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Patpong

On one of my first trips to Bangkok, I heard about the infamous Patpong district. It is politely billed as an entertainment district, but along with the night market, it is one of the world's most notorious red light districts.

I'll never forget my first foray into Patpong...
As a woman, I didn't expect to elicit much attention from the touts pursuing male tourists down the streets, promising the most bizarre and exotic sex acts ever devised by man or beast, but I was not to be spared.
I was making my way through the early evening crowds imagining that was a safe time to approach the place when a photo album was thrust under my nose. The tout thumbed through the album swiftly and my eyes were assaulted with a series of grotesque images that I wished I'd never seen.
This was a really crazy and depraved place...beyond belief!!
I shuddered and tried to move on, but several other touts, anxious to lure people into the bars, hovered nearby, ready to pounce.

I headed for the outskirts almost in a panic.
This was more than I was prepared for!
I finally reached a place of relative safety on a residential street a few blocks away. I walked slowly, trying to calm my nerves.
In the shadows, I noticed a young western man slouched miserably
on the curb, holding his head in his hands.
Something was terribly wrong, by the look of it.
I asked him if he spoke English and he looked up in welcome relief.
It turned out that he had just arrived in Bangkok a few hours earlier.
This was his 1st time in Bangkok. He was employed by a major US airline
and was slated to attend an important meeting the next day.
On a lark, he arrived a day early to do some sightseeing on his own.
In no time at all, he had gotten his wings severely clipped.
He had been invited by one of the photo-bearing men to have a complimentary beer in an air-conditioned upstairs night club.
He was quickly hustled by the girls and urged to buy them drinks in exchange for their company. 3 beers later, as he got up to leave, he was presented with a bill for several hundred dollars. When he protested, he was quickly surrounded by several burly men who blocked the exit. They roughed him up pretty badly, took his billfold, wedding ring and watch and then they threw him down the stairs. He had lost everything! Cash, ID and credit cards.
He struggled to the side street where I found him. He was badly shaken and desperate for someone to talk to. It turned out that he was a young, naïve Midwesterner who thought he could handle himself in Bangkok as he had
in other capitals.
It was a rough introduction to the city of angels...

In another story, things took a wildly unexpected turn...
I was on my own again, still determined to get a handle on Patpong.
I was drawn to try to understand this place and culture.
Where else in the world do you find Buddhist monks sharing a sidewalk
with prostitutes?
There seemed to be no end to their calm tolerance in this society.
It was baffling!
I wanted to see the place as it was, but in my own timid fashion.
On my next attempt, I thought I would arrive earlier in the evening
before things got too rowdy.
I wondered what the lives of the sex workers were like when they weren't putting on a show for drunken western tourists.

Did they make some kind of peace with what they were doing?
More than once, I had seen them giving alms to beggars with money slipped from the wallets of their 'temporary husbands', as they called their johns. Often, they were supporting a whole family with their work.
Some seemed to accept their lives as karma.
In any case, this culture had a vastly different sense of sexuality
compared to the west.

It was a hot, humid afternoon, sultry and slow-moving.
I entered one of the streets ('the street they liked so well,
they named it thrice'-Tom Robbins).
It was lined with open-air bars lit by garish neon lights.
Sin city...

There were a few bar girls sleep[ing on stools, still groggy
from the night before.
A few others gossiped over bottles of beer.
It was their free time before the night crowd filled the streets.
It seemed perfect for me...
As I walked toward the district, I cast sidelong glances around me,
taking in the scenes.
I was discreet and pretended not to notice anything or anyone in particular.

Apparently, I had been noticed, however.
At first one and then another bar girl got up from their stools and made their way toward me. Others alerted, whispered to their friends who also left the cash registers they were tending and the counters they were cleaning.
I was a little alarmed as they gathered around me, taking my arms in theirs, holding me very strangely close.
I was sure that I was going to be robbed and possibly worse.
I couldn't break their grasp and watched, in horror, as all the rest
of the ladies of the night joined the clutch.
They were all smiling and friendly as they clung to me, eager to touch me
as they escorted me proudly down the center of the street!
It was complete humiliation!
I just watched helplessly as more and more girls swarmed toward me.
What on earth was going on?!
They were all still smiling and trying to get as close to me as possible.
As my mind calmed and I realized that there was no threat,
I began to wonder if they were trying to practice their English on me.
They were all excitedly trying to get a message to me.
The girls off to the side were coaching the ones holding my arms so tightly.
Some sort of consensus was being reached.
They seemed to all hold their breath at once as one of the girls looked deeply into my eyes and conveyed their message...

"We know you are from God", she said to me.
I looked astonished at the unexpected tribute.
My face revealed my feelings, I am sure.
How could these prostitutes know this?
I was seeing the real faces of these women and girls...
"That is why we are all trying to touch you...to walk with you!"
Her words were chosen carefully and with effort.
The girls pressed in, delighted to be understood.
I still wondered why...how?
As if reading my thoughts, she said...
"We KNEW you were from God when you came on the street.
Your face was SHINING... That is why we want to be near you."

Debra Robinson ... skydancer@ij.net