Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bangkok Dangerous

Similar to the hotspots in Tokyo, downtown Bangkok is a mecca of hyper-consumerism. The futuristic BTS above-ground train line runs through the heart of the city, whisking well-dressed passengers to glass-walled offices and multi-storied shopping malls. The Siam Paragon mall seems even more done-up than the nicest complexes in Shibuya and Roppongi. Escalators carry shoppers through the central atrium to floors loaded with luxury brand-name shops: Ferragamo, Versace, Chanel, and there is even a Lamborghini dealership on the fourth floor.

But Bangkok also as a dark side, an underworld of poverty, street hustlers, drugs, sleaze, and prostitution. The visibility of sex-tourism in the city is staggering. After the sun goes down, prostitutes can be seen virtually everywhere throughout the city, often side by side with foreign clients. The various red-light districts are absolutely packed with strip clubs, bars, and girls working the streets.

But this is only the easily observed outer layer of Bangkok's underbelly. I found myself wondering what must lie beneath the surface, the unseen corridors and alleyways where establishments cater to local Thai clients and rich connoisseurs with skeletons in the closet.

The first area I explored briefly was Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's signature red-light districts. The history of the area goes back to the 1970's when an American ex-pat opened the first bar on the street. The legend goes that he always wore a cowboy hat, thus giving the district its nickname.

If you've ever wondered about the etymology of the term "red-light district", you should walk down Soi Cowboy. The dim street is completely inundated in deep pink neon lighting and the seedy atmosphere is pervasive. Girls from various clubs line the streets wearing tanktops, stiletto heals, and hoochie shorts.
The area is mainly geared towards foreign customers. They say that Thai men aren't even allowed in some clubs unless they are escorted by a foreigner.

Outside Bangkok, things aren't much different. I spent two days traveling around the beaches of Pattaya, a city two hours southeast of the capital. Walking up and down the main beach, I saw women caked in makeup everywhere. Those who were alone often called to me when I walked by. The others were generally chatting with late middle-aged foreign men.

By night, Pattaya also descends into debauchery. The famous red-light district in town is called Walking Street, and it is not too different from Soi Cowboy minus the fact that it is significantly larger. Roaming the grounds were various touts carrying price lists of the services offered by their establishments. Outside the clubs were bar girls in various tantalizing costumes, trying to pick up passerbys. Some were obviously underage. These two girls were happy to pose for my camera.

Passing another bar, these girls called to me and held up this sign.


Flattering, I know.

Entertainment for men, or exploitation of poor women? A bustling nightlife scene, or a morally debased spectacle? The plethora of dualities leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm back in Tokyo now, yet even Japan in all of its kinkiness feels utterly normal in comparison.

More scenes from Soi Cowboy...


And scenes from Walking Street...



1 comment:

Leezer said...

These pics are stunning...I should come back to your blog more often.