“How was your trip?” Robin asked as I scooted into the dark, leather booth of an upmarket wine bar in Singapore. I had arrived slightly late to meet my friend, who was with two other women. They were half way through a bottle of white wine. “Terrible,” I huffed, studying the expectant faces of the other women whilst darting a look at the wine label. Fat Bastard Chardonnay, Languedoc, France.
“Oh that’s right, you got food poisoning, didn’t you? Let me introduce you to the others” Robin offered. She was an upbeat, mature woman with closely cropped, auburn hair.
“Holly and I are from the same women’s network. She’s been in Singapore about four months now. Janice is from Malaysia. We work together, but in different departments. She’s in the data and analytics team.”
“Hey, nice to meet you both” I said nodding whilst helping myself to a glass of wine.
“What’s this about a bad holiday?” asked Holly. Her big mouth was smeared in vivid orange lipstick. Her red hair was obviously home-dyed yet she spoke with a wealthy New York accent.
“I went to Phuket last weekend,”
“I simply adore Phuket! Where did you go?”
“I like Phuket too and I’ve been there many times. However this time I ended up somewhere completely vile. I booked a hotel in Patong without doing any research first. What a disaster. Have you been there?”
Holly cackled out loud.
“You poor dear. Didn’t you know what to expect? I personally love Patong” she trilled.
“Uh, what kind of place is Patong?” asked Robin.
“It is the Thai equivalent of Kuta in Bali. But worse. People go there for heavy drinking and sex tourism,” I took a sip of wine. Petite Janice with her shiny, black bob reacted with alarm at the word sex.
“Yeah well, when I booked my ticket to Phuket I was hoping for a peaceful weekend, you know, just chilling by the beach with a book. Maybe a few tropical cocktails. And good food. Robin, you’ve seen the kind of hours I’ve been working lately. And there is nothing like watching Chinese brides in their puffy-dresses posing for pre-wedding beach photos to recharge the batteries!”
“Actually, Vietnam is now the more popular choice for pre-wedding photography” Holly remarked.
“Well anyway, back to my story. So I arrived in Phuket last Friday evening. I grabbed a taxi from the airport and about forty five minute into the ride I started hearing loud, nightclub-style music. The nearer we got to the hotel, the louder the music got. We soon pulled up into the driveway. Good location I suppose, right opposite Patong beach. I checked in and dumped my stuff as quickly as I could, as it was about eleven at this point and I still hadn’t eaten. The receptionist suggested I go to Bangla Road for a bite to eat and a drink. Good grief”
I slapped my forehead for effect and took another sip of wine.
“It was like my worst nightmare. Bangla Road is just a mess of purple lights, loud music and crappy bars and clubs. Everywhere I looked there were fat, white tourists clutching beer bottles, wrinkly old men with their guts hanging out, and half naked prostitutes! This was not what I had in mind when planning a quiet weekend away,” Holly sniggered as I continued. “Eventually, I managed to find a quieter bar off the main drag. The drinks were overpriced, of course, and full of sugar but I needed something alcoholic. They were the worse strawberry daiquiris for sixteen bucks I have ever tasted. My mouth felt so grimy afterwards.”
“Hey, alcohol is usually much cheaper in Thailand than Singapore” quipped Robin.
“Yes, usually. But this is the most touristy place on the planet. Everything is expensive and nothing is authentic” I retorted with another swig of wine.
“Did you see a ping pong show whilst you were there?” asked Holly. Poor, innocent Janice looked completely clueless. Holly revelled in the details “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of a ping pong show? It is where women do tricks with their vaginas up on stage! Like shooting ping pong balls or blowing out candles. It’s similar to a striptease and there are a lot of famous ping pong shows around Bangla Road. I went to one for a laugh when I was in Patong last month. It was incredible. The women pulled out the most interesting array of objects from their you know whats and were completely professional. They all had immaculate makeup and hair, and they wore a black utility belt throughout the performance. For the grand finale, the star of the show pulled three turtles out from between her legs!”
“Is that for real or was it a slight of hand?” I asked cynically.
“Hard to say, but it was fascinating” replied Holly.
“I wonder where they even got that idea from” Janice interrupted, looking truly horrified.
“Probably a recurring request from the variety of sleaze bags that visit, no doubt” I replied.
“No. The women do not respond to male requests and they are not prostitutes. They are true performers and any touching or filming is strictly prohibited during the show. It is closely monitored by security guards the entire time. We paid a generous amount for our tickets and we also tipped the girls at the end.”
“Well,” I continued “I didn’t go to any of those types of shows. They’re exploitative and tacky.”
“You’re such a prude” challenged Holly.
“In what sense? I don’t classify that as entertainment and I’m not willing to pay for it. To top it off, I bet you can’t even get a decent drink at one of those shows. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with people exposing or selling their bodies in order to make a living. For sure, lying on your back has to be preferable if not more lucrative than breaking your back at a construction site.”
“But how can you say that? Sex should be sacred. It is not a commodity” Janice shyly interrupted.
“Janice, really? Sex is used to sell everything from iPhones to bloody pop tarts these days. The reality is that the lesser-off work with their bodies, whether that be waiting tables, cleaning toilets or down in the mines, and almost always for the benefit of the wealthy. It is not fair, but it is life.”
“I think the sex industry in Thailand is a little different from the US and other countries as well. There is no pimp culture and most of the women are willingly employed and make a decent living” added Robin.
“When you say willing that is a grey area. In Thai culture, women are pressured to take on the financial burden of caring for their families. It is the women, not the men, who are the main breadwinners. Most rural girls drop out of school in their early teens due to financial pressures from their parents and village elders” Janice said.
“I do not dispute that is the case. What I do dispute is being called a prude. I do not want to support sex tourism in Patong because watching someone pop a turtle out of their genitals is not the least bit interesting to me” I curtly finished.
An awkward silence ensued for a few moments before the ever cheerful Robin tried to turn the conversation around.
“Was there anything good about your trip?”
“Admittedly, it wasn’t all bad. The Simon Cabaret Show was pretty amazing albeit tawdry. It is supposedly Thailand’s most famous lady boy show. The costumes were glitzy, sparkly spectacles in their own right. I was impressed that they danced to Chinese, Indian, Russian as well as American pop hits. Well, half the audience were Chinese tour groups after all. The highlight for me was the mash up they did of Madonna’s Vogue to traditional Thai music. They wore some very creative traditional Thai costumes that were sexied-up big time for that one,” I finished my glass of wine. “There was also a great rendition of Spell Block Tango, the Disney villain version. The lady boy who played Cruella de Vil was superb. I had a photo taken with her at the end of the show. Actually, you can have selfies with any of the dancers. You just have to tip them between 100 and 200 baht, depending on how popular they are.”
“You know they aren’t all real lady boys, don’t you?” asked Holly.
“I had my doubts. Some of the dancers seemed very feminine and shapely. They all wore tight leotards and I couldn’t see any suspicious bulges either.”
“No, no, no. Sorry ladies but I’m going to have to stop you there. They are all real drag queens. I’ve been to similar cabaret shows in Bangkok. Thai men tend to be naturally slimmer and have beautiful features” explained Robin.
“I’m not convinced. The whole lady boy thing is such a tourist trap these days. I’m sure there are plenty of musically talented women who aren’t keen on blowing ping pongs out of their woo-haas for a living. Why on earth wouldn’t they want to pull a Victor Victoria?” I asked.
“A Victor Victoria…?” repeated Janice.
“It’s an old movie starring Julie Andrews. She plays a woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman.”
“So, miss prude. What do you think is more exploitative? Watching a ping pong show or paying money to see supposed lady boys who are hijacking the very real issues of gender identity for profit?” quipped Holly.
Ugggh. She was really starting to get on my nerves.
“Excuse me,” I called out to one of the waiters patrolling the bar floor “we are going to need another bottle of wine here.” I turned to Holly, “Well as the lady boys would say, we are living in a material world. I can’t blame anyone for capitalising on what they have at their disposal, whether it be good looks or gender identity issues. There is a market for everything. And as a consumer, it’s up to me where I want to spend my money.”
Another bottle of Fat Bastard arrived. The waiter filled our glasses.
“That is a terrible thing to say. Buyers also have a moral responsibility as to how they spend their money. What about sweatshops, where conditions for workers are appalling? I still recall the headlines from a few years ago. Over a thousand workers were pronounced dead and thousands more seriously injured after a textile factory in Bangladesh collapsed. It was horrific. After that, I took a personal stance against buying fashions produced in sweatshops” Janice quivered.
“It is debatable whether responsibility lies with the consumers, government, business or the very citizens of the countries where workers are being exploited. But I’d hardly call this a like-for-like example Janice. So you mean to tell me, if you go to Thailand you never get a cheap massage?” I responded.
“Oooh, I love a good massage,” interjected Robin. Her cheeks were flushed from too much wine as she did her utmost to steer the conversation to safety.
“Thai massages are so cheap and good” agreed Holly.
“Actually, they are not that cheap in Patong. The area is just so touristy. But I did have a great Thai massage right on the beach. I completely zoned out to the sound of the crashing waves. It was heavenly. The masseuse also used a little bit of Tiger Balm to rub my neck and forehead, which I discovered is a great hangover cure. I paid 400 baht and I gave a 100 baht tip”
I gulped some wine, “but the best massage I had was at this massage place on the main road. I think it’s called Thawewong Road. The place is quite noticeable because it has a majestic-looking seat adorned with tropical white flowers, red pillows and a set of golden wash bowls in its shopfront. I sat on this throne thing and the staff carefully scrubbed my feet using a course and fragrant yellow paste. It smelled like lemon, coconut and… lily? I was then led out the back to a cool, dark room. The floor was covered with woven mats and bright throw pillows. I lay down whilst the woman gave me an intense, one hour foot massage. It was painful yet restorative. I wish my holiday had ended there.”
“Uh oh. Are we going to hear about the food poisoning story now?” asked Robin.
“I’m actually surprised you got food poisoning in Patong. It is a very tourist-friendly place. I’m guessing you ate street food. When I went to Patong, I ate really well. There was one restaurant I visited almost every night. Now, what was the name of it? Sea….food, sea… something. It is a gay-friendly restaurant,” said Holly.
“Sea Hag?” I offered.
“Yes that’s it. Sea Hag. Just fabulous”
“What is a gay-friendly restaurant?” inquired Robin. I noticed Janice sulking over her glass of wine from the corner of my eye. She seemed disinterested in this turn of conversation.
“Sea Hag is the flagship gay restaurant of Patong” asserted Holly.
“In other words, it has a prominent, rainbow flag hanging out the front. But anyone can dine there,” I added.
“Don’t forget to mention the décor. I just adore the framed prayer mats they have mounted on the walls there. I’m thinking to do the same in my house” Holly enthused.
“Yeah, the décor is interesting. If you like that sort of thing. I went to Sea Hag for dinner on my second night. After the lady boy show. We ordered a whole fish, deep fried and served in red curry as well as steamed, chilli king prawns. The food was fresh but not exceptional. We paid just over one hundred Singapore dollars for two of us, including wine, which is a bit hefty. I’ve actually heard that Sea Hag has gone downhill ever since its original owner, Mr Kenya left to start a new venture.
“In honesty, it is really difficult to find good food in Patong. There are so many tourists here from all over the world. I saw more International, Chinese and even Arabic restaurants than local Thai food. However, I did discover one gem on my first night. It was on a small, side street off Soi Sansabai. We had turned up just after midnight and were the only people in the restaurant. As I’d only had a few sugar-laden cocktails since lunch, I was ready to eat anything. The food turned out to be much better than I expected. We had a plate of fresh oysters with chilli vinaigrette and crispy shallots, a deliciously creamy Green Chicken Curry and some spicy Pork Larb. That was the first and last great meal I had in Patong” I said.
“Okay, tell us about the food poisoning already!” screeched Holly as she guzzled her wine.
“Okay then. So on the last day, my flight back to Singapore was at about five pm. I had just enough time for a dip in the sea, a foot massage and a bite to eat. I had searched TripAdvisor for some recommendations and came across Number 9 Restaurant. It had a four and a half star rating so I assumed it had to be alright.
“When we turned up, we flicked through this massive menu. It was about as thick as the Bible with over a hundred different items, including Western favourites like ham and cheese toast and spaghetti with meatballs. I should have known it was going to be awful. We ordered Tom Ka Gai, which is a type of Thai spicy soup, as well as Prawn Pad Thai and Yellow Curry with Pork. The food was so bland. The soup and the curry pretty much tasted like coconut milk with a dash of chilli. And I am sure I detected a hint of ketchup in the Pad Thai!
“Now, the food poisoning didn’t kick in right away. I was at the airport, drinking a latte whilst waiting for boarding. My stomach churned with every sip so I put it aside. On the plane, I felt increasingly uneasy. Every small movement caused my belly to flip flop. The stewardess gave me some cold water but it didn’t help. By the time we had landed in Singapore, I was so nauseous and sweating heavily. I pushed past everyone to get off the plane and bolted to the nearest toilet to throw up. I felt slightly better after that. We then went through security and I got a cold, lemonade thinking it would help settle my stomach. I took one sip and had to dash to the toilet again to throw up.
“After I got home I spent the next twenty four hours vomiting in a feverish, achy sweat. So much for recharging the batteries in Patong. It will be a very long time before I can enjoy Thai food again,” I finished the rest of my wine.
“Another Fat Bastard?” asked Robin.