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East Meets West

Strange neighbors: Bangkok’s Red Light District & Little Arabia

Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok's Red Light District - "Want a massage, Sir"?

Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s Red Light District – “Want a massage, Sir”?

Bangkok’s famous red light district, bars full of western men and Thai ladies, is just off Sukhumvit Road, in the upper area of Soi 4. Ironically, this naughty industry borders directly on “Little Arabia” in Soi 3. The shops, hotels and restaurants there are almost exclusively frequented by the many tourists from Islamic countries. The majority seems to be from the Gulf States though. For whatever reason, many stay in the hotels and apartments blocks on Soi 4. So every day ladies covered in black from head to toe, usually accompanied by a male, shuffle past go-go bars and the clientele / staff that comes with such businesses.

This strange coexistence seems to function without the slightest friction, since the two parties basically ignore each other. It further seems that the incredible tolerance of the Thai plays a tremendous part in keeping such diverse groups content. A shop assistant or waitress would give the same attention to a lady covered in a Burka, a European family or a Thai girl in the company of a foreigner. They all get the same smile and no sneers or eye-rolling, as we would expect to happen in Europe. There, everybody would have an opinion when confronted with such a mixed crowd.

We found this wild mix particularly interesting because of the many subgroups we found in each “culture”…

The “Nana Entertainment Center”, only 10 minutes away from our hotel, is probably the place that fulfils all the wild images one associates with sex tourism. But a Thai woman in the company of a westerner does not necessarily have to be a prostitute that is once taken to a hotel room. Many Thai women seem to “escort” their “Falang” throughout his entire holiday in Thailand, traveling with him to beach resorts or strolling through shopping centers together. Of course, often the men involved mirror the stereotype we all have of “sex tourists”: unkempt, chubby, elderly men. But many are rather young, in their 20s or 30s, handsome and well-groomed. When you see them strolling hand in hand or dining in expensive restaurants, it could easily be just a “normal” couple.

And there are the fruits of such encounters as described above. We saw quite a few families that visited Thailand, who met there years ago under whatever circumstances. Most have children and often the grandparents from Holland, the UK, or from wherever, accompany them on this holiday.

Tourists staying in Little Arabia and beyond are equally diverse. Women completely covered in black, face veiled and hands covered in gloves are one extreme, a rare one. The majority is dressed in black overcoats and black head scarves. Others sport a more vibrant outfit: beautifully adorned coats, multi-colored head-scarves that might even reveal a few strains of hair. The most “liberal” appearance would be jeans, a long sleeved shirt and a colored head scarf sitting way back on hair piled up high.

We figured these differences had a lot to do with the values of the individual family, but also the country they came from. The husbands, brothers or sons are uniformly dressed in western clothes: shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, baseball cap. Traditional dress codes seem to be exclusively for women under the pretext of so called religious beliefs.


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