We were intrigued by one bar, whose entrance was filled with 8 or 9 (fully-dressed) girls dancing energetically to a fantastic soundtrack of the Buzzcocks, Fine Young Cannibals, David Bowie (yeah!), Blondie, The Rolling Stones and, um, The Cheeky Girls, and cat-calling "Hey handscome! Come inside!" or to their regulars "Hey Simon!"
They invited us to sit inside. We sat at the bar, ordered Thai whiskies and vodkas, and watched the girls entice in a variety of English men, a number of whom appeared to be regulars. The female bar keeper was very friendly and told us that she and most of the girls were from Isaan -- a poor northeastern region of Thailand that had been renowned for its prostitution services to American service men on R 'n' R leave during the Vietnam War. Most of them had been previously married to Thai men and had children now being looked after by their grandparents in Isaan.
She told us that a girl for the night costs 1000 Baht or around 25 US dollars, plus a 200 Baht or 5 dollar bar fine. As she chatted to us, we watched as the girls -- all around 18 to 24 years -- and their Western clients disappeared down a sidestreet across from the bar and into a private room.
The bar keeper and the other girls had no problem with us just hanging out and chatting with them, and even urged us to dance with them. Later on a couple of Western girls dropped by for a drink and a chat with the girls who were delighted to see them. In fact, the girls danced and chatted amongst themselves during quiet moments as if they were just hanging out on a girls night out. At one point street seller entered the bar with some clothes for sale. The girls took great delight in trying them on before buying. When a blind woman came begging, singing into her amplified mic, the girls rushed to give her their small change. At the beginning of her shift, a girl arrived and bowed quietly and joined her two hands together in respect before a small Buddha shrine on the wall by the bar.
The bar keeper showed us some photos of the girls dressed in traditional costume from last year and pointed out all those who had gone abroad -- to Sweden, Norway and Switzerland -- with their farang boyfriends. She herself had a boyfriend from London who visited her 3 or 4 times a year, but she had never been abroad.
The guys who came in ranged from friendly, white-haired English and Scottish men who were very popular with the girls and spent their time drinking and flirting, to other elderly men who dropped in for a drink with their much younger Thai girlfriends who were former bar employees, to single young men intent on business, who didn't even stop for a drink but quickly disappeared with a girl, and to gangs of burly intimidating tattooed men in their thirties on a rowdy and drunken lad's night out who the girls seemed keen to avoid, passing them off to two of the newest girls so that they could continue chatting and dancing and wait for better clients.
The bar is owned by a Thai woman and her English husband. They came by halfway through the evening: the woman to supervise the girls and the man to chat away in his strong Cockney accent with the customers (though interestingly we didn't get more than a "Hi", though we probably didn't look like their typical customer!).
I have to admit, several hours of being surrounded by such tiny, pretty, young and flirtacious girls put enough of a dent in my own sense of femininity, self-esteem and self-confidence that I had to leave.
There has been lots of analysis of this type of prostitution and sex tourism, but what was interesting for me as a woman was to be able to chat with the girls involved and to see it in action (more or less) with my own eyes. A powerful experience I will not forget.