Fact vs. Fiction: the Thailand Sex Industry


Editor’s Note: After my post What not to do in Chiang Mai drew some comments from my readers regarding my stance on sex tourism in the region (or lack thereof), I decided I wanted someone who knows more about the subject to weigh in on the topic. As someone who is heavily involved in responsible tourism, it is incredibly important for me that my readers are educated and then allowed to make their own decisions in regards to what they choose to support or skip while traveling. While I do not condone the Thailand sex industry, I do want my readers to know what really happens in this area in regards to working girls. Human trafficking, child slavery, drug addictions all do exist in the world of sex in parts of SE Asia, particularly those whose people live in extreme poverty. BUT, according to in-depth research, these problems are not occurring in Chiang Mai. This post is written by Alex Martin, someone who has spent a lot of time investigating the Thailand sex industry and sex tourism. 

What’s the deal with Thailand’s sex industry?

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy scatterwadatai via Flickr Creative Commons

The sex industry in Thailand is a vast and complex organism — something that cannot be defined in concrete terms. Also, the concept of ‘pay-to-play’ relations in regards to morality is subjective to the individual and their social and cultural background. For the purpose of this — a post examining the ins and outs of the sex industry (and a topic that is nearly impossible to fit into one concise piece) it is more prudent and beneficial to give a holistic description of Thailand’s industry so people can make their own decision.

I will keep my opinion until the end and ask you to set aside any pre-conceived notions of what you think sex should be about.

I sometimes work as a guide and translator for an educational tour company and almost always get at least one student who is studying women’s rights in Asia. It’s been my assignment on more than one occasion to bring a student to different venues and interview women working there. Most of the information I am using for this article comes directly from interviews I have conducted on these trips.

We all know that prostitution is an ancient profession, but that doesn’t make it anachronistic in the least. In Thailand, it’s a huge industry with many faces. It has ‘lady bars’, special massage parlors, brothels, go-go bars, and many other venues that travelers and locals frequent. There are even whole streets dedicated to different forms of ‘pay for sex’ places. Since this article is for tourists, I’ll keep the information narrowed down to places they usually frequent.

But first, ping pong shows

The most famous form of prostitution in Thailand is the ping pong show, which is exactly what it sounds like. Interestingly enough, when I’ve been asked to bring a person there, nine out of 10 times it has been by a woman, while the men in the group are very uncomfortable. I personally refuse to even talk about where it is possible to see one of these shows.

Ping pong shows are notorious for getting women addicted to ya ba, which is a methamphetamine that directly translates into “crazy drug,” as a way to keep them working. For many people, this show has become a popular tourist attraction that many people say is one of those things they just have to see once. The thing is, with millions of tourists coming to Thailand ‘just once’ every year, it keeps the demand up and the horrid-ness and exploitation continues.

There is no choice for women who work these shows and men (and women) aren’t going there for any sort of connection. Most people look at it and go for a joke or shock value, making it some sort of sick luxury. Many people don’t understand the implications of what they contribute to. This is not a ‘must see’ attraction in Thailand.

Sex and the women behind it

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy of Jessica Rabbit via Flickr Creative Commons.

Now that ping pong shows are out of the way, let’s look at the women who work at the other venues (bars, massage parlors, etc.). The places I was able to conduct interviews at were go-go bars and ‘lady bars’. The first thing I gathered from speaking with many of them is that they are women first and sex workers second. Upon meeting them, most of them wanted to talk about their family, hobbies, and other normal conversation that you would have with any person you met for the first time. These interactions happened in Chiang Mai and most of the girls working were from other provinces. They had come to Chiang Mai of their own volition, usually telling their family they had found a job that wasn’t what they were actually doing, to be able to make money to send back to them. Many times, women said that they had a child whose father wasn’t supporting in any way. In Thailand, child support is almost non-existent and there are not many ways to legally get a father to financially contribute to the life of his child.

Financially, working in the sex industry is almost logical to a person who is desperate to support their family. There aren’t many government aid programs for people with money problems and a person who works as a farmer or in a factory can make as little as 300 baht a day (the minimum wage was just raised). The working conditions aren’t comfortable. There is no nine to five or overtime. In the sex industry, women can make more money without even sleeping with men.

The concept of pay-to-play

At lady and go go bars, women aren’t forced to sleep with men. It is their job to entertain them while they are drinking and get them to buy them drinks, which cost significantly more than a regular cocktail or beer. For each drink a man buys them, the woman makes a commission. If a man likes the woman (and the woman likes the man), he can pay a bar fine to let her leave work early. This does not promise sex. If a woman chooses to sleep with a man, it’s her decision if she wants to charge him and how much. Many women choose to give men their phone numbers and meet after work so they don’t have to pay the bar fine. The reason? These women are looking for more than cash for having sex one time. They are looking for somebody to take care of them as they have learned that society won’t. Obviously, there are people who are just looking to make as much money as they can by sleeping with men.

Regardless, they have the choice to do it.

The men who pay

Many people look at the men who frequent these types of places and label them as ‘old creepy perverts’ or sexpats. Upon asking different women their opinions of the men who frequented lady bars, they usually said the men were often polite and gentle. Interestingly enough, they said the younger men were often more problematic as they wanted to pay for women just so they “could do things that their girlfriends wouldn’t let them do.”

Upon talking to men who spend time at lady bars, I’ve noticed that many of them are widows or divorced. For how much they talk about it, one can only guess that they are still hurting. Losing a loved one is difficult and sometimes leaves a person feeling like they can’t ever love again. Many men who go to these places are looking for some sort of connection that isn’t as intense so they can’t get hurt again. Many marry girls from these bars because they want companionship that feels simpler than what they previously went through romantically. At the end of the day, as unorthodox as it is to many western standards, the relationship between men and bar girls is consensual and mutually beneficial.

To sex or not to sex?

Sex tourism Thailand

Photo courtesy Nicolai Bangsgaard via Flickr Creative Commons

I urge people to empathize —  instead of judge —  both the men and women who are working or patrons of these types of venues. There are things I can confidently say a person should not take part in while traveling to Thailand like the Tiger Temple, Full Moon Party, or almost any elephant camp that isn’t Elephant Nature Park.

My personal opinion is this: in regards to lady bars I can only say it isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I think the real problem isn’t this form of sex-as-profit, but a society that makes it almost necessary for the industry to exist as a whole.  For me, I find it more disturbing that there aren’t any government programs to help single mothers who have to pay for their children’s food, clothing, and education as only the worst schools in Thailand are free. Students are expected to buy their own books, uniforms, and lunches regardless.  Outside of Bangkok, there is nearly no government funding to public schools.

I also urge every person who travels to Thailand to have a look around in one of these bars. Talk to the women and buy them a drink. Learn about their lives and tell their story. Don’t treat them like they are anything less than a person who is trying to make a living and take care of themselves and their families.


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