01/06/2014 04:02 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2014

Thailand Journal I: Chiang Mai Bargirls

The first thing one notices driving into the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from the airport at night are the bargirls. Thailand is famous for bargirls and prostitutes, but this Northern city is particularly dark after sundown, with shuttered storm fronts, weathered buildings and desolate factories testifying to its backwater status. The only thing lighting up the darkness is the girls, hundreds of girls, dressed to the nines but for what? There's nothing particularly unique about a tableau of Thai bar girls, yet the disparity between their appearance and the hopelessness of their predicament is what is most dramatic. Where are the customers? Hardly any are in sight. Women turn to prostitution in countries like Thailand due to poverty and while it's not legal, it's plainly more than tolerated by the local authorities. However this is not Las Vegas. Chiang Mai is known for its culture of serious Thai massage and Lanna Architecture and for being the gateway to the temples of the Golden Triangle. It's a far cry from fleshpots like Bangkok and Phuket, with their legendary "soapy massages" where the wandering sybarite can find him or herself turned into the filling of a human sandwich. However there is still the matter of the girls. Why choose a profession for which the supply is so far greater than the demand? When you look at these creatures, whose supernal beauty, creates its own olfactory sensation, a kind of imagined perfume that can ignite a fever of longing, you're reminded of the painted horses on a children's carousel, moving up and down, turning round and round and going nowhere.