“Why are you going to Thailand?” the immigration officer asked with a chuckle.
“Umm… for leisure travel” I replied, not understanding why it was a matter of such amusement. My fellow passengers were primarily large groups of young men, making loud obscene jokes about their trip. They had ulterior motives in visiting Thailand.
After couple of hours of driving from Bangkok on an extremely crowded freeway, I arrived in Pattaya. The place was teeming with tourists from all over the world. You know the feeling when you reach a famous tourist destination? The urge to explore as much as you can is insatiable. Pattaya is notorious for it’s nightlife and I had no plans to miss out on that. A bit of online surfing revealed that beach street was party central.
A short walk later I arrived at a palm-fringed promenade dotted with bars, massage parlors and nightclubs. It was evident that I was a curious first timer in the land where tattoos and dreadlocks were social currency.
“You boy come here, come fast.” I looked aside to see a local with a group beckoning me.
“We give you special massage good rate, full happy. We provide all, come with us”, he said.
Needless to say I rejected his request but over the course of that afternoon, I was solicited multiple times. My attempt to find something unique or local about Pattaya was in vain. American fast food chains; commercial shopping complexes and chain hotels were ubiquitous. It was a city running on tourist money that lacked warmth and hospitality. The ‘everything has a price’ mentality had seeped into the locals and most of them would refuse to even share Wi-Fi passwords without asking for money.
I finally stumbled into Corner Bar, away from the crowded boulevard of Beach Street. A middle aged Irish man settled in Thailand for the last twenty years ran it. His chums were retired men from Britain and America who were regulars. Upon their invitation I joined them for a round of bar games and got some perspective about what had gone wrong with Thailand.
Dave, an old timer told me he had been coming to Thailand since the 1970s. “Back then it was a retreat, truly exotic. Locals were warm and welcoming and many Americans started coming down. It’s just that in the past ten years it has become too commercial. The backpackers and travellers have gone. It’s become infamous as a sex destination especially this part. You’ll see middle-aged men soliciting girls possibly younger than eighteen. The local mafia has cashed in on the sexual appetites of these tourists and has engineered an industry that brings suffering to countless girls from all over the country. The administration here supports and encourages it since it stands to profit from the exploitation of its own citizens.”
The mystery that is Thailand unraveled with to Dave’s stories. A new mix of Indians and Chinese joined the western tourists and are heading to Thailand in droves. The same bunch of loud, obnoxious Indian men can be seen driving around the streets of Pattaya. Here they were unhinged and even more audacious than in the streets of Delhi. They could be seen hooting at girls and actively soliciting them. These were the same men who would lock up their sisters, mothers, wives at home and tell their daughters how to dress, but on streets, freed of their patriarchal duties they can bare their true natures.
The famous dance bars in Walking Street thrive on the patronage of such men. They make money by aggressively ushering them into the establishment, charging high rates for liquor and encouraging them to shower money on the dancers. There are accounts of people paying hundreds of Baht for draught beer, customers coaxed into buying drinks and spending lavishly. The exploiter becomes the exploited and thus, continues the vicious cycle.
Movies like Hangover glorify Bangkok and build an image of a hedonistic paradise where men can let loose sans accountability or consequence. These encourage men to come down to Thailand, exploiting the locals for their own motives.
Some may say that the Thai people need the tourism money and I agree wholeheartedly. But I do not agree to the fact that the Thai people exist solely for the entertainment of tourists. Most of these exploitative men will be respectful, law abiding citizens in their own countries and will actively look down at third world countries for sexual violence and regressive societal norms. Yet these same people will form the bulk of the tourists who will go down to Pattaya to blow off steam and exploit some local girls. The Indians in this context are a whole category unto themselves. They mostly travel in bulk to the same destinations and will eat in special vegetarian restaurants because the locals eat meat. After their Hindu meals they will go out and openly hoot at girls because hey we do it anyway in India, and here it’s legal.
The outsourcing of sexual deviance to the orient is not a new trope in the west. The systemic furthering of this agenda in Thailand is appalling, an entire country has fallen prey to the desires that were not ‘acceptable in their own and even worse, have been institutionalized. Yet, it is the legalization of ‘prostitution’ and oppression of sex workers that always finds center stage in western discourse. Maybe take a step back and reevaluate the notoriety of Thailand from the context of a country exploited, not exploiting.