Bangkok owes its reputation as the carnal capital of the world to a sex industry adept at peddling fantasies of cheap thrills on tap. More than a thousand sex-related businesses operate in the city, but the gaudy neon fleshpots of Patpong and Sukhumvit’s Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy give a misleading impression of an activity that is deeply rooted in Thai culture: the overwhelming majority of Thailand’s prostitutes of both sexes (estimated at anywhere between 200,000 and 700,000) work with Thai men, not farangs.
Prostitution and polygamy have long been intrinsic to the Thai way of life. Until Rama VI broke with the custom in 1910, Thai kings had always kept concubines, only a few of whom would be elevated to royal mothers. The practice was aped by the nobility and, from the early nineteenth century, by newly rich merchants keen to have lots of sons. Though the monarch is now monogamous, many men of all classes still keep mistresses, known as mia noi (minor wives), or have casual girlfriends (gig); the common view is that an official wife (mia luang) should be treated like the temple’s main Buddha image – respected and elevated upon the altar – whereas the minor wife is like an amulet, to be taken along wherever you go. For less wealthy men, prostitution is a far cheaper option: at least two-fifths of sexually active Thai men are thought to visit brothels twice a month.
The farang sex industry is a relatively new development, having started during the Vietnam War, when the American military set up seven bases around Thailand. The GIs’ appetite for “entertainment” attracted women from surrounding rural areas to cash in on the boom, and Bangkok joined the fray in 1967. By the mid-1970s, the GIs had left, but tourists replaced them, lured by advertising that diverted most of the traffic to Bangkok and Pattaya. Sex tourism has since grown to become an established part of the Thai economy and has spread to Phuket, Hat Yai, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai.
The majority of the women who work in the country’s go-go bars and “bar-beers” (outdoor hostess bars) come from the poorest areas of north and northeast Thailand. Economic refugees, they’re easily drawn into an industry in which they can make in a single night what it takes a month to earn in the rice fields. Many women opt for a couple of years in the sex bars to help pay off family debts and improve the living conditions of parents stuck in the poverty trap.
Many bar girls, and male prostitutes too, are looking for longer-term relationships with their farang customers, bringing a temporary respite from bar work and perhaps even a ticket out. A surprising number of one-night transactions do develop into some sort of holiday romance, with the young woman accompanying her farang “boyfriend” (often twice her age) around the country and maintaining contact after he’s returned home. It’s a common joke that some bar girls field half a dozen mobile phones so they can juggle all their various “sponsors”. An entire sub-genre of novels and confessional memoirs (among them the classic Hello, My Big Big Honey!: Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews) testifies to the role money plays in all this, and highlights the delusions common to both parties, not to mention the cross-cultural incomprehension.
Despite its ubiquity, prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but sex-industry bosses easily circumvent the law by registering their establishments as clubs, karaoke bars or massage parlours, and making payoffs to the police and politicians. Sex workers, on the other hand, often endure exploitation and violence from pimps and customers rather than face fines and long rehabilitation sentences. Hardly surprising that many prefer to go freelance, working the clubs and bars in non-red-light zones such as Thanon Khao San. Life is made even more difficult because abortion is illegal in Thailand. The anti-prostitution law, however, does attempt to treat sex workers as victims rather than criminals and penalizes parents who sell their children. A high-profile voice in the struggle to improve the rights of sex workers is the Empower Foundation (wempowerfoundation.org), which not only organizes campaigns and runs education centres for bar workers but also manages its own bar in Chiang Mai.
Inevitably, child prostitution is a significant issue in Thailand, but NGOs such as ECPAT (wecpat.net) say numbers have declined over the last decade, due to zero-tolerance and awareness campaigns. The government has also strengthened legislation against hiring a prostitute under the age of 18, and anyone caught having sex with an under-15 is now charged with rape. The disadvantaged are still targeted by traffickers however, who “buy” children from desperately poor hill-tribe and other minority families and keep them as bonded slaves until the debt has been repaid.