|Photo by adaptorplug (CC)|
Although I have been regularly coming to Bangkok for ten years I still need the assistance of M. - a friend of mine who is just a tourist, an occasional visitor - to find one that can still surprise me. I'ts not only about the bars with the theme dressed up girls, the ping pong show joints, the ladyboy cabarets, the go-go bars, the erotic massage parlors, the disco-pubs and the after-hour clubs with the free lance hookers. Not only Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy then...in Bangkok you can also find stuff like this.
As soon as I get in I shudder as one does when coming across something that charms us just as it revolts us. In a way it could fit into the last of the categories listed above, as the girls don't work for the owner of the bar, or maybe they do it but just indirectly, without getting a wage or instructions and orders. However, some of the peculiar features of the place and the dynamics of the social relations suggest to create a dedicated category in order to classify it.
Some details - the table, the movements and the sober appearance of the waiters - remind of some Bavarian taverns. The counter could be the one of a town festival, with a drink list hanging from the wall behind the panting and vaguely improvised bartenders. The widespread use of wood, tiles, neon lights and cheesy pictures of famous sites (the leaning tower of Pisa, the Coleseum, the Arc de Triomphe) bring back to mind some Italian bars of the '60s and the '70s. The ingredient that interrupts this journey of the imagination through comparisons with faraway places is obviously the presence of dozens of women. Some of them have already lived all the days of their splendor but the number of pretty and young ones - according to M. - has increased since the last time he was here.
The air is leaden with a slightly dismal atmosphere, like a cattle market in lean times. "It's a vulture-like place", is M.'s comment, and even if you are not familiar with the expression as soon as you set a foot in here you understand its meaning straight away.
Most of the ladies are arranged in a semicircle, shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the walls or the furniture of the half of the room that faces the entrance. They are wearing office or evening dresses, they have nice hairstyles and are soberly made up, no vulgar or pornographic details, the hottest ones are hot in a rather discreet way. Only few of them sit at the tables scattered around or at the huge counter that curves at the center of the hall. This is where the majority of the customers are, many of them visibly bored, almost disinterested, sipping beer, chatting with friends or looking around, not necessarily at the women.
What a difference between this place and the traditional venues of the Thai sex industry! Decadence here is a matter of design more than of ethics. The indecent element is missing and the libido as well, disappeared with the exaggerated theatricality, the vulgar colors, the blinding lights and the deafening sounds. Now and then an invisible DJ plays some songs but for interminable minutes the only soundtrack of this grotesque movie is the hum, the clincking of glasses, the squeaking of stools, the background noise of a nigthclub at closing time, when the lights are switched on and the last song fades away while the patrons still linger inside.
The ladies keep trying to make eye contact. Most of the time the customers give a hint of a smile and then look away. Or they look away without even the lenitive effect of the faint smile. Probably this is only something that I feel for them though: the girls seem to be already accustomed to this kind of reaction.
Once in a while a man calls one of them. A little startled she - and sometimes also the one that stands next to her - answers: "Who, me?". And then she walks the five or six meters that separate her from what turns out to be more than a customer: he's a firefighter in a building ablaze, a Saint Bernard at the site of an avalanche, a lifeguard in the rough sea. In short, he's some kind of savior. With this pace, though, only 5% of them will be saved: they are too many and too little seems to be the attention they manage to attract. The remaining 95% will have to go back home and hold on to their poor little daily job, if they have one. As we will learn later on through a friend of M.'s, in fact, most of these part-time employees of the sex industry have very common occupations and the younger ones often turn out to be students.
The Japanese customers seem to know something that the others don't: when they call a girl, she comes over and starts to talk their language. A very enterprising approach indeed.
Once we've finished our beers, before leaving we go to the toilet, a filthy hole in the basement in line with the style of the place. A rusty gutter along the tiled wall serves as a urinar. Next to it there are two of those disgusting Asian cubbyholes for the ladies. The customers have to pay five baht per entry but with twenty baht you have unlimited access for the whole night. In order for the investment to be profitable one needs to go to the lavatory more than four times: who can resist in here for so long? Another tip will also disclose the secret that shrouds those couples that instead of walking down to the underworld of the pig pens climb the stairs in the opposite direction: upstairs there is a cheap by-the-hour hotel where more or less obscene transactions are carried out.
We leave the place and as soon as we're outside Bangkok slaps us with a blow of heat, humidity, smells and noise which suddenly delivers us from that weird torpor that had mantled us. It's as if the vulture-like place had narcotized us. Perhaps we were just stunned but it is also possible that it was another spell of a city endowed with mysterious powers.
After all they call it City of Angels: the metaphysic ingredient must be hidden somewhere.