Understanding Soi Cowboy
August 21st, 2017 | Back to Blog Listing
Before leaving for Thailand I had told a number of my friends that I would not just look into the sex industry, but rather stare intently into it and see what it's actually all about. I did just that.

I'm not especially interested in it myself from a customer point of view, but there is a certain mystique and fascination around how “legalized” prostitution works around the world. I should also note that prostitution in Thailand is better categorized as “not illegal” rather than legal. There are a host of laws that could be used to stop it from happening, but the powers that be turn a blind eye to this. I also want to acknowledge up front that I fully comprehend that at least some portion of the sex industry in Thailand fuels sex trafficking (something I, and I assume most any decent person is fervently opposed to for rather obvious reasons).

All told, my friend and I visited six of the clubs in the Soi Cowboy area. Here's some notes from the experience.

Firstly, when you arrive at Soi Cowboy, it will probably be a lot smaller than you think it is. When I had seen pictures of it over the years I thought the iconic neon signs that I was seeing were the entrance to it or something like that. As it turns out, the street is probably only a few hundred meters long and there are maybe 20 clubs in total. I'm ballparking, but thereabout anyways.

The iconic photo view of Soi Cowboy from just outside of the main street

The first club that we entered was Baccara. This club sits on the far east end of the block and has a reputation for being one of the nicer clubs there. Having been to strip clubs all over the United States, the South Pacific, South America, and Mexico, I will say that the experience here was pretty crazy and a little overwhelming.

The club is very small. There are booths about 3 seats deep around the entirety of it with a small portion kept for the bar. There is a single stage that sits in the middle of the room with a handful of poles for the girls to hang on to. Above them is a glass ceiling with ladies dancing on the 2nd floor (so yes, you can see right up into them).
The most shocking difference from an American point of view is just the sheer number of women that are on stage and how it works. Put very bluntly, it is much more literally like a meat market than you've likely ever heard that term used before.

What I mean is that at any other club I've ever been to, a single stage will be occupied by maybe two to three girls at once; often times a single stage is just a single girl. Not here. At Baccara (as with most of the clubs on the strip), there were about 30 to 40 young Thai women on the stage at a time. They're all wearing what is essentially a skimpy bathing bikini bathing suit, but none of them on the main stage are naked (not even topless). There were three different groups of these women. One group wore an orange outfit, another wore a black outfit, and the third group (the upstairs group) wore a kind of schoolgirl dress – no doubt fulfilling some creepy old guy fantasies there.

The schoolgirl-dressed girls were on the second floor. They would be half-assed dancing around on the glass floor (ceiling from our point of view) and after set intervals would become topless and then ultimately naked. After enough time had elapsed, they would go back to being dressed and then start the process over again. This could be an incorrect assessment, but we ultimately decided that these were the freshmen of the group. Not necessarily the youngest, in fact most likely not the youngest, but the newer girls or “less marketable” girls who actually did have to get naked to keep their job. They essentially just kept the whole thing stimulating.

Now onto the other two groups. The orange and black teams would come out on stage only with their fellow teammates. Thirty or so girls would march off the stage and thirty or so new girls would come back on. But here's where it gets crazy: they don't do anything. They don't dance. They don't interact with the customers (hardly anyways). They literally just stand on the stage and show off what they have. To the meat market comment, each one of them literally has a number pinned to their chest.

The process is as follows. You see a girl that you like and so you tell the madam of the house (one woman who is essentially just keeping tabs on everything in a pimp-like fashion) that you like number 224. This is the buying a drink phase. The madam will summon girl 224 to come and sit with you and you immediately are expected to purchase her a drink. Best we would tell, the drink would just be a glass of cola, but you're still paying about 300 baht for it (about $9.00 USD). You talk with the girl, make sure you like her, and then one of two things happens.

Either option one is that either you don't really like her after all or you weren't really planning to do anything with her in the first place (this was our category) and so after her drink is done she thanks you and goes back to the herd. Or option two is that you pay for her. The madam will present you with a price sheet that essentially dictates how much you would have to pay to take her back to your hotel either for an hour, or for the evening. The prices were about 3,000 baht (about $91 USD) for the hourly service or about double that for the entire evening. That's it.

So this kind of club (of which there are several of in Soi Cowboy) aren't really strip clubs at all, at least not in the sense that Americans think of them. They are literal brothels where you are just looking at a live menu and deciding what/who to pay for. Again, the freshman team dancing naked upstairs keeps the strip club feel alive, but that's definitely not the intent of them.

After we left Baccara we stopped by another well known club called Crazy House. It had the same methodology as Baccara. It was definitely a wilder vibe and these girls would at least interact with people a little bit more on the stage. I wound up slipping a few 20 baht notes (about $0.60 USD) into leg garters they were wearing. Eventually a pair of them came and sat with me for a bit. We actually had a really fun time drinking and trying to communicate in broken English and Thai, but that was the extent of it. Like Baccara, this one also had the glass ceiling although some of the girls on the main stage would actually strip. Some went topless while others were fully nude. As a somewhat sad interjection, it became pretty obvious which of the girls were new. You could tell rather clearly that they were being told to strip down, but were then lightly covering themselves with their hands and things of this nature. It was subtle, but easy to spot if you were looking for it.

The Cowboy2 Bar and Spice Girls were mostly the same kind of setup. Each one of them had their own little twist to how they ran the operation, but the process was the same. The girls all had numbers pinned to them, you selected one, bought her a drink, were presented with a list of payment options, and then you'd either send her back to the herd or leave with her.

There were two bars that had a very different methodology to them. Afterskool Bar and Toy Bar were an entirely different beast. These clubs were narrow in their design with the bar taking up one entire wall and the stage taking up the other entire bar. You'd essentially sit between these two elements. There would only be a few girls on the stage at one time and they were stripping in the sense that you would see in America. Except that they're doing a lot more than that.

Some of the dancers from the Afterskool Bar. The one posing sat and chatted with me for awhile

The same girl from Afterskool whose name I unfortunately forget now

These girls were entirely blatant about what the purpose of your visit was. There was no menu presented, there was no process (informal or otherwise) for how the interaction happened. If a girl noticed that you were looking at her long enough or perhaps if she just liked the cut of your jib, she would come and talk to you. Toy Bar was considerably more direct about it, but they would tell you outright what they could do and would negotiate prices directly with you. I suspect that the varied it based on how much they thought you could afford, what you looked like, and frankly just how they felt at any given moment. These girls were not drinking cola, but rather were getting pretty fucked up. I'd imagine a number of them were doing drugs, but I didn't see any of this directly.

Cutting right to the chase, a hand job in the bar would cost anywhere from 500 to 700 baht ($15 to $21 USD respectively) whereas a blowjob would cost anywhere from 1000 to 1500 baht ($30 to $45 USD respectively). You could certainly pay to take them home as well and I'd imagine the prices were a little cheaper than the meat market bars, but the general idea was that they would just take you somewhere in the club and you'd get your time with them.

Again, I have been to a lot of strip clubs over the years for countless different reasons ranging from bachelor parties to friends wanting to go to girlfriends wanting to see what they're all about to everywhere else in between. In all of those experiences though, I've never had a woman directly proposition me for anything other than a dance. To be clear, you're not asked something like “hey baby, what are you looking for”, but rather shown explicit gestures of exactly what you can get. Even in the Mexican border towns they're not quite that brazen. It's a weird experience. While I ultimately support prostitution (namely as I don't think somebody should be told they cannot sell their own body), I'd imagine that there is an entire underbelly of creepy old men who are regular visitors to these bars; many likely provide them with regular services.

I was highly entertained by this sign in the street

All in all Soi Cowboy was a ton of fun and I would highly recommend anybody checking it out, but just keep in mind that it's not like going to an American strip club, but rather is like entering a brothel. Also bear in mind that while sex tourism is entirely fine, there are certainly people there who have been trafficked. This is an awful thing and so it's hard to say whether you should support the business in any way. Regardless, there's a world of difference between American and Thai strip clubs.