***This is the second story in an ongoing series on Asia’s sex industry. Part 1 can be found here.
Researching the business side of Bangkok’s massive sex trade, I wander into one of the city’s best-known go-go bars. It’s like a wild sorority party, with alcohol-fueled, college-age women fiercely competing to reel in clients. Despite the fact that most come from impoverished rural farming communities, these bombshell alpha-females know they have the power to get worldly men twice their age to empty their wallets like obedient puppy dogs.
I’m in Nana Plaza, one of Bangkok’s largest red light districts that cater to foreign men, taking in the urban circus known as the world’s largest adult playground. It’s an open air, multi-storied, horse shoe shaped complex jam packed with go-go bars, open air bars and, upstairs, rooms that go for an hourly rate.
Sex workers sitting in the bars wait for men to buy them drinks. Some are wearing tight dresses and high heels, others are just wearing shorts and t-shirts. All of them smile as I walk by. A few young women in matching pink short-shorts and tight tank tops stand in front of one go-go bar to recruit customers.
Most women in Bangkok’s adult entertainment trade are from the nation’s rural heartland, called Isan — a vast swath of territory half the size of Germany, dotted with rolling hills, green pastures, impoverished farming villages and run-down towns. Most of the place lacks any real job opportunities.
Some of the young ladies chat freely with both male and female tourists outside. A street performer juggles several flaming sticks as crowds of sex workers and tourists gather and applaud. A group of go-go dancers do a two-minute choreographed dance to the beat of quirky Eurodance song “Cotton Eyed Joe,” blasted from speakers someone has hauled outside from one of the bars. Tourists are snapping photos everywhere. Everything is out in the open here in this tourist spectacle.
I walk into a go-go bar to have a look, and ask to use the bathroom. Immediately a buxom 21-year old woman in a tiny white bikini and bob haircut grabs me by the arm and parades me in front of an elevated stage where two dozen other bikini-clad girls are dancing. They cat-call to me like men working on a construction site, and a few chatter together and crack up laughing as I walk past them. It’s still early, around 8pm, and I’m the only customer there so far. I walk into the bathroom and the young woman follows me inside and tells me playfully that she wants to watch me go. She then giggles and prances out and I hear her yell something in her language to her coworkers, sparking a raucous wave of hysterical laughter.
Walking out, she grabs my arm again, leading me to a seat in front of the stage. The women onstage – most are between 19 and 22 years old – settle down and continue dancing, somewhat half-heartedly, to very generic, electronic and lifeless club music. They start to look bored.
The show is not just a show – the dancers are there to provide sex to customers. In similar bars, dancers wear a number on their bikini so the customer can just tell a manager — or a little old lady called a “mama-san” — which number they want. The mama-san will call the girl down, the customer will buy her a drink and talk. If all goes well, he can pay her “bar fine” — the price of taking her to a hotel room for either a couple of hours or the whole night.
The girls don’t wear numbers at this place, so customers just point out the girl they like and the mama-san fetches her and brings her to the customer’s table. At this place, the cost of sex for “short time’ — just an hour or two — is around 4,000 baht to the house, plus 700 baht that goes to the young lady, plus 350 baht for a private room in the hotel just upstairs. That comes to a total of around $143.
The girl in the bob haircut is a high pressure saleswoman, telling me –not asking me — to buy her a drink. As I sit there I watch her co-workers on stage dancing. She puts her hands over my eyes. “Why you look them?” she says, shooting me a dirty look.
After several minutes she gets the message that I’m not interested and slinks away. Her aggression is a little off putting. Soon a girl on the stage with a big smile catches my eye. Thinking she seems open enough to give me some information for research I’m doing on sex workers — like her background, how much she earns, etc –I ask the mama-san to invite her down for a drink.
The mama-san brings her down, and she says her name is Noi.
Prostitution goes back several centuries in Thailand, and at one time, a few hundred years ago, the trade was sanctioned and taxed by the government. Thailand’s adult entertainment industry is highly developed, having gained traction over 50 years ago when American GIs started coming for R&R during the Vietnam War. One of Bangkok’s first go-go bars was started by T. G. “Cowboy” Edwards, a retired American airman, in the late 70s.
Seeing Noi’s coworkers on the stage looking bored, sick of the droning, monotonous canned club music, I ask the DJ to play some of their music.
Most women in Bangkok’s adult entertainment trade are from the nation’s rural heartland, called Isan — a vast swath of territory half the size of Germany, dotted with rolling hills, green pastures, impoverished farming villages and run-down towns. Most of the place lacks any real job opportunities, and some of these girls even grew up in thatched-roof huts. Others grew up in makeshift shacks cobbled together with whatever materials were available.
In Isan, everyone listens to morlum music – Thailand’s version of country music. The lyrics are relatable to the estimated two-million Isaners who’ve come to Bangkok to pursue a better life. Songs are often about a young man or woman who comes to the big city and pines after his or her love back home, longing to return to the region’s rolling hills and fresh air. In Isan, the music is heard on street corners, from passing pickup trucks and in restaurants. It’s part of their local culture, which is vastly different from Bangkok, which, some have told me, feels like a foreign country to them.
The morlum music comes on, and the place explodes.
The dancers go from bored robots to hedonistic sorority girls in an instant. Some writhe to the music in this sexually charged atmosphere. One tall, skinny young lady with jet black hair down to the middle of her pearl white back starts humping one of the stripper polls in tandem with the music. Others laugh and belt out a loud and prolonged RRRRRRRRRRRRRRR — rolling the R sound, like one hears in the double R in Spanish.
They compete with each other to snag a guy first as men trickle in from outside. Some girls are on the stage dancing, others go down to greet the new customers, others break off into small groups of two or three, chatting and laughing. A few watch Noi and I with amusement.
I had thought Noi was more of a mellow type, but she was even more aggressive than the girl with the bob cut.
“I wanna fuck!” She says in my face, her friends laughing, pointing and thinking the whole scene is hysterical.
Her friends keep walking by and egging her on, thrusting an index finger of one hand into a cupped other hand in a motion that is universally understood. One girl walks by and yells “you fuck her!” causing a gaggle of girls to break out in laughter.
I’m trying to make some conversation. Since I’m there for research, I want to know about her background, her upbringing, how much she makes, etc. She has no interest talking about that. She dances in her seat next to me, jumping on my lap and grabbing me in the nether region while her friends watch, point and laugh.
Like most of her coworkers, Noi has white skin typical of many upcountry women, who are ethically Lao and speak Isan, a dialect of Lao. For decades, armies of ethnic Lao farm girls have come to Bangkok and soon realized the sex trade was the best of a very limited list of options. Education in rural areas is substandard, and many young women don’t finish high school. They could earn a pittance doing farm work under the punishing Southeast Asian sun, getting deeper and deeper into debt. They could work in a hair salon or restaurant for very little money. Or, they can come to Bangkok and work in the adult entertainment industry, in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty and one day seeing their kids finish school and even go to college. Estimates of the number of sex workers in Thailand vary, from 100,000 to 300,000 and more.
Looking in the mirror on the wall just behind us, Noi watches her own sensual movements, holding her hair up with her hands and mimicking the sounds of sex.
“My mommy have big ones so I have big ones,” she says, pointing to her chest in a manner of speech that shows her very young age.
It’s hard to tell what is motivating her enthusiasm. I’m sure it’s not attraction, since I’m at least 20 years older than her. I think perhaps she’s under pressure to bring in the bucks. Some part of me also senses it’s a hyper competitive environment, like when young, hormone-driven American college girls go on spring break and compete to see who can snag the most guys. Here, the young ladies compete to see how many customers they can get, and how quickly they can reel them in. It’s not only about the money, it’s about the chase.
Their children’s financial needs also drive many Bangkok sex workers, as many rural teens get pregnant out of wedlock in a country that has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia. Bar girls during prior visits to Nana Plaza have shown me pictures of their toddlers, who are cared for by the grandparents back home. The hours are flexible, so moms can go back upcountry every few weekends if they want to.
Of course not all are saints. Some blow their earnings drink and betting, or on Thai boyfriends who don’t work and have gambling habits. Some string along several foreign boyfriends, who regularly give them money in the belief the relationship is monogamous. Some more reserved women have trouble earning money in a trade that usually requires an outgoing personality.
According to a 2011 International Crisis Group report , people in Isan earn 40 percent of what people in Bangkok make. That’s why there are two million people from Isan living in Bangkok, working as cab drivers, cleaning ladies, construction workers and sex workers.
There has been very little government investment in Isan over the decades, which some experts attribute to a sense of superiority of the Bangkok elite over Isan’s majority Lao population.
Much of the Bangkok ruling class — such as military top brass and the vast government bureaucracy — look down on Isaners as backward country people, something Isaners view as unfair. Some even wrongly believe that people in Isan are simple-minded folks who would be happiest as subsistence farmers or selling fish by the roadside for a living. Many Bangkok sex workers from Isan have told me this is simply not true, and that they are working hard in Bangkok to save money for their children’s future.
Seeing me sitting with Noi, the mama-san comes over to tell me about prices. Noi suddenly simmers down and sits with her hands in her lap while the mama-san, old enough to be her grandmother, tells me a couple of hours of sex with Noi costs 4,000 baht — or $114 — plus a tip and money for a room upstairs. I had really just come to get a sense of the place and talk to some of the young ladies for research and I decline.
Egos here are fragile. As fast as she heated up, Noi suddenly deflates, getting a watery look in her eyes like she just applied eye drops. Is it the sign of someone who’s already had a lot of bad breaks in her young life getting the door slammed in her face yet again? Hard to tell. Or maybe she’s under pressure to make a sale, wanting to please her boss and be a good employee. Being from Isan, she may be supporting her entire family with her earnings, which is common among sex workers here.
So to save face for her I quickly make some fumbling excuses, promising I’d be back the next night. That seems to brighten her up a bit.
She will likely forget about me by tomorrow, with lots of new customers now rolling in who can lift her confidence back up. To show there’s no hard feelings, I buy her and her friend a couple of more drinks for around 150 baht each before leaving.
I wonder how well these young women’s high pressure sales tactics work. The most successful working girls I’ve met in Bangkok are around a decade older than the very young ladies in this go-go bar. Many of the higher earners are women in their in the early to mid-30s, and work in quiet erotic massage parlors, rather than loud go-go bars. They don’t look nearly as fresh, primped and nubile as those in the 18 to 22 year old range. But they know how to make conversation, how to flatter, how to charm, and how to help clients relax.
The more savvy sex workers understand that to make any real money here, you need middle aged clients, who tend to have more disposable income, and who will keep coming back and spending money. Older men who come to Thailand want companionship. The sex is secondary. Many have gone through a divorce or two, are lonely and crave intimacy. They don’t necessarily want to fall in love, but they’d at least like to make a friend, and have something they feel is more meaningful than just a business transaction.
Having spoken to sex workers in various countries in Asia, Thai working girls have more rights than in many other Asian countries. While sex work is technically illegal here, these ladies of the night can still work out in the open and experience much less abuse from customers or police harassment. Usually, the only time they have trouble with the cops is when their boss doesn’t pay the monthly bribe to the local police station.
Exact figures on the size of Thailand’s sex trade likely don’t exist. But it is one of the world’s biggest sex capitals. One Thai politician, who made a fortune in the erotic massage business before being elected, tagged the industry’s value at an annual $5.6 billion — or equal to nearly 10 percent of the nation’s national budget.
One economist estimates that the country’s underground economy — prostitution, gambling and other activities — comprises two-fifths of GDP, as reported by Bloomberg.
Sex workers’ advocates say the industry will never go away, as underpaid cops need to supplement their meager income with bribes from massage parlors and other places where paid sex happens. If the industry is legalized, some experts say, cops will no longer have an easy source of cash. That’s why the Thai sex trade is likely to stay around for a long time to come.
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