Having spent a week in Pattaya, I would say this is not the best time of year to visit. It’s hot. And if you aren’t solely focused on chasing short-shorts in 4-inch heels, you will quickly discover that there isn’t much else to do. Two trips to Koh Larn helped. But otherwise, Pattaya is boring. The beach is attractive enough, but the water is dirty. I did about thirty minutes of swimming a couple of days ago and the taste of gasoline remained for a while.
Other than that, the tourist numbers are down from what they used to be in past years and the number of women seeking a livelihood either in the bars or massage parlors seems very plentiful. From what I’ve seen, there’s no possible way they are all managing.
Why do I think I’m qualified to make any comment whatsoever about this topic? Because my hotel is smack in the center of the “entertainment” area. If I want to go anywhere, I have to pass a string of bars all the way down my street to the beach road. If I am looking for food, beach time, shopping, a taxi, the sunset, a walk, I have to pass them all. And not just on my street, but the parallel streets over as well.
There are also bars on the beach road. Besides the places in my direct path, there are strings of bars I might never see on all the side streets and off in other directions that I never go. I wouldn’t even know about them except that I’ve taken taxis that pass them. Their ubiquity only piques my curiosity about the scene as a whole. It’s complex, mysterious and confounding. Much more than meets the eye.
Though it seems crass to be categorizing bar girls into species, doing so is irresistible. Some appear to be very young, ranging from late teens into their early twenties. I don’t even know whether there is a legal age of consent here. Just on casual observation, I rarely see these women in the same place twice. They are invariably very attractive and 100% real. They appear (and disappear) in the later afternoons and into the early evenings, distinctive from virtually every other girl in their establishment. Seriously, I’m talking international model material here.
As for photographs, I have been very reluctant to pursue them. It seems a further insulting intrusion into the injury of this life. I got over some of my reluctance and asked permission of a very few on my final night. But this sample is extremely small and doesn’t convey the sheer confounding wonder of this phenomenon.
There are older types, twenty-somethings, who are a not quite in the model category: they are just routine beauty by Thai standards. They may not be actively soliciting because they don’t really have to. There are also somewhat less attractive types in the same age-range, who might be a little less sure of themselves and do a little more selling at the curbside. These are the ones yelling as you walk by, catcalling “I love you” or even “I have what you need.”
There are still others whose job requires they spend more hours in the bar during the daytime when there is much less business. I passed a bar I’d never seen the other morning on my way to a market. It was already busy at 10:30 with a half-dozen guys having their first (or second?) beers. Wow. Did they already have breakfast? Or was that breakfast in a bottle?
There are older women into their thirties and forties, still quite attractive, but a little more weathered. They’ve been around the block and have little time to spare for the bullshit. They are less made-up, more nonchalant about interacting with customers, but would definitely be available if an opportunity appeared. I suspect they are weary of the superficial sex, the simple pursuit of the money. They might even be looking for something real. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fair to say all of these women are looking for a sugar daddy and will pursue a good prospect.
I have pursued conversation with the older women. They speak decent english (a survival skill) and are a little more forthcoming about their personal details, whereas the younger ones just want to know if you want them now. If not, don’t waste their time. The last group, the older ones, are running the place, or translating for others, pushing the beer or schmoozing with regular customers. They may not be the mama-san, who is a little more matronly and business-like, the no-nonsense keeper of the rules.
I’ve asked a few women how much time they spend at these bars. Most say they work every day, 12 hour shifts from noon to midnight. But the reality is many bars aren’t open until at least 3 and may have only one girl working there. And they close well after midnight. So the story about 12-hour shifts may be accurate, but the hours are more like 3pm-3am.
Most of the crew arrive between 5-6 and spend a good deal of time with elaborate make-up routines in view of all foot traffic. Walking up and down this street for days, I see different girls at the same bars nearly every night. Where are the ones who “work there every day?” Maybe they are “out.” But seriously, there is no reason to believe much of what you might hear. Except, I do believe the stories about having kids to support.
Then there are the massage parlors, several on each block. All employees that are not busy inside are outside, buried in their phones or accosting potential customers. They cannot possibly all be making a living, either. I don’t know how they are paid. And one gets the same story from them as the bar girls about how much they work.
I’ve noticed that many bars seem to have at least one ladyboy. A couple of places have a strikingly beautiful very self-possessed “hostess” type of figure that seems to take care of everyone. In two cases I can recall, I really wasn’t sure about the gender. It was that close.
There are ladyboy bars as well, where everyone sitting outside is clearly an intermediate gender. In some cases, the arms and shoulders are a little too muscled, the thighs a little big or the voice too low. I’ve been accosted by a few who, despite accentuated feminine features and risqué attire, combined shoulders a little too broad with an aggressive bearing that was positively scary. But looking at these people as individuals, I either marvel at the wonders of nature and pharmaceuticals or feel an immense sadness for the lives that are so marginalized as to be virtually forced into this economic niche, where a “living” cannot possibly be guaranteed.
If I leave the hotel after 8:30-9pm, walking own the street to a minimart or to the beach road or just to take it all in, is like a gauntlet, with teams of ladies all dressed alike to identify themselves with a particular establishment, spilling into the street and physically accosting passersby. The music is pumping, catcalls flowing, vogueing and go-going.
What is going on here? The base pay for bar employees is about 4000-4500Bt per month. That’s about $130. Go-go girls get paid somewhat more. This amount will cover little more than rent for a small shared apartment, likely one-bedroom.
Upon arriving for work, employees check in with time-cards. If an employee checks in late, she is fined 3Bt per minute; checking in an hour late will cost her 400Bt. This is equal to the bar “fine,” the amount the bar considers its cost if an employee leaves with a customer (i.e. her services for bringing in customers to buy drinks are lost to the bar for that day–even if she leaves with a customer at midnight). All women make their own deals directly with the customers. Mama-san gets no cut.
If an employee is late more than an hour for work or misses work due to sickness or some other reason, she will be fined that same 400Bt. Did you get that? Taking a sick day means the employee pays the bar. The incentive to leave with a paying customer becomes huge because what the customer will pay for her services amounts to the difference between a living wage and abject poverty. Otherwise, like a waitress in a restaurant, she is working without “tips.”
Employees have two days off per month.
One employee disclosed her personal story to me. She is 47 years old (looks about 35), has been at the same bar for three years. She’s a daytime bartender now, but is just as open to leaving with a customer as any of the others. However, her interests are quite different from the younger women who are just there for the money. But regardless, all tourists are regarded as potential ATMs.
But this 47 yr old (not pictured here) is looking–or waiting for– something more authentic. She hasn’t had an easy life. She has two children, a daughter (22) and a son (24). Her daughter works with her at the bar doing mostly business administration, but she also makes herself available for paying customers from time to time, taking advice from mom about how to handle herself. As for a husband, I asked, “What happened?” She said simply, “Husband no good.” I asked, “What about money? Did he give you any money?” “No money. Thailand not like America.” I don’t know what she did to support herself when the children were young.
Then she got a (Thai) boyfriend who must have been a benefactor because life was more stable. She had a retail business, a home and a car. Then the boyfriend got cancer. She went through 200K Bt in savings for his treatment, sold the car and the business and then he died. The health care system is OK for basic treatment, routine medical services. But when it comes to specialized high-level and costly treatment, it is not free at all. She depleted all her savings going from one treatment process to another until there was nothing left, a scenario that, until the Affordable Care Act went into effect in America, played itself out in many thousands of families right here at home as well. For her, that was seven years ago.
I don’t know what she did before working at this bar. But clearly there is nothing about Thai law or the health care system or any social safety net to have saved her from this descent into a stressful and hazardous occupation. Not that there is anything degrading about it-at least in flush economic times. There seems to be such a matter-of-fact approach and complete acceptance that this is a legitimate occupation without any stigma attached to it whatsoever. Condoms in the hotel rooms are not like chocolate on the pillow. They are as common as soap, or even water itself.
Though, as I stated in a previous post, the patriarchal nature of Thai society and the absence of alternative opportunities combined with more stressful economic conditions for themselves and their families contributes to a rising desperation in a sinking economic environment. That inevitably leads to falling prices, making this a buyers market–all of which stretches any patina of legitimacy commonly accorded such a vocation.
Lately, according to my sources, even the number of buyers seems to be falling. What, then? Move to Bangkok? Phuket? Chiang Mai? Surely others have the same idea. The effect ripples throughout the country and the economy. Displacement, discounts and further desperation. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Knowing all of this, participation in this dynamic is an easy call. One is repelled by the prospect of perpetuating the system and despairing for the many falangs who don’t give any of it a second thought. Beneath the surface, however, there is considerable empathy for the real lives ensnared in this unfulfilling merry-go-round.