Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nana Entertainment Plaza

On my second trip through Bangkok I decided to avoid Khaosan, the tourist carnival, and instead stay in Sukhumvit, which turned out to be right next to Nana Entertainment Plaza, one of Bangkok's centers of sex tourism.

The first thing I noticed about the Atlanta Hotel was its huge sign proclaiming "Sex Tourists Not Welcome."

The Atlanta, established in 1952, long before the sex tourism industry sprung up around it, still retains its original decor.

Note the cat in the lobby.

Two blocks away, Nana Entertainment Plaza offers three floors of go-go bars and sex shows across the street from hotels that rent rooms by the hour.

Walking through the area I noticed that 9 out of 10 westerners on the street were men. The go-go dancers were mostly young women and men from Isan, Thailand's poor agricultural region in the northeast. Khon Kaen, where Allison and I had attended the silk festival two weeks earlier, is in Isan.

Despite its seedy surroundings, the Atlanta Hotel proclaims itself a "bastion of wholesome tourism" and has plentiful signs warning that "sex tourists, junkies and other degenerates" will be expelled from the premises. The signs further explain that those who must engage prostitutes should do so in their own countries, rather than causing emotional damage in developing countries where their only advantage is a favorable exchange rate.

It so happens that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray Love," has stayed at the Atlanta, and an autographed copy of her book was on display.

After watching local people do aerobics in a park and then seeing a wholesome traditional Thai puppet show, I decided that, solely for the benefit of my readers, I should check out the goings on in Nana Entertainment Plaza (NEP). At first I hesitated near the entrance, a bit afraid to go inside. A stream of somewhat scruffy-looking white men was going inside and, as it was early in the night, a trickle of white men was crossing the street toward the hourly hotels, each with a young Thai woman in hand.

Many women in shorts and high heels were loitering near the entrance of NEP, presumably trying to pick up work. Not wanting to linger with these freelance women any longer, but wanting to observe more of what was happening at NEP, I decided I had better conquer my fears and go inside. Just then, I noticed a group of eight clean-cut young Americans (including two women) who looked very out of place and I immediately guessed that they were Christian missionaries of some sort. They were having a last minute meeting outside the entrance of NEP, and their leader was saying "look for people who are drunk or lonely."

The missionaries then quickly filed into NEP, and I filed in behind them. We quickly circumnavigated the first level, which consisted of hostess bars where not-so-hot-looking western men were coupled with hot-looking Thai women, having drinks together and looking quite bored, really.

Following the Christians, I climbed the stairs to the second level. There, they convened into another meeting and I continued exploring on my own. Level two of NEP consisted of go-go bars with topless dancers. In one, called Spanky's, the customers were invited to smack the dancers' G-stringed bottoms with a foam "noodle" such as children would use in a swimming pool.

In some of the bars the dancers are "lady boys," as they say in Thailand.

Everything I know about go-go bars I learned from a book I recently read called "Bangkok Boy," an autobiography by a young Thai man who spent many years working as a go-go dancer and prostitute. The bars pay the dancers, but the dancers make their real money when a customer buys them. The customer pays a "fine" to the bar for robbing the bar of a dancer, and then disappears to a nearby hotel with the dancer, and pays the dancer's fee for whatever ensues.

The third floor of NEP seemed to be more of the same, including a bar where customers can ride a mechanical bull with a lady boy, trying to remove her bikini while staying on the bull.

After taking a moment to snap a couple of pictures and then watch the stray cats snatching discarded food and devouring it in the dirty corners of NEP, I exited and went back onto the street.

Among the loitering prostitutes, the missionaries were standing around and I decided to chat with them. They were doing a survey of the Western men who were visiting NEP. I listened in on their surveys, and even interpreted a bit when they interviewed a tourist from Spain, but the surveys didn't turn out to be that interesting as they inevitably resulted in an argument between the missionaries and the tourist about religion or about the morality of prostitution.

A plain-looking but seemingly intelligent and well-spoken American man passionately explained his gnostic beliefs, and then said that he visits NEP because he likes sex. I guess that would pretty well sum it up for most of the men being entertained at NEP that night.

Having glimpsed a world I don't usually see, I went back to my zero-tolerance-for-sex-tourists hotel and packed my backpack for my early morning flight back to Tokyo.

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