Not for the faint-hearted. In Bangkok, the gaudy neon lights flash and hint at the risqué character of the street bars. In the red light district or the Soi Cowboy, a true spectacle unfolds behind the tinted windows. Young Thai girls, virtually naked, attempt to entice the Western punters to the beat of Britney Spears’ latest hit. Some of them even use the most improbable props to add a touch of spice to their ‘sex-shows’.
A German tourist has just selected his prey and invites her for a drink, under the watchful eye of a madam. His advances will lead to the bedroom if the European, or farang as the locals call him, is willing to relieve the young girl of her waitress duties in exchange for a few bank notes. This transaction, known as a ‘bar fine’, adds to the wage these young ladies receive from the Soi Cowboy: 100 euros a month plus commission on the drinks consumed by their clients. Not enough to live on in Bangkok.
Meagre salary, but better than nothing: other establishments only employ women on a freelance basis. For most of the new arrivals from the northern Thai provinces, their payment varies according to how much alcohol they manage to get down the necks of these gentlemen.
Their bosses, often inflexible with their employees, penalise them financially if the client refuses to partake in the ‘bar fine’ as he should. Further down the street, the prostitutes, sometimes transsexuals, are called over by forty-year-olds with their outrageous appearance: grey hair, tight vests stretching over a pot belly, and flip flops.
Nana Plaza, Patpong, Pattaya, Phuket ... So many names evoke the sex tourism paradise that Thailand has become in recent years. Today, there are believed to be over 200, 000 sex workers in the country. Some even suppose the figure to be one million. The pleasure industry employing them accounted for 3% of the Thai economy in 2003.
If the number of Westerners coming to Thailand as ‘sex tourists’ seems high, they represent only 10% of the demand in prostitution, largely dominated by the Japanese, Chinese and other Asian men.
Koy is in her thirties and comes from a rural region in the north east of the country. At the age of sixteen, she came to work in a friend’s ‘massage parlour’ in Pattaya. There she met a client with whom she exchanged letters for more than ten years. This European ‘Romeo’ sent her money every month, but as that ‘didn’t cover the basic living expenses,’ she continued to ‘massage‘ other tourists.
Her ‘boyfriend’, who knew about the situation, came to visit her two or three times a year. Then they split up. She went back to her province, married a Thai, and then headed back to the south to work in the parlour that had previously employed her. One beautiful day, her ‘Jules’ bumped into her again and joined her in Phuket. They have been back together ever since. Fairytale, fool’s game or livelihood?
Koy’s journey is representative of that of thousands of young Thai girls who play the game of ‘copinage’ – trying to become friends and wives of their clients to finally head to Europe, the golden destination. Sometimes, they emigrate to their western lover’s country of origin. A dream often accompanied by multiple experiences of disenchantment and separation.
The oldest job in the world gained a new lease of life in the sixties when the Thai government at the time, keen to ease the daily grind of the American ‘boys’ serving in Vietnam, set up zones of ‘Rest and Recreation’, mainly in Bangkok. Since then, tourists have taken over from the soldiers. Today, prostitution is officially illegal and since 2001 the ‘sex shows’ must take place exclusively in places designated for this purpose and close at 2am.
The battle of the sex workers for recognition of their status and for better working conditions is a long way from being won. But in this environment, hidden and yet so lucrative, where numerous westerners play the role of boss as well as client, it is an uphill struggle. A volunteer from the ‘Empower’ foundation, which works for the rights of ‘sex workers’ in Thailand to be respected, is witness to this: ‘I don’t care how society sees me; I do my job, that’s all. I’m not asking for the moon, I would just like to be treated decently at work, to have more than one day off per month, have access to social security …’