There is no denying that the go-go bars, girly bars and sex shows are a very visible aspect of the nightlife in Patong and to a lesser extent Karon and Kata. In this section we will not attempt to judge the sex industry or the people involved. It is a complicated issue so we only try to describe it to give you an understanding of what is going on.
Some people find the girly bars distasteful. For others it is all part of the colour and vibrancy of the nightlife scene, while for some it is the main reason for coming to Phuket. The sex tourism sector in Phuket is nowhere near the scale of Bangkok or Pattaya but it is still an attraction for a large number of visitors and a major part of the tourist industry.
You do not need to be an active participant to go to the go-go bars. Couples, families and tour groups mingle with the sex tourists wandering around the bars. For many visitors to Thailand, a visit to a go-go bar or sex show is on their must do list. If you are not offended then it is a great place to drink and people-watch. Everyone is welcome in the bars. If you go as a couple or make it clear that you do not want the attention of the girls then they will leave you alone (eventually). However if you want to talk to the girls in the beer bars they will be happy to have a chat or play bar games such as connect-four or dice games. If you want to reward them for their time, then buy them a drink or give a tip.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand. Strange then, that it is so openly on display in the major tourist destinations. The thing is, it is a huge money earner for Thailand. Sex tourism brings in vast numbers of visitors from all over the world and a huge amount of foreign currency. There are many influential business figures involved and of course, many poor girls reliant on the money they make from the industry. The unofficial attitude taken by the authorities is that as long as nobody is hurt and it is a transaction between two consulting adults, then they will turn a blind eye. They will take a very dim view of anyone caught engaging in under age sex. The normal age of consent in Thailand is 15. However, in one of those strange Thai contradictions, although prostitution is illegal they still have a separate age of consent for prostitutes, which is 18.
Prostitution in Thailand has never been limited to the tourist resorts. In fact, this is a recent development. Almost every town in Thailand has brothels, although much more discreet than those in the tourist towns. The majority of prostitution in Thailand takes place between Thais and it is common for Thai men to visit brothels. The emergence of sex tourism in Thailand started with the arrival of American servicemen from the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Pattaya became a favourite destination for the GIs. They soon discovered the charms of the local girls and a new industry was born in Thailand.
Prostitution in Phuket has no significant connection with pimps or human traffickers. These things do happen in Thailand but normally this involves sending girls to work in brothels abroad. The girls in Phuket are mostly Thai and mostly working by choice – although probably through force of circumstance.
The majority of women working in the tourist sex industry come from the area of Thailand known as Isaan. This is the northeast of Thailand and is the agricultural heartland of the country. It is the largest and poorest region of Thailand where the average wage is only 3000 baht a month (approx $90 US). It is also the region where traditions are strongest. Family ties are important throughout Thailand but in Isaan parents drill it into their children from an early age that it is their duty above all else to take care of the family, and especially to provide for the parents in their old age.
The women generally come from poor farming communities and many have received little education. When poor families in Isaan no longer have enough money to keep all their children in school, they will give priority to educating their boys while sending the girls out to work. The girls may have started working on farms or in factories from as early as eleven years old.
There is a common perception that girls working in Thailand’s sex industry start at a young age. A significant percentage of the girls in Phuket are in their late teens or early twenties. However, perhaps a more common story is that the girl had a relationship with a young Thai man in her village, they had children together and then the relationship broke down. Now she finds herself in her mid twenties trying to meet the demands of supporting her children and her parents. The financial burden is too much to bear so she leaves her children with her parents and follows the worn trail to Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket.
Everyone in the girl’s village knows how young women make good money in the tourist towns. The family will make a pretence that the young woman has gone to work in a hotel or restaurant and that way they will maintain face in the village. In the meantime, the young woman will find her way into the sex industry where, if she is attractive enough, she can earn 1,000-baht a night or more compared to the 3,000-baht a month she would earn working on a farm in Isaan.
As long as she is sending back enough money to support the family, she will be seen as a good daughter doing her duty. Hopefully, after a couple of years in the industry she will save enough money to return to the village and raise her children. Some women find foreign husbands and achieve a level of financial security they could not have dreamed of in Isaan.
The other side of the coin is that many women never get out of the sex industry. They do not make enough money or they lose all they earn on drugs, gambling or supporting Thai boyfriends. Some will suffer health problems such as venereal disease, drug addiction, mental disorders, and even hearing problems from constant exposure to loud music.
Of course, these are all generalisations. Every girl has her own story. For some the sex industry is their downfall and for others their salvation.
Thai women seem to hold great appeal in the sex industry. They have become something of an industry standard and are sent to work in brothels all over the world, often under awful conditions. Sometimes, their own families sell them to brothel owners. It is shocking to us that parents could do such a thing to their daughters but they are living by a very different set of standards. Even the sold girls will often believe they are doing the right thing for their family.
It is easy to see the appeal of Thai women. They are often petite and slim. They tend to have good complexions, silky black hair and big brown eyes. In addition, they are fun. Probably not, if they are working in a squalid brothel in a foreign country but generally, Thai women are lively and entertaining.
We have previously stated that the majority of prostitution in Thailand takes place between Thais. Of course, in the tourist towns such as Phuket, the majority of customers are foreigners.
A common perception is that the customers are sad men, perhaps old, unattractive or lacking personality. While this may be true of some, the truth is that it is very difficult to generalise. The customers come from all walks of life, age groups and backgrounds.
They come from all over the world. The most common nationalities are European, American and Australian. There is also a good representation from other Asian countries such as Japan and the Middle East.
The majority of customers are men but a small percentage are women who come looking for male or female company.
Some customers fit the stereotype of aging, unattractive men picking up beautiful young Thai women. However, many others are young men partying and taking advantage of the readily available female company. There are also many very wealthy customers. It is not unusual to hear of yachts arriving in the bay and taking girls on board to party.
How it Works in Phuket
The sex industry has its own set of terminology with phrases such as ‘beer bar’, ‘go-go bar’, ‘mamasan’, ‘lady drink’, ‘bar fine’, ‘short time’, ‘long time’, ‘GFE’, ‘freelancer’, ‘butterfly’ and many more.
Beer Bar – these are simple open sided bars often grouped in complexes. Most of these complexes are in the sois (side streets) off Bangla Road in Patong. There are stools around the bar and there are usually a couple of poles on the bar for the girls to dance round. The customers stroll around the complex until they choose a bar or are dragged to a bar by the girls working there. The girls will then try to sell themselves to the customer by talking to him or entertaining him with bar games. Typical games are connect-four, dice games, block tower building and hammering nails into a block of wood race.
Go-Go Bar – these are indoor bars where the girls dance on stages or on the bar. The girls usually wear bikinis – they are no longer allowed to dance topless although it may still happen if the bar thinks the authorities are not taking notice. The girls have numbers and customers can request a girl they like by number.
Mamasan – a woman who manages the girls working in a bar. Only the big bars and go-gos will have a Mamasan. She will be an older woman who demands respect from the younger girls. She will be responsible for recruiting new girls, making sure the girls work well and liaising with customers.
Lady Drink – a drink that a customer buys for a girl. These will usually cost 30-90 baht above the normal bar price. The bar pays the extra to the girl as reward for selling the drink. Effectively, you are not only buying the girl a drink but also giving her a tip.
Bar Fine – the fee charged by a bar for taking a girl from that establishment. The beer bars charge between 300 to 500 baht. This money is for the bar – seen as an introduction fee and recompense for the bar losing a worker for the night. The bar may pay a percentage of the bar fine to the girl but the customer still needs to pay the girl for her company. The go-gos charge higher bar fines. Some go-gos will ask for 3000 baht or more but this also includes the payment to the girl so the customer does not need to pay her directly
Short Time – the customer takes a girl to a nearby room for a ‘short time’. The beer bar complexes and go-go bars often have short time rooms at the back of the premises. The customer will pay a bar fine, a charge for the room and an agreed price to the girl for her services (500 to 1,000-baht). When they are finished, the girl will return to work while the customer moves on to his next port of call.
Long Time – the customer will take the girl for the night (a ‘long time’) usually back to his hotel room. The payment to the girl is normally 1,000 to 2,000-baht. Some of the more up-market hotels do not allow overnight guests while others will charge a guest fee. (See the bottom of the page for some ‘guest friendly’ hotels.)
GFE – Girl Friend Experience. This is where the man takes the girl for the full length of his holiday and treats her like his girlfriend. The girl will act as a companion and guide. They will go to restaurants together, take day trips together and generally act like boyfriend and girlfriend. Of course, the girl is still working and the man pays for everything and pays the girl for her time. The bar where the girl works will probably expect to receive a bar fine for every day the girl stays with the man. Many a romance has blossomed from the GFE and sometimes it develops into the WE (wife experience). This may be followed by the divorce experience and the going home with no money experience.
Freelancer – a girl that does not work from a specific bar. These girls will pick up customers at nightclubs or off the street hence saving the customer paying a bar fine. Freelancers are often attractive girls who are confident they can pick up men without the advantage of a work base. They may therefore charge more than bar girls. They are also considered less trustworthy as they are harder to track down later in cases of theft from the customer.
Butterfly – someone, male or female, who flits around from one partner to the next.
Bangla Road in Patong is the heart of the tourist sex industry in Phuket. This is where you will find the great mass of beer bars and go-gos.
Soi Easy, Soi Gonzo, Soi Crocodile, Soi Eric, Soi Lion and Tiger Complex are all beer bar complexes.
Soi Seadragon is a wider soi with beer bars down the middle and larger bars on each side. This soi has some go-gos and is also the location of the sex shows with ping-pong balls, darts, etc. This soi also has a number of normal bars with live music.
Other go-gos are dotted around Bangla. The most well known is Rock Hard a Go Go at the top of the road.
There are also a variety of normal venues in and around Soi Bangla with live music, sports screens, pool tables and food.
The line of bars on the road from Moon Bar down to Ned Kelly’s are popular drinking spots to watch the action on Bangla Road. Most of these bars do have working girls but because they are on the street, they are less obvious about wrapping themselves around poles and pushing themselves on potential customers. Many tourists drink at these bars to people-watch.
The discos such as Tiger, Tai Pan, VIP and Banana are not actively engaged in the sex industry. However, there will be girls freelancing at these bars and men looking for them.
Other Sex Tourism Locations
Apart from Bangla, there are a few other beer bar complexes. In Patong, there is Soi Sukhumvit on Rat-U-Thit Road north of Bangla. There is another Beer Bar complex on the Beach Road north of Bangla before the Thara Patong Hotel. In Karon there is the bar area above the Karon Circle at the north of the town.
In Phuket Town, the sex venues are more Asian Style. There is the infamous Soi 11 off Phun Phon Road. Here the girls sit in rows in shop front windows. Customers select a girl and take her to one of the rooms upstairs.
The more refined Asian customers will go to the karaoke venues such as Pink Lady. These are not the simple karaoke bars that many Thais like to visit to drink beer, eat food and sing songs. These are plusher venues where the girls sing songs on a stage and the customers buy them flowers as a reward.
There are two very plush venues on Montree Road. There is the Pink Lady Cafe at the base of the Metropole Hotel and a little further up the road is Fantasia. Both these venues have good stage shows that are worth a visit even if you are not looking for a girl. They do of course have girls, lots of girls and they are generally more beautiful than their Patong counterparts. Drink prices at these venues are high but not exorbitant.
The latest girly bar fad is Coyote dancing. This is a more energetic and provocative dancing style than the go-go bars where the girls tend to just drape themselves around the pole. There is a coyote dancing club on Phang Nga Road near the bus station.
The main gay area is Soi Paradise in Patong off Rat-U-Thit Road a little north of Bangla Road. It is next to the Royal Paradise Hotel Tower, which is one of the tallest buildings in Patong. There are gay bars, gay cabarets and gay guesthouses. This area also caters to straight women. Some of the boys working in the gay bars are not actually gay and are happy to go with female customers.
You do not need to be gay to visit Soi Paradise. It is a very colourful area and some of the gay cabarets are worth a look.
Known in Thai by the jokey term ‘katoey’. You may also hear them called ladymen, he-males or she-males. Katoeys are of course men who look like women. Some have had varying degrees of gender altering surgery. Some take hormones to increase their female attributes. Some just dress and make up as females. While some (like the three in the photo) are easy to spot, there are others that make very attractive women and if you saw them in the street, you really would not know they were men. There are many stories of men picking up women in bars only to find when they get back to their hotel that she is in fact a he. These are not just legends – it really does happen.
Katoeys have become something of a tourist attraction. In Bangla Road, you can see them at the entrance to Soi Crocodile, which is often referred to as Soi Katoey. Many tourists come to drink at one of the surrounding beer bars while watching the katoeys dance on the tables. You can take a photo with the katoeys but remember to pay them a tip – they are notoriously spiteful if they feel cheated.
There are also a couple of katoey bars and a katoey cabaret at the back of Soi Crocodile.
Another place to see katoeys is Simon Cabaret at the south end of Patong on the road to Karon. It is a simple but well-done cabaret show with katoeys dressed in spectacular costumes and miming to a range of songs. You will be amazed at just how convincing some of them are.
You can also see katoeys in the gay area of Patong at Soi Paradise.
Many massage parlours are just that – places to get a good massage. Most massage parlours will give just a massage if that is what the customer wants but some also offer extra services (a massage with a ‘happy ending’). Open-air massages and massage parlours where the customers are separated by curtains will only offer massage. Massage parlours that provide a private room may well offer extra services.
The most well known massage parlour offering extra services is Christin Massage – a big pink building on Rat-U-Thit Road south of Bangla. This massage parlour is just a higher-end sex venue. The girls sit behind a glass screen for the customer’s selection. The selected girl then takes the customer to a comfortable private room for a soap bath, massage and of course, ‘extra services’.
For those participating in sex tourism – caution is advised.
Always wear a condom – it is just not worth the risk. If you do not have a condom then the girl should have one.
Remember no matter how lovely the girl may seem, she is working in an industry that is likely to corrupt. When the girls first arrive in Phuket, they are usually well-mannered, Thai country folk. However, they very quickly learn the tricks of the trade. And above all else, they are working for money.
If you take a girl back to your hotel then many hotel receptions will ask to see the girls ID card. They do this to protect you from possible crime committed by the girl. Theft is the main danger. You go to the shower and she takes your wallet and leaves. You go to sleep and she takes your valuables and is gone. You are not looking and she takes your jewelry before kissing you good-bye. Remember if the girl knows you are on holiday for two weeks, then she can disappear for two weeks. If you take a girl from a beer bar or go-go she will be easier to trace but it is no guarantee. You could consider asking to see the girls ID yourself. It might not be romantic or charming but let’s face it, this is not romance. Take a note of the number and you can also check her date of birth to ensure she is over 18 (subtract 543 from the Thai year).
There have been stories from Bangkok and Pattaya of girls doping customers. The last thing the customer remembers is having a drink with a girl and the next thing he knows he is waking up with a stunning headache and his valuables gone. There have been unconfirmed reports of this happening in Phuket. Men are often reluctant to report these crimes so there is no knowing how prevalent this is in Phuket. We are not convinced this has ever happened Phuket and if it does, it is certainly not common. Still it is a good idea to keep an eye on your drinks if you are with a girl you do not know..
Theft from customers is not the most common scam. The girls know they can make much more money if the customer gives it voluntarily. The sob stories the girls tell their customers are brilliant heart-tugging tales of woe designed to elicit sympathy. The punch line will invariably be that she needs to make big money to pay for someone’s hospital care or to save her family from starvation. The old-hands call them sick buffalo stories and treat them with great scepticism. In fact, there is often an element of truth to the stories. The girls do come from poor backgrounds and their families are often suffering hardship. That does not mean the final punch line for money is true or that you have any responsibility to pay.
Another common scam is the girl will tell the man she will stop working in bars and be faithful to him, if he can send her money. The man will then go home and send the girl regular payments thinking he is keeping her out of the bar. Many of the girls have several western boyfriends on the go at the same time sending money and they are still making more money from new customers in their bars.
It is not fair to portray all the girls as scam masters. Many are honest, hard working girls trying to make a living as best they can. Lots of western men have married Thai girls they met in bars and are very happy. However, the sex industry is a corrupting influence and you should be on your guard. There are no hard-and-fast rules – every girl is different and should be judged individually. A good dose of cynicism is sensible.
Guest Friendly Hotels
Some hotels will not allow ‘overnight guests’. Many others charge a guest fee or joiner fee (anywhere from 300-baht to 3000-baht, depending on the hotel). Hotels and guesthouses that allow overnight guests and do not charge a guest fee are referred to by the punters as ‘guest friendly’. The smaller hotels and guest houses are more likely to be guest friendly than the major hotels. Below are a few recommendations for nice, centrally located hotels that are guest friendly and can be booked over the internet (make sure you book a double room).