Gay go-go bars aren't
everyone's cup of tea. But they're a part of gay life in Thailand, and some of
your preconceptions may have more to do with American biases than with Thai
life and culture
pen rai: a slogan and a philosophy
Other stops on our tour
to Hill Tribes
is illegal in Thailand. And driving over 55 mph is illegal on many U.S.
Now let's talk about the
Sex for pay has long been
an accepted part of Thai culture. Authorities are cracking down strongly
on pedophilia in recent years, but in a country where the prevailing
Buddhist philosophy sees nothing sinful about sex, prostitution involving
two adults doesn't carry the stigma that it does in the U.S.
That's not to say that
"go-go boy" is listed with "monk" and "movie
star" as occupations to which fourth-graders are encouraged to
aspire. But neither does it carry the heavy taboo we might expect.
After a few years in Bangkok, a go-go boy may return to his home village
in the north with more cash than he would have earned at McDonald's.
Everyone knows how he got it, but neither he, nor they, talks about
Who are these go-go boys?
First, let's get one thing clear:
Boys are not boys.
Well, they are boys they're definitely not girls
but don't be misled by the term. While go-go clubs, massage parlors,
and other commercial sex establishments are an accepted part of Thai
life, pedophilia is not. Sex workers are required to be 18, and the
vast majority are in their early to mid twenties. In Thailand, as
in many cultures, the term boy is used for any young man who's
Go-go bars: How the system works
The exact set-up varies slightly, but the general idea is the same
at all the clubs. At more upscale clubs, go-go boys dance or perform
on a small stage, and are not allowed to approach customers. If you'd
like to meet one, you ask the host or waiter. At other bars, they
mill around, and may be allowed to approach you in a few establishments,
they can get quite forthright. If you don't like the atmosphere at
one spot, there's probably another down the street.
Go-go dancers wear numbers, pinned to their briefs or hanging from
their neck. At first, this seems impersonal, but it has just the
opposite intention: The numbers let you identify a dancer without
being so crude as to point.
You like one of the boys, you talk for a bit, and he agrees to go
with you. If you wish, you can try to establish how much he expects
to get from you afterwards. Most of the boys, however, will simply
say, "up to you." It's considered inappropriate in many
quarters to have explicit rates.
First you pay the bar an "off-fee". This is compensation,
perhaps 200 baht, for taking away one of the club's entertainers.
It's a fixed, non-negotiable fee, and it goes to the bar, not to the
boy, although he may deliver it to the cashier.
You can go to your hotel room for an hour, or for the night; alternatively,
many bars rent rooms by the hour. (At your own hotel, be ready for
a "joiner fee" which is charged by some hotels when you bring a
friend in for the night, reflecting the fact that you've taken a
single room but are changing it into a double. Most hotels will
also ask your friend to leave ID at the desk; this is for your protection
as well as theirs.)
Afterwards, unless a precise fee was agreed in advance, you make
a gift, or tip. Tradition dictates that the amount is at your discretion;
fairness dictates that you should know the going rate, and tip within
that range. The amount will depend on the bar (some are classier
than others), the city, how much time is involved, and the economy.
At this writing, 800-1500 baht is typical. Ask other customers what's
suitable. But if the boy didn't want to discuss this with you earlier,
it's a bit late to ask him now.
If you hit it off with a boy, you may want him to travel with you,
acting as an escort, translator, and companion. That's not uncommon,
and can work well for everyone. You may be expected to pay the bar's
off-fee for each day he's away this kind of issue is always
open to negotiation and a longer relationship of this sort
requires further discussion of what's expected, and what you'll pay.
Is this exploitation?
Of course it's exploitation! if, by exploitation, you mean
that a person is doing something for money that he probably wouldn't
do otherwise. In that case the waiter at the restaurant is also being
exploited, and so is the clerk at the hotel.
But those who argue that a go-go boy is being horribly exploited,
while a McDonald's clerk is not, will have trouble making a logical
case unless they're beginning with the premise that sex is sinful.
Now, who would be making that argument? Certainly not the Buddhist
Of course, anyone who uses their financial leverage to get a go-go
boy (or anyone else) to take unreasonable health risks is guilty of
exploitation in the worst sense of the word.
Do the go-go boys like their jobs?
Ask a few. As in most professions, the answers will vary. (And if
you do initiate such conversations, remember that the answers are
likely to be tactfully honest. You're not going to hear "It's
a miserable job" because that would be offensive to you
if you're a client at the moment and would go against the mai
pen rai philosophy.)
Many go-go boys are straight. For them, of course, it's very much
"just a job". You're entitled to ask, "Do you like
girls?" as part of a preliminary conversation. Most will answer
truthfully, but remember that a Thai Yes can have various meanings,
as discussed in making yourself
understood. A more reliable indicator is available if any
attractive women are in the bar: The straight boys will look in that
direction any time one of the women moves.
Some go-go boys are gay. It's a job, one that they sometimes enjoy,
sometimes don't, and it pays better than McDonalds. They'll often
show more life on stage. They'll make eye contact, flash some great
It goes without saying but we'll say it anyway that
you should always use condoms. Thailand has a high incidence not only
of AIDS, but also of other sexually-transmitted diseases.