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Let’s Talk About Sex, Thailand

Photo courtesy of Vitaly Shepelev.

Bangkok always seemed to have a naughty ring to it, I thought, and now I know why. The city of six million is more than just the nation’s governmental capital; it’s also the sex tourism capital of Southeast Asia. People – Thai women, adolescent boys and girls and those that walk the increasingly precarious gender gap line – “ladyboys” and “toms” – are all for sale here in Bangkok.

Of course, it’s not just Bangkok. While there is certainly no comparison to the volume of hedonistic pleasures taking place in Thailand’s biggest city, other cities in Thailand’s north and south make their bid to claim a piece of the sex tourism pie. Our first stop in Thailand brought us to Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Thailand and the biggest city in the country’s northern area. As such, it is also the place to be in the north for sex tourists.

The Oldest Profession in the World

Photo courtesy of Vitaly Shepelev.

On our night out in Thailand we were struck by the number of middle-aged, white, Western men who seemed to be travelling alone. Or so we thought. One bar after another, we were seeing Aussies, Americans, Canadians, Brits and a host of other fair-skinned fellows saddled up to the bar, only to be greeted warmly by a young, scantily-clad, dark-skinned and beautiful Thai woman.

Here’s how it works. The ladies (so far, they’re still just ladies), are “employees” at the bar. If a man would like to talk to one of these employees, it’s proper and assumed that he will buy himself and her drinks from the bar where she is employed. Sometimes, this is the extent of it – flirting over drinks while watching the latest Premiership football match on the tellie. But, if the discussion and flirting leads the man into wanting to take this bar employee home, well, then he has to ask permission from her boss to leave her work station. This requires some financial compensation to the bar-owner, usually in the range of 500 baht (between $15 and $20). Now that he and his new lady-friend have smoothed things over with the bar-owner, the night is their oyster (maybe not the best analogy here…). Remunerations for sexual acts can then be worked out between the man and woman with no intermediary.

This is where my guidebook explanation and personal experience (strictly visual, people) ends. But what Laura and I recognize early on in our Chiang Mai stay is that many of the men we see here are not just on holiday. They live here. Some have apartments, jobs (maybe they even own a bar?), etc. Others seem to visit several times a year and are familiar with the bar staff, café owners, masseuses and store clerks we see them talking to around town.

So, we see some men who are solo during the day and have girls at night. But others are walking around with their female partners during the day, grabbing lunch, getting pedicures (yep, the men, too), massages and even visiting the Tiger Kingdom to play with tiger cubs. This leads me to believe one of a few things. 1) Some guys think they are Richard Gere and are living out their Pretty Woman fantasies sans the polo matches. 2) What begins as a pay-for-sex relationship matriculates over time into a bona fide boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, where the man stops paying for sex and just buys her things for sex. No, my grandma reads this. That’s a joke.

Really, I don’t fully understand the specifics, but I could gather that such a partnership could (this is a huge could) be mutually beneficial. The young Thai woman who typically comes to Chiang Mai from smaller, farm towns nearby to make money and a better life for her and her family now has a dependent, semi-reliable source of income. And she no longer has to work. Or she’s always working, depending on how you view it. The man, stereotypically driven by sex, but often just lonely and looking for a partner, gets what he wants in the form of the beautiful, young girlfriend he now has on his arm. These relationships are so common and so sought after that we even saw books in Bangkok’s airport titled “How to Get (and Keep) a Thai Girlfriend.”

Lions and Tigers and….Ladyboys – Oh Chiang Mai!

Photo courtesy of Vitaly Shepelev.

Cue Lou Reed and his Warholian anthem to transvestites, Take a Walk on the Wild Side, and you have a pretty good intro to the other side of sex tourism visible in Thailand.

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, Hey babe
Take a walk on the wild side

Not all sex tourists coming to Thailand are looking for a lady. Some are looking for a man. And there are others who coming looking for a man dressed up as a lady – hence the “ladyboy.” A ladyboy, or Kathoey in Thai, is defined by Wikipedia as “a male-to-female transgender person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand.” (Now, if you’re bored at work or have a lot of time, look up kathoey on Wikipedia and the rest of your afternoon is shot. I promise you this is interesting stuff.)

The beautiful truth is that ladyboys are an integral part of Thai culture and are viewed and treated much better than transgendered people in any Western country. Many believe that due to Thailand’s strong Buddhist beliefs transgenders are accepted more. There are kathoey beauty contests all over Thailand and their presence in newspapers and magazines is quite common. In fact, many are used as models and a slew of books and films have been produced featuring kathoey subjects. While in Chiang Mai, we visited many bars with only ladyboy staff and rode with bus companies who had all-ladyboy service. It seemed almost chic to do so.

The hard reality is that life and law can still be cruel for transgenders in Thailand. Thai laws do not accommodate many of the ambiguities that go along with being transgendered; many jobs are unattainable or difficult to get due to employment discrimination and amenities given to Thai females are not available to kathoey women, even if they were to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

Middlesex, Intersex and Tom-Dees

Photo courtesy of Vitaly Shepelev.

Every coin has two sides. Such is the case with transgender representation in Thailand. For every ladyboy bus attendant or waiter (waitress?) I spoke to, there was a “Tom”, or female-to-male transgender taxi driver or bouncer. Our first night in Thailand, we had a Tom that I likened to the Fonz from Happy Days. She was cool and tough in her leather jacket and cigarette hanging from her lips as she drove us around town. She had all the mannerisms of a male. If we were home, I’d probably ask her to come over on Sunday to drink beer and watch football.

I never saw women dressed as men accosting foreign men or women at bars, but I assume there is a market for this. What I do know is that in Thailand many relationships exist between said “toms” and “dees” – heterosexual women known for their diva-like tendencies. In these relationships, “toms” will act as the caretaker and breadwinner and carry out the common niceties we associate with chivalry: holding doors open, pulling out a woman’s chair at restaurants and even carrying their dee’s purse. This is not always a sexual relationship but can be. Often, the tom will “please” his dee sexually, for which he/she will receive nothing in recompense, nor is it expected.

Bangkok – The Big Apple

If the apple in New York’s sobriquet were to signify the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, then perhaps Bangkok is the true Big Apple. For, temptation certainly abounds in the Thai capital. One is quick to realize how prevalent this temptation is even before they arrive to Bangkok. When booking a hotel online, our hotel made it very clear on its website that “sex tourists are not allowed.” When checking out several other hotels we encountered the same, signaling to us that this is a serious issue if it even has to be mentioned.

NoSexTourists e1284467371171 Let’s Talk About Sex, Thailand

Other hotels take a more passive (or capitalistic) approach, keeping passports at the front desk and charging guests for “visitors.” As you can imagine there are also many “o’clock” hotels that charge per hour instead of by room.

Before visiting, the first Bangkok image that came to mind was of that super-creepy, weirdo bobble-head that alleged he had killed JonBenet Ramsey. I remember the footage of him in handcuffs being extradited back to the US and the media reports claiming that he had been living in Bangkok and preying on child sex slaves. This is something that one doesn’t easily forget.

That people, even today, are sold into slavery, many of whom are young children, is absolutely repulsive and extremely disheartening. Many are tricked into coming to the “big city” for some other type of work, where upon arriving they find that the job they’ve been promised never existed and are forced into a life of prostitution or slavery. Fortunately, this type of prostitution is not accepted, but sadly still exists. I don’t know much about this so I will defer to the laudable work being done by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and HumanTrafficking.org. Hopefully, you can learn more from the people who dedicate themselves to combating such injustices.

Sex tourism in Thailand comes in all shapes, sizes and genders. I left with more questions than I had when I started, but one thing is for certain: you’ll learn more about the birds and the bees and all the in-betweens when you visit this incredibly unique country.

pixel Let’s Talk About Sex, Thailand

Comments (5)

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  1. Rob says:

    An excellent article in all respects – thank you.

    I’ve been living here a long time and have come to recognise a specific mind-set – the one that goes “. . . it’s disgusting to see all these dirty old men with young Thai women . . .” Sadly, what these dismissive Westerners are unable to grasp is that this is a sought-after way of life for an enormous number of young Thai women. The living conditions of millions of rural Thai farmers and their families are similarly beyond the imaginings of the same mind-set.

    “Working with farangs” is a job,and a well-paid one, too. In the early part of this ‘career’ the young woman will play the field and usually not want to be taken out of the bar (or certainly not be looking for a full-time ‘boyfriend’). The ideal is three or four ‘boyfriends’ on the go at once, in a holding pattern, each of them coming to stay in Thailand with the girl for three or four weeks each year. Each of the men (usually) think that the girl has stopped working in the bar and is living off the money they are sending her each month.

    As the girls begin to age and they start to notice that they are not drawing the same attention that they did when they were younger, they begin to look for a more-permanent partner. They look for a man to settle with, one who will buy some land and build her/them a house – often in or close to where her family are based.

    They value the financial security, yes, but every one will tell you (and mean it) that Thai men treat their women badly, are aggressive, assertive, often violent and always unfaithful. A farang man (generally older) is thoughtful, considerate and gentle, and shows his affection and appreciation for his woman, being a steadfast husband and a good surrogate father for her (often several) children, and they are both pleased for him to add one or two kids of his own to the brood.

    There is no system of Social Benefits or State Aid in Thailand, no government handouts, family allowances or pension schemes – another unimaginable aspect for those with a fixed Western mind-set. Every one of the 60-plus million people here is dependent upon either generating a continual income or being taken-care of by a family member who has access to such.

    So, in the scheme of things, an older Western man, divorced or separated, with collateral from the sale of his house or business, annuities, insurance, investments or even a pension, can find companionship and affection with a young(er) attractive Thai woman. And she, in return, finds a steadfast partner who can help both her and her extended family. Plus he’ll end up living in a pleasant country where everything is 25% of the cost of living back home.

    This is what is at the core of the whole sex-tourism industry: financial stability. And, whatever the surface packaging of this, whatever the tales of violent lady-boys or scheming bar-girls out to cheat the farangs, this is an element that established itself in the 1950s and 60s, after the War(s) had exposed the attractions of Thailand to millions of soldiers who were drafted over here. And, as such, has now become an established fact of life here – one which I can’t imagine is going to fade-out for a very long time indeed.

  2. Great article, guys – very well written! We’ve had many of the same thoughts that you shared here since we got to Thailand last month. In some places we were disgusted by the large amount of ugly, old Western dudes trying to impress the way-too-young Thai girls.
    Globetrottergirls´s last [type] ..Hotel Tip of the Week: Hotel Helix | Washington, DC

  3. Denise says:

    It’s rare that I read a post right to the end…and without skimming through it. Really well-written. This is probably one of the reasons why I think I’ll never go to Thailand. I just couldn’t stand the site of sex tourists (not the sex workers, who are only trying to earn a living).
    Denise´s last [type] ..Back from Bali…and already worrying about Vietnam and Australia

  4. Khon Kaen says:

    Been going on since the beginning of time in Thailand and will continue – not just for men any more. More and more sex tourists are ladies from abroad.

  5. Sex Tourism ain’t it? Rife all over the world. Some destinations are for the men and others are for the women. Some destinations are just not so discrete about it.
    Natalie – Turkish Travel Blog.´s last [type] ..Solo Traveler – Wandering Earl In Turkey