Pattaya Beach in Thailand is a striking mix of poverty, affluence, and sleaze. The poverty is all pervasive; from the working poor who make their living on the streets selling food or driving motor-cycle taxis, to the homeless who beg for money and dig through garbage cans. Affluence is on display in the expensive high-rise hotels and the well-dressed tourists who stay in them. There are Asian as well as European tourists, among them many Indian families that radiate wealth and strong traditional religious values. There is also an army of young travellers who come for the night life and water sports.
And then there are an older variety of tourist: European men who are wealthy but don’t necessarily look it. Men between the ages of 50 and 70-ish, dressed in shorts and loose-fitting T shirts that cover their expanding bellies, some who shuffle along the footpaths with distracted expressions on their faces focused on some all-consuming, inward vision.
Of course, they do not all look old. Many of the 50 plus brigade are in good shape and can be seen running along the promenade. But some look like they are only a stone’s throw from the nursing home.
This species of male tourist can be seen in the restaurants of expensive hotels first thing in the morning where they sit like mushrooms, alone, surrounded by others of their kind. And like mushrooms they appear to have little or no conscious connection with each other – unlike football tourists for example, who radiate collegial fellow feeling even between strangers. No, this is the kind of tourism that doesn’t speak its name too loudly.
Arriving in Pattaya after dark for the first time is a surreal experience, like looking at a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell. In the light of day, the bars are packed together like seals in a breeding colony where the girls often out-number the men and wave to passersby with impudent smiles. But then, after sunset, there is a lively party atmosphere where men and bar girls shoot the breeze in broken English as they are shooting pool balls. Drop the average age of the men by 40 years and you have something resembling a pub scene from the 1980s, which is, of course, the point of the exercise – to re-capture lost youth. Thailand is one of a number of Asian flesh pots where older men can reexperience the excitement of adolescent sexual interaction. Although when you pass some of these men on the street, the look in the eyes is more a distracted thousand-yard stare than that of an excited tourist taking it all in.
The hard reality of life in Thailand for these bar girls, and the working poor generally, is that there are no unemployment benefits or universal health care – if they don’t work, they don’t eat. Even if they do work and a family member gets sick, the expense of medical treatment often creates terrible financial strain. And many of the bar girls are supporting children and parents in rural towns hundreds of kilometres away.
Thailand is a tough place for the have-nots.
Many Thai bar girls prefer the term “working girl” to prostitute, and with some justification. A prostitute works in a brothel, sees each man for a brief time, and then never again. A Thai bar girl works in one bar where she plays the part of down-market geisha and sex worker.
There are strict protocols in place controlling bargirl/client interactions enforced by no nonsense “mama-sans”. Male patrons are expected to buy drinks for the girls who get paid a small commission for each one. If they take one of the girls back to their hotel, the man not only pays her directly for her services, but he must also pay a “bar fine” for taking her away from the bar. It is not uncommon for one girl to have several “boy-friends” who see her periodically, and who she pretends are the “only one”. Bar girls can cultivate more than one overseas boyfriend who are willing to send money to support her and her family. In this way, popular bar girls can make more money than they could ever hope to earn working an unskilled job.
Prostitution is officially illegal in Thailand. However, due to police corruption, poverty, and an economic dependence on the practice, it still flourishes. It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 sex workers in the country, approximately 40% of whom are underaged. And while the foreign servicing sex industry has a high profile in the media, most of the services of prostitutes are for Thai men, 14% of whom have paid for sex.
Societal attitudes towards prostitution in Thailand are mixed. Male libido is traditionally regarded as a force of nature that will have its way, and therefore prostitution is seen as a safety valve preventing rape. But regardless of any legislative moves to stop it, prostitution has been going strong ever since it was given a kick start by American soldiers during the Vietnam War and doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
YouTube clips of bar girls in Pattaya or Bangkok’s red-light districts are filled with neon lights and the excited hubbub of alcohol fuelled tourists. Up close however, the glamour fades.