New Internationalist

Cheap Thrills

Issue 142

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TOURISM [image, unknown] Sex for sale

[image, unknown]

Cheap thrills
One per cent of Thailand’s total population are prostitutes.
And a high proportion of these, as Debbie Taylor reports, serve as
cheap and undemanding sexual partners for foreign tourists.

Photo of Noi, by Debbie Taylor.

Noi is a 15 year old prostitute who lives in a charity hostel. The brothel she was working in was raided by police following a tip-off about underage girls. At 13 she was lured from her hill tribe village in the North by a well-dressed woman promising a 'good job' in the city. After handing her over to the brothel owner, the woman pocketed 5,000 Baht*. Unable to speak Thai, Noi could not run away in a strange city and was forced to take her first man.

*$1 = 25 Baht

What a grand hotel it is: a white palace, delicately floodlit, fountains playing in the courtyard, trees festooned with white bulbs in the best possible taste. Though it’s nearly midnight, eight lanes of traffic stand tangled, hooting and snarling, in the Bangkok street outside.

Up the wide marble steps and in - through huge smoked-glass doors - to the foyer. You stop and blink. It’s dark. You step forward, bump into someone, apologise, step forward again, bump into someone else. Then realise you are in a crowd. It’s a well-dressed crowd (this is, after all, a grand hotel); their wallets bulge with Baht. Their eyes are bulging too’. You follow their gaze.

They’re looking at a huge shop window lit from the inside. It’s the only light in the foyer. Behind the expanse of plate glass the goods are displayed on wide shelves that look like a shallow flight of stairs running the entire length of the shop. Deep-pile rose-coloured carpet, like velvet, covers the stairs, matched by folds of hanging drapes that clothe the walls.

At this time of night business is good and the shelves are emptying fast. The goods are coded - by numbers on different coloured discs pinned to each one. You make your selection, pay the cashier, and - before you can pocket your change - your purchase is waiting to take you to your room.

What a bargain. Blue Number 33 has a long shiny black hair cut into a thick straight fringe over eyes that are dark and slanting - but not too Chinky. Blue means body massage (not just hands, but Number 33’s luscious body rolled all over you) - all the trimmings too, for just 100 Baht.

Tourists are bargain hunters, touring the global supermarket, shopping for trophies - trinkets and triumphs - they could never afford back at home. Spain touts sunshine and sangria. Thailand specialises in sex.

The Vietnam war taught many lessons. And Thailand was not slow to learn. Having seen American GI’s turn the country into a giant restroom away from the battle zone, Thailand learnt to service the servicemen: service with a smile. The GI’s went home in 1976. But the word got around. Now everyone wants the same service.

Today Bangkok welcomes bulges - of all kinds: wallets and eyes definitely. And trousers particularly. Bulges mean business.

In 1977 one - and - a - quarter million foreigners had tourist visas stamped into their passports at Bangkok airport. By 1981 the number had doubled and the bulge business had become the country’s third biggest money-spinner, swelling currency coffers by over $220 million.

Welcome to Pattaya, just four hours drive (by air-conditioned bus on a tarmac road built with American money) from the grime and sweat of Bangkok. Walk on the white sand, bathe in the clear blue water, breathe in the scent of a hundred brilliant tropical blossoms, dine by candlelight overlooking the bay. Then walk down the main street and take your pick. Garish signs hang above every doorway: rooms with a view - and a little bit extra.

Then back to Bangkok next day for something even more exotic. Tramp round the temples all afternoon and take a taxi to Pat Pong after dinner. Upstairs in a bar is a bath full of bubbles. Sip your lager and imagine you’re that man in that bath. Yes, there’s two of them in there with him.

Thailand will satisfy your appetite. Come one, come all.

Japanese? No problem. In 1976 four-fifths of Japanese tourists to Thailand were men: 74,000 of them, travelling without their wives, roaming the neon-lit Pat Pong streets, bumping and apologising in darkened hotel lobbies, licking lips at leather mini-skirts. With throngs of Singapore men and Malaysians, they come searching for purchases, for bargains that will writhe and sigh wantonly beneath them.

Two weeks of sweat and saliva, then back to their perfunctory, formalised unions with their wives: restrained and reluctant as decent women should be.

German? Dutch? Fleeing from women who demand to be equal? No problem. Thailand will fulfil the tour brochure’s promise of bargains without desire for emancipation, but full of warm sensuality and the softness of velvet. For a tiny amount you will feel like Don Juan. Travel with confident anticipation: your purchases, say the brochure, are not especially particular. So no European need fear going to Bangkok for nothing. Money back if not completely satisfied.

The perfect playmates are waiting for you: ardent, carnal craving lurking neath an enchanting shy demureness. And the pouting, panting lips can barely speak a word of your language.

Come one, come all.

And they do. Tourists are not the only takers. Thailand’s men stalk the shop-fronts in thousands: older businessmen shopping for virgins (the rich man’s expensive, rare delicacy); some Chinese Thais prefer bill-tribe playmates - their strangeness and wild blood puts strength in their veins, they say. And their pouting, panting lips can barely speak a word of Thai language.

Demand now out-strips supply - especially for specialist morsels. Even the flood of young titbits - who left villages for life on the bases, learnt to wear high-heels and lipstick, and to service the servicemen’s dollars - are too few to feed all these appetites.

Last year the Thai parliament (with its 324 men and 10 women members) heard from a Select Committee that there were 500,000 prostitutes in the country - that’s one per cent of the entire population. Two-fifths of Bangkok’s wage-earning women are for sale in bars, coffee shops and massage parlours; giving the client his money’s worth. Satisfaction guaranteed.

Where else can you get such a good deal: a tumble with a honey-skinned siren for the price of a packet of cigarettes? Just pay up and don’t ask any questions. Look at it this way: it’s not a bad life as a harlot. Average monthly wage was $40 in 1979 - $15 more than being a waitress, on a par with a job in a factory, and a lot more than working the paddy fields. In fact most of Bangkok’s bargains are playmates from the paddyfields: 47 per cent are from the North and 49 per cent from the North-East, the two poorest parts of the country.

Of course there are occupational hazards: 70 per cent have venereal disease. And the hours are what you might call ‘unsocial’, with breakfast at four in the afternoon, into the shop window by five, pouting and panting till five in the morning, and dinner when the rest of Bangkok is at breakfast.

No, it’s not a bad life as a harlot. Strange that the Select Committee found one in ten had been forced to take their first man - raped in effect. And there was a fire on Phuket island last January, acrid black smoke billowing above the tourist’s paradise. Fifty buildings were burnt to the ground; among them were 14 brothels. And when the smoke cleared they found chains round charred ankles in the debris.


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