Famous for all the Wrong Reasons
Patpong is a small area of Bangkok that is famous for all the wrong reasons. It consists of just a couple of roads and a few alleyways that are home to a night market and a red light district. Just a couple of blocks away is the gay bar area of Bangkok. These disparate elements are held within the wider area of Silom which is regarded as the heart of the new high-tech economy of Thailand.
The Red Light Area
Lady Gaga famously got shunned by the Thai media as she touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport when she tweeted that she couldn't wait to buy a fake Rolex watch. She was, of course, referring to Patpong Night Market. Here fake branded goods such as watches, football tops and designer women's bags and purses are sold fairly cheaply. It is avowed by the authorities that the market has been 'cleaned up' and that they are cracking down on copyright infringements. That doesn't appear to be the case. You can imagine how the market and the coppers form an odd and mutually beneficial relationship.
The market itself is quite good fun to visit, especially when you don't want to buy anything. You can wander down the lines of street stalls and watch the tourists attempt to haggle with the hardnosed stall holders. If you are a straight man you will have to try hard not to notice the neon sign for 'super pussy' and the suchlike. It really is a surreal experience.
In some ways the night market at Patpong is the victim of its own success. The more tourists attending means more tea money for the cops which means higher prices for the goods. You can purchase much of what is on display cheaper at other markets around the city.
I don't think Lady Gaga went to the red light district of Patpong. If she did, I don't think she would have been keen to perform. And indeed the performances put on every night by the girls working in Patpong make Lady Gaga's stage antics look like a scout picnic on a Sunday.
Patpong is the place where mostly men go to watch the infamous 'ping pong' shows. At these shows women run through a menu of gynaecological tricks involving ping pong balls, coke bottles, flags and other assorted items. It might seem like fun entertainment for the largely male foreign audience but some of the tricks are extremely dangerous as well as degrading.
Several touts work the streets trying to lure tourists into to see 'shows' promising to be more lurid and authentic than the walk in shows down the street. Once the victims are seated with a drink in some upstairs hideaway they soon discover they have been conned and need to pay 1,000 Thai Baht to exit the premises.
The go-go bars down Patpong 1 and 2 have similar names - King's Castle, Queen's Castle, King's Corner. The area is owned by one family, and it seems they are sticking with a winning formula.
The various go-go bars offer girls dancing next to poles and the option to take-away. Bizarrely enough in a couple of go-go bars, in what you would think would be a bastion of heterosexuality, there are noticeably high proportions of ladyboys blending in with the cisgender working girls. Obviously some men want pre and post op transgender relations, and equally obviously, some men are 'tricked' into an experience they hadn't expected. Cue the reference to the final Hangover movie set in Bangkok.
The rainbow nature of Patpong area becomes apparent down soi 2 and soi 4. Here you will find places like Telephone, The Balcony, DJ Station, G.O.D and The Stranger Bar. They are all gay bars where men in Thailand need not fear social castigation for their predilections. It is a conservative country where mores remain drawn from Buddhism. These bars also host plenty of professionals and a few lesbians.
Since the latest coup in May 2014, the new authority has been keen to take a harder line with the black market. They clamped down on various rackets such as the jet ski scam, the illegal beach lounger permit culture and developers encroaching on park land. There have been noises about more policing for the red light districts and possible curfews. Patpong as well as Soi Cowboy in Sukhumvit and other seedy night spots have gone largely unaffected.
Patpong is surrounded by Silom. It means windmill and has over the last decade become the money centre of the capital with new skyscrapers containing the headquarters of banks and insurance companies.
Silom is known as the 'Wall Street of Thailand'. It represents corporate culture and spearheads Thailand's attempts to develop a new economy not dependent on low-skilled low wages, the black market and backpacker tourism.
Who would have thought that down the road from corporate HQs would be neon lit streets full of men up to no good? Here are the two sides of Thailand's economy.
Just as with pressure coming from America and big corporates for the police to clean up the night market, there is pressure from important elements in Thai society to 'clean' up the sex trade in Patpong. Since that hasn't happened they will also have to reconsider Patpong.