Bangkok’s senior sex tourist population is facing its greatest crisis in decades as the demolition of the nightlife zone known as Washington Square has left them with nowhere to go.
Dozens, and sometimes up to a hundred portly Western men with bad skin, aged 55-80, have been reported wandering around the Sukhumvit Soi 22 area since June, when final eviction orders forced the closure of Washington Square bars and restaurants, many of which had been open since the 1980s.
Even as wrecking balls and bulldozers take down the six-story shophouses which have stood unchanged since the Vietnam War, many of the faithful patrons of the vanished drinking holes have remained, emerging around dusk to wander aimlessly amidst the wreckage of the only places in Bangkok outside their apartments where they feel comfortable.
“Where is Lone Star?” asked Melvin Summerville, a 68-year-old retiree from the United States. “I can’t find Lone Star. It’s supposed to be right here; it was right here,” he said over and over, pointing to pile of concrete rubble. When asked, Summerville said that he had been going to Lone Star for 16 years without ever going to another bar, and as such was unaware of where else he could get a beer.
When directed towards The Dubliner, a nearby Irish-themed pub, Summerville waved his hand in protest. “Can’t go in there,” he said. “There’s young people in there. And Thai women who have their own money. Can’t go in there, no way.”
He then joined a small group of about seven elderly Caucasian men who were standing silently in the street. Other groups were meandering nearby, perspiring visibly in the humid evening.
According to Thammasat University sociologist Nootaree Kampongrat, the refugee crisis was created by a “perfect storm” of variables, beginning with the unique status of the Washington Square real estate.
“The market value of the land surpassed the income from these cheap bars as early as 1993, but since the landowners wanted to sell the entire 20-rai plot as a single package rather than subdivide it, they had to wait for a buyer,” she said. According to Nootaree, this created what the real estate calls a “rent bog” where low-value businesses are permitted to continue in what otherwise should a be high-rent area.
“Washington Square has been living on borrowed time for 20 years, and so have these men,” she explained. “Meanwhile, they’ve been stuck in a capsule, getting older and even more entrenched in their habits.”
With rents unchanged since the 1970s, many of Washington Square’s bars were able to keep their drink prices artificially low, further isolating their patrons from the new and more upscale establishments that were springing up in the area. Additionally, the refusal of the landowners to upgrade any of the decrepit shophouses in Washington Square prevented the influx of any new businesses aimed at younger or more sophisticated customers.
Even the physical structure of the square was a factor, according to Nootaree. “Washington Square was literally walled off by darkness,” she noted. “It was similar to a cave ecosystem, where the indigenous species evolve in isolation, adapt to their bare resources, and eventually become a new species altogether.”
The possibility that the refugee patrons are suffering from a medical or psychiatric condition has caught the attention of the city government, which has sent in a team of doctors and a medical bus to provide basic services to the estimated 450 bar-less men, who have been reported to be suffering from dehydration, disorientation, and early signs of age-related dementia.
“These people need to be treated as patients,” said Dr Janapat Ruenpongrat, a psychologist on the team who has interviewed and treated many of the victims. “Most of them are 60 years or older, and almost all of them have never eaten or drank outside Washington Square or the Emporium since, well, last century. They’ve lost everything and they’re scared.”
Dr Janapat insisted that medical treatment was a short-term solution at best, and that these deeply sheltered sex tourists would need months of rehabilitation before being able to navigate a modern city like Bangkok on their own.
“They don’t speak Thai. Heck, they barely speak English,” she noted, referring to the truncated pidgin-English used by long-term expats who communicate exclusively with female bar employees and motorcycle taxi drivers.
“Also, they’re kind of poor,” she added. “I mean, just look at their shoes.”
Responding to the crisis, Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paribatra has promised to quickly find new places for the refugees to drink, carouse, and feel unthreatened by anything new, with sois 22 and 9 being vetted as prime candidates.
“Bangkok is better equipped than any city in the world to serve old white men who are uncomfortable with the wider world,” he said. “We are world leaders in providing economically desperate Asian women and unhealthy Western food. As governor I promise that these men will be taken care of.”
“They will live in Bangkok until they die. I promise you that much.”