Thailand’s sex trade is worth an estimated billions of dollars, and is one of the world’s largest and best organized. The brand – you might call it Thailand Sex, Inc – is recognized worldwide. Here’s a look inside just a few of the multitude of establishments that make up Bangkok’s massive sex industry.
*** This is the first of a series of stories on Asia’s multi billion-dollar sex industry. Part 2 is here.
In a small “special massage” parlor in downtown Bangkok, you can find “Daisy” (not her real name) working five or six days a week.
Traffic whizzes by outside and throngs of Thai office workers, bank clerks and others head home during rush hour. Tourists snap photos of the bustling downtown scene, chatting excitedly as they walk by, while Daisy and her coworkers wait inside their small shop for male customers.
It’s after 6pm and will soon be dark as Daisy and a couple of coworkers stand inside a glass storefront, opening the door to potential male clients as they pass by, amid the smell of street food carts cooking spicy chicken satay right out on the street. The smell of smoke and chili powder permeates the air.
“Massage, Sir? You come in look?” Daisy tells this reporter as he walks by, in a high-pitched Thai accent common among the estimated few hundred-thousand sex workers here in Bangkok.
I walk in the place, about the size of a convenience store, with a desk in the back, a couple of sofas and some young Thai women — most seem to be in their early 20s to early 30s — milling around. One is sitting on a sofa eating a snack.
Many in Thailand’s sex trade – even as young as 20 years old – are supporting their children in a country where teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Southeast Asia. Even as overall births decline, unwed teen births are going up.
“You choose (what) you want,” she says politely, handing me a purple, laminated menu of prices and services, anything from “full service” (intercourse), “body-to-body” massage, to “ball massage.” I say I just want a regular massage and no sexual services. She’s fine with that and charges me 900 baht for it, or around $27. No one cares that I don’t ask for sex. I surmise they get all sorts of requests in there.
Daisy’s massage parlor is more low- key than the ones down the block. There are no flashing lights or big, colorful signs like the other shops, just a storefront window with “Thai massage,” “Oil massage” and “aroma therapy” printed in simple red letters on the glass. The young ladies in the shop hang out by a glass door and keep an eye out for male passers-by through the window, opening the door when they spot a possible customer and inviting him inside.
After night falls, the entire block will light up with flashing neon signs. Throngs of tourists, gawkers, and some middle aged white men looking for sex will pass through this one-block but jam-packed and bustling red light district, home to around a dozen shops employing what seems like a few hundred women. Motorcycle taxis zip in and out of the place and weave through the crowd, their engines buzzing. Some shops are larger, with around 20 short-skirted young women anywhere from around 19 to 35 years old sitting in lawn chairs out front. Such out-in-the-open red light districts, located in touristy, city centers, cater mostly to foreign men, from Japan, Korea, Europe and North America. The Thais — the main customers of the nation’s massive adult entertainment industry — have their own places to purchase sex.
There are a few young women milling around and I am given a choice of which of them, in matching skin-tight cocktail dresses and bare feet, I’d like to massage me. I choose Daisy, the one who handed me the menu, as she can speak English reasonably well. While her grammar isn’t perfect, she can make herself understood very well.
Daisy says she is saving money for her son, who is about a decade away from college age, to attend university one day. ‘Everything I do for my boy,’ she says.
She again asks what I want and rattles off a list of “techniques” that she can offer, from oral sex to “full service” – intercourse, always with a condom, she emphasizes. I re-iterate that just a massage and no sexual extras is fine.
Daisy gives me a pair of slippers to put on and leads me up a steep and narrow flight of rickety wooden stairs to the second floor and into a small room. The place is old but clean, and the smell of incense and vapor rub permeates the air. The room has a shower and massage table covered by a thin mat. The shower is for clients, and for an extra fee she will shower with them before and after the service she provides.
She says that’s no problem, whatever the customer wants, within the limits, is fine. That means no unprotected sex, no verbal or physical abuse, no anal sex – some of her colleagues offer that but not her – she explains.
I had for some time wanted to interview a Bangkok sex worker, so I could understand, from the inside, how this massive business works. I found the Thai NGOs to be very non-committal in getting me in touch with these ladies of the night. Frankly, I felt some NGO personnel just wanted a cushy job with lots of prestige and travel opportunities to conferences abroad. One NGO advised me just to walk into a place, pay the hourly fee, and see if the service provider wants to talk. So that’s what I ended up doing.
There are no exact figures available on the size and dollar value of the Thai sex industry, only estimates. But we do know this: the industry is big – really big. One of the world’s largest, in fact.
One estimate came in 2012 from a Thai politician, who alleged that the sex trade earns more than 200 billion baht a year – or U.S. $5.6 billion – and is equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the country’s national budget. The lawmaker was once a business tycoon who made a fortune in the massage parlor business.
Friedrich Schneider, an economist at Johannes Kepler University, estimates that Thailand’s underground economy comprises two-fifths of GDP, noted Bloomberg. That would include sex work, gambling and other businesses.
I ask Daisy how long she’s been doing this job.
“I come Bangkok long time ago. Maybe I 23, 24 years old,” she says, adding that she’s now in her early 30s. “I work at hair salon. I making only 50 baht (in) one hour,” she says, referring to the first job she got when she came to Bangkok from a rural upcountry area a decade ago, in which she earned about $1.50 per hour.
“Everything I do for my boy,” she says.
“Make money, give my family and my boy,” she says, speaking about her 9-year-old son, who is living with her aging parents in Isan, the country’s rural upcountry region. She explains that she works hard only so her son can go to school and one day to university.
I remark that she’s quite petite.
“When I small, no pork, no chicken, just everyday rice,” she says, explaining why she thinks she’s got such a small and thin frame, as she ate nothing but small portions of rice while growing up.
Like the overwhelming majority of sex workers in Bangkok who cater to foreigners, Daisy is from an impoverished area of Thailand called Isan, a vast swath of territory that makes up Thailand’s northeastern rural upcountry. Isan encompasses 20 provinces.
Daisy comes from one of around half a dozen Isan provinces situated on Cambodia’s border, and is a native speaker of a dialect of Cambodia’s Khmer language – one of over a million Northern Khmer speakers in Thailand. Her province is known for its Khmer ruins.
Bustling Bangkok has many shiny modern shopping malls, hotels and boasted more than 16 million tourists in 2013 – surpassing Paris, London and New York. It is a world away from Isan, as parts of the upcountry region seem more like rural Africa than the modern economic dynamo that is much of Asia.
With shiny, jet-black hair down to her mid back, Daisy is barely five feet tall, very slim and around 90 pounds, with narrow shoulders and slim arms. She’s Thai by nationality but not by ethnicity, with skin many shades lighter than most ethnic Thais’ shades of brown and tan. Her small, round face makes her look to be in her early 20s, despite working nights for around a decade in Bangkok’s adult entertainment industry. She says her youthful face draws customers, but adds that many foreign clients prefer more well-endowed women, of which there are plenty lining the street outside. She seems to compete by turning on the charm and often flashing a bright smile.
With a kid to support and without any help from the boy’s father – several Thai sex workers told me their babies’ fathers don’t work and just drink and gamble all day – Daisy quickly found that sex work would pay the bills.
Up in Daisy’s massage room, it’s quiet and peaceful, with the hum of an air conditioner filling the air. None of the controlled chaos of the street can be heard. But through the wall we hear the muffled sounds of an intense session of one of her colleagues with a customer, both their moaning getting louder and louder and until it suddenly halts.
“Dat guy come here sometimes,” she says, indicating he’s a regular customer, with a laugh.
Daisy’s is the typical story of so many women from Isan. According to estimates from a number of sex workers, bar girls and academics to whom Borderless has spoken, more than 90 percent of the sex workers in Bangkok come from Isan.
There are an estimated two million people from Isan living and working in Bangkok, such as taxi drivers, construction workers, house cleaners and sex workers. Academics and Thai economists tell me the government makes very little effort to invest in Isan, and there are few job opportunities there. Some equate it to a sense of cultural superiority that they say the Bangkok-based elite has always had. Some Bangkok elites consider Isan residents – the vast majority of whom are ethnically Lao – to be backward country bumpkins and not “real” Thais. For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Isan have been treated as second class citizens by the Bangkok elite – a sentiment that angers people from Isan.
Isan used to be part of neighboring Lao but changed hands around 100 years back, and the region’s majority ethnic Lao inhabitants maintain a separate language and cultural identity than those in Bangkok, who speak Thai as their native language. The vast majority of sex workers in Bangkok are ethnic Lao women whose first language is the Lao dialect widely spoken in Isan.
Many Isaners with whom Borderless has spoken feel like outsiders in their own country when in Thai-speaking Bangkok, and many complain they are treated as second class citizens in Bangkok. Some Bangkok elites even adhere to the harsh belief that Isaners are too uneducated and backward to be allowed to vote. Bangkok elites sometimes believe Isan should remain undeveloped, and that its residents would be happiest as subsistence farmers. Such thinking is obviously out of touch with reality, as millions of Isaners are in Bangkok striving for a better life than what the countryside can offer. Such is the backdrop of the nation’s ongoing political crisis, which can be summed up simply as Isan vs. Bangkok.
There are major differences in the quality of life between Isan and Bangkok, as the latter is a modern mega-city connected by a massive highway system and boasts a first class public transportation with subways and sky trains. The city hosts hoards of tourists every year and investment is constantly pouring in. In sharp contrast, Isan remains mostly agricultural, with most residents earning a pittance. A 2011 International Crisis Group report found that incomes in Isan were roughly 40 percent of those in Bangkok.
Sex work offers women from Isan far more money than most would earn back home, and they can work in an air-conditioned room and avoid toiling under the searing Southeast Asian sun, several have told this reporter. Many had children out of wedlock while teenagers, and money earned from sex work can provide a real future for their children, according to several sex workers to whom this reporter has spoken.
Many in the sex trade – even as young as 20 years old – are supporting their children in a country where teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Southeast Asia. Even as overall births decline, unwed teen births are going up.
With a kid to support and without any help from the boy’s father – several Thai sex workers told me their babies’ fathers don’t work and just drink and gamble all day – Daisy quickly found that sex work would pay the bills. So she quit her job making a pittance at a hair salon and found work in the flesh trade.
“I take care my parents, my brothers, my son, I take care everybody. I buy my parent new house, new motorbike, make dem holiday, dey stay nice hotel, everything I do,” she says, explaining the burden of supporting her family is entirely on her shoulders.
Estimates vary, but Havoscope, which keeps numbers on underground economies, says Thai sex workers send home around $300 million a year to family members in rural areas. Borderless could not independently verify that figure, although such a large number isn’t surprising, given the industry’s size and the fact that most sex workers come from rural backgrounds. Sex workers have provided more aid for struggling families than any development project could, some observers argue. It’s capitalism and entrepreneurship, as opposed to government handouts, some contend.
Daisy says she now makes the equivalent of around $850 per month – more than many university-educated Thais make – in a country where the International Labor Organization tags average income as less than $500 per month.
Sometimes she makes more, such as during the tourist season, and when she’s lucky enough to earn fatter tips. Sometimes she meets regular customers privately in their hotels. At times she has been a tour guide to temples and other attractions in Bangkok, for customers with whom she has formed long-term relationships. The money she earns outside the massage parlor goes directly to her, and is not shared with her shop, as it’s considered freelancing, she says.
I ask to see pictures of her son and family. And Daisy happily hops up and trots out to grab her tablet.
“Wait I come back,” she says.
She comes back in a minute, sits down beside me on the massage table and chirps about her son, family vacations, and things she’s bought her parents.
“Dis my parent house. I buy for dem,” she says, showing me a picture on her tablet of a small but new-looking brick house she says she bought for her parents with her earnings. The house is back home in Isan, where one can have a home built for a relatively inexpensive price. “Dis my new motorbike, but I never drive cause I always here,” she says.
“Dis Isan. Very beautiful,” she says with a big smile, excited perhaps that someone is showing an interest in her hometown.
She asks if I know anything about Isan’s music. I say yes, and she finds some “morlum” music on her phone and plays it, moving her arms for a few seconds in a playful dance while she remains sitting. The music is wildly popular in the region, and is somewhat like American country music, with stories about lost love and being down on your luck. Many people in Isan can relate to the stories, with lyrics about having to leave the peaceful countryside, family and memories, to make money in the big city.
I ask where she lives. She says a part of the city I don’t know. I mention where I am staying, she says she used to live in a building not far away from there.
“Den I also live in apartment but many guy in dat building and dey drink and sometime try come my room,” she said, explaining why now she chooses to live in an all-women’s boarding house, for safety reasons.
“No man allowed only girl,” she says of her current residence.
“But no air con,” she says.
“I have fan,” she said. “It’s ok. Only 2,000 baht one month,” or around $60 per month for the rent, she says.
I go to the bathroom, bringing my bag with a notebook, to scribble some notes about our conversation. I come back in ten minutes or so.
“Where you from?” she asks. I reply the United States, and start explaining where, but she quickly interrupts and cheerfully gets back to showing me pictures of her son and nature photos she’s taken when she visits home.
She points out pictures of a polo-clad shirted family – her, her mother, two aunts and her son, taking a recent day trip somewhere in her home province.
Flipping through a number of photos on her tablet, she shows this reporter pictures of her 9-year-old son, a rambunctious looking kid who is on the tall and beefy side for his age. He’s wearing a red soccer shirt. She explains that she is smaller than him, despite the boy’s young age.
She recently was able to send her parents 100,000 baht of her savings, or around $3,000 – which amounts to six months’ pay for the average Thai worker.
Bangkok can be pricey, but there are two economies here. One is for the wealthy and for tourists, in which restaurants are around the what you’d pay for a mid-range restaurant in a major U.S. city like New York — $9 to $15 per person (if you include drinks and desert). But there’s another economy full of services and goods for lower income folks, in which people eat most meals at outdoor food stalls for around 40 baht per meal – or around $1.20. The food is good but not fancy.
For sex workers willing to forgo the comfort of an air conditioned apartment in a nice part of town, they can save enough money to make a difference in their children’s and parents’ lives back in Isan, where goods and services are dirt cheap by U.S. standards.
“One time one Japanese man give me big tip, I so happy,” Daisy says. When asked how much it was, she counted to herself and then said, “2-zero-zero-zero-zero….Twenty….thousand baht.” That translates to around $200 dollars.
Daisy’s monthly salary, which can vary slightly depending on tips, is about three times as much as she would likely earn in most other jobs for which she would be qualified. And its equivalent to what some people with a university degree make in Thailand.
Daisy is what is considered a mid-range sex worker, in the parlance of the industry’s patrons. The price she charges is not the least expensive but certainly not the most expensive.
The job is not ideal, she explains in broken but fast English, but her goal is to save up more money and return to Isan in two years to start a small farm.
She seems she wants to please the customer – in this case with just a nice chat – but also has the air of someone who’s all business, wanting to provide good but efficient service. That seems to mean talking fast, getting me in and out and preparing for the next customer.
“Isan very beautiful,” she says of the rural area where one can see more cows than people in some areas there. Life is slower and more relaxing there, she says.
Flipping through to some tourism photos she’s taken, she says: “This mountain you stand see all Cambodia,” she says, showing a photo of a misty mountain in her province that overlooks a vast swath of Cambodian border area.
I change the subject, and ask about what kind of customers she gets. She says they range from mid 20s to middle age, and come from countries from the U.S. to Japan to Korea to Germany.
“Some customer very strange, dem want give me cream face,” she said, explaining that some customers request to ejaculate on her face, something she says she doesn’t like but will do for 1,000 baht, or around $28. “I don’t do but 1,000 baht ok I do,” she says.
“Also no like finger down there, cause nail hurt, but boom boom can do,” she says, explaining that some customers don’t clip their nails, so she doesn’t like men to insert fingers into her nether area. But intercourse – or “boom boom” – as long as it’s with a condom and as long as they pay the right fee, is ok, she said. Her fee for full service is a 1,000 baht tip – or around $28.
She says she is saving money for her son, who is about a decade away from college age, to attend university one day. When asked which one, she says “there so many university Thailand, (so) I don’t know.”
“I no go high school,” she says, and indicates that all hopes are on her son.
Daisy says she has a lot of long term, repeat customers. She’s not as sexy as some of the absolute bombshells sitting in front of the massage parlors down the block, who are well endowed, around 21 years old and turning heads of even women tourists walking by. But she does have a soft, feminine – even nurturing and motherly – quality. Western men in Thailand have told this reporter that such qualities are missing these days from Western women. That’s why many Western men living here say they prefer Thai women – even those with very little formal education – to university educated Western women.
She mentioned that earlier that day a male “friend” of hers took her shopping and bought her a necklace that cost around $300. There was no sex, she says, explaining that some long-term customers – usually middle aged – simply like hanging out with her. Buying gifts can be a form of payment, she indicated. She also suggested that I take her our sometime and buy her some jewelry.
It’s the dream of some sex workers to marry a foreign client with a stable income high enough for them become housewives. There are some who have multiple boyfriends who send them money from outside Thailand, the men being led to believe they are the only one. One American man who had lived in Thailand for a decade told Borderless that he spent $10,000 – a hefty sum in Thailand – to build a house for the parents of his girlfriend, who had worked in the sex industry. She disappeared for six months and later called him out of the blue to explain she was pregnant by another foreign man. For many Thai women in the industry, their parents come first, which at times might mean they are stringing along several foreign men at once, to get more money to send to their parents. Many of their “boyfriends” live overseas but visit Thailand regularly, frequently wiring money to their “girlfriends.” But there are also successful relationships between Western men and sex workers, and some lead to marriage.
Daisy says she doesn’t have time for a man. She’s too busy earning money for her son, she says. In her case, she says she’s two years away from leaving the industry and leaving Bangkok. She says the job is ok, she doesn’t mind it. She can meet new people and earn decent money to support her family. But she doesn’t like noisy, chaotic Bangkok, and prefers the peaceful countryside, she says.
Daisy spoke openly of her profession, family life and life in Bangkok, and this reporter visited her shop a few more times to learn more, eventually disclosing that he was writing an article. Daisy said that was fine as long as this reporter paid the hourly fee, changed her name, did not disclose the name or location of her shop and did not photograph her.
At another establishment in a different downtown neighborhood, I meet “Honey.”
“Honey,” not her real name, works at a well-known establishment that is one of a chain across the city. It has a website that shows photos of the young ladies working there.
We sit in the VIP room, in which patrons can have a nude Jacuzzi with one – or two – of the women, in a large room with a full size bed.
After that, depending on the price, a client can choose from a range of options, including body-to-body massage, giving and/or receiving oral sex, a happy ending or full service (intercourse with a condom), with the price varying for each one.
I say I am tired, so just a massage with no extras will do. Honey says that’s fine and doesn’t ask any questions, despite this being a brothel and most patrons most likely interested in sex, and not just a chat.
Honey, 24, says she is supporting her daughter and parents back in Isan. Pulling out her smart phone, she shows photos of herself, in jeans and a plain t-shirt, and her 6-year-old taking and walk in the wide open fields of Khon Khen, in Isan, in a local vacation spot during her last trip home. She doesn’t get to see her daughter all that often, gesturing that she misses her.
Scrolling through photo after photo on her phone, she’s obviously proud of her daughter, who has big, dark eyes and chubby cheeks, and says her parents take care of her day to day.
Barely 5 feet tall and around 90 pounds, Honey is dressed in a catholic school girls’ uniform with heavy makeup. But in the pictures, in which she’s wearing flip flops, no makeup, jeans and a t-shirt, she looks look nothing like the sensual image she portrays to customers.
Customers in her establishment pick their lady from a lineup once they enter. Around 15 women stand in a line in the lobby in front of the client, while a middle aged female manager is there to answer any questions they might have, such as whether the woman speaks English, whether she is good or poor in certain services and anything else that comes to mind.
SOME DREAM OF MARRYING A CUSTOMER
Nu, 24 years old with tan skin, said she wants to get married. She once met a Japanese customer, 20 years her senior, who asked her to marry him and visited her family in Isan. But she said “he don’t want my family,” without specifying what exactly that meant. They later broke up.
Like in the other two cases, this reporter walked into her erotic massage parlor and requested a massage with no sexual services. As with the others, Nu is surprisingly chatty about her life and her line of work. The openness perhaps reflects a certain level of acceptance in Thailand of the sex trade. Average Thais have told this reporter they wouldn’t want their own daughter doing this work, but they understand the need of upcountry women to earn money and support their parents and children. And this may be one of the few industries that can push them and their children into the middle class. Their options are limited, and factory and farm work are grueling and often poorly paid.
Nu led this reporter to a small room with a massage table and a shower. Once in the room, as with the others, we simply sat on the table and chatted.
Nu doesn’t have to support her parents and has no children to support, unlike many other 20-somethings in the industry. She says she is saving for a new smart phone, “because everyone else have one.” With no financial or family burdens, she seems more like a typical 20-something one would meet in the United States, going to clubs in her off days and enjoying dancing and a cocktail or two. Her favorite song is “blurred lines” by Robin Thicke, she says.
“You know that song? ‘I know you want me’,” she sings a clip of the lyrics.
She says she loves going out clubbing after her shift at the erotic massage parlor, where she provides all the usual sexual services.
“I no want baby right now,” she said, wearing a yellow summer dress that show her lean, light brown arms.
Like the others, she’s also from Isan, but luckily didn’t get pregnant at an early age.
Nu says she wants to get married in the next few years to a “farang,” or foreign man, echoing the aspirations of many other young Isan women in Bangkok’s sex trade. Marrying a foreign man is thought to provide more financial stability, which can allow women to leave the industry but still have funds to support their parents and raise their children.
When asked why she wants to marry a foreign man, she says, “Thai man no work and drink too much.”
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