Le Meridien was an oasis of tennis, fitness courses and beachside cocktails.
Yet, after two days and nights we needed to venture outside its gates. It was beginning to feel too Dirty Dancing in its isolation and we needed to dodge the nightly entertainment before a cute little Thai girl with limited vocal range attempted I Will Always Love You once again.
Patong was a hop, skip and short taxi ride away and was rumored to have a decent restaurant or two so we hustled into a cab and made a break for it.
Along the road we took note of the local gasoline delivery system – bottles for sale that would have made lovely Molotov cocktails. And then we reached Patong.
I am so grateful we didn’t stay in Patong.
Patong is Reno on the beach without the “glamour.” The streets are packed with flea market stalls selling touristy Chang tees, beer cozies, cheap swimsuits and fake watches and handbags. The beach was a mass of drunken frat boys and the like and the bar-lined streets were packed with Thai “girlfriends.”
We were constantly solicited – by men – to attend “ping pong shows.” By the fifth such solicitation my simmering outrage was edging toward a full boil and I barely held back my urge to shout “Why would I want to watch a show featuring an exploited woman shooting ping pongs out her pun tang?!” Instead, I shot them a look of contempt strong enough to make them scuttle away.
Dazed and appalled, we headed to a corner bar for a drink and as it turns out to watch the Thai “girlfriends” in action.
I knew about the sex trade and human trafficking that exists in Thailand and its neighboring countries long before setting my feet upon its shores. I’ve supported the Somaly Mam Foundation to aid in the fight against sex slavery for several years and have read and highly recommend her book The Road of Lost Innocence. I was not naïve. I was however, completely unprepared to see the problem close-up, especially after having spent several days in Bangkok and only having once glimpsed what was undoubtedly a “house of ill repute.”
Pursuant to the literature on the topic, easily found in the tour guides of Thailand, the “girlfriend” scenario works like this. Girls staff bars, either employed by the bar or freelance, as “customers” in tourist areas and the like. The girls chat up single men, playing bar games like Connect Four and something involving nails and a hammer (no double entendre there) to break the ice. The girls then try to convince the men to take them out on the town, buy them things and give them money. In return the men are guaranteed a home run on the first date, referred to as a “happy ending.” The girls are generally in the business because they are poor, sometimes with children and a deadbeat husband to support, sometimes with parents and siblings in more rural areas who need the income made by the girls to keep from starving, sometimes just not skilled enough to find other work. The money is good and sometimes the girlfriends can even become wives of the fareng (foreigners). But this ain’t no Pretty Woman.
The business flourished thanks to the presence of U.S. Troops during the Vietnam War (as if our contribution to the region of KFC and McDonald’s wasn’t bad enough) and a steady stream of Australian and other foreign men even today. The scope of the business is breathtaking, and not in a good way. For example, the Tiger Bar, takes up no less than four square blocks. You walk in and then if you start to wander back you find that it just keeps going and going and going. It would take a packed downtown Vegas casino to fill the Tiger Bar on the ground floor alone.
Some of the clientele is what you would expect but some is absolutely baffling. We saw good looking twenty-something men touring the town with their Thai girlfriend in tow. These men easily could have found ladies of their own land willing to engage in the infamous hostel hook-up (yet another reason I’ve never stayed at hostels), yet chose to buy a Thai girl instead. As an independent American woman I was nauseous, pretty much constantly. I wanted to ask these women and girls if they really wanted to be doing this. If they didn’t have another option. If they were at least being treated ok. I wanted to shame the men for buying women.
But mostly, I just don’t want to still live in a world where women need to sexually sell themselves to get by.