The Making of a Bar Girl

[Names have been changed to protect the innocent, not so innocent, and some guy named Hector]

Many people (like me) like to pontificate about how girls get into the go-go and bar industry. Some do-gooders claim that they’re all sold into the industry by human traffickers. Others claim that they’re forced into it by poverty. And some even claim that the women choose to go into this line of work.

Well, boys and girls, allow me to relate to you a story that I was involved in that isn’t necessarily rare.

I was meeting a friend who was in Bangkok for his last night after having done a whirlwind tour of the north and south of Thailand. His previous stays in Bangkok had been far away from the bright neon lights of the naughty nightlife and he called on yours truly to help him safely navigate the new waters. He had visited Bangla Road in Phuket but Bangkok is entirely different.

We were going to meet up by his hotel which was close to Soi 29. We decided The Penalty Shot was a perfect place to plan out our activities. On the BTS to go meet him I got a call from Lek, a go-go dancer I know who works at one of the bars on Soi Cowboy. She wanted to know if I could do her a favor (like that wasn’t hard to guess).

She asked if I would meet one of her friends tonight and bring her to Lek’s go-go bar to see her working. Her friend was thinking about becoming a dancer and she wanted to check out what it was like but too shy to go into a go-go bar by herself.

We were going to Soi Cowboy anyway so I agreed and told her where I was meeting my friend and told her to go to the bar and then call me and I would find her.

I had barely settled into a pint when my good friend Mike came along and we started catching up since we hadn’t seen each other in about a year. About a half hour later a confused looking girl comes walking up to us and asks if I’m Lek’s friend. I respond that I am and ask her to sit down and offer her a drink. She introduces herself as Noi.

I had really been expecting someone much better looking, to be honest. She was quite an average looking girl and not someone I would ever want to barfine. But, hey, whatever floats some guy’s boat, right?

Drinks consumed and some friendly chat has Noi convinced that I’m not going to kidnap her or anything so she agrees when I suggest that we head down to the Cowboy and go see Lek. We jump in a cab and creep up Soi 23 and enter Soi Cowboy from the rear (no puns intended). A hop, skip, and a jump and we’re in Lek’s bar and Lek is on stage shaking her money maker.

It was mandatory for me to catch of glimpse of Noi’s face so I did. There was a look of shock and terror in her eyes and she smiled to Lek and Lek smiled back. I ordered Noi another drink which thankfully because I brought my own could be purchased at normal instead of lady drink prices.

I leaned over to Noi and asked her if this is what she wanted to do. She shook her head and say “No, no. I could never do this. Never.” I laughed. Both because I knew how shocked she was even being there and also because I knew what she said wasn’t true. Like Rick James said “Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.” Well so is money and the fact she had even come this far told me that “Never” was not really never.

Lek finished her set and came and sat next to me. She was on my right, Noi was on my left, and Mike was on Noi’s left. I suggested we switch places as:

a) I really had no desire for the two of them to shout Thai over me
b) I had come out to spend time with Mike

When Lek had to go up and dance again I decided to see how astute my powers of perception were so I asked “So, you could never do this?” Not surprisingly her response was “Well, I make 7000 baht per month right now and I could make 20,000 or more if I worked here.” Say no more, girl. Say no more.

I really didn’t have any desire to have little sister Noi hanging out with the rest of the evening so I suggested we go and we walked her to a taxi on Soi 23 and sent her off into the night to contemplate her next career move.

If this story fits the mold of most other girls I can guess that Lek and Noi know each other from back in the village or from when Lek used to work a legitimate job. The two either keep in sporadic contact or happened to run into each other and Noi started talking about her money woes. Lek told her about the amazing world of the go-go bars and the riches that await and next thing you know she’s walking into Soi Cowboy with two farangs she met about a half hour prior.

I’m sure Lek told her of the fantasy world where she doesn’t have to go with customers if she can get enough lady drinks (which never happens) and promised her the high end of the scale of what she could earn but it’s a highly unlikely scenario without sleeping with customers. Why would Lek do that to a friend? She probably gets a finders fee.

Really, other than a farang being involved as a chaperone, this is not an atypical story of how girls become involved in the bar scene. Noi makes a normal wage for working as unskilled labor in Bangkok. She’s certainly not someone living out of a trash can. She wore very nice clothes. She had nice shoes. Her hair dyed and was curled nicely. She’s simply over-extended. She probably spends too much money on her clothes, shoes, and hair each month and finds it difficult to make it paycheck to paycheck.

It’s not necessarily poverty driving her decision to work in a go-go since she makes the same wage as do hundreds of thousands of other girls who work in Bangkok. And it’s not human trafficking or any other nefarious bogeyman forcing her. In the end she will make a decision, on her own, on what price she is willing to put on her dignity.

6 thoughts on “The Making of a Bar Girl

  • September 5, 2009 at 7:35 pm
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    Precisely what is it about employment as a bargirl that you do not consider legitimate? All that’s taking place is that these women are following the near universal female script of trading sex for security. And while it might strike mainstream Western mores as being too transparent and transactional, it’s not substantially different from what Thai women have done since a time long before the first white man set foot on these shores.

    The framing story is tepid, but the final analysis is very much on the mark: the vast majority of the girls are on the game simply for a better payday rather than any specific instance of victimization. This is the classic profile of the never-married and no kids Thai sex-worker in fact, although a fair amount of browbeating about unforthcoming financial support from “mare and poor” (pointed transliteration my own) back home can play into it. It’s not at all uncommon for them to decide it’s time to go casual once a daughter is old enough to be put into service in Bangkok or Pattaya.

  • September 6, 2009 at 11:39 am
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    I wouldn’t say your friend is lying to her friend to draw her in and get a finder’s fee. I wouldn’t think they’d even have a finders fee just because of the number of girls that want to work. Girls at better looking go-go bars are often turned down because they’re too “fat” or aren’t simply good looking enough. Some of these girls are just trying to take care of their friends, even if they’re just acquaintances, they’ll go out of their way to help them out at times.

  • September 6, 2009 at 1:38 pm
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    @MongerSEA: By not legitimate I mean a profession someone is not ashamed to be in. Especially in conservative Thai society being a bar girl is looked down upon. I don’t disagree that Thai women have been doing this for a long time, only pointing out that even within Thai society it’s not seen as a honorable profession.

    I guess the same could be said for the mafia. People have been stealing and enforcing their own for of justice since the dawn of man but the phrase to “go legit” also applies to getting out of that lifestyle.

    I’m not sure what you feel is “tepid” about the story. Should I have spiced it up by making things up? It was what it was.

    The rest I think you and I agree. It was certainly her choice.

    @George: How do you explain “I could never do this” going to “I could make good money doing this” in the span of 20 min? The friend definitely sold her up on the benefits without mentioning the downsides which I’m sure she’s well aware. To me, that’s called lying. If I sell you my car and tell you how sweet it handles and how the engine purrs but leave out that the transmission is in need of a major overhaul am I or am I not lying to you? If you think I’m not then we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

  • September 15, 2009 at 4:11 pm
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    Interesting. A glimpse of the life of a bargirl.

  • November 9, 2009 at 6:28 pm
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    I think there are lots of different reason (Isan) ladies go to the bar.

    Poverty and demands of the family….the worst being older sisters. Its hard for us farang to imagine the servile status an Isan girl suffers in her family.

    A failed relationship with a Thai man, and being shunned by Thai men after a failed relationship. A lonely loveless existence.

    A child or more up home in need of support; even a more shameful being is such a girl.

    Seeing successful bar girls up at home..as often as not relatives…with farang husbands houses, cars etc. and their families and parents enjoying an elevated hi-so status….while they and their own family languish.

    Certainly being “bought out” by human traffickers. Often they come to work in pairs or groups, recruited by the same person. Their parents are paid an “advance” which they must pay off to escape the employ of their recruiter.

    But I don’t think that many of them do it because they love it or find it fun. Dancing for 9 hours isn’t that easy a job….and getting bar-fined and screwed certainly must have its ups and downs.

  • November 9, 2009 at 7:24 pm
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    I would be very surprised if any of the gals working the farang bars were trafficked. I’ve heard of it in Thai brothels, especially underage girls, but I’ve always understood that to be Burmese, Cambodians, and Laotians gals.

    Many Thai brothels force the girls to live and work on the premises so it’s easier for them to exert that kind of control. Girls working Cowboy and Nana are generally free to come and go as they please and I’m sure they would add needing to buy her freedom as another way to get money if the premise was even believable.

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