The first thing that struck me about the city of Bangkok, besides the fact that it was hot and steamy, was its exploding skyline. In Thailand, architecture is considered the highest form of art, and it shows. I was no longer in a troubled Nepal village, but a pulsating, vital metropolis of six million smiling people. I saw no machine guns, read no headlines that said, “Twelve Rebels ‘Shot Dead’”, and it looked and felt like everyone had a job. I hadn’t been in a city this upbeat since San Francisco at the height of the Dot.Com surge. But unlike San Francisco, Bangkok is affordable. Everything anyone could possibly want (and maybe you have to live in “outpost” for a while to appreciate this) can be purchased at a discount – from housing, to tailor made clothes, electronics, textiles, indigenous crafts, excellent medical care, some of the best food on the planet, and, oh yeah, sex.
Yes, I know. Thailand and Sex. It’s a tired cliché. But everywhere I looked there were white, pasty-faced men parading young, beautiful Asian women through the streets, eating in restaurants, dancing in bars, sneaking up hotel elevators – and all of it left me a bit depressed in the Land of Smiles. Where did I, a western woman fit in here? If I went on a date, should I charge?
The Atlanta Hotel, a budget hotel with style, where writers, film industry people, and other artists intersect, is where I stayed during my final two weeks in Bangkok. It has a sign posted in its lobby: “Bargirls, Catamites, & Prostitutes of Either Sex Are Not Allowed to Stay at the Atlanta.” Catamites? I put my friends on it and they reported back, “Catamite: a boy kept by a pedophile.”
Siam’s long-standing tradition of concubines and courtesans goes back at least to the 1400′s. Chinese immigrants began the first official brothels in the early 1900′s. Until very recently most men of wealth had “major” and “minor” wives. (And some say it is still common.) After prostitution was declared illegal in the 1950′s, the sex trade grew by another 15%. The Vietnam War began a tradition of R&R holidays for men around the world and created a new class of prostitutes who catered to foreigners.
At its best, Thailand’s sex trade allows girls to return to their families and villages with tidy nest eggs. At its worst, the girls are sold or indentured by their families, or kidnapped, and forced to work as slaves in appalling conditions. Thailand’s sex industry generates income double the annual government’s budget. Bangkok may be back on top, but the oldest business in the world is still Bangkok’s biggest business.
So why can’t I “wrap my head around it” in the words of a Bangkok female expat who has managed to do just that? Maybe it has something to do with an old fashioned notion of love and romance. Or maybe it’s the fact that I know that not all its participants are willing ones. Over the past six months, I’ve spoken at length with at least three people dedicated to stopping the sex traffic trade, and their stories about the underbelly of the sex trade are not pretty ones. There is no way, knowing what I do now, that I can look at hundreds of thousands of western men descending on an Asian country for a sex holiday, and say, ” Boys will be boys”.
But obviously there are locals and expatriates living in Bangkok who aren’t pimps, madams, or bar girls – people who lead relatively normal lives. And so I set out to meet some of them. Here are a few of their stories:
“I moved to Bangkok when my dog died and my red-headed wife left me.” Harold tells me. (No, these words were not lifted from a country song.) I am having a drink outside my most frequented Bangkok hangout, the Internet-Laundry Cafe on Sukhumvit, when the rather large Oklahoman native wanders in and sits on a stool next to me. Harold, who has lived in Bangkok for six years, tells me he married a Thai woman last year who grew up so poor she nursed until she was fifteen. Harold makes his living in Bangkok he says, putting on Shakespeare Festivals in the United States. Harold’s business card says he deals in forgiveness, spiritual guidance, loving advice, and hugs.
The sois and boulevards around Sukhumvit are lined with girly bars, department stores, massage parlors, expatriate high-rise apartments, street vendors, and city block-sized “girly” hotels in which I hear there are women displayed behind glass. One evening as I am walking back to my hotel I decide it’s time to see what lies behind the dark doors of the Tequila Bar. As I enter, the girls surround me. “Welcome! Come sit here. What would you like to drink? How about some peanuts?” And “Here’s a cool wet towel to wipe your brow.” (OK, I’m beginning to see the attraction.) Inside the bar two Englishmen are dancing with three or four girls each to Kenny Rogers singing “Oh Ruu-uuuu-by, don’t take your love to town”, and one fellow in a starched shirt named Brent, is drinking quietly at the bar.
Brent, a 33-year old expatriate from California tells me he’s lived and worked in Asia for eight years – Bangkok for the past two. He is a lawyer for a firm that helps expatriates purchase Thailand businesses and personal property. I say to Brent that Bangkok must be heaven for a man. He says, “It is for about the first month, but after that you realize it’s a all an act.” (It is? And I thought these girls liked me.) He says that a man wants the same thing a woman wants, to be loved. “Sure you can find someone to cook and clean for you, but you’ll never find a woman here you can really talk to.” Brent hopes to work in Asia for a few more years and then return to his hometown to fall in love and start a family.
On another evening I’m coming out of the Fujicolor Photo store on Soi 4 when I hear, “Hello there!” I look up to see a burly man with a beard and spectacles sitting with an Asian woman in one of the Soi’s many open-air bars. “Hi,” I say back. He says, “You American?” “Yes.” “How about that? I’m from Michigan.” He stands and shakes my hand. The Asian woman at his side stands as well and wais (bows with praying hands under chin). “I’m Tom and this is Phun. Come on in and we’ll buy you a beer.”
“So, how do you like Thailand?” I ask Tom. “Like it?” he says. “I love it. I’m taking Phun here home with me to Michigan. We’re gonna get married, sell my property, and come back to Thailand to live.” He gazes at the woman who doesn’t understand a word we are saying, yet is smiling at him broadly, lovingly.
“I spent seven years in the Orient during the Vietnam War,” Tom says, “but I had to leave when America pulled out. My girlfriend where I’d been stationed was seven months pregnant, but I lost track of her. I’ve been up in Northern Thailand searching for my kid. He’d be 35 this year. I haven’t found him yet, but I’m not giving up until I do.”
During the war, Tom says he worked in Thailand’s northern province in the rice paddies. “Doing what?” I ask. “Can’t really say,” he says. “The U.S. government still doesn’t admit the place even exists. Let’s just say I was in explosives.”
“Why do you want to move back here?” I ask.
“Because it’s like coming home to family after 30 years.” he says. “I started coming back last year because my psychiatrist said I should. We killed so many people in Laos and now the same Americans that protested the war are moving into the war zone. It ain’t right.” He is wiping his eyes. “We had to fight harder when we returned home than we ever had to fight in the war. Americans wonder why we come back here and end up with Asian women. The reason is that they wanted nothing to do with us. Here people respect what we did.”
“Your fiancée is lovely,” I say to Tom. “She is to me,” he says taking her hand. “She’s got a heart of gold and works her ass off doing laundry and anything she can to make a baht.”
When I walk back to my hotel, I feel as if I’ve been handed a big beautiful gift. In the midst of cultural exploitation and in the palpable wake of the Vietnam War, love and hope remain.
I responded to the ad above, and that is how I came to be here tonight at La Gritta, a swanky Italian restaurant, with twenty-five of Bangkok’s expatriate women. Most of the attractive women are between the ages 25 and 50 and they are from Europe, Australia, America, Canada, the Middle East, and Hong Kong. And as in social gatherings of women everywhere, the main topic of conversation is men.
“You can call your article ‘Sexless In the City’”, one woman says. They all concur that Bangkok is strictly BYOB (bring your own boyfriend) and indeed every woman here tells me she initially arrived in Bangkok with a spouse or a boyfriend or has one back home waiting. When I ask why they are here, I learn that most of the women came to Bangkok for temporary job postings.
“What is the best thing about living in Bangkok?” I ask them. They agree that it’s the food and the fact that you can live a far better lifestyle here than at home.
The women with families say that Bangkok is a great place to raise children for several reasons. Domestic help and excellent international schools top their list. One woman says, “My biggest fear is that someday I’ll look at my children with their mid-transatlantic American accents and wonder, ‘Who are they?’ Or that I’ll take them back to England and they’ll scoff at their grandparents because they don’t have maids.”
I ask the women how they feel about Bangkok’s in-your-face sex trade. One woman says, “It makes me sick, really sick. I had an argument two days ago with a guy in the street who was offering me little boys!” Another says, “I’m disgusted by Western people that help to promote this, and sad for the innocent kids and desperate people it affects.” One woman says, “I have learned to adopt a Thai approach, which is to ignore it. The sex industry is worldwide, and if I dwelled on it too much I couldn’t live here. So the less I know, the better.” She adds, “Not all working girls see prostitution as a means to an end. Some see it as a start, a way out of poverty. I’ve read that some very lucrative business women here got their beginnings in the trade.”
I ask them where they see western women fitting in in Bangkok. One says, “Expats tend to fall into two grossly over-generalized categories: expat families where one or both spouses earn a generous foreign salary, and “Sexpats” or men who live off their savings or work locally and whose primary pastime is sex with prostitutes.” She adds, “Of course there are men who fall into both categories. If you don’t fit into either category as a woman, it can be a bit of a challenge.”
One woman says that although she came here for her job, she has grown to love Bangkok. “This weekend I ate in the best restaurants, partied in some excellent clubs, took a new dress design to my tailor who will work from my sketches, ate durian, and cruised the klongs in a water taxi on Sunday with friends. We found a temple and offered up our wishes on wax tablets. Where else can you get all that?”
The worst thing about Bangkok? The traffic and pollution. No contest. However, nearly all the women say they would recommend Bangkok to other expatriates looking for a place to live, at least temporarily.
Temporarily – that’s the key word. Few of the women I speak to envision a lifetime in Bangkok. As for my shopping list of places to live, Bangkok goes under the column, “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
It is my last evening in Bangkok and I am making my way through a shopping list of supplies for my next “outpost”: Contact lenses, prescription medications, film, batteries, and the blue ostrich leather cowboy boots I had custom made (a temporary lapse of sanity). I’ve been told that everything electronic or computer-related can be found in one place, at Pentip Plaza. So, having learned the hard way that taking a taxi in Bangkok means traveling at the speed of an inchworm in an air-conditioned capsule with thousands of others doing the same thing, I flag down a motorcycle taxi and climb on back.
We weave through the narrow spaces between gridlocked cars, taxis, and buses – spaces so narrow at times, that I have to squeeze my knees into the bike to keep from leaving them on the sides of city buses. The traffic opens up suddenly and we are speeding through Bangkok’s nighttime forest of brightly lit high-rises, past throngs of people gathered around food vendors, past bars and pubs with revelers spilling out of their doorways, and past mammoth-sized shopping pavilions swarming with the after-work crowd. We come to a stop in front of a sign that says Computer City. Which is exactly what I find inside – an indoor city dedicated entirely to computer and electronics stores.
Shopping accomplished, I step back out onto the street to hail a ride to my hotel. Among the vendors selling satay and tom yam soup, knock-off Calvin Klein jeans, and Rolex watches, is a display that catches my eye. Multicolored, liquid-filled jars and vials are stacked neatly one on top of the other with labels that are written in Thai. I pick one up and ask the vendor, “What is this?”
“Big. Last Looong time,” he says. I buy one. It’s the perfect souvenir.