Thailand is a country with two faces.
One is the face tourists flock to see—the Thailand you see from the back of your sung-tao, driving down pristine highways, passing 10-level shopping malls and 7-Eleven after 7-Eleven. The Thailand that tastes like red curry and cheap mango smoothies, served to you by a smiling, bowing woman with an orchid in her hair. The Thailand of white beaches and elephant rides, ancient temples and knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags.
But Thailand has her secrets, some hidden beneath layers of culture and tradition, and others just a stop away on the BTS line.
The Ugly Truth
Bangkok’s multiple red light districts are famous all over the world. Men (and women) flock from every continent to spend a night, a week, a month soaking up its pleasures. With them, they bring sad stories, broken pasts, and fat wallets.
Thailand has built an entire industry around sex—some travel agencies offer Thailand vacation packages with prostitution included in the price. Advertisers of Thai sexual services specifically target men from Japan, the Middle East, North America, and Western Europe. And it seems to be working—male tourists to Thailand outnumber female tourists 3 to 1.
A History of Exploitation
Prostitution has existed in Thailand for centuries. During the Vietnam War, the Thai government entered into a contract with the United States Department of Defense to provide “recreation and relaxation” for American soldiers. In 1975, the Thai government, with help from the World Bank, developed an economic plan that depended heavily on the sex industry. For years, the government encouraged prostitution, and today, prostitution is an integral part of the Thai economy.
The Thai sex industry is huge, profitable, and completely outside the government’s control. Thailand is a source, transit, and destination for human trafficking. The government has made some efforts to end human trafficking, but police corruption, bias against migrant workers, and a general lack of understanding among local officials have rendered their efforts ineffective.
For these reasons, the Thai Government was placed in Tier 2 in the 2011 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but making significant efforts to do so. This marks Thailand’s second consecutive year on Tier 2.
The Face Behind the Mask
In the midst of all the numbers and politics, are the women. In a culture that offers few opportunities for women, prostitution is often viewed as a poor woman’s only choice. The gap between rich and poor is large, and prostitution can be seen as an opportunity for a better life. Prostitution pays higher wages than most other proffessions and many women use prostitution to supplement another form of income. Many young women dream that prostitution will lead to marriage with a wealthy client who will whisk them away to a life of luxury.
In rural areas, where agriculture is the only form of employment, many parents sell their daughters into prostitution at a young age. Prostitution promises high wages and better living conditions for daughters, who will be able to send some of their wages home to their families. Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize that most prostitutes live and work in dangerous conditions—many girls experience abuse and some are even killed.
Most daughters however, never share the reality of their conditions with their parents. The money pours in, and the family can suddenly afford a flock of chickens, new farming equipment, an addition to their home.
Tradition dictates that daughters are responsible for providing for parents in their old age, and many families view their daughter’s prostitution as the fulfillment of this duty. Add to this the rumors that float around rural villages about the girl who snagged a rich western husband, and the cycle continues for generations.
A High Cost
There are many factors behind the Thai sex industry, but the reality is that prostitution destroys women. Day after day, year after year, these women are told that their bodies have a price tag, that their preferences come second to pleasing others, that they are wanted not for who they are but for what they have to give away. They give everything they have, over and over, until there’s nothing more to give, until they’re just a body with a numbered value. They don’t think because thinking reveals a reality they’re trying to hide from, they don’t dream because they’ve given up on hope, they don’t speak because no one cares what they have to say.
I spent 16 days on the outskirts of Bangkok. For 15 of those days, I saw the gently smiling, all-you-can-eat buffet that is Thailand. But for 1 day my team went into the red light district of Nana Sukhumvit. We walked down the streets looking for a place to eat, and I saw women with painted faces and men with leering grins and tired eyes.
I’ve seen brokenness before. I’ve seen poverty and near-death breathing and children with pleading eyes, but this was something different. This was a crushing of spirit that made my chest hurt. This was a robbery of humanity. This was a lie and a cheap, plastic imitation of life. There were no victims and victimizers, no good guys and bad guys, just one great, gaping need.
Satan doesn’t take sides, he wants it all. He doesn’t target one demographic, he wants everyone. Satan wants to enslave every person, breathe every lie, beat down every divine image until they’re almost unrecognizable.
I’ve never been anywhere like Nana, but I imagine it’s a lot like hell.
What’s Our Excuse?
How can we justify the reality of Thailand? How can we enjoy cheap luxuries without considering their cost? How can we ride on the backs of elephants when there’s an entire industry riding on the backs of desperate people? How can we allow ourselves to be fooled by Thailand’s lovely, airbrushed face when there’s a broken, bloodied one behind it?
Thailand is a country with two faces. Don’t be so distracted by the peace you ignore the pain. Don’t be so distracted by the beauty you ignore the brokenness. Please, don’t be so fooled by the facade you forget Thailand.