Saturday, September 6, 2008
Days 11-12: Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is immense--a megapolis of nearly 11 million souls. Sprawling is actually a more appropriate word to describe it. The distances are vast. Traffic is the worst I've experienced in any city by far. A taxi ride from the airport took almost 3 hours; a ride from one part of the city to another took nearly 2 hours yesterday. The people are quite nice, although the contrasts between the yuppies and poor are obvious. The food is great. While not as clean as Singapore, I can't say Bangkok is particularly dirty. In September, at the peak of the rainy season, it's a wet place, too.
I am ambivalent about this city. The two things that stand out most, aside from the joys of street food and horrors of traffic bottlenecks, are quintessentially Bangkok experiences: go-go bars and the Grand Temple. Yes, quite a contrast. I'll talk about the go-go bars here; the Grand Temple will be explained in the next post.
Apparently, my hostel, at Sukhumvit 25, is right next to one of Bangkok's go-go bar hubs. While not as ubiquitous as in the infamous Patpong area, the go-go bars of Sukhumvit are said to be more upscale. I read that prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but the authorities seem to passively, if not actively, encourage it... simply by turning a blind eye toward it.
A typical go-go bar experience is as follows: Hordes of girls wearing skimpy clothing and holding "Special 90 baht beers!" placards wait for tourists outside the bars. Once a tourist goes in, there is rarely a cover fee; instead, he is expected to buy a beer. Inside there is music playing with topless girls dancing. Occasionally, there are exotic shows, but I did not see any, alas. In any case, the on-stage dancing girls wait for someone to point to them, after which they approach the pointing person. They sit down and talk to the potential customer, waiting to be offered (bought) a drink. Then they start talking business. So the final deal is to look something like this for a prospective buyer: drinks + a fee paid to the bar for taking the girl home + the actual fee for sex + a fee to rent a separate room. I didn't partake in this, but I finally found out how this works after visiting a go-go bar called Afterskool. In short, if anyone still has any doubts, this is almost a scam. Drinks for about an hour total about $10, taking a separate room is about $30, the bar fee for taking their girl home is 600 baht (about $18), and the fee for the sex, presumably for one hour, is anywhere from 2,000 to 1,000 baht, depending on how hard one bargains ($57 to $29). So at the cheapest this is nearly $100. And, not surprisingly, there were tons of young and old Western men alike partaking in this whole hedonistic experience. I have to admit, it is tempting, especially when the girls approach you in the bar, sit down next to you, etc. But I have to be really, really drunk to fall for something like this. I am an economist, after all. And I have an education, too. For anyone interested, Amsterdam in this regard appears more civilized: based on what I have heard, it's a bargain on-the-spot, pay up-front, no strings attached thing. No other sundry fees or drinks; it's straight to business. And the authorities there don't outlaw it but clandestinely condone it, as they do in Bangkok; in Amsterdam, the authorities legalize it, tax it, and control it. Definitely a much more pragmatic choice. Still, sitting and observing in a go-go bar was quite a fun experience. Only in Thailand is this possible, at least to the best of my knowledge.