Mae Sai, Oh My

I’ve finally arrived in Mae Sai!  I took a bus from Chiang Mai and arrived about four hours later.  I had a window seat in the VIP upper deck complete with a recliner chair, foot-rest and individual a/c.  Eat your heart out, Greyhound. Mae Sai is the most northern city in Thailand, an authentic Thai city bordering Burma.  There were several police check-points along the way. The police would come onto the bus and ask to see people’s tickets and/or documents. Mostly, they are asking Burmese passengers. They have never once asked to see mine.  The police have guns here – something I’ve haven’t seen anywhere else in Thailand, but I do not feel unsafe.  I’m in a border region now and there are tensions between the Thai and Burmese governments.  Just as when I traveled to Belfast in 1997 when tensions were high between the Sinn Féin and Northern Ireland, I feel as if the political problems do not involve me and I’m treated as such.  I do not profess to understand the complexities of Thailand’s relationship with Burma, but I know it changes daily and the border is often closed as a result.  Burma has suffered a military regime and internal conflict since 1948.  The conflict is largely between the Burmese government and the ethnic groups that live throughout the country. Opium production is widely rampant and the Thai government has done a lot to eradicate its production and distribution in Thailand.  For more on the ethnic minority groups and the impacts of their migration to Thailand, see my earlier post “Ethnic Minority Hill Tribes.”


I’m surrounded by mountains, tropical forest, and dense vegetation.  The plant life alone is diverse, tropical, green and lush.  The air is cleaner and the mountains are breathtaking. I can even see the stars!  My volunteer coordinator retrieved me from the bus station, set me up in a resort for a few nights while I await my apartment – it will be ready on February 1st.  My resort is off the beaten track.  I have a private balcony overlooking the mountains, which are much closer to me than they were in Chiang Mai. Spoken English is pretty wide-spread in the touristy areas of Thailand.  Outside of them, not so much.  I can tell I’m in for it now! Tourists typically only venture to Mae Sai to do visa runs or shop in the border markets – most don’t stick around.  The only Westerners that stay for any length of time are those who are doing what I’m doing – volunteering or doing paid work with NGOs.

There are many things to love about Thailand but the music, I have to say, is not one of them.  The streets are dotted with bars, restaurants, hotels and massage parlors.  Only here many of the massage parlors are obviously venues to purchase sex.  In Bangkok, sex is highly visible in the red light districts.  In Chiang Mai it is the same and if you don’t venture out of the Old City, you won’t see it at al.  Prostitution is everywhere in this country.  It is highly visible if you are looking for it yet it can remain largely hidden if you aren’t.  Therein lies the contradiction. I desperately want to venture into the border brothel areas to see them with my own eyes and talk with the girls directly, but I need more Thai under my belt.  I also want to be culturally sensitive, not put myself in danger, nor compromise the work DEPDC is doing in this area.

My work at DEPDC will primarily be on the prevention side of trafficking – providing education programmes and vocational training for migrant youth. I am incredibly excited to be here.  I can’t say for sure how things will go over the next few months and I’m not idealistic enough to believe that DEPDC is without its flaws, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves to learn and do everything I can while I’m here.

Mae Sai is not Chiang Mai.  It is not a quaint walking city with Western restaurants, coffee shops and wide-spread English.  The signs are in Thai and many people do not speak English. Mae Sai is really spread out, a city existing along a three-mile stretch of four-lane super highway with no decipherable city center other than the border area.  I will definitely need a motorbike while living here so I can get around.  According to the guidebooks, the population of Mae Sai is approximately 21,000.  Unofficially, the population is much higher, with many undocumented Burmese migrants living and working here.

I had a tour of the DEPDC  last night.  It is a large compound that provides many things to this community: accommodation for underprivileged children, free education and English courses to youth ages 5 to 20, a youth leadership program, a local radio station, a 24-hour child help line, vocational training, as well as education into the dangers of human trafficking.  It also serves as a community center.  There are classrooms, an international department, TV and radio stations, a library, security guards and a large open field for physical activity.  The children at DEPDC performed a hip-hop show last night.  The boys were ages 9-14, most of them stateless Burmese, all incredibly cute and talented.

It’s difficult to obtain accurate statistics when it comes to prostitution as it is technically illegal yet ubiquitous throughout the country. It seems to run through every fiber of society even down to the smallest village. It’s like a cancer that plagues the region. In Thai culture, the duty of providing for the family falls on the girls – many do what they have to do in order to adhere to their familial obligation. Certainly there is a large number of Thai women who become prostitutes voluntarily. And then there are those who are doing it involuntarily. It’s a highly complex subject. There are many factors involved and there are many who profit from it – border police, immigration officials, touts, traffickers, brokers, brothel managers – making it difficult to combat effectively.  Sex is cheap in Thailand and available all over. Local and international demand drives the industry. Where there is money to be made, there are those who will fight to keep the industry alive. Add corruption and bribery to the game and you’ve got a bloody mess. Drug trafficking is a highly profitable market too.  But a drug can only be sold once. A human can be sold numerous times, making it incredibly more profitable.  Capitalism and globalization play a significant economic part as well.  To successfully combat trafficking, we need a world-wide web of individuals doing their part – NGOs working on the grassroots level serving individual communities, an international agency like UNIAP monitoring the global industry, political action from governments, criminal prosecution of human rights violators, and perhaps most importantly, the creation of legal, sustainable, economic opportunities for impoverished and stateless individuals so that they may provide for their families and not be seduced or coerced into exploitative labour.


17 thoughts on “Mae Sai, Oh My

  1. Hey Noel…we did out border runs at Mai Sei. I am so excited for you. Tis true, you are right, right in the middle of it. The border regions are ALWAYS the most gamey and especially that one. Here I would see girls lined up in “no man’s land”, the walking distance between the countries. Here I saw young, young children *6 or 7) huffing gas…my heart broke in Mai Sei and I left a peice there…..I am so excited for you to be there and see it for your passion will be ignited oh so greatly. As you will learn I am sure, this region is certainly a hotspot because of the all the of the tribal folks, and the burmese that are fleeing their terror. As far as the Thai officials stopping the bus, I remember that happening, but am pretty sure they are looking for undocumented minority peoples that don’t have many rights in Thailand…a huge, huge problem the tribal people face…without documents they are not even suppose to leave their villages. I do hope much has changed in the last several years that I have been in Thailand, but the situation towards the minorities is not a good one and the gov. happens to be a key player.
    Love to you my friend…how courageous you are. I love what you are doing. Thank you.

  2. That’s my girl! Bringing “So You Think You Can Dance” to the masses! I wish Mary Murphy was with you–she could go and scream at the customers at the Happy Massage and scar them for life.

  3. POWERFUL, Noel. So do they have some solid economic opportunities in place yet? If so, what are they? What could be available to these women? I’ve seen a few “fair trade” shops selling goods made by third world artisans open up here in AK that last couple years….do they really help?

    1. That’s a tough one. Even if there are economic opportunities available, if you do not have an ID card, you are considered stateless. This means you cannot work legally, nor do you have access to education or healthcare. There is farming, weaving, textiles, legitimate massage, food carts, selling fresh vegetables at markets, teaching, rice harvest, etc. Northern Thailand does not have a bustling economy like Central and Southern Thailand. It’s incredibly poor up here. I think fair trade shops are great if they pay the supplier a decent wage. Once those goods have been sold in America, the price has tripled. Do the women who make the goods ever see that? What’s proven to be better and more effective is microlending. If you can give women small loans to start their own businesses (they can be anything from laundry services to small convenient stores to hair salons), the money then stays in the community. The Burmese issue is one of statelessness and lack of basic human rights because of this statelessness. Even with education and prevention of sex trafficking, what can a woman or girl do if they cannot work legal, legitimate jobs?

  4. Now your adventure really begins. I did not know that the city you are staying in so widely supports prostitution. What is the local government stance on this situation? Are many of these massage parlors run by bosses or pimps – much like the states?

    I’m sure that you will be exposed to all levels of the worlds oldest profession. I’m shocked at how young these girls are and how the government turns a blind eye. I doubt any of them have the attitude of Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver.

    1. I’m not sure if we can accurately say that 70% of the wealth generated here comes from prostitution. I think it’s too hard to find accurate statistics when the market is so underground even though it’s in plain view. Migrant work is wide-spread too so it’s hard to say. I don’t know if I’m drawn to areas of conflict or what but between Ireland/Northern Ireland in the 90s when the troubles were in full effect, and India/Pakistan and now Thailand/Myanmar, there is something to be said about border regions and the many social, cultural and political issues that arise between them. It’s fascinating to be here and learn as much as I can from both sides. There are so many Burmese in northern Thailand. Many of the people I’ve grown to love are Burmese. Can’t wait to actually go into Burma which I’ll do in early March. Must steer clear of the men with semi-automatic weapons! Their government is essentially a military regime. Not to be fucked with. My gender really benefits me here in that I can walk around red light districts and be left alone and the police never look at me at checkpoints.

      There are many who profit from prostitution – the buyer (or broker), the police (bribes), immigrant officials (more bribes), the third-party buyer, the brothel owner. I think a brothel can be run by either a madam or a pimp. The Thai government will do brothel raids at times but I have never seen one. Prostitution is illegal here but you wouldn’t know it. The Thais have always treated sex as business. How can they get rid of the very industry that drives sex tourism and contributes largely to their economy? Big money in human enslavement. Some prostitutes go into sex work voluntarily but without talking to the women directly you cannot tell who was sold and who was not. I wish I had the stats on that.

  5. “A human can be sold numerous times, making sex trafficking more profitable.” So true and so very sad.

    You are very brave! Kuddos to you! Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Seema! Perhaps I’m brave or maybe I’m just passionate about the abolition of human enslavement. Either way, I’m glad I’m here doing what I want to be doing. This experience has definitely made its mark on me and I can say with certainty that I don’t want to leave this type of work anytime soon. Thanks for reading!

    1. I have to agree with Mick. This is the most posy, self-regarding, naive bunch of claptrap I have read in my life. Go back home where you hopefully have a contextual clue.

      1. I don’t know who Mick is or who you are for that matter. And you can take your juvenile negativity elsewhere. You clearly don’t understand human trafficking or Mae Sai. Perhaps you’ve never lived here as I have. So I suggest you do your own research and grab yourself a clue, ignoramous.

  6. OK we all know that men are mostly to blame for the exploitation of women, but I speak no word of a lie, that I have encountered female sex tourists in Thailand. I have bumped into a few foriegn women in Northen Thailand that have been sleeping with 16/17 year old Burmese boys!!!! Just goes to show you that some women are just as bad as some men!!! You also see many ugly femalle volunteers in Maesot, married to, or srewing young handsome Burmese guys.

    1. Mary,

      Thank for posting this. The issue is a complicated one for sure. Are men and women, boys and girls exploited for sex and labour? No doubt. Do women constitute the majority of the demand when it comes to sex? Absolutely. Have I heard of accounts where women buy sex? Of course, but they have been few and far between. I’ve heard that lesbians purchase sex in Pattaya but I have not been there and I’ve never seen a female customer in any red light district I have visited in Southeast Asia. Not to say it doesn’t happen, just to say I haven’t seen it and I don’t hear much about it. Bottom line: woman are not innocent in any of this. Whether they sell their daughters, manage brothels, exploit minors, or purchase minors for sex or other forms of exploitative labour, they are often directly involved or complicity involved.

  7. I think Noel, the best you can do is to start a business and employ locals and contribute to the society that way, as far as coming into a foreign area and pontificating, that does not help anyone in the long run

    1. Lochiel,

      I don’t believe working in NGO management for three years with Thai organizations, founded and run by Thais, who define their own social problems and solutions is just pontification. I will say it again so that perhaps people will hear it. We live in the world and we have an obligation to make the world a better place. This idea of nationality is very limiting and separatist. I do not subscribe to it. This is not to say we should impose our cultural values and standards onto others. Quite the opposite actually. We should be fighting for justice, equality and opportunity for all regardless of nationality, geography or ethnicity.

      Thanks for stopping by. Come again!

  8. Ho’ing is a fact of life in Thailand.Thai woman,the real ones,are pretty good people.I was a US Marine their in Trat.,by SokSan refugee camp in the early 80’s.Back when the Kymer-
    Rouge were a big problem and the Vietnamese had taken over Cambodia.. I had a mia muang (1st or boss wife) a MIA Noir(Second wife) and a Gik(Female sex friend) .We all lived together. The thing Im trying to make clear is THAI woman run things.Its a matriarchal
    society.The men think they run things but houses,land,etc pass down thru the WOMAN.
    Now Im a conservative person.I was back then to. The woman came up with the idea of
    multiple partners cause they were all friends.It’s part of their culture. Needless to say the
    mothers do work the daughters like slaves and sell them into prostitution.Its very common
    in the Issan part of Thailand.Less so in Chiamg Mai and more prevalent near the Burma
    border near Chiang Rai..Once you hit the golden triangle its universal.Same in Burma.
    That’s a matriarchal society to.I use a very simple adage when judging people: Walk a mile
    in their shoes ! Believe me you would turn to prostitution to if your kids were going hungry
    and you hadn’t ate in a week !

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