We were a foursome now. A friend had just flown out from the UK to meet us. His snow white, sweat-slicked skin like a shiny beacon to the touts on the Khao San Road. As though someone distracted by the sights, sounds and smells of the city for the first time is more likely to exchange baht for a tailored suit. As well as knock-off replicas, the salesmen pop their lips like a fish and tellingly whisper …Ping pong? …Sex show? In their hands, little laminated menus that divulge the order of events.
Like the good hosts that we are, we wanted to show him a good time.
Four years ago I’d been to one of these shows, dragged to it by my older more responsible cousin. Then, a lady had used a marker pen to tripod herself and write me a letter. I had shrunk into a little ball of refusal when called onstage to collect it. Now the others wanted to satisfy their morbid fascination.
We negotiate the cost with an anxious tuk-tuk driver at the perimeter of the Khao San, who reckons he can get us into a Patpong club for ‘good price’
We hop in.
A five minute zip through vacant streets later:
This DOES NOT feel like Patpong. Patpong is full of unattractive, age-washed losers, hand-in-hand with twenty-year old Thai girls and buzzing neon signs. Our establishment is in a dark alley, empty except for the handful of tuk-tuk drivers milling about outside the building, smoking.
We’re led up a dark staircase into a small room with a round stage in its middle, and the place is packed. Seats are circled around the stage. We’re placed v. close to the action, in the second row. A ping pong ball is fired with velocity into the crowd. Waitresses in various states of undress serve overpriced drinks to gawkers. I order a beer, resigned to staying a while since we surrendered a small fortune to get in.
The first artist vacates the stage. Another takes her place. Each materialising from a backstage area next to the gents. Strings of razor blades, Christmas lights, flowers and handkerchiefs are pulled out as if from a clown’s pocket. It makes me think of a less funny, more tragic version of Sexy Barbara, the Sticky Vicky impersonator I’d seen in Benidorm.
A naked guy walks out with a beanie on his head and a …ahem. He joins a girl onstage and fused at the hip, they work their way through the entire Karma Sutra in a listless fashion – in about five minutes. Like a pair of Siamese twins trying to follow a yoga video on fast forward. Looking at their eyes; nobody, nothing looks back.
Come to think of it, a smile isn’t cracked onstage all night.
And as this glassy-eyed act is played out right in front of me, I realise that I’m bored. Two people are having sex in my face and I’m bored. I look around the dim theatre, at the other people drawn to this place for the same reasons as us. Entertainment. Yet we all sit there with the same disinterested faces.
We get chatting to the neighbouring group and I perk up when I’m offered a Khao San cigarillo. I’m contented sipping my beer and smoking this cheap, tasteless cancer stick when a hefty waitress approaches and commands me to extinguish it. I face the stage. A performer smokes a cigarette through a different pair of lips. I’m unhappy again.
We decide to leave. As do our new friends.
But only the uncomfortable atmosphere inside the club had banded us together, and we divorce as soon as we step into the alleyway, once more a foursome.
Wanting to avoid a swindling by the one of the loitering tuk-tuk drivers, we decide to walk towards the main road, quiet though it’s not yet midnight, and flag down a taxi. But on the road at the alley’s conclusion is a bar. Looks regular. We enter.
Apart from a small alcove by the entrance, a J-shaped bar runs the length of the room. There appears to be an upstairs. We’re shown a table near the door. It appears empty except for a local guy, maybe the club owner, sitting alone at the bar. He smiles at us warmly. This is more like it.
Minutes later, girls with numbers attached to their tops on giant birthday badges stand akimbo at our table, where we sit spluttering like blithering idiots.
Worried, we look at one another. We’re not naïve. We know what this entails. The guy at the bar smiles warmly
Yes, pick a number
It’s agreed. One drink and we’re outta here. We each mumble a number and the chosen girls sit down to join us. I can’t imagine anything more demeaning than to be picked out of line-up like that, like something out of a police-themed porno.
We try to make conversation with the girls. They’re older than us. Her face looks tired. She thinks I’m cute, and her hands move into positions that’d qualify as lewd conduct in most courtrooms. I have to remind myself that it’s her job. And that I’m in a jump joint. They don’t speak much English. I ask
Do you like your job?
Yes, she replies
The owner begins to sing karaoke, presumably to himself.
For the one drink we have, the girls have four. We should have seen it coming. We’re paying for theirs too. When the bill lands on our table, it’s almost enough to make four grown men cry. The girls are disappointed that we won’t take things further. We begin to grumble about the debt and they grow uneasy and she recoils her hands.
Back on the Khao San, the maimed and hard-up are still filtering through the crowd with their deformities and begging cups. Hustler kids still want a thumb war. We dance our way through the populous corridor formed by the hundreds of plastic chairs that have been laid out in the street. In one of the busy bars, then a club.
It seems that scene, almost synonymous with Bangkok now, has become a victim of its own notoriety; where a tsunami of crisp tourist bills has turned things …nasty.
When it’s time to go home, it’s quieter on the Khao San. The bars have closed, and the lights turned off. We’d been split in half. Two groups of two. Out of the shadows come gruff cat-calls. A supple form emerges from the dark. We’re being tailed. The distraction halts any conversation. More cat-calls, this time from behind.
As we enter the soi leading to our hostel, it gets darker still; the only light we can see coming from the moon. The side-street is deserted. I take a look. She’s gained ground. Not far now. But only when we ascend the flophouse steps does she give up her pursuit and melt back into the shadows.