It was my 30th birthday – and my husband decided to treat me to a vacation in Phuket. Sun, sand, and sea were on my mind as I made my way to our resort, set just off Patong Beach. But I did not account for the partying of my life when I got here. One of the first places we visited after we checked in to our hotel was the buzzing Patong Beach and nearby Bangla Road.

Even during the day, Bangla Road hinted at the rollicking evening it offered vacationers. There was something for everyone here – a mall; streetside shopping; delicious food stalls interspersed with larger, more popular restaurants; locals selling wares and the promise of night time fun; and loud music playing around the area. Eager to check the nightlife out, especially since it was a weekend, we decided to come back in the evening.

As we made our way to Bangla Road at 8pm, we were hit by a sensory overload of music, booze, and locals trying to sell tickets to various sex performances. We decided to take it slow and start with hitting some bars.

Bangla Road can be as seedy or as normal as you want it to be; we saw everyone from young couples and families to old Western men walking around with what we assumed to be ladyboys – but nobody batted an eyelid. Thailand is anything if not open to sexuality. Lined along Bangla Road were hundreds of bars, offering different kinds of experiences.

Want to sit and talk with some soft jazz music playing in the background? No problem. Want a Bollywood-style dancing night out? You’ll get that too. Interested in some karaoke-style singing? They’ve got that for you as well. Or simply want to get drunk and watch pole-dancing women swaying to the latest beats? That’s available as well.

We did all of the above and more – the only thing common between all being copious amounts of alcohol and lively music. In the process, we made some rather interesting friends – an old couple from Napa Valley looking to reignite the passion in their relationship; a group of friends from Eritrea out for their friend’s bachelor party; a young Thai woman from Chiang Mai, who was moonlighting as a pole dancer; and a hippie Australian family with their three kids all in tow at an ‘exotic’ bar (who cares, though, we weren’t judging)!

By far the best part about Bangla Road (and, by extension, all of Thailand) is the lack of judgement or moral compass – refreshing indeed for those of us who come from lesser tolerant countries. Before we knew it, we were singing and dancing on tables with our newfound friends, as the waiter got us free shooters from the bar.

After a few hours spent here, we were sufficiently tipsy to check out the seedier experiences the island has to offer. Our friend from Chiang Mai introduced us to a local who took us through a narrow alleyway to a decrepit building where some rickety stairs led down to a performance venue. Completely at odds with the shady entrance was a huge, glamorous space with a massive stage where we were told there would be sex shows and performances, all free of cost – all you had to pay for was the drinks you had, which were obviously marked up to five times their normal cost.

What followed was something unforgettable and unusual. We saw everything from women shooting ping-pong balls from their secret places to men playing ‘Happy Birthday’ on drums with their penises. A tad excessive, perhaps, but definitely one of the most popular shows out there, going by the raucous cheering of patrons. There were dance performances, Bollywood-themed shows, women shooting darts from down there… it was something we’d never seen before. Sex tourism is a touchy subject indeed, but the fact remains that it is big business for Thailand and the girls don’t seem to be mistreated at least.

We left the place around 4am, and were pleasantly surprised to see that the crowds and music had gone nowhere. Street stalls remained open for those in need of a quick bite, and the number of people around ensured that you never felt unsafe. We picked up some pad thai and satay sticks from a local stall and sat by the waterside, people-watching, chatting and just generally hanging out to soak in the Bangla Road experience. As the sun began to rise, around 6am, we finally made our way back to our hotel, a lot poorer but enriched with an experience of a lifetime.

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