The Ugly Truth About Thai Ping Pong Shows

A common rite of passage for tourists in Thailand is to go and watch a ‘Bangkok Ping Pong Show.’

It is almost impossible to walk down Khao San Road or Patpong without being approached by a man with a laminated list and a cheeky grin who promises you the night of your life for only 300 baht.

The list will be full of seemingly innocuous things like ‘knitting show’ and ‘flower show,’ along with some decidedly more ominous, such as ‘eel show’ and ‘razor blade show.’

This may read like a standard list of magic tricks, but this magic show has a difference.

You see, every single item on this list refers to something that a woman will do onstage, with her private parts, for your entertainment.

Suddenly going to watch a ‘knitting show’ seems a little more sinister, doesn’t it?

Of course, the natural response to seeing a list like this while being both a little tipsy and a total travel newbie is to frown for a moment while the cogs in your brain begin putting the pieces together, look at your travel buddies, before turning to the dude with the list and saying hell yeah, sign me up!

This, my friends, is how I found myself paying to go and see a Bangkok Ping Pong show.

It never entered my mind that what I was about to do was in any way wrong or harmful.

I was backpacking! I wanted to experience everything!

I was also contributing to the exploitation of disadvantaged women (although of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time).

bangkok nightlife
Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s red light districts

The Ugly Truth About Thailand Ping Pong Shows

What is a Ping Pong Show?

Before I tell you about my personal experience of going to see a Ping Pong show in Bangkok, I want to tell you about what a Ping Pong show actually is.

Thai Ping Pong Shows are live sex shows, where woman take it in turns to perform ‘tricks’ onstage, using their pelvic floor muscles and various objects.

The shows usually take place in the upstairs area of go-go bars, with tourists being enticed in by charismatic men on the street who work for the clubs.

Shockingly, Ping Pong Shows date all the way back to the 1970s!

They are almost always performed for foreign tourists and it is practically unheard of for a Thai man to go and see one.

As the name would suggest, the most infamous objects used are ping pong balls, which were what was used in the earliest versions of the show.

Now, however, the shows also involve everything from candles and darts to razor blades, needles, cigarettes, and even live animals such as eels, goldfish or frogs!

I won’t go into detail about what the ladies do with these objects but I’m sure you can imagine.

Sex Tourism in Thailand

It is no secret that sex tourism is alive and thriving in Thailand.

Sex work in Thailand is big money, and although it is technically illegal, authorities simply turn a blind eye to it.

Ping Pong shows themselves are officially prohibited in Thailand under the obscenity laws (source), but again, due to high demand and police corruption, authorities look the other way.

Conservative estimates say that there are between 200,000 – 300,000 sex workers in Thailand, with approximately 40% being underage, according to Gitnux.

With services costing as little as 500 baht (about £10), it’s no wonder that men keep coming back for more.

I went into more detail about the relationship between prostitution and poverty in my article about sex tourism in The Gambia, but for now, it’s important to know that about 70% of Thai sex workers are migrants from rural areas (source), who see sex work as a necessity to survive.

Many of the women who perform in Ping Pong shows also come from poorer neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.

soi cowboy, bangkok red light district
The neon lights of Bangkok’s red light district

My Experience Going to a Thai Ping Pong Show

Before I went to Thailand, I had no idea what a Ping Pong show was.

Like most people, my friends and I were approached by one of the many sellers, waving a laminated sheet of paper at us and making a little pop pop sound with his mouth to get our attention.

As Ping Pong shows are marketed as one of the ‘must-do’ tourist activities, along with watching a Thai boxing match and going to see a Ladyboy cabaret show, I was expecting a glitzy venue with a huge crowd and women showing off their unusual skills with pride.

You might think I sound naïve, but I am telling you the truth.

I was young and new to travelling, desperate to experience everything on offer without doing any research into what I was actually supporting.

The tout led us through the red light district of Patpong to the crudely-named ‘Super P—y,’ and ushered us through the door.

Unlike the go-go bars, which were all at ground level and blaring music to entice customers, the Ping Pong bar was on the second floor, at the top of a narrow staircase.

Exchanging glances, we tentatively made our way up the stairs, already feeling as though this experience was going to be a lot seedier than anticipated.

Our sense of unease only increased when we entered the club and found it to be almost empty, the only customers being a couple of backpackers that were clearly as clueless as us.

To say that the club had seen better days is an understatement.

The floors were sticky, the paint was peeling, and the bar staff looked bored and borderline hostile.

The ‘stage’ was a short runway with a single silver pole at the end and a few sad disco lights in shades of red and blue.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke.

An aggressive-looking lady who turned out to be the manager took our entrance fees and drinks orders, returning a moment later with 4 warm bottles of overpriced Chang.

The performers, all of whom looked much older than we would have expected, stood smoking beside the stage, wearing cheap string bikinis and sour expressions.

My friends and I exchanged glances.

What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?

After a few minutes, the show began.

I was a little surprised – I’d assumed that the show would begin once the place filled up – but it seemed as though the women were going to go ahead and perform for just us.

One by one, the ladies took to the stage, making no attempt to engage the audience in the way that entertainers usually do.

The first one sat on the stage, performed the ‘ping pong’ trick that the shows are so famous for.

She then stood up and walked offstage, grabbing a tin and making her way over to our table.

‘100 baht,’ she said, stony faced, shoving the tin in our faces.

‘Um, we already paid,’ we answered, confused.

Both the tout and the manager had told us that the 300 baht we’d already paid was for the entire show and that there would be no extra charges.

The woman’s expression remained the same.

‘100 baht,’ she repeated, shaking the tin angrily.

We all hastily made for our wallets and whoever was the first to find 100 baht handed it to her, before she approached the only other table in the venue and did the same thing.

By this time, the second woman had started her performance, this time using darts to pop a balloon held by one of the other ladies.

A few seconds later, she too came over, angrily demanding 100 baht.

The rest of the show was a rinse and repeat.

We sipped our drinks, our feelings about being scammed paling in comparison to the sense that what we were watching was wrong, and that the women did not want to be there.

I am thankful to this day that the only acts in the show that we saw were the ‘tamer’ ones.

There were no needles or live animals to be seen, but that doesn’t mean that the women weren’t still harming themselves onstage for our entertainment.

When we tried to leave, the manager insisted that we pay 3000 baht each (about £65), turning aggressive when we refused. This is all part of the scam, and we just walked out as she continued to yell as us.

Ping Pong Shows and Sex Tourism

As I mentioned in the introduction, I didn’t consider myself as a sex tourist when I made the decision to go and see a Ping Pong Show.

Ping Pong shows are just a bit of fun, I told myself.

I imagined it being like the burlesque show I’d seen in Hamburg, with sequinned costumes and a glitzy Las Vegas vibe.

A raunchy Cirque du Soleil of sorts.

burlesque show in hamburg
Posing with burlesque dancers in Hamburg, Germany

I wasn’t a sex tourist.

Sex tourists were old, morally bankrupt Westerners who visit Thailand in order to take advantage of girls young enough to be their granddaughters.

Every time I saw a balding white man with his arm snaked around the waist of a skinny Thai teenager, I couldn’t hide my contempt.

My friends and I were nothing like those men.

To us, going to see a Ping Pong show was no different to eating a scorpion on Khao San Road or going to a Full Moon Party – it was another rite of passage, something to tick off our bucket lists.

However, just because we viewed Ping Pong shows as a harmless tourist attraction doesn’t mean we were right.

Ping Pong shows in Bangkok rely on word of mouth advertising – they bank on people being so shocked that they won’t be able to help themselves telling fellow travellers what they saw. These other travellers will then, with a sense of morbid curiosity, want to see the show for themselves.

With millions of tourists coming to Thailand each year who all go and see a Ping Pong show ‘just once,’ the demand continues to increase, despite the lack of return customers.

soi cowboy, bangkok red light district
Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s red light districts

Ping Pong Shows and Human Trafficking

Were the women that I saw at the Ping Pong show victims of human trafficking?

I can’t say.

From my research, poverty seems to be the driving force behind women working at Ping Pong shows rather than human trafficking (although it should be noted that Thailand does have a big problem with human trafficking).

After the closure of thousands of factories across Thailand, during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, many women were left unemployed and unable to make ends meet.

With no other options, they moved to the tourist hubs of Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, and disappeared into Thailand’s seedy underbelly, working as go-go dancers, ‘bar girls,’ and performers in Ping Pong shows.

Poverty and Sex Work in Thailand

Now, while some people will read this and say ‘I KNEW they weren’t trafficked! Nobody is holding them against their will!’ it really isn’t as black and white as that.

If your culture dictates that you must provide for your entire family, but you lack the skills, education, or opportunity to get a ‘regular’ job, your options are severely limited.

Many Thai women that enter into sex work may initially see it as a short term solution, before realising that now they are trapped in the labyrinth, unable to get out.

It doesn’t help that Ping Pong bars are notorious for getting the workers addicted to ya ba, a methamphetamine and caffeine pill that is common in East Asia.

Thai Ping Pong Shows | Final thoughts

Every single person I’ve spoken to who has been to see a Ping Pong show says the same thing – it’s an uncomfortable experience because you know deep down that it is wrong.

A Ping Pong show is not sexy.

It is not titillating.

It is not fun.

Ping Pong shows are freak shows, human zoos that rake in a lot of money for the bar but not for the women they exploit.

Trust me – there is a better way to spend your holiday than paying to watch a miserable woman be degraded onstage.

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8 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Thai Ping Pong Shows”

  1. Ugh! I had to limit reading just a few words of each paragraph because reading or hearing about stuff like this actually makes my body ache. I think, it has to do with the stress of what happens to women while being a woman.

    I would never be a sex tourist of any kind because where there is sex for sale things like expoitation, gender based violence, slavery etc are never far away. This is why many countries ban prostitution.

    This reminds me of a comment from a guy I was on a date with. He said, p*rn is not nice for women. I don’t know what he meant by that but I presume he meant much of modern p*rn features violence and abuse of women by men as a form of entertainment for men.

    I’d say if p*rn or any other aspect of the sex industry is so abusive to women that most women who would normally enjoy the extra stimulation avoid it because of the gender based abuse than it should not in fact be legal. I mean, how sexist is something that keeps women away by potential trauma inducing content…
    I think, it is also dangerous. These days many young men seem to use p*rn as a type of sex manual that they think will teach them how to be good in bed. It seems to me that they could easily start to believe the cliche that women prefer jerks and that is what they need to be, sexually and emotionally to succeed with women. It seems to work for their favourite p*rn heros afterall….

    1. Really interesting points!

      I don’t agree that sex work is inherently bad, but it is definitely true that unfortunately the dark side of things is never far away. And yes, whilst reading about some of the things these women have to do (and seeing it!) I felt terrible as well. It’s awful.

  2. Elizabeth not the Queen

    Thank you for this article! I see so many European men constantly defending the sex trade. These women (and men and children) NEED men to speak up against this, since men are the primary drivers. Too often men dismiss me because I’m a “jealous woman” or a “Puritan American,” which makes me feel all the more powerless to do ANYTHING at all. I’m actually proudly slutty, I love sex, and *I* love raunchy dirty degrading sex. For many years I wanted prostitution legalized in the US, falsely believing it would protect women. Study after study, however, shows us exactly the opposite is true. It doesn’t protect women at all, even in places like Germany and the Netherlands, and it has actually increased the demand. It would be great if all places were like the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, a high-end place with sex-positive workers who (mostly) CHOOSE this profession and can walk away at any time. Unfortunately, they are the extreme exception to the rule. Even though the vast majority of prostitutes ARE trafficked (even in Germany and the Netherlands), like you said it’s really irrelevant. They are hardly CHOOSING this. I would never be with a man who engages in sex tourism or prostitution, not because I’m jealous, but because I can’t be with someone who can SEE the soulless disdain in these women’s eyes and STILL just wants to get off. If they can’t respect this woman’s humanity, why would I ever think they’d respect mine?

    1. I was so glad to read your comments that are so well written and to the point. As a man I find it hard to understand how anyone cannot see the looks on the faces of women in this terrible exploitative trade and still want sex with them. These guys literally treat women like an object to use to get off without any regard for their welfare and I find that abhorrent. How can they be so heartless, cruel and unashamed?

  3. clearly the solution to “people in poverty choose to do this profession I see as degrading in order to have a better life” is “be really intense about how bad that profession is so they don’t even have that option anymore”, makes sense

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