Far Eastern Economic Review, May 11, 1995

Patpong Sisters:An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World, by Cleo Odzer.

Blue Moon Books, 141 Fifth Ave., New York. $24.95.

Is prostitution in Patpong and Pattaya a form of exploitation, or is it an entrepreneurial career by which girls and boys break out of a life of back-breaking poverty in the rice fields? Do Patpong girls suffer from marginalization in Thai conventional society, or do they gain new freedom to express their feelings and choose their destinies?

In Cleo Odzer's Patpong Sisters, the answers are always ambiguous. And as the author becomes personally involved in relationships both social and sexual with Patpong sex-industry workers, she also begins to suffer from the same confusion that afflicts male tourists in Thailand: Why is my partner with me? Is it only my money? What can I believe in this country; who can I trust?

This is not a crudely moralizing account. Its female authorship adds to its peculiarly ambiguous power. Odzer spent six years as a hippie in Goa before attending graduate school to study anthropology and research a doctorate on Thai prostitution. The interest of her account centers on her lively and outgoing personality and the way she gets to know others and makes friends. She retains many of the positive qualities of the hippie traveller -- a facility for forming human relationships and a real interest in people. Yet as we watch her befriend Patpong boys and girls and form a relationship with a male pimp, the author moves, to our great surprise, in exactly the same direction as most males in Thailand -- away from close emotional involvement with those with whom she has liaisons and towards a consumerist hedonism.

Out of this transformation a revealing account emerges, one that is clearly true to her feelings, to her sexuality and to the rich ambiguities of the environment. The book closes with the author sunning herself on a Thai beach, a beautiful Thai beach-boy beside her, declaring that Thailand's "really a paradise for foreigners" -- one which, as she is quite aware, depends on the forced prostitution of 12-year-old boys and girls.

Is this true innocence, or the heart of darkness? As the books ends we realize that we have been brought, unawares, and with considerable skill, into a world of extraordinary moral ambiguity, in which the sexual attentions of the author's paedophile neighbour on the beach for his 11-year-old Thai boyfriend no longer appear wholly evil; in which we are suddenly enticed into seeing prostitution in less than fully condemnatory terms.

Long after finishing the book the flavour of moral ambiguity lingers. Has the author "sold out" her sex to embrace the male view? Has she been seduced by the pleasures of being an exploiter? It is hard to say. In any case, it is difficult to dislike Odzer, as spunky and sparky a traveller as you are ever likely to meet on the wide road of life.

-- Matthew Montagu-Pollock

Matthew Montagu-Pollock is a writer based in Hong Kong.