Bangkok: City of Sex

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand although it appears otherwise. It is widespread and seems partly regulated. There are major hubs including Bangkok (PatpongNana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy), Pattaya, and Phuket, but prostitution exists throughout the Land of Smiles, even in the village. Thailand is widely known for its sex tourism with people traveling from all over the world to indulge. There are many Western men who have permanently relocated to Thailand – sexpats if you will.  The numbers are obscure, but in my research I’ve read that there are as many as 2.8 million sex workers in Thailand alone.  In a country of 65 million, that’s not a small drop in the bucket.


It is estimated that half a million Thais are currently living with HIV/AIDS.  Mechai Viravaidya, a man also known as “Mr. Condom,” has campaigned tirelessly to increase safe sex awareness through the use of condoms. He served as minister for tourism and AIDS prevention and founded the restaurant chain Cabbages and Condoms, which doles out free condoms to its patrons.


The Thais view prostitution as something that has always been and will always be a part of Thai culture.  Some believe that the existence of prostitution greatly reduces the incident of rape.  I can’t really get behind that ideology but there you have it. While married women are expected to be faithful, Thai men are thought to have greater sexual needs and therefore require an occasional “variation in partner.” Premarital, casual and extramarital sex with prostitutes is accepted and sometimes even encouraged for Thai men.

Prostitution in Thailand can be found in a number of venues including brothels, massage parlors, saunas, go-go bars, beer bars and karaoke clubs.


The number of child prostitutes in Thailand is currently unknown but ECPAT International estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 200,000. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute estimates that children make up 40% of all prostitutes in Thailand. If this is an accurate number, child prostitution here is staggering. Trafficking of women and children in Thailand is a serious problem. The following characteristics put children at high risk for trafficking:

  • Poverty
  • Ethnic hill tribe children: these children live in the border region of northern Thailand. They suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty and most of them lack citizenship cards. This means that they do not have access to health care or school, which limits their education and employment opportunities.
  • Sense of duty: according to traditional customs the first duty of a girl is to support her family in any way she can. Due to this sense of duty and familial obligation, many girls go into prostitution.

I toured the “entertainment” districts of Bangkok to see it firsthand. While seeing old, unattractive Western men with young, beautiful Thai women made me want to vomit, I tried to put my opinions aside.  Seeing some of the Thai girls strung out on drugs was the hardest. Thankfully, I did not see any children in the red light districts catering to the tourists.  I’ve read that most of the prostitutes working in the tourist areas are not trafficked; they are there of their own volition.  Without talking to the girls directly, I cannot know for sure.


Several “brokers” approached me and asked if I wanted to see the ping pong show or a live sex show.  I graciously declined.  I’m willing to try many things but I will not support the sex industry with even one dollar of my money if I can help it.  You can label me should you choose to.  I’m a woman, an American, a feminist, a humanist.  For me the personal is political. I cannot willingly and knowingly support an industry I find to be systematically oppressive and degrading.  Nor could I look into the faces of the girls without wondering what their life stories were.  Where they here intentionally or because they didn’t have better job opportunities?  Did they come from the village?  Were they educated?  Did they have aspirations outside of sex work?  The districts I toured mainly catered to the farangs (foreigners). Knowing there are brothels where women and girls are held captive and hidden from plain sight is perhaps the worst.  I know it’s all around me; I just can’t see it.


From a photography standpoint, the red light districts are fascinating.  The neon on the lanes (sois) is incredible. I could see pole dancers in bikinis from the street.  I wasn’t allowed to photograph the girls which is probably for the best.  I know there are ladyboy clubs too but I didn’t have enough time to explore.  Ladyboys are Thailand’s “third gender.”  Most of them are post-opt male to female (M2F) transsexuals.  While they are mostly accepted in Thai culture, they are often subjugated to sex work because they cannot find decent jobs outside the go-go bars.  The Thais define a woman as someone who can give birth so ladyboys look like ladies but their ID cards and passports say they are male.  This makes it difficult for them to travel and work.  While I understand that Buddhist culture is mostly accepting of all walks of life, I see now, too, that there are some contradictions to this when it comes to life as a ladyboy.  I don’t think it’s entirely easy for them.

bangkok 0709 retirement 004

Today, I am leaving Bangkok with my Thai and American friends. We will travel 1.5 hours out of the city to stay with in the Saw Wad Dee family’s village.  We will tour the floating markets which I am very excited to see and photograph. I’ve enjoyed my five days in Bangkok and the city was surprisingly comfortable to me, but I look forward to exploring other areas now.  My internet access over the next week may be limited but I’ll do my best to keep you updated.  Thank you for all your comments and feedback!  It is wonderful to hear from you all.


8 thoughts on “Bangkok: City of Sex

  1. Life here is exciting . . . but not as exciting as your life! Glad to hear things are good so far. We are busily preparing for the big move — it’s approaching panic time now!

    I hope you enjoy your time with your friends and am looking forward to reading more of your journey! Be careful!

  2. This is incredible!! My eyes well up over the amazing creativity and passion that my dear friend (you) has. You are an inspiration and I only hope that I can live vicariously through you and your great ambitions. I love the photos, particularly “Super Pussy”. Maybe that can be your next holloween costume upon returning to the US, that is if you decide to come back. I am looking forward to hearing about the floating towns.
    We are doing really well. The more research we do for our upcoming trip the more I learn about cultures that I had no idea existed. For starters there was a holocoust camp(namd Jasenavic)between bosnia and slovenia that killed more serbs, jews and gypsies than all the camps in Poland. I am hoping to at least stand on the grounds where it was. Unlike Auschwitz, people “survived” and there were structures left, in Jasonavic all structures and anything living was destroyed before international troops arrived.
    Noel we miss you tons. I thought of something really funny to tell you and went to call you…..Olive is also saving some lovely origami we made for your return. We watched Big Bird goes to China and talked about what you might be experiancing. She wanted to know if you could sing like a chinaman (even though you are in Thailand).
    Keep up the good work!! Find us a small child!!
    Much Love, Us

    1. So great to hear from you. I miss you and your family terribly. I’m surrounded by kids daily and I always think of Olive and what her reactions would be to things here. Squeeze that little electric boogaloo for me. I’m stoked for your upcoming travels and hope to hear from you while you’re out there. Keep me posted and find me a group of Roma. I will join them and renounce American life for good! Thailand has been incredible so far. Much easier than India. Their roads are nice even in remote areas. A/C is rampant and the electric is on 24/7. Thailand is definitely more developed than India in terms of infrastructure. Of course, India has a certain charm that I haven’t found here yet and I often miss the Hindu religion and culture. The Saa Wad Dee family has been incredible. I’ve really gotten to know them more deeply and we’ve spent a lot of time kicking back in their home village drinking whiskey and eating the best food of my life. When it comes to food, the Thais have it down. I’ve just returned from an island in the gulf. The Thai island boys were gorgeous. Holy shit. Lots of partying, drinking, dancing, swimming. It was nice for a bit but I can’t do the party scene for long. On Sunday, I head north to begin the next chapter. I’ll spend a week in Chiang Mai studying Thai language and then I head five hours north to Mae Sai to start my volunteer placement. It’s been great sightseeing and all but it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves. I’m eager, excited and full of anticipation. Day by day, everything has fallen into place. I’ve shed many tears of delight. The Thais are truly good natured, kind hearted, warm people. Do you think the Thai government would let an unmarried, unemployed American woman adopt a baby girl? I’ve got my eyes on a few. Love to you, Jaybird and Ovi. xoxo N

      1. Hello my sweet soul sister!! I am sending you easy transitional thoughts thru the border. What a blessing to start the whole adventure off with the Saa Wad Dee family. Are you ready for Thai language? How far away are you from Bangcok once you are in Mae Sai? I am so excited for you to start your volunteering there!! There has been alot in the news lately about Pakastan and infantacide probublems (of course it’s 9 out of 10 being a girl baby). Maybe thats your next adventure….ok maybe not. So we leave in 8 days and I can hardly beleive it. We are staying in a very famous hotel in Sarajevo that was untouched by the war because it was housing international journalists and photographers. Everything else in the city was ravaged in some way or another. Sarajevo should make for some pretty good photos because alot of the buildings were left and rebuilt around the destruction instead of completely torn down. Ok thats all for now. I can’t wait to hear from you again and we will be taking a laptop with us. J says congrats on everything that has happened so far for you and I say congrats to everything that will come! I gave a big squeeze to Olive from you and she said “Mommy your hugs aren’t as soft as Noel’s”. <3<3<3<3<3

      2. Helro sweetcakes!!! My hugs are much softer because I have a whole lotta cushion! Croatia is going to rock your socks girl. I used to have a Croatian friend in San Francisco. Hello Meditterranean! I bet the Croats are beautiful! Rick Steves wrote an amazing book called “Travel as a Political Act.” There is a great chapter on Bosnia/Herzegovina. You can get it at the public library should you have time. I highly recommend it. Check here: Be sure to get some Balkan gypsy music. I love the Roma culture!! Get some for me if you have extra cash and I’ll reimburse you. Seek out the Roma if you can. They are true gypsies of Central and Eastern Europe. They are originally of Indian descent and their beauty will blow your mind. I’ve often dreamt of leaving American culture behind to join them indefinitely. I’m so jealous. I wish I could join you and you could join me. It’s a big beautiful world!!! We are so fortunate to see it!

        I fly to Chiang Mai tomorrow. I’ll enroll in a Thai language intensive for a week. I doubt that will be enough time. Thai is goddamned hard but I need to get as much of the language as possible because there isn’t much English where I’m going. Thankfully all the volunteers speak English and the head coordinator is from Manchester. I’m happy you are getting out of Montucky for a bit of the winter. I wish you all safe and adventurous travels. I think of you often and miss our work out sessions. Expect a postcard soon dollface. Big love from me.

        P.S. Distance between Mae Sai and Bangkok is roughly 530 miles. I can take a train for $13 (12 hours) or a flight for $70 (1 hour). I’m opting for the latter even though it’s more money. Once I’m up north, I will not take any more flights.

  3. Noel, thank you for creating this wonderful & informative blog to bring us, your friends, along with you on your journey. I really love seeing your fab photographs along with your rich and insightful writings. I look forward to each entry…you rock girl!!

    1. You are so welcome Sher Bear!!!! Thanks for all the wonderful feedback; it’s nice to hear from my dear friends and readers. There is always so much to share. I could write an entry every day but I’d probably bore you. Thanks for being so supportive! I’m wearing the bracelet you gave me at the airport. It’s a nice connection to India via Montana…two places I hold in my heart. I think of you often and miss our long conversations and deep belly laughs. I wish I could transport each and everyone of you here to share this experience with me. Remember, should you sell that damn house of yours, the door to Thailand is always open. All visitors welcome. Take care girl!!!! Pray for smooth transitions and safety at the Burmese-Thai border. I’m about to be near one of the major border crossings for traffickers. I’m about to be a part of the abolitionist movement. Can’t. Fucking. Wait.

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