This is the first in a series of stories about the lives of Thais working in the gay gogo bar business. Thais are a secretive lot, especially when it comes to letting farang know details about this industry. Well, okay, pretty much about anything having to do with how Thailand operates. Fortunately I have a good friend in the business, Noom, who not only has introduced me to the people in these stories, but has helped translate, and heavy-handedly kept conversations from straying too far from the truth.
I coaxed Kai’s story out of him over a two week period. We met on several occasions, both at night and during the day, and Kai gradually warmed up to talking about himself in an open and honest manner. It was delightful to watch, when he dropped a ‘bomb’, how his eyes would quickly dart over to my friend Noom for a reaction. That was a signal for me to open my eyes wide and let out a dramatic gasp. Kai would then dissolve into a fit of giggles.
Kai has worked at several different bars on Soi Twilight over the years. If you frequent that cluster of clubs, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, possibly spent time with him, and maybe even think you know him. Kai isn’t his real name; I let him pick a name out for use in telling his story. And this is his tale:
Kai is bar boy. He works at one of the gay gogo bars on Soi Twilight in Bangkok. At the age of 32 – though he looks to be in his mid-twenties – he has worked the bar scene on and off for a little over ten years. He has quit working the bars twice, but the allure of easy money keeps pulling him back.
He grew up in Ayutthaya, an hour’s drive from Bangkok. The second youngest son in a family of six children, at the age of 19 Kai followed several of his brothers to Bangkok. The Big Mango is where the money is. Through one of his brother’s contacts, he got a job as a courier. “I work six day every week,” he says. “I make 3.500 baht month.”
After a few months working his courier job Kai had enough money to move out of the room where he had been living with his brother, his brother’s wife, and their two year old daughter. He shared the cost of a room with a friend he met at work. His new home was a small, windowless cubicle on the outskirts of Bangkok. No bathroom, no water, no air conditioning. Barely enough room for the mattress the two young men shared as a bed. Kai is straight. Sharing a bed is common for Thais. Curling up in bed with a friend is too; there is nothing sexual about it. Thais crave affection, closeness, and physical contact.
Kai would have become just another of the thousands of Thais working in Bangkok at below minimum wage rates, going nowhere but content with his life, family, and circle of friends but for a bit of bad luck. He lost his job. The owner’s nephew needed work and Kai’s job went to him. Money quickly became a concern. Moving back to Ayutthaya looked like Kai’s only option. Instead a friend suggested a line of work that would become Kai’s source of income over the next decade. “My friend me, work bar” Kai says in his bar boy English. “He tell me make good money.”
His friend took him to the bar that night and introduced him to the manager. Landing the job was a breeze. There were no ‘casting couch’ requirements. Kai did not have to show what he had, nor was he required to audition for the job. The manager explained the bar’s rules, and that was that. He borrowed a pair of shorts – the bar’s uniform – from his friend and made his gay gogo bar debut that night. “I not scared,” says Kai about his first night at the bar and his reaction to having to stand half naked on stage in front of a room full of gay men.
Kai had not had sex with a man before working at the bar. He’d not done any experimenting with childhood friends. But neither his lack of experience nor his lack of interest in men as sexual partners dissuaded him from the job. In his mind, there were worse ways to make a living. And while he didn’t run home to announce to his family he was working as a bar boy, the sex industry was not unknown to his family. “My sister sell pussy like me,” Kai says. “She go Pattaya, make money, find husband.”
Asked about the first time he was offed and had to have sex with a man, Kai instead begins talking about his first “boyfriend.” It is an interesting and informative response. The ‘sex’ part of the equation seems a petty annoyance; finding a customer who loved him, took care of him, and (at least initially) treated him well is what was important to Kai. ” He from Amerika,” explains Kai. “He work big hotel. He manager.”
Within Kai’s first few months of work he landed a repeat customer who showered him with gifts and cash. Kai’s friend took him to dinner at five star hotels and shopping at some of Bangkok’s ritzier stores. The second time Kai and I met to talk about his life, having already told me about his first farang friend, he wore his ‘dress up’ outfit that the guy had bought for him. The purchases were made ten years before, but Kai was still proud of the clothes – and the labels – and delighted in the chance to show off. The outfit still looked new and I could tell it had been loving cared for over the past decade. The two spent time together when his friend came to Thailand and stayed in touch by phone while apart. Several trips to Bangkok during that year allowed them to renew their friendship and spend time in each other’s company. “He tell me he lub me,” says Kai. “He tell me I go to Amerika.”
The anguish on Kai’s face as he tells his story evidences that the resulting disappointment is still fresh in his heart. Of course, getting a visa for a Thai bar boy to move to the U.S. is quite impossible. Was it naivete on both their parts? Maybe. But promises are not taken lightly by Thais. Especially when that promise held out a financially assured future in America. “He lie me,” Kai bitterly states. “He no good.”
Farangs complain often about how Thai bar boys use them and treat them as a walking ATM. But for many bar boys, like Kai, experience has shown that what their customers say, and what they actually do, are often quite different. Kai began working for the bars as a way to make money. Quick and easy money. That takes care of today. But culturally there is a deep seated dream of the prospect of finding someone better off who will care for him and see to his needs, both financially and emotionally. Expectations seldom met, the boys become as disillusioned as their customers. Their customers just want sex. And lie. But they still hold out hope that they will meet a customer with a ‘good heart’.
Kai refused to have anything more to do with his now ex-friend from America. He continued working at the bar. With his nice physique, young looking face, and engaging smile, he was a popular choice at the bar, landing several customers each week. A good portion of his earnings were sent back home to his family. His old circle of friends drifted away to be replaced by new friends, almost all other young men working within the gay bar boy industry. He picked up many of their habits. He started smoking. On nights he wasn’t offed long-time, he and his friends gathered after work to drink beer and whiskey. It wasn’t long before he was introduced to yaba, a methamphetamine/caffine drug abused by many younger Thai men. Dabbling to addiction was a short road. Kai was soon hooked. He lost weight. His skin broke out. Customers were no longer a way to a better future, but rather a source of quick cash to feed his growing habit.
On what was suppose to be a quick trip home to Ayutthaya, one of Noom’s brothers intervened. The second oldest boy in the family, this brother is gay. And the only family member Kai had told about his work in the bar. There was a strong bond between the two, and his brother convinced him to not return to Bangkok. He helped wean him from his yaba addiction. He probably saved Kai’s life. “My brother lub me,” Kai says. “He help me pray Buddha be better.”
Better did not necessarily mean to rid himself of his addiction, but instead to be a better man. Farangs too often discount the importance of Thai religious beliefs and Westernize their motives instead. The bar industry was not to blame. Kai’s spiritual life, or lack thereof, was at fault. Under his brothers supervision Kai began spending many hours at the local temple in prayer. He began eating better. And working out. He quit using yaba. “It hard,” Kai remembers. “I miss my friends,” he adds.
A healthier Kai reemerged. But he missed his circle of friends in Bangkok, his adopted family. And he’d tasted the big city life. Eight months later he returned to Bangkok and to the bar. But as a different Kai. He vowed to never take yaba again. And while he still hung with his friends after work, he refused to drink alcohol. He spent many hours working out at the bar’s small gym, dedicated to beefing up his frail body knowing it would be good for his business. “I work, I eat, I go temple,” recounts Kai. “I tell Buddha he good to me I be good.”
It wasn’t long before Kai was again at the top of his game, making good money and being ‘booked’ many times a week. And often several times a night. “Customer like young boy,” Kai says in reference to his boyish good looks, adding almost reverently, “I make 40,000, 60,000 baht every month.”
Getting a Thai bar boy to tell you what he really makes is like pulling teeth. From a toothless mouth. Even then it’s probably a lie. They really don’t want farang to know how much they can make, the plight of the poor is a better guarantee of generous tips. My friend Noom’s reaction to Kai’s revelation clued me in to its truth. And I’m not sure Noom was real happy with this secret being leaked.
Kai explained that he earned a monthly salary by showing up nightly at the bar. In those days the job was a seven day a week ordeal. If he missed a night, he was fined. If he was late to work, he was also fined. When a customer took him off, that night’s wages were deducted from his monthly take. He made a small portion off of the bar boy drinks his customers bought him. But had to pay for his ‘uniform’ (so the boys are never thrilled when the bar decides to change the style of shorts they wear). He got extra for performing in the show, totally his choice on whether or not he did so. And if money was tight, the bar always had a simple dish available at a low price for its stable of boys. Every bar works a bit differently, and times change too. These days most boys get at least one day off. Except during high season. When there was a high season. More and more of the bars have dropped the bar fine for failing to show up, too.
Over the next several years Kai continued his work as a gay gogo boy. He also stayed in close contact with his gay brother, visiting Ayutthaya often to spend time with his family. Being at the age when it is expected, he married a girl from his neighborhood. He soon became the proud father of a baby girl. While the money he made in Bangkok was a good source of income for his entire family, the commute began to wear and Kai decided to move back to Ayutthaya to be with his wife and daughter. A son was born within the year. And the blissful rural life Kai had embraced began to unravel. Money was no longer plentiful. And Kai’s wife had grown accustomed to being one of the more well-off matrons in town. Kai was working odd jobs. Money got tight. The wife became a constant nagging presence. And once again the bright lights of Bangkok beckoned.
Kai considers himself divorced. But he sends money home to his family. He doesn’t see his kids as often as he’d like, and has to remain on good terms with wife to do so. He told me he has to have sex with her when he visits home. To keep her happy. “Just like work,” he laughs, quickly adding that at least he doesn’t have to take ‘blue pill’ as he does with some of his customers.
One night while we are at his bar talking he looks wistfully at one of his co-workers with a smooth young face and an almost baby fat body. “He young,” Kai sighs. “He book customer every night.”
That’s not jealousy, the guys working in the bars are happy when their friends get customers. I’ve been in a bar when a guy who hasn’t had business in a while lands a live one, earning a round of applause as he walks out the door with his customer. In Kai’s case, his look was more a remembrance of days gone by and a realization that his income will suffer as he ages. But for now Kai is content with his life. He has a large roster of repeat customers. Several send him money between visits to Thailand. But he quickly clarifies, “I no have guarantee.”
Noom translates for me that what Kai means is he has yet to land a customer who promises to send him a set amount every month. The holy grail to a Thai gogo boy. That reminds me of a conversation Noom and I had during which he was trying to explain our relationship and how he felt about me. He’d said, “I not ask you for guarantee.” It was an odd phrase to me but I didn’t ask him for an explanation. Now I realized he had been telling me that by not asking, he wasn’t treating me as a customer. I wasn’t just a walking ATM to him. That night I confirmed this with him. And then I thought of all the Westeners who enter into such an arrangement probably think they are growing closer to their ‘friend’. When, it seems, the exact opposite is true.
Kai still dreams of finding a customer who will take care of him, fulfill his needs. But he’s wiser now, more leery, and less trusting of farang motives. He hopes it will still happen but takes a very Thai view of life. Fate. What happens, happens.
He has one regular who only wants to spend time with him. No sex. He usually has him up to his room for a meal and then sends him on his way. Easy money. Another flies in from Japan frequently for a weekend and leaves Kai a big tip. His biggest complaint is about customers who smell. He wrinkles his nose and says, “Take shower, take shower, take shower!”
I think this is a good opening to ask how he feels, being a straight man, about having sex with other guys. But it’s a non-starter. “It my job,” he dismissevly replies. Dummy.
I ask him if he has ever considered working in a massage parlor instead of the bars. And get in response that half nod Thais seem to have mastered that means no, mmmmm maybe, now there’s an idea . . . We talk about massage a bit and I learn he has never had one. I mean a real one. Not the kind that finishes with a happy ending. I take him to a reputable spa and treat him to a full massage. When he comes out he has a big smile on his face. “Now I ready for work!” he exclaims thumping his chest, and I’m not sure if he means he’s all limbered up or that he’s at the beginning of a run of good luck.
I see Kai again a few nights later as Noom and I are walking down the soi for an early dinner at Dick’s. He gives me a big smile and a deep wai. Noom looks at me and says, “He like you.” And Noom isn’t sure that’s necessarily a good thing.