After an exhausting night, I finally reach the entrance.
From the outside, nothing about this building stands out in particular. Its true nature is neatly camouflaged in an array of glittery high-end malls.
But at 2 am, things become.. strange.
As I step into the densely fluorescent-lit dungeon that is Orchard towers, my already numbed senses go haywire. The contrast between the familiar comfort of Orchard Road and this new environment is jarring. I instantly become hyper-aware of my surroundings.
Within this micro-universe, an entire red light district is compressed into a building that oozes with poor decisions and regrets.
Decades of alcohol, perfume, vomit, and detergent have layered the inner surfaces with an intangible grime, conjuring an unmistakable aroma that is hard to ignore.
I start heading in deeper into the dizzying labyrinth. One of the first things that strike me in this chaotic world is the diverse mix of people visiting the place. Next is the sheer amount of women present.
But I’m here for a specific destination. I know precisely what I want and where I’m going to get it. As I visualize my destination, dopamine begins to charge my movements with momentum, infusing purpose in each step that I take. My visual landscape is now narrowed to a point of singular focus.
I’m finally going to get it.. and I can’t wait.
Escalators are tricky. I’m forced to confront other passengers in an awkward and motionless transitional state. I put up a brave front and ignore the odd looks. People don’t come here at this time for many other reasons. A brief look into the eyes of another visitor reveals enough – but the judgement is reciprocal. I decide it’s best to avoid eye contact.
As I’m about to step off the escalator, I’m abruptly greeted with my first obstacle. There’s a lady waiting at the end.
“Hello”, she says with a regurgitated smile, masking an undeniable jadedness.
The stranger reaches out and grabs the side of my arm.
“Uh it’s okay, no thanks”, I let out feebly, awkwardly motioning my disinterest.
“Why so boring, where you going?” She fluctuates her intonation to sound enticing, but it’s hard to miss the tinge of dread in her voice.
I ignore the half-hearted plea and move on.
If you’re only accustomed to the sterile carbon-copy malls that line our garden city, it’s easy to be overwhelmed in this primal free for all.
To the uninitiated, it’s pure sensory overload. Bass lines and foreign sounding music reverberate incoherently from multiple directions; a gaze in the wrong direction will earn you unsolicited catcalls.
Blatant sexual signalling, normally blanketed by layers of social norms, are on full unfiltered display in this arena.
Women of all shapes and shades flaunt their stuff without holding back, offering you a range of thrilling possibilities to end your night. The corridors are lined with endless rows of massage parlours, clubs, and other “entertainment” venues.
There is no shortage of options.
Hey you! No photo, No photo!
Taking photos here is risky business. For obvious reasons. I’m breaking a huge taboo by whipping out my phone to take photos. I recognize how inappropriate it is as I’m doing it. But hey, how else can I capture the inner life of this idiosyncratic world?
No good can come about being associated with this place at this time, so understandably, people get pissed. Despite my best attempts to be discreet, I get shut down and shouted at pretty quickly.
“Okay, okay, sorry!”, I try chalk it off to drunk behavior and partially fake a stumble off. I didn’t get beaten up, thankfully.
It’s hard not to miss the striking characteristics of this ecosystem. The different species of visitors here are easy to spot. Most of them belong to the foreigner variety. There are the seasoned expats, cool and collected, heading to their favourite spots with familiar ease. There are other foreigners, on the prowl for someone that fits their “type”, with budget and price always weighing down on their mind.
The flow of visitors is punctuated by groups of rowdy caucasian tourists, charged with testosterone and high on the pursuit of getting some action.
While most people come here for some form of entertainment (in one way or another), the experiences here are extremely varied. Depending on your budget and appetite, things here range from mild fun to, well, hardcore.
There are visitors that come here for the relatively tame ventures, like the typical Thai clubs or “Siam Tius”, paying for girls to accompany them as drinking partners for the night while enjoying the onstage performances.
There’s even a Russian club that employs a similar concept but filled with girls of eastern European descent.
There are those that go straight to massage parlours to opt for the more, direct experiences, and private room KTV’s, which warrant a story on their own.
In this wild land, it’s important to observe proper body language amidst the cacophony of visitors and permanent residents. As a general rule, mind your own business. You can browse, but don’t stare. Do not, ever, get into fights here.
I finally approach my destination on the third floor towards the right – the reason for my journey: Korat Thai Cafe.
It stands out as a sanctuary to the madness. A peaceful oasis that provides sustenance to weary visitors. The food here is undeniably amazing; being drunk makes it extra heavenly.
There is only one dish worth mentioning here. Every other dish is secondary. Everything else in life is secondary.
Fuck soft and fluffy Jamie Oliver omelettes. This ultra crispy deep fried oily Thai omelette is unbeatably delicious – a perfect savoury happy ending to a long night of drinking.
After taking my first bite, I’m reminded again why I bother to make the journey here after an exhausting KTV session across the street.
As I’m about to leave with a satisfied grin on my face, I spot another semi-drunk patron next to me and decide to strike up a conversation.
I position myself as a newcomer trying to figure out the best way to have a good time here.
Unexpectedly, he gives me a full detailed rundown.
Julian (not his real name, obviously) a tallish guy in his late 20’s, tells me he earns a pretty decent living as a commodity trader.
According to him, the routines are standard. He frequents this place around twice a month with his friends on weekends, usually starting out at a Thai Disco for drinks, followed by some China KTV.
This kind of lifestyle doesn’t come cheap. He tells me that KTV’s are pricey, and he can easily spend $3,000 a month in total here. Either he’s stretching the truth out of his tipsiness, or he’s one hell of a trader.
Sometimes, it’s part of his job, he claims. Clients request to be brought here and it’s how business works.
I start wondering if this is really a norm; I figure the industry hardly has any women in it.
“Coming here is a different world completely. Different from going to your normal clubs like Zouk or Bang Bang. Why try score girls there, when over here they compete for you?”
He has a point, I guess. The dynamics here are reversed. Assuming your wallet is loaded.
I ask him what the girls are like. He cheerfully replies “What about them? Money makes the world go round. It’s like a buffet”
“You choose one girl to drink and sing with you, and if you’re lucky and they like you enough, you might get more.”
It’s clear that spending enough time here has the inevitable, but unfortunate, effect of making you objectify women. There’s no denying the blatantly misogynistic overtones. To be fair, I wasn’t exactly expecting to meet a feminist when I began the conversation either.
Without further prompting, he goes on to tell me that he’s received a massage here once, and “Went home and slept like a baby after”.
He leaves me with some parting advice: “Just don’t be a douche about it, I’ve seen some dudes getting kicked out.”
Inside this microcosm nestled comfortably within the prime shopping district, you get to observe human nature stripped from any pretensions of the outside world. Visitors come here with needs; permanent residents are here to fulfil those needs. No questions asked.
This is a side of human nature in its raw, unadulterated form.
If you decide to venture into the murky belly of Orchard towers yourself, try leaving your preconceived notions at the door. Look past the fake smiles of the permanent residents and wired gazes of the visitors; it’s too easy to reduce people to one-dimensional caricatures.
You may not like what you see. You will likely feel uncomfortable. But eventually, you might come to realize that most human interactions, even emotional ones, are transactional.
The only difference is that in here, they accept Visa.