Which brings us, inevitably, to the first and foremost reason why most people go to Thailand. It's everywhere once the sun goes down (notionally; it's everywhere and all the time, but emerges into its own in the dark) and the city lights its neon lamps, opens its bottles, and takes off its clothes in the humid, sweaty nights.
Sex. It finances most of Thailand's tourism economy, bulldozes aside its pre-Vietnam-war social traditions and lifestyle, and eats alive, chews up, and spits out vast swathes of the country's youth over and over again. Across massage parlors, bars, karaoke, soaplands, dance bars, and yes, streets and localities as well, you'll find are suddenly populated with women and kathoeys, of every imaginable type.
Photography is discouraged - and in any case, showing off an expensive smartphone or camera when you're drunk, outnumbered, and in the middle of a red-light district is just asking for trouble, so sorry, no pics except this. If you're upset, Google Images (safesearch off) awaits.
Don't miss the halo.
Your journey begins as soon as you step out of the hotel and into a cab; all cabs have a little bundle of highly x-rated catalogues in the driverside car pocket, which he will produce with a flourish and wave at you, and find out the extent of your adventurousness (Sex show? Massage? Sucky-fucky?)
Resist the temptation to agree, because the best cab commissions come from the (usually illegal or in-trouble) brothels; know where you want to go and insist on it repeatedly. We got taken to a dark house down the back alley of a deserted street and had our doors opened by 2 guys while 3 more stood at the entrance; the only indication we had of where we were was a single female silhouette swaying inside the door. Took a lot of convincing to leave and head for somewhere a little more, ah, healthy.
Which, as it turn out, is Nana Plaza. A collection of bars, strip joints, and more, arrayed in a multi-storey square surrounded by restaurants and shops. It's a little seedy, a little grimy, a little low-end; the floors are cracked cement, the curtains on the doors are frayed, and the blast-chiller whammy roaring out of the industrial-strength ACs can't completely overpower the dark, faintly organic scent of sweat, skin, and desperate dreams.
Nights In White Satin plays in a dark, cool club, threadbare purple curtains, peeling plaster, and black light glowing off the shiny black-and-white lingerie of a pair of tall dancers doing a simulated lesbian session on a tatty couch on the center. The tall ones always get the star billing; shorties get the background dancing; and the terminally plump serve the drinks around the edges. And everyone has bad teeth, meth mouths - ya ba keeps them going through the nights and takes away the reality of the life, while the reason they're in it pulls them forward like a locomotive; but any dream will always look brighter and brighter if the world grows dark, until it dazzles and blinds you, and you blink, look away, and eyes streaming, can't bear to look back it anymore.
The Soi Cowboy is a more upscale spot; there's where the girls are taller and better looking, the ambience is more sparkly and clean, drinks are more expensive and clientele more obviously affluent and non-thai. Here's where you'll get the transparent ceilings that are the dance floors of a three-level club, the sparkly and more well-kept and imaginative costumes, and the bouncers are bigger, but less obviously crazy. The Baccara and Suzy Wong's is worth dropping by for.
Tip for the newcomers - eye contact means tips. N finds this out the hard way when he stares a little too hard and too long, and suddenly there's a small, blank-faced-stoned, dead-eyed girl with a shark smile sliding into his lap as he freezes in terror. Mutely, terrified, he looks at us for help. In perfect understanding, both of us congratulate him and zip out of the door in a blink. He catches us thirty seconds later, a hundred baht lighter, sweating, shaking, and cursing us while we stagger around laughing fit to burst.
Watch the customers. The thai men have a very meh look on their faces; the Euros tend to be relaxed, comfortable, sometimes boisterous but usually sporting and polite... they'll be mostly backpackers - but the Indians, man. It's... sickening. They have this avid, hungry, disbelieving look on their faces, like this is some manna from heaven, a meat feast suddenly bestowed on them as the result of some cosmic oversight and that can be snatched away at any time. They're also the same people who'll be sitting in the Patpong bars watching the dancers with the same expression, while the wives roam around doing the shopping outside, somehow completely ignoring the greeters, the signs, the music, and the girls surrounding them.
Yet there's also some endearing little things, small things, heartbreaking in the sheer incongruity of ancient ways of life forging a coexistence with the new realities. The way the girls pray briefly before the tiny, ubiquitous shrine in every establishment before each dance; how each bottle of alcohol is blessed before being served; how the hostesses will glower like dragons but scrupulously pass the tips along.
It's amazing how the Thai have come to terms with being the center of the world's sex tourism industry - but there's also an undercurrent of anger. It's there in the speed the cabs drive, the hard bargains and sky-high prices, and the constant, deadening high that everyone's on... it's a society that at some deep level resents what history's made them, but also one that makes the best of the situation and flourishes in it.
But you always wonder what would have been, if things had gone a little differently a long time ago...