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SUNGAI GOLOK, Thailand — Pin is stumbling drunk. When she bends down to refill a customer’s Heineken, her hair dips into the beer. Her breath smells like menthols and fish sauce. She is shrieking advances in tortured English at any male who passes by.
None of this is particularly odd in Sungai Golok, a gritty border town in Thailand. Pin is a 35-year-old sex worker in one of the city’s countless open-air bars. Cooing at strangers and plying them with overpriced beer is part of her job.
But nerves are extra raw tonight. The city is under attack.
One hour earlier, five bombs erupted in quick succession in various parts of the city. An innocent woman, killed by flying shrapnel, is sprawled in the street just a few blocks away. Soldiers have hastily draped a white sheet over her body. It covers all but her feet and a single manicured hand.
Shopkeepers are yanking iron gates shut. Locals are hunkering indoors.
Yet, in the city’s red-light zone, the beer keeps flowing and the electro-pop keeps blaring.
“I’m really scared,” Pin says. “I’m also really drunk.”
You won’t find Golok on the cover of any guidebook. It’s a surreal sex destination that Thailand’s tourism authorities don’t like to talk about. It’s a little bit Tijuana, a little bit Kabul.
The city is located in Thailand’s touristed south, sought out for its deluxe resorts and crystal-sand beaches. But few Westerners (or Thais for that matter) like to venture this far into the Thai-Malaysia borderlands — a region plagued by Southeast Asia’s bloodiest insurgency.
Everything that makes Thailand infamous is available in Golok: cheap booze, late nights, rented female company.
But these parties just happen to be raging inside territory claimed by jihadis who pull off hundreds of bomb attacks each year.
The jihadis are hell-bent on turning this region into an Islamic breakaway state. Since 2004, their war against the Buddhist nation of Thailand has tallied more than 6,200 dead. That’s more conflict deaths in the last 10 years than in the Gaza Strip.
And yet the tourists keep coming. Not from Europe or the United States but from Muslim-majority Malaysia just across the border. They are men escaping provinces where Islamic codes forbid booze and miniskirts.
“When the Muslim guys get here, they drink hard,” says Tip, a brawny 33-year-old woman who manages Pin and several other women at the same bar. She has the look of an enforcer: camouflage pants, wallet chain, forearms raked by scar tissue.
Like many women on this strip, Tip has suffered from the attacks. She earned her scars right here, on the same strip, in a bombing several years back. For veterans of this city’s sex trade, witnessing an attack is practically a rite of passage. “I just cleaned off the blood and brought out more beer,” she says. “You have to get used to it.”
Pin — a slight woman in jean shorts — is still drowning her worries in beer. She executes a sloppy pirouette, trips and plops into the laps of two male customers. The men look nearly comatose-drunk, oblivious to the bombings. Pin cracks open another Heineken and charges it to their tab.
“Sorry, Pin usually doesn’t misbehave. She’s just scared,” Tip says. “But we can’t shut the bar every time there’s an incident.”
Nightclub bombings are just another casualty in southern Thailand’s guerrilla war, a conflict over land, power and religion.
This is where Southeast Asia’s Buddhist mainland, anchored by Thailand, merges uneasily into a long expanse of Muslim island nations.
The conflict dates back to the early 20th century when Siam (now Thailand) conquered Patani, an Islamic sultanate.
Its Muslim inhabitants were not thrilled to become subjects of a Buddhist kingdom. Their descendants have never quite assimilated into modern Thailand.
Many feel their homeland is still run like a colony. Four out of five people in the contested region are Muslim. Yet Thai Buddhists hold almost all of the power.
Obedience to the Thai state is enforced through never-ending martial law. The area is flooded with 60,000 armed security officers — about one for every 30 residents. Most don’t speak the local language (Malay), don’t follow the local faith (Islam) and don’t hesitate to raid villages under dubious pretexts.
Indignation has given rise to a shadowy network of jihadi cells with no unifying name or leader. In the war to reclaim their lost sultanate, the jihadis have rejected peaceful resistance in favor of extreme violence, often against civilians. They shoot monks, torch schools and deploy roadside bombs.
Their most sought-after prey: cops and soldiers, whom they call “Siamese pigs.” But they will attack anyone linked to the Thai state, including teachers, bureaucrats and Muslim collaborators.
Also targeted are brothels, karaoke joints and any place deemed an affront to Islamic values.
The region’s Muslim fighters are outraged at the spread of Thai sleaze, says Wan Kadir Che Man, an elder statesman of the insurgency. Now 73, he’s retired from managing separatist groups. But he still maintains contact with active jihadis.
“The [jihadis] say ‘This is against Islam!’ It’s their duty to eliminate this,” Wan Kadir says. “When you’re Muslim, and you see other people in your area doing things against Islam, you should stop them.”
For Wan Kadir, a man tempered by a youth spent in the US, bombing brothels is a step too far. But he insists that Thailand must defer to Muslim culture by moving sordid venues into walled-off zones away from public view.
Until that happens, he says, the nightclubs will continue to attract the wrath of hard-line jihadis. “For someone in the [Muslim villages] who just came back from Mecca ... this is very unusual,” Wan Kadir says. “This is very un-Islamic.”
Abu Imad is a 55-year-old insurgency leader who claims he is actively ordering attacks. In his eyes, brothels are more than just a nuisance. They’re a deliberate plot to pollute Muslim society.
“The Thais want to destroy our young generation,” says Abu Imad, who sits on the supreme council of the Patani United Liberation Organization, a separatist group founded in the late 1960s. “They use drugs and go to the prostitution house ... then they get HIV, go home and spread it to their wives.”
“Prostitution? No, no,” he says. “This is not our culture. This is their culture.”
“We’re not angels”
The Marina Hotel dominates Golok’s red-light scene.
At $31 per night, it is the city’s priciest attraction. That buys admission to a 15-story fortress of vice, with an in-house massage joint and two raucous nightclubs. There’s even a ballroom where diners are treated to a middle-aged crooner in Tammy Faye makeup butchering love songs.
The Marina Hotel is also a footnote in Asian terrorism history. In 2005, the insurgency’s first-ever car bomb exploded here, destroying the ballroom and claiming five lives. The hotel has been bombed at least four times, most recently in 2011 when four Malaysian tourists were killed.
And yet it’s often packed.
“You have to understand. We just want to be happy,” says Eddy, a goateed Muslim dad who slips out of Malaysia to party at the Marina. “Our government bans nightlife. So we have to seek out happiness in Thailand.”
In the Malay tongue, Sungai Golok means “Sword River.” A ribbon of neck-high water is all that separates the noise and squalor of Golok from Malaysia’s most devout state, Kelantan, a sleepy backwater with 1.5 million people. The state is controlled by an all-Muslim political party advocating for strict Islamic laws.
Forget about go-go bars; in Kelantan, cops can lock up unmarried women simply for making out. This is the sort of orthodoxy insurgents hope to enforce in Thailand’s deep south if they ever emerge victorious.
But many men living in Malaysia — namely Muslims and ethnic Chinese — seek an escape from this rigid society, at least for a weekend. Those with suspicious wives can even enter Thailand through back routes that don’t require a passport stamp.
“Yes, Islam says all this stuff is bad,” Eddy says. “But we’re not angels. Isn’t it normal to like girls?”
Like most male visitors to Golok, Eddy seems nonchalant about bombs potentially ruining his holiday.
It’s not like explosions are rare. The region, roughly the size of Connecticut, is hit by an average of 280 bombs per year, according to the independent organization Deep South Watch.
Bombs have ripped through Golok’s dance floors. They’ve exploded in karaoke joints and outside rent-by-the-hour hotels.
But after multiple Malaysian tourist killings, the city’s main red-light district is heavily defended. Closed-circuit cameras now scan every corner. Humvees rumble through every hour. Thai soldiers with M-16s stand guard outside neon-lit bars.
It has become a Green Zone for drunken men on the prowl.
The night ladies
The Night Lady is a karaoke joint stranded on one of the city’s rougher, second-tier party streets. The walls are painted Barbie pink. The squat toilet in back is accented by a disco ball twirling overhead.
“We’re open to everyone,” says Bam, the bar’s senior female employee. She is a twig-skinny woman with a ponytail and vigilant eyes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a terrorist, a cop or a soldier. We accept them all!”
Ten years ago, Bam was a 20-year-old young woman seeking an escape from the rice fields. She came in search of a job indoors, away from the aching drudgery of field work and the skin-searing heat.
She found it in a Golok dive bar more than 1,000 miles south of her village.
Bam is now a 30-year-old sex worker with a head full of dark memories. She has taken shrapnel to the face. She has seen ambulances haul off the dead. “Once you have your second and third bombing,” Bam says, “you start to get used to it.”
Most of the city’s working women share Bam’s backstory. The overwhelming majority migrate here from the rice-farming heartland in Thailand’s north and northeast.
“You don’t have to force girls to come work here. Everyone likes money,” Bam says. “People can say my dignity is more important. ... Well, can I buy food with dignity? Or do they take cash?”
Bam’s job requires daily binge drinking and sleeping with strangers. She witnesses the occasional patron-on-patron stabbing. Add to that the nagging fear of jihadi bombs.
Yet Bam insists that, for Golok’s working women, selling sex in an insurgency zone is often their least bad option in life. “The money’s decent,” she says. “It’s more profitable than working in Bangkok.”
Men flocking to Thailand’s high-profile red-light zones — in Bangkok and in coastal Pattaya, a notorious sleazefest — are fickle. They’re from faraway places like Australia, Russia or Japan. Their numbers ebb when the global economy slumps or Thailand suffers through a military coup.
But the Malaysian guys are consistent, Bam says. They’re always just a river crossing away, and so nightlife-starved that they’ll wade into an insurgency for beer and sex.
“Even if I found out a customer was a terrorist, I wouldn’t say anything,” Bam says. “I’m here to make friends. Not enemies.”
Roughly 24 hours have passed since Golok and its surrounding districts came under attack. Authorities have tallied the carnage: more than 20 bombs, most of them small, targeting schools, markets and shops.
Pin, looking hungover, is back out on the strip. A blast-resistant military vehicle is idling on a nearby curb. The same model, a South African-made REVA, is also popular with the Iraqi army. Baby-faced troops with assault rifles are posted in the shadows.
If the jihadis intended to scare away partygoers, they failed. City workers have yet to scrub the bomb char off the pavement. But the men who love Golok are undeterred.
Most are drifting toward the Marina’s upstairs disco. A doorman kindly encourages all guests to deposit handguns in lockers by the entrance.
Inside, there’s a stage of “coyote” dancers, Thai women in bikinis gyrating to electro-dance music cranked to gut-quivering volume. (The term “coyote” dancers draws from the US film “Coyote Ugly” about women dancing sexily on New York City bar tops.)
Everyone entering the disco is accosted by a Thai aunty in a lilac pantsuit. She cups her hand to customers’ ears and screams instructions: Pick your favorite coyote girl, buy her lots of alcohol and give aunty a tip.
She recommends a 20-year-old, nicknamed Benz, who has a Samsung Galaxy 3 wedged into her bikini bottoms. Aunty boasts that she’s imported all the girls from Khon Kaen, a farming province in the far north. “Khon Kaen girls are light skinned and sexy!” she shrieks. “Everyone knows that!”
Many of the customers are middle-aged men behaving like boys on spring break. They’re pawing at dancers’ tights. One guy keeps drunkenly ashing a cigarette in his friend’s beer.
Jihadis once managed to plant a small bomb behind the loudspeakers on this very floor. If they repeat their strike right now, it’s possible these guys wouldn’t notice.
Downstairs, in the hotel’s ballroom, the atmosphere is less abrasive. A plump female crooner belts out Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” She appears to have applied an entire makeup aisle to her face.
There are men here too. They’re smoking, blowing nicotine storm clouds at the ceiling in between bites of mediocre Thai food.
The only other entertainment is a wall-mounted TV running a local news program. The displayed image is startling: a dead woman, half covered in a sheet, under hazy fluorescent lamps. It’s the woman who was killed last night just three blocks away.
Like her attackers, she was Muslim. It wasn’t a targeted hit, just the haphazard murder of a woman who passed by at the wrong time. Somehow, the bomb blast barely loosened her hijab. It was the shrapnel (possibly tiny nails, a jihadi favorite) that took her life. Her name was Sarika Mama.
The news plays closed-circuit security footage of the bombing on a loop. Everyone in the ballroom can watch Sarika’s killing — a blinding flash that flings her body out of the camera’s right-hand frame.
The Thai staff is staring at the screen.
The male tourists look disinterested.
The crooner on stage begins warbling through Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.”
This article was edited by David Case, @DCaseGP.