A few years ago a close friend – let’s call him Clive – decided to up sticks and move to Pattaya in Thailand.
I had a vague idea why. It’s Paradise. He went there for a cut price skin graft after the NHS gave him MRSA, and, having enjoyed the hospitality of a five star state-of-the-art hospital for the princely fee of two thousand pounds (the same operation cost six thousand at home), he decided never to come back.
Of course when I arrived in Clive’s new home town, I had a fair idea what to expect. Google “Pattaya Thailand” and “go-go girls” appears next to “beach holidays”. But I wasn’t worried. I imagined it would be easy to avoid the sex trade. And if not perhaps I’d learn something.
We got to my hotel mid-afternoon. As Clive, his young Thai girlfriend and I relaxed by the pool, two middle-aged Americans – both weighing in at around 20 stone – waded in, followed by two tiny Thai women. Two hippos, two gazelles, a beach ball and some epic splashing. As I sat with my mouth open, Clive’s girlfriend laughed. Not the laugh of a 20-year-old, but one who understood that these men – sad acts on home soil – were in heaven.
Next stop was Clive’s bar. Three Thai women bustled around a single customer, while I asked a few questions. How were suppliers, margins, business? Clive – a former labourer with no bar experience – nodded at the manageress and said, “She’s got it covered.”
I went for a walk, and that’s when it hit me. Central Pattaya is one big bar, divided into sections. There must be 3,000 in an area two miles long and 300 yards deep. All open-fronted so customers can view the merchandise: thousands of bored young girls in short skirts and high shoes. Pattaya is prostitution on an industrial scale.
I felt like a hospital patient who’d just woken up in a zombie movie. In a world of overweight, balding, middle-aged men and Thai girls young enough to be their daughters, I was the only single white western female.
“How can they stand to sleep with these old men?” I asked. “The older and uglier the better,” Clive said. “They’re more grateful. Young blokes want it for free and can go all night. They don’t want that.”
I spoke to men in the bars. “Girls here know how to treat a man,” they said. “At home all I can get is a fat, ugly bird.” He added, “You take them back to the hotel and when you wake up they’ve washed your socks for you!”
A few days later Clive introduced me to another staff member. She was small, pockmarked with acne, in a black dress with the side cut out to reveal a tiny ribcage. We shook hands. She had a big smile and sad eyes. It was awkward.
Later I found out why: he told me her job was to sleep with customers. If they liked the look of her, they’d pay the bar a “fine” to take her back to their hotel. She would get 1,000 baht (£15); the bar kept 200 (£3).
I went to bed that night and lay awake until morning. The T-shirts were right: “Good guy go to heaven, bad guy go to Pattaya.” I was in hell.
Over the next few days I tried to get Clive to let her go: “They’re human beings, not pieces of meat.”
He told me she was ‘freelance’. He didn’t employ her. She’d merely attached herself to his bar because it was small, friendly and she had friends there. It was a sports bar with large TV screens. The men were there to mostly watch football. She was an added extra, like free nuts or pizza, and if she and her friends weren’t there, he wouldn’t have a business; “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
The “girls” (no one ever used the word prostitute) earned about £75 a month in a shop or office, whereas a few years in Pattaya could set them up for life. “Most have kids. Their Thai blokes knock them up, then piss off. Besides, if they don’t like the look of a geezer, they can say no.”
“How often does that happen?”
I was dumbstruck. Clive, the boy I had taught to play conkers, was in the oldest business known to man.
More surprising still was his reaction. Everyone else accepted it; why couldn’t I? “You work in advertising,” he added. “You sell loans to people who can’t afford it!”
I came to the conclusion that in his eyes, most men are decent blokes who need women like you need a good meal. In his world the bar girls sing a song about meeting a rich farang (foreigner) who will whisk them off to a life of luxury. It’s a world in which a girl falls in love with a customer every minute of every day.
I pleaded with him to leave town with me to get a new perspective. He agreed, but only after he’d thrown a birthday party for the girl with the sad eyes. He’d promised her a roast pig, balloons, maybe a mobile phone or an iPod?
She asked for a teddy bear.
Six months later, he gave up the bar and married a Thai woman with a young daughter. When the little girl holds his hand, he says it “kills him”.