Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hidden Behind the Smiles...

It’s no secret anymore.  Thailand has a lot to offer to tourists no matter what they are looking for.  Whether you are looking for beautiful beaches, peaceful and majestic mountains, interesting culture, or temples of all shapes and sizes, Thailand has it…at affordable prices.  Thailand is a top destination for people and families from all over the world looking for a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.

What you may not be aware of is another kind of tourism that Thailand is known for: sex tourism.   It’s easy to overlook or turn a blind eye to it but if you pay attention and look closely, it is there…lurking in bars and motels, and some more blatantly in brothels and massage parlors.  It’s difficult to pin point exactly how much human trafficking, prostitution, child exploitation, and child prostitution goes on in Thailand. It’s not the image Thai tourism wants to portray and they don’t have a box to check on custom forms under ‘What is the reason for your visit?’ that reads “I’m here for the prostitution”.

Now, I don’t mean to bag on Thailand like they are the only offenders.  Unfortunately human trafficking and exploitation happens all around the world, even in America however, since I am currently in Thailand that is where my focus is.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning…

I’ve been living in Thailand for 7 weeks and, though I’d heard the rumors about prostitution and child exploitation, for about 6 weeks I had never really seen anything like it-or so I thought.  As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been reading The Lioness in Bloom (Kepner, 1996) in class and the last two stories we read were focused on the life and role of children in Thailand.  Now, of course these short stories are fictional but they got me to think about how much truth and reality might be hidden in the pages.  One story, A Mote of Dust on the Face of the Earth, tells the story of a girl named Saa who was born into both a loving family and rural poverty.  Against the odds, she had survived her younger years despite extreme poverty, near starvation, and less than sanitary living conditions.  Through it all, she had her friends and family.  One day when Saa was 10, a lady from Bangkok came to the village looking for young girls to take with her back to Bangkok where she would help the girl “find a job so that she would have a chance to make something of herself”.  She promised Saa’s parents that there was a job lined up for her as a waitress and that it was just the start of good things to come for Saa.  Though it broke her parent’s hearts, they needed the money the lady from Bangkok was offering and truly thought that Saa would have a better life in the city.  So, Saa was sold to the lady and she did work for a while as a waitress but it was an extremely abusive situation that left her hardened and in constant survival mode.  Before long she moved on to scams and prostitution, anything to make money and survive.  Her lack of education and positive influence allowed her to think that she was doing very well for herself making money pleasing the “sirs”.  And, as the story ends, she comes full circle and returns to the village only this time she is the lady talking to the parents of a young girl and making promises of a good life in the city.

Unfortunately, Saa’s story is all too common, especially in poor rural areas where the people are easily influenced by promises of a better life for their children than they can give.  Some children and young adults (mostly female) are promised good paying jobs in other countries and cities only to be enslaved in a brothel with no hope of escape. 

I thought that I had only witnessed one form of human exploitation and slavery during my time here.  One day, during lunch at a local restaurant, the group I was with witnessed a young man, probably around the age of 17-20 who was a bus boy at the restaurant, being physically, verbally, and emotionally abused by the restaurant owner.  The owner outright hit, choked, and verbally abused the boy right in front of us.  Though it was a horrible and traumatic experience for us, I can’t even imagine what his daily life is like or what goes on behind closed doors however, the scars on his chest and the look in his eyes told a grim story.  We were left with a sick feeling in our guts and a bothersome question: What do we do?  In America, we would have no problem calling the cops, but here? We didn’t even have the number or any confidence that it would make a difference.  So, we decided to not make the situation worse for the young man at the present moment and we contacted an advocacy group soon after we left.

After that incident, my eyes were opened. I began seeing things all around me. Every day I see children selling flowers up and down the streets who are likely to be punished at the end of the day for not selling all of them.  I’ve seen young Thai women on the arms of older white men looking for ‘some fun’. There are young school age kids who are not in school but are instead working or looking after even younger children while their parents work.  Unfortunately, I know that there are numerous things that I still don’t see at all.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but police are often times paid off and the brothels remain open. Unfortunately, there is a market for prostitution and child labor in Thailand.  Child prostitution is a rapidly growing problem in Thailand that involves “perhaps 800,000 children under the age of sixteen, bought and sold for a profit that exceeds that of the drug trade or weapons sales or lotteries or sports gambling” ( The crime is fueled by weak law enforcement, the Internet, ease of travel, and poverty.

Fortunately, there are non-government organizations (NGO) that make it their mission to fight prostitution and human trafficking but it is an uphill battle.  Also, in response to the growing phenomenon of child sex tourism, intergovernmental organizations, the tourism industry, and governments have begun to address the issue. My hope is that as more light gets shed on this horrific problem it will become less tolerated and, in turn, less profitable for those exploiting innocent people.  If you are interested in joining the fight against human exploitation please visit .


  1. The sex slave "trade" is also related to problems of poverty in neighboring countries, as well. As economic conditions improve in Thailand, not as many Thai girls are sold--but the demand continues. My understanding is that girls from Cambodia and Laos, which are poorer than Thailand, are likely to be sold into exploitative situations here in Thailand, including those described in "A Mote of Dust on the Face of the Earth." Tony

  2. Thanks Bethany.

    Obviously, this is a crucial topic and if we are to believe the story "A Mote of Dust," it seems to be one that goes in circles. How to break out of this cycle of despair, poverty, greed, and lust is the $64 m. question.

    Ajarn Rob

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