A common rite of passage for tourists in Thailand is to go and watch a ‘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.
On the list, there will be seemingly innocuous items like ‘knitting show’ and ‘flower show,’ along with some decidedly stranger things 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 with a mixture of both horror and intrigue, 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 Ping Pong show in Bangkok, back in 2015.
As I walked up the dark staircase of the crudely named ‘Super P**sy,’ it never entered my mind that what I was about to do was in any way wrong or harmful.
I was on holiday! I wanted to experience everything!
I was also contributing to the exploitation of disadvantaged women.
The Ugly Truth About Thai Ping Pong Shows
Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time.
Going to see a Ping Pong show was just a bit of fun. I envisioned it being like the burlesque Ladyboy show I’d seen in Phuket, with sequinned costumes, acrobatics and a glitzy Las Vegas vibe. A raunchy Cirque du Soleil of sorts.
I didn’t visit a brothel or pay money to take a ‘bar girl’ home with me.
People that did that were disgusting, 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.
‘This is just exploitation,’ I’d say. ‘Most of these women are trafficked, and those who aren’t are only doing this to escape poverty.’
And I was right.
It is common knowledge that women from rural villages and bordering countries are often sold to traffickers and forced to work in cities such as Pattaya and Bangkok.
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 on Koh Phangan – it was just one of those must-dos of Thailand, something to tick off our bucket lists.
However, just because we saw a Ping Pong show as a harmless tourist attraction doesn’t mean we were right.
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.
Sex Tourism in Thailand
It is no secret that sex tourism is alive and thriving in Thailand.
An estimated 7 in 10 male tourists in Thailand are sex tourists, a business that is worth 6 million GBP in Thailand and accounts for between 2-14% of South East Asian countries’ economies.
Sex work in Thailand is big money, and while technically illegal, authorities turn a blind eye to the fact that pretty much all of the go-go bars and massage parlours in Thailand are making big money from selling their bodies to punters.
Conservative estimates say that there are up to 2 million people providing ‘adult’ services in Thailand, and with services costing as little as 500 baht (13 GBP), it’s no wonder that men keep coming back for more.
What is a Ping Pong Show?
Thai Ping Pong shows date all the way back to the 1970s and are a type of show where woman take it in turns to perform ‘tricks’ onstage, all involving different objects and the performer’s nether regions.
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.
Ping Pong shows 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 (and the objects used in the earliest shows) are ping pong balls, although 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 because this article is not supposed to titillate.
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 the little pop pop sound with his mouth, like all of the other Ping Pong touts.
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 one of the Ladyboy cabaret shows, 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 the truth. I was young and new to travelling, desperate to experience everything on offer without doing any research into what I was actually getting involved with.
After we’d told the tout that we’d like to go and see the show, he led us through Patpong, to a building with a flashing purple and red neon sign.
As the tout gestured for us to go inside, we tentatively made our way up the steep staircase towards the entrance, already feeling as though this experience was going to be a lot seedier than previously anticipated.
Our sense of uneasiness only increased when we entered the club and found it to be almost empty, the only customers being a couple of Western guys that were clearly unsuspecting tourists just like us.
To say that the interior of the club had seen better days is an understatement. The floors were sticky, the paint was peeling, and the bar staff looked bored and 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 stank of cigarette smoke.
The mamasan, an aggressive-looking overweight lady, 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 man outside and the mamasan had told us that the 300 baht we’d already paid was for the entire show and that there would be no extra charges.
Her 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 point, the second act had started, 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, feeling steadily more and more uncomfortable as it became patently obvious that these women did not want to be doing what they were doing.
I am thankful to this day that the only acts in the show that we saw were the ‘tamer’ ones (if anything at a Ping Pong show can be considered tame).
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 viewing pleasure.
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, 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, where they would end up working as go-go dancers, ‘bar’ girls, and performers in Ping Pong shows, quickly disappearing into Thailand’s seedy underbelly.
Now, while many will read this and say ‘I KNEW they weren’t trafficked! Nobody is holding them against their will – live and let live!’ it really isn’t as black and white as that.
If your culture dictates that you must provide for your elderly relatives, you have been made redundant and lack the skills or education for a different type of job, your options are severely limited.
What’s more, many Thai women that enter into this line of work may initially see it as a short term solution, before realising that now they are trapped in the labyrinth, unable to see the way out.
It doesn’t help that Ping Pong bars are notorious for getting the workers addicted to ya ba, a methamphetamine and caffeine pill whose name literally translates to ‘crazy dr*g.’
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 hot.
It is not titillating.
It is not fun.
It is a freak show, a human zoo that rakes in a lot of money for the bar but not a whole lot for the women it degrades.
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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