A laugh rings out; one of the young women leans over, grinning, and whacks her neighbour on the arm. There are eight or 10 friends here in the Can Do bar in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, sitting in easy camaraderie around a big table in an open-air back room. Eating noodles, teasing, gossiping – they are clearly enjoying themselves, at ease with one another, relaxed. These women could be students, or colleagues, or factory workers on a break.
Instead they are all prostitutes – forced by economic necessity and a lack of opportunity t o make a living selling sex to men. Thailand has limited social welfare provisions and life is hard for the poor, especially refugees. The choice often comes down to selling sex or seeing a young sister or brother, or a child, go hungry. But these women refuse to see themselves as victims; they make the tough decision to work in the sex bars and they do the work without complaining. They don’t want to be rescued. They want the right to ply their trade without being harassed, fined, subjected to ridiculous and restrictive work rules, arrested, demeaned.
Sachumi Mayoe looks like a young college student. Tall and slim, with long straight black hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, with a colourful scarf wound round her neck, she could easily be mistaken for an attractive teenager from any of Thailand’s many universities. But the 25-year-old has been a bar-girl for six years; selling sex to men. She snaps her fingers at society’s disdain: “If a young girl sacrifices herself to make a good life for her family, for her brothers and sisters, for her parents, is she a good person?” But sitting in the Can Do bar in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, it’s hard not to be concerned about her life. Usually known by her nickname, Wi, she is brutally frank about her choices. She is from the Akha hilltribe, from Burma, and her earnings help support her parents, a nephew, two younger brothers and one younger sister. Another younger sister has recently joined her in the bars.
“I did many, many jobs,” she says. “Working on the land, looking after children, cleaning, selling nail-polish, and, when I was little, selling noodles. I sold clothes. There were lots of choices. I chose this. Like anyone else in any job, my motivation was to earn. I also really wanted to study. I was from a hill tribe, so I couldn’t study. I really wanted the freedom to do other things. This gives me money and time.”
Wi is surrounded by women relaxing in the bar’s spartan backroom, eating noodles, laughing, playing with makeup, washing their hair in a sink. The Can Do Bar is run by the Empower Foundation, an advocacy group for women working in Thailand’s sex trade; so it imposes none of the stringent rules followed elsewhere. Wi remembers working in other bars where the women’s salaries were docked 30 baht (about $1) for every minute they were late for a shift; where their salaries were docked if they gained weight, if they didn’t smile enough, if too few drinks were bought for them by the patrons, if they slouched, if they put a glass or bottle down too heavily on a counter. The Thais were docked about 50 baht monthly to pay off the police; the women from Burma and elsewhere 200 baht.
Some of the bargirls in Bangkok, in the notorious Soi Cowboy strip of neon-lit bars – known to locals as “the Boy” – have to wear what appears to be a variation on netball uniforms. Others wear one-of-a-kind sailor suit school dresses. Yet others wear matching high-heeled boots, a frill of a skirt and a bra-type top. In some sex districts in Bangkok, like Nana Plaza with its three floors of exotic bars, or the bars in Patpong with their infamous ping-pong ball shows, the dress requirements appear to be anything that’s extremely short and tight. Or, indeed, entirely absent – nude dancing is always popular.
Little wonder, then, that more and more women in Thailand prefer to look after themselves and cut out the middleman; to solicit on the sidewalk along Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road, or hook up with men via internet “dating” sites; or swap contacts via mobile telephone numbers. There’s no fear of their salaries being docked; nor are they told what to wear, nor how much to smile. Agencies fear these so-called independent workers are more difficult to target with health messages, including essential information about HIV and AIDS. Wi, though, isn’t keen on the idea of using the internet to find customers: “For me, and others that I know, it’s not as sure,” she says, explaining that some men might think an internet hook-up was a date. For free. Health workers fear that independent sex workers will find it more difficult to refuse customers who want unprotected sex, and they are more at risk of assault or rape.
But Liz Hilton, a 48-year-old Australian who is an Empower Foundation advocate, says these women are usually very capable of looking after themselves – they know the dangers and balance the risks and often tell their clients what they want to hear. Certainly there are any number of older western men who have fallen for the bargirl myths in Thailand. The believe, for instance, that Thai women actually prefer elderly men, that Thai women naturally like having sex with strangers, that there is no stigma attached to the sex trade in Thailand, that a teenaged Thai bargirl has fallen for a much older man’s winning personality, rather than his bulging wallet. Hilton says that Thai bargirls do like older men, but only because they take far less time to satisfy sexually, and they are often financially generous. Of course, she says, it’s wrong to say ordinary Thais don’t frown on women in the sex trade; bargirls routinely cope with contempt and often outright hostility.
From Sydney, Hilton has lived in Thailand for 17 years, speaks fluent Thai and knows how the industry works. Sitting in the Can Do bar’s backroom, she says the trade has existed in Thailand for a long time. She has seen an accounts ledger from the Ayuttaya period (the centuries leading up to the late 1700s), kept by a clerk to record payments in the royal brothels. Prices for sex with women ranged from a small sack of rice – which today would cost about 1,000 baht, or about $33, to a large sack of rice – 2,000 to 3,000 baht ($66 to $99). Today, bar girl prices, at least in the bars patronised by westerners, still range upwards from about 1,000 baht. And, in most cases, the client has to pay a “bar fine” to the bar to compensate for the bargirl’s absence.
The trade flourished during the Vietnam war, when hundreds of thousands of American soldiers came to Thailand for “rest and recreation”. After the war, Hilton says, the IMF and the World Bank encouraged Thailand to replace the lost R&R revenue with tourism earnings; hence, largely, today’s world-famous sex trade. “It used to be that 70 per cent of the tourists coming to Thailand were men travelling on their own,” she says. “These days the proportion of women is slowly increasing; but nobody comes to Thailand once, twice, three times, to see the temples.”
Bargirls earn salaries of several thousand baht a month; depending on the bar, and depending how much their salaries are docked, and a fluctuating fee for sex, paid by the client following a private negotiation. “It would be very unusual to offer services for less than 1,000 baht,” Hilton says. With these sorts of prices, sex work is vastly more lucrative than work in factories, or domestic labour; menial work which often requires a school certificate of some form, and which is far more difficult for non-Thais, the women who have fled Burma, or Laotians or Cambodians in search of much-needed cash.
Wi doesn’t have a boyfriend or a husband, but she doesn’t feel cheated. She’s happy, she’s getting on with life; and a year ago she became a Thai citizen. “It gives me freedom of movement, it lets me travel. You have to fight for your rights, for the papers. You need language and everything to push it through. My mum and dad still haven’t got papers.”
Out in the functional Can Do bar, with its tiled floor and wooden bar and stools, Wi plays pool with some Thai men, and every now and then looks over and smiles. There is no-one dancing around the poles that are a feature of nearly every Thai bar, but the night is young, and Wi has hours ahead of her. She has become accustomed to the life, a life which is the lot of many young Akha women.
“When you’re from an Akha village, and you leave to work, everyone thinks that’s what’s happened – you have left to become a sex worker,” she says with a shrug. “For my family, I’m doing the right thing, taking money home. My family has no problem with what I do. The other people in the village might.” She recently moved from Chiang Mai to Ubon Ratchathani, in Thailand’s east – where her customers are now mainly Thai (she is back in Chiang Mai for a quick visit), and where she does some work for the Empower Foundation, but she has no plans to change her profession.
About 50 women are registered for work in the Can Do bar; like Wi, many of them are not Thai. Many others don’t have Thai papers, and they can’t be registered for social security. Twenty-two-year-old Linda came to Thailand when she was five. A Muslim, one quarter Bangladeshi, one quarter Chinese, one quarter Burman, and one quarter Karenni (another tribe in Burma), she has high hopes of becoming a Thai citizen. “Maybe next year,” she says. “I really hope by next year.” Nam, from Burma, is tall and voluptuous and wears braces on her teeth: “There are many, many, many sex workers from Burma in Thailand,” she points out. And if they can’t speak Thai, and if they have no papers at all, they often have no choice but to work in often appalling conditions for derisory pay.
Men and women from Burma usually have a hard time in Thailand, but Hilton grins and says the women who work in the sex trade are not bigots. “There’s no discrimination,” she says. “They’re all working women together. Eighty per cent have children to support. Mostly they’re supporting between five and eight other adults.”
Maleerat Van Driesten, an Akha woman from Burma, near Chinese border, supports her parents, her sister, two brothers and a niece. Unusually, she is married to a foreigner who lives with her in Thailand; a Dutch man who lives in Chiang Mai and works as a tour guide. She married him, divorced him, and then married him again. At first she insist she is 24, but she finally concedes to 40, and she has a 12-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter. A jovial woman who smokes cigarettes and rides a motor-scooter, Malee speaks six languages – or at least she can make herself understood in six languages.
She went to Amsterdam once, a city she found cold and unfriendly, especially when she was picked up for shop-lifting. “I didn’t understand the signs in the supermarket – the police came. I said I didn’t understand; they said sorry, I said sorry too.” Malee works as a defacto mamasan at the Can Do bar, but if there are clients around, she will take them on. Liz Hilton says she once came back from the post office with a client in tow. “Sometimes I go with clients,” Malee says with a grin. “If I have some.”
Like all the other women at the bar, Malee is entirely conversant with the risks of unprotected sex; if a client offered two million dollars, she says, she might consider it, but only if she was paid up front. Some research suggests that women are less likely to insist on protection if the customer is a regular, and in one disquieting article in a local Bangkok paper a woman who solicited customers on the street confessed she was HIV positive, and didn’t always demand her customers wear a condom. In the Can Do bar, though, the message is loud and clear. Upstairs, in the Empower drop-in centre, where women can use the computers for email, or take lessons in English, there is a noticeboard covered with packets of various kinds of sexual protection. Hilton opens a female condom to show it is simply a plastic bag arrangement. She is slightly affronted: unlike male condoms, these come in only one colour, and no particular flavour.
Meanwhile, Jan Karnowang is sitting by herself at a table in the bar, nursing a nasty head cold that is hurting her eyes. The 29-year-old, from Ambang in Thailand’s east, has a four-year-old son who she only manages to see four or five times a year. The boy is in Ambang, in the care of Jan’s parents. “I send money to my mum and dad,” she says, one hand over an eye. “They look after him. I don’t have the time to take care of him. The father? He was a bad guy. I separated from him three years ago. He was a construction worker; he had a new girl. He doesn’t help with the child. I have to get money from this work, and I send about half the money I make to Ambang. It’s for four adults – my parents and my grandparents.”
Jan thinks she needs some paracetamol, but she has no intention of taking the night off and going home. There’s no sick pay in this trade; if you can walk, you work. Very slim, with the much-favoured long straight hair, she doesn’t want to smile because her head hurts. “For me, I have to do this. Now my parents are very old. It’s very, very good here; I’ve got friends, everyone is with each other. Now it’s meant to be the high season, but it’s low; it’s dull; it’s not good. There are not many customers. Sometimes there are six women for only one or two customers. I ask for 2,500 baht, but I will accept 2,000 baht if it’s a short time. Those foreigners they think, oh, that’s expensive, they say, ‘I’ve paid less before, I have paid just 1,000 baht’. I say, ‘no, cannot’.”
Like so many others in the sex industry, Jan has a foreign “boyfriend”. He’s British, and she met him in a bar about three years ago. Isn’t it a bit difficult maintaining a relationship with a man half a world away? Why doesn’t she go and live in Britain? “He says something like that,” she replies. “But I don’t like cold weather.” She shrugs. “It’s up to me. But I don’t want, I don’t like. Sometimes if I don’t have money, I ask him and he helps me.” So many women in the trade correspond with foreign boyfriends that a lucrative little industry has emerged, at least in Bangkok, of scribes who write the women’s emails and letters for them.
Does Jan want a man in her life, permanently? “For me, if it’s a rich man with a good heart, I want. But if he’s not rich, and a bad person, I don’t want it. I’ve had it already.”
UNAIDS, the UN’s agency for dealing with HIV/AIDS, estimates about 70,000 women work in the sex trade in Thailand. Liz Hilton thinks that’s on the low side, but she concedes there are no hard numbers. The important thing, she says, is to have the trade decriminalised, so the women are protected by labour laws, and not wholly subject to the whims of rapacious employers. “Most sex workers in Thailand spend most of their time not having sex; they work serving drinks, talking to customers, massaging,” she says. “For the five minutes everyone is having sex, let’s forget about it for a while. They need labour laws to protect them.”