In the west the perception of “prostitution” is still a taboo subject. Ask someone if they use or have used the services of a prostitute and you’ll probably get a guarded response. Prostitution has different guises from those living rough on the streets to fund their drug habits to those working from dingy bedrooms in dodgy areas of town to glamourous, affluent high class escorts living in expensive penthouses. But no matter where or how they ply their trade “prostitutes” in the west are still considered with contempt.
Thailand has had a long association with sex tourism. Estimates for the country as a whole put the number of sex workers at over two million. Males heading to Pattaya for a holiday won’t have chosen it for it’s beaches alone. Walking along Beach Road hundreds of “freelancers” – boys, girls, women, transsexuals line the three kilometre stretch of pavement that runs parallel with the beach. Some wait all day for customers to take them to hotels for “short-time” or a longer encounter. But the majority are women appearing after 6pm as the sun sets and day turns to night. As prostitution in Thailand is illegal, the police will occasionally enforce the law. Literally. In 2007 a police force raided some Pattaya brothels and had sex with the prostitutes. But for most of the time the authorities turn a blind eye. Especially since Thailand has been suffering from political unrest over the past years and tourist numbers have been in decline. After paying a small fine the prostitutes will be back on the beat. As you walk this stretch of pavement over a few days you will recognise familiar faces who frequent a regular patch. There are plenty of smiles. The mood is light hearted. Cries of “Go with you?” “Short-time mis-ter?” There are no pimps or heavy handed hassling. The women appear in control. It is they who are calling the shots. It is their choice if they go with a punter or not.
The beach area is a vibrant meeting area. In fact if you weren’t aware of what was being offered you might picture an innocent scene. Groups of women sit sharing food, playing games, chatting, interacting with the foreigners/tourists/expats who live there. The majority are not dressed as provocatively as one imagines a “prostitute” to dress. There are a number of plain looking girl-next-door types. The age range varies from those just starting out to those who’ve been on the strip for too long. I can imagine a number of them will decide to head for the seafront if money is tight in their household. One day I passed a woman I regularly saw chatting to her young child and husband who’d stopped by to visit her, obviously aware of her “job”. Prostitution in Thailand doesn’t have the negative social stigma as other countries. Even so other girls aren’t as open with their relatives, as one girl stopped me photographing saying she has family. But for the majority this is not considered a bad way to earn a living especially as they are sending the money to their families. With the average daily wage around £10 per day the prostitutes can earn a similar amount for a short time encounter with a foreigner. A number of the females are from Issan, a rural province in the north-east which is Thailand’s poorest region where the majority of income comes from farming. So the money earnt “going with farang” as the prostitutes name their occupation, is rich pickings and goes a long way to support their families who like the police, ask few questions.
Throughout Pattaya in cafes, bars, restaurants, nightclubs you’ll witness foreigners in the company of a Thai. The sight of a middle-aged, pot bellied man walking the street and seated eating in cafes with a woman a quarter his size and age is a common one. Since American servicemen began visiting Pattaya for R&R during the Vietnam War, the place has had a reputation for being pretty sleazy. Even so, some arrangements can appear distasteful and obscene, especially where underage girls or boys are concerned. Apart from being picked up on the streets, “prostitutes” can be found in nightclubs or in any of the hundreds of bars they work where customers pay a bar fine for the female to leave the premises early. One night I went to an English pub to watch the England vs Croatia World Cup qualifier. When the game kicked off at 2am local time the bar was half full with foreigners and female bar staff of varying age and attractiveness. By the time England were scoring their fifth goal it was difficult to find someone to serve me a drink as most of the staff had left for the night with the customers. This type of behaviour is not considered degrading or frowned upon. It is just openly accepted as a way the women can earn extra money.
Generally, the prostitutes will offer short time sex or “a girlfriend experience” for the duration of a foreigner’s visit. A lot of the women I met are hoping that a short time liaison with a western male will develop into a longer term commitment that will free them and their families from the financial woes and hardship of a developing country. I overheard one “couple” who were obviously involved in a longer term “relationship” discussing their housekeeping arrangement – how much he pays the Thai lady to cook and clean each week but she still constantly made requests that he buy her more clothes and presents. And I began to question whether western attitudes towards prostitution are justified. Is a western woman/girlfriend/wife who is taken out for drinks, dinner by a man/boyfriend/husband and offers him sex at the end of the evening any different from a prostitute who gets paid for it?
Check out more photographs below: