With a sharp snap, the tuk-tuk turned left, taking us away from the neon lights of Patpong and into the depths of an unlit alley.
We had stopped outside a building which, on first glance, gave little away. You could have been forgiven for thinking it was a disused factory, had it not been for the tell-tale gasps of music which escaped as the door opened and closed.
A throng of men guarded the door, swigging from unmarked bottles and smoking fat cigars. They stared at us knowingly.
How had we ended up here? I thought, as the cold – so rarely felt in Bangkok – seemed now embedded beneath my skin. Only an hour before, we had been sipping cocktails on Khao San Road, laughing as we were goaded on by the touts, determined to sell us tickets to a night of cheap thrills in the city’s infamous red light district.
“Remember our faces!” I had joked to a police officer as we boarded the tuk-tuk, finally giving in. It didn’t seem so funny now, as I pleaded with our driver to turn back.
Sensing my unease, he placed a hand on my shoulder and steered me into the building. We were met by a burly man, wearing a thick, leather jacket. He eyed us up and down before stretching out his palm.
“500 Baht,” was his command. It was much more than had been agreed.
We entered the theatre, a cavernous room, where the smell of stale sweat hung in the air and red lights flickered tellingly above. As we took our seats, a Thai girl entered, unannounced, and took her place on the stage. Dressed only in a G-string, she wrapped her hand around the pole and began swaying her hips to the music. With a surprisingly swift move, she lifted herself up on to the pole and circled it, before lowering herself, snakelike, to the ground.
Her hand slid slowly down the length of her body. She removed her underwear, exposing a deep, purple scar which ran the length of her midriff. It went unnoticed by the crowd.
Another girl entered, proudly displaying a balloon in one hand and a dart in another.
“You don’t think…” I began, before being interrupted by an announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Would you like to see a magic trick?”
“Oh dear god, no…” I pleaded, as the balloon was handed to a member of the audience, and the dart to the nude girl. She lay down on the floor, before bringing her knees to her chest. The dart disappeared from view.
“Surely she can’t…”
A loud POP! resounded through the room, and I was proved wrong. A stunned silence, and then the crowd roared into life, swelling with delight and baying for more.
Over the next twenty minutes, darts were fired, strings of handkerchiefs were drawn, and of course, ping-pong balls soared through the air. Throughout it all, I scanned the audience, desperately trying to establish their reactions; some, like us, looked genuinely shocked. Others were disturbingly calm..
Finally, the act came to an end. The girl came to her feet and took a bow, as though she had just pulled a rabbit from a hat.
Sensing the opportunity, we grabbed our bags and attempted to make a speedy exist.
Our path was blocked by a buxom waitress, who promptly redirected us to our seats. The show, it seemed, was not over yet. A voice echoed through the hall:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Please welcome our very special guest, Mr Dong!”
Mr Dong?! Who the hell is Mr Dong?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Mr Dong entered the room, wearing only a smug grin and a back-to-front baseball cap. My mind went into overdrive as I began wondering what tricks might be included in his repertoire.
Please don’t let there be darts…
There were no darts. In fact, Mr Dong was not there to perform any tricks at all. He was there for one thing and one thing only. Without so much as a ‘how-do-you-do’, he bent over the ping-pong starlette and began thrusting away, all to the tune – I kid you not – of Britney Spears I’m not a girl (not yet a woman).
The cold feeling I had experienced in the street began to wash over me again. This all felt so wrong.
I longed so badly to run away. I wanted to wash my eyes out and burn my clothes and pretend that the night was nothing other than a bad dream. And yet, I was rooted to the spot.
As I looked around the room, I began to wonder how many people, like us, had been lured into coming. I wondered whether anyone was truly enjoying the experience, and if so, why. This wasn’t art. It wasn’t entertainment.
As Mr Dong continued his ‘act’, the girl hung her head, her face hidden by a wall of dark hair. I longed for her to look up, to catch my eye as if somehow she might be able to read my mind and know that I was sorry. Sorry to be there, sorry that this place existed, sorry that her life, for whatever reason, had led her to be up on that stage, her body a mere rag doll to the situation.
She didn’t look up.
The helplessness I felt in that moment is hard to explain and has stayed with me ever since. The sad truth, and I think I knew it even then, is that what we witnessed that night was a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to Bangkok and the corruption of its sex industry.
By law, ping-pong shows are actually illegal in Thailand. Somehow, though, they are still tolerated, and you only have to walk a few hundred metres through backpacking havens such as Khao San Road to see how easy it is to get swept up in the experience. Despite their evident popularity, it seems that little is being done to regulate the venues, or to ensure the safety of the girls who work there.
What worries me more, however, is the blasé attitude that travellers have towards the shows. A night at a ping-pong bar, it seems, has become as much a rite-of-passage as riding an elephant through the jungle or drinking Mai Thais on Haad Rin Beach. Most of the backpackers we met across the country had either been to a show or knew somebody who had, and their stories, by comparison, made ours seem as tame as a night in with the grandparents; I’ll never forget the night that I listened to a coked-up Aussie describe in detail how he watched as a woman produced a succession of live bats from her nether-regions. Of course, it could have been the drugs talking; worryingly though, I believed him.
The physical risks these women are putting their bodies through are vast, the scars insurmountable. As travellers, we cannot change the way Thailand’s officials choose to handle the problem, but we can control our contribution to it. My advice is simple; stay far, far away…
…and never, under any circumstances, play Britney Spears in my presence.