I follow Karl, my couch surfing host, into the fake telephone booth on the sidewalk. The retired American has promised to show me some sights in Pattaya where he lives in a beautiful, custom-built house with his Thai wife, Dao. He has been here for about five years, so he should serve as a knowledgeable tour guide. I have been looking forward to seeing parts of this city that are in contrast to my previous tour. Perhaps some interesting historical or religious landmarks, food that I’ve yet to experience, beaches or other beautiful scenery.
Built into the backside of the phone booth is another door, which when opened, reveals a staircase. Immediately, my mind goes to the old speakeasies in Chicago, some of which still remain. Anticipation grows in me. Will there be some type of archeological relics at the end? Perhaps some ancient Buddhist shrine, or even a hidden natural wonder?
But the steps do not lead to these things. Rather, they lead to a dimly-lit bar at the bottom. There are no other customers visible at two o’clock in the afternoon. We sit on stools on adjacent sides with a corner stool between us. Karl orders a cocktail, I ask for a beer. Suddenly, from the back room, two scantily clad women appear and take up the empty spaces on our sides. “Really?” I think to myself. “I thought this time was supposed to be different.”
This is my second visit to Pattaya, a city on the Gulf of Thailand about 90 minutes southeast of Bangkok. Seventeen months ago, on my first ever trip to Asia, I spent four days and nights here. Three of those days were spent learning the fundamentals of scuba diving and getting my PADI open water certification. The nights were spent learning about things I’d never seen before.
I had booked a round-trip flight from Chicago to Singapore for the first two weeks of May, 2016. This was my first time traveling abroad since visiting Poland with my family on a religious pilgrimage 27 years before, unless you feel that crossing the borders into Canada and Mexico by car, or spending a week on a Caribbean cruise with stops in Belize and the Cayman Islands counts as traveling abroad.
My intentions of moving to southeast Asia to teach English had already formed, though I hadn’t yet made any definite plans. This trip would be an exploratory visit. Through my experiences hosting couch surfers in my Chicago apartment, I had made friends with no fewer than five Singaporeans, a couple of Thai ladies, and a few from Vietnam. My original plans were to visit Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Since my vacation was scheduled for two weeks, I decided that I would have time to visit a third country as well.
I chose Thailand because I had been told it was a good place to learn how to scuba dive, and it was in the vicinity of both of my other destinations. Scuba diving had been on my list of things I wanted to learn for a long time. My birthday was going to fall somewhere in the middle of my trip, and I thought getting my scuba certification would be a well-earned birthday gift to myself, since I had recently started celebrating my birthdays. So I purchased a regional flight from Singapore to Bangkok, and another two flights from there to HCMC, and onward back to Singapore.
This is where my habit of buying a ticket to somewhere without doing a lot of (or any) research bit me in the ass. All of the good diving spots in Thailand are in the southern areas. Islands like Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao, and Phuket were the most popular diving destinations. A flight from Singapore to Phuket or Surat Thani would have made more sense. Flying into Bangkok was not the best idea, since it would require another flight (or a long bus/train ride) to get to these places. I didn’t discover this until I had already landed in Bangkok. But there was another option.
Not a walk in the park
Getting from Bangkok to Pattaya would take about two hours by bus, and cost maybe $5 each way. This would be a much smaller investment of time and money, of which neither I possessed in abundance. The diving instruction and certification there would run me about $600 for a three-day course. So after two extremely hot and tiring days sweating profusely in the streets of Bangkok, I boarded a bus to the beach city. I hadn’t asked, I guess, so nobody told me what I was in for.
On the bus ride there, I used the internet data on my phone to book a hostel for four nights through an app. The guesthouse was highly rated and at a good price. And to my delight when we pulled into the bus terminal, I discovered that it was only a two minute walk from there. Very convenient, I thought.
As with most cities I’ve been to, however, the bus terminals are usually relegated to the less desirable parts of town. So it wasn’t really convenient to the beach area where most of the popular activities and attractions were. This included the dive shop, which was located just a few blocks from the beach, but several kilometers from my hostel. Not yet having discovered the magic of motorcycle taxis, and not knowing about how public transportation worked outside of Bangkok, I spent about 90 minutes making my way from the guesthouse to the beach on foot. Normally, I enjoy walking new areas so as to get a good idea of what is there, but I was drenched in sweat by the time I saw the sea, and still had another kilometer to walk to get to the dive shop where I would book my course.
As I continued along the sidewalk eastward to my destination, the breeze off of the waves helped to cool me down. I witnessed quite a few tourists baking themselves in the hot sun, though some were enjoying lounging in beach chairs while sipping cocktails under umbrellas provided by the beachfront cafes and bars. There were also many restaurants and bars across the street to my left. One of them was named The Red Cat, and inside I spied a few people that looked like me. Though I didn’t come to Thailand to hang out with middle-aged white men, I kind of needed to be able to communicate with others who understood and spoke English. I could probably get some of my questions answered, so I decided that on my way back from the dive shop, I would stop into The Red Cat for a beer and a chat.
Cold beer with a side of WHAT?
After securing a commitment to begin my scuba training the following morning, I began the long walk back toward my accommodations. As I had promised myself, I stopped into the Red Cat bar on the way. Actually, I was pulled in more or less by the woman who was sitting on a stool outside the entrance. As I approached, she stood and grasped my wrist and bade me come in for a drink. Since I had already chosen this as my short-term destination, I offered zero resistance.
Inside, she directed me to a chair next to the other white guys and asked me my choice of beverage. I really would have enjoyed an icy, rum-infused cocktail, but I quickly changed my mind as I saw every other dude in there holding a bottle of beer. I also would have a beer, I told her. She shouted something in Thai in the direction of the bar, then disappeared for about thirty seconds, returning to begin gently wiping my sweaty face with a cool, damp towel. Wow. This was unexpected and …nice.
My beer arrived and I was soon clinking bottles with the rest of the men sitting near me. Some of them had obviously already consumed several beers before my arrival, and were in various states of inebriation late in the afternoon. Most of them had been living in Thailand for a few years at this point, and when I told them it was my first visit, they chuckled and started to tell me how much fun I was about to have.
As I’ve written before, I grew up pretty sheltered from how much of the world works, and I was just beginning to have my eyes opened to the realities. One of the red-faced expats pointed in the direction of another man sitting with a Thai woman a few tables away. He explained that the women worked at the bar, and would be happy to drink with me and make me feel comfortable. If I liked the woman who led me into the establishment, I could have her sit with me. If I was willing to pay her, she would be willing to leave the bar with me and let me take her home for the night.
Then one of the other men made a rather derogatory remark about the particular woman in question, and the rest laughed along with him. I didn’t laugh, but neither did I say anything in her defense. I thought it quite impolite to speak about a woman that way, but the situation was new to me, so I kept my own counsel. Good or bad, I was here to learn. We continued drinking and some of the guys slid into silence, while others became a little more boisterous.
From time to time, I was approached by various people who were neither patrons or bar staff. Men hawking knock-off watches, women offering me trinkets, and even children trying to sell me small bags of boiled peanuts or popcorn. I did my best to say “no”, but they would continue to be insistent for a bit, sometimes just standing there looking at me. It was quite uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want anything from them, either.
One of the men I was drinking with, a guy from the Netherlands, informed me that I could simply tell the revolving door of salespeople, “mai ow, khrap”, a polite way to say “I don’t want”. It seemed to work, but of course I kept having to ask him what the phrase was each time. Up to that point, the only Thai expression I knew and could remember was “sawaddee khrap”, the basic polite greeting. I even fucked that up by saying “sawaddee kaa” until someone shook their head and told me that because I was a man, I should say “khrap”, not “kaa”. “Kaa” was the ending word particle for women.
By that time, Peter, the Dutch guy, was the only member of the group besides me who was sober enough to carry on a lucid conversation. The sun had long since set and the electric lighting of the bar had replaced the dimming rays that had been flooding in through the open front of the building. Some of the men had gone back home to their Thai wives or girlfriends. Peter and I continued our conversation into the night. I was very curious about what it was like to live abroad as an expat, and he kindly provided answers to my many questions.
He had moved to Thailand a few years before with his wife and small child. At some point, he found himself a Thai girlfriend, with whom his wife was willing to share him. They all even lived together in the same house for a time until it stopped working out. I had a difficult time processing what I was hearing. This type of hedonistic lifestyle was definitely not something I knew anything about. I was caught somewhere between fascinated horror and disbelieving admiration.
Lead us not into temptation
Somewhere around 10:30pm, Peter asked me if I wanted to see more of Pattaya. Specifically he asked, “Would you like to go to walking street?”
I didn’t know where Walking Street was, nor did I know anything about it. So I responded in the only possible fashion. “Yes, absolutely!”
We paid our tabs and walked out to the sidewalk. He led me to his small Honda Scoopy, a 125cc scooter and told me to get on. I hesitated for a quick second, for two reasons. One, I hadn’t been on a motorcycle in a long time, and then only twice in my life. My mother, an E.R. nurse, forbade us to even mention motorcycles in our house when we were growing up. I disobeyed once by riding a friend’s dirt bike up and down his street. The second time was the year prior when a couch surfer from Germany rented a big Harley-Davidson to do a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. He let me ride it around an abandoned parking lot. I don’t think I ever got it out of first gear. Mainly, I got a picture of myself straddling the massive burgundy machine.
The second reason for my hesitation was that in my almost 48 years of existence in the USA, I had never once seen two grown men sharing a motorcycle, or even a guy sitting behind a woman at the handlebars. He was asking me to ride “bitch”? By this time I was over my previous homophobia, but this somehow felt like being emasculated.
“You want me to ride with you?”, I asked.
The Dutchman just smiled at my obvious discomfort and told me that this is how it’s done in Thailand. So, I hopped on the back and we rode off, helmet-less, down the beach road into the night. Approximately three minutes later, we stopped, and Peter had me get off while he wedged the scooter in between two other bikes that sat in a long line of motorcycles parked against the sidewalk.
There were temporary barricades blocking off the road to traffic, so it was indeed a walking street. Pedestrians only from this point on.
I’m going to preface this by telling you that most cities and towns in Thailand have a walking street set up at least once a week. Pedestrians spend the evening ambulating past standing restaurants and shops, plus long lines of pop-up stalls along the sidewalks and sometimes in the middle of the street itself. They tend to be community affairs, opportunities for families to enjoy a night out without spending a huge amount of money. They can get prepared food, buy clothing, arts and crafts, cheap jewelry, and visit with their neighbors. Sometimes there will be live music, carnival games, and even inflatable castles for the kids.
Pattaya’s Walking Street is not that.
Instead, when we walked through those barricades, we were greeted by numerous bars along each side of the street. These open-air establishments were full of life, in the form of suggestively-dressed women of various ages. They wasted no time in calling out, “Hello! Welcome!” to tourists passing by, in an attempt to entice them into the bar for a drink, game of pool, or more. Some of the places were straight up go-go bars with actual windowless facades to hide the topless or completely naked ladies who were dancing on stages from the view of the street, though in most cases it was easy to get a glimpse while walking past the open doors.
From time to time, Peter and I would be accosted by men who held up placards advertising ping-pong shows, live sex shows, and more. I had actually heard of ping-pong shows before, and I knew that they were not something I would be interested in seeing.
Peter first led me into one of the establishments called The Ice Bar. The gimmick here was that the actual bar was inside what was basically a large, commercial, walk-in freezer with a window that faced out into the street. Patrons were offered warm, winter coats to don before going into the bar itself and having a drink. I turned down the offer of a jacket, as I was from Chicago and therefore not a pansy about cold weather. Wearing only shorts and a t-shirt with sandals, I entered the room and was immediately refreshed by the lovely change of temperature. We ordered a couple rounds of tequila shots and he shivered while I laughed at his distress.
After the Ice Bar, Peter walked into one of the go-go bars with me in tow. Now it was my turn to feel discomfort. Don’t get me wrong. Like most other straight men, I do appreciate the sight of a woman’s body. Even as I was growing up in a very conservative religious environment which railed against immorality, including sex outside of marriage, pornography, and even masturbation, I will admit that if the opportunity to sneak a peek at someone’s nudie magazine arose, I would gaze in wonder at the display of flesh.
However, this was more in-your-face than I had ever experienced. Sure, since my separation and divorce, I had slept with other women. But it had always been a one-on-one intimacy behind closed doors. Here, there were at least a dozen young ladies wearing high heels and mostly nothing else prancing around the stage. It didn’t feel right to me.
But I continued to be a good passenger and went with Peter as we were directed to somewhat plush seating and offered drinks. My companion was shouting over the loud club music, instructing me on what to do. “If you like one of the girls, let the staff know which one, and they’ll bring her down for you!”, he yelled into my right ear. “You should invite one of them down!”
I was still uncomfortable about being there. But I was also fairly intoxicated by that point, which tends to have the effect of lowering one’s inhibitions. I watched the women perform for a minute, most of them doing so perfunctorily. None of them really looked happy about it. I noticed one of them looked like she was exhausted and would rather be anywhere but up on that stage. So I pointed her out to Peter, who told the staff to bring her down. I wasn’t interested in doing anything with her. Rather, I felt sorry for her and wanted to let her rest for a bit.
She came and sat very close to me. The implied agreement was that I would buy her a lady drink, which I did. Lady drinks are usually weak cocktails at inflated prices, and normally the women will receive half of the money spent on those drinks. She didn’t speak any English, and Peter had to translate between us, which made it even more awkward. I asked her where she was from (somewhere in the northeastern Isaan region), how old she was (28 years, if she was telling the truth), and probably some other unimaginative questions. I kept my hands off of her, with the exception of gently taking her by the wrist to remove her left hand from my groin. That was not something I wanted to entertain.
Eventually, she realized that I wasn’t going to pay the bar fine (money given to the business to take a woman out) and take her home with me, nor was I going to buy her any more lady drinks. Without a word of goodbye, she stood up and got back on the stage and began listlessly swaying to the thumping music once more. I turned to Peter and pleaded, “Can we please go now?”
Outside the bars, the carnival atmosphere continued. Loud rock music competed with loud club music emanating from the individual bars. There were street magicians doing card tricks, the ping-pong show hawkers, and the attractive, scantily-clad women shouting invitations to the bars. And a 7-11. And an ice cream shop. I started to notice that not all of the tourists walking around were adults. There were actually families out here at 1am with their children. My head spun.
The more things change…
Pattaya was once a small fishing village of no particular significance. During the escalation of hostilities of the Vietnam (American) war in the 1960s and 70s, it became a place for U.S. servicemen and sailors to get some R&R on beaches away from the battlefront. The unspoiled beaches provided a welcome respite. But that’s not all that young men usually desire. Soon, bars serving cheap alcohol popped up, followed by women offering sexual services.
By the end of the war, Pattaya had transformed into a tourist haven for those interested in easy-to-obtain sex away from their home countries where this would be impossible, or at least very difficult for them to procure without ruining their standing in their communities. Of course, when money is involved, all sorts of unsavory actors appear. Trafficking of young women and girls from impoverished villages in the northeastern provinces became a booming business, with false promises of restaurant and hotel work.
Not all of the women are unsuspecting victims. Many of them are lured by the opportunity to make more money than would ever be possible back at home working at a small noodle shop, a 7-11, or on the family farm.
Peter and I probably hit four different bars before he finally took me to what he said was his “favorite” bar on Walking Street. It looked like a sports bar, with several large screen televisions broadcasting auto racing or soccer. There was a red felt billiard table in the center. Peter and I began to knock balls around. But I had long-since passed the level of alcohol in my system that usually slightly improves my golf game, my bowling score, and my ability to hit balls into corner pockets. I was wasted.
One of the ladies sidled up to me and began to flirt. In turn, I handed her the pool cue I was holding and told her to play for me. She asked me to buy her a drink, so I did. I think I also bought a round of drinks for the rest of the women working there. I become a bit more generous when intoxicated. The woman proceeded to soundly whip Peter at the game, then turned her attentions back to me.
She and I talked for a while, as her English was good enough to hold a conversation. At some point I looked around for Peter, but he had disappeared. It was 2:30am. While the Walking Street bars were showing no indication of shutting down anytime soon, I was. My bed and pillow back at the guesthouse was calling to me. I told the attractive lady that I had to get up early in the morning to start diving lessons, so I would be paying my tab.
I ended up walking all the way back to my guesthouse, five kilometers from the bars. Along the way, I was propositioned by several ladies along the beachfront road. I guess they were freelancing instead of working from bars and clubs. I politely declined, though I was not able to remember “mai ow khrap”. A woman with a motorcycle taxi offered to take me to my hostel, but I knew the price she quoted me was a rip-off, so I told her no, I’d rather walk than be taken for a sucker. I probably didn’t use polite language.
Upon arriving at the guesthouse/hostel, I collapsed into my lower bunk without even removing my clothing. If I irritated my roommates with my snoring, I was blissfully unaware. To make it to the dive shop on time would require me to awake long before the rest and I would avoid any harsh recriminations.
Now, a year-and-a-half later, I find myself in yet another uncomfortable situation with my host in the underground bar we entered through the above-ground telephone booth. Nothing cool or photo-worthy to share. Nothing of cultural or historical significance. Just more alcohol and women hoping two foreigners will buy them lady drinks and exchange money for sex.