BANGKOK, Thailand – While in Thailand, Brooke and I decided that we should visit the Red Light District. I mean, it's famous; and famous for sex, no less. We love sex. And though we were aware of the all-too-seedy underbelly, we were assured by more than a few people that the current version of Patpong was a watered down from its nefarious predecessor. I mean, the New York Times recommended going there in their "36 Hours in Bangkok" article. The last time the New York Times recommended something "gritty and dangerous" it was a Michael Moore film.
The real question, then, was should we go to a sex show? They're all the rage and we were curious. In our heads, it was a 1940s burlesque: sultry music and scantily clad women dancing around a stage, perhaps with a horse whip. Good times.
In hindsight, maybe we should have known that a place like Thailand — where the last prime minister was ousted when he went to the U.S. and the military wouldn't let him back in — isn't built for nuance and subtlety. So we shouldn't have been surprised when the cab dropped us off at Patpong and we were immediately approached (you could call it "assaulted" if you wanted to get technical) by men inviting us to sex shows. Each one promised that his show was the best. To prove this, they would show you a list of what the show offered, like an X-rated Broadway playbill.
The first time Brooke looked at one, her reaction was a mix of surprise and indigestion. I lingered a bit longer studying the card. There is an inherent fascination to combining the word "pussy" with other surprising nouns like "chopstick" and "rainbow": a Finnegan's Wake of sex show menus.
We took a lap around the market to get our bearings. We noted two types of shows: the ground floor, where girls in bikinis dance on stage, and the second floor, about which Brooke commented, “You know the expression — never go upstairs in Patpong.” We sat down at a bar and regrouped with a beer and a shot of whiskey. All around us were scantily clad women lingering in doorways, some leading Western men arm-in-arm to nearby hotels. A boy walked by selling lighters that projected a small image of two people fornicating — so you don't have to stop watching porn when smoking. Obviously.
Brooke and I ordered one more round and looked deep into each other's eyes. This was the second to last night of our sixteen-day trip. We'd been through a lot. We were tired. All along, we had followed the "When in Rome" logic. Eat Vietnamese street food! Get massages! Steal a Cambodian baby! (Brooke almost did.) Perhaps now was the time to let that ideology go by the wayside. Just get some curry and hit the sack.
It would have been a great idea, except for three nagging words: ping pong pussy. They bounced around my head like, well, a ping pong. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but curiosity has also done wonderful things for cats, like help them discover their love of milk or string. What if ping pong pussy was my ball of string?
Before I knew it, Brooke spotted a group of three Americans couples going into a sex show. She decided we should follow them up the stairs. Her logic ("It must be safe if they're going") was admittedly flawed.
You know how when you're watching a horror movie and the main character is going to walk into a dimly lit room where you know the killer is going to be hiding, you're like, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU STUPID ASSHOLE? DON'T GO IN THERE!" Well, we were those stupid assholes. We walked up a narrow staircase that opened up to a second-floor space about the size of a Starbucks. It was a round, dimly lit, smoke-filled room with a round stage in the middle. Small tables lined the perimeter with all seats facing the stage. Most tables were full (about 30 people total) and the clientele ranged from frat boys to — I'm totally serious — an elderly couple whose faces never changed, not even when an errant dart launched from a dancer's vagina landed gently on the old woman's shoulder pad.
As our waitress led us to our table, the feel was more apprehension than excitement. I'd only glanced at what was going on on stage; it wasn't until we sat down that I really took in the scene. Three women entirely lacking both attractiveness and enthusiasm meandered on stage half-naked, setting up for whatever the next act would be. Apparently it was Pussy Open the Bottle, because just as our waitress came over to take our order, a woman on stage, with as little fanfare as possible, squatted over a bottle of Coke and popped the cap off with her labia.
Brooke: "Holy shit! Beer, please."
Me: "Me too."
Before the waitress left, we noticed that the menu had no prices. I asked how much the beers cost, and the waitress said they were 100 baht a piece — about $3 (expensive by Thai standards, but look what it came with!). The women popped a few more bottles on stage. No one clapped.
For the next ten minutes, the three women on stage ran through a procession of acts. There was Pussy Blowing Candle (on a birthday cake, no less!); Pussy Shoot Balloon, in which a woman launched pointed darts at helium balloons from a backbend position; and Pussy Smoke, which is really kind of boring after Pussy Shoot Balloon. At some point, a random waitress/hooker leaned in to shout some question to Brooke and me over the loud music. We communicated that we didn't understand (not because of the music but because she was speaking Thai) and she gave up — though not before leaving her cocktail behind on our table.
I tried to get her attention, but she was gone. And then I looked around the room. Almost every table had a random cocktail just like ours on it. Fucker. It's a scam. That drink (at a premium, no doubt) gets tagged onto your bill. Patpong: 1, Me: 0.
We finish our beers and contemplate our next move. A woman on stage plays a recorder with her vagina. It's time to leave. There is a can on our table, presumably for money. Perhaps if we just leave 200 baht in the can and make for the door, we can avoid any kind of discussion about this random cocktail.
As soon as I take out my wallet, though, the waitress swoops in and lifts the can off the table. She brings it to a main table up front and tells us to pay there. Behind the table sits a large 40something Thai woman with a face as serious as murder. Without saying a word, she shoves a piece of paper towards me. The first thing I see is the total circled at the bottom: 3,400 baht ($100). Brooke looks over my shoulder and immediately goes on the defensive. "No, no, no," she yells over the music, "we ordered two beers," holding up two fingers for emphasis. I look at the charges: 300 baht per beer, 1,200 for the random cocktail, 1,600 for the show (which had been touted as free).
I say to the woman that the waitress told us the beers were 100 baht. She says that this is her bar and only she sets the prices. I contemplate the viability of trying to explain to her that while she is technically correct, it's good customer relations to inform the customer of the correct prices up front — but I'm interrupted by Brooke, who continues to yell over my shoulder and has now emphatically stated that we are not paying that bill.
The Thai woman quickly snares the bill back and crosses off the charges for the show and the mystery cocktail, bringing down the price to a more reasonable, though still inflated, 600 baht (about $20). Basically, she's saying "Your move, cowboy." At this point, I'm more afraid of dealing with Brooke if I decide to pay the 600 baht, so I stick to my guns: 200 baht, not a penny more. I throw the money down on the table and stare the woman in the eye. Somewhere behind me on stage a woman is doing something unbelievable with her vagina. The tension is palpable. Brooke makes the next move: She grabs my hand and says, "Let's go."
Before she can pull me an inch towards the door, an intimidating man, who until now had been sitting quietly observing the scene from his chair next to the table, stands up. With the quickness of a much younger Thai woman, the headmistress steps out from behind the table, stands toe-to-toe with Brooke, points to the stage and says, "You don't pay? You dance!"
For all of you who have never found yourself face-to-face with a Thai sex shop operator who is telling your girlfriend that she should blow out a birthday cake, shoot a dart, or play a tune with her vagina, let's be perfectly clear: It's pretty terrifying. Earlier that day, Brooke and I had discussed the movie Brokedown Palace, starring Claire Danes as a mildly attractive American girl who is tricked by a cute boy into unwittingly trafficking narcotics. Neither Brooke nor I could remember if she died at the end of the movie, but we did remember that all the stuff leading up to the point where she did or didn't die sucked HARD. Did I really think that some Thai goons were going to pull me and Brooke into some back room right in front of all these people? No. Was it worth risking? Not really.
Apparently, Brooke saw things differently.
While most women would cower in the face of an irate mama-san, Brooke remains defiant. She is shouting “No! 200 baht! No more!” and pointing to the money on the table. The mama-san is pointing to a bucket of ping pong balls on stage and using a very liberal interpretation of the word "dance." I've got my eye on the guy behind the mama-san standing with his arms crossed. I assume he knows martial arts. This isn't good.
Just then, I remember that the 200 baht I used to pay for the beers was the last money I had in my wallet. Besides that, all I had was some coins. Brooke had the rest of our money in her shoulder bag. I decide to change tactics. "I don't have any money to pay the bill!" I say. To prove this, I take out my wallet and open it up.The woman looks curiously at me, and insists that I have more money. "Empty your pocket!" she demands. I do, making a big show of it by slamming down a few coins on the table and holding up my chapstick. "You want me to pay the bill? I have to go to an ATM." The mama-san looks Brooke up and down, eyeing her shoulder bag. Brooke clutches the bag like it’s her baby cub, challenging the woman to touch her.
The mama-san backs down. "Fine, you go to an ATM. Right outside! Then pay bill!" I grab Brooke by the hand and drag her past the muscle towards the door and down the dark stairway. Out in the street I continue dragging her through the market. It was like that scene in any movie you’ve ever seen where a man drags a woman through a market as they run for their lives. We dodge venders, dart between tourists, jump obstacles. I am heroic throughout. Finally at a safe distance, we stand outside a quaint restaurant and catch our breath.
"That was a hell of a show," Brooke says.
"It was," I agree, "Now let's go home."
This story originally appeard on Dan Murphy's blog, Redacted, and is reprinted with permission.