Sunday, December 10, 2006

The two faces of Patpong

Thai Takes

My 65-year-old mother made the sign of the cross in rapid succession as we walked by Bangkok’s Duangthawe Plaza (Boy Plaza), which is also known as Soi Kathoey or Patpong 3.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because I was afraid. They were dragging you (into a nightspot),” she replied.

The “they” she referred to were touts – some in drag – who were aggressively promoting nightspots such as Dream Boy, Future Boys and The Boy Bangkok.

As the names suggest, the nightspots were gay go-go bars.

Later, a few metres away at Patpong 1, I had to drag Marilyn, my 22-year-old sister, out of the NaRaYa store.

Patpong is one of my sister’s favourite Bangkok attractions for two reasons: NaRaYa, sought for its silk handbags, and the night market, renowned for fake Red Bull t-shirts and pirated Casino Royale DVDs.

Welcome to the two faces of Patpong: It is an internationally renowned red light district and also a shopping heaven.

And to most Malaysians, it is not at all like Bukit Bintang. Or to be precise, Bukit Bintang is not Patpong.

Recently, Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said it was unfair to view Bukit Bintang as another Patpong. The Bangkok tourist spot was dragged into controversy when Jasin MP Datuk Mohd Said Yusof likened Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle to sex areas such as Patpong.

From the point of view of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Mohd Said has got his comparison wrong, as Patpong is “no longer the Patpong of the past”.

“That was a long, long time ago,” explained Vunsadej Thavarasukha, TAT advertising and public relations department executive director.

“Thirty years ago, yes, Patpong was famous as a red light area where tourists can do ‘monkey business’.”

But now, Vunsadej insisted, most of the go-go bars have shifted elsewhere (i.e. to Nana Plaza at Shukumvit) and Patpong is a place where family-orientated tourists come for food, shopping and music.

A Malaysian who regularly visits Bangkok agreed with Vunsadej’s observation.

“Patpong is slowly catering to families too. There are obvious signs – live music bars and good restaurants – that some parts of Patpong are turning away from the sex industry,” observed the 20-something yoga instructor, who declined to be named. She did not want to be associated with Patpong as it has yet to shed its sleazy reputation.

“I’ve lost count of how many go-go bars and massage parlours exist in Patpong. Outside most of the go-go bars, you can see skimpily dressed females sipping beer and trying to attract customers,” she explained.

Tell that to Vunsadej.

Without batting an eye, he replied, “Yes, we still have go-go bars in Patpong but it is very rare.”

The executive director was more forthcoming on the history of Patpong. He instructed his staff to e-mail a Wikipedia entry.

The online encyclopaedia stated that Patpong got its name from the Patpongpanich family who owned most of the property in the area.

In 1946, the family purchased an undeveloped plot of land on the outskirts of the city.

They constructed a road – Patpong 1 – and several shophouses, and another road – Patpong 2 – was added later. Today, both roads remain privately owned.

By 1968, a number of nightclubs had set up in the area. And during the Vietnam War, it became a R&R (Rest and Recuperation) spot for US troops.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was Bangkok’s premier nightlife spot and was famous for its sexually explicit shows.

In the late 1980s, the Patpongpanich family rented out small lots in the middle of Patpong 1 for a night market.

It is this night market that the TAT wants Patpong to be known for.

“What Bukit Bintang does not have is the night market. Tourists are attracted to Patpong as there is a place where they can bargain and buy things,” said Vunsadej.

For the yoga instructor, the night market is a Bangkok must-see that she would bring her mother to, but not the go-go bars.

“It will be too embarrassing if my mother asked me what a Ping Pong show is,” she said.

“And she’ll get a culture shock seeing Thai men trying to hustle customers into bars.”

Go-go bars or not, swinging by Patpong is never a drag.

(Published in The Star on Dec 10, 2006)