Tourists of Another Stripe

Bangkok, Thailand

June 3, 2003

Bangkok is chock full of tourists, the SARS scare notwithstanding. They fill up the cafes, bars and restaurants in town, crowd the beaches in the south and stream to the hills in the north. They travel here in couples and groups but the majority of the tourists are men. Young and old, they walk by hand in hand with Thai women. A woman who looks no older than fifteen walks by matching her steps to the shuffling gait of a seventy year-old. Sex tourism is alive and well. I had heard and read about the thriving sex tourism in Thailand but being here it hits me between the eyes. It is hard to stomach but I sternly tell myself that I do not know enough to judge.

There is a place off Sukhumvit road, called Nana Plaza. Lit up garishly Las Vegas style, it is a four-storey building consisting of nothing but bars. I found myself visiting it one evening. All the bars are manned by women, the clientele are exclusively male and all are foreigners. I did not see any other women among the tourists there. I sat at a bar, ordered myself a drink and fell into conversation.

There are eleven girls who work at this particular bar. They come from various parts of Thailand, many from the north-east, a region called I-san. Thai law provides education up until the age of twelve and then one has to pay. From what the girls say the steep fees prohibit most from pursuing further education. And so they try to find other work. If none is available, as is frequently the case, they find themselves here – to earn a living and to send money home in some cases. Some have been here for many years and some not that long. They laugh with each other but there are shadows in their eyes. The hard eyes and closed expressions speaks loudly but I wanted to know more. I spoke with some of them.

Mink who is thirty has been working here for some years. From a large farming family of poor farmers, she could not find work in her hometown and so she is here trying to save enough money so that she can go back. She misses her family terribly. Not that she can save much she says. They work here every day from noon until two in the morning. They get paid some three thousand baht per month and have to pay for their room, their food and whatever personal expenses out of that. If a customer takes her out, they have to give the manager half of what he gives them. Mink confesses that she doesn’t mind tending bar, but she does not like to go with men. So I ask her what she would like to do instead. Is there anything that she could learn? Is there something she likes to do that can earn her a living? She pauses and says that she would like to learn Thai massage. She’s always been good at it – she used to give her grandmother massages since she was a little girl. But it costs money to go to massage school. It is far more money than she can save. Suway confesses it is even harder for her to save because she has a five-year old to support. She has no idea who the father might be. Ning was sitting in the corner writing in a notebook. I asked if I could see. It is a journal, much like mine. She writes in English – to practice, she says. I did not read – it seemed like too much of an invasion of privacy but a few sentences caught my eye. They are painful to read. Ning has been going to school when she can. Scraping, scrounging and studying, she hopes someday she won’t need to earn a living at Nana Plaza. She wears a flesh-toned sleeve over her forearm. Noticing my gaze, she peels it back a bit. There are multiple scars on her wrist – from the times she has slit her wrist. She is not the only one. There are many women the girls tell me, that wear scars on their wrists as one would wear bracelets.

Sitting at cafes and restaurants I’ve heard and overheard men attempting to justify themselves. For six hundred Baht, they can take any of the girls out. The loud voices brashly claim that in contributing to sex tourism, they are in essence helping these girls earn a living. That this is their chosen profession and that this is the culture in this land. But they are not so different, these girls, from you or I. They too hope and dream and fear. I suspect they too bleed when they’re cut. Why is it that these men who come here do not see that?


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