Go-go girls wait for customers at Patpong in 2008. Pic/AFP
I've repeatedly visited Bangkok since 2003 and I was recently there for a non-fiction project. It's a city I've come to love in the way that Americans love Paris or in the way that Sardarjis love London. Bangkok has changed over the years, though.
Partly due to its high politics: democracy hasn't recovered since 2005 when the popular (and populist but not right-wing) Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed by the military; and the people haven't gotten over the death of their beloved King Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch who was on his throne for 70 years, in October. Most women were dressed in black during my recent visit and it initially seemed to be a fashion, but the attire's modesty made it apparent they were still in mourning for the departed king. It's too early to tell what his absence will mean for Thailand.'
The biggest change in Bangkok though is the shrinking of its sex industry. My 2003 visit was for a Track 2 conference (an unofficial dialogue between India and Pakistan) on the other bank of the Chao Praya river. The first evening some participants were taking a boat across; they cheerily informed me they were headed to Patpong, the heart of Bangkok's
red-light districts, and invited me along. I declined, but later sneaked out on my own. It was a night market laid out over several parallel streets lined with bars featuring scantily-clad dancing girls, and so I naturally ducked into one. A woman asked me to buy her a beer, which I did but I politely declined her company so that I could sketch the girls as they danced. (I'm no Toulouse Lautrec but I was in a drawing phase, in the middle of a never-finished graphic novel on my post-9/11 visit to Peshawar, Pakistan.)
In 2003, the sex industry inhabited several alleys of Patpong — one was exclusively for 'ladyboys' (kathoeys) and gay clubs. Ladyboys are exactly what the name implies, and surprisingly, some look better than actual women. However, I am a prude: a neighbour recently advised me to get "massage-wussage" in Bangkok, but I did not. I also didn't patronise the upper-floor clubs with their live shows, etc. The money I did spend in Patpong was on pirated music CDs (there were no torrent downloads back then).
The idea that the planet had a red-light area astounded me. The World Health Organisation said in 2001 that Thailand had between 1.5 and 2 lakh sex workers. Perhaps it started with the Japanese in WW II or the Americans during the Vietnam War; but it seemed that Thais have an extremely liberal view of life to allow and promote a sex industry. It was more dazzling than Disneyland. (Incidentally, British crime writer John Burdett writes about Thailand's sex industry in his novels starting from Bangkok Eight, though his action is set in less touristy red-light areas like the multi-coloured Soi Cowboy or the multi-level Nana Plaza.)
Subsequent trips to Bangkok were incomplete without a visit to Patpong: the following year our newspaper had a meeting in the city and our Leader took us to a Patpong bar, not for the girls but for its rockabilly music; in 2005, I was sent to report on the military coup and decompressed from reportage by watching girls dance in boredom
because the coup had kept tourists away; in 2007, my in-laws and I went to Pattaya and gawped at the elderly white men with their rented, teenaged Thai girlfriends, strolling as if in heaven. On some visits though, including in 2015, when my daughter and I went to Bangkok to watch a One Direction concert (the last one with Zayn Malik), I avoided Patpong.
This visit, I walked to Patpong from my river-side hotel and was stunned. From Silom Road, the main thoroughfare, you see just one alley of the night market. No ladyboys were visible (perhaps my timing was off, but unlikely). Nobody pestered me with flyers to attend their "number one" sex show upstairs. The girls were still dancing in a fog of ennui, but the overall effect was diminished.
This is likely because of the Thai government's announcement in July that it would abolish the sex industry. Partly it has to do with a global crackdown on child prostitution, humankind's greatest evil (along with war). Common sense dictates that wherever there's a sex industry, a shadowy part will involve children. Perhaps Thais are tired of planeloads of sleazy all-male tourism groups from India. Maybe it's because the sex industry is now booming in the Phillipines. While I admit disappointment at seeing Patpong in retreat, it's a small price if it saves and preserves tens of thousands of childhoods. In that sense, Bangkok's metamorphosis to the urban blandness prevalent around the globe isn't so bad.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to email@example.com