Our first stop? Destination Hong Kong. From futuristic skyscrapers to bowls of steaming noodles at night markets, this city has it all...
A camel safari? What a great idea! When reduced to trudging through the desert under a baking sun, we started to wonder what we had let ourselves in for...
Red light equals go go
I’m slighty ashamed to admit that although we saw no temples or museums in Bangkok, we did pay a visit to the city’s notorious red light district. Temples may be magnificent and museums dripping with history, but nothing gives you an insight into a city like a rifle through its underwear draw. Bangkok’s Nana Plaza looks like a multi story car park that has been converted into a peverse playground to satisfy your most lascivious desires. The first sign you’re getting near are rows of bored looking night workers in cheap lipstick, plying their trade along the pavements. Turn the corner and suddenly you’re hit square in the jaw with a subverted circus of flashing lights, pounding beats and girls, girls, girls (as well as some girly boys). Sitting drinking an overpriced beer and soaking in the madness, I realised we had become a different type of sex tourist: people-watching the men who frequent these areas is a curious sport indeed.
The loudest and most noticeable are the seasoned sex tourists. Usually ruddy faced and with a beer gut to match their booming voices, they wear their sex tourist badge like a medal of honour, boasting about their exploits and knocking back bottle after bottle of beer. For them, picking up a girl on the way home is no different to picking up a curry – they truly make your skin crawl. Following close behind are the twenty-something lads on stag dos. All polo shirts and hair gel, they hunt in packs (safety in numbers) and attempt to hide their lack of experience by getting more and more inebriated. After the eighth pint, their brave faces begin to slip at the same pace they are sliding off their bar stools, and underneath all the bravado they begin to resemble frightened rabbits caught in the headlights. Bringing up the rear are the saddest of the bunch – grey, shuffling figures vaguely reminiscant of your old geography teacher, their awkward posture and sweaty white flab shows that middle age has not been kind to them – but you get the feeling that youth wasn’t kind to them either. Without meaning to sound unnecessarily cruel, they look like their only regular interaction with a woman is averting their eyes whilst they buy a dirty mag from the busty lady in the newsagent who wears a low cut top. I’m drawn between feeling pity and disgust for these shuffling figures, working away in some insignificant grey office for 50 weeks a year, saving their pennies for an annual jaunt to Thailand or Amsterdam, to touch what is completely unattainable to them in their everyday life.
So what of the girls? We chatted to one gregarious and intelligent 34 year old who was a hostess in one of the bars – her job was more meeting and greeting than wriggling and giggling. She seemed relentlessly cheerful, even when she told us that she was dressing a bit more conservatively this month as her father had just died – driving home the point of how much the girls have to hide in this world, behind their lacquered lips and heavy lashes. She talked a lot about her Dutch husband, and for some reason – maybe an over indulgence in the Pretty Woman fantasy when I was younger, maybe the way she talked so animatedly about him – I imagined him to be a fairly young, attractive fellow. When she introduced us to a red faced 50-something with stomach that entered the room 5 minutes before he did, my heart sank. Maybe there was love, or at least genuine companionship there, but it seemed like a slim chance. The harsh reality remains that however big his sense of humour, he would never have ensnared such a vivacious, attractive young lady back home. Which brings us on to the growing trend for ‘relationship’ tourism – Western men who come to Thailand looking, not for a few stolen hours in a seedy hotel room, but a wife. Leaflets in bars and cafes advertise ’100′s of sincere Thai ladies looking for long term relationships or marriage with foreign men’. Can these partnerships work? Well – sometimes, of course they can. We met a couple who were clearly head over heels in love with each other, fooling around like a pair of school children. And even without love, sometimes a partnership can develop that suits both sides perfectly well – more business arrangement than love marriage. But is this really an equal partnership, or just a legitimised form of prostitution? There’s no clear answers, but what is clear is that it’s certainly a growing phenomenon.
And what of the girls bouncing around with their baps out in the girly bars? The one we peeked into seemed fairly harmless – the routine, to the soundtrack of the Beach Boys, involved prancing around surf boards in bikini pants occasionally bonking the punters on the front row on the head with a comedy truncheon. It had more the air of a Carry On film than anything more sinister, whist the ladyboy bars look like camp, glorious cabarets with deep voiced femme fatales fluttering their fake eyelashes and emploring you to join the carnival. But along the side of the strip bars are numerous doors leading up to pay-by-the-hour hotel rooms. Watching a fat, old sunburnt tourist disappear through one of the doors with a giggling, nubile 18 year old was too much to stomach. However much of a life of poverty the girls may be trying to escape – is this really a better option? We slipped into the night leaving the boys and the men to their illicit games, wishing it was possible to scrub the lasting feeling of sadness and grubbiness away.