Bangkok; The seedy side of tourism in one of Asia’s most progressive cities

Photo of a hand of a man using a nail gun to fix a roof

Originally Written & Published for The Atlantic (print)

I have traveled to Thailand, and Bangkok, in particular, many times over. The city’s fast-paced energy and the kind-hearted nature of the Thai people always impressed me, but until my last visit, I never stayed long enough to really explore all the different quirks, neighborhoods and attractions that make Bangkok so unique, yet notorious, all at the same time.

Sure, Bangkok is no stranger to tourism, edging out London as the number 1 visited city in the world according to Forbes Magazine. Many foreign & domestic visitors are drawn to the city’s majestic palaces, ancient temples and the abundance of street food stalls scattered all over the city, offering anything from Pad Thai to spicy Som Tam and grilled scorpions.

However, exotic food, temples, and royal residences aren’t the only attraction people, especially men, come to Bangkok for. It’s the bars, packed with beautiful young women, all “available for a fee; men are galavanting all over town for. It’s a scene so normal and so integral to the city’s economic bubble that people keep forgetting that prostitution has been de jure illegal since the 1960s.

Laws don’t seem to matter much, and surprisingly, sex tourism is practiced out in the open in the city’s red-light districts of Soi Cowboy, Patpong and Nana Plaza for everybody to see. It’s a melting pot for men to mingle with young, attractive girls and live out their fantasies away from their wives, children and the suburban homes with the 2005 station wagon safely parked in the garage.

To me, it’s not the fantasies, the illegal act, the fact that many men still wear their wedding rings while holding a young Asian beauty — or two, in their arms nor the age difference between the “couples that’s problematic.

The real problem with sex tourism is twofold.

Problem Number 1

Men brag among each other to be a sex tourist like it is some sort of accomplishment. It’s widely accepted, and men literally form life-long friendships through the exploitation of young women. It’s a social club — a society that operates by its own rules and standards and only individuals who meet certain criteria are accepted.

These men know each other. These men have each other’s back, and these men operate in a powerful network that includes politicians, wealthy businessmen, thugs, and opportunists that can get you to places and grant you access to items unbeknownst to the public.

I got to know such a man. After my second day in the city, I started checking out nearby hotels and bars, looking for someone, which “fits the bill,” I could talk to. It didn’t take long. What’s so odd about Bangkok is that you’ll bump into people, seemingly in every bar, every restaurant or hotel, who are more than happy to talk about a topic that’s so taboo in most parts of the world.

Ironically, I met B.K. in an Irish pub just across the main drag at Soi Cowboy, one of the city’s notorious red light districts. As he sat down at the table next to me, I knew straight away that this was “my guy.” See the ironic thing about this particular type of tourist is that they all seem to shop at the same clothing store, get their hair cut by the same barber and have the same taste when it comes to tattoos. It’s almost like there is a sex tourist dress code — a secret key or cover to let others know that they are part of the club too.

We get talking — and after the usual small talk about where each other was from and how long we have been in the city for, we pretty quickly started chatting about girls. It was almost like he couldn’t wait to tell me why he is in love with the country he visits every year twice, for four weeks at the time, since 1996.

“I think my wife knows why I go to Thailand for, but she never asks and I never tell,”

B.K. is married. He has two kids — two daughters, 28 years old and 32 years old. “I think my wife knows why I go to Thailand for, but she never asks and I never tell,” he said. He continues to tell me how he travels for business and how much he loves his family — but how hard it is for him to resist the temptation of exotic, beautiful and cheap girls — often younger than his own daughters to live out his sexual fantasies he wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.

I asked him about what his fantasies are, but he swiftly diverted the conversation to something more casual. I kept insisting, but the only thing I got out of him was an embarrassed chuckle followed by, “my daughters would hate me if I’d tell you.” I continued the conversation around his daughters, and I asked him if he feels bad to sleep with women who could very well be his own daughters.

Again, he chuckled and argued that these girls come from nothing and in a way he is helping them by providing them with a better lifestyle and more opportunities to get ahead in life. He kept saying that most of them actually love it, that they love what they do because it enables them to have nice things in life they otherwise couldn’t afford. I didn’t say anything; I didn’t have to because deep down we both know, they don’t love it at all.

The conversation took a turn when I asked him a question no one else ever asked him before. I asked him if he would be okay if one of his daughters ended up working the streets because it’s her only way to make ends meet and if he would see it as me helping her if I was to have sex with her because I would contribute to a better life for her.

His look in his eyes changed. His demeanor changed, and just as I thought he was about to smack me in the face, he smiled at me and said; “No one has ever called me out on my own shit. I guess I never actually thought about it that way and now thinking about what you’ve just said makes me feel like crap.”

We both laughed and took a sip of our beer. We chatted some more about how many women he sleeps with when he’s in Thailand and what he looks for in a girl. We also talked about less heavy topics such as football, work, and movies.

I actually enjoyed our conversation and started to like B.K. He was an intelligent man, running a tech company somewhere in Europe with an Obama-like charm and an addictive personality. I still don’t know how I feel about enjoying the company of a married man who pays for sex with women who often don’t have anywhere else to turn to other than selling their bodies for a little bit of cash, but I guess it is what it is — for now anyway.

Problem Number 2

Of course, we live in a world driven by capitalism and free markets, and we assume that every action, every turn is a result of free will and opportunities. The sad thing is though, sex tourism & prostitution in Asia often isn’t — at least for the ones who work the streets.

After my encounter with B.K., I was determined to talk to someone who is (literally) on the receiving end of it all. I wanted to know what it’s like to jump into a skimpy dress and a pair of high-heels every night — not because they want to, but because they have to. I also wanted to find out why.

I met Phueng at one of the Go-Go bars at Patpong. It was early evening and no one else, except her, two British men occupied by two of Phueng’s friends, and the lady, the mama-san, who owns/manages the establishment aka girls, were in the bar. She came over to take my order and started chatting. I didn’t really know how all of this works. Was there a secret code? Words you say/don’t say? I let the conversation take its course and started asking her questions about herself. Phueng was born in a small town in Isan province, one of the poorest regions in the country.

Fast forward, Phueng is 15 years old and is required to contribute to her family’s household or otherwise, her family wouldn’t have enough money to feed her and her three siblings. She started working as a maid for a wealthy farm owner making around USD 45.00 a month — a figure she is now making in about 2 hours. She told me that it was hard work, often 10–12 hours a day with one provided meal and some water. She stayed at the farm for 15 months, sending every bit of cash home to support her family.

Phueng had other jobs — mostly hard, intensive labor on farms and factories in the area, but one day, a family friend told her about this job as a massage girl in Bangkok and the money she could make. Two days later, her family scraped together USD 18.00 to get her onto a bus en-route to Bangkok where she remains, living in a small apartment she shares with two other girls on the outskirts of the city, six years later. She hasn’t seen her family in almost four years but she is still sending them money every week to make sure her siblings have enough to eat and a blanket to sleep on.

I asked her whether she likes living in Bangkok. Her reply was; “Yes, I like living here because it’s so different from where I grew up, but I don’t like what I have to do to enjoy life in the city.”

I also asked her if her family knew what she was doing for a living which was met with a shy and quiet yes. She also told me that she has a boyfriend — a 49-year-old Dutch engineer who sends her money every month. When I asked why she is still working as a bar girl, she replied, “because my family doesn’t know that I have a boyfriend. They expect a lot of money each month, so I keep it a secret and keep the money from my “Baba” (how she calls him) for myself.

“Does he know?”, I asked. “No,” was her response.

Phueng is a beautiful young girl with a bubbly personality, and I can see why guys like to pursue her. But I also see a young, broken woman, robbed of her hopes and dreams and forced by members of her own family to work in an environment that’s so cruel, so derogatory and submissive in order to support them.

It’s an environment of such contrast. One one side, you have men having a good time, paying for whatever they want, when they want it, before returning home to their wives, partners, children, and jobs. On the other side, however, you have young women, often abused and trafficked, crying in their rooms, continually questioning their self-worth before getting ready for another round on the streets of Bangkok, carried by that glimmer of hope that one day, one of the many men, traveling to Bangkok for sex, will save them.