It is the 8th of May, 2003, and my friend Mia and I are in Bangkok. I am 21 years old; Mia is 24. It is the first time either of us have been sent abroad on a business trip and, despite having been in the city for nearly a week, both of us have remained giddy to the point of embarrassment.
We have, by this point, dutifully and systematically explored the majority of the city’s principal attractions (most of them involving assorted Buddhas in diverse positions). One more remains on our list though, and when evening falls, we set out for the most notorious of Bangkok’s districts.
It takes us thirty minutes of aimless wandering before a local sidles up to Mia and asks her if want to see a “ping pong” show. Both of us are clear that this is not an athletic contest involving a table and two paddles. We look at each other for a moment, then turn to the man and nod.
He leads us through a series of grim and grimy streets before finally stopping in front of an establishment with a sign proclaiming it as the S-per P-ssy. (They service the Justice League, our friend Celine would tell us later on.)
The carpeted blue steps leading up to the second floor look positively venereal. I briefly consider throwing my sneakers away when the trip is over. And the first thing we see when we enter the upper hall is a naked stage with a naked pole and next to the naked pole an utterly naked woman. It is the first time in my adult life that I am confronted so suddenly and directly by nudity. The shock of the encounter leaves me dazed for the rest of the evening.
It takes only five minutes before Mia determines the hierarchy amongst the performers. The younger, fairer, prettier girls cater to the needs of the male foreigners (Mia and I are given our Cokes and then perfunctorily abandoned). The older, darker, plainer girls strip on stage and alternate between desultory gyrations and acrobatic feats.
(Mia and I witness a mind-numbing number of these stunts, including but not limited to: pulling out a ribbon; pulling out a ribbon with flowers attached; pulling out a ribbon with needles attached; pulling out a ribbon with razors attached; blowing a whistle; blowing a horn; blowing a dart gun; using the dart gun to explode a couple of balloons—the evening’s performer misses only one; gripping a cigarette; smoking the cigarette; gripping a pen; using the pen to write a “Welcome to Patpong” sign; gripping a sparkler; unscrewing a beer bottle; gripping a pair of chop sticks; using the chop sticks to pick up hoops on the floor and drop them around the neck of the opened bottle; and, the coup de grâce, shooting out a couple of ping pong balls—I am almost hit by one.)
Mia and I pass the evening alternating between shock and awe. What has us finally conclude the evening, on a decidedly pensive note, is the tragic air of one of the girls on stage. She had none of the brazen defiance of her colleagues and had carried on with a sad dignity completely at odds with her profession. After watching her cover herself hurriedly after yet another trick, Mia and I decide to call it a night.
It’s only 3 a.m. on the 9th of May, 2003, and barely 24 hours have elapsed since our previous day began. But the time that’s passed feels infinitely longer.