A city of love
Experiencing one of the most thriving industries of Bangkok
By Haroon Khalid
It was our last night at Bangkok and we were at the Patpong market, a Thai version of Anarkali in the centre of Heera Mandi. While the stalls were laid out in the middle of the road selling t-shirts and tops that are also available in the markets of Pakistan, there were strip clubs, bars and restaurants on the side. The Patpong market in Bangkok is one of the leading red light areas of the city, arguably the prostitution capital of the world.









‘Up North, way up North.’ The hotel receptionist in Glasgow saw our bummed out faces and told us like he was enjoying our misery when we begged for the Scotland of ‘Braveheart’. The city was a disappointment, so was Edinburgh — only because my mind was ‘corrupted’ by the exceptionally mind-blowing backdrop of the legendary film. ‘Why, oh why, do they do this to us?’ only if they had added “the film was shot way up North in Scotland” it wouldn’t have been such a disappointment.

For now, this will have to do.

It’s more serious than this though.

Set-jetter phenomenon, as it is called sometimes, has been there since movie-makers made locations an integral part of their films.

With people depending more on movies for recreation, which still remains one of the most accessible forms of entertainment too, cinema is taking tourism industry to a whole new level. Count on your fingers and you will figure it out — ‘Mission Impossible’ in Dubai, ‘Harry Potter’ in England, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in England, ‘Beach’ in Thailand, ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and ‘War of the Worlds’ in New Zealand – nearly all the countries depending heavily on their tourism.

The list hasn’t even begun.

Today’s culture is dangerously visual — even kids refuse to believe what they can’t see. From oral tradition to travelogues, the power of visuals particularly in terms of film and television supersedes all.

Visual ‘manipulation’ as some call it has led to the unparalleled success of animation and graphics. One form of this exploitation is the world we see in the movies — the parallel universe that runs with the unreal yet true to life plot. The unreachable places where Tom Cruise comes face-to-face with aliens or Harry Potter experiences his first brush with magic are anything but fantastic, they are as real as, say, Lahore.

The trick is: take Trafalgar Square and turn it into a kaleidoscope of costumes and bhangra. That is what movie-makers from around the world have been doing for a long time.

In Hollywood the trend is nothing new. Take this, for example: more than 300,000 tourists visit the Austrain city Salzburg every year because they have either seen or heard of the city through ‘Sound of the Music’, a 60s classic.

Location is one of the major instruments of individualising their piece of work. Major directors like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Gore Verbinski are known for giving primary importance to location managers and doing ample homework in this regard before starting the project. Being seasoned film-makers, they know the importance of location in a project.

Even when a new Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp movie is announced, the possible destination for the movie is announced simultaneously. In recent years, this has been the case with ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The latter, not being shot in the Caribbean, of course, but in supposedly the ‘most neglected county of England, St Ives.’

The government hoped to make St Ives a tourist attraction after the film was shot there. Likewise, after the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, New Zealand government is said to have ‘done a lot to get the Hobbit shot here’. The movie was hailed by the interior ministry as one of the major events of the year. Before that, we knew of New Zealand as a country with sheep, lots of sheep.

Closer to home, Bollywood romance became popular with blockbusters like ‘Chandni’ (1989) and ‘Lamhe’ (1991). The legendary Yash Chopra rendered the Indian cinema its identity as truly international when he took his films to the Swiss Alps. There was no looking back as other notable filmmakers picked up the trend. ‘Dil Waley Dulhaniya Le Jaye Ge’ (1995) made it a prerequisite for the success of a film. Exotic was the word of the day. The two-fold purpose was successfully served here — appealing to the large Hindi-speaking diaspora and glamourising the signature Bollywood romance.

Although the trend is seeing a reversal with the spotlight on local destinations like Goa, Kashmir and Tamil Nadu, aimed to be a part of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign which targets tourists from around the globe. The latest Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Chennai Express’ is sure to give a boost to the Tamil Nadu tourism.

Syed Noor reached Turkey long before the local channels did. His successful movie venture ‘Jeeva’ (1995) was shot in and around Istanbul. Shamim Ara’s ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ (1993), ‘Munda Bigra Jaye’ (1995) and ‘Miss Istanbul’ (1996) were hugely popular and one of their marketing tactics included foreign locations. For what it was worth, the films made good money and a tad of credit was given to the locations.

The Turkish drama craze on the local television is felt even around us, hearing people say: “Turkey is amazing, let’s go to Turkey.” Local distributors who take credit for the rapid popularity of these soaps claim tourism in Turkey is thriving thanks to the likes of TV soaps such as ‘Fatimagul’ and ‘Mera Sultan’. Talk about media power. These dubbed operas seem to have more effect on the audience than any paid content can ever have.

In 2003, the award for the Outstanding Contribution to English Tourism was given to none other than ‘Harry Potter’. The film’s location, including Oxford (the location for Hogwarts), has special Harry Potter tours — a macrocosm of how tourism thrives under the wings of cinema.

No wonder, countries with conducive travel conditions (security conditions, weather, things-to-do etc) are hunting major film houses for the promotion of their travel destinations. Take, for instance, the International Indian Film Awards (IIFA) which choose a different destination every year not only making the biggest film industry accessible but promoting tourism on the way.

Film, like any form of fiction, is make-belief but real location adds reality making it reachable for the audience. Set-jetting is nothing but a reflection of how we would believe anything we see, and how even buy everything we see. Who doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of Tom Hanks and Shahrukh Khan? This is the more practical and real side of the money-making business.

The money spent on films is worth billions spent on advertising. Hence proven: we go where they tell us to go.

(Statistics quoted from the Ministry of Tourism New Zealand website, Ministry of Tourism UK and guardian.co.uk)



A city of love
Experiencing one of the most thriving industries of Bangkok
By Haroon Khalid

It was our last night at Bangkok and we were at the Patpong market, a Thai version of Anarkali in the centre of Heera Mandi. While the stalls were laid out in the middle of the road selling t-shirts and tops that are also available in the markets of Pakistan, there were strip clubs, bars and restaurants on the side. The Patpong market in Bangkok is one of the leading red light areas of the city, arguably the prostitution capital of the world.

The doors of the strip club were open and there were Thai women dancing on a stage with poles, wearing bikinis and lingerie. I had to accidentally glance into one of them before the pimp came rushing w0ith his drinks menu. “Come for one beer. Come for one beer. No charge for looking.” The fact that I was with my wife did not deter him from asking.

After having dinner at a restaurant next to this strip club we decided that we will complete this rite of passage of going to a strip club to consummate our trip to Thailand.

From the start we were an odd pair in a strip club, with our shopping bags around us and our arms across each other’s shoulder. A few strippers turned to look and after passing a brief smile looked away preferring to face the empty seats on the other side of the club. At a little distance from us sat another group of girls preparing for their turn on the poles.

Our waiter was a manly looking Thai woman who must have been in her sixties. To complete her look she was wearing a manly dress shirt along with a dress pant. Despite her intimidating tone and voice she was particularly sweet to us even though she knew that we weren’t the long-term customers type.

Behind the counter another woman who must have been in her forties smiled at us while she cleaned the glasses. She looked like someone who commanded respect. What was her exact position in the social hierarchy of this strip club which was really a brothel? Was she too once a prostitute?

And then entered the pimp from behind a curtain, wearing a black shirt and a black pant, his top shirt button opened, displaying his gold chains. He was on the phone and both of his fingers were also covered with gold. In the darkness of this strip club he wore sunglasses. He must have been in his late sixties but his hair was dyed jet-black.

In Pakistan the pimps at Heera Mandi are usually on the lowest scale of social hierarchy even though according to the stereotype they are believed to keep the prostitutes there by force. It is the matron in fact, a former prostitute herself who is in-charge of the brothel and the household. This though is the dynamic of traditional brothels that were run in Heera Mandi. Now after the crackdown of Zia-ul-Haq brothels have scattered all over the city of Lahore giving birth to new sorts of relations and all sorts of people entering the business. The traditional business had its own ethics which apart from exploiting the women in the business, also provided them with other forms of security in the form of family and kinship.

Now the situation has changed. Exploitation has increased and at the head of these organisations are not matrons but criminal men who are believed to kidnap girls from rural areas.

In Thailand the current form of prostitution does not have historical links but is rather a product of recent historical and political events. During the Second World War when the Japanese soldiers took over Thailand they exacerbated the situation. The situation was worsened by the American soldiers using Thailand as a resting point during the Vietnam War.

Today it is supported by a million dollar sex tourist industry. American and European men throng to the South East Asia in the search of cheap disposable love that could be discarded at the end of the trip.

I spent a week in Thailand of which the first four days were spent at Koh Samui while the rest in Bangkok. Throughout my time there I noticed several old white men walking with a hand around the waist of a young Thai girl who was extracting money out of the love sick customer in the form of shopping. Some of these men were as old as late seventies while the girls barely out of their teenage years.

We were still to finish our solo drink at the club when an old white man entered with a young beautiful Thai girl dressed up a in a neat dress. She held shopping bags from branded shops in her hand. Their entrance changed the atmosphere of the club. Everyone turned towards the man like bees attracted towards honey. He seemed to bask in the attention he was getting while his girlfriend was happy to show her friends her shopping. He danced with them bought them drinks at their own bar and flirted with everyone. While he was in the club no other customer was important enough.

Just before we were about to leave a young white boy came and sat on a seat next to us. He was blushing and smiled at us. The manly waitress rushed towards him and gestured the girls sitting vacant nearby to sit with him. One of them sat on one side while another on the other. The young boy continued blushing but bought all of them drinks.

Haroon Khalid is the author of A White Trail (Westland Publishers, 2013).




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