We arrived at the Red Light District at about 9 p.m. The main bar street leads to a cul-de-sac with a Muay Thai boxing ring. Bars line both sides of the street, their music, mood-lighting, and miniskirts competing with those of the bars next door. The bar I visited was tucked into the back corner with a couple of pool tables and a good view of the ring. They were all open-air, like most restaurants in Thailand, and outside of the red lighting and the inverted ratio of women to men, it felt much the same as any other bar.
We were greeted first by Lily, a younger girl with braces and a lot of bounce. She welcomed us with hugs before returning to the other side of the pool table where an old man curled an arm around her waist. We ordered drinks (Sprite) and played a round of pool, in which Lily smoked all three of us.
Another Sprite got me into a conversation with the bar-mom who makes kimchi and was recently in the hospital for some kind of skin ailment. English is ubiquitous but sketchy in the red light district; you take what you get. And besides good conversations, I got a slice of mango and a bland but succulent corn on the cob. It was delicious, but baffling,
The dynamic of the entire bar was odd. Besides Lily allowing the crusty old guy to kiss her arms and cleavage, the rest of the girls weren’t really...working the room. They were talking amongst themselves, texting, and trying to ignore the two men at the bar with me. One of them leaned over and rolled his eyes. His Aussie accent was pretty thick, but the gist of it was, “I’ve bought all these girls drinks; what does a guy have to do to get a little action around here?”
As you can imagine, I’ve never had this particular conversation before, so I steered the topic to safer waters: our respective nationalities and reasons for being in Thailand. I kept him chatting for a good half an hour—the girls looked like they needed a break. We talked about the Muy Thai sparring that was taking place, and he said, “That’s why I came here, actually. To see the fights. I just got distracted!” I snorted at him before he walked off to play pool and we shared a short laugh.
The men I talked to that night are one of the reasons I took so long to post this. I’ve read that you can only communicate within your audience’s experience, but I’m not sure that’s viable. How can all of this be part of your experience when I—I who am sitting laughing with men who buy women—haven’t yet wrapped my mind around it myself?
That’s about the time I told one of the girls it was my birthday and she told the bar mom who smiled and said something about a shot about which I tried to protest to no avail. Thus I ended up with all the bar girls—as well as said Aussie and the Swedish grandpa to my left who was giving me a mini-history lesson—singing Happy Birthday and cheering me on as the bar mom blew out the flames so I could drink my free birthday shot.
Other girls from our team who went to different bars had a completely different experience. Some met the famous ladyboys, others were pulled into deep conversations with some of the girls working. One confessed how much she hated what she was doing, but she had doctor’s bills to pay (occupational hazard) and another, only two months into the job, said she was only working for a little while to pay her way through college.
The girls waved and smiled at me when we left. We drove a half hour to the team house where warm showers, clean sheets, and our own beds waited for us.