Sex tourism in Thailand: What where and why

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(Last updated on: 02/04/2020)

Sex tourism is something that happens around the world. A potentially unfortunate byproduct of the tourism industry as a whole, it’s particularly prevalent in Thailand. In this post I will delve into the what, where and why of sex tourism in Thailand.

The scale of sex tourism in Thailand

A major part of sex tourism is prostitution. This has been common in Thailand for centuries – as far back as the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767), prostitution has been documented. It was legal and taxed then, but has been illegal since 1960.

Statistics for sex tourism in Thailand are hard to come by. Estimates suggest there are anywhere between 250,000 and 2 million sex workers in the country. Global black market database Havocscope puts the number at the lower end of that scale, with the equivalent of $6.4 billion being brought in. But other surveys and organisations place the number much closer to the 2 million mark.

Either way, sex tourism in Thailand is a big deal. It is said, though these statistics are difficult to confirm, that 60% of visitors are male – with 70% of these males being sex tourists. Because sex work and prostitution was legal in Thailand until the early 60s, it was a popular place for it. And just because there are laws in place now, the sex industry is something people still associate with the country; it’s a vicious circle.

Read also: Sex tourism explained: What, why and where

There are not always a lot of jobs for women in the country – this is a big part of why sex tourism in Thailand is so popular. Working in the sex industry pays considerably more than many jobs in Thailand, so it is no surprise that many women seek to work in this industry.

Prostitution in Thailand

As mentioned, until 1960 prostitution was legal in Thailand. Brothels were run by the state. Everything changed and there are now three different acts that given prostitution and sex tourism in Thailand.

Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996)

This places the responsibility on the ‘client’ .Those found to be soliciting sex or sexual activities are fined, and if doing so in a “prostitution establishment” can face a jail term. The law is not usually enforced in private places, but owners of prostitution businesses received heavier penalties too.

The act has a particular focus on child prostitution/trafficking. Punishments vary, getting worse as the age of the sex worker gets younger. Traffickers themselves receive heavier fines and long prison terms, too.

Penal Code Amendment (1997)

This act punishes the sex workers themselves. It does not label prostitution as illegal, but states that anyone living off money earned by prostitution will be fined and placed in prison. This extends to people living with prostitutes, receiving money from prostitutes, or helping them settle disagreements with customers.

Entertainment Places Act (1966)

According to this, owners of certain establishments are responsible for prostitution occurring on or within their premises. They are criminally liable. This act also states that brothel keeping, profiting from prostitution and also solicitation are illegal – however, this behaviour is tolerated because a lot of the time law officials have financial interest in local prostiution.

Thai brides

Also known as ‘mail-order brides’, Thai brides are women who work with international marriage agencies. These companies serve to introduce men and women from different countries, for the purpose of marriage. According to some, brides date back to the 1800s. A lot of these companies are based where there is a lot of poverty, and many of the women feel there is no other choice.

It is a popular practice in Thailand. There are, especially for women, a lot of issues with unemployment in many areas of Asia including Thailand. For this reason, many Thai women enter the mail-order industry so they can send money home for their families, or have their family sponsored for immigration. 

A simple Google-search will reveal hundreds of sites offering Thai brides. Potential customers – or husbands – can browse profiles, get advice on how to choose the best bride and more.

This clip from a Louis Theroux documentary sees a man meeting women at a Bangkok marriage agency.

Sex shows in Thailand

A popular part of sex tourism in Thailand is the sex shows. There are the Ping Pong Shows, where women on stage will use their (strong!) pelvic muscles to ‘blow’ objects – traditionally ping pong balls – out of their vagina. This dates back to the mid 1970s. The shows are technically illegal, according to the laws discussed above, but as the demand is so high the Thai law officials turn a blind eye. There are other live sex shows, but the Ping Pong Shows are the most popular.

Read also: Sex tourism in The Gambia

Bangkok’s Red Light District(s)

There are several areas within Bangkok that make up the city’s Red Light District. They are adjacent to one another, and populated by sex workers who have moved from rural areas to find work under the bright lights of the city. This makes Bangkok a major hotspot for sex tourism in Thailand. The three main districts are as follows…

Patpong

A major player within sex tourism in Thailand is Go-Go culture. Patpong is where that all started. There are so many Go-Go bars within this area of Bangkok, with some in plain sight and some hidden behind doors. With neon lights galore and its very own night market, Patpong is a vibrant part of the city.

Nana Plaza

Since the early 1990s, there has been a night market at Patpong. Its popularity has helped sex tourism in Thailand soar. With the feeling of a city that never sleeps came something else: Nana Plaza. The three-storey building is described as the world’s largest adult playground, with short-time hotels (rented out by the hour, for sex) and over 30 bars.

Soi Cowboy

This is where you’ll find even more Go-Go bars. Despite being a relatively short street, Soi Cowboy is extremely important for sex tourism in Thailand: it is home to over 40 Go-Go bars. Similarly to the area of Patpong, you will be surrounded by neon lights, friendly staff and average drink prices.

Phuket Go-Go bars

You will also find Go-Go bars in Phuket. Patong Beach and the surrounding areas are said to be safer examples of sex tourism in Thailand. Most Go-Go bars are situated on and around Bangla Road in Patong, and the shows are not particularly male-orientated.

Pattaya Walking Street

This is the biggest and busiest party hotspot in the country, and therefore a prevalent place for sex tourism in Thailand. With Go-Go bars – over 80 of them! – and ladyboys, plenty of side streets and a lot of public transport, it’s easy to see why Waking Street is so popular.

Walking Street

So there you have it – a bit of background about what sex tourism in Thailand is and why it happens, as well as where you can find it.

For more information on how the sex tourism tourism industry operates worldwide, check out my post sex tourism explained.

1 Comment
  1. Samantha Williams

    oh, that’s really amazing information I never been in Thailand but also not familiar with that sex tourism, You rightly said that most of the tourists come for the sex, As here in Uk I have been working as Newcastle Escorts and most of the clients we meet are the foreigners and they are good in nature. By the way nice blog post.

    Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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