Bangkok Diaries: Ping Pong Shows and ‘Ladyboys’

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Note: This post discusses strip bars and other content some may find objectionable. Read at your own risk.

Bangkok’s nightclub scene is infamous. How could we not visit this city without experiencing it, at least a little?

We worked up the courage thanks to Karl’s friend from Japan, who’s visiting Bangkok this week. He’s an entrepreneur with a sense of humor and adventure. Last night, we hit the town.

We started out on Surawong Road in the center of town. It’s half restaurants, half strip bars. So it follows that as soon as we left dinner we were bombarded by hawkers trying to get us to come see their girls: “Ping pong show? Want to see a ping pong show?”

For the uninitiated, a ping pong show is a euphemism for a strip club where women place things like small darts and ping pong balls in the unmentionable place between their legs, and then in a rather jaw dropping display of muscle contraction they catapult those objects into the air.

I’d never heard of such a thing and said hell with it, sure! I’m all about seeing something for myself. It’s the journalist in me. Karl, for his part, was mortified and kept saying “Remember, this is your idea.”

The club we went to was called Super Pussy, of course. The women here seemed older, 40s and 50s, and were not the nubile underage teens we saw at many other regular strip bars we passed afterwards.

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We watched one gal pop four balloons hanging from the ceiling with darts. Another puffed on a cigarette. A third popped bottle caps off of glass soda bottles. One gal who called herself Da used a thick marker to write me the “Sara welcome to Thailand” message pictured above. All of these tricks were hands free.

The club charged an admission fee of 300 baht or $10 per person. The women make money when guys (or gals) buy them an overpriced glass of soda in exchange for a chat.

The woman who told me her name was Da sat down next to me and I bought her a glass of Coke for 300 baht because I wanted to talk to her. She spoke halting English and said she was 50 years old and had a 20 year old daughter at home.

She said she’d been working in bars for 20 years. She seemed more interested in collecting tips for tricks than conversation. Or it could have been the language barrier. I’m not sure.

Da said she only earned about 200 baht a night. I found that both sad and difficult to believe since the national minimum wage is 300 baht a day. Given that fact, I couldn’t understand (or get her to explain) why she spent her evenings participating in a human circus for so little money. She may have been fibbing, or misunderstood my question. I don’t know for sure.

The bar was dark and seedy and the whole affair felt like exploitive voyeurism. I was glad to have seen it for myself but left the bar with mixed feelings.

Are these women making a conscious decision to put themselves on display for money? Or, more likely, is there an external compulsion that forces their hand? I have a feeling the true answer is complicated.

The story seemed quite different at the next bar we visited. After hopping a cab to the Nana neighborhood, we went to a bar called Obsession. Almost all the women were young, beautiful and looked like swimsuit models. Here’s the catch: none of them were actually women.

Obsession is a bar for seeing “lady boys.” This particular bar is popular among Japanese men. Indeed, a quick scan of the room showed 90 percent of clientele were Asian males.

The girls wore identical bikinis and danced on a rotating carousel in the middle of the room. They all had breasts and many of them looked like they’d had plastic surgery to make them look like Korean soap opera stars.

All of the girls had a number pinned to their suits. Number 59 caught our eye and we called her over. I bought her a Coke and to my great luck, she spoke pretty good English.

Her story is fascinating. Her name is Sarawut (a man’s name in Thailand), so she calls herself Sara for short. She said knew that she was a “lady boy” from when she was 5 years old (she refers to herself and her friends as lady boys).

She’s 22 years old now and a university student studying fashion. She whipped out her iPhone and showed me pictures of the dresses and blouses she designed. They were all cute designs featuring polka dots, mini prints and flounced skirts that are popular in Bangkok. I started following her on Instagram.

Sara said she’s worked at the bar for four months — it’s her summer job. On a good night, she pulls in 2,500 baht. I asked what she does to earn her fee, she replied nonchalantly “I do everything.” But she said that oftentimes, clients just want to take her out to a restaurant nearby to eat a meal and talk to her. Some men apparently have the same curiosity that I did about what her story is and what she’s like.

Sara had breast implant surgery when she was 18, costing her about 100,000 baht, or $3,100. Her surgeon did a very good job, better than most I’ve seen in the U.S. Hers looked natural and didn’t have any of the overt hardness that usually accompanies American breast implants. (She was quite proud of them and insisted that I touch her to see for myself.)

She also paid for a minor nose job, 40,000 baht. She said she’s never had much of an adam’s apple, so that was not an issue. She plans to have the rest of her sex reassignment surgery next year.

Sara said that by December, she plans to open her own boutique in Terminal 21, a well-known mall in the center of town full of small boutiques. She plans to share the 100,000 baht/year rental price with another designer.

She said all of her fellow lady boys work at Obsession because they want to. It’s good money. Of course, this is just one woman’s account and I’m pretty sure that’s not the same story at other bars or brothels around town.

I wish I had thought to take a picture with Sara outside the bar. If you saw her on the street you’d think “what an attractive woman.” But I’m not sure it would have been allowed. All of these bars have no photo rules.

Update: Had a few more thoughts after publishing. I think some may find even my willingness to patronize strip bars unsettling. As a friend said, this is a tough issue. On the one hand, it would’ve been easier to avoid the red light districts altogether and blog on as if they didn’t exist. But I’m not sure that approach helps either. This is my report of what I saw and my attempt to humanize the few women I met. The harder story will be going into a brothel and talking to underage girls there and the johns. I’m not sure I can pull that one off this trip, but I might try. 

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