Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hooker Hotel, Panama

First of all, I know I'm behind. It's been a couple years since my last post, so I'm going to try and catch up. It will not be in chronological order though--it will be in whatever order comes to mind. Whether it's a funny story or something happens that reminds me of a trip, who knows.

The hooker hotel. Also known as the Hotel Veneto by Wyndham. Panama City, Panama. But before we get into that, I need to explain the circumstances of events that lead us to here.

So the first part of our trip to Panama was nice. We stayed at the Westin Playa Bonita Panama Resort. The resort itself was really spectacular--the kind of nice that I can only go to if someone else was paying for it (thank you Chairman's Club!). Great views, multiple pools, swim up bar, full gym and spa onsite. 

Can't complain about the view from the room

However, in the end, it was, dare I say, sort of bland. Like vanilla. Don't get me wrong--I love vanilla and there is a time and a place for it. But when I went to Panama, I was expecting Panamanian culture. I wanted to be put out of my comfort zone. We really only experienced resort culture in a very contained, Disney-like environment. We saw the company-sponsored Panama.

Sure there were company outings, dinners, and the like. There was even a safe, hosted "cultural night" with professional dancers and vendors hand selected to perform and display their wares at the hotel's expo center. 

The most cultural experience of the first part of the trip--wearing a Panama hat

And as the taxi to downtown costed about $30 (that's USD as Panama uses American currency), we pretty much stayed at the resort. And as resort food goes, it was pretty bad. Think overpriced burgers and bad pizza. It was also full of Americans (for obvious reasons, but it had to be said). All the staff spoke fluent English.

(To be fair, we did get to take a trip into downtown twice. Once was a company lead trip to the Hard Rock Casino. It was really like a clubbing event on the roof in downtown. Really cool, but not cultural. We also did a quick trip on our own to the fish market and old town a la Anthony Bourdain. That was really neat and by far the best tasting beer and meal of the trip.)

Top floor of the fish market in Panama, Panama. Highly recommend.

But really, those first 5 days/4 nights were quite tame. Where was that X-factor? Nothing was really that surprising. We could have been in parts of downtown LA and not known the difference. 

So when we were given the option of extending our trip at our own expense, I jumped on it. I added 2 more nights to our itinerary which meant that while most of the company left, we had the chance to do our own thing. I wanted to pick something safe, but edgy. Something in the heart of downtown where we could get the kind of food Panamanians eat and shop at places they shop. So while looking for a deal on a hotel in downtown, I found a Wyndham hotel, the Veneto. Now I thought, "Hey this doesn't look too bad. About 50 bucks a night. Perfect location. There's a casino and pool onsite. Plus it's a large hotel chain so it must be pretty clean. Let me check Tripadvisor for the reviews."

The reviews were pretty split between great and awful.

“Don't bring sand to the beach, i.e., leave the wife or gf at home.” 
-User richinanchorage

"The casino is good for MEN if you're seeking for women this is the right place." 
-User kirsy182

“Nice hotel/casino/brothel” 
-User Jim K 

"Yes the Casino does have its share of funny painted ladies, None crossed the line with me.perhaps, I didnot [sic] give it chance" 
-User paknflyguy

Well, it can't be that bad. Some people really liked their stay. Good location and decent restaurants? I figured we could stay here, get some food, go to the nearby shops, hang out by the pool, gamble a bit, all not for a bad deal. Right?

You get what you pay for was quite the understatement here. 

We checked in. The room was gross. "Keep your shoes on and do not sit on that comforter!" as I surveyed the room. The a/c was busted to add to the overall experience. I've stayed in motels that had more class than the first room.

After a couple drinks and complaining to the management, we were "upgraded" to the executive level. All that really meant is that they cleaned the room more often and the a/c almost worked at full capacity. At least the carpet was clean...ish. 

What the hell, let's check out the pool. I mean, we weren't there for the room anyway, right? We head upstairs to the rooftop pool. At first glance, nothing strange. A couple guys chilling in the pool. A poolside table with a bucket of beer surrounded by a couple girls and guys. Some more guys lounging around.

Wait a second... that's a lot of guys. I look over to the girls again. They're about half the age of the gentlemen they're with. That's not too strange I guess... then I notice a whole lot of woman hanging out of various and rather creative string bikinis. Top it off with high heels, full makeup, and fashion jewelry--these ladies were not planning on doing any swimming.

After a quick decision to not swim in that pool water, we explored the neighborhood a bit. On the way out, we noticed a sign in the elevator--$1 beer and 25 cent chicken wings during happy hour at the hotel bar. 

This we knew was a frequent haunt of some of the local working ladies per our friends on Tripadvisor. But I mean, for 25 cent wings? And $1 beers? It's practically a steal and an insult to not at least get one round there.

We were seated immediately at the bar. By bar, I mean casino with a section of tables sprinkled in with the table games. No matter. We ordered our food and drinks and proceeded to look around.

Table of young guys. Table of old men. Table of girls. Table of more girls. One random old couple who was there to actually gamble. More tables of guys.

And surprisingly, not much mixing between the two.

Most of the working girls had a beer or some other drink. They were hanging out, gossiping, sharing stories, and looked like it could be any other girls night out. Some were even getting in on the wings too. Others were gambling at the nearby tables with their friends. The only thing that was recognizable was a certain dress code that they all followed. High heels, tight jeans, low top, midriff showing, but interestingly enough, no leg showing. No shorts. No miniskirts.

Then there was the interaction between the two groups. A guy would walk up to one of the table full of girls, say a couple words, then seemingly get turned down. Was his price too low? Was he not attractive enough? We couldn't figure it out. My best guess is that it was still early (before midnight) so they were still on their own time. Unless it was a guy that they really wanted, they would keep on rejecting. You'd see a group of guys pounding back beers until one of them mustered the courage to get up and talk to one of the girls at a different table. She would entertain his conversation briefly. Then straight up reject him. He would sulk back to his group of friends and drink some more. Then the cycle repeated with someone else. It really wasn't like anything I've ever seen before, like a weird mix of 合コン ('gokon' or group dating in Japan), middle school dance, and Las Vegas clubbing all rolled into one.

So technically you can't take pictures in the casino... so we asked our server if we could take a picture with her. It just so happened that there are a couple tables of girls in the back. 

We finished up our chicken, got another beer for the road, and headed out. It was sort of Panama's way of saying, "Want a cultural experience? Want to be out of your comfort zone? There. Pretentious jerks." 

I still have no idea how that all works. However, if you're in downtown Panama, I highly recommend the chicken and beer at the Veneto Hotel. I vehemently do not recommend getting a room at the hotel. 

Sometimes, it's better to stick with fancy vanilla.