Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The boom-boom girls of Thailand

I saw them on the pavements of Bangla Road, probably the busiest and brightest street in Phuket. It has bars all around, eating joints, a kick-boxing stadium – the works. I was sitting with a few tour operators from India -- whom I would get to know better over the next couple of days – gorging on my pizza and having a Red Label. In walked a girl, pouty lips, red lipstick, tight skirt, and a bag in hand. The sole lady in our group pointed her out to us. Till then I had completely forgotten that Phuket was a haven for tourists seeking cheap sex.
I saw them outside the Pizza Company outlet off Bangla Road – scores of them. Little girls, tall ones; most slim, some plump, walking the streets with regular Western clothes, handbags slung from shoulders.
It was late – we had returned from Phuket Fantasea, a fabulous nighttime cultural theme park which had a splendid show based on the Ramayana. Fantasea is spread over acres and looks like a huge, huge school fete. We finished our pizzas and hailed a taxi to go back to our hotel.
I was to meet Thailand’s famed prostitutes the next day.


It’s strange that in a country that attracts foreign tourists in hordes, very few locals speak English. I did not meet a single person who could understand what I was saying – I had to make do with hand gestures. Finding a taxi to go back to the hotel was another enormous task but that’s not what this post was about.
Next day we returned to Patong beach – the same beach on which thousands died when the massive walls of tsunami waves wrecked Thailand – and its tourism industry. The government had organized a cultural extravaganza for the 1000-odd journalists and tour operators from around the world it was hosting. Thailand wanted to show the world that the tsunami was behind it and it was ready to receive tourists again. But for some strange reason, everybody on the stage was talking in Thai.
After a couple of beers, I suggested to my group – some 25 people – that we move out. After about half an hour, most of us were back on Bangla Road and this time at a decent hour – around 10.30, I think.
We went to Tai Pan, a throbbing place with a live band that plays rock classics. We sat down for a round of Red Label. The band is all White and plays awfully great music. The place was very lively. I placed a request with the band for a song from Steely Dan but they had not heard of the group. After a few drinks at Tai Pan, I decided to move out. A PR guy from our group, in his fifties, told me he wanted to come with me. Done, I said.
Right outside Tai Pan, while I was looking at all the bars there – girly bars, go-go girls, transvestite pole dancers -- a couple of girls stopped me.
“Boom, boom?” they asked.
“Boom, boom?” I replied.
One of the girls, the smaller one, made a circle with her left hand thumb and index finger and started poking it with her right index finger.
“Oh, boom, boom,” I said.
“Your hotel. 500 bahts for one girl. All night,” she said.
“No, thanks.”
“You pay less. OK? 400.”
“No, thanks. Not interested.”
“You not like me?”
“No. Don’t want boom, boom. Married,” I showed her my right hand.
The girls moved on and stopped the Old PR Guy. The haggling began again.
I left him with the girls and got into a side street that was full of gyrating pole dancers.


“Most of them are transvestites,” a colleague had told me earlier.
So there I was. The street was like any in Chandni Chowk. There was barely enough place for two people to walk together. Open girly bars were everywhere.
A doe-eyed girl in her undergarments was playing a game of dominoes with a young man, probably a European. The guy was smitten, you could see it in his eyes. The girl was indulgent. The two looked like a pair in love. A whole lot of people had stopped to see them play – but nothing mattered to the two.
I ran into a couple of other guys from my group. Both were in their fifties but splendidly good chaps. One runs a travel agency, the other is a senior officer with an airline. We decided to have a beer each. They told me they had found a good disc. It was right above where we stood.
At the disc, a girl accosted us.
“No boom, boom, thanks,” I told her.
“No boom, boom,” she said.
“Thank you.”
“I like you.”
“What?” The music was loud. The crowd looked like it was in a trance. It was the last song, I think. Everybody wanted to have the last dance.
“What did you say,” I asked her again.
“You say no to friend for boom, boom. You say married. I like.”
“Well, thank you. You are a nice girl yourself. You should get out of this profession.”
“No. Can’t get out. Me like you. Let’s go hotel. No charge.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
Within half an hour we were back in our hotel. It had been a heady night. I wondered how many of those boom-boom girls had been brought back to the hotel.
I wondered about those girls. Why they were doing what they were doing. They looked like they belonged to nice families. In India, they would even be considered upper middle class. Then why, I wondered, would nice little girls get into prostitution?


“The field a woman ploughs lies between her legs.”
That’s an old Thai saying. Contrary to what Bangkok’s gleaming buildings, its bumper-to-bumper traffic and mega malls tell you, Thailand is mostly a poor country. Tourism is the mainstay here. The girls that get into prostitution to support their families. And you would be amazed to see the kind of support they get from the men who escort them to hotels whenever a tourist bites the bait. These bike-taxi guys are all the family they have in cities they come to, to be ravaged by the tourist looking for cheap thrills and an even cheaper sex.
After speaking to a lot of locals and tourists, this is the conclusion I came to: An all-night jig with a girl will cost you around 400 baht (around Rs 500 or $10). A peg of Red Label at a place like Tai Pan will set you back by around 150 baht (around Rs 200 or $5). And Red Label is one of the cheapest “Scotch” doing the rounds in Thailand.
It was late. My thoughts were wandering. I pulled out a can of beer from the mini-bar in my room and went to the balcony. It was hot and humid. In the distance, I could see lights from the discos on Bangla Road. The loud thumping music in the bars landed faintly in my ears. I went back inside. Early next morning, we had to leave for Krabi. Thailand was just getting interesting. I don’t know when I dozed off. The music was still throbbing in my head. Or was I going to get seriously hung over the next morning?


Krabi is a beautiful place. A sleepy town along probably the only beach that was battered by the tsunami. Close by are Phi Phi islands which bore the brunt of the walls of water. Many victims of Phi Phi were brought to Krabi for treatment.
“It looks just like New Zealand,” the guy from the airline told me.
After a quick bath in luxurious Pavilion Hotel, we headed out to town. “Foot massage,” somebody said.
“Foot massage. Yes,” all the girls in the group said, almost in unison.
“Foot massage,” the older amongst us agreed.
“Beer,” I said loudly. Or Red Label, I said to myself.
We were at the beach. Green sea. Beach littered with sea shells. “These are thousands of years old. You should not walk here,” somebody told me.
I stood at the seashore. What if there is another tsunami? I’m the only one standing here. What would it be like? What would it have been like for the thousands who were sunbathing or swimming in the sea when it receded and then rose with great fury, destroying everything in its path. The thought scared me. I quickly raced back towards the hillock.


“Raruna,” the cab driver said. We had decided on having authentic Italian for dinner.
“Raruna?” our liaison man asked. “Abey ghodu, kahan hai yeh? Where is it?”
For about 10 minutes we kept looking for Raruna.
We found La Luna, set up by an Italian. Thais cannot pronounce “L”. Great confusion that caused.
It was a small place but very cosy. I found a Padi (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) instructor at the bar, smoking. I started talking to him about the tsunami and its effect on business in Thailand (you’ll find that story below, titled “Phuket struggles with ghosts; or is it guilt?”)
After our pizzas, we set out for a walk. The sea on the right, the market on the left and greenery all around. Krabi’s streets are squeaky clean. At one corner of the town were the discos, thumping music and all.
“Foot massage,” one of the girls groaned. It’s a very nasal kind of voice that most girls produce, when they want to implore the others. The stress was on the Ss.
I had had enough. “Foot massage people that side. Those who want to walk, come this side. We’ll meet here in 1 hour.”
For the next hour, we looked at clubs, decided they were pretty shady and moved on. I was scouting for the boom-boom girls. Not because of you-know-what but because they had intrigued me. I wanted to ask them why. What forces them into prostitution. Why can’t they get out. But none was to be found.
“It’s a very sleepy town. Let’s go back to the hotel. We have to catch an early flight tomorrow,” someone suggested. It was 11 p.m. The flight was at 10.30 a.m. Early flight, I wondered. But we quickly marched back to the hotel.


The drive to Krabi airport was really nice. The sea is green and has cliffs rising out perpendicularly. What a challenge those would be for rock climbers and BASE jumpers. Within hours we were in Bangkok, caught in the maddening traffic. Reminded me of Delhi, even though it was much more civilized than what we have back home.
As soon as I chucked my luggage in the room, the Old PR Guy and I were at a mobile shop in the hotel. The owner was a Sikh whose parents had come from Amritsar. I told him I was a journalist from India. For a mobile shop owner, he was very aware of current affairs and the Thai society. I asked him about the boom-boom girls. “It’s much better than the Netherlands,” he said. The government has mandated regular checks for all the sex workers, he said. Every month they have to go for an examination and they are taken off the street-walking circuit if the test throws up something.
“Very clean here,” he told me. “You should go to Pat Pong Street and see for yourself,” he said with a wink.
So our agenda for the evening was set.


We took a tuk-tuk (a taxi, basically a three-wheeler. Harley, I think. It has a roaring sound and I found tuk-tuks and their drivers very irritating) till Pat Pong. The Old PR Guy was giving directions (he used to frequent Bangkok, he told me). After about 30 minutes in the tuk-tuk we reached a very shady place. There were a group of foreigners standing outside a shanty that had a curtain for a door. They were standing under a dim streetlight. I asked the Old PR Guy where we were. He said he didn’t know but I was sure there was some kind of peep-show going on inside and the old man had deliberately brought me there.
“Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”
“Yaar, dekh lete hain kya hai. Kya harj hai,” he said.
“I’m bolting. You stay if you want.”
He gave the tuk-tuk guy directions and we were in Pat Pong street in 2 minutes.

Pat Pong has a bustling night life. It has go-go bars, peep shows and regular bars full of hookers on one side and a night market on the other. The market stays open till around 2 a.m. and you can pick up the standard stuff here – fake watches, clothes, trinkets, DVDs, music, etc. Somewhat like the scene in Beach where Leonardo Dicaprio is taken aside for a shot of cobra blood.
I was checking out the bars, avoiding the ones with the transvestite pole dancers dressed in white. I saw one which had a live band – with a local female lead. Her accent was good, and so was her singing. I sat down and ordered a beer. The Old PR Guy was getting impatient.
“Yahan kya kar raha hai. Aage chalet hain.”
Aage was where the shadier joints were. As you keep going ahead, Pat Pong keeps geeting queerer.
“Sir, you go ahead. I want to listen to some live music.”
“No, I won’t go alone.”
I enjoyed a round of drinks and some fabulous songs when the band decided to take a break. The DJ took over. I left the place.
Further up ahead, I found another joint – bigger than the last one (funny I never noticed the names of these bars) – which had a live band.
I settled down at the end of the disco. In the centre, tourists and a group of hookers were working up a frenzy. How people dance when a live band is playing is one of life’s little riddles that I could never solve.
The sofa adjacent to mine was rocking. I glanced and saw a girl on top of an American tourist, heaving. Both shouted a bih “Hi” the moment they saw me. I was embarrassed. I returned the greeting and quickly looked away.
After about 15 minutes, I felt somebody poking at my elbow. It was the girl on the sofa.
“We go dance. You come?”
“No thanks”
“Bags here. You watch. OK?”
Another 15 minutes passed. I finished a beer. The girl came back holding the American tightly. There were another 4-5 girls with her. One of them, their ringleader I suppose, asked me if the girls could sit with us.
“No boom-boom. Thanks.”
“Boom-boom,” she asked. “Oh, boom-boom,” she suddenly remembered. Maybe the prostitutes of Bangkok spoke a different language than those of Phuket.
“Okay no boom-boom. What are you doing here,” she asked me.
“Having a beer and listening to music.”
“But you are married.” She had noticed the ring on my right hand.
“Yes I am.”
“They why are you here.” Surprisingly, she spoke good English.
“To have a beer and listen to music.”
“You are a nice man. People like you should not come here. You want to dance.”
“No thanks. I just want the live music.”
Seeing I was not interested in the sex that she wanted to give me, she decided to leave. She asked her friends to get up.
“We go to another bar. Maybe you want to come with us.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“You are a nice man. I would have wanted to dance with you.”
I did not ask her name. I do not know how many tourists she had met who were in the bar she worked in who did not want to screw her. I remember her as a decent little girl, trying to get by with the only asset that she has. I did not think of her as a sex worker. She was a regular girl, just like the one you occasionally run into near a movie theatre. But then again, she was just not like the regular girl you occasionally run into near a movie theatre.
It was 2 in the morning. The bar was shutting down. The shopkeepers were packing up. The Old PR Guy was cross with me because I did not accompany him to the sex joints nearby. I was tired. We got into a cab and reached the hotel in about 10 minutes.
I was feeling hungry. I called up room service for a burger and fries. The bellboy arrived in 20 minutes. As he was leaving, he asked, “Sir, you want girl? Clean, good girl. No one will know. Only 500 bahts.”
The sex industry in Thailand never sleeps.

What brings tourists to Thailand? The beaches are clean, the roads are smooth and well-maintained and the country is geared-up to serve all kinds of travelers. Some come here for a dip in the sea, a spot in the sun, mugs of cool beer on the beach, a good massage. Most want sex afterwards.
Alex Renton wrote in the Prospect that the average white tourist comes here to escape the “ball-breaking female” of the West.
LBFMs is what Americans used to refer to them as when they came to Vietnam. That's short for Little Brown Fucking Machines.
Thai women for most sex tourists are, well, just sex toys. People play out the wildest fantasies with them. There are a whole lot of massages these girls offer: foot massage, full body massage, sandwich massage, etc. They start with the massage and most tourists end up with a ménage à trois.
You’ll be amazed what kind of things these girls will do to attract tourists: there’s a peep show in which a girl smokes a cigarette from you-know-where. Ewwww.
Can the average man who orders girls into doing such things ever dream of asking his wife or girlfriend to attempt something even remotely close? I guess not. Definitely not.
That’s why Thailand lives on. And so do the prostitutes. Even after being used and abused every night, they still trust men – they want to dance with a man who tells them he does not want to have sex with them.


Shyani said...

I need a new job and a Thai junket

Monica said...

My husband and I visited Thailand last year to attend a very close friend's wedding. He is american, but his wife is half Thai,and thats probably why they were getting married in Thailand.

Apart from prostitution Thailand has some really beautiful beaches and islands in this whole world. Thailand lives on tourism... so not sure if they are forced to provide great services or thats the way they are ...hard working perhaps?? But we loved our stay esp. at Koh Samui. For those who hv never been there, Thai people are extremely soft spoken, very cooperative, their customer service is on top of the world and its really cheap.

Thailand has a long tradition of prostitution. For many Thai men a trip to the brothel, is rite of passage, a tradition passed from father to son. But did you know that premarital sex is strictly forbidden:).

Anyhow, truely enjoyed the tuk tuk rides there, and absolutely loved your blog, read all your articles. Hope all is well. Later for now.

Kap kum kha (In Thai for Thanks)

oh btw it was nice to see your picture on there as well.

R S JOE said...

Oh, I so agree with you Monica. Thailand was a beautiful experience for me and I so want to take my wife and daughter there, especially Krabi and Chiang Mai.
I chose to write about prostitution because of a couple of girls I met in Phuket and Bangkok. It was something in their eyes -- something that begged me to look beyond what they did for a living. To treat them as women -- something I saw the tourists never do.
Of course, judging a city and its people after spending just 5-6 touristy days there is the worst thing one can do. I hope to return to Thailand for a longer duration soon to set my viewpoint right.

Monica said...

You better come visit us in DC first before you go back to Thailand.....