[From my travelogue archives, the re-mastered account of my visit to Bangkok's Pat Pong district in March of 2005.]
The mild to stern warnings issued by travelogues, a variety of barstool neighbors and my Lonely Planet ultimately did not do complete justice to Pat Pong, Bangkok’s formerly notorious, now verily mainstream sex show district. The first big departure from its popular depiction as a raging, in-your-face row of seedy venues staging the world’s greatest honey hole cabarets was that it was, in fact, apparently invisible.
Embarrassingly, I could not find Pat Pong on the fateful night that I had resolved to add this item to my list of Southeast Asia backpacker credentials. This was especially discombobulating as I had previously walked right past the damn street, twice, during quick daytime reconnaissance missions while heading for other objectives and taken note of the many conspicuous theaters unsubtly featuring the word “pussy” on their marquees. Now, it had all seemed to unnervingly disappear.
I finally realized after two passes that the naughty theaters I was seeking were totally obscured by a pop-up, raucous night market. Endless rows of tightly packed, temporary stalls now occupied what had been a bare, lifeless street only hours before, selling knock-off clothing, lighters, wood carvings and DVDs.
The people wandering around idly shopping weren’t the shady, nefarious, pocket pool types I had expected, but instead, backpackers and even whole families out for souvenir shopping. Once it dawned on me that my ping pong shows were somewhere behind the surge of bargain shoppers, I plunged into the market, ostensibly searching for a new pair of sunglasses.
Being an unaccompanied male, the prized beast in this unusual safari, sex show touts were soon on me like sharks on a chum line. They waved “menus” in my face that catalogued the remarkable and unlikely woo-hoo stunts I would see if I entered their theaters.
I refused to be led into any place until I’d had the chance to walk the length of the street and take in all the offerings. Lonely Planet had warned me to avoid the shows that didn’t admit women, so while duly comparing prices and menus, I inquired whether or not it would be OK to bring my “girlfriend” into the theater, who was just down the street buying a handbag. None of them refused my girlfriend request, but I wasn’t feeling too comfortable about any one theater, particularly the one where two guys and a girl came storming out swearing and making obscene gestures at the staff.
Each theatre had nearly the same offer: No cover charge and 100 baht (about US$2.50) per beer. This arrangement was the exact scenario that I’d heard would end in disaster, with exorbitant hidden charges and goons with machete scars blocking the door.
Finally, as I was going through the “Can my girlfriend come?” routine for the tenth time, I glimpsed two couples going up the steps of the theater I was being coerced into. I took this as a good sign and decided to follow them up. If they were going to screw with us up there, at least we’d have numbers.
When I crested the stairs I was met with a sensory overload of depravity. Mostly and completely naked women were everywhere. Six or eight on the stage at a time with another 10 or so mingling with customers. I was led to a recently vacated seat on the far side of the square, theatre-in-the-round style stage where I ordered a Coke and became engrossed in the show.
In addition to the constant gaggle of nude dancers on the stage at any given moment, once every five minutes or so a woman would come out and do a trick with her virginia. Some were pedestrian by Bangkok standards, like the “ping pong show” namesake trick of inserting ping pongs, then shooting them into a basket many feet away with uncanny accuracy, while others were decidedly unexpected. The latter category included tricks like inserting chop sticks, then using them, hands-free, to pick tiny rings up off the stage floor and hook them over a bottle; producing implausibly long strings of beads or flowers; a girl filling herself up with clear water from a bottle and then releasing the now red colored (!) liquid into a different bottle; a raw egg being inserted after which the girl thrashed and bounced all over the stage and reproduced the egg intact; a short tune being played on an inserted horn; a small banana being completely inserted and then launched out with surprising force; and a cigarette being smoked down to the filter.
I later learned that the woman who inserts and reproduces a live fish had the night off.
The room was full of voyeuristic western couples that had decided to get to the heart of Pat Pong much in the same way I was doing, with the glaring exception that they were in committed, healthy relationships, out for an evening of the bizarre and titillating while I was clearly a lonely, desperate pervert. I caught several audience members stealing glances in my direction, wondering what this despicable loner was doing on his own – and where exactly were his hands? I conspicuously placed both hands on the table.
An obese, 60-something year old man in full boat captain regalia strode into the theater and immediately had six girls fall all over him. It was pretty clear that he was a regular, as he could barely walk for all the naked Thai skin draped on him and I was still sitting alone, isolated at the back of the room with nothing but an eight ounce glass of Coke to fondle. The captain and his band of merry sex dancers retired to a corner where about five of them managed to squeeze into his lap, lavishing him with kisses and inviting him to suckle their breasts.
There was one other lone caucasian man in the theatre, about 18-years-old, who was stupid, reeling drunk. His antics notwithstanding, his status as the village idiot was punctuated by his outfit: a school boy uniform, with the shorts covering the knees, dress shoes, white socks, white shirt, half undone tie and cap.
When I entered this guy was wrestling with one of the girls, trying alternately to sneak his hand into her bikini bottom or stuff his face between her legs. Unbelievably the girl wasn’t particularly bothered by his advances and gamely played goalie, laughing on occasion and seemingly having a good time. Eventually she got bored or tired and left, which he took as an invitation to join the dancers on the stage. A few dancers were good natured and encouraged him, while others punched or kicked him if he got too close.
This scene had my undivided attention, mainly because in the good ol’ U.S., at the first sign of behavior like this, the school boy would have been hauled out to the alley by three sadistic bouncers and had his ass beaten to tartare. But there were no bouncers here. Indeed, bizarrely there didn’t seem to be a single visible male staff member in the entire theater. It was just the dancers and the waitresses, most of whom humored their drunken customer.
After being convinced to leave the stage, clown boy stayed out on the floor performing sloppy break dancing moves for our enjoyment, but he had long since worn out his welcome with the audience, being that by staying on the floor he was blocking sightlines to the girl that had jammed a blow gun into the holiest of holies and was now shooting darts at balloons across the room.
A cycle began that persisted the entire time I was there. The school boy went from his spot on the perimeter bench, to sitting on a stool by the stage, to sitting on the stage, to standing on the stage, to chasing various girls around the stage, to being helped off the stage, to wowing us with his dope dance moves and then back to the bench. He made to leave a few times, but always returned and inevitably inserted himself into the show again.
After about an hour, my snail-paced nursing of my Coke had finally resulted in a glass of ice. I was enjoying myself. In fact, I felt surprisingly energized and giddy, considering that I was ready to fall asleep during the train ride over. Despite my newly jovial spirit, it was almost midnight and I decided that I had better get out of there before the trains stopped running and I’d be forced to fork over cab fare.
I called for the bill and it showed the correct total for my drink. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me that my Pat Pong experience had gone off completely without incident. There was no hidden cover charge, no outrageously priced drinks, and no dangerous thugs lurking to rob or extort me. Just a wholesome night of seeing the wide ranging and astonishing potential of the female genitalia.
I got up to leave. As soon as I was on my feet, the room went wavy. I stumbled and had to catch myself on a chair. I weaved across the room, barely avoiding collisions with several immoveable objects and people and lumbered down the stairs with a two-handed death-grip on the railing to steady myself. What was going on? I was having a hard time clearing my head.
Out on the street, I staggered through the still raging market, confused and directionless. I finally found my way to the main road and gathered my thoughts. I had ordered a plain Coke, but even if they had screwed it up and given me a shot of alcohol, I didn’t recall tasting anything out of the ordinary. Holy crap, had I been drugged?
I fought to put the facts into place, but my head was a mess. I decided I had better get away from Pat Pong and back to the hostel. Half way to the train I stopped. Just a darn minute! I wasn’t going to let them get away with this! I went back.
My plan was to make note of the name of the bar and report them to the police. I managed to find the bar (I think) and stood for several seconds trying to read and memorize the name. This was very difficult in that not only was my concentration shattered, but the touts who had seen me leave just moments earlier were all over me again like I had never been there, trying to lead me back inside. I refused and after I was sure I had the bar name committed to memory, I headed back for the train.
By the time I was standing on the train station platform, I had forgotten the bar’s name. It took the whole ride home for me to piece together the name “Queen’s Court III,” though I wasn’t sure about the middle part. It was definitely “Queen’s something III.”
After making a no-brainer train switching error and going the wrong direction for a while, I managed to get back on track and eventually to the hostel where I immediately bought and drank a bottle of water to dilute whatever was in me.
In retrospect, the drunken school boy may not have been drunk at all, but only the victim of a few too many “Queen’s something III” specials. The couples in the room didn’t seem to be acting out of the ordinary, it was just us single guys. Chilling.
And that was that. I had experienced Pat Pong without incident, but just barely. It could have gone so disastrously wrong if I’d made the mistake of ordering one more drink.
So, guys, allow me to add two crucial pieces of Pat Pong countermeasure advice: Bring a female and order bottled water, unopened.