an exotic illusion.

this is a piece i’ve been meaning to write for awhile, but i couldn’t find the words, or didn’t feel intelligible enough on the topic to put it out there quite yet. as much as i love thailand and all it has to offer, it also has a dark side. an illusion if you will. what brings most people to thailand is often the downfall of the same person, or the breaking up of everything they’ve known. from a western perspective thailand has the illusion of everything we look for- from a cheap lifestyle, great beaches, beautiful women and sex tourism. most of the reasons people come here are for the sex tourism and that’s what i intend to shed some light on while it’s fuming so vividly in my head. 

as a women’s studies major, i’ve been enlightened to how the system works and always learned to look at it through Western eyes. by that i mean, anything oppressive in a 3rd world country looks to us as completely and utterly degrading, barbaric almost. take Chinese footbinding, genital mutilation, arranged marriage, the wearing of the Burka in Muslim countries, or sex trafficking and sex tourism in SE Asia (specifically Thailand) for example. now, i am not one to speak for a group of which i’m not a member, i don’t understand, i wasn’t born there, and who am i to tell someone their traditions or imminent culture is far from progressive, insulting, and wrong? i’m not. it’s not my place. 

with that being said, here comes the pivotal question i’ve been asking myself for a long time- cultural relativism OR the believe that everyone, every culture, every person has inalienable human rights. cultural relativism being that i can’t speak because i don’t understand and inalienable human rights being the belief that no matter what religion, culture, ethnicity, gender or race- we all have the right to a basic standard of living. where i stand, i still don’t know. i’ve been trying to answer this question for years, and whenever i think i find an answer i only get more frustrated and feel powerless. 

while staying in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia i’ve finished 2 books since departing on my plane from Phuket. and there was a purpose to me reading them. one called Private Dancer, about a Lonely Planet writer that shows up in Bangkok to revamp the current Thailand edition and falls in love with a bargirl, the other called Welcome to Hell, My Life Inside the Bangkok Hilton. you think you understand, you feel bad for the women and the sex trafficking in Thailand, but when you get here, especially Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket you have it thrown in your face. but i was approaching it as a Western. i was pitying them, when in fact the reality is quite different. 

a farang is a Westerner, and to a bar girl, a farang is only a source of money. now the typical story goes as follows- middle aged man, probably divorced or low on luck, comes to Thailand. more than likely the illusion of continuous sex, a bar scene, and an exotic Thai girl are enough to bring them there. you can swear up and down it’s different with you, but the bottom line is that it’s not. they are all the same, and they see dollar signs. you think they don’t like working in the bar, but that’s also not true- they love it. the thai husband/boyfriend, potential child and family are all in on it. the money you send them monthly is probably paying for their husband’s pick up and their family back in a village in Northern Thailand. they say they love you and have all the right gestures to show you that. the other bar girls know too, the joke is always on you. you convince yourself that they don’t like working in the bar, and when you go back to your country and send them money every month so they don’t have to work, you believe they aren’t. the reality is there’s probably a few farangs that are sending them money already. you are replaceable. you are an ATM. 

now the shame factor comes in. from a Western perspective, as a women, this is degrading. and how would a thai husband allow his wife, if he really loved her, to be hooking in a bar? but there is no shame in what they do, they send money back to their families and their villages. the villages who are proud to send their own to Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket. once a girl is old enough they’re knocking on the families door and asking to be taught how. they train them, prune them, prep them and send them off. a lot of them aren’t even legal. but here is the problem: Western ideals of love, sex and relationships do not apply in Thai culture. especially not in the bars. we started it during Vietnam, and the entire culture knows what it is. even the government is the same, they have many rules and restrictions but are ultimately lazy. they will harass you until you bribe them or pay them off. the justice system doesn’t work here and it never will. 

the illusion of this place is exactly that, an illusion. it’s beautiful and the people are great. as much as i question my own governments intentions, a smile can either be genuine or the latter. there is no in between. travel a bit and i can tell you, you look at your government differently. if you take anything to the Tourist Police they won’t help you unless you pay them, and if it’s between you and a Thai National, they will always put you away because you’re the one with the money. right and wrong doesn’t exist here, currency does. 

the more i observe the more attentive i become. if something goes wrong, i make sure i have enough money to pay my way out. i have to. because my word doesn’t exist here. the prison system is one of the most corrupt in the world. regardless, i love the people and the culture. it’s not their fault, it’s the governments, the mafias, the people that look the other way. but speaking out isn’t an option either. you pay if you have to, and i would if it came down to it. these are just examples of the things that expats can end up struggling with. and they are more real than i’ve ever thought.

now i’m not involved in any of it. but knowing the fate of a few expats is enough to make you realize where you’re line is. at the end of the day, this is a 3rd world country. a 3rd world country with beautiful beaches, smiling people, an interesting culture but a history that speaks louder than you know.

if you’ve never traveled to Thailand and intend to, read some books first. and be smart. because you ultimately will never be a local, no matter how long you stay. and i’ve seen it suck the life out of people. i’ve seen it jade people, and the more i read and experience it the more i begin to see through it all. but it’s a beautiful place if you work it right- something i fully intend on doing. my life is underwater anyways, the rest i keep close and separate.

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