It is 21st century. The Ayutthaya Kingdom thrived across Siam from 1351 – 1767 and at the time was the largest and wealthiest trading centre in the East. Its eminence as an international hub helped popularize a sex tourism trade very early on, as widespread prostitution was legal and taxed primarily through state-run brothels.
The development of this industry persisted through the Vietnam War when Thailand became the go-to destination for many American soldiers on R&R, encouraging the growth of go-go bars. Thailand’s long-pervading Buddhism also played a role in this trend. Strict interpretation of Buddhist doctrine places women as lesser contributors to society, and culturally children are tasked with taking care of aging parents. While this stigma has eased today, the pressure for women to achieve financial stability for themselves or their families helped normalize the industry over time.
Then under pressure from the United Nations, the Thai government formally ruled prostitution illegal in 1960 through a policy later replaced by the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996. The Act acknowledged the illegality of prostitution de jure, but was written with specific emphasis to criminalize child prostitution and trafficking, and would only occasionally police the operation of other venues and activity catering to “sexpats” and tourists.
Bangkok’s most prominent Red Light Districts include Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, Patpong, and Soi Twilight – all adjacent to one another in the centre of the city. The workers are typically women hailing from rural areas of the country that moved to the city to find work, but with limited education and the absence of other credentials required in the increasingly globalized city, take what work they can get.
These districts boast well-known and often high-end establishments that are not the product of illegal trafficking or forced workers – their high public visibility greatly reduces such a presence, along with the watchful eye of the State, itself eager to avoid international backlash for such ethical violations.
This area of Silom is where go-go bars first gained popularity during the Vietnam War era, and today its two main streets – Patpong Soi 1 and Patpong Soi 2 – remain a huge attraction for visitors curious about the city’s illicit nightlife. The most famous establishments include King’s Castle I and II, known for its mostly post-op transsexual performers, and BarBar Fetish Club, the area’s more, let’s say, niche, go-go bar. The Safari Bar brings in wandering tourists with its blaring oldies classics from the likes of Elvis or The Beatles, while Thigh Bar is a tourist-friendly staple with some of the lower drink prices available.
In the early 1990s, Patpong introduced a popular night market. The neighborhood’s newfound family-friendliness changed its late-night atmosphere, and thus “The World’s Largest Adult Playground” emerged in nearby Nana Plaza. This three-story complex has a carnival-like atmosphere and houses dozens of go-go clubs and kathoey, or “ladyboy” bars, along with several short-term hotels that rent rooms by the hour. Angel Witch is known for its grandiose themed rock shows, and Billboard Agogo Bar features a high-energy atmosphere on its rotating dance floor and a Jacuzzi to boot, while Casanova is known to be a more relaxed hangout. The ground floor level has tons of open-air bars and an almost pub-like atmosphere, complete with sports broadcasts, live music, and plenty of people watching.
Emerging in popularity around the same time as Nana Plaza, this area was named after a cowboy hat-wearing African-American who opened the first bar back in the 1970s. Today, the neon-soaked energy can be intimidating, but the bars – some 30+ of them – have an overall good reputation and low incidence of scams. Live music shows embrace curious visitors as they enter the main street, and popular establishments include Susie Wongs, famous for its body painting, Tilac Bar, Baccara, and the eponymous Crazy House.
This narrow, fluorescent street just northeast of Patpong Night Market and exclusively operates as Bangkok’s locale for gay go-go bars – and they live up to the high bar set by Bangkok’s vibrant gay nightlife scene. Classic features underwater mermen and a swimming show, while Tawan puts on an impressive stage show rotating acts like dance performances, drag comedy, and more.