Globus, July 2007
Since the night fell, Pattaya changes its face. It starts glimmering in red, it rises up and starts dancing. Loud “trash” pop comes from local bars but tourists don’t seem to mind. They are attracted to the lustful visuals, and as they pass in front of the bars girls scream at them. They are lured, as easy targets. Exotic beauties from the Far East, traditionally skilled nymphomaniacs, caring and sensible whores, decadent courtesans… To make the challenge for lucky tourists even greater, and the game more fun, the most beautiful of these women are actually men. But hey, on this road trip to hell, everything is allowed. The tourists left their norms and ethics at home anyway. Now they are in an incredible epicenter of modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Absolute hedonism is a simple code for a few days of a totally different escape from boring and stressful reality.
They are not regular tourists on a site seeing schedule, with a photo camera and a tour guide – they are “sex-tourists”, Huellebecque’s misanthropes, adventurers of the new age and executors of man’s eternal need for ever more pleasure, for a more beautiful and more instant surface!
I walk through this laughing hell. An old grandpa from Europe’s north walks hand in hand with a beautiful piece of exotic flesh, which according to her age, could be his granddaughter. American soldiers in an early retirement are spitting and screaming, “Oh my God!” when in the middle of the road, they feel a small penis under the short skirt of an incompletely transformed transsexual. “But how is it possible?!” they scream, not caring if the whole street hears them. “But you have the best tits in the world!” Without fear of the corrupt police that unofficially come here every now and then to seek their own pleasure, you can buy cocaine, speed, or grass in front of the local supermarket. An invalid in a wheelchair exits the massage parlor. Finally, he is satisfied. His eyes are closed and his face glimmers with a shameless smile. Here are also some perverse and serious-looking Japanese, coy and boyishly unrestrained Arabs, big, cocky Africans, amazed and playful Indians, and dull Germans… The most beautiful women and the most convincing transsexuals lure them on every corner, inviting them to step into the sex-bar “Super pussy” where women contest in throwing a ping-pong ball from their vaginas. Inviting them to a go-go show, where there is a practical reason why every dancer wears a number on their thongs. Inviting them to S&M parties, offering them a special treat tonight, a couple of fresh virgins from the north. Inviting them to sit and watch a Thai-box match from the first row… While boys drink beer and sweat and blood of the boxers sprinkle on them, girls discreetly go down on their knees and give them a blow-job.
There’s even a man from Croatia here, who takes me around and explains, “This really is the center of hell, there’s nothing crazier than this!” The young gentleman didn’t want to disclose anything about himself other than that his name is Ante, he is from Zagreb and has been living in Thailand for the past five years, where he runs an export business. “Prostitution is Thailand’s biggest industry and a large number of the tourists come here for sex. But this isn’t your typical prostitution! Thai women enjoy their work, they do it with pleasure and sex is never paid, it is just a matter of giving a tip. AIDS is just a myth and the legal risk is minimal. There are no sad stories here!”
Studies show that most of these sex-tourists have never had an encounter with a prostitute in their homeland. But Thailand is “elsewhere”, it is an escape. Because of the different way of doing business and the easygoing attitude, tourists don’t see prostitutes as prostitutes.
“It is a complicated problem,” says Ante, bragging about how much time he spends studying the culture he decided to live in. “The woman has become the bearer of the Thai family. Always neglected in the patriarchal society, women are becoming prostitutes more and more. With the earned money, they support their poor families, while fathers and men spend it all on drinking and other prostitutes. That’s why Thai women favor foreigners, because sex can even be a chance for a marriage and a way out of here…”
“Women here are mothers,” Ante continues, “they are hard-working and caring, lot more capable than men, even though they have always been under their rule. That’s why I only hire women in my company, ‘cause men are just not reliable! Thailand's society is easily compared to male and female bees”.
Now my host was really on a roll, “Women are responsible and that’s why they get into the prostitution business, to make something of their life and to help their poor relatives. They even donate large parts of the money they earn to Buddhist temples, to get a blessing. Buddhism is a great influence on their lives! You can see that everywhere, even in the respect they give to their husbands despite their aggressiveness and stupidity. If they treat their men that way, you can only imagine how they treat the foreigners!”
He stopped for a moment, not sure whether to mention himself or to be wise and say nothing. That lasted only for a moment. “Look, I lived a short time with a local girl. I used to go out at night with my friends, stay late, get drunk, sometimes I even went to a prostitute… But when I came home at 9 in the morning, there she would be, awake, waiting for me. She would kiss me, hug me, wash me, and put me to bed, giving me a massage. Only then would we go to sleep, together! It is really a different culture, which is hard to understand for us. As long as you are hers and take care of her, it's all right. No matter what you do when you’re not by her side, as long as you come back home, she is yours!”
A number of scientists from the Department of Political Sciences in Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, has estimated that in the Kingdom of Thailand, there are 2.8 million prostitutes, of which 20,000 are men and 800,000 are minors! A significant part of that are also so-called “lady-boys”- transsexuals, men, who changed or plan on changing their sex. Their numbers are hard to estimate since they are perfectly camouflaged. Sometimes they are revealed, for instance after they win a Miss Universe contest. It is also hard to estimate the number of sex-tourists, but since it is known that annually, the country is visited by 16 million foreigners (of which there are 35% more men than women) and that prostitutes satisfy half a million customers daily (80% of which are local men); then that number is easily speculated.
As I looked for the best example of a sex-tourist, I came upon another person not willing to have his picture taken or disclose his real identity. “It is great here because every day I am with another girl, and every day I can be another person. They are not interested in my real identity, but rather what they can get out of it. To tell you the truth, even I don’t care; I left my identity at home twelve times already!” A little bit bent moustache, hard accent, and strict look, gave him away as being from Germany. Since ending his marriage twelve years ago, he spends every vacation in Pataya and is obviously amused by it all. “Thailand is an endless source of new experiences for every explorer,” he started his story. “This year I discovered lady-boys! I always had a knack for knowing if it is a guy underneath a skirt. You can tell it by the way they walk, big feet, or their Adam’s apple… Ok, lately you can fix even that. But actually, I don’t care. If they want to be women, they are women to me. With or without a penis. They certainly can handle the penis with their mouth better! After all, they were once men so they know what we need. I heard a lot about it all, but just the other day I witnessed it myself. And it is excellent, I’m addicted now!” he started laughing loudly.
I asked him if he’s worried by the turbulent political situation in the country, riots, terrorism… “Nooo…” he declined instantly. “That's all nonsense blown up by the media. When you’re out here, you don’t see or hear any of that!” I continued asking this promiscuous man about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. “That’s another grand illusion. Getting AIDS isn’t so easy, besides these girls are professionals. There’s no money that will buy you sex without condoms!”
Indeed, the AIDS epidemic took wings in the 80s, but during the 90s Thailand had the most successful preventive campaigns in the world, which reduced the number of infected by 80%. A little under 1% of the population is infected with HIV in Thailand today, and according to statistics, there are more people infected among soldiers than among prostitutes. Big help for this campaign came from the prostitutes of EMPOWER, one of the largest civil organizations of sexual workers in the world.
One of the founders of EMPOWER and its director is Chantawipa Noi Apisuk, whom I met in her office in the center of Patpong – the red light district in Bangkok. She explained how they ran the AIDS awareness campaign. “We ran a huge educational campaign. We took measures for mandatory testing once a month and started giving away free condoms to prostitutes. We received big help from the ex minister of tourism, mr. Mechai Viravaidya, who is known today by all people in Thailand as “Mister Condom!” He entered our campaign relentlessly even naming his own chain of restaurants “Condoms and sausages”!” Other than care for the health of the prostitutes, EMPOWER gives free education to prostitutes, specially adapted to their working hours. “Last year, 60 of our girls graduated from the state university!” brags Noi. “But that doesn’t mean that girls who educate themselves want to run away from their work. On the contrary, among prostitutes of Patpong you can easily find lawyers and businesswomen. Most of the girls who graduate and get a job still continue to work as prostitutes because it’s something they love doing. Even though prostitution is the oldest trade and will never die out, EMPOWER does not incite it, but rather accepts reality and reacts by helping the ones who need it!”
Noi, in her late forties, is not in the prostitution business anymore. She started as a prostitute as a first generation after the Vietnam War. Before the war, prostitution in Thailand was as present as in any other country. Although, decadent king Rama the Fifth, who himself had 4 wives, a royal harem, and 77 children, legalized prostitution in 1934. Under pressure from the United Nations, the government in Thailand revoked the legalization in 1960, but soon after, the Vietnam War started. Thus, Thailand became the primary R&R zone for American soldiers who renamed it I&I – “Intercourse & Intoxication”. The number of local girls that turned to prostitution grew exponentially.
“When the war ended in 1976, politicians and businessmen that ran the big clubs and brothels, turned their business to tourism,” continues Noi, “And the girls did a very good PR job on that one. American customers spread a good word around the world, so the industry just rolled on from there!”
Today it is a business that annually brings 4.3 billion dollars into Thailand. The official government stand is banal: “prostitution doesn’t exist because it’s illegal.” The last Thai premier and a great reformer, Thaksin Shinawatra, started advertising new legalization and taxing the income from prostitution. But last year, the army threw him out of his office and the whole legalization idea was discarded again. Obviously, some things just don’t change. The police is corrupt and politicians are owners of entire red-light districts. “For example, parliament official Chuwita Kamolvisit is a legal owner of the biggest chain of 'massage parlors',” says Noi. “In Lachada Street they just finished a new 'entertainment' complex, which is bigger than the university and more modern than the parliament itself! The word on the street is that behind that project stand people from the top of politics! Leading politicians often talk about different, sensitive information on the pillows of our girls,” laughed Noi.
“The craziest thing is that everything is public and still nothing is done to legalize prostitution!” complained Emi, a prostitute from Patpong, whom I met after her free English classes in EMPOWER. “Government officials come every month to list us and test us for AIDS and STD. How is that possible if our profession is illegal?” She said, angry, but then laughed, “And then, the next night they come back and pay us to ride them!”
Emi is a lady-boy and a dancer at a go-go bar. She came to Bangkok 7 years ago searching for a better life. She lived in a village near Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, in a poor family with 8 brothers and sisters. Since she remembers, she just didn’t feel right being a male, and her parents and other people didn’t judge her for that, or try to change her. She finished high school with the highest grades and ambitiously started attending the university in Bangkok. “The big city just ate me,” she admitted. Her voice is soft but deep, a bit manly, and probably the only part of her that hints at her original sex. In her eyes I notice intelligence and the grace of a woman. She is tender and relaxed, listens to others with patience and attention, and talks warmly with a touch of flirting. “I started with dance and prostitution and immediately loved the business. I started earning some serious money and realized that money can give me a way to do what I want with my life. If I stayed in the village and worked in a factory like my sisters, I would earn 25 times less than what I earn now! This way, I have money for a good life! More than half of my earnings I send to my family. They know where it comes from, but they don’t complain… And with the rest of the money I slowly transform myself into what I really am.” She quickly went with her hands in front of her body from the top down… State of the art silicones cost her around $900 and right now she is saving for the operation of her genitals, which will cost her around $4000.
Emi is aware that Thailand is a country with probably the most liberal views towards transsexuals. One of the main reasons for that is also the Buddhist tradition. People of Thailand believe that the souls of the ones born in the body of a transsexual person are actually paying off for mistakes they made in their former lives, so therefore they deserve pity and not conviction.
Nevertheless, the reason for prostitution being so widespread lies not in Buddhist tradition but in people’s distancing themselves from it. With the beginning of the twentieth century, when western culture started to strongly penetrate Thailand, the ideal model of men and women started to change too. Given the strong patriarchal society, the bearer of those changes was of course the man. His former ideal of being a strong and courageous warrior, wise and powerful leader who helps the weak and forgives the enemy, started to disappear. So, the definition of manhood became what was once vice: gambling, drinking, womanizing, corruption and so on. Losing one’s virginity with a prostitute became a new ritual, the one that transformed a boy into a man. One study among Thai soldiers showed that 73% of them lost their virginity with a prostitute and 97% of them regularly visit brothels.
On the other hand, women became tolerant of the fact that their husbands spend money on prostitutes under the excuse that it’s better that than for them having lovers. Men’s promiscuity is accepted in the entire Thai society so even magazines for women are filled with advice for women on how to deal with that. 74% of women in Thailand think that “it’s natural for a man to have sex with whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases.”
Under those circumstances, the ideal model of a woman started to change too. Once it was the image of a mother and skilled housewife, lovely and caring, modest in her appearance and conservative in her sexuality. Scientists agree that the phenomenon of sex-tourism in Thailand has its cause in the growth of new consumer values and materialistic nature of modern Thai culture.
Noi, once a prostitute and today one of the most important leaders of Thailand’s civil society, told me on more than one occasion that their movement has a motto of sorts. A motto that she also wears on her t-shirt as a sign that covers her once proud and today fallen breasts: “Good girls go to heaven… Bad girls go everywhere…”
I doubt she knows that that motto is pretty worn out in the West today. Where all their best customers come from and where their unique and ancient culture is going to.