Thailand’s Sex Industry – The Seedy Side of Siam

Soi Cowboy part of Thailand's sex industry

The seedy side of Siam – Bangkok’s infamous Soi Cowboy is lined with strip clubs, go go bars and scantily clad women

Wellllllcome, Hellooooo, Come Inside! Cry gaggles of skimpily dressed young Thai girls huddled under the multitude of flashing neon pink lights along Soi Cowboy.

Bangkok – one part city of golden temples, one part modern and futuristic and one part strange and seedy.

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The golden spires and chedis of the elaborate Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew

Bangkok – The Oriental City

Bangkok is infamous for it’s nightlife but some aspects of it really left me with a queasy feeling. The Sukhumvit area is home to posh hotels, trendy malls and modern offices while the futuristic sky train whooshes overhead but at night it gains a whole different feeling.

The traffic clogged streets are crowded with so many stalls that it’s hard to walk along as food stalls, pop up bars and tacky touristy t-shirt stalls jostle for space amongst displays of sex toys, Viagra, Valium and weapons and knives for sale. This is Siam at it’s seediest.

Here a night in Bangkok shines under the glow of the neon lights of strip bars and seedy go go bars. Prostitutes parade up and down the streets and scour the carparks while fat, old, western men cosy up to pretty young Thai girls. A drink in an innocent looking sports bar ends abruptly when a lady boy begins rubbing his or her hand up my leg and asking for a drink.

Even on backpacker central Khao San Road tuk tuk drivers block my path to try to entice me to visit a ping pong show or other type of leud act that I didn’t imagine even existed let alone have a show for.

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Khao San Road is popular with backpackers but even here I repeatedly get asked to go and see a ping pong or sex show

Thailand’s Sex Industry

Back in Sukhumvit and shining like a neon pink palace the Nana entertainment plaza opens up like a mall with it’s 3 floors of only one kind of entertainment and is rumoured to be the largest sex complex in the world.

Further on I walk through the gauntlet of aggressively beckoning girls and garish neon lights of Soi Cowboy baring names such as kiss go go, dolls house, spice girls and rawhide with a mixture of other curious, shocked tourists, students, businessmen and western sexpats.

I just can’t believe how big, brash and open Thailand’s sex industry is and how aggressive the girls can be. I can no longer tell who is a prostitute or not, a man or a woman, massage or sex, bar or brothel, genuine or fake.

Nanaplaza

Nana Plaza is rumoured to be the largest sex complex in the world

I feel tainted, dirty and confused and in need of a drink somewhere that the staff will be fully clothed and won’t try to offer me any extra seedy services. I opt for 7/11!

I buy a Singha beer and sit outside on the curb to drink it, process my thoughts and take in my surroundings. In front of me Terminal 21 a gleeming, modern mall themed like an airport, one way is the sleezy Soi Cowboy gogo bars and the other way the hustle and bustle of a busy Bangkok evening rushes by unphased.

The human side to Thailand’s sex industry

A pretty young Thai girl with dark hair, big eyes, a tight red dress and impossibly high heels staggers out of the shop and sits down with a big sigh. I glance at her and we exchange cautious smiles. She then starts showing me pictures on her iphone of her 5 year old daughter and tells me how she misses her.

She is only 19 and from a poor village in Isaan (a poor, agricultural area in the North East of Thailand) after her boyfriend left her and her daughter she couldn’t see any other option than to come to Bangkok to find work and with little education she ended up sleeping with men to send money home to her parents who are looking after her daughter so she can get an education.

I really didn’t know what to say, I felt so sorry for this young, sparky, bubbly, loving girl who missed her daughter a lot and had to go to such lengths to provide a better life for her daughter. She asked me about me life and I told her about uni and my travels of which she was very envious and I felt ashamed as I have done many times on my journey at my good fortune.

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The swish new shopping mall Terminal 21 is themed like an airport departure lounge and each floor is impressively themed on a different country

I realised, perhaps it wasn’t just her, perhaps a similar story was behind many of the young women working in Thailand’s oh so obvious sex industry.

Once I had seen it I saw it everywhere, all over Thailand, the young, dressed up women waiting in bars mascarding as pool or sports bars ready to pounce and pretty young Thai girls walking arm in arm with fat, old, western men. Every time I saw this I thought of the sad circumstances behind the young girls with no other ways of providing for their families and the tourists and sexpats who flock to Thailand to take advantage of this.

So how do so many women end up in Thailand’s sex industry?

“Some women willingly enter into the sex trade. Culturally in Thailand, women are expected to make sacrifices for their families in order to improve the family’s financial situation. This often results in pressure for them to provide income for the family, regardless of dangers involved. Since their are few opportunities for women to make decent wages, many will end up working in the sex trade.” Kendra Perry on Thailand’s Sex Trade Industry

But then in Thailand not everything is so black and white. Nomadic Matt wrote an excellent piece on his popular travel blog and he thinks that “The girls you see at go-go bars exploit foreign men as much as you think foreign men exploit them … Most of the prostitutes come from the poorest region of Thailand called Issan in the northeast. The girls know they can make a lot of money being a prostitute. Many have families to support … It’s an easy job to get, requires very little English, and the money is good.” 

It has been said that the Thai’s do not place as much emphasis on love as we do and women are under a lot of pressure to provide for the family. Earning a good amount of money, even if it is by dancing in a go go bar or having a western boyfriend is more important. It’s just a job.

go go bars are all over Bangkok - the hub of Thailand's sex industry

Who is actually being exploited in Bangkok’s numerous go go bars

Some women willingly enter into the sex trade. Culturally in Thailand, women are expected to make sacrifices for their families in order to improve the family’s financial situation. This often results in pressure for them to provide income for the family, regardless of dangers involved. Since their are few opportunities for women to make decent wages, many will end up working in the sex trade. – See more at: http://www.travelculturemag.com/thailands-sex-trade-industry/#sthash.OA7iPPqi.dpuf
Some women willingly enter into the sex trade. Culturally in Thailand, women are expected to make sacrifices for their families in order to improve the family’s financial situation. This often results in pressure for them to provide income for the family, regardless of dangers involved. Since their are few opportunities for women to make decent wages, many will end up working in the sex trade. – See more at: http://www.travelculturemag.com/thailands-sex-trade-industry/#sthash.OA7iPPqi.dpuf

Who is really being exploited?

We see exploitation of young girls but maybe, the young Thai girls are taking advantage of the men and know how to get the most money out of them.

Nomadic Matt talks about an expression called “the white man’s burden“- how Westerners feel a responsibility to save these girls that we think must be exploited.

But, he says “Usually the ones being exploited are the men. The older women teach the new girls the tricks of the trade – how to say the right things to get the guys to pay for them.  They know what buttons to push. They know what to do to get the money.”

Many men come to Thailand for a quickie but end up falling in love with a bar girl. “But you know what these girls don’t want to be saved. You are just another sucker to them, one who is going to pay their bills. And if they do end up “dating” you it’s simply because you are supporting them… there is some Western guy who is sending her money – and she always needs money and men are more than happy to provide the money thinking they are keeping that girl out of prostitution”

For more information on this see Nomadic Matt’s excellent article about Thailand’s sex industry.

So perhaps the sob stories are just a ploy to get more money out of foreign men’s wallets. Maybe they are just normal girls who like to dress up, go out and have fun who can detach and just see prostitution as a well paid job to provide for their families.

Perhaps it’s natural for us to see it as disgusting and exploitative but maybe its wrong to think of it from our privileged western point of view.

Either way, amongst the glittering temples and postcard perfect beaches the sleazy, in your faceness of Thailand’s sex industry left me with some disturbing dilemmas.

Have you been to Thailand? What impression did the sex industry leave on your visit?

6 Comments

  • As terrible as it sounds, I’d still like to experience it just once!

  • Rashaad says:

    I’m not sure if I ever visited Nana Plaza (I might have) but I do remember visiting the red light district in Pattaya. I’ve been to Thailand four times and during the last three times, the sight(s) of the older white men/younger Thai women groupings have definitely stuck out in my mind. But I feel like I can’t give an informed opinion about the sex industry in Thailand because there’s so much I don’t know about it.

  • Anna Phipps says:

    Thanks for your comment. It is a complicated topic – one that had an effect on me, like you mention, which is why I wanted to explore the subject further and write about it. There are many sides to the story I think, but I am just scratching the surface as, like you say, I cannot truly know the whole story about Thailand’s sex industry.

  • Cindy says:

    It’s interesting how you look at both sides of the story. I think that’s what we learn as travelers : there is always a multitude of points of view , and how westerners perceive prostitution may be different from how Thai perceive it. However, I believe that if there was no market for it (ie. no white male looking for paid sex) there would be no offer. Through our choices, such as choosing not to engage or encourage sex tourism, and choosing to support eco-tourism for example, we may be able to create decent high-earnings jobs in most pleasant environment for these girls to provide for their family.

    • Anna Phipps says:

      Thanks for your really excellent comment – I completely agree and you raise an excellent point. I was merely curious about the sex industry, and it’s almost impossible to escape in Thailand, but in no way did I engage in or support sex tourism and it’s sad that some men go to Thailand just for this. Wouldn’t it be great if eco tourism could create decent jobs and working environments for these girls! If only more people felt this way.

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