How much money do bar girls make? This is a question I have been asked many times. It is also something that various people from punters in Pattaya to sociologists in London discuss amongst themselves. After years of research I can provide an answer. Though it is not going to be quick or easy.
Bar girls or more accurately bar women earn a wide range of incomes. The difference between one lady and another can come down to anything from place of work to work ethic. Other things can also come into play. Some ladies are eager and actively search out customers while others would rather sit in the corner and look at Facebook on their phones. It is like any other sort of work in that regard.
Girlie bars in Southeast Asia
I am going to focus on the ladies who work bars oriented to foreigners in Southeast Asia. I do know a bit about the women who work sex-oriented bars in places like Medellin, Seoul and even Vienna as shown by my reporting here. But there are many more bars in Southeast Asia and with that more “bar girls”. There is also more of a consistent industry and a sort of shared history with bars in countries like Thailand and Cambodia that can be more thoroughly examined.
The hostess bars in Vietnam date back at least to the Vietnam War. Not coincidentally the rise of the go go bar capitals of Angeles City and Pattaya originated at around the same time. Many things have changed since then. But in some ways the bars of today aren’t all that different than some of the originals.
Due to local events and particularities the hostess bars in Cambodia came later during the UNTAC operations of the early 1990’s. But those bars were more or less patterned on the hostess bars of Saigon. So they too share a kind of common history.
Coming to terms
There’s no way to put an exact number on the income of all bar workers in Southeast Asia. There are some quite gals in Phnom Penh hostess bars who make as little as two or three hundred dollars a month and are happy to earn as much as women who work twelve hour shifts in garment factories. Then there are the glamorous gals who work high roller rooms of casinos or are labeled “models” in soapy massage parlors that make several thousand USD per month.
A popular gal at a soapy massage parlor in Bangkok can make tens of thousands of US dollars per month. And that’s without picking up a sponsor willing to splurge which happens all across the region. Even a mid range gal in a Phnom Penh KTV can out earn some workers in rich countries like the United States and France. So it is not all dark brothels and grinding poverty in the Southeast Asian sex scene. Though poor living conditions are certainly a motivator for some who enter the industry to begin with.
A more common motivating factor in Southeast Asia is familial financial considerations. A lot of money made in bars ends up in the hands of the families of the women who work the bars. It can pay to take care of children left in villages or even support a brother’s gambling and drinking habits. Both are at least as common as the infamous sick buffalo.
Overall it does appear that sex workers usually out those in their peer group. It is rare that a person of the same age with a similar background and education would earn more than a gal in a bar. That can even be true if we’re talking about university graduates from urban centers!
Easy come easy go
A lot of money that passes through bars certainly ends up with various relatives of bar women. But the gals keep or spend a significant amount too. And it can be a case of “easy come, easy go”. In other words ladies who work bars can sometimes spend money as fast as they make it. This explains why some veterans can be found in bars after ten or even twenty years in the field. Often though the tap eventually runs dry.
Take a somewhat popular gal approaching thirty years of age who works a blowjob bar in Pattaya. She has been in the field for almost ten years. She will have sex with guys who pay though she says she much prefers to give oral. These days she gets about 700 Baht ($23 USD) a go from multiple men daily plus tips and drink credits. She averages about 100 dollars a day. That is ten times the minimum wage in Thailand. Since she takes off just one day a week she earns around $2600 a month. That is five to seven times what new university graduates in her country can expect to earn.
Every time I run into this gal she complains that she doesn’t have any money. Sometimes she says she doesn’t even have enough money to buy street food that costs less than a dollar. Gold appears on her arms and ears only to disappear later as it is sold for cash. Once she showed off her new cherry red high speed motorcycle a few days after crying poverty. Another time I saw her driving a new Toyota car. When I asked about it later she said it was hers. She also lives in a condo complete with swimming pool and turn down service.
While she is a unique individual her story is not a rare one. That doesn’t mean that all women who work bars in Southeast Asia simply spend any money they make. As with anything there can be quite a bit of variation. Some ladies go to work in a bar only to make a family with a customer and never look back. Others parlay their bar income into something larger and make a go at that.
Case in point
I know around a dozen ladies from a particular hostess bar in Phnom Penh who have gone on to do all sorts of things that might not be expected. Many onlookers would probably describe the changes they’ve gone through as a real positive. Though ultimately that would depend on your perspective. In any event I think looking at the way the lives of these ladies have changed over the last ten years can be quite instructive.
Three of the gals went on to open their own hostess bars; two of which are very busy. One married an American business man and lives in a large suburban home in the US with her three children. One partnered with some Asian business men to open a large and popular mainstream pub and restaurant in Phnom Penh that seems to do quite brisk business. Another partnered with a Malaysian man to open a popular hot pot restaurant that now has two locations. One more married a Chinese man and opened a restaurant popular with Chinese people. Yet another two sisters opened a chain of coffee shops back in Vietnam. Another gal went into the real estate field and now wears business attire while sat in an air conditioned office. Finally one ended up managing a mid-range restaurant popular with the NGO set in the capital.
On the other hand there is also a frankly ghoulish looking lady who hovers around the bar the above mentioned ladies once worked. She has been around at least since the earlier days of the now shuttered Cat House. That means she has many years in the industry though she has not found a way out. Perhaps she never sought one though it is obviously difficult for her to earn a living today. I imagine most lady drinks she gets these days come out of pity. So everyone is obviously not a winner.