Here’s some fun facts: there are 1 million working prostitutes and 22,000 road deaths a year in Thailand.” It is my second night in Bangkok and I am undergoing a cultural education from an ungracefully ageing Australian bartender. He is somewhere in his 50’s or 60’s, it’s hard to tell – expanding beer gut, receding hairline and wine-stained teeth to match his dark and sunken purple eyes. He is the picture of the Bangkok sex tourist and somehow I have fallen into receiving an instructional from him on hiring a hooker in Sin City.

First you must remember that prostitution is illegal in this country. And second: everything is for sale.” It felt worryingly as if the education had moved into the territory of formal offers, “anything you want, you will find in Bangkok. Boys? Girls? Both?” (no, not one of each… both. Ladyboys. A whole anthropological topic unto itself – maybe another time.) Beyond sex, an extended Bangkok shopping list might include a selection of fine, locally sourced tiger pelts or an Escobar-esque quantity of fresh, organic Golden Triangle heroin. Both offered more than once in my month long visit. The city does of course go beyond the sex industry and notorious black market – infamy aside, Bangkok is a thrilling, vibrant and exciting cosmopolitan city. More conventional offerings might include top end fashion, their faux counterparts, the major medical tourism trade and a burgeoning, world-class dining scene. But we’re not here for the food blog, are we?

The barman gestures up the road, “50m on your left is Soi Cowboy.” I had only seen “Soy Cowboy” misspelled and referenced as an aside in a couple of travel blogs. I didn’t even know it was the name of a street – I thought maybe it was a pub or even some sexual act. “On your way you will pass a couple of bars that you should avoid. Not good for your first time – a little dangerous.” Fuck. What had I got myself into?

Soi Cowboy is the most iconic hive of scum and villainy in Bangkok, and maybe the world. The dangers he advised of were mostly just scams to extort money: charging for extra drinks or enforcing an “exit fee” when trying to leave (sometimes in the hundreds of dollars) as well as a general vibe of overly aggressive demands to buy expensive booze. There have, however, also been more than a few cases of tourists being drugged, beaten, robbed and yes – killed. “Any trouble and just say my name – they all know me there.” Why am I not surprised. It turns out he lives a stone’s throw from ‘Cowboy’ and has done for more than 20 years. No prizes for guessing why.

His wisdom and experience were boundless and he was wonderfully generous in sharing his wealth of knowledge. He advised us to start at a bar called Tilac where the Hangover movie was filmed. Then he explains how to woo a sex worker: “Talk to the girls first – buy them a drink and have a conversation” he says – what a sage, “see who you like and, if they like you, ask them if they want to go somewhere else for drink, dance or a meal.” What a gentleman. Who says chivalry is dead?

If they like you” he stresses once more “then you can ask them back to the hotel”. These words sat with me for sometime – “if they like you”. He had repeated that a lot. Somehow, somewhere along the line in some divey South East Asian gogobar this man seems to have mistaken prostitution for dating. He was convinced that these 19 year old rural Thai and Burmese girls were sleeping with him because they genuinely enjoyed his company and the gallantry of his courtship. Fascinating.

Despite his delusion money is a prerequisite. There are two payments to be made. The first is when the girl leaves the bar with you. This is called a ‘bar fine’ and is explained as compensation for the employee’s lost hours “to cover the drinks she would have sold if she hadn’t left with you”. The fine is around 500 baht ($20). You then make an arrangement directly with the girl. She will stay either for a ‘short time’ (1 or 2 hours) or a ‘long time’ (overnight). “The money you agree on is hers” he says with an audible sense of pride, as if some Mother Theresa-like act of compassion. Between $50 – $100 depending on your level of (haggling) experience. Voila – congratulations! You have just successfully hired a hooker in Bangkok. Now what?

You know the process, let’s discuss your options. There are dedicated brothels however, as mentioned, prostitution is illegal so proprietors generally seek refuge under the facade of a ‘bar’ or ‘massage parlour’. The official tithe for this protection is paid to the good and loyal constabulary of the city. The bars are split into two categories – dance clubs and “beer bars”. A local friend of mine took me to the streets to see it all first hand. We started out gently at one of the less offensive, casual Beer Bars and worked our way up to the more…er, well, you’ll see.

Beer Bars

These are the simplest and less offensive form of brothel. The beer is cheaper and so too the ‘services’. It was, however, probably the most complex and interesting from a social perspective.

The Beer Garden” is a watering hole that looks like any macro-owned Western pub. Clean, tidy, well-lit with room for 200 or more people. The girls were modestly dressed, sitting in pairs (if not already talking to a man) and enjoying a drink together. I didn’t realise it was anything other than an ordinary bar: cold beer, footy on TV, cheap overcooked steak and a general taste of home. It was explained that some of the women would even be professionals – lawyers, accountants and general office-workers out having dinner or drinks, paying their tab in an ‘alternative’ fashion. The attraction for the men in this kind of setting is that although it is paid sex there is a little willing suspension of disbelief. If you squint your eyes and turn your head a little you could almost mistake the interaction as being organic. This experience actually appears to be the main draw card for a lot of the older western sex tourists (i.e. the majority).

Some of the men are divorced and some have never married, many have grown distant from their partners – still together, however life maybe not how it used to be. One guy explained that he and his wife were still together though they now lead “separate lives”, especially since their daughter has grown up. They’re looking for sex however also seeking attention and affection to go with it – even if it is feigned. Some may not have had that acknowledgement in 20, 30 years or more. At this stage I’ll note that there is of course the more perverted and deplorable side of the Thai sex industry including underage children, human trafficking and Japanese tourists who literally buy girls to rape and murder, however putting those very real and very serious topics to the side to focus on what seems to be the majority – most of the men are here for company, and the Thai women have become incredibly adept at providing for that. They make it all seem ‘real’. Naturally some girls still talk of the ‘green card’ ticket to freedom with an older western man, however the majority that I spoke with simply see the extra effort as a good, full-service business model encouraging repeat clientele. The attitude to sex is wildly different and work is work. It’s a reasonably well-paying job with flexible hours and little to no apprenticeship or overheads. Beyond that, perhaps also the attention from foreign men is appreciated? Perhaps there is some level of symbiosis – who doesn’t want to be wanted, no matter how white, balding, fat or wrinkly? Hmmm, I do wonder.

Dance clubs

Loud music, neon lights and names like “Super Pussy”. The dance clubs form the red light districts of places such as Cowboy, Nana Plaza and Patpong – large multi level complexes of seedy, lecherous, sordid dance bars devoted to ‘adult entertainment’. If we had just left the Beer Garden then we were entering the Meat Market: 3 or 4 floors of gogobars each with 50 or more girls crammed onto 15 square metres of “stage” space. Nana Plaza is just one such district where there can be upwards of 2,000 girls on any night. There are more in Pattaya.

The club we went to was dimly lit with stadium seating – a coliseum of sexual perversion and cheap, faded velvet. I don’t recall the name. There’s quite a crowd inside. We sit down and two dancers come over to take our drinks order. A third lady soon follows – the mamasan. She asks me to buy her a drink in a manner that makes it seem mandatory. The whole experience is mind-bending. I comply. Big mistake. On seeing that, a fourth girl walks over and asks for a drink, too. I quickly wise up to whats happening and decline. The experience is a sensory overload. Apart from the gently-lit stage you can hardly see what’s happening, however there are shapes and silhouettes moving all around. Some silhouettes are placed squarely on top of other silhouettes. Sometimes there will be a third or fourth. Most of these silhouettes were younger than those at the beer bar and generally western ex-pats or Asian businessmen. Very few Thai locals from what I could see. Towards the exit there are a couple more much larger, 6’4”, 120kg angry-looking Russian silhouettes. The Thai mafia run most things in town, however the Russians run the girls.

The ‘entertainment’ was based around two stages. One is a raised platform – 30 or so topless and naked girls dancing for a crowd of lecherous men who are seated all around, buying drinks and passing them up. The other platform where we are sitting can be described as nothing other than a rotating meat market. The girls are wearing lingerie on this one as opposed to being entirely naked however somehow it seems more perverse than the first stage. The girls are packed in together, shoulder-to-shoulder. The stage gently rotates and the girls sway slightly from side to side. It’s no dance, that’s for sure. They wear a placard bearing a number.

You pick the girls off the stage by their number and invite them for a drink. The mamasan keeps a watchful eye and, on a spreadsheet, reconciles the girl’s number in one column against the amount of drinks she has sold/had bought for her in another. Performance reviews and KPI’s seem to transcend industries. If a bar fine is paid then a line is drawn through number 207 and she exits stage right until her next shift. “Short-time” hotel rooms are available above the plaza. The girls stay on display for about 10 minutes and then the stale bread is replaced with 50 fresh loaves.

The girls here don’t pretend to be overly enjoying themselves as at the beer bar though it does not appear that anyone particularly loathes being there either – their faces read like any office employee at 4pm on a Wednesday – just barely tipping the scales above “vacant”. I spoke to two girls however conversation was difficult, if not impossible. I made out that both of the girls come from rural areas and moved to the city for “work”; dancing, prostitution. I was unable to find out the intricacies of the business. I was afraid that asking a question like “how much do you earn?” might be misconstrued and start a bidding war. Certainly it confirmed in my mind that our barman friend from earlier could not be meeting these girls for the conversation or company.

Massage Parlours

Outside of the drinking establishments you have the massage parlours. Essentially all parlours outside of major hotels offer sexual services – even those with genuine, bona fide trained masseuses. It is more common to find a parlour that doesn’t offer a massage than to find one that will not provide ‘extras’. I was shown a parlour in Sukhumvit with a literal sex menu to choose from. The menu was written in fairly good English with very explicit explanations and a fixed fee price. It is as if sitting down at a restaurant to order lunch – “yes, I’ll have one of the blow job, please – and how much is that to upgrade? Oh, no – I don’t think I could manage dessert, thank you.” I chose not to order from this establishment however the “4 Hands Massage” was highly recommended by the waitress.

Sole Traders

Just as technology has shaken up the personal transport and restaurant industries so too has the Über of prostitution revolutionised the sex trade. “Streetwalkers” are a dying art form. After a busy day at the office, or tackling the suicidal Bangkok traffic, some might prefer to stay in for the evening and order take-out rather than cooking (why go for burgers when there is steak at home?). Various online platforms allow you to place an order to be delivered to your door. Often these women are “freelancers” and the technology has served to benefit both buyers and sellers from the very sketchy street-based platform. A much safer, accountable avenue for everyone. I wonder whether there is the “5 Star” rating system?

So what then of this nonjudgmental attitude towards sex and sexuality? Is it work? Is it sad? Is it sordid? Is it domineering? Oppressive? Are western men abusing their power and coercing young Thai girls into shameful and immoral acts of depravity? Or is it the case that these girls are capitalising on an opportunity smothered by the self-imposed trade embargoes in western countries? Are young Thai women savagely stripping poor, innocent, lonely old western men of their hard-earned retirement funds? While watching True Detective on a 26 hour ferry to Borneo one particular scene impressed upon me. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson go investigating a brothel. The madame tells Woody where to stick it: “Such holy bullshit from you. It’s a woman’s body, ain’t it? A woman’s choice…Girls walk this Earth all the time screwin’ for free. Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.” Indeed.

I researched a lot of history about the world’s oldest profession while writing this. I was particularly interested on when and where it started to become unlawful (interestingly enough it was borne more out of protecting the public interest from contagious disease (Europe) and human trafficking (USA) rather than sin and morality) and could continue writing for another 15 pages however, ultimately after many hours of reading and many deleted paragraphs I realised that there was no better way to surmise the concept than the Madame above. How can we fetter a woman’s sexuality? How can we strip a person’s autonomy like that – when “girls walk this Earth all the time screwin’ for free”. It must be one of the few situations where the capitalist and the humanist end up making the same arguments to form the same view.

Anyway, unusually for me it wasn’t an argument I was looking for, merely wanting to share with you an instructional on hiring a hooker in Bangkok. What a shame – that concludes my piece on Thailand and I couldn’t squeeze in a word about eating at Asia’s #1 restaurant, Gaggan, or anything about the food in general (my favourite cuisine so far). You’ve also missed out on how we smuggled a motorbike across the border, rode through the “no-go” military occupied Pattani, a border run to Cambodia, being electrocuted on Phi Phi Island, crashing in the torrential rain of the mountains, eating scorpions, saying goodbye to Lisa after 3 months, visiting the bridge over the River Kwai, losing keys and picking locks in Kanchanaburi or spending the night on a concrete floor of a Thai prison in Betong. Thanks, Thailand – I had a blast. Love you long time.