fun they are, or call me a prude for not wanting to visit them.
To them it is somewhere to have fun. “The girls are friendly” they’ll say, “it’s harmless fun”. You can find plenty of blog posts about young female backpackers visiting these venues and talking about they have braved the world behind the velour curtains and notched it up to a typical Thai holiday experience.
My reason has nothing to do with being brave, and I am not a prude. I just can’t see the fun of watching some poor women demean themselves for my entertainment, smoking a cigarette with their nether regions or shooting a ping pong ball across the room, not because they enjoy it, but because they need the money.
I spoke to a good friend of mine, who has been to these clubs with friends. He said that there are times he feels that the situation is a little dodgy, but more often than not, like in many other layers of society in Thailand, there is a smiley welcome and a relaxed vibe that hides the truth.
For all its gloss, go go bars in Bangkok are still very dangerous places for the women working there. Just because it is more out in the open than in many countries in the west doesn’t mean that the women are offered any protection or have any rights. The last time my colleagues mentioned visiting go go bars I decided to do a little research.
What I found was worse that I could have imagined. I was expecting that many of the women who work in the sex industry had ended up there because of poverty and abuse, that they were treated terribly by the owners of the bars. But upon discovering these articles from the Pulitzer Centre, published in 2010, I couldn’t quite believe that Thailand turns such a blind eye to what is happening on the streets of Bangkok and Pattaya.
It’s a sad fact of life that because many women in Thailand don’t have the education needed for decent paying jobs that they turn to the sex trade out of desperation, to provide for their families and loved ones.
Many of the women working in the bars are from farming communities in the north of Thailand or migrants from Laos and Myanmar. Taking advantage of another person’s desperation is against most people’s moral code, but for some reason that doesn’t extend to the world of prostitution. It seems to be a case of if they need the money, why not pay them for it?
Bangkok has so many more redeeming qualities than the go go bars in Patpong and Nana. But the shiny dollars of the rich westerners are all that can be seen by those who run these establishments and the authorities who ignore what they do. But pouring foreign money into the sex trade should not be seen as a good investment for Thailand, or a long-term tourism strategy.
I know that watching one of these shows would leave me feeling grubby and a little angry with myself, and I hate the idea of looking into a young woman’s eyes knowing how awful her life could be. My baht will go on projects like the one I used to volunteer for, teaching English to enhance the employment chances of those at risk, or with outreach workers who help these go go bar workers with no other choice.