Yo-ho, Yo-ho, A Red-light’s Life For Me

These days, Toby BK is all about maritime metaphors. As a long-time promoter, the mind behind Bangkok Hangover, and a red-light aficionado, he’s seen it all. So when he waxes philosophic on the state of the gogo bar in Bangkok, people tend to listen. I’ve tried to get him to sit down for a proper interview, but he’s always too busy, so I must be content to grab snippets of his wisdom during close-ear shouting conversations in gogo bars between sips of vodka and sick dance beats. “The gogo is sailing against the wind,” he says, as we nurse cocktails and gaze out the window of Black Pagoda at the tourists lumbering up Soi 2. “The winds of change are blowing, and the gogo is going the wrong direction.” His point is that, as Tinder eliminates the middle-man that was the gogo-farfine-short time regimen for so very long, the traditional role of the gogo bar will have to change, if they hope to survive. He thinks the age of the small bar—like Kiss, Thigh Bar, and The Strip in Patpong—are over, and that the trend of remodeling into megabars, as King’s Castle 1 has done, will become the new normal. Only a bar with heavy foot traffic and tons of booze flowing will be able to stay afloat. I don’t completely agree, but we’ll get to that. He lays out his reasons using a bar that I will not name as an example for the sickness that ails small bars (though things are changing so quickly that, even as I write this, the bar in question is already rebounding. Two nights ago I Tweeted a photo from there of a couple of hotties running around in their knickers—a callback to wilder and freer days).

“A gogo bar,” he explains, “is like a pirate ship, and the girls and staff are your trusty crew. They’re loyal, jovial, and hard-working as long as you keep them waist-deep in booty. But if the captain doesn’t bring in the cash, they’ll jump ship.” I was impressed by the imagery. He’s correct, of course, about the girls and their need for cash. But to use another sea-related analogy, I see them less as pirates and more like schools of fish. If one leaves, the rest tend to follow. They dart from bar to bar, always looking for the best environment and the highest pay—or so I always thought. My original theory for why King’s 1 has more girls, and more hot girls, than any other bar was because they paid the best. This is actually untrue. I recently learned that King’s pays the same as our unnamed bar—a bar that once boasted the best lineup in Bangkok. So why did most of the hotties abandon that bar, and why do so many choose to work at King’s when they could make more money somewhere else? It turns out the answer is work environment. King’s treats their dancers and staff impeccably well. The owners and managers are all Thai, and the girls feel safe, looked-after, appreciated, and liked. And, Toby pointed out to me, Thais can accept criticism and discipline from another Thai. But if a farang owner of a bar tries the same thing, the staff won’t take kindly. Thais are also very sensitive to the language people use. Cursing in a text message, for instance—something foreigners do without a second thought—can be deeply offensive to Thais. And Thais hold grudges. Morrissey could write a whole song about Thais and their grudges. So once a farang boss crosses a line, in situations like that, they just leave.

 

But there’s definitely a type of gogo girl that prefers a small bar with only a few staff. It feels more like a family, and more personal than being one of a hundred employees like they have in the megabars, which is why, despite what the experts say, I don’t think the smaller bars will completely disappear. And that’s good news, because there’s something to be said about both types. Big venues have a wider variety, a constant party atmosphere, and are visually and aurally stimulating. If you want to keep a low profile, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd and watch the circus roll on around you. Smaller joints remember you from your first visit onward. You can befriend the girls quite easily, and always feel like part of the family. A small bar is a home away from home—except with strippers in it instead of dirty dishes and empty pizza boxes.

 

Toby told me he has a vision for the future of the Bangkok gogo. He says it’ll probably start looking more like Western-style strip clubs, with private rooms and pay-for-play lap dances and the like. The one hurdle would be the local authorities, who for some reason like to pour cold water on everything red-light these days. Maybe, as Toby says, the gogos should abandon the blatant sex-for-hire motif and just aim at on-site R-rated entertainment. The cops would essentially have nothing left to complain about.

Confidentially, I hope Toby’s pirate analogy is really about himself. I could easily see him as the Jack Sparrow of Patpong. He could even open his own gogo, call it The Black Pearl, and swashbuckle his way to fame and fortune as he captains a ragtag group of hot, bikini-clad scallywags. Hey! Maybe that’ll be the trend that saves the red-lights—themed bars. There could be a pirate bar, a Harry Potter bar, a Justice League bar…the possibilities are endless. In fact, why am I the first person to think of this? The business plan practically writes itself. Hell, Patpong Soi 1 is about to get an Irish-themed sports bar—Shenanigan’s, where Shark and the Terrace are now. Reportedly the female staff will wear traditional hurling uniforms. So why not retune all the struggling bars? If they turned the now-closed Radio City into something like a Jurassic World gogo, with girls dressed as dinosaurs, I’d be there every night. Or better yet, the Star Wars cantina. Half the gogos on the Pong already look a little bit like Mos Eisley—a wretched hive of vice an iniquity. I think I’ve bar-fined one or two aliens from Soi 1 in the past…

If Toby is the red-light seer I believe him to be, things will get worse before they get better. But when it comes to the business of beautiful women dancing for cash, there will always be a demand. Ultimately, I don’t care what the Pong morphs into. I’ll continue to feed my addiction there. As long as I can get my hands on alcohol and PYT’s (pretty young things), I’ll be a happy, loyal first mate to any crew that will have me. Avast, me hearties! There’s treasure to plunderrrrr!

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