Hosts with the most, ma'am, at your service

by Sarah Rooney

BANGKOK — Bangkok may be the sex capital of the world for men, but what do Thai women do for kicks? It’s Saturday night and I am in an underground parking garage in central Bangkok trying to find out. It is damp and somewhat desolate, but across the ill-lit tarmac I see a promising neon sign that reads “Lady Club.” A nondescript door opens to reveal a lavish entranceway with heavy drapes and a thick, red carpet. Ornate vases of fake flowers sit in scarlet-red alcoves. A smartly-dressed Thai man appears suddenly from around a corner and greets me with a slight bow. “How many men would you like tonight?” he asks.

A wall in a Bangkok “lady club” featuring pictures of popular hosts, who are trained to charm, flatter and dance with the club’s clientele.
The male hosts are trained to become expert ballroom dancers, one of the main reasons so many Thai women spend their evenings at the clubs.

Lady clubs are one of Bangkok’s best-kept secrets. These discreet venues cater only to women and the concept is bizarre, to say the least. The decor is bridal kitsch, the music ’80s disco and the dancing strictly ballroom. Women are entertained by a bevy of tuxedoed young men. These hosts are highly trained charmers who are ordered not to talk about themselves but instead to ask the woman all about herself. In some bars they are taught how to tell amusing jokes and, unlike most Thai men, they can all do a mean cha-cha.

What’s even more bizarre is the type of women who frequent these clubs, which began as classy pleasure palaces for well-heeled, middle-aged women whose husbands traditionally play away from home with their “mia noi,” or “little wives” (mistresses). But the clubs also attract a very different type of clientele — Thai prostitutes who come to relax after a hard night’s work in Bangkok’s brothels. While the high-society woman can revel in the glamour of doing the tango with dashing youths, the prostitute gets to sample life on the other side of the fence and transform herself, Cinderella-style, into the belle of the ball.

Suki* is a 39-year-old housewife who is addicted to lady clubs. This mother of two is a petite, doll-like woman with almond-shaped eyes and an ethereal manner. She takes me to a lady club where green velvet curtains line the walls and pink disco lights flash off the mirrored pillars. A few couples twirl expertly around the dance floor. The rest of the room is dimly lit and has the feel of a private party, with groups of women snuggled into sofas flirting and giggling with their hosts. “We come to seek happiness with these men because we can’t find it with our husbands,” explains Suki matter-of-factly. “Everything with our husbands is routine and boring, but when we come to these clubs we feel more lovable and young again.”

The entrance to a lady club is a portal to a fairy-tale world where any woman can enjoy the attentions of a good-looking young man — as long as she can pay for it.

Suki started going to lady clubs because her husband spent most nights out on the town entertaining his business clients. “I was a very devoted mother and wife, but after I’d tucked the kids into bed what was I supposed to do? Watch TV for the rest of my life?” she asks. When a friend took Suki to her first lady club, her life changed dramatically. She became an accomplished ballroom dancer and, against her better judgment, fell for one of the hosts.

“These are good-looking men trained to please you,” says Suki. “Usually it’s women who are trained to please men. Here, the men have to please the women. And they’ll do whatever you want them to do. They’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about. They’ll ask you about your kids, or what your day was like, and they actually listen to your answers.” She lights a cigarette and exhales heavily. “It’s like another world.”

“Here, we make the choices,” says Suki, talking about how the lady club can liberate Thai women. “Here, we are the decision-makers. We’re in control. We don’t have to wait for the men to decide. We don’t have to sit around and wonder, does he like me or not?” I glance briefly at a handsome, long-haired host striding past our table. “Go on, stare at him,” Suki urges me as she looks him up and down. “You can do that here.”

Hosts at Bangkok’s ladybars are paid to sweet talk their customers in the clulb’s intimate surroundings.

Noi, an executive in a public relations firm, is indulging her wild side at one of Bangkok’s ritziest lady clubs. While perched in one host’s lap, she slides her arms suggestively underneath the shirt of another man — something it would be unheard of for a respectable Thai woman to do in any other context. But Noi, a striking 40-year-old with impish eyes and a mane of orange-brown hair, loves ordering men about. She says she sometimes makes the hosts carry her around the bar. “I’ve got to get my money’s worth. I’m paying for their attention,” she reasons with a delighted cackle. “Here, I can be bossy and do exactly what I want to do. I can behave anyway I want to.”

We’re in a bar hidden at the top of a high-rise office building in central Bangkok. It’s a glitzy setting with marshmallow-soft sofas and a well-polished wooden dance floor. It’s way past midnight — the witching hour at the lady clubs doesn’t start till 1 or 2 a.m., and the dancing usually goes on till dawn. Through the darkened windows I can see the fairy lights of Bangkok twinkle below. The city seems a million miles away.

When we arrived, we each chose a host for the evening (a process I found unbearable, as the bar’s only two English-speaking hosts were paraded in front of me and I had to pick one). It costs 900 baht (about 2,465 yen) to have a host for the evening. Popular boys, affectionately dubbed “pop,” get booked in advance for 1500 baht (about 4,110 yen). The hosts receive only a third of this amount and the custom is to tip if you enjoyed the service. This means it’s in the men’s best interest to be as charming as possible.

The hosts have developed cunning techniques for wooing their female clients. Noi filled me in on a couple of tricks. A host might place his cigarette packet on your far side so he can reach his arm around your shoulders each time he wants a smoke. Or, he’ll actually brush against your hair and comment on how soft it is. Suki had told me how she was lured in by phone calls after she’d left the club. “They call you all the time,” she said. “We women are soft-hearted creatures. We hear these sweet messages from men — where are you? I’m lonely, I miss you — and our hearts melt.”

For Thai women, particularly, this can be irresistible. “They’re good at catering to your needs,” says Noi. “At dinner they’ll feed you. You don’t even have to lift the food to your mouth. Thai women aren’t used to this sort of attention. In Thailand, it is the woman who has to cater to the needs of her man.” (It is no surprise that Noi has never let her husband know about her fetish for lady clubs — “I just tell him I’m going to a friend’s house, or to a disco,” she says.)

So what about sex? The contrast to the male industry in Bangkok — massage parlors and girlie bars — couldn’t be more stark. Sex, if it happens, is off the premises. The clubs are geared to high romance and most women I talked to were very coy about whether they slept with the hosts. The female manager of one bar, however, made a grand show of presenting me with a long-legged fluffy doll. Guessing I might have communication problems with my host, she demonstrated the flexibility of the doll’s limbs. She twisted the doll’s legs behind its head and gave it to me saying, “She can do anything you want to do.”

Women often employ hosts as full-time gigolos, in the same way a Thai man might set up a mistress. The men are given apartments or houses, mobile phones and cars. One wealthy gem-dealer bought a three-story house and BMW for her chosen host. A friend of Noi’s went one step further: She divorced her husband and moved in with her host-turned-lover. But Noi says happy-ever-after endings are elusive. These fairy-tale heroes are just that — fictional creatures created in the hothouse environment of the lady club. “You have to keep your wits about you in these clubs,” warns Noi. “If you’re not careful, you could lose your heart to one of the men. Once that happens, you’ll lose everything. These men prey on women. If you lose yourself in this world, there will be nothing left of you when you’re done.”

Noi’s friend, Nat, might do well to heed these cautions. Nat is a large, vivacious 31-year-old who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the demure Thai female. “I don’t have a boyfriend because Thai men don’t like the way I speak so openly about things,” she says. “I’m just too much for most Thai men.” It’s only in the lady clubs that Nat can be herself and she very nearly fell in love with a host. “We saw eye to eye and we got on so well. I could talk to him so easily,” she says. But the relationship had no future outside the clubs: “I could never accept what he does. There’s no way I could ever take him home to meet my family.”

It’s easy to see how a woman could become besotted with a host. They are, after all, hired for their looks. The mathematics is simple: All the men have to be at least 167 cm tall and younger than 35. Noi told me her favorite age for a host is 28 years old. “By the time they hit 30 no one wants to know them,” she says. This was echoed by a 33-year-old host I met in one bar. “It’s over for me,” he said shaking his head morosely. “The guys these days are so young. They’re all 20 years old. I’m way past it.”

And the hosts are smooth talkers. Whether they are impoverished farmer’s sons, failed models or students looking for pocket money, they excel at flattery. One host patiently taught me how to do a four-step waltz. “One! Two! Three! Four!” He repeated over and over again, an encouraging grin fixed to his face as I stumbled across the dance floor. “You must get bored of doing this every night,” I said. “Not when I have such a talented and beautiful companion,” he replied, without missing a beat.

We’re all bad men in this business,” confesses Jo, a host who runs his own lady club. “We make money from exploiting the weakness of women’s hearts.” Jo, who is in his late 20s (he won’t say exactly), has a gracious, almost courtly, manner and a naughty-boy grin that must make him a devilish host. Indeed, it was hard to arrange an interview with him as he is currently in the full-time employment of a particularly possessive client. “She hardly ever lets me get away from her,” he says wearily.

Jo runs what is called a “Grade B” lady club — a club patronized by prostitutes. The high-society women go to more expensive “Grade A” bars, where the hosts are better trained and the atmosphere is more formal. “In my bar, the clientele are all women who work at night,” says Jo, using a Thai euphemism for prostitutes. “When they’re working, they sell themselves to older men who they don’t love. So they come to the bars to experience what it’s like to be loved. In short, these women spend money to buy love.” After a moment’s pause, he adds: “They’re not getting the real thing, of course. It’s just an illusion.”

The bar is a share-hold between six hosts, all of whom once worked in Grade A bars. They were given money by their high-society clients to open up a new bar. This is not an uncommon setup and it’s worth trying to understand the strange cycle of money as it circulates through the industry: the high-society wife gets money from her husband to be entertained by a lady club host, who then opens a bar to entertain the prostitutes, who, in turn, entertain the husbands.

The lady club business took a surprising turn after Thailand’s economic crash in 1997. The fiscal crisis caused banks to collapse and family fortunes to vanish, and high-society clients had to curtail their lady club outings. The world’s oldest profession, however, continued going strong and prostitutes were still keen to spend their earnings in lady clubs. As a result, Grade B bars are now more successful than Grade A bars. There are some 20 Grade B lady clubs flourishing in the capital, but only three Grade A bars remain.

Jo first got into the lady club business when he found himself down on his luck and penniless in his early 20s. He walked into a lady club and received three months’ training in ballroom dancing, as well as some instruction in sexual technique. “It’s hard work,” he says of being a host. “You have to look after each different client and see what she likes and what she wants. It’s not easy. Women can be extremely finicky.”

The hosts, too, can be picky. Jo recently welcomed a plain-looking female client to his bar. She wasn’t very attractive and didn’t look rich, so none of Jo’s hosts would agree to look after her for the evening. Eventually, Jo convinced the last unoccupied host to join her. He tells me the moral to this tale with glee: It turned out the woman owned a string of gas stations and was fabulously wealthy. She took the host on as her full-time paramour and treated him to a luxurious house and set of wheels.

All the hosts are in it for the money, admits Jo. “I’m not like the rest of them, though, I’m soft-hearted,” he says with a winning grin. “I can’t trick women the way the other hosts do. If I was like them, I’d have a garage full of cars by now. But look at me, I don’t even have a motorbike.” This material yearning is not always well-hidden — at one bar, I actually saw two boys fight over a client known to be rich and generous. Jo feels trapped in this greedy netherworld of people who work at night. “In my heart I’m a day person,” he says. “But they say it’s your karma. Once you’re in it, you can never get out. You can never break the cycle.”

Imet Suki once more after we’d been out to the lady club and she had bad news. “These clubs can ruin the institution of marriage,” she told me. “Women come and fall in love with the boys and it destroys their marriage. I should know, it’s happening to me.” Suki’s husband was so appalled when he found out about her obsession with the lady clubs that they are now separated. He is seeking custody of their children and Suki is trying to break her addiction to the clubs in order to prove she is a fit mother. “It’s very, very hard adjusting to life in the real world,” she said.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Suki in the real world. I am stuck with an image of her dancing on our night out together. “When I get out on the dance floor, I’m a star,” she told me that evening. With a theatrical flourish of her hand, she summoned a host. He placed her hand on his arm and walked to the dance floor in a manner more suited to a stately ballroom than a late-night bar. It could have been a scene from a romantic novel. Suki’s hair was teased into candy-floss curls and her rosebud lips broke into a smile as the couple began a lively 12-step waltz. As she twirled around the floor, her yellow skirt fanned out around her. Strobe lights flashed across the room and Suki’s eyes sparkled with delight.