For the Price of a Rose: A night in Chiang Mai’s red-light district

You’re not sure what to expect, as you head out for the night.  You’re afraid of the hatred you’ll feel for the men you see, and a little frightened, too, of seeing everything you’ve ever read about in news stories, magazines and books come to life.

The night includes a lot: an Irish-sounding man, with a baggy white-T and a mocking face, retired here because, why would he ever leave? he asks as his purchase brings him his drink.

A solo traveler, a California man, claims that he just couldn’t resist the Thai women throwing themselves at him…but he is done with them now.  He touches your arm as he leans closer, and you fight back the urge to slap him across the face.  He is, after all, the livelihood of these women you’re hanging out with, and in a vicious twist your love for them means he has to stay.

Man after man from all walks of life: old, young, ugly, suave, handsome, sober, drunk.  Mostly white, mostly with faces showing no empathy and an attitude of “I am a king.”

You don’t feel anger as much as disgust, and a little bit of pity.  These men, many of whom retire here for the cheap living and easy women, this is all they have? This is all they desire in life? How empty are they? Does this completely satisfy them…make them happy?

You walk into a bar, greeted happily by a woman your fellow bar-hoppers befriended the previous evening.

You and your two friends settle into a booth along the wall–one sits facing the front, one with her back to the wall, while your seat faces the back of the bar.

Behind your booth, in front of your gaze, sits a very mean-looking man.  Try as you might to find a different word, the only one you can settle on is, “mean.”

Before too long, a girl who you swear is no more than 15, but could be 17 if you push it, sits by his side.  The man acknowledges her, but converses more with the man in front of him than this girl who is his until he’s done with her.

You’re now completely distracted from all else.

When the man addresses her, she laughs and smiles and is as charming as they come.  But once his eyes avert back to the front, her facade drops.

She looks so many things at once:

scared

unsure

panicked

helpless

worried

resigned

You can’t help but stare.  Her gaze is so helpless and wanting.

She catches you a few times, and you glance away hastily, embarrassed at being caught.

Hold on, I’m just adding to the problem. If she ever feels shame about what she does, here I am, not even making eye contact with her. How worthless is that?

So you look back.  And the next few times, when your gazes lock, you smile, and put as much warmth and love and acceptance into that smile as you ever have in your life.

And she smiles back, with a sigh in her face.

It’s time to go. This bar is getting busy, and you have to move somewhere where you won’t get “in the way.”

You panic.  Can’t you just grab the young girl, run off to Khao San to get a fake passport, and fly far, far away from here?

You’re so helpless, so helpless…

One of the street-sellers that makes their living begging tourists to buy this flower or that bracelet enters the bar with a bouquet of roses.

“How much for a flower?” you ask, desperately.

She lowers the price at the panicked expression on your face, as you try to figure out how much money you have left, if you have enough to get to the airport for your red-eye flight.

Ohhh, come ON, you berate yourself, like you can’t afford it!  Like a tuk-tuk will miss a few baht!  It’s only a FLOWER for crying out loud!

You shove the money into the seller’s hand, and point to the flower that looks the biggest, the brightest, and the most likely to last longer than just a day.

As she separates it from the bouquet, you’re already halfway to the back of the bar.

Rose outstretched, you kneel next to this God-forsaken angel.  Without a single trace of a white lie, you tell her, “I’m sorry, but you’re just so beautiful, I had to give you this flower.”

The man’s eyes burn into you as you hug this little girl with all you have in you.

She’s beaming.  Oh, she’s so happy.  Her face has lit up, her eyes are bright, the smile is genuine and real.

But now you have to go.  You have to go, and she has to stay.

The man has bought his own rose for the night.

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12 responses

  1. That was beautifully written. I’m sure she will remember what you did for her for a long time. It may seem small, but I’m sure that gesture alone meant the world to her.

  2. This made me cry, so beautifully written and so sad. I’m going to Chiang Mai in October and this post has made me much more aware of the things I may encounter on my trip. Thank you.

  3. I have no problem with stoners who go
    to amsterdam for the weed – but there
    need to be laws in place for those who
    cross borders to get laid by under age
    kids – sheesh they should at least work
    in clean, licensed brothels or something.
    People love to talk of the horrors or war’
    but hidden in the shadows of peace are
    some things can be every bit as ugly. I
    felt like I’ve read a war story – honered
    that you chose to share it.

  4. Wow this left tears in my eyes. I”m in Chiang Mai now working with a group called Love Acts and that is exactly what we are doing. Forming relationships with the girls. Just showing them love by listening to their stories and letting them know there is hope. Thank you again for writting this, it is so encouraging.

  5. I admit I went to those kind of bars in Chiang Mai and that I intend to go back. I went there because the thai boxing “arena” is in the middle of all the girlie bars and if you want a beer while watching the fights, you order from whichever bar is the closest. After the fights, I settled and had a couple more beers playing pool with other foreigners and a couple of girls. I had fun despite what was going on around me because I was there for the right reasons. I went back several times in my 3 months stay in CM, even made friends in the group of girls that were working to the bar I always went to and I always found it funny to see the judging eyes of those foreign girls that assumed that, because I was there, I was going to mollest or rape some poor girl in the following hours. I would say 50% of the guys were just like me, looking to have fun after a day of sightseeing/cultural experiences and relax having a beer just like I would do in Canada. The difference being in Canada, the bartender would just serve me and dissapear with my change, unkowns would not speak to each other and I would pay 4 times the price for the same beer.

    Not all the guys are soulless bastards that are looking to exploit nor all girls are gold diggers that are looking for a rich man to marry for a couple of years and live the lifestyle long after he has been kicked to the curb. I find sexual expoitation, specially but not exclusively of children ( because the woman that is major today probably is doing this “job” since she was a minor herself ) horrible but I encourage all of those who will read this article to go to these areas and have a beer or two, pay for a beer or two for a girl that will play pool with you and make every effort to let you win even though she could kick your ass. Show them a good time and make them earn a little money for which they won’t have to do disgusting stuff and stay open minded. Some men are pigs some women are bitches. Thankg god for me and for you not all of them are.

    Great article by the way. I just wanted to give the other side of the medal ; kinda.

  6. Have you ever heard the expression with one finger pointed at others, three point back at yourself? I’m considered to be a good man, no saint but a gentleman none the less. Though I don’t agree with all red light practices, perhaps an examination of western women is in order as well. Some would call them spoiled, others uncaring. Still, there are two sides to every coin. After my experiences in the U.S., I would prefer to date a foreigner, and I am neither young, nor old, nor oppressive… even if it costs me money.

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