I had a visit from a friend, Clair. I went a bit wild, sometimes staying up until midnight chatting. I know! It’s insane. I had several nights out over the space of a week culminating in sleeping over at Tony’s Place in Ayuthaya. Tony wasn’t there, I don’t know if Tony exists, it was just a B & B. We shared a room, we shared a bed, we shared a bathroom with no door – no secrets!
Clair took in some of the Bangkok sights, I think she ventured to the odd temple and did a lot of walking about, while I was on the school run and nursery drop offs/pick ups. One night Clair asked about the Go-Go bars. I’d been up and down Soi Cowboy with Julia, my new friend, while we filmed ‘Brits in Bangkok’ – I suppose to get my reaction to the neon Blackpool-like strip, and contrast it to my life as a mum and middle-class, white expat lady (its strange that this description of myself makes me flinch). We were making comments as I saw it for the first time, like “Jeez, how old is she? She’s a child! Is that man doing up his flies? I don’t think I like it”. We passed a bar ‘Cockatoo’, Julia commenting “I’ve had a cock-a-too” which whenever I remember always makes me laugh.
Outside the bars, groups of scantily clad young women/girls stand together in cheerleader outfits and formations to entice you in. They’re not all that interested about getting me and my mate in on either occassion.
First I took Clair to Nana and we sat at a few bars and chatted and watched, I think we were both waiting for something to happen. It turns out we weren’t at the heart of the action and we wanted more. I hadn’t researched this night out, I’d have liked to have sat down in a bar and chatted to the dancers be they girls or ladyboys – it’s an intriguing world I know little about. Several ladyboys passed by in high heels and tight dresses and street vendors selling the same tat as can be found on the Koh San Road (see previous blog post). A group of women wearing black hijabs looked out of place passing a sexy dancing bar – were they there to perv as well? Because truth be told we were there to have a good look at a different side of Bangkok, to see for ourselves what all the fuss is about, where ‘tourist’ becomes ‘sex tourist’, where a mum and her teacher friend become giggling pervs.
I didn’t know Nana Plaza was like a mall dedicated to dancing/strip bars, we just went to soi 4, how would I know? My only other experience of Nana was when we were searching for a school for Abe and one option happened to be at the end of the street. It was odd walking down the long stretch of bars at 9am as lone men sat astride bar stools in open windows, drinking beer as the streets were swilled clean of the night before’s debauchery, while my kids innocently skipped through beer and soapy puddles oblivious to their surroundings.
We sacked off Nana and walked to Soi Cowboy, a ‘red light district’, a pedestrian street of neon signs with shit music pumping onto the road as people stroll up and down choosing a bar, same-same. When I came here for the documentary we had to meet a police officer, an agreement had been made for an officer escort to accompany us along the street, I suppose because people may protest to being filmed. The police officer took the cash and didn’t join us. It felt safe, it didn’t feel edgy, at no time did we feel threatened, though a few blokes walked passed with their hands up to cover their faces. What is your crime? Perving (it is not a crime)? Or have you recently been on ‘America’s Most Wanted’?
“Suzie Wong’s! I’ve heard of it, shall we just go in here?” “Yeah alright”. That was as considered as it got for our choice of venue. The venue was dimly lit and we were taken to a seat at the back by the Mamasan. I didn’t look up until our drinks were ordered for fear of getting the giggles in front of the serious ladies in the doorway. At school I could get the giggles at the most inopportune moments, usually while getting shouted at for talking. I suppose my formula for laughter is nerves + the ridiculous x the serious = hysterics.
The stage is in the centre of the room, about 15 poles on a raised platform with barstools lining the edge so punters can cop an eye-full. I noticed the numbers on the girls stockings first, I didn’t understand that you picked a number and could be joined by that girl, until I watched it happen and it clicked. Prostitution is illegal here so I presume the men who disappeared upstairs with the girls were just going for a chat about how their wives didn’t understand them.
As we sipped our drinks we watched a team of around 10 girls have a bit of a dance in their knickers, hold-ups and high heels. They were beautiful, pretty, petite, and bored stiff. One girl held the pole and chatted to her neighbour as though she was on the 192 bus waiting for it to pull over at her stop. There wasn’t much dancing, just kind of shuffling from side to side. I didn’t know the performances heat up as the night goes on but it became apparent. One man with his nose in the stage took a shine to the girl who encorporated some arm movements and squatting and soon they were off, returning a little later as non-plussed looking as when they’d departed. This was happening but it didn’t feel seedy, or dangerous, or all that embarrassing, though I was glad I hadn’t popped in with my in-laws on their last visit. I cringe when we’re watching Coronation Street together and someone has a snog, so a row of girls in the buff would be too much.
Something about being in Thailand, in Bangkok, made it feel acceptable for me to be at that table. There’s ‘Long Legs’ and ‘Fantasy Bar’ in Manchester and I’ve never thought I’d pop in for a show, so why here? And in Amsterdam I had a wander round the red light district thinking I had a liberal open-minded view of the sex trade, until I watched groups of lads laughing and pointing at women in the windows and it felt exploitative and I had a whitey. So is it alright to do it out here and not closer to home? What’s the difference? Its all sexploitation. I think the difference is, it’s more open here, more talked about, more overground, another venue on the tourist circuit.
My problem is that given the choice I’m sure the girls and ladyboys wouldn’t be giving private dances to sweaty strangers with the prospect of ‘extras’. But do they have a choice? I don’t know the answer. I’d like to be able to write a disclaimer, point out my feminist politics, my left-wing ideals but I don’t think it goes with this blog post. I can’t say going to see a strip show illustrates what an open-minded, empowered feminist I truly am – I was acting outside of my politics. I was acting as a voyeur in a city known for its sex trade, I was conforming to the norm, and I’ve met people who now have HIV because of this norm.The women on the stage didn’t look timid, or high on class A’s, I’d say they looked bored. When it got a bit girl on girl, the girls on the receiving end looked as though they were watching an advert advising them to consolidate all their debts into one manageable payment. It wasn’t titilating for me, but the boy who’d chosen to sit closer to the action could barely look for fear of his night ‘peaking’ too soon (ahem). I don’t think it was much of a turn-on for the older man and son in his 30s who sat next to us and discussed their pension plans either.
At the end of a session one group of girls would exit stage right, taking their rolled up white thongs from where they’d stashed them in their stockings and pulled them on purposefully in a way that said ‘show’s over’. I’m thinking of sending James to do a crash course in underwear removal, he has this skill where he clutches his boxer shorts with his toes and kicks them high into the air, catching them, showing off like he’s in an Alan Partridge version of Cirque de Soleil. (Though he feels he’s more John Travolta in Staying Alive)
All the performers were women aside from one man (fully clothed) who came on stage and breathed a bit of fire then got off. One group of girls was replaced by the next, they worked in shifts, swapping tasks like I imagine you would in McVities biscuit factory so you don’t get too bored of the same routine. As balloons were blown up off stage I was reminded of my kids at home, I wondered if they’d let me have one to take home for Abe and Patti. But then girls began unravelling string with needles attached from their crotches, using them to pop the balloons. It became quite animated, one girl almost skipping off the stage to reach for a runaway balloon, she seemed to be enjoying it.
At the other end of the stage a girl performed a dance with a 10 foot length of golden ribbon she’d unravelled from her vagina. I will never look at a Maypole at a country show in the same light and the next time I hear the Lambada I’ll probably anticipate the woman next to me will squat and remove something from her nether regions. Then there were the women with neon paintings of flowers up their bodies, they looked beautiful, glowing in the dark, grinding up and down, a man came and painted one of the women’s backs as the other’s danced. It was pervy street art nothing more, nothing less and as I looked around most of the couples – which were mainly boy/girl, were chatting amongst themselves. I suppose it could have been sexy for some and it beats going to the pub and watching rugby on the screens.
I understand it becomes more risque as the night goes on but we left after the soapy sponge wash, glad the women had had a stand-up-wash before bed. We’d seen enough and we were hungry.
I think that looking at beautiful men and women is perfectly acceptable and natural when the bodies are owned by the individuals. Looking at beauty is natural is it not? Where it gets blurred is when people are exploited or taken advantage of, pimped out, held beyond their will and forced to do things they don’t want to under duress and necessity. I think we all agree on that?
So am I a pervert? Probably, yeah. Are you a pervert? It’s likely but only you can say. I’m sure to some degree we’re all perverts. I asked Clair if she had anything she’d like to say about our trip to the strip joint. She said, “My only comment is that I wanted to touch their bums”. Me too, they were perfect! Perverts!