Bangkok's sex driven nightlife draws thousands of Thai women with no option
While the Thai government is ramping up efforts to tackle poverty in Thailand, there have been calls for the curtailment of the sex trade in Bangkok and Pattaya but no one believes it will really happen.
There are hints that the sex trade in Thailand and Bangkok may well be waning. But this may be because Thailand is surging economically. However, for many women in Thailand, there is not yet an economic alternative to an industry which plays an invisible but vital role at the very bottom of Thai society.
Every night in Bangkok behind the neon scenes and the sounds of a bustling metropolis, hundreds of thousands of Thai women walk to work in the city's sex industry. Bangkok, although it does not have the biggest sex industry in the world or even Asia unfortunately has this name.
By some estimates there are up to 400,000 sex workers in the Bangkok metropolis. This number includes Thai women working on a casual/freelance basis and all different forms of Bangkok's sex driven nightlife scene.
For decades Bangkok has been a well known sex tourist destination for millions of men. Today, this includes younger men from western countries and increasingly men from other Asian countries in particular India.
But just who are the women behind the glass windows or the girls dancing in the go-go bars? The scale and extent of sex for sale in Bangkok is mind boggling. There are many different types of sex operations offering a different range of specialist services from soapy massage to bars that offer oral sex to male customers or to use the vernacular term blow jobs.
In recent years TV companies from around the world have examined the phenomenon. In particular UK TV companies including a very incisive Channel 4 documentary have investigating the depths and the nature of the Thai sex industry and how it works. Many programmes rightly focus on the sinister sex trafficking trade which is part of the industry.
The scale and extent of the industry is partly due to the role it plays offering the chronically poor in Thai society an opportunity to survive or indeed to progress. Thailand is a nation which does not have the social supports that many from western societies take for granted. While many western organisations, international church and women's groups have even set up shop in the red light sex districts of Bangkok and the government provides support groups and clinics, continuous surveys of sex workers indicate that what they really want is legalisation of the sex trade in Thailand.
Recent years in Thailand have seen Thai governments become more ambitious about tackling poverty, while there have also been calls from some quarters of Thai society to curb or limit the footprint of the sex industry particularly in Bangkok. It may surprise foreigners to discover that most Thai people are deeply conservative and traditional. To many of them the sex industry is a source of national shame. As economic progress continues, the sex industry is increasingly no longer considered as indispensible and most Thai people will point out that it has always been illegal.
Thai women seeking foreign partners
The sex industry has been wrongly linked also to the growing numbers of Thai women seeking foreign husbands and life partners but there is a clear distinction between the two phenomena and of course, an overlap.
'In the main Thai women seeking foreign boyfriends or marriage partners are not involved in the sex industry. This trend has become both an alternative route for poor Thai women and a growing trend among middle class Thai women including middle aged Thai women working in the public service but there are Thai women working in the sex industry who see marriage to a foreigner as a way out,' says Dirk Boeker who is currently researching a documentary in Bangkok for a Dutch TV company.
Seek genuine love in Thailand, avoid the sex scene
It would be quite wrong to equate the large of Thai women seeking marriage with foreigners directly with the flourishing sex industry in Thailand and Bangkok. Research conducted by ThaiLoveLines indicates that only 9% of marriages or relationships formed with western men involve a Thai woman with a background in the sex industry. 'Our best advice to those seeking love and romance in Thailand is not to confuse it with the sex industry but you have to allow for human nature. Some of these relationships actually work out but many do not and in many cases, this is the basis for the horror stories out there.'
Another result of the overlap between the growing trend of Thai woman seeking relationships with foreign men is that the authorities in western countries have put in place increasingly strict visa regimes essentially to combat sex trafficking but these regulations can have an adverse effect on legitimate relationships between foreign men and Thai women. 'This is just a fact of life you have to accept and even try to understand. I am sure that without these strict rules, there are some unfortunate Thai women who would fall victim to some of the bad operators out there,' says Mr Boeker.
Cheap sex and beer - sex in Bangkok costs $20
There is no doubt that Thailand, Bangkok and in particular resorts like Pattaya have become sex tourist destinations. 'In Bangkok or Pattaya you can buy sex with a prostitute for as little as $20, the beer is cheap and it's sunny, it's an irresistible attraction for some foreigners, I know it's immoral but for many people, that doesn't matter anymore, that's it.'
No matter that there are increasing efforts by authorities in Bangkok to clean up the sex trade, which Thai government policies are beginning to target poverty in rural areas which is the root of the problem or that Pattaya is also a beautiful destination with superb golf facilities that would stand on its own without the sex for sale label.
The growing sex industry is being driven not simply by middle aged western men but now younger western men and growing numbers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But what most commentators fail to point out is that the largest part of the sex industry in Thailand does not cater for foreign men or tourist, it is for local Thai men only.
Foreign boyfriend is a saviour
In a recent Channel 4 documentary we can see a poor Thai woman spending half her income on a go-between agent who uses internet dating sites to find a suitable foreign partner while trying to take care of a young family.
Finally after years of trying and expense, she gives up and takes the lonely bus journey to Bangkok to join the flourishing sex trade there. The same TV documentary also features a young Thai girl working in a Bangkok sex bar who avoids sex with foreign customers because she is waiting for her foreign boyfriend to get her a visa to live the United Kingdom.
'There are many stories of sex workers or bar girls who find a foreign life or marriage partner particularly when you consider the more causal nature of sex for sale in Thailand. This is particularly acute now with younger men from European countries in places like Pattaya but our advice is that women who have worked in the sex industry are not the best bet for a foreigner seeking a relationship in Thailand. No matter how relaxed or different the culture, there is something inherently damaging to the mental health of a woman who is forced to work in the sex trade,' says Bill Mc Mahon who works as a security officer on Thailand's No. 1 Dating site ThaiLoveLines.com.
Behind the neon in Bangkok and Pattaya
This articles aims to take you behind the scenes and introduce you to nine Thai women who work in the Bangkok sex trade. The following profiles are of real Thai women or Thai girls who have worked as prostitutes in Bangkok. The information is from a research project carried out by a graduate student at a Thai university. The names and some details have been altered to protect the identity of those concerned. These interviews were conducted by the student in a very well co-ordinated research project. As we have already mentioned, what most people should realise is that there is a clear difference between the sex trade for foreigners in Bangkok and the larger sex industry in Thailand.
'In Bangkok the sex industry for foreigners attracts on one hand more ambitious Thai women aiming to make more money offering sex to foreigners while in some areas of the sex trade, it also serves as fallback for older women who would be rejected by most Thai men,' says Dirk Boeker.
Child of the streets of Bangkok
Titapa is a child of the streets of Bangkok having been raised in the slums. She never knew her father and her mother married an abusive man who beat her. In spite of this she attended school diligently and excelled. In her final years a scholarship place that she deserved was instead awarded to a boy as the teacher thought a boy was more in need of such a place. Titapa had to find a job. Having worked a toilet cleaner and helping her mother in a food stall, Titapa was encouraged by a friend to take a job as a receptionist in a massage parlour in the city. The owner attempted to have sex with her and she was fired for resisting his advances.
On returning to live with her mother she was raped by her step father and in defending herself, stabbed him. With the help of another friend she went to work in a massage parlour and sold her virginity for 20,000 baht ($630). She was now working in Bangkok's sex industry. While working in the massage parlour the owner insisted on weekly checkups although she was often faced with customers who demanded unprotected sex. Titapa became aware through friends at the massage parlour of one girl who had died of Aids and was determined to protect her health.
Now Titapa has got lucky. She has become the mistress/girlfriend of a Japanese client at the massage parlour. She has been able to get an apartment and her own car. Titapa is considering going to Japan with her Japanese boyfriend and beginning a new life. When she went back to discuss this with her mother she could not find her. It was reported that her mother had returned to her original province in Thailand and that her step father had been jailed for murdering a man in the slums. 'I am not sure about money if I still live in Thailand,' she says.
Porn moves on to Bangkok to work
Porn is from Chiang Rai and left school at Thailand's Grade 4. She is the youngest of a large family with four brothers and four sisters. Her poor parents sold her to a brothel for 15,000 baht ($300) in the central part of Thailand at 14 years of age. She was joined by her sister who was also sold to the brothel owners. She explains: 'My parents did not have any money to keep us, I was sad about this but now I understand better,' she says.
Porn was moved to a second brothel in another province, she felt lucky to be going with her sister. Porn was happy working in this brothel as she was told that the conditions were quite good and the owner arranged for a medical checkup every two weeks. She said that the owner of the brothel sometimes brought back important men to the brothel and let them sleep with the girls for free. 'It was not bad and I could take a day off or go see a movie or something like that.'
Porn was able to send home 4,000 each month to her parents. Porn says she left this brothel as the customers there liked younger girls for sex. She was sent to Bangkok to work in the infamous Patpong red light district. However she did not like this as the management kept deducting fees from her salary, the work was hard and Bangkok was very expensive.
Porn tried to travel to Japan to work in the sex industry there but was stopped at the airport. 'I think that Thai women travel to Japan for work in the sex business and the money is good.' She is afraid that she will not have enough money when she gets old if she stays working in Bangkok.
Thai wife treated like a prostitute
Joy is from North east Thailand and she left school at ten years of age. Her mother suffered from a serious kidney disease and her father had deserted the family when she was younger. Joy knew that she had to work to find the money to take care of her mother 'I knew I had to work but I didn't expect it to be sex work,' she says.
At fourteen Joy began working as a sex worker. A friend of the family in the village in the north of Thailand arranged for a waitressing job in Bangkok. Joy did not know it but it was sex work. She sold her virginity for 12,000 baht ($400) which went to help pay her mother's health costs. However, the massage parlour closed and Joy was attractive enough to find a job in Patpong working as a stripper in a strip club. 'It was good money and the owners helped me,' she says. Joy was able to choose her own customers in the Go Go bar and was earning more money even though she was working harder. Joy went to see a doctor every week as the Go Go bar didn't have the monthly checkup like in the massage parlour. Joy always used contraception.
Joy then decided to try and find a foreign boyfriend or even a husband. She joined a marriage agency and paid money to find a foreign husband.
Joy met her after three months with the agency. Daniel from Australia came to Thailand and they were married. They moved to Perth six months later after Daniel obtained her visa. Her husband was 15 years older than her. She said that he wanted sex continuously and this became a strain on their relationship. Her husband was amused at her inability to communicate properly in English but his family considered it a failing and frequently referred to her a prostitute from Thailand even though she had given up the business. 'They thought I was a stupid woman and that every woman from Thailand is stupid too.'
Joy did not wait for her visa to be confirmed as permanent and after feeling insecure about her husband, returned to Thailand to make her own way again as a sex worker.
Thanida supports a Thai boyfriend
Thanida came from a big farming family with many brothers and sisters. The family lived in Isaan in North east Thailand in the province of Maha Sara Kam. She recalled that her parents often became violent when angry and sold her to a middleman for 20,000 baht ($630).
While on the journey to southern Thailand to work in a brothel she was raped by the driver. She was only 13. Thanida was forced to give sex to owners of the brothel and began doing sex work there to repay the debt owed by her parents. After two years, she was sold to a brothel in Taiwan where she worked for five years. She recalls being unable to save money while working in Taiwan as she was kept like a prisoner and was too afraid to run away.
She received a monthly medical checkup and although she was supposed to use a condom with clients, this was not always possible with aggressive customers. While in Taiwan, Thanida met a wealthy Singaporean business man who bought out her contract at the brothel for 150,000 baht ($5,000).
She lived with the business man as his mistress for two years until his wife found out. Thanida was so distraught at the loss of her protector that she ended up attacking the man's wife and was arrested by the police. She was deported back to Thailand. After spending a spell at a rehabilitation centre in Bangkok, she worked in Patpong where she met a sex trafficker who arranged for her to work in Japan.
Thanida spent 4 years in Japan and recalls often not using condoms. She says that she was not afraid of HIV or Aids. The sex work was so hard and the pay so little, she began to use drugs such as marijuana and heroin. She has recently returned to Thailand where she again works in the sex trade. Now she supports a Thai boy friend who is even years younger than her. She feels that she will never quit the sex trade and although she loves her Thai boyfriend very much she is again contemplating traveling to Japan.
Sue's brother has graduated from university
Sue is also from the north of Thailand. From a poor family in a small village she helped her family take care of her two brothers as her parents wanted them to study and advance at school. While unemployed a relative offered a payment of 20,000 ($630) and the promise of a job for Sue in Bangkok.
However Sue and her family were deceived and she was sold to a brothel in the east of Thailand. She only worked there for two weeks as the owner of the brothel decided that she was too young. However Sue had lost her virginity and when she was 16 she decided to go to Bangkok to work in the sex trade.
A friend of hers was going to Bangkok to work in the same bar and told her about the money to be made by selling her body for sex. 'I said that it was ok because I had already lost my virginity.' Nid sent back home 5,000 baht a month which meant a lot to her poor family in the village.
Five years later Sue went to work in Germany in a famous bar. She had dreams of making big money in a foreign country. A job agency arranged a fake passport and work permit for her but when she arrived in Germany she found she was working as a second class sex worker and the income was nearly the same after she had to pay costs and fees. She didn't like the weather: 'It was cold and the people were very hard, I felt very sad, I just wanted to go home back to Thailand' Sue quit her job as sex worker in Germany and went back to Thailand.
In spite of everything, Sue felt good about her work as a prostitute as she had her independence and earned more than most in her village in the North of Thailand.
When leaving Germany her fake passport and work permit were discovered and she is now banned from entering Germany again. Within two months of arriving back in Thailand, Sue met a Dutch man who became her boyfriend. The affair is currently two months old and Sue has dreams of opening her won sex business in her own province and perhaps a hair salon. She still works in the sex trade in Bangkok while one of her brothers has recently graduated from University.
Nok from Khon Khaen is now a boss
Nok is from Khon Khaen a substantial and important city in North east Thailand. Again she is from a large family with three sisters and four brothers. She is the oldest child in the family. Nok finished school at thirteen years of age.
Her family was poor and could not afford to pay for her to study. She helped her parents take care of her brothers and sisters. At fourteen she came to Bangkok. The daughter of the headman in the village had promised her a job. Nok did not know that it was ex work. Her parents received 50,000 baht ($1,700) which was a very large sum for the family. Nok was one of a number of girls on the trip to Bangkok. Instead Nok was sold to a brothel in the east of Thailand and forced to work as a sex worker for two months. She was threatened by the owners of the brothel.
Luckily for Nok the brothel was raided by the national police and she managed to escape in the rush and disorder. A client in the brothel took her home and introduced her to his wife as a servant. However Nok was discovered sleeping with the man by his wife and this also turns out to have been a fortunate twist of fate for her. She was taken by the client, a wealthy business man, and introduced to an exclusive massage parlour for high society men and rich businessmen in Bangkok.
She was paid 2,000 baht an hour and she became a great success working at this establishment. She was able to regularly send money home to her family and she had a medical checkup once a week.
Nok claims that many of these men were influential people. It was a happy time for her and she worked here for five years. Since then she has various boyfriends who supported her but each time the affair ended she went to work in a massage parlour. She currently has a wealthy boyfriend from Taiwan who she has become engaged to. She says that she has quit the sex trade for good.
Her Taiwanese boyfriend gave her money to visit her family in Khon Khaen and to distribute money to them. He is currently arranging to sell his assets in Taiwan and come to live with her in Bangkok.
Nok decided to open a Go Go bar in Bangkok having first of all considered Pattaya. She says that there is currently a boom in sex tourism in Thailand. She has even recruited girls from her home village to come and work there.
The striking thing is that when interviewed about this, Nok was only twenty years of age! She says that when she has enough money saved she will marry her Taiwanese boyfriend and become a housewife.
Nom just wanted to be with her sisters in Pattaya
Nom is another Thai woman from the North of Thailand and a province called Mae Hong Son. Nom was also from a large family with eleven other siblings including boys and girls. She left school at 14 when she could already write and read in a limited fashion.
Her family made the decision to sell Nom to a brothel in Bangkok after discussing it with a friend in the village who already worked there. Her family was only paid 30,000 baht ($1,000). She was taken to work at the brothel for 1 month and only paid 100 baht per day for food and cleaning soap! She was told that in the course of the month she would have to sleep with twenty men. After spending 1 month working at the brothel, she was charged for food and board and Nom reckons she only received about 5% of what she earned. Although she was only there for 1 month, she contracted a STD having being diagnosed by a doctor who she visited once a week.
When Nom arrived home she discovered that her two sisters had also been sold by her parents. After this she decided to find work permanently in a brothel and asked the friend in the village for help. She recommended that Nom go to work in Hong Kong or Japan. It was arranged for Nom to have plastic surgery, her name changed and she traveled to Hong Kong on a fake passport. But Nom found the work hard in Hong Kong and the money not so good. She wanted to be reunited with her sisters who were working in Pattaya.
Australian man in the UK rescues May
May comes originally from Chanthaburi, a province in the East of Thailand. She recalled a childhood when often her parents and the family had nothing to eat. Her parents were addicted to drugs and gambling. May would steal food from other houses when her parents were away for days on end.
She moved on to find money waiting on tables or cleaning toilets just to buy rice and water.
Eventually May was sold by her mother for a paltry 8,000 baht. She was 14 years old. She was introduced into the world of sex slavery by being raped by a fisherman and was beaten by the brothel owner. She worked for sixteen months in these conditions only being paid food and water! She recalled a doctor coming to see her once a month to give her a medical checkup.
The brothel was violent and one night things got out of hand and it was on fire. The police from Bangkok rescued May who was sent to a rehabilitation centre for girls. While there she met Wanna, a woman divorced from an abusive husband. May was introduced to the concept of trauma healing.
However after some time, May evaluated her life and decided that she wanted to make money and the best way to do this would be to work in the sex trade in Bangkok. Her friend Dal arranged for her to work in Bangkok's Patpong sex district. May was paid well and had a health checkup at least twice a month. There she met David, an Australian who lived in the United Kingdom.
David was 40 years older than May but was able to produce all the documentation to get May a visa to travel to the United Kingdom. 'We were engaged and the moved to England, he had to show all the finance documents to help get me in,' she says. May quit her join in Patpong and now lives with David the UK. On a recent visit to Thailand which she extended to three months she explained that if David dies she will receive 4 million baht and her dream would be to open a beer bar or karaoke restaurant in Rayong or Pattaya. Her husband is also considering retiring to Thailand.
Apple: sex workers respected in Thailand's North
Apple is another Thai girl from the North of Thailand. For Apple life has been a struggle since leaving school and she has never been to school. Her mother died when she was very young and she never knew her father was.
Apple lived and as reared by her grandparents who were assisted by Apple's aunt. In Apple's village it was believed that if a girl was a sex worker in Bangkok working to support her family it was the female equivalent of a soldier who went off to war.
When Apple was 15 she went off to Bangkok to live with her aunt who was a prostitute. Apple started working as a waitress in a bar. She was persuaded by her aunt to sell her virginity for 15,000 baht ($500). Her first client was a Chinese tourist, a middle aged businessman. Apple's aunt took the money and Apple slept on and off with her aunt's customers for about 1 year. Her aunt the arranged for Apple to work in massage parlours and in the course of seven years Apple worked in five massage parlours. Apple noticed that it was hard for her to keep money as it went on her Aunt's expenses.
With the help of a friend Apple arranged to go to work in Japan. 'I believe that most Thai women going to work in Japan go to work as a prostitute,' she says.
She points out that the sad thing is that many Thai women who travel to Japan to find work do not know this. Apple encountered very strong Japanese men who were difficult to control and sometimes had sex without a condom. She is proud of the fact that she never had any trouble with her Mama sans in Japan but she decided to return to Thailand because she was simply not happy in Japan.
Apple recalls going home to her village for the funeral of one of her grandparents and that she was treated and regarded by people in her village with respect.
She attributed this to the fact that people in the village thought that she was rich. However Apple knows better. She says it is difficult for sex workers to hang on to money. Now she rents an apartment and works in bar her aunt owns in Bangkok and that of friend who runs bars in Pattaya and Phuket. She often now works as a manager of these bars and supervises other girls working in Thailand's lucrative sex business. She has just met a New Zealand boyfriend but is uncertain if she can make a life outside of the sex trade.
Sex industry in Thailand tipping point
The stories of these Thai women forced to work in the sex night spots of Bangkok, Pattaya and urban centres throughout Thailand is both sobering and in a way inspiring.
This is the background to the sensationally popular Danish documentary 'Love on Delivery' by acclaimed Danish film maker Janus Ketz whose story of a community in Denmark made up of Danish men and Thai women, many of them sex workers in Pattaya, has raised some real questions about the sex industry in Thailand and challenges the stereotyped often portrayed by other western film makers and news reporters.
Yet, in spite of all this, there are two or three other countries or cities in Asia with a bigger sex industry but which are less publicized. It could be something to do with the humility and beauty of the Thai people that makes the story so fascinating in Thailand. There is anecdotal evidence that the sex industry in Thailand has reached a point where it may be on the decline.
There are many reasons for this including the growth of the Thai economy and more progressive government policies. But all commentators also agree that one of the forces that is bringing freedom to Thai women and offering more opportunities is the internet and in particular dating and social networking sites. A recent survey by The Nation newspaper showed that Thai women like women in other Asian countries were making use of the internet more than their male counterparts. Two of the key areas highlighted were education and internet dating/social networking.