Why I won’t go to a go-go bar

Go go Bar Thailand

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.

Soi Cowboy Bangkok


10 thoughts on “Why I won’t go to a go-go bar

  1. Not having education leaves these girls with no choice, many of them also get pregnant at an early age, again lack of education is normally part of the issue here. As you say they turn to the sex industry as a last resort, so they can feed their families. The bottom line is none of them want to do the work, and that’s why I too have never visited a ping pong pool show. When I hear western people moaning about how they hate their jobs, I pull them to one side and tell them it’s not all that bad compared to what some people have to do.

  2. Thanks for not shying away from this topic! The underside of the ‘happy faces’ with the exploitive entertainment shouldn’t be taken lightly and is always complicated with complicity at all levels. At Bangkok airport last week, my cynical side couldn’t help but wonder just how many people actually use the ‘alert’ number to report the export of this exploitation? Not that my adopted home India is much better – it is also one of the worst places in the world for its treatment of women – largely linked to sex trafficking. Again, I’m the last person to be prudish about such things however applaud small and large steps taken to provide choice / options. Thanks again for this post.

  3. Good article. Thanks for not shying away from “sensitive” topics. Wish more bloggers would have the courage to write like this.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve visited Bangkok many times but I’ve never been to a go-go bar. Just like you, I also have plenty of friends who rave about how much fun it is and try to convince me to go “just to have a look”. I find it disgusting to see how those women’s misery turns into tourist entertainment and I feel sick when people try to justify their actions by claiming that the girls in the sex industry are actually lucky, since they are able to support their families and earn a lot more than they would do in an ordinary job.

  5. It is not that BKK is like all gogogogogo , compared to the entire city this is just some VERY small streets. Maybe it is 0,1% of the city if any. I truly think that the girls in their own world and mind find it easier money in a shorter timeframe than working 12 hours in the heating sun. With the lucrative option slash dream of hooking up a relative rich western person. I think when you open your eyes this is just a by product of capitalism and I guess we have to live with it.

    1. For every fairytale stripper story like you describe there are many women not choosing this path or being mistreated. I don’t think we should just live with it, and I think the women deserve more protection and the industry needs more regulation.

  6. This is a very superficial set of remarks about the sex industry. Many poor uneducated Thais from the north and north east choose prostitution because it is far more lucrative than factory work or work in the clothing industry or farming. Until the Thai government do something about the lives of the poor in Thailand nothing will change. More then 50% of prostitution is solely catering for the needs of Thai men. the average tourist only sees the small enclaves like Nana catering for the tourist but the city has many ‘karaoke’ bars and cafes that you would not even notice.
    If there were no westerners paying for sex what would all those uneducated women do? bears some thinking about doesn’t it? There have been cases of trafficking but that is not the normal state of affairs and although they may not have many choices, the sex trade is a choice that Thai people make. Western men do not create the problem, the Thai government does.

  7. While you are entitled to your opinions, I’ve got to wonder if you are just repeating other peoples opinions based on what they said or wrote as you make it clear you have never been in a gogo bar and spoken to the women. After all, it’s only a very few gogos that have those x rated ‘shows”, most are just dancers in bikinis or less.

    “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 ”
    I’m sure you know by now that westerners make up a very small percentage of the sex trade customers. have you seen the huge glitzy massage parlours catering to thai customers ? From what I’ve heard the girls behind the fishbowls have less freedom than gogo dancers when it comes to working conditions. or have you been to Hat Yai on a weekend when all those malays flock over the border to enjoy the illicit pleasures they cannot get at home ?
    Personally, I only go to a gogo when I’m dragged along when drinking with friends, because I reckon they are too noisy, too expensive and too boring …. they stopped being a novelty or ‘sexy” after about my 2nd visit to BKK.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment. Whilst I have never been to these bars, I have spoken to people who have been and read some research papers. This doesn’t make me an expert or even an authority, but tells me enough that means I don’t wish to go there.

      I just feel that the girls who work in these places deserve more protection and would be too uncomfortable watching the shows I have heard described.

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