By Mark Ellis
There should be a warning sign at the entrance to Bangkok’s red light district: any resemblance between this street and Dante’s second circle of hell are purely coincidental. Proceed at your own risk – few escape without burns to their soul.
But inferno is an apt description of Bangkok’s sex trade capital, and the squalid streets bear an eerie resemblance to Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem describing his journey through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.
On the last night of our mission trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, we decided to venture into the heart of darkness. Our church has begun to support the mission of Annie Dieselberg, who has lived in the red light district in Bangkok with her husband Jeff for almost 20 years, offering hope, healing, and rescue through Jesus to young women trapped in the sex trade.
We knew she operated a coffee shop in the midst of the squalor, but weren’t sure how to find it. As God led us, our taxi driver dropped us very close to her storefront location near Nana Plaza.
I had some trepidations as a man in entering this adult fantasy world, but thankfully, they evaporated quickly when I saw that the seedy, fetid reality was merely depressing and sad, with none of the enticement or allurement I might have expected.
Most of the male customers appeared to be Europeans or Americans, mostly gray, paunchy, long-in-the-tooth sad sacks, who spent a substantial amount of money to transport themselves to this man-made gehenna – something akin to the smoldering trash dump Jesus compared to hell.
At the open-air bars, with tables for two lining the boulevard, stacked 10 deep, men consumed by demons of lust prey upon young girls with fair skin from the countryside. Sipping tropical cocktails, they look longingly into one another’s eyes and make silly jokes, attempting to bridge the gap between the depravity of cruel intentions and lost innocence.
The customers are like a rollicking, lecherous ship of fools, headed madly for hades.
Dante condemned these “carnal malefactors” who allowed their lustful urges to overwhelm their senses. He
believed they would be at the forefront of those punished in hell.
We stopped to witness to a male prostitute convincingly dressed as a woman. As soon as he-she opened her mouth and we heard the whisky baritone voice, we felt compassion for this lost soul.
“Do you know God loves you?” I began. “God created you and He wants to give you hope; he cares about your future. He loves you with an everlasting love. If you want to get out of this, if you want to find a different job, there are some people who can help you…”
His eyes began to tear up. Perhaps God was touching this young man’s soul. We witnessed to several other young women and pointed them in the direction of Annie’s coffee shop.
The next morning following our visit, God brought a flood of tears to my devotional time, as I considered the horrors of the world I witnessed, considered the grace that saved me and freed me from my own lusts, and the gifts God gave us in our journey.
The English poet John Keats, in his sonnet “On a Dream,” further describes this lust-fueled ring in the abyss:
“But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where ‘mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.”