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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Story of A Thai "Bar Girl"

Disclaimer: This story is from the March of 2014, when I went on a solo trip to South East Asia.

In front of me was Bangkok’s famous Patpong red light district. As I approached the main street, a feeling of uneasiness crept through me.  There was nothing subtle about what lay in front.

On both sides of the street, there were bars, go-go bars and night clubs. Hordes of skimpily dressed women sat in groups immediately outside these joints , looking you up and down, giggling and inviting you to come in.  A number of Thai men were walking on the streets holding up placards above their heads. On some of these boards were pictures of naked women in different sexual positions, and the nightly rates. Other boards advertised live sex shows.

The unabashed nature of it all fazed me a lot.  But I wanted a story. Even before leaving India, I had decided that I wanted to write a story from the perspective of a Thai sex worker. And for that, I need to talk to one.  And that is why I had come to Patpong. To speak to one of the bar girls.

Even standing at the street’s entrance made me feel jittery then. With all these inner thoughts bouncing off each other and mixing with the music and the hawking of the pimps and the flirting of the tourists and the girls, everything just became a blur.

As I began walking, I could feel some people calling out to me. Or maybe they were calling out to the other tourists. In the din, I could not be sure. Even my walk was guarded, as if I was ready to push off anyone who came too close. The songs kept blaring in the clubs. Thoroughly uneasy, also disgusted, I left the place and went back to my hostel.

The next two days in Bangkok I visited palaces and Buddhist temples and parks and went nowhere near Patpong. A few days later, I left for Phuket.

The last night in Phuket, I went to Patong – the most active centre in town. This was probably my last chance at getting a story, because I would be leaving for the town of Chiang Mai the next day for some jungle trekking.

I entered Tiger Bar. A massive place, under one roof there were many bars here, each with their own bartender and bar hostesses. After walking past many women, I finally sat down at one bar and ordered a beer. A girl came and sat next to me. I did not walk away was because she made no attempt to come onto me, or suggest anything sexual in nature.Surprisingly, she wasn’t  as skimpily dressed as the others. She asked if I was from India and I nodded.

We started talking. I asked if she would like to drink something . When she nodded, I ordered a beer for her. In these bars, they give you the bill as soon as you order. I noticed that though we were both having the same drink, mine cost 100 baht and hers 300 baht. “If you order a drink for a bar girl, it is three times the cost”, she told me sheepishly. Funnily, her drink did not even look like beer. “It’s apple juice” she told me. So, this is how it works. It’s the bar girl’s job to keep talking to a customer, and to make him keep drinking.  If he orders for her, the bar earns even more. And they give the girls apple juice so that they don’t get drunk and can focus on the job at hand. I shook my head in mock amusement. But, it was the price of my story, I figured.

She asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She laughed and asked me if I would ever write about her. I told her I would.

The funny thing is, it did not feel as if I was talking to a sex worker at all. The way we started speaking it was more like two acquaintances, or someone I’d meet in a hostel or on a bus tour.

The bar had a pole, and two girls in bikinis were going up and down the pole, each raunchier than the other. And though they were hardly dancing a metre ahead of me, I was least interested. Noi and I kept talking, now discussing her village and people in North Thailand.

The bartender asked me if I would like to pay a “bar fine”. A bar fine is when you want to take the bar girl with you back to your hotel or some place, and are willing to pay the bar a said amount for the night. I shook my head. Noi laughed and told the bartender that I was a writer and that I would write a story about her. Not surprisingly, the bartender, her friend, did not share her enthusiasm at all.

Noi, like many of the girls working in the bars of Pattaya and Phuket, originally hailed from North Thailand.  Living in a poor province, her parents had a small farm and lots of children. By the time, Noi was twenty she was madly in love with a local boy and married him. Over the next few years, they had two kids. Money was still hard to come by, and the all consuming love between husband and wife was now reduced to daily fights. His womanizing ways did not help matters and one day he left, never to return.  It is the story of most of these girls, not just hers. Noi tried to find work in the village but earned practically nothing. A friend told her about the bars in Pattaya and Phuket and soon both of them, left for this part of Thailand.

Enough western tourists come to Thailand every year. They  visit the bars, pick up  girls and often ask them to spend the entire holiday with them. Some of these foreigners , or falangs as  they are known in Thailand, would come for four five days, whereas others would come for a fortnight, a month or even longer. If they picked a bar girl for the holiday, they would treat her well, pay for her meals, go out, shop together and even buy her gifts. Of course, they would have sex too.

A lot of these men are lonely and want companionship. They want an ego boost – want a girl to find them good looking, want a girl to raise their self esteem. Sometimes, they even fall in love with the girl and take her back to their country and marry her. The girls, too, hope to fall in love with a falang and live in a rich country where she can have her own house and a better life. That’s the dream. Noi hoped too that she would fall in love with a nice Falang and that he would take her away with him.

Not every girl’s knight in shining armour is Prince Charming. Some are from different countries, some are almost her father’s age, some are lonely and some are just fooling her or being fooled by her.

The bartender was clearly not happy that we were just talking, and not even drinking, and asked me if I was done for the night.

I liked how Noi didn’t try to come on to me at all. It made me comfortable enough to crack jokes. She asked me if I would like to see her children’s photographs.  When I nodded, she took out her phone and showed me some pictures from her Facebook account. “Can I add you”, she asked hesitantly.

When I nodded, she looked happy and exclaimed, “now I will know when you write a post about me”. It’s been over a year, but I hope my post finds its way to her home page feed.

Another bar girl was walking up and down the aisle next to us. Every time a tourist crossed her, she tried to pull him to sit down at the bar with her, but they would all push her away. She took it good naturedly and would just flash us a grin or say something funny every time she was rejected. She had come to talk to us a couple of times and kept teasing me to go have sex with Noi. I told her that I wasn’t looking for that.

She was shorter than Noi. Her hair was a mixture of gold and brown, and the clothes she wore left very little to imagination. As one more guy brushed off her hand, and walked off, she came to us and in good humour,  pushed up her breasts to reveal a little more through the thin top and quipped “I’ll get the the next one!!”

I smiled at her, and pointed towards a guy strolling in our direction, and asked her to “go get him”. She laughed and left. To be honest, I can’t believe my mental state in those moments. Here were two women moving raunchily on a pole next to me, and another wearing close to nothing, and a fourth with whom I was sitting, and there wasn’t a single sexual feeling in me. The only emotions I felt were those of a friend. I wanted them to be able to get some guys to sit with them, because I knew that only then the bar would pay them anything.  Never ever in my life had I imagined I would be sitting talking to sex workers , talking about their families and asking one to “go get a guy”.

The truth is that behind those smiles, and makeup and flashy clothes, lay young girls who were mostly poor, who had to necessarily smile at any man of any size, shape, age and who had probably been ravaged and hurt by hundreds of men. They had to lie to their families about their “work life”, they were judged and looked down upon by those who knew what they did, and most Thai men would never marry them. Worst of all, their own souls had taken a huge emotional beating and been left scarred and a lot of innocence had been sucked out of their lives forever.

I asked Noi if she had ever been in love. She smiled, and nodded.  There had been a Brazilian guy she had fallen for a few months back. He was much younger than her, just 26 years old. They spent a happy month together, but he had maintained that he had no interest in marriage. When he flew back to his country later, he was sad to leave her. She cried for many days.

I left half an hour later. We hugged warmly and I wished her every happiness in life. She wished that I have a great trip ahead. I told her I’d send her a postcard.

The two girls on the pole were still gyrating, making seductive expressions but not being able to hide the absolute disinterestedness in their eyes. I walked out of Tiger Bar, and realized I had not taken down her address for the postcard. I walked back to where we had sat at the bar.

From afar, I noticed there was already a man sitting with her, and playing with her hair. I turned back and went to my hostel. I hope she made some money out of him.

------------------------  THE END ------------------------------------------

Now Read:

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3) In the House of the World's Only Living Goddess

Monday, November 9, 2015

India to Australia: Without Planes or Plans!

Experience and time changes the way we look at things.

Two years ago, when I first quit my job, I wanted to step out and see the world. I had read enough about travellers who had been backpacking and living life vicariously, in the moment, and sometimes even on the edge, and now I was giving myself the chance to do that.

Two and a half years and 31 countries later, I have started viewing travel differently. I was never much interested in just check-listing places. I don’t just want to see Paris and Barcelona and Budapest and Brazil and Machu Picchu and New Zealand. Instead, I want to be an adventurer, see how far I can stretch my comfort zones and  keep doing so.

And that is why, even though I have just returned from Europe after a two month trip, I find myself increasingly restless, and wanting to do something more significant than just exploring countries. After sitting in my room for the last three days, and taking turns at staring alternately at the world map and then the cracks in the ceiling, I hit upon an idea I possibly want to chase in 2016.

India to Australia, without taking a single flight
The moment the idea struck me yesterday, I opened the map to figure out the route. It looked fairly obvious. India -> Myanmar -> Thailand -> Malaysia -> Singapore -> Indonesia - > Australia.

Till Malaysia, there is an inland route, and there must be enough boats plying between Malaysia and Indonesia. The trickiest part, I figured, would be to find a way to go from Indonesia to Australia. Buoyed by the idea, I started searching online for cheap boats, ferries and yatchs that would go between the two countries but much to my chagrin, most forums and websites insisted that  (a) there are very few ships that travel between the two countries  (B) the ones that do are pretty expensive if you travel as a passenger (can cost anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1,50,000 for a 7-12 day one-way ride).

I delved deeper and searched some more, and found out that there are a few freighter ships and other vessels where you can work as a crew member and travel between the two countries.

Now, I have absolutely no prior experience in working on a boat, so the idea seemed quite farfetched even to me. But then I went through a few websites that connect ship/yatch/sailing boat owners with crew members as well as volunteers in all parts of the world. A few of the owners had posted job descriptions that mentioned that they weren’t necessarily looking for prior work experience on a boat, and it made my already over optimistic heart jump a little more.

I even wrote to one Australian guy who has a sailboat and wants to set sail in April 2016 and will be covering Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea before docking at Cairns in Australia. In my cheeky, irreverent mail to him, I let him know that though I did not know the first thing about sailing, what I could offer in plenty was enthusiasm, a desire to learn, trashy Bollywood music, and short spells of privacy where he could think about conquering the world while I sat at deck and wrote about the sea. In my over excited head, I could already picture magnificent sunsets, raging seas, migratory sea birds flying in the sky high above, whales and sharks revealing themselves to us for brief seconds,  lots of hard work and him cursing me crudely and loudly while I fumbled around.

Of course, it is childish to think that the very first person I write to will let me hop onboard. Maybe nobody will. But hopefully I can persevere and write to as many people as I can find, and some day I will see an email in my inbox that invites me to be a crew member on a boat sailing the Indian Ocean.

And if the boat sinks, well I'll anyway be going Down Under either way.

Next, I started reading about the road passageway from India to Myanmar.  I googled ‘Manipur Myanmar road passage’ and a variety of websites and blogs opened up.  Among these, came a fascinating blog about these two travellers – a man and a woman – who left their homes in October 2013 and since then have spent 511 days travelling through land, covering the length and breadth of Central Asia. Currently, in India’s North Eastern region, the most astounding part of their epic sojourn is that they have travelled the last one and a half years on an average budget of 3.30 Euros (Rs 250) per person per day.  These 3 odd euros include their accommodation, food and transport. Fascinated by their story, I opened post after post on their blog and read how they have been living in a tent, foraging for fruits and food in jungles, hitchhiking their way through countries, sitting in cramped and overpacked vans, trucks, dumpsters, and chronicling their journey, their trials, their changing thoughts in their blog.

This is how they describe themselves, 'Boris, Marta and Burma are two humans and one cat. Little and resilient, their average speed is of a few km per hour. Generally peaceful, they show a negligible level of aggression and so far have reported only two natural foes, namely gravitation and standstillSince October 2013 they are hitchhiking Asia from West to East, and after 511 days on the road they found their overland way to India. Now they roam the subcontient, drink tea, feast on vegetarian wonders, enjoy time with friends and write a little book of tales, while looking for a way back home.'


All the while when I was researching for my own proposed trip, one part of my head was telling me it was all wishful thinking. Or maybe just an impulsive idea that I would soon forget about. Or something that I may or may not be able to execute. But there was another voice that whispered, that over the last two years, there had been enough such thoughts which when they first came to my head seemed like mere fantasies I would never live through. But I had gone on to do them, even though I had not really burnt myself in the pursuit to do so.  When I read Boris’ and Marta’s stories, it just served as even more inspiration. There are so many people doing such wonderful, amazing things in the world. There are so many travellers doing such incredibly difficult things by my standards, that even my naturally narcissistic self cannot but stay grounded and humbled.

Over the last two years, there were many things I found intimidating the first time I experienced them. Even simple things like finding my way from the airport to my host’s house the first time, without internet, without taxi, and using public transport on the first day in a foreign country (especially where they don’t speak English) felt challenging.  The first time I was hitchhiking, this was between two towns in Albania, I appeared calm outwardly, but inside there were these constant questions pounding my brain, ‘What if no one actually stopped and offered me a ride! How many hours would I wait until quitting and taking a bus’. As I went past many such small challenges, subconsciously I became increasingly calmer in the face of new situations that followed thereafter. Over days and months, I started developing a sober confidence that every situation could be handled, and to not panic when one could not foresee an immediate solution. That there would always be a way.

It is with that thought in mind, I believe I can find a way to travel from Delhi to Darwin, or India to Australia, without taking a single flight. It is a whim, an impulsive desire, but it also has the backing of two years of travelling, of trying small but new things, and listening to hundreds of stories from backpackers like Boris and Martha who believe in the overall goodness of the world, who believe in the spirit of discovery, who do not blindly follow society’s conventional and security-first approach to everything, and who’s eyes shine brightly as  they look at the stars and the oceans and the mountains and the animals that live in this beautiful world.

Wish me luck!! And heh, if you know any sailor plying the Indian Ocean, put me in touch? :)

Now Read:

1) Walking in Mostar, Bosnia
2) Hitchhiking in Albania
3) The Art of Travelling: Nero in the Balkans