Sex tourism: Pattaya harvests 'repressed' tourists
Photo: Pattaya's Walking Street is a haven for sex tourism. (Marcus Woodhouse)
In Pattaya's Arab quarter, off the Thai sex capital's famous Walking Street, a Kuwaiti man climbed down from the bar where he had been dancing for 10 minutes and rejoined his friends at their table.
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They were drinking Chivas Regal by the bottle and each was accompanied by a Thai "date". He immediately pulled his companion onto his lap.
When asked why so many young Middle Eastern men chose Pattaya for their overseas vacations, Fahad, 29, grabbed his crotch with both hands, shook vigorously, and laughed.
"Thailand is very different to Kuwait," he said.
Ask most people what sex tourism looks like and they would likely describe an aging white man and probably use the word "dirty" for good measure.
The reality is more complicated, defying generalisations.
In Pattaya, Middle Eastern men like Fahad — young, wealthy and neither widowed nor divorced — make up a visible portion of the sex tourism population.
One table over from the Kuwaitis, a group of twenty-something Omanis held court. Across the street, a bar catering to Iranians was similarly jumping.
While Thailand's traditional tourism markets, including Australia, continue to account for large numbers of visitors — sex tourists or otherwise — arrivals from East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East accounted for 70 per cent of all visitors to the country in the first two months of 2016.
Sexual repression at home creates a desire for hedonism abroad, Fahad told the ABC.
"In Kuwait, we cannot even look at a woman," he said.
"In Thailand, nobody cares what you do."
Osama, 30, from the Omani capital, Muscat, agreed.
"We can do things here that would not be acceptable at home," he said.
"We are young men and we can behave like young men."
Photo: Sex workers are popular with Middle Eastern tourists in Pattaya's Arab quarter. (Marcus Woodhouse)
Behaving like young men has given them a reputation.
Middle Eastern tourists have been attacked by Pattaya's ladyboys for refusing to pay an agreed rate, beaten by bouncers for violent behaviour and blacklisted by some street-walkers for the same.
A sex worker named Sa told the ABC she refused to sleep with Middle Eastern customers after an Iranian man hit her during a money dispute.
"He was a crazy man," Sa said.
"I went with him for one hour and then he said he wasn't going to pay me.
"When I argued with him, he hit me in the face."
While such issues are not exclusive to any one group, Sa said she preferred European customers — particularly Russian men, who she said paid the highest rates.
The 27-year-old, who sends the majority of her earnings to her family, said she was ultimately looking for a western man to marry.
"I want a man to take care of me and my family so I don't have to work for a long time," she said.
Generalising about Pattaya's sex workers and their clients is fraught.
There are strippers, bar girls, sex-show performers and "freelancers" such as Sa.
Like her, many of this latter group come from Isaan, a poor agricultural region in north-eastern Thailand bordering Laos and Cambodia.
Sa told the ABC she charged between 1000 ($38) and 1,500 ($57) baht per hour and averaged three customers per night.
The average income of people in Isaan is $530 a year.
The exact number of Thai sex workers is difficult to confirm.
Photo: Tourists from Asia and the Middle East accounted for 70 per cent of visitors to Thailand in the first two months of 2016. (Marcus Woodhouse)
Havocscope, a database about the global black market, last year estimated the country's sex industry employed about 250,000 people and brought in $6.4 billion annually —10 per cent of Thailand's GDP.
But some NGOs put the number of sex workers closer to 2 million.
However, not all Pattaya's sex workers are Thai.
Julia, 33, is a native of Omsk, Russia, and manages Crazy Russian Girls, a go-go bar on Pattaya's Walking Street.
She told the ABC that Pattaya offered Russian, Ukrainian and Central Asian women great economic opportunities.
"Dancing in a go-go bar on a three-month contract can pay for a girl to live in comfort at home for the rest of the year," Julia said.
She said her employees were not sex workers and were prohibited from going home with customers, but admitted they were free to do what they liked outside of working hours.
"Some probably work on the side," Julia said.
"We don't ask them questions."
A stroll up Walking Street, or the equally famous Soi 6, gives one the impression that those areas exist almost exclusively to cater for foreign demand.
In Lawrence Osborne's Bangkok Days, the British author's 2009 memoir about living in Thailand, this impression is addressed head-on.
"If I have to listen to one more NGO type droning on about fat, white, middle-aged perverts I think it will have to be violence," one of the author's drinking companions said at one point.
"I always point out that farangs [foreigners] are less than 5 per cent of the customers in Bangkok."
According to a Thai survey of sexual behaviour, at least 450,000 Thai men visited sex workers every day.
The same survey said 97 per cent of military conscripts undertaking their two years of compulsory service regularly visited sex workers and that 73 per cent of those men lost their virginity to one.
"Get furious about that 5 per cent if you want," the memoir said.
"It says more about you than them."
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