If Patong’s Bangla Walking Street was a person, it would be a hyperactive child with a potty mouth, high on red cordial and running around with his pants off.
I walk from one end of the street to the other, past the Hard Rock Gentlemen’s Club, Tiger Nightclub and Crazy Horse; past kratoeys in full showgirl regalia — sequinned leotards and feathered headgear — trying to lure customers into their cabaret; past touts spruiking strip shows, ping-pong shows, ‘real touch’ shows; past bargirls offering cheap draught beer and cocktails by the bucket; past vendors selling rubber animal masks, fake dogshit, light-up hair bows and umbrella hats. I catch snatches of music amid the din. Bon Jovi. Aerosmith. Queen. The Eagles. Cold Chisel. At the end of the road I reach the beach and for a moment, I feel like a fish that’s just leapt from a writhing net in a bid for freedom. Then I retrace my steps.
I can’t bring myself to stop at the ‘world famous Aussie Bar’ so I pull up a stool in the U2 Bar across the road. In a place where apparently anything goes — did I mention the shooting range? — to take out my notebook and write seems positively transgressive. But that’s what I do, much to the amusement of the wait staff, not to mention the couple at the table in front of me (Robbie and Jeremy from California, as I soon discover).
As I watch the crowd that passes by outside, I’m struck by the thought that in the 30 years I’ve been visiting Thailand — and I’d be keen to know if other ‘Asia hands’ agree with me about this — one thing that’s changed is the Kingdom’s so-called red-light districts, once the exclusive domain of sex tourists and the occasional feminist anthropologist, have become mainstream tourist attractions.
I noticed this when I visited Pattaya in 2008 and I was even more aware of it in Patong last night. The bars and nightclubs are pretty much as they’ve always been. The bargirls, boys and kratoeys are pretty much as they’ve always been, too, all the ones I meet being economic refugees from Thailand’s poorer northeastern provinces.
But the crowd is different. The single men are still there in droves, of course. But so are couples — straight, gay and lesbian — extended family groups, infants in prams, pregnant women, retirees, hispters with man-buns, friends travelling together, and groups on package tours. Mobs of Chinese tourists pose for photos with the scantily clad bargirls and ladyboys, just as they do in front of James Bond Island.
Thailand’s sex industry has become just another tourist attraction.
(I’m assuming it’s curiosity that brings the tourists to a place like Patong, and not a burning desire to purchase rubber animal masks, fake dogshit, light-up hair bows and umbrella hats).
I can’t help wondering how Thai people sustain the contradictions between the attractions for tourists of a place like Patong, and values such as modesty and decorum that are espoused as being quintessentially Thai. On the one hand, in the foyer of MacDonalds on Soi Bangla, there’s a larger-than-life-sized statue of Ronald giving a wai — a gesture of cultural sensitivity. On the other, there are the strip shows, ping-pong shows, ‘real touch ‘ shows…
The coup generals in government recently announced a campaign to promote ‘Thai-ness’, ostensibly to strengthen Thai people’s sense of their own culture. I’m genuinely curious as to how this will square up with tourists’ expectations of Thai culture. Will anything change? Or am I missing the point?
Is the ability to sustain mind-boggling contradictions in itself a quintessential quality of ‘Thai-ness’?