Thailand nightlife
For illustration purposes only. A woman sits on a stool outside a shop and bars in the red-light district of Patpong in downtown Bangkok on Oct. 27, 2011. Photo: AFP

When the CIA Ran Covert Operations From Bangkok's Red-Light District

A new museum in Patpong, long known for its seedy nightlife, is showcasing a less understood history of the area.
October 30, 2020, 10:43am

Before the pandemic, touts working the neon-lit main drag of Bangkok's notorious nightlife district Patpong, near the city's Old Town, would emerge from the shadows, aggressively offering options for massages, sex, or tickets to the area's racy ping-pong shows.

On a recent Saturday evening, however, there were few to be seen. Against a back-drop of mainly shuttered Go-Go bars, a few solitary drinkers, and an otherwise largely empty strip, one man slouched on his tuk-tuk and lazily shouted an offer of "boom boom" (sex) from a distance before giving up.

The global shutdown brought about by the coronavirus, which has decimated the once booming tourism and nightlife industries in Thailand, is one reason for the decline of Patpong, but its image has been in free-fall for quite some time.

"Patpong has a very bad reputation," said Abhiradee "Apple" Jantanangkool. "On the streets, many people have been tricked by the touts, or in the ping-pong shows, so they don't want to come here. Instead they go to Nana or [Soi] Cowboy," she said, referring to other areas of ill-repute in the Thai capital. 

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A security guard walks through a near-empty bar in the Patpong entertainment area after the reopening of bars as restrictions to halt the spread of the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) disease are eased in Bangkok on July 1, 2020. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

But Jantanangkool wants more people to understand Patpong's intriguing history, from the farmer who escaped impoverished China in the late 19th century and laid the groundwork for the district, to the CIA intrigue of the 1960s and 1970s as part of the American anti-Communist crusade in Southeast Asia. Jantanangkool is the general manager of the new Patpong Museum, which was founded and curated by an Austrian national who runs the nearby Barbar Fetish Club and Black Pagoda nightclub. 

The emergence of the area's Go-Go Bar scene is only the latest chapter featured in the museum, which opened in October 2019 as part of aims to improve the area's image, both among Thai and foreign visitors.

"A lot of people, including Thais, are scared of coming to Patpong. But we want to say to them that it's not a scary place. That there are nice bars and restaurants here, and you can also learn about its history," she said.

The story opens with a man named Tun Poon, who was born in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan in 1881, and migrated 12 years later with his family to what was then the relatively prosperous Kingdom of Siam.

Tun Poon soon entered Thailand's growing rice trade, but quickly noticed that the soil about 100 kilometres north of the capital had a high concentration of calcite,  poor for growing rice but ideal for producing cement. He struck a deal with the Siam Cement Group, established by royal decree in 1913. SCG is today majority owned by Thailand's royal family. 

SCG had previously largely been reliant on expensive imports of calcite, and the deal with Tun Poon allowed them to increase their profit margins. In 1930 King Prajadhipok, Thailand's Rama VII, bestowed upon Tun Poon the title Luang ("Venerable") Patpongpanich. In 1946, he purchased a banana plantation between Silom and Surirong roads on the area that is today Patpong's main strip.

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Patpong road in the daytime in Oct. 17 2020. Photo: Oliver Slow

Patpongpanich died in 1950 but his son Udom, who was educated abroad and involved in the Thai resistance movement against the Japanese during World War II, had the business savvy of his father. When Udom returned to Thailand after his studies in the United Kingdom and the United States, he brought with him contacts he had established with the US Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence agency that was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Before his death, Patpongpanich had built a new road connecting Suriwong and Silom roads as a shortcut, which Udom used to establish Patpong Road as Bangkok's first Central Business District. Some of its early tenants included Caltex, United Press, Shell and Air France.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States government was increasing its presence in Southeast Asia as part of a growing campaign to stop the spread of Communism. This included support for the Nationalist Chinese army, or Kuomintang, which was hiding out in Burma's Shan State following defeat at the hands of Chairman Mao's Communists; the covert operations around the Laotian Civil War; and Vietnam.

As one of the few business districts in Bangkok at the time, and with the apparent intelligence contacts of Udom, Patpong emerged as the center of undercover operations. Air America – the clandestine CIA airline that launched forays into countries including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma - established its offices at number 3 Patpong Road, according to CIA documents. America's propaganda arm, the United States Information Service, also had operations there.

The museum illustrates this period of history with various displays, including an original of Mao's Little Red Book, an Air America letter marked with the Patpong office address, as well as Thai-language anti-Communist propaganda produced by the US.

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An Air America memo from 1967. Screenshot of document from CIA archives.

Other exhibits include a replica of the Patpong neighborhood as it is today, a poster for the 1978 war epic Deer Hunter – part of which was filmed in Patpong and used for Saigon street scenes – as well as a section dedicated to music legend David Bowie, who recorded part of the Ricochet music video at the nearby Superstar bar in 1983.

There's also a celebration of Patpong's more disreputable side, including historical photos of nightlife scenes going back decades, the history of the area's first Go-Go Bar (it was called the Grand Prix and opened by a former US Air Force pilot in 1969), and an interactive "ping-pong" machine - where visitors use a net to catch balls fired from a robotic vagina. 

Across the street from the museum is the Madrid Bar, a cosy and welcoming place with a rich history. It is managed by Jenjira "Jenny" Prasertsin, whose Thai mother and American stepfather, who served in Vietnam, established it in 1969. The Madrid was a popular watering hole for renowned CIA agents of the time, including Jack Shirley and Anthony Poshepny, otherwise known as Tony Poe. Above the bar, in the Madrid Apartments - today a dusty, rundown hotel - is what many believe was once a CIA safehouse.

"People didn't just come in and say 'Oh, I'm CIA,' but you knew with these guys. They had a certain way about them," said Prasertsin, who grew up working behind the bar. Her most vivid memories are of Jack Shirley, who according to an obituary written after his death in 2003, worked for the CIA in Laos between 1961 and 1968. 

"Most people don't realise the CIA was created to do the things the country couldn't do out in the open," Shirley once said. "Nothing we did was legal. Everything we did was illegal. 'Plausible deniability' was the name of the game."

"I remember Jack well," Prasertsin said, smiling. "He was here so often, a lot of people thought he was my dad. He would sit in his stool at the end of the bar all day, drinking Singhas. People would come and go all day asking for Jack."  

"If you were sitting in Jack's seat when he came in, you'd better move. That was Jack's seat," she said.

A close accomplice of Shirley's was CIA legend Poe, who served with the Marines on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II, and trained refugee saboteurs against the North Korean Communists during the Korean War, before joining Overseas Southeast Asia Supply (SEA Supply), a Bangkok-based CIA front that, among other things, provided military equipment to Kuomintang forces in Burma, as they attempted unsuccessfully to re-take southern China from the Communists. Poe was also involved in a failed military uprising against Indonesian President Sukarno in 1958. Unfortunately, rumors that he was the inspiration for Marlon Brando's blood-thirsty Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" are probably untrue.

Poe and Shirley are better known for their exploits in Laos, however. Both were involved in the CIA's secret war in the land-locked country, where they trained Hmong hill tribes to fight North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces, who were attempting to spread their Communist message further west. It was here Poe's apparent exploits gained infamy. He is said to have paid Hmong fighters to bring him the ears of dead enemy soldiers, and dropped severed heads onto enemy locations. It was also a war that grants Laos the dubious honor of being the most bombed country per capita in the world, after the United States dropped 260 million bombs over Laos between 1964 and 1973.

It is Patpong's CIA links in particular that are drawing an increasing number of Thai people to the area, said Jantanangkool.

"A lot of people had no idea about this aspect of its history," the museum manager said. She is also planning to establish street art murals and a craft market in Patpong but admitted she is facing resistance from local businesses.

"It's very difficult to change this area. But the place is really struggling at the moment, of course because of COVID, but it was struggling before that," she said.

Madrid Bar's Prasertsin said she welcomed any activities that could improve Patpong's image, and said she had made efforts to turn the Madrid Bar into a more family-friendly establishment. "We used to have a lot of girls in here, but we don't want people grab-assing in here, it's a family place. So, we said to people, you can eat here and go and grab ass somewhere else afterwards," she said.

She said that the efforts to clean up her bar's reputation had been good for business, and that it had gotten more customers in recent months, especially since the museum opened.

"I know a lot of people, especially Thais, don't have a very nice view of Patpong, but that seems to be changing. Young people especially are open minded, and they want to learn more about this area's history," she said.