From a distance, the Thai city of Pattaya looks like many other seaside resorts. Straight sandy beaches several kilometers long stretch out along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand. Behind them are high-rise hotels and condos. The climate is tropical, the vegetation luxuriant.
On closer examination, though, it becomes clear that there is something different about Pattaya. I arrived here shortly after noon on a sunny May day, and what struck me right away was that there was hardly anyone on the beaches. Admittedly this was low season, and Thailand’s political troubles had cut tourist arrivals, but still something wasn’t right.
After checking in to my guesthouse in the southern part of the city, I decided to defy what was clearly conventional wisdom, and go for a swim. So I headed for the beach. I soon discovered one of the reasons for the paucity of bathers: the sea isn’t very clean here. The water was a murky brown color, and bits of plastic floated in the water. Pattaya, it turns out, is not a great beach resort.
Another oddity: among the few tourists on the beach, and the many more than I saw wandering around during my visit to Pattaya, there were hardly any children. Again, this seemed unusual for a beach resort.
I was in Pattaya with two friends; one was from Cambodia, a first-time Pattaya visitor like me; the other, from Paris, had been here many times and knew lots of people in the area. On our first night in the city, he offered to show us around, and so we hopped onto the back of one of the ubiquitous pick-up truck taxis that ply the city’s roads and headed downtown. Here, the mystery of Pattaya tourism was quickly solved.
Pattaya by night, it turns out, is not the same as Pattaya by day. On an off-season night, when Bangkok and much of the rest of Thailand was under a curfew and state of emergency, the streets of Pattaya were teeming with visitors. The city’s famed “Walking Street” was particularly busy. Closed to traffic by night, it becomes a neon-lit avenue of bars, restaurants and massage parlors. On either side of the walking street were scantily clad and unusually friendly young women. Inside some of the bars, visible from the street, some of their colleagues served drinks while others gyrated around poles atop the bars.
Pattaya, it turns out, is indeed a tourist resort, but a resort of a rather particular and primarily nocturnal kind. The city could in all likelihood justly claim the title of the World Capital of Sex Tourism.
Pattaya’s specialized economy is not an accident of either history or geography. It dates back to the era of the Vietnam War (known in Southeast Asia as the American War,) when hundreds of thousands of (overwhelmingly male) U.S. military personnel needed a safe place for what was liberally and euphemistically termed “rest and relaxation” (R&R.) Such a place should ideally a) be in a friendly country, b) be not too far from the theater of war, c) have a safe and easily defensible location, d) be pleasant and attractive, and e) be in a cultural and economic environment which would could provide for the physical and emotional needs of the military personnel.
Pattaya fit the bill perfectly. The town’s location on the Gulf of Thailand, on the opposite side of the Southeast Asian peninsula from Vietnam, in a friendly country, and with conveniently located offshore islands protecting its port from enemy vessels, and its (then somewhat cleaner) beaches provided an ideal location. The long-standing non-judgmental nature of Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist culture on sexual matters was a major advantage (especially when compared with attitudes in predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, or even the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines.) Finally, the relative poverty of the population provided a plentiful supply of young women (and presumably also some men) to work in the sex industry.
The Vietnam War ended in 1974, but Pattaya and its particular brand of tourism continued. The clientele changed from U.S. military personnel to visitors from Europe, Australasia, and other parts of Asia (including other parts of Thailand, especially over weekends). During my visit I noticed an abundance of signs, advertisements, and restaurant menus in Cyrillic writing, a result in a boom in Russian tourism in recent years.
The sex industry expanded in scope as well as scale. Walking Street is the center of the heterosexual sex industry, but there are several smaller but similar streets that cater to gay visitors. My friends and I went to one of these areas – Boyztown – where we had a drink at a bar and chatted with the manager and some of the staff, all friends of my Parisian traveling companion. After the bar closed, we all headed to a late night disco, which on this night appeared to cater mainly to a clientele of bar and restaurant employees rather than tourists.
I learned that most of the so-called “bar boys” (just about all of whom are men, aged between 18 and 25) working in Pattaya come from Thailand’s rural areas (I assume the most of what I learned from the men working in Pattaya applies also to women.) One of the young men I spoke to had returned two weeks previously from tending to livestock on his family’s small farm near the Cambodian border. This is apparently a common practice: working on the farm during the planting and harvest seasons, and in Pattaya when tourists are plentiful. There is no doubt at all which of these occupations in more lucrative. Despite the crowded living conditions (four to six young men to a room) and meager base wages, the pay is much better than it would be in just about any job back home.The basic wage for this bar job is about $100 per month, with one day off per month. And, of course, there is the particularly attractive appeal of additional income opportunities from older, wealthier tourists. Some of these opportunities might involve a brief encounter, in other cases might involve accompanying the visitor for a day or even for his entire stay in Pattaya. Regardless of the details, though, the work allows many young people to earn a living and to help support families back home on a scale that would not be possible if they worked on a farm or in a garment factory.
Prostitution is, strictly speaking, illegal in Thailand. But lines are blurred and laws seldom enforced. The way many of the bars work, I was told, is that the bar-boy’s job is to attract and welcome customers, serve them drinks, and ideally get the customers to buy drinks for the “boy” as well. If the employee decides that he wants to leave work at the bar early, the bar must be paid a fee, purportedly for his lost services. Any further transactions between the customer and the “bar-boy” are not the business of the bar management.
Pattaya is a place that invites hasty judgments. I have no doubt that for many of my fellow Virginians this place would be Gomorrah incarnate, a place of unbridled sin with no moral ambiguities at all. For those of a different ideological bent Pattaya might, I suppose, seem liberating.
But I left confused. On the one hand, I have no quibble – moral or otherwise – with the career choices of those who have opted to make a living in the sex industry. I have respect for those who work hard in the industry openly, honestly, and unapologetically to provide for themselves and their families (Indeed, in the days of Pattaya’s nascent sex trade during the Vietnam War, I have no doubt whose jobs – the clients’ or the sex workers’ – I would have found more morally objectionable.)
On the other hand, I recognize that for, for many, entering sex work is not a choice freely made. Some are compelled by economic circumstances to enter a career they find exploitative or unpleasant (as do some who work in factories and mines.) Others are forced into sex work, either as children or through adult trafficking. But abuse and trafficking are not the same thing as sex work, nor are they inevitable consequences of it (any more than child soldiers are an inevitable consequence of conflict, or slavery a necessary concomitant of a demand for cheap labor.)
I am more confused – and perhaps more judgmental than I would like – about the sex industry’s clients than I am of its workers. I had to face my own prejudices and confusion in this regard simply by deciding to write this blog. After all, to write it I would have to admit to having been in Pattaya. What would that lead my readers to think of me?
After visiting and thinking about Pattaya, I can offer three conclusions.
First, there is a geography to everything. Most things – including sex tourism – are where they are for a reason (or, more commonly, many reasons.) These reasons are frequently very interesting, and well worth exploring.
Second, traveling to interesting places (or studying interesting issues) almost always produces more questions than answers, and often more confusion than clarification. But that’s what makes these pursuits interesting.
Third, the world is a morally, economically, socially, and culturally complex place. Clinging to simplistic moral absolutes does not reduce this complexity, it does not help us understand it, and is certainly does not solve the problems that underlie it. And, like the skimpy clothing of the bartop dancers on Walking Street, it is at least as significant for what it conceals as for what it reveals.
Donald N. Rallis
Pattaya, May 2010.