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Patpong 2020: Visionary Fun

With my fingers firmly planted in the warmest and wettest place in the room, the only thing slightly tainting the experience is the 'Beware of thieves' tourist sign pinned to the wall, a lasting legacy from the days when pick-pocketing lady boys roamed the area, and a stark reminder of Patpong's notorious underbelly. "Patpong has a history, and while much of this past is unsavory, you can be assured me that things today are much better and the future looks even brighter.

Scams occasionally still happen, but are rare the best advice if this happens is don't be scared of anyone and report them to the numerous tourist police that patrol all the popular spots in Thailand. As for pedophilia, this just doesn't happen in Patpong or anywhere else that caters to tourists, And, since the area became one of the government's designated 'safety zones', with around-the-clock video surveillance linked to on-site police officers and roaming plain cloth officers, petty theft is all but gone.

Weathering a storm of disinformation

Patpong, if you didn't already know, gets really bad press. It's unfairly labeled as the city's epicenter of sin, and all that is sleazy, tacky, and aggressive, a haven for pickpockets and exploiting bar girls.

In fact, Patpong is due some well-earned praise. Long overshadowed by the neon-lit strip bars, touts and sex shows, is the area's heritage; places and people that have earned mention in Bangkok's history. These include, some of the oldest and busiest tourist eateries in Bangkok, long-standing music venues, ties to the Vietnam War - even links to the CIA. These are all proof that Patpong deserves at least some recognition, and certainly a more rounded assessment than the typically hysterical but ultimately more marketable negative characterizations.

The Future of Patpong

And, what about Patpong's future? Most likely, "Patpong will never die". This is partly because of its discreet location between the Surawongse and Silom main roads. "Patpong is perfect because it fits the government policy of isolating these areas, says a local business woman, "here everything is very contained, which works in our favor". And she's right. Those who don't know Patpong may not even notice it.

Closing down bars here would put thousands of people, of which it is estimated around 50% are from the country's less developed Isaan provinces, out of work. "The fact is, business in Patpong provides high paying, easy jobs to families who can't find jobs anywhere else. Most of the people who work here make money for at least three heads".

Cracking the Whip

A niche player in this new Patpong landscape might just be BarBar, A recently opened fetish concept club on the corner of Soi 2. Injecting a much needed dose of fantasy into the area, it's a place where customers - men or women - can indulge in nurseplay, Japanese bondage or get a firm hand from a schoolteacher. Unlike the go-go bars, where inert punters just observe, customers here are encouraged to be creative, and to actively explore their deepest desires. Aside from being Patpong's first fetish club it's also notable for its discretion. All the action goes on behind firmly closed Gothic doors. On entering I was greeted by a customer being dragged around on all fours, and later I witnessed the naughty spectacle that is a show.

BDSM (bondage, domination, sadomasochism) often doesn't come naturally to Thai people. However, while many are initially shy, they open up to it once they discover that this whole subculture exists - and is very popular - around the world. Some are natural dominatrix (masters), while others are natural submissives.

How money matters

Estimates are that various high-profile operators has been ploughed around 100 million baht (about US$ 2,6 million) into Patpong in the last year alone. While this seems a certain sign that the street will live long into the future, this probably won't mean more of the same.
Looking towards Patpong 2020, a very different scene appears from the current one. Less flesh, more mystery, more charm. Many of the more ramshackle establishments will make way for more stylish, atmospheric venues. The 'in your face' bars found on Soi 1 may slowly be pushed out or redevelope into something more like Soho in London, with more trendy bars and restaurants popping up like Patpong's first boutique hotel, the Strand Inn. (more next issue)