Thailand's dark face

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Everyone familiar with Thailand, knows of its colorful temples, floating markets, beautiful beaches caressed by clear blue-green waters, fabulous silks, exquisite culinary offerings, monks, Thai kick-boxing, and friendly, smiling people. They may know, too, that Thailand is a proud country; one that has never been colonized.

Most visitors readily acknowledge that Thailand is exciting, exotic, fascinating and a delight to visit. There are some, however, who associate these remarkable qualities with Thailand's nightlife, viz., massage parlors, "go-go" nightclubs, brothels, escort services, etc. This is truly unfortunate because not only does it portray a narrow segment of life in Thailand, but it pushes beyond and tarnishes an otherwise wonderful image of a country and of its people.

For example, if you (a male) tell someone you've been to Thailand, you may very well experience the following reaction. The person will smile --- a knowing smile --- and ask how you liked the "massage." Unquestionably, there are those who have visited Thailand for the sole purpose of sex, and this is their perception of the country. Others have gained an understanding from smutty tabloids, magazines specializing in "startling revelations," and western TV that features programs depicting the seamier side of life. But do these perceptions present an accurate picture of Thailand's culture? Hardly! They reflect nothing more than an aspect of life that exists in all countries of the world. A more realistic view would be gained if visitors, when talking about Thailand, did so with an understanding of Thai culture, history, government, system of education and its economy. But because this understanding is lacking, distortions between fact and fiction develop and grow.

Dark influences

For foreign tourists, Thailand's dark side is linked to the prostitution. But dark influences in Thailand are not limited to prostitution, which is only part of the mafia operations. The mafia is also involved with serious crimes like drugs, fraud against the people, embezzlement, contraband smuggling, contract killing, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion and robberies. It is also involved in protection fees from entertainment places, gambling and prostitution dens, as well as motorcycle taxi drivers. It is also behind the destruction of natural resources, illegal transportation, construction bid rigging and job placement operations.

The sex industry alone generates upwards of 100 billion baht each year. The drug trade, based in the Golden Triangle, generates over 400 billion baht a year.

In 2003, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has sent a clear message to mafia figures by launching a new war towards them, i.e. "freeing Thailand from the grasp of influential people". The government declared popular wars on drugs and dark influences as part of the scheme to rid Thai society of long running vicious cycle of evils.

Why does Thailand have this reputation ?

Past and recent history reveal to us that when large numbers of military personnel are sent to foreign lands, prostitution inevitably follows. Whether a war zone occurs in a first or third world country is immaterial; prostitution materializes and flourishes. The real boost to Thailand's prostitution occurred during the Vietnam War. During this time, American GI's (primarily) who were stationed in Vietnam, were authorized a week's "Rest and Relaxation" (R&R) in Thailand, during their year's tour of duty in Southeast Asia.

In a very short time, sex-related establishments sprung up wherever GIs congregated in large numbers, whether at a post or base (some were, of course, in Thailand) or whether on R&R leave from Vietnam. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that as more and more troops were sent to Vietnam and to Thailand, more and more girls became prostitutes. They frequently assumed roles, however, as "go-go" dancers, masseuses, and escorts. Places having the allure of South Sea Islands were especially attractive. Pattaya is one such example.

Before the war, Pattaya was a quiet fishing village, with thatch housing, palm trees and beautiful beaches. It was, and is, a beautiful spot! Understandably, Pattaya became a magnet for lonely GIs, and as one would expect, for enterprising entrepreneurs whose services involved all forms of sexual activity. Today, Pattaya continues to be a well-visited resort city, on the Gulf of Thailand. Its popularity is primarily due to the nightlife it offers. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the clientele that frequented Thailand's nightlife simply changed from military personnel to men of many nationalities.

Other Asian countries offered these same sexual enticements, so why did so many men come to Thailand? They came simply because they knew the cost of living was low, the exchange rate was favorable, the people were friendly, and the conditions were favorable. Thailand is still the most visited country in Southeast Asia, but it is not due to its level of prostitution. Each year, more than eight million foreigners visit Thailand, and who come because they are interested in its history, culture and seeing its remarkable beauty.

Thai women bad reputation

Sadly, the conduct of a relative few has adversely affected the reputation of Thai women, in general. For example, in March 1999, a problem arose between Thailand and Hong Kong about Thai female travelers. Hong Kong custom officials attempted to assure the Thai Foreign Ministry that clearances of Thai women required longer periods of time than normal, because of the need to make thorough checks for fake passports, illegal immigration and occupation (i.e., prostitutes). The women, however, accused custom officials of undue and unjustified harassment. Despite a Thai Foreign Ministry request asking Hong Kong authorities to be more considerate of Thai women travelers, Hong Kong immigration officers were ordered to detain all Thai women below forty years of age.

Thai people look askance when they see a foreign man in the company of a Thai woman. This is particularly true when the man is in his sixties, and the woman is quite young. A Thai automatically perceives the young woman to be a prostitute --- and, of course, she may be. However, this perception is generally extended to all Thai women who are accompanied by foreign men, which is most unfortunate. Not only is this unfair to Thai women, but it is unfair to foreign men as well.

Who is responsible ?

Basically, two major entities (separate and distinct) are responsible for this terribly mistaken image of Thai women. One entity comprises foreign tourists, who come to Thailand for the sole purpose of finding sexual adventures. The other, is the Thai society that has done little to honor the position, and support the standing, of Thai womanhood.

There are many reasons why Patpong, Patpong Beach and Pattaya have attracted so many foreign males to these locations. But, the primary reasons are that they provide all the enticements of a beautiful "paradise", seductive scenery, attractive women, low vacation costs, and anonymity. Men arrive from Arabic countries, China, Europe, Japan, Malaysia, the USA, etc., because they've heard the stories, or read, of this "paradise" in Southeast Asia. Muslim men are particularly attracted to Thailand, since prostitution is prohibited in Muslim countries. Prohibited or not, some Thai prostitutes are sent to Malaysia to work in clandestine brothels. Thai borders towns like Changloon near Malaysia frontier enjoy a new prosperity due to prostitution.

It doesn't end in these locations, however. Back to 1959, Thai policy warned families, living in the northern part of the country, to beware of procurers trying to lure girls to Bangkok, with false promises of jobs. Despite these warnings, the deplorable practice of recruiting young girls from poor families continues still to this day. Because of the power and influence of the Mafia, girls are also recruited to work in Germany, Japan, the USA, and other countries. Some women know what will happen there but some think that they are applying for being house-keeper.

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Glittering neon signs always announce fishy places.

An element of Thai people is also responsible. Frequently, individuals in tourist groups will be propositioned by pimps, while they're in hotel lobbies, hotel bars, or touring the city. And, foreign military makes its presence known once again, when its navy ships anchor near Pattaya. It's often said that Pattaya becomes the world's largest brothel when U. S. aircraft carriers come into port.

It is important to note that prostitution is not limited to foreigners in Thailand. There are far more brothels reserved for Thai people than for foreigners; as you would expect, prices are higher for foreigners. Bars and brothels are concentrated on a few streets in any city. But, prostitution can be found in unexpected places. As a result of Thailand's economic crisis, women who normally sold "SOMTAM" (สมตำ - a spicy salad from Thailand's northeast) in front of the Hualamphong Train Station in Bangkok, were selling more than just somtam in early year 1999.

Government actions

One of the richest resources a nation possesses is its youth. Thailand desperately needs to develop programs for educating women (and men) in skills that make them productive members of society. Thai women should be capable of performing work that provides them a decent standard of living, and a feeling of worth. Furthermore, because there are no government social security programs in Thailand, it is essential that women (like men) acquire benefits that provide them the financial means for a livable retirement, and needed medical care. As it is, the future confronting Thai women today is one that is bleak, depressing and (seemingly) without hope.

Officially, brothels are forbidden. But establishments like restaurants, karaoke bar lounges, massage parlors (there are 103 registered massage houses in Bangkok and about 70 in the provinces), "go-go" places are not forbidden by law since (technically) they are not recognized as brothels. Some corrupted policemen accept money or bribes to protect the sex shops from the gangsters. And, one may wonder why foreign men are allowed to manage "go-go" bars. It certainly is not the kind of enterprise the government should be seeking. Thailand needs enterprises that have a positive influence on its people, i.e that can increase Thai people knowledge through training and technology transfer.

Funds, too, are used to pay off corrupt policemen for protection, by brothel owners.

Every person involved in the prostitution business is liable to penalties ranging from fines to jail terms and even the death penalty (if murder is committed) under the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996.

In November 1998, government and non-government representatives from 15 Asia-Pacific countries adopted the Bangkok Accord and Plan of Action, to combat the trafficking of women. Included in the plan are measures to provide employment education and training for young women; measures that are long overdue. It is the hope and prayer of all Thai women, therefore, that these provisions will be enforced, and not simply be a means of encompassing words of false promises that are written for the benefit of the world's media. Affording justice, hope and opportunity to these women can't come soon enough.

In october 2000 a French man was condemned to seven years jail for a rape on a twelve years old girl in Pattaya. This rape happened in 1994. The culprit and a friend shot the whole ugly scene. A few years later the tape was discovered, the culprit found and a trial organized. Even if advocates tried to defend the culprit invoking Pattaya seamier atmosphere, the guy was condemned to seven years jail. Unicef has declared this judgement and condemnation as a first very important event. Child prostitution is a delicate problem. People abusing children are now subjected to their own laws for crimes made in other countries.

In september 2001, the government has declared a "New Social Order" crusade which seeks to eradicate the spread of illicit drugs, prostitution and casual sex among the nation's youth. In an attempt to curb illicit activities at late-night entertainment venues, Thailand's Interior Minister Purachai Piumsombun has ordered police to begin enforcing laws that require bars to shut their doors by 2 a.m. Purachai's campaign has received broad support from parents and teachers, but people involved in Thailand's large and lucrative entertainment industry are complaining that the crackdown is driving them out of business.

In year 2003 massage parlour entrepreneur Chuwit Kamolvisit accused city police of receiving bribes from him every month. It has led to the transferring of some policemen to inactive positions. Chuwit's assets have been frozen.

Thailand bad image

Actually, it is difficult to determine because there has never been a period in recent years when the image of Thailand hasn't been tarnished by prostitution. How many foreign tourists would have come to see the wonders of Thailand --- but didn't --- had they not been repulsed by reports of Thailand's sex activities? Admittedly, the figure is unknown, but it is felt to be high.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) works diligently to erase this SSS (Sea, Sex, and Sun) image of that country, but it can only do so much. In April of 1999, TAT sued the operators of an U.S. based internet web site for using the official "Amazing Thailand" logo to promote sex tours to Thailand.

In the minds of many people, Thailand is still thought of as being a back packer's paradise, and a destination affording cheap sex.

TAT is to be commended for promoting cultural and family-oriented tours, and rightly so. But its efforts are hampered by advertisements found in sleaze magazines, and on the internet touting the excitements to be experienced in Thailand's massage parlors, "go-go" establishments and brothels.

More than forty years ago, the Prime Minister ordered the arrest of prostitutes in Bangkok, because he did not want the city to be known to the world as a "city of prostitution." The problem, however, still remains. Whereas Bangkok was once known as the "Venice of the East," because of its numerous canals, it is now frequently referred to as the "Vice City of the Far East."


One of the more tragic consequences of prostitution occurs when a Thai wife becomes an innocent AIDS victim, due to the infidelity of her husband. Thai husbands have a reputation for being unfaithful to their wives. Ironically, Thai custom does not favor the use of preventive measures by wives that would protect them from becoming infected with the AIDS virus. Not only do these wives, who contract AIDS from their unfaithful husbands, experience considerable pain and misery while undergoing treatment --- and frequently, agonizing deaths --- but further sorrow should they learn that their children have also become infected.

Thailand has warned its citizens to the dangers of AIDS, using extensive publicity programs. But much still needs to be done. For a time, the government did little to warn its citizens because it feared that warnings of this nature would adversely affect the number of foreign tourists, and the money they'd bring with them. About 10 years ago, however, the government began a campaign to inform the public about AIDS. One of the measures to minimize the spread of AIDS, which appeared in newspapers, was for women to use condoms if they had any doubt about the persons with whom they were having sexual relations. Thai senator Meechai Viravaidya who came to be known as the "Condom King" began a crusade, handing out condoms in Bangkok's notorious Patpong red-light district.

A number of Aids-affected children are excluded from the educational system because of school and community prejudice, while others could not go to school because of their parents' illness.

The problem emanating from foreign male tourists persists, despite public announcements that the high incidence of AIDS is a government concern. Solutions to this problem are complicated because of a lack of personal responsibility, cultural ramifications, and the fact that tourism is Thailand's primary source of foreign money.

Unfortunately, people with good intentions but who lack knowledge of AIDS, disseminate incorrect information about the virus to the public. An influential monk, Phra Phayom Kalayano, of Wat Suan Kaew, created one such instance. In April of 1999, he embarrassed health authorities by telling a seminar audience that prostitutes spread the AIDS virus. His comments outraged NGOs, who put much effort into informing the world that anyone can become infected with AIDS; not just clients of prostitutes. Comments such as his only lead to further misunderstandings and increased discrimination toward persons suffering from the virus.

Another example of misunderstanding happened in February 2000, near Chiang Mai. A burial protest, organized by villagers, occurred in front of an AIDS center. The protesters didn't want the corpses to be buried near their community. They feared their water sources would be polluted.

According to a Public Health Ministry report, during a 15-year period (1984-1999), AIDS had infected more than 900,000 people in Thailand, and claimed more than 300,000 lives. Thailand has been largely successful in controlling the spread of the disease. In four years, the use of condoms increased by 50%, and the number of 21 year-old men going to brothels decreased by 50% (estimates).

Aids is leading cause of death in Thailand. Health officials say one in six deaths in 1998 are believed to have been caused by Aids and related complications. Nearly one million people in Thailand have been infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, since the beginning of the epidemic. Of them, 300,000 have died. Thailand managed to bring down the rate of HIV/Aids infection by 80% after a massive awareness and condom distribution campaign in the early 1990s.


Before one can intelligently judge, and constructively criticize Thailand for the unfavorable image it has spawned, a brief overview of its circumstances is in order.

Despite being referred to in recent years as "one of the small dragons of Asia," Thailand is still categorized as a developing country. The media has admirably accounted for its successes (and its failures) over the past 20 years, but the successes have not provided financial rewards for every class of society. Quite the contrary; it has largely benefited a very few. Primarily, it's been a segment of Bangkok's population that has made money, and created a new middle-class using the labor of poor people, e.g., the Isans. (Thai name for people in Thailand's northeast area).

We mentioned earlier that training programs are desperately needed to provide women and men with the necessary skills to earn a decent living. In addition, social security programs are also needed to provide workers with medical care, and a retirement plan that will furnish financial and medical assistance to them in their old age. Unbelievable though it may be in the 21st century, there are no government programs today in Thailand that provide financial and medical assistance to Thai citizens. Except in rare cases, one is left to cope with these problems on her/his own. It should be mentioned here that "Empower" ( Click here to learn more about Empower foundation) is a non-governmental organization established to protect the rights of persons involved in the sex industry.

What are the alternatives? Especially, what are the alternatives for those who were born in poor families, have little education, no marketable skills, are confronted with discrimination, and live in a country where decent work and living opportunities are minimal? Rather than face possible starvation, poor parents normally sell their oldest daughter into prostitution. For them, it is the surest and fastest way to gain income for the family, and to support the studies of their sons. It's been documented that many women willingly become prostitutes because they assume responsibility for their loved ones, who are hungry, elderly and/or sick. In so doing, they follow Buddhist precepts by performing good actions for their family. Ironically, without attempting to learn why they're engaged in prostitution, society condemns them. Passing moral judgement on these women, which is typically harsh and unfair, is normally made by individuals who are safe, secure, ignorant and whose stomachs are full. Admittedly, there are those who do it for self-pleasure and gain. As long as a Thai prostitute can earn much more than a Thai worker in a factory, some women will prefer this job even if the risks are high. But there are still many others, who are forced into prostitution, exploited and treated like animals.

Since a son's ordination is believed to be his parents' ticket to heaven, boys can fulfil their filial duty merely by becoming a monk. Daughters must show gratitude through self-sacrifice. It is no coincidence that female migrant workers send money home more than males, that working women give up careers to care for ailing parents, or that poor girls enter the sex trade to support their families.

In Thai society prostitutes are disliked. In Thai language many words are used to translate the word "prostitute". The more common words are "PHUJING MAI DEE" (ผู้หญิงไม่ดี - bad woman) or "PHUJING HA KIN" (ผู้หญิงหากิน - woman who is looking for food ) or other words such as กระหรี่.

While incarcerated, prostitutes are kept separate from other criminals. On the first of May 1999, suspected prostitutes were confined to "designated cells" at 169 police stations. To comply with the 1996 Prostitution and Suppression Law, police authorities are required to keep prostitutes apart from other criminal elements in order to protect them from being sexual abused. Unfortunately, many of these suspects had wrongfully been lured (e.g., false promises, threats, beatings, etc.) into the business of prostitution and, therefore, deserve protection while being held in jail.

How many people are involved ?

A 1999 survey, compiled by the Ministry of Public Health, indicates an increase in the number of individuals engaged in sexual services. Of a total of 69,139 individuals, 3,138 are men and 66,001 are women; their services were performed in 8,431 estab-lishments. A year earlier, a survey showed a total of 63,941, of which 2,806 were men and 61,135 were women; establishments numbered 8,016. In 1990, however, the number of prostitutes was 86,494; many of whom came from Burma and China.

The number of child prostitutes rose from 4.4% to 5.3% in 1999. It's estimated that 12,000 child prostitutes are working in Thailand. Abused as children, these young victims (particularly girls) usually end up in brothels. Child abuse is not only a serious problem in Thailand but throughout the world as well.

The city with the greatest number of sex establishments is Bangkok. Those that follow are found in the districts of Chon Buri (Pattaya), Phuket, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Pattani and Sungai Kolok. The last three places are near the Malaysia border. Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai are favorite tourist destinations.

With the modernization of Thailand, and the growth of factories providing employment, the number of Thai prostitutes has declined while the number of foreign prostitutes has risen. It should be noted, however, that Thai prostitutes do go abroad (Japan, Germany, USA, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore etc.) because of higher (or the promise of higher) incomes. To be sent, they must pay a huge sum for transportation and relocation costs, which must then be paid back. ( Read the report of Human Rights Watch on Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan).

Instead of becoming wealthy, as they had hoped, too often they're exploited, beaten, infected with AIDS, and killed.

The ranks of prostitutes in Thailand continue to be filled by women from the Hill Tribes, Laos, Burma and China. All these women come from poorer countries than Thailand, and experience a tremendous culture shock when confronted with Thailand's modern society. The gulf between old traditions and the new society is quite wide. But, as we know, rich places (or those perceived to be rich) always attract poor people.

Is there a solution ?

Drafting and implementing viable solutions requires major changes in the minds of the public and Thai leadership regarding societal concepts. The concepts of equal stature for women, national social security programs, free education, national health programs, worker safety standards, worker training, minimum working hours and pay, etc. are difficult concepts to grasp in nations that don't have them.

Thai society is still a society for men. In earlier times, Thai men could have several wives, like the Mormons in the United States. Now it is forbidden, but some men who are wealthy, have "minor" wives, called "MIA NOI" (เมียน้อย). And, as previously mentioned, brothels exist for men; some reserved for farangs and others, for Thais.

In Thai Buddhist world, women are less valued than men, i.e. they cannot being ordained and become monks but just nuns, they cannot touch monks, during periods they shall not enter in temples and so on... As we've said, women do not have the same rights and stature in society as men. Things are changing --- but slowly. Strangely enough, although women do not have the power in the family, they're the "boss." In addition to taking care of the children and the house, they manage the family's money. Until a few years ago, men could ask for a divorce if their wives were unfaithful, but the reverse was not true. Today women have the same rights as men about divorce laws. Thai newspapers have also victimized women. In December 1999, the front page of Thai Rath showed a picture of a murdered rape victim almost completely naked, and by so doing, launched a public outcry against the editor and publisher. Again, signs of progress are visible but they simply need more momentum.

In 2003 Thai government think about proposing to legalise the country's huge sex trade. The National Economic and Social Board says it would reduce corruption and allow it to be taxed.

Thai women are neither prurient nor are they passive. They're like women everywhere. They want to be respected, have equal rights with men and be treated like human beings. If one would take the trouble to search, he/she would find that Thai people are shy, parents educate their children to mistrust strangers, women will not approach a stranger by herself, and should a Thai woman smile at you in the street, it doesn't convey an invitation. It simply reflects that she is genuinely friendly and that you're in the "Land of Smiles." And, the joy of knowing this, and other information about Thailand, will make you truly thankful that you're in "Amazing Thailand."

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