Sometimes we benefit from lessons we learned from previous bad experiences. Even if it is only at the end of experiencing the same thing again.
Let me take you back 10 years. I was in London on my working holiday when a friend and I were feeling naughty. Somewhere in the back alleys of Soho in London’s West End we walked into what a sign said was supposed to be a ‘free’ peep show.
We were barely in the door when two Eastern European girls took us to a table each and sat us down in an otherwise empty venue. We ordered hideously overpriced drinks – so did the ladies – before we were asked to pay for our drinks, their drinks and the non-existent show. It was something like 300 quid.
We got up to leave, but were prevented from doing so by a big, menacing bloke blocking the door. I refused to pay, so first they threatened to call the cops, but when I said there were cops just outside the door on the road, they threatened to call some thugs instead. I kept on arguing that it was supposed to be a free show and no other prices, drinks included, were stated. I think my friend pissed his pants in fear.
Then the con-woman behind the counter, likely exasperated by all my arguing, ordered the con-man in front of the door to fetch the con-menu to show me where their con-prices were stated. Doing so he left the door unguarded. I wasted no time and grabbed my friend.
The last the peep-show con saw of us was their curtain flapping in the breeze. We ran out into the cold London night and all the way to Trafalgar square where, after we made sure no thugs had followed us, we had a good laugh about it.
Ten years later and 10,000km to the east
Today, this con is alive and well and living in Bangkok.
Following the outstanding trampling the Boks gave the Roses, the Journo and I was up for a bit of a night out. We thought we’d start by checking out Patpong to see how the original compares to Soi Cowboy. We were well prepared with heavy research – which bars to avoid, which ones are more trusted and what to do when you get in trouble (which b.t.w. is don’t argue, get the receipt, find the tourist police). Based on our Soi Cowboy experience, we were feeling confident we’d be able avoid trouble.
While watching the game we inevitably met another South African. Against my better judgment we befriended him. He obviously fancied himself a bit of a bad-boy, so when we said good-bye and that we’re off to Patpong, he asked to join saying he knows the area well (apparently he lives here – in Bangkok – so he claimed to have street-cred).
I told him that the last guy who claimed to have street-cred based on the fact that he was resident in the city, gave us 100% crap advice. He assured me he was the man. The very inebriated man. The man who, in this tale of Deja Vu, would reprise the role of my pants-wetting, friend from 10 years earlier.
Our first warning bells went off when he directed the taxi to Nana Plaza – nowhere near Patpong. More bells went off as we walked down the road and he was extremely rude, almost violently so, to the touts. Bad karma.
A bar on Patpong called Tattoo
We arrived at the bar, saw the touts advertising “free shows” and went upstairs. Inside there were a few other tourists, which put us at ease somewhat, but the girl writing something on the floor with a pen sticking out of her vagina was fat and her backup dancers were fully clothed, so we should have turned around and run from Tattoo that very instant.
Instead, erroneously secure in our companion’s supposed local knowledge, our guard was down. We sat down for a drink right next to the stage. A menu was shown to us with every single item, from beer to coke, at THB 100. Bargain, thought our dulled minds before we ordered a beer each, only a inperceptable bell ringing somewhere far in the background.
A girl came up with a glass of what was probably Fanta Orange and asked us to buy her a drink. We said no, but she put the glass down anyway. On the stage the fat girl had started popping plastic caps off glass bottles, which were flying in our direction, so we moved back and sat away from the stage. A big lady-boy appeared and moved the Fanta Orange to our table.
A bar girl came up to the lone South African (because I was with the Journo they stayed away from me) and offered him an array of services involving what would probably be her naked body. He declined and she disappeared. The big lady-boy came back with a bill and demanded that we pay – I saw “lady drink” for THB 300 on the menu before anything else and declined to pay for it – so she scratched it out with the pen she had ready, obviously expecting to use it. She tallied up the new total holding the bill back to me.
The Tiger Show in Tattoo turns ugly
It said something like THB 3,000. Three beers at THB 100 each and THB 900 per person for “the show”. To the dread of the other South African, the Journo and the lady-boy, I laughed out loud purely because of the similarity of this con. I leaned forward and said in a taunting way, which, in retrospect I realise probably made things more difficult, “you know I’m going to go and call the tourist police”.
“Go call”, said the burly lady-boy angrily and defiantly, “I pay them much money, what I say they do”. Ignoring the good advice from our research I retorted in an over-confident way “we’ll finish our beers, I will pay you the THB 300 for it, and we’re going to leave”. Her demeanor didn’t change, but she became visibly more menacing and said as she turned away “you speak to the manager over here”.
I might as well have been back in that Peep Show place in London 10 years earlier. We headed for the door, but it was blocked by somebody heavy and mean-looking. But in the Bangkok version of this story, the heavy was a woman.
The manager, aggressive and rude in an obvious attempt to maintain his intimidating edge, was out doing my upset with his own. He was apparently outraged by my mere suggestion that his quality show could ever be free – this is after I said we came in because his touts told us it was free, nowhere did it say anything about paying for the show – certainly not THB 900 each. The argument went in circles for several rounds.
The man wasn’t listening – we were in an aggressive con and intimidation is how they achieved their goal. He threatened to make a call and, holding up his mobile phone, said “if I call, there will be many, many men here”. This was likely true. I’ve read how that if you get into a fight with a Thai, friends will appear seemingly from the cracks of the walls. But he didn’t call, much like the woman in London didn’t call her thugs either.
So becoming very calm and apologetic for my earlier arrogance, and being very polite and respectful even, I kept on stating my case. Eventually, after much more discussion, explanation and general stubbornness, it surfaced that I was South African.
By this time many suckers customers not only left silently, but none had come in – his con was costing him more money than he was going to make. So it all ended with him annoyed and screaming “just go, you don’t have money anyway!” (one South African Rand can buy only THB 2). The door opened. We scurried down the stairs, adrenaline pumping, heart beating.
Unlike 10 years earlier I hurried out not into the cold London air, but into the hot Bangkok night, into a taxi the hell away from Patpong. And I wasn’t laughing. At least not until the next day.
Tattoo, upstairs somewhere in Patpong, like I can imagine most of the upstairs ping-pong / tiger bars in Patpong, is best avoided, because – did I discover after I Googled “patpong ping-pong scam” – you can find this kind of adventure in most of the upstairs bars in Patpong.
Stick to Soi Cowboy.