| Checking out the sights
At 1.30 am, the humid December night is still young in Thailand’s exotic Pattaya beach. Two middle-aged Americans, retired soldiers, walk down the beach in the company of four petite teenaged Thai girls. One can hear occasional bursts of laughter in between sips from cans of chilled beer.
On the streets of Pattaya, uncontrollable crowds of teenagers jive to foot-tapping music. Inside the dimly lit bars overlooking the beach, foreign tourists wait. Thai girls, usually in grubby blue jeans with leather belts and soiled T-shirts, jostle and giggle to draw the attention of foreigners.
Business continues to be done inside the pubs with names like “Pent House Pub”. The only odd people in the milieu appear to be the old Thai women, counting cash at the counter and raising the occasional eyebrow at the way foreign tourists, dropping all vestiges of reservation, openly hug the girls in the bar.
The euphoria of the tourists in the all-night bars is in sharp contrast to the tension in the police department. The anger of a section of the population over prostitution in Thailand and the recent bomb attack in Bali have made the otherwise relaxed police jittery. Two police jeeps continue to patrol the roads long after a minor scuffle between two European tourists has been resolved.
The tourists, however, seem undeterred. “Life, Buddhism tell us, is the first cause of death. Let’s enjoy life before bracing for death,” says Isaac Brown, a 57-year old widower from Britain who has decided to spend his Christmas in Pattaya.
Around 3.30 am, the traffic finally begins to thin on the streets of one of the biggest sex tourism markets of the world, as the taxies begin to ferry the tourists and their newly-acquired girlfriends to hotels which rent out rooms on an hourly basis.
Sex tourism in Pattaya fetches Thailand an estimated 450 million baht annually. This has also made beach resorts in the country infamous for their links with paedophiliacs, go-go bars and the prostitution of teenaged boys and girls. While the tourism department advertises “a city with a magic beach”, cynical tourists call it “a city of HIV”.
The Thailand government is now struggling to project an alternative image of the country — as the land of great natural beauty, Buddhist monastries, virgin beach resorts like Jomtien beach, Kohlarn beach and so on. Vying for the tourist trade with the likes of Malaysia and Singapore, Thailand is finding its image as a cheap destination for sex tourism quite damaging. The governor of the tourism authority of Thailand, Pradech Phayakvichien, seeks to promote Thailand as a “family destination encouraging more female visitors”. He feels that the country needs to develop its cultural tourism and launch campaigns to discourage tourists from visiting centres of prostitution.
Between such pious intentions and the actual reality there lies a huge gap. Is the Thailand government then fighting a losing battle' Social action groups in Pattaya which care for a large number of orphans have been making vain attempts to fight teenage prostitution. Their attempts to educate the public and tourists about the difference between the illusion and reality have not made a difference. The glitzy illusions continue to stick to the industry, says Maria Sitwell, an activist against sex tourism, adding that the history of Thailand casts a lengthening shadow over the practice.
Sex tourism in Thailand has a long and tortuous history. A low male-to-female ratio (75 per cent of the residents of Pattaya are women) is the reason behind the high incidence of polygamy in Thai society. The practice was banned in 1935, but reportedly, polygamy still continues to be practised clandestinely in the villages.
In the Sixties, when the American military base was extended upto Thailand during the Vietnam war, the sex trade involving local women and GIs gained momentum. It certainly gave a boost to the economy of Pattaya, then no more than a small fishing harbour. Soon sex trade came to figure prominently in private tourism campaigns.
That nothing but sex will sell in Thailand no longer holds true, argue tourist officers of the Thailand government. They point to the encouraging crowd at the Mekong river’s Naga Fireball — a natural phenomenon which occurred in October this year and where bubbles of light in the shape of egg-shells could be seen shooting into the air from the Mekong river, about 490 kilometres from Bangkok, and disappearing into the dark sky — in support of their argument. Adding to the wonder of this natural occurrence was the fact that it was linked to a Buddhist lore which predicted the emergence of the serpent king. Locals spotted huge snakes hissing in the river. According to an official estimate, 100,000 people thronged the river bed even though there are not many good hotels in the area. Even now, when the fireballs can no longer be seen, religious tourists continue to crowd the area. This has opened up a new vista of religious tourism for the government to explore.
The development of this alternative tourism, of course, depends on encouragement from religious tourists. The Thai government’s relentless efforts to improve ties with both India and Sri Lanka — the offer to host peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for example — are expected to result in trade and tourism agreements. Even if a small part of the Buddhist tourist trade from Sri Lanka could be diverted to Thailand, it would provide an enormous boost to religious tourism in the country.
There have been sporadic and low-key attempts by cultural groups to lure tourists away from sex tourism. In a show popularly called the Aal Kazar Show, attractive Thai girls bring out the diversity of folk songs through puppetry, using spectacular sets and special effects. After the show, the performers come out of the hall to be photographed with tourists. Back in the bus, the tour guide informs tourists: “All those beauties who you thought are irresistible are not women: they are lady boys (transvestites).”
Then there is a group of tour operators which projects Kohalanta beach as “Thailand’s magic island without sex tourism”. The Lanta village, with hundred-year old Chinese houses built near the sea, offers peace and rest, but no sex. However, these alternative voices are most often drowned in the powerful campaign promoting sex tourism throughout the country. The tourism industry knows nothing attracts the dollar better than sex. Laws like the 1996 Thailand Prostitution Suppression Act has not detered the industry. Sadly, thus, the strobes of light in the sea-side bars look set to continue to flash for some more time to come.