The first time we went to Bangla Road in Phuket, my girlfriends and I got wasted.
While the girls were drunkenly singing their hearts out to bad pop covers in a dive bar, I snuck away with a local guy I’d just met to smoke pot in a darkened upstairs room of a reggae bar.
In retrospect, it was a sketchy and dangerous thing to do, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the place. Later on, he took me to a secret viewpoint above the street, and we stood there witnessing the chaos of Bangla Road in its full glory: bar tops teeming with scantily clad dancers, promoters trying to direct your attention to their “ping pong show”, touters selling assorted crap like t-shirts and cheap cocaine, hordes of people in varying states of sobriety and of course… whores galore.
Bangla road was a mecca of sex tourism and hedonism, but with absolutely zero class. Anything that can be used to capture your attention will be abused to the extremes, and the result is a disconcerting overstimulation that feels like utter hell.
The entire street was ablaze with blinking neon light from one end to the other. Loud music from each bar was bleeding into the next one, but it didn’t matter because it was all shitty EDM. People stood on the streets, yelling and pestering, trying to make a quick buck off of tourists. The fancier strip-clubs were located above street level; some of them with a glass facade, with a girl dancing slowly and seductively around a metal pole.
Back then, you could also have a photo opportunity with an exotic creature for a few hundred baht, but since Rihanna Instagrammed a photo of herself with a Slow Loris that one time, Phuket district police have started to come down really hard on the exploitation of protected animals.
NO PROGRESS ON THE EXPLOITATION OF WOMEN
I don’t know what possessed me to return to Bangla road a few years later. This time I was travelling with a different group of girlfriends and (I would like to think) a maturity that allowed me to view the place with a little more empathy. I saw it as a place of business, the result of a society that commodified everything, including sex. But beyond that, I saw that it was an ecosystem borne out of necessity from both sides. The girls need to make living, and the guys, well, they needed a place that regulated their base urges, in an environment that was self-contained and accepting.
We chose a strip-club at random to patronise. Only a few tables were occupied, but the girls were out in full force. I noticed they got intermittent breaks, at least, taking turns to alternately dance on the bar top or work the floor. There wasn’t anything particularly steamy, just a whole lot of unenthusiastic gyrating. None of the girls seemed outrightly miserable, but most had the vibe of general nonchalance that comes with a slow day at work.
They would wink and pout in your direction, they would coax you to buy them drinks – “girls’ drink” with significantly less alcohol than the patrons. I could not get past the performative aspect of it, or the played up flirtation the girls employ to earn tips. I crave deeper connections, but of course, this was not a place for that. So instead I hopped up the bar top for a quick shimmy, to see things from their perspective.
IT AIN’T EASY BEING A HOE
It was harder than it looked. I could dance for hours at a rave without a care in the world, but somehow consciously trying to “be sexy” while working the pole and keeping up with the music all at the same time was more challenging than I expected.
These girls were doing it on platform stilettos, for hours each night, every working night of their week. I started to wonder if their ankles ached, if they had to work during their periods, or if they had any right to occupational health and safety beyond the rumoured thugs hired to resolve any trouble with clients.
At some point a bunch of foam tubes appeared, which the girls held out to us to spank them with, while they pretended to giggle and squeal and moan. It was bizarre, but undoubtedly, worse things have passed as entertainment on Bangla road. After all, it was a place that pandered to Man’s basest desires, and if those desires included violence toward women, wouldn’t it be safer for all women when those urges are expressed in a simulated manner?
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Soon I got tired of dancing and decided to walk around the club for a bit. My first stop was a table of fellow Singaporeans, who were suspicious and standoffish when I approached them and introduced myself. Again I realised this was not a place to make friends.
Next, I stopped by a young-ish lad from Manchester in a tacky Gucci monogram cap – probably fake. He had earlier leered at me openly, signalling for me to take my clothes off during my dance. Shortly after I initiated conversation, a girl sidled up to him, grabbed his face and turned it toward her. They were welcoming enough when I joined them on the bar top but it seemed the girls got a little protective when they perceived a threat to their income. It was a shame. I had so many questions to ask him. I had wanted to pick the brain of the male clientele in the place, but not at the expense of pissing the girls off. So I wandered off again.
The men working by the entrance to the club were by far the friendliest people I’d encounter that night. They were tasked with holding up signs, and hollering at passers-by to catch their attention and direct them into the club. They took frequent smoke breaks, gave me snack packets and indulged my questions.
Eventually, I found myself trying my hand at their job too. “Beautiful ladies,” said the sign I held up, “free entry,” while I repeated lines that were a variation of “hi, come in” and “hi, take a look.” It was easy enough work. Most of the passing men ignored me completely, but the ones who didn’t would at least give me the once over, without even breaking their stride. They were brusque in their rejections. During my short stint as promoter, I failed to catch the attention of a single would-be patron. They were simply spoilt for choice, so inundated with hustlers that it all faded into background noise.
GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNDS
It costs 3,000 baht to have a girl for the night, sex not included. I know this because my friends took one back with us to our villa. My friend had spent the better part of the night making out with her, and had only good things to say about her charms. The girl initially looked a little puzzled to be whisked away by a group of girls, and later on revealed that all her clients were male. Our little slumber party took her out of her element, she confided, and she did not know what to expect. Sensing her alarm, we told her she could relax or even pass out on the couch if she got tired.
She turned down every offer of food and drink, almost as if wary of the hospitality. She answered most questions politely, smiled at the right moments, and was very gracious in accepting her fee in the morning. But otherwise, she made it clear there was an unbridgeable divide she wasn’t willing to cross for us.
On my part, I emerged from the experience more aware of my own biases, formed as a result of certain taboos that have been associated with the sex trade. I admit it’s difficult to reconcile the idea that these women are subjugated to this work with the reality that many of them do have agency over their lives and their work.
While instances of sex slavery still exist in many parts of the world, the staggering majority of the girls in Bangla road – a place where the sex industry thrives – enjoy it, or at the very least tolerate it without feeling disenchanted by their own bodies. What seems to be lacking, however, is a respect for their work, and by extension, for their person. Beyond the price attached to their physical bodies lies a human with the same needs to survive.