Funds were running low as my friend K and I joined our heads together, budgeting 700 Baht, blindly calculating the fare from Pathum Wan to Suvarnabhumi International Airport (dinner included). We’re the kind of travelers who have a streak of carelessness, operating with a now-or-never mentality. We were breathing in as much of Bangkok’s culture as we could; we didn’t want to miss out on anything—even if it entailed a bit of mischief.
A few blocks from our hostel is Pat Pong, the notorious street of sin where bars and strip clubs line up along its sides. During the earlier part of the evening, a lit-up bazaar masks its taboo appeal, leaving it as a dark discovery to unsuspecting shoppers once they’ve filled their bags with mugs and souvenirs. We were supposed to go with a bunch of new Australian friends after a few drinks at Shock 33 the night before, but we decided otherwise since as it was already nearing early morning.
And here we were, bound to fly back to Manila in a couple of hours with a 400 Baht budget. We decided to save the 200 for dinner, and another 200 for whatever “adventure” kicked in.
It was my idea to go to Pat Pong. K was hesitant, but I coaxed her into it. Besides, how often do you get to be in Bangkok, right? We tried peeking into the many strip clubs with neon signs that shone dimly in bright reds and purples. I tried to take photos surreptitiously, but was chased away by aggressive bartenders and doormen as they darted their snake eyes towards our direction. But from there I caught silhouettes of voluptuous bodies slithering down poles; the clickity-clack of pointed high heels worn by women making a beeline at the sight of American and European men. “You think I’m pretty? I’m prettier in bed.”
Just when we were about to head back, a squat and slightly stout woman called out to us. “You want show? No need pay! Buy only beer. 100 Baht only!” I took it as our cue and we made our way up a dark, musky landing with women positioned in a small arena. Stark naked and flaunting their artificial parts and cream-skinned bodies studded with stick-on gems, they sashayed their way towards the men and started doing interesting things with their privates.
They shot ping-pong balls, blew candles on cakes, they even made a whistle work. But while doing this, I was fixated on their faces—the hollow cheekbones and empty eyes that seemed to call out for something beyond this kind of life. It seemed as if they hypnotized themselves into believing this was all part of a bad dream. I didn’t feel entertained at all despite the vivacious crowd, lively cheering on, the glum look on the dancers’ faces seemed unfazed.
Prostitution is legal in Bangkok, and this I know. But what I also know is that these dancers are also mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. They wear aprons during the day, which they toss out for flimsy lingerie decorated with feathers at night. A little skin, an evening with a stranger, Baht clipped on her underwear’s garter goes a long way for her son’s education—or a sack of rice that can feed her family for a month. Medicine for her sick mother. This is all they can do.
A year later, the recalling the event still leaves me both speechless and helpless. I remember everything like it was yesterday—the precarious steps we took inside the bar, the way the dancers started placing drinks on our table, how we were duped by the mama-san, how we were scared away when we told her we didn’t have any money, running through streets with peoples’ faces a blur because we feared that her thugs were after us, the comforting warmth and flavor of the lamb biryani we had for dinner, bringing us back to life as our hands shook with fright at the turnout of that evening’s events.
But those eyes, those bodies, those silent calls for redemption still resonate the loudest. It was a memory that haunted me as I boarded the plane back to Manila, stepped out of it, and closed my eyes as I drifted into slumber that evening. And until this day, as I walk past the dozens and hundreds and thousands of women here and abroad, it often crosses my mind about the roles these women play. What really goes on behind those closed doors, those longing eyes, those empty stares, the stories they are dying to share. It has given me a painful, cold brush with the reality out there, especially with the way women are seen and treated in these obscure parts of the world, and how I feel responsible as a woman myself to help rectify this dismal situation. Being part of a women’s empowerment group, this experience has given me a lot to think about, and a lot to work around with for our upcoming campaigns and projects.
But my silent prayer, really, is that it touches these women who are out of reach someday. That despite their being halfway around the world, they would know their value and their worth, and how to not settle for gem-studded underwear and pointed heels that go clickity-clack from chasing men in the evening.
Mikka Wee is the Managing Editor of Pepper.ph and likes to live for the little things such as the sunshine, the sand, road trips, and the sea. Nothing gets her more excited than traveling to a foreign land, striking conversation with the locals, and sampling their riveting cuisine. You can follow her adventures via her Instagram @mikkawee, or drop her a line or two at email@example.com.