“How do you tell which ones are the ladyboys?” “Simple, they are the hot ones!” Sage advice or a cautionary tale…perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it was the words of wisdom I received on previous travels to Southeast Asia, a place known for such terrible delights. The world of cheap underground thrills is the type of off work activity that the military tries to dissuade you from. Countless liberty briefings, General Military Training and online courses about drugs and human trafficking push the DoD’s policies that seem to shy away from an adventurous spirit. Not to say that the only way to have fun in your free time is to trudge through the red light district, freaked out of your gourd on psychedelics as you attempt to find the white rabbit (although it’s a thought), but sometimes to really know a place you have to get dirty.
I was on assignment to Bangkok on my most recent and final deployment, rounding out my military career in a location most would not associate with the military or any serious posting. A place connected to luxurious vacations or devious intentions. The most spiritual of experiences could be had in Thailand…but also the ability to lose your soul. I make it a habit to explore my options, partaking in actives that are suited to either task. Visit a temple with monks in the morning and share a cocktail with a ladyboy while taking in a dart show by evening.
It was an evening in July that I ventured out into the Bangkok underbelly in search of some of the tamer delights available in its narrow back alleys. I was accompanied by my girlfriend Sara, who had stealthily travelled to Thailand to visit me and attend a yoga retreat. A former Marine, she was no stranger to the shenanigans you can get into overseas and was all in on whatever the night had in store. The rainy season was upon us and had produced a mini monsoon that night. We grabbed the nearest taxi and made our way towards Nana, a district well known for western visitors and dangerous sirens.
The downpour of rain had not paused the pageantry on display. The performers and guests alike tucked into every possible dry nook and cranny available to escape the flooding downpour. But the show must go on. Sara and I had found refuge under a large umbrella positioned next to a pork satay kiosk. We slid into shaky plastic chairs that scarcely felt comfortable as it constantly attempted to find footing on the unstable ground.
Shortly after being seated, a prostitute brought us two large Chang beers in soggy styrofoam cups. We will call the prostitute Selina as I have forgotten her real name. Although, certainly the name she gave us was not her real name anyhow. You do not have to be well versed in the world of prostitution to know that pseudonyms are used as frequently and haphazardly as compliments to feed the male ego. They are tricks of the trade. Whether it is used as a discretionary tool, providing some level of anonymity, or as a means to ease the pronunciation for the obvious foreign clientele, I am not certain.
Selina was one of the many short skirt clad ladies of the night on display that evening. One part temptress, one part waitress. It was a confusing scene as they all attempted to stay dry and, at the same time, present themselves to any potential suitor who might brave the storm for a drink or companion. The ladies usual haunt was along the billiard bars tucked away in an ally off the street but the latest set of COVID restrictions forced the bars closed. Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit of these ladies and their handlers wouldn’t let something like rules get in the way of their enterprise. What was once a series of food carts targeting the over-boozed sinners as they stumbled out of the billiard bars had now become the main attraction.
The rattle of rain on the umbrella above us had quieted as the torrent of rain subsided. Selina made her way back over to Sara and I with an inviting smile. I had been curious of what kind of reaction the ladies would have when we made our way over as a couple. As an individual man, or a group of men for that matter, you could expect to be catcalled, viciously harassed and even groped walking through an area like this. Admittedly, I hoped Sara’s company would stave off some of the attention as all we desired was a drink and a break from hotel isolation, but in true form the ladies were unfazed. I suppose it’s not unheard of for a couple to be in search of the same carnal pleasures that bring so many men down these dimly lit streets.
“Where are you guys from?,” Selina asked as she crouched under the umbrella in front of our table. I asked her if she would like to sit with us. She initially declined but with our insistence she decided to join. “We are from the US,” Sara said as Selina moved another plastic chair over. The surprised look on Selina’s face was not that of genuine surprise at Americans being present. That is pretty commonplace in Bangkok. Her surprise was a part of the show, a kabuki mask put on for the sake of the audience.
“How long you been in Bangkok?”
“Only a month,” I replied.
I had been in Thailand for three months at that time but I made it common practice to lie about such things. Could be my work ingrained paranoia or just my contradictory nature.
“Ohh…it’s bad timing,” Selina said with almost genuine concern.
The bad timing she was referring to was the third wave of COVID lockdowns that had hit Thailand over the past three months. These restrictions had been especially bad in Bangkok. As it was the case in most places around the world, the small businesses and “non essential” workers were hit the hardest. It may seem strange to refer to the ladies and ladyboys that work this profession as small business types but that is what they were. People, just like you and I, grinding it out to make ends meet.
Just then the winds changed. An enigmatic presence was moving our way, like a dark storm ready to upend the calm existence currently enjoyed. We watched as two figures made their way down the road. Two mid-forties British men travelled down the corridor towards the street side oasis we had stumbled upon. Their demeanor was nasty and unkempt, even from such a distance. As I watched the unwarranted swagger of the two men approach us, I could feel the energy shift. One of the men approached a group of ladies and immediately began groping them. A spew of unintelligible drunken British slang poured out of his mouth as he fondled the women. There was no way of understanding his words but the intent was clear.
The more volatile of the two men was a shorter portly scoundrel with a cul-de-sac of hair and ill fitting business casual attire. It was as if the obvious vitriol inside him poisoned his outward appearance in every manner. Every movement of his mouth brought another onslaught of gross commentary, seeding the atmosphere with negative energy. Although it was nearly impossible to hear most of what the bastard had to say, phrases like, “I’m not going to pay to fuck all five of you,” and, “your cunt will do,” echoed clearly down the corridor.
Sara’s body was tense now. She was a well travelled woman and had likely seen her fair share of ugly human behavior but this was different. This was a man at his most beastly. The disgust wasn’t only that this one man existed in such a manner, but also the potential for all men to devolve to this.
The portly man’s behavior became more erratic as his compatriot watched unfazed. He aggressively ripped one of the girls away from the group and made his way over to the table next to us. Instinctively, Selina got up and walked over to their table. The mood had soured. Bad vibrations echoed across the block, marooning Sara and I on an island of decency and discomfort. We froze to watch the scene. One that had likely played out time and time again. The unfortunate truth of it was that the two brutes siting across from us were the real customers and we were just tourists. As Selina laughed and flirted with the British men, she glanced back over to Sara and I. Her eyes said everything. This is just the way it is.
I looked over to Sara, and without words decided it was time to leave. I waved over to one of the other girls to pay our tab and quickly made our escape. Selina offered a friendly, “Kap khun ka,” as we walked down the street. Still silent, we made our way to the end of the street and found a Tuk-tuk standing by and hired him to take us to our hotel.
As we made our escape, I wondered what had produced those men…and how far I was from suffering the same fate. It would be incredibly disingenuous to think that couldn’t be me. I strive to be ethical but have suffered moral bankruptcy on more than one occasion. There is solace in the fact that I have not suffered this alone. I have seen so many men…respected teammates, leaders and family men who allowed the darkness to creep in…or even dove into the darkness full heartedly as if to balance out the purity in their other life. Like putting a tuxedo on a monkey and expecting it to act civilized, knowing that the monkey longs to rip the tuxedo off and fling shit at its primate brothers. In much the same way we dress our selves up in civilized places with civilized friends, forgetting that we secretly desire to let loose and give in to the cravings and lust that lurks beneath the surface. We use civilization to draw an imaginary line in the sand, symbolizing where the limitations of our depravity are. Perhaps this is why the military pushes the abstinence policy for risqué liberty endeavors. A means to maintain that imaginary line conjured by society. Though it may be a futile effort as the line only exists to show how far you are wiling to go. A cage the beast can easily escape.