Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Good, clean fun

Aquarius bathhouse a place for couples to safely play out their fantasies

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"WE’VE had six marriages from people who come here," says Somchai "Chai" Pengpharsuks, owner of the renovated three-storey Aquarius bathhouse on Notre Dame.

"I got invited to their weddings, but Saturday is a very busy day and I can't leave here."

Bathhouses have traditionally been a men's-only gay gathering place where private rooms can be hired for a few hours. Men can bring companions or find new sex partners there. Customers generally wear white towels issued by the bathhouse as they meet and greet each other, as the steam room and dry sauna are central to the experience.

Not all customers have been gay, however, and a few hetero renegades would bring girlfriends for a titillating experience away from home.

In that spirit, Pengpharsuks has taken Aquarius "coed" four days a week, 24/7 -- an unprecedented move in North America. The Thai-Canadian owner estimates as many as 300 people will pass through his unusual bathhouse over 24 hours on a Saturday alone, renting rooms for four to six hours to have tantalizing encounters.

A lot of couples arrive with a bag of tickle-trunk toys, snacks and refreshments (liquor and drugs are not allowed). There are 42 private rooms and two common areas with plush leather ottomans, where one can flirt or play with friends new or old, says Pengpharsuks.

Assistant manager Al Simmonds (not the children's performer), a former model and professional dancer, estimated there were about 180 people playing in-house the Saturday of my visit, right around the witching hour.

There are no beds in the bathhouse to remind you of home, but there are plenty of theme rooms -- like the principal's office with a desk, hard chair and blackboard for instructions to the naughty student. Then there's the boardroom, with white leather furniture and long wooden table "so you can do it on your boss's desk," says Simmonds, 55. There's also the bucking-bronco room for cowboys and cowgirls with western fantasies, and the pole-dance room, which has a peephole the couple can choose to open for folks going by.

For those who want an exotic feel, there's the jungle room, and for romantic folks, there's a hot tub room and a Valentine room with a heart-shaped ottoman. The main floor is for people who just want a private room. The basement is a different story altogether -- it's dark enough for quasi-anonymous dalliances.

This is what you'll find out at the front desk: management has a proactive "safety first" policy; customers are given condoms and lubricant. You can't rent movies at the front desk, but there is a closed-circuit movie playing in many rooms. Alcohol is not served at the bathhouse. No one asks for your name and address. Nobody brings suitcases -- it's not a hotel -- and the rooms rent for four or six hours, from $20 to $65. There's actually a sign that says "No sleeping!"

Some patrons arrive in pairs, others come alone to sit in a towel with their door open and a chain across it so others can come by to talk -- and possibly be invited in. Then the door is usually closed, though exhibitionists might choose to leave it open. You can choose to look, or walk on by.

With three floors of private rooms, playrooms, public steam room, showers and dry sauna -- and an average of two people per room -- the Aquarius is buzzing 24/7.

"The police love us because we keep everybody happy and safe and under one roof," says Pengpharsuks. When the bathhouse had a fire two years ago and considered going out of business, he says, police friends quietly encouraged him to rebuild.

Whatever you imagined a bathhouse owner to be, it's not the sweet-natured Pengpharsuks, a former Buddhist monk and a waiter at the Westin for more than 20 years. Yes, Chai -- ironically pronounced "Shy" (the man is very outgoing) -- has had many lives.

Though he's in his 70s, Pengpharsuks looks 60-ish and still works at the bathhouse daily from 7 to 9 a.m. to get the day off to a good start. He visits periodically and stays through busy periods.

"I don't do this for the money. I do it because I love this place and I love making the people happy. It is fun and it keeps me young. I could retire tomorrow. I have a house back in Thailand, but I love Winnipeg!"

Pengpharsuks came here from Montreal for a two-week holiday years ago. "I met people and loved the city so much, I sent the van lines for my furniture and never went back."

After two decades in the high end of waiting circles, Pengpharsuks thought about starting a Thai restaurant, but was afraid of the growing competition. "Then my friend died and left his wife the Alexander Steam Baths (a mostly gay bathhouse) and I started helping her out." A few years later, he got his own concept happening on Notre Dame.

The businessman says simple math inspired the change to a co-ed concept: "If 10 per cent of the population is gay, and there are several places to go... hmm, that's not too much business."

He decided to try Tuesday night as a co-ed night. "The response was overwhelming. Then I tried Thursday nights -- overwhelming again!"

Now he's gone to Saturdays and Sundays as well. "I had to stop at four days or my gay customers would feel I was abandoning them."

As for the clientele, "Over the years we've had doctors, lawyers, politicians, policemen, hockey players, football players, and housewives," says Simmonds, who keeps a close watch on the door. "We get a lot of married people, especially on Saturday nights; most have a good marriage but want extra excitement."

Of course, there are also people who are stepping out on their spouses. "Oh yes!" Simmonds says. "Between 8:30 and 9 a.m., with another wave during lunch break and all afternoon until 4 p.m."

Most customers are in their 30s and 40s, although Simmonds says there are some businessmen in their 50s and 60s, and a couple that visits regularly who are in their 80s. IDs are checked at the front desk; no underage customers are allowed in.

Simmonds, a former Arthur Murray ballroom-dance instructor from Edmonton, jumped into a whole new career after he smashed his leg leaping off the roof of a house. No longer able to dance, he started selling Kirby Vacuums, which brought him to Manitoba.

"I was making $4,000 to $5,000 a week, but they kept sending me out on the road; they wouldn't let me stay in town!" So he quit, and got an interim job working at Aquarius eight years ago. He never left.

He's extremely quiet on his feet, even in cowboy boots -- and all over the place, watching everything, often posted near the heavily secured front door.

"We call him Undercover Cop," says Pengpharsuks with a laugh.

Simmonds is polite, but watchful. "I check people in without taking personal information -- unless I feel something's not right. Then I give them an application. When they come back, they're told there was a 'problem with their application.'"

Any prostitutes who try to bring in a customer are barred for life.

But good customers are well-protected. If anyone phones looking for a certain patron, the front desk has a "no information" policy. Simmonds is similarly close-mouthed about clients' escapades, but will reveal one tale. "A lady lost the key to her shackles and I had to cut her out with wire cutters," he giggles.

Life is never predictable under that roof. Says Pengpharsuks, "Marriages have been saved by Aquarius because life became too boring at home. Here, they break the routine!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2011 E1

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