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Food & Travel

Dec 5, 2012

Phuket's red light women trade where it's 'no big deal'

Bangla Road in Phuket is one of the world's best-known red light districts for tourists. But life for prostitutes isn't exactly what Liam Engel, an Australian writer, expected.


Before coming to Thailand, I had never heard the term “go-go show” used in conversation. Nor could I have explained to someone exactly what such a spectacle might offer.

I can now, but I prefer not to. I will simply say it isn’t all about ping pong balls. It’s also about turtles.

Tourism accounts for about 7% of Thailand’s GDP, and Phuket is south-east Asia’s most popular tourist destination. People come for the beach, resorts, food and culture; all at a fraction of the first world cost. While I knew people also came for sex, I wasn’t able to comprehend the size of this industry until I started walking Bangla Road after 10pm.

This is the main tourist strip in Patong; four lanes of traffic leading directly to the beach. As the sun sets, the road is closed to vehicles and bars lining the street begin to fill with tourists and pretty Thai girls. Accented musicians begin eclectic sets of Metallica, Venga Boys and The Spice Girls while touts try to convince drunks they want to buy whatever they have to offer. Occasionally it was a taxi, often it was cigarettes. But it was normally a girl, and it was always cheap.

I would see the older white men with their new girlfriends that night and the next morning, stumbling through disjointed English over a meal. Physical contact was constant, the women always touching, smiling and laughing. I hated it. It was everywhere.

Then I discovered my hotel was also a brothel, and I decided to move.

Kamala is a smaller beach town about 15 minutes from Patong. While still heavily reliant on tourism, it attracts an older, quieter crowd that I hoped would suit me better. The girls were here too, but customers came in much smaller numbers. A bar next to my hotel hosted five regular women. On a busy night I might see three of these girls find business. Generally, I would only see one.

The girls didn’t give me the same, special attention they gave their leather skinned customers on permanent holiday in Kamala, but they would always smile and wave when I walked past. One evening there were no customers at the bar. I waved, on my way to dinner. As one, the girls rushed towards me and dragged me into the bar.

I was sat on a stool and handed a beer. “Drink, this, now please, thank you!” I’m not made of stone.

A number of inhibitions later, I found myself talking to the man who ran the bar, an Australian who also came from Sydney. I had to ask him: “So, what’s the deal with the girls?” Most came from the north, he said, sent by their parents to earn money to send back home. He reckoned the reason prostitution felt so different in Thailand is largely because the culture didn’t consider sex “a big deal”.

I could understand that. While it was still a desperate act, it didn’t seem as soul destroying as junkies selling themselves in the Cross. I told him of the difficulty I felt in trying to understand the multitudes of sex tourists I had seen, and the stress this had placed on those few friendships I had made with holidaymakers.

“Most of these blokes can’t get women at home,” he said, looking me in the eye. “And they are, really, doing the girls a favour.”

The girls surrounding us, listening intently, nodded in agreement. They had a job. A way of earning a reasonable income in an impoverished country. Locals treated the girls as neighbours and saw their customers as no different to other tourists. Most had Thai boyfriends who had no problem with their profession. The girls laughed and teased my awkwardness in discussing sex.

Over the following days I began to see the lonely men, quietly nursing a beer in the bar, too afraid to start conversation with the young, attractive and clearly interested girls only meters away. Their lack of confidence was painful to watch; I’d cringe as they shifted in their seats, unsure of how to respond to a soft touch on the shoulder.

Then I noticed the girls. They didn’t leave with a man every night, and each tended to stick to their western boyfriend while he remained in Kamala. When they left, they kept in touch with emails and frequently saw one another again in the years to come. While the girls provided sex for money it was not their only service. They offered companionship that was often sorely needed. Neither were they simply bought.

The girls were demanding of their men. They had to be courted, respected and treated properly. Men who were blatant about sex were frequently ignored by the girls, and it was expected that their date would buy them drinks and take them to dinner.



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25 thoughts on “Phuket’s red light women trade where it’s ‘no big deal’

  1. Phen

    I’m resisting the urge to google the turtle reference….

  2. Trent

    This is an important issue from a health point of view.

    Thailand has a higher prevalence of HIV than Australia (~ 500,000 people living with HIV vs 25,000 here) and a seroprevalence rate of around 1.5%. (See: http://bit.ly/TGHl9G ). The rate in Thai sex workers is much higher – around 10% (see: http://bit.ly/MRL4hG ).

    It’s hard to know if these bar girls would be closer to 1% or closer to 10%, but our HIV awareness messages in Australia are targeted at men who have sex with men, not heterosexual sex-tourists, and they will often not get themselves tested (as middle-aged, caucasian, heterosexual men tend to be a group who don’t go to the doctor much).

  3. Peter Shute

    As someone who has spent a lifetime going backwards and forwards to Thailand and having lived there for extended periods of time long before it had been discovered by ex-pats: what on earth is this article about ?.

    When will those from the West cease their endless insults of a culture they know little about ?. Don’t go to another country if you are going to be rude about your hosts.

    Here is a clue Liam : by writing this thin article you have insulted a nation and it’s people collectively in a manner you will never understand and far more so than a ‘sex tourist’. Stay home or go somewhere else in the future and do no insult your hosts in a country where an article like this is like a knife in the heart.

    Thailand is a country where it takes years to understand they perceive things differently to us and do not view many things with our rather twisted Puritan morals.

  4. paddy

    I *was* going to comment, that this article seemed (to put it politely) a little “naive”.
    But I see Peter Shute has already been there and done that.
    Thank you Peter.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    PETER SHUTE: Thank you for articulating my own thoughts.
    BTW, WTF was the article about anyway?

  6. Venise Alstergren

    BTW author, it’s ‘metre’ not meter.

  7. Simon

    I kind of don’t feel like anything has been explained here. Neither author nor Peter did a great job of enlightening the ignorant.

  8. Nathan Reed

    I thought I’d missed the “next page” link but turns out there is none. Article feels like it trails off without making a point or unearthing any new insight? Odd for an article on Crikey, especially one being promoted on the front page.

  9. James Butler

    THank you Peter Shute for sorting out pretty much what i wanted to say. Couldn’t help but feel the obvious ignorance, prejudice and naivety in this article. Australians need to stop viewing the world with their precious delusional non-existant “values”, look in your backyard for a change, tens of thousands of Australian-citizen sex workers are available over a phone call or a walk to the right places in cbd and its “no big deal” either!

  10. Andybob

    There’s naught as queer as folk.

    I think the criticism of the author is overblown. A story where someone discovers something can be interesting. If we all know the secrets of life, the universe and everything then why read any article ?

    If the writer was ignorant, prejudicial and naive he spoke about an experience which may have resulted in him changing his views. That’s worth reading as a road trip, even if it doesn’t have a conclusion.

    And what conclusion are we looking for ? Generalisations may not always apply ? We need that explained to us in detail ?

  11. Phen

    Not really sure exactly why the commenters above are so offended on behalf of Thailand. The article is just a set of observations from the author without any strong conclusions, which is fair enough.

  12. klewso

    What happens in a clash of civilisations/cultures?

  13. Mena

    I’d just like to respond to one part of this article. The bit where the guy justifies sex tourists because they apparently can’t get women in their own country, to that I say- bollocks!!! Perhaps they need to lower their looks standards. Why is it that so many aging, bald men with big pot bellies think its their god-given right to shack up with a 20 year old beach babe? What about all the ageing pot-bellied women back at home who can’t get any action because their equivalent man-folk cant come to terms with reality!

  14. John Bennetts

    I’m not sure what’s going on here. Andybob possibly comes close.

    So many issues… so little that I know.

    As a father of two girls, I wonder what Liam would write if his own daughters found themselves in similar circumstances. I cannot comprehend his acceptance of this situation, even, as he makes clear, superficially.

    Sh_t, this is wrong on many levels. I weep.

  15. masako fukui

    I was thinking about subscribing to Crikey, but after reading this, I’ve decided against it. What a load of crap. Everything about this piece is annoying, most of all, it’s stupid. As if we don’t have enough unintelligent drivel masquerading as something worth a click of the mouse on the www. Crikey, you’ve lost me.

  16. Silver Lining

    I thought it was interesting, and did not see why people slagged off the article; he acknowledged his ignorance of the culture and opened his mind to other possibilities. Then shared it with us. It was a shame the article ended abruptly with no thought to the consequences of the trade for them or us. High rates of HIV in Thailand abound…some of these men return with a deadly souvenir.

  17. AR

    As a vignette naive the article was OK. It was reportage, not polemic, describing something not pronouncing on its merit.

  18. IC-1101

    I actually didn’t mind this piece. I think the author is admitting of his naivety when it comes to the sex trade. I was also quite taken back when I first went there. But that’s why we travel: to learn about the world.

  19. Gorbach Kate

    Bit of a pointless article. Nothing new or revelatory is said, the only possible argument made seems to be one of self justification for (possibly) taking part in Phuket’s sex industry, and generally maintaining the status quo. No mention is made of lady boys, HIV, no one from a opposing view is acknowledged. Really, this article discourages me from considering Crikey a worthwhile news source.

  20. Kevin Herbert

    This article was another view of Thailand & western tourists, that’s all.

    Why do Aussies, particularly women, go to water when the Asian sex industry is mentioned…I’ve a theory, but wouldn’t dare mention it here…Venise would murder me!!!!

    For the record, nearly 70% of a Thai sex worker’s business is with Thai men.

  21. Suzanne Blake

    I think the article is a Forward for the next one on Union vacations

  22. Wesley Pryor

    Balls. His Majesty was 85 yesterday, not 86. We regret any inconvenience caused!

  23. mook schanker

    Yeah this article was naive alright, you get the impression the s*x industry is all about westerners. I’ve travelled to several towns in Thailand where I was the only westerner around and prostitutes were everywhere, pretty much supprts what Kevin rightly says….

  24. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    It did seem to be a very naive article, “it was expected that their date would buy them drinks and take them to dinner.” Um, I would guess that they would have deals going with the local bars to bring in customers in exchange for using the bar as a place of business.
    I’m not sure what the real ‘cultural’ differences are either, where there is poverty many Women and Men will work as prostitutes as a matter of course. The same thing happened in Victorian England and probably here as well. Many workers in Amsterdam come from Eastern Europe.
    Where the average man or woman can earn decent wages there will be fewer that want to go into prostitution, which is why many street workers in Australia are in the business because of addiction.(and yes I do know quite a few).

  25. Evilbaz

    Kevin Herbert, for the record it may well be that 70% of Thai sex workers’ business is with Thai men but I know many who never go with Thai men.
    This backs up the important point of this article – that we have a better class of Bargirls (and sexpats) here in Kamalala than Patong.


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