No comprehensive and candid guide to Phuket would be complete without mentioning bar girls and the established and sizeable sex tourism industry that thrives within Thailand. It’s no secret that sex is readily available on sale all over the country, especially to affluent tourists that have money to spend whilst on holiday. This has undoubtedly contributed to the country’s rather notorious reputation abroad and is perhaps one that Thailand prefers to downplay. Conversely, the very availability of bar girls and sex is one that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from all over the world, and contributes in no small measure to Thailand’s economy.
Many tourists will happily admit that they visit Thailand not only to enjoy the stunning beaches, tropical sun and attractive scenery, but to spend a few nights with a beautiful, exotic and attentive Asian woman. Undeniably, some people find its pervasiveness distasteful or unacceptable, but it’s a unique part of Thai and Asian culture and can easily be avoided or simply ignored. However, nearly everywhere you go, you are certain to see Thai women accompanying western men, either acting as temporary girlfriends or just for a mutually agreed short term relationship.
Sex in Thailand
Popular destinations such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket have a well deserved reputation for their wild and heady nightlife, and a thriving sex industry with plenty of girly bars, go-go clubs, massage parlours and brothels. One important observation is that the sex industry in Thailand is in stark contrast to those that exist in most European countries, such as the famous red light district in Amsterdam. In Thailand, it’s rather more low key and relaxed (except in places such as Pattaya where it’s particularly overt!), and despite not being hidden away, it seems to be more socially acceptable; visitors need not be embarrassed or ashamed to be seen with bar girls and prostitutes in public, or when spotted leaving massage parlours with a huge grin on their face!
In Thailand, the very definition of a prostitute is somewhat blurred and doesn’t really fit into a westerner’s traditional view of a sex worker and what that way of life entails. Many bar girls work nightly in a “beer bar” to entertain and chat with the customers or simply to serve drinks, but they are mostly free to come and go as they please and are rarely controlled by anyone, except owing some allegiance to the bar’s boss or mamasan who is supposed to act more like a mother or older sister. On the whole, they are simply independent girls that can choose where they wish to work. Even many ordinary women with respectable day jobs frequent the bars, discos and clubs at night to find a paying “customer”. Ultimately, there is little distinction between bar girls, freelancers, and prostitutes in Thailand.
Many bar girls come from the very poorest and rural regions in Thailand including Isaan in the northeast, and will regularly send money home to help support their family. These girls typically have very little education and few prospects to earn a decent salary by any other means. Instead, they travel to busy towns such as Pattaya and Phuket, where they can expect to make much more money than they could back home. However, this is not always the case as there is inevitably much competition between girls, and the most attractive and mercenary ones can usually make the most cash. Their earnings come from tips for lady-drinks, a share of the bar fine, and money given by customers for any additional services.
Bar Girl Traits
Bar girls on the whole seem to exhibit some rather consistent behaviour and character traits, regardless of whether they’re from Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya or elsewhere. At the risk of sweeping generalisations, it’s fair to say that the vast majority can be spotted only at night, and rarely wakeup before mid-afternoon when they congregate bleary-eyed in small groups to eat papaya salad and other Isaan specialities, or simply to watch Thai soaps on TV. They are also excellent pool players because they have ample free time to practice, and can easily beat anyone at Connect 4 and other bar games, such as whacking a nail into a tree stump, which is a particular favourite in Phuket’s bars for some reason. Occasionally, bar girls are spotted in the early morning, but they tend to be wearing yesterday’s skimpy outfit and are simply returning home from last night’s customer.
Another important bar girl habit is to text each of their foreign boyfriends during the daytime, perhaps to request more money to be transferred to their bank account, and to assure him that he is their one and only darling. The girls usually start in the industry with very poor English language skills, but many improve quickly with time and experience. The lucky ones that have had several long term farang (western) boyfriends will inevitably have the best command of English, but tend to be hardened and more likely to treat a relationship as strictly a financial one. When night comes, many are transformed into the most sexy and engaging hosts you can imagine, and can always provide a few laughs especially when the drinks are flowing.
Bar Girl Conversation
Conversation with many bar girls, especially those with limited language skills, might consist of only a few predictable and unimaginable questions such as “where you come from?”, “can you buy me a drink?”, and “you come here alone?”. In Phuket there doesn’t seem to be quite the same heckling of passers by as there are in other places, but it depends on the time of day, the tourist season, and how many customers there are. Phuket’s massage girls that line Rat-U-Thit Road seem to be the most persistent and try their best to pull guys in off the street.
Foreigners that can speak Thai to any reasonable extent should already know there is often much more to bar girls than meets the eye. Most of them are a good natured, fun-loving bunch that have fallen on some hard times in the past, and are earning good money perhaps the only way they can. It’s certainly more lucrative than a menial factory job or working in the rice fields back home.
Phuket’s Girly Bars
The majority of Phuket’s bar girls work in and around Patong Beach, as that’s where the tourists are concentrated and hence where they can make the most money. The action is centred on the proliferation of bars along the world famous Bangla Road and the small lanes that lead off it, that have imaginative and memorable names such as Soi Easy, Soi Gonzo, Soi Crocodile and Soi Sea Dragon. Here, you’ll find thousands of bar girls (and a few ladyboys – big hands and tall, but often quite convincingly elegant) working in the hundreds of tiny bars, which are usually open air affairs with loud music and pink lights, with poles strategically placed around the bar, and a dozen or so attractive girls in skimpy outfits wiggling provocatively and shouting persuasive comments such as “handsome man!”, “I like you!”, “where you go?”, and “I go with you!”. Inexplicably, every foreign man suddenly becomes remarkably attractive whilst on holiday in Thailand.
Bangla Road itself is a magnet for hundreds of freelance bar girls that ply their trade in the street. They will often approach you and suggest that you take them home, but be careful because despite appearances, many of these girls are actually ladyboys! Moreover, if a bar girl accompanies you home and steals anything, it’s unlikely you’ll have any recourse and it’s quite possible you will never be able to find her (or him) again.
Around Patong Beach, another popular bar girl hangout are the bars in Soi San Sabai, which is close to the bottom end of Bangla Road just across the main Rat-U-Thit Road. Further from the centre of town, there are many more girly bars spread out along the main streets such as Na Nai Road in the eastern side of town. Since there aren’t as nearly as many customers in such places, usually there are only a handful of girls. Around the rest of Phuket in places such as Karon, Kata and Phuket Town, bar girls can still be found in small bars and karaoke joints, but there is nowhere near the concentration and blatant exhibitionism on display as at Patong Beach.
In Phuket just as elsewhere, there is a modest fee called the bar fine to take a girl from a bar for just a few hours or even the whole evening. In Phuket, this price is typically between 300 and 600 baht, depending on the bar and even how attractive the girl is. The girl will also expect a generous tip to take her home for the night, which can range anywhere from 1000 to 3000 baht. Phuket’s bar girls typically ask for 1500 baht as a minimum fee, especially when they know you are a tourist, but this is usually negotiable.
Whatever your views of bar girls and the sex industry in Thailand, they are an everyday part of tourism in Phuket and can be an enjoyable and acceptable part of the entire experience. These practices are tolerated by the police and authorities, and it’s not considered a particularly sleazy or unwanted part of society in the same way as in other countries. The best advice is to accept it as a unique part of Thailand’s diverse culture, and as the bar girls often say, “don’t think too much!”…