What Not To Do In Thailand

I would have liked the tall, red-headed American man who sang Johnny Cash songs with me as we hung out doing nothing on the island of Ko Phangan in the Gulf or Thailand.  The whole cast of characters at the resort was pretty good.  Except for this one thing.

Red-Headed Guy had a paid companion, a young Thai woman by his side.  And Handsome American and Skinny Brit showed up with “companions” too.  (I heard the one with the Brit more than I saw her. Either he was the world’s greatest lover or she thought that pretending he was would earn her a good tip.  Guess which one I think is more likely.)

The young woman with Red would say something to him quietly and he would laugh and shake his head and say, “I tell you.  They’re not stupid.”  No buddy, I didn’t think they were.  The imbalance I was worried about was not one of intellect (which could have been swinging the other way), it was one of power.

I fully admit that the women were beautiful, plentiful and available.  So maybe it wasn’t that surprising to see men partaking of one of Thailand’s most famous attractions.  But I was surprised that they didn’t seem to be the least bit ashamed or embarrassed by what they were doing.  Do these guys use prostitutes when they’re at home? Obviously, I have no way of knowing, but I’m betting that if they do, they’re more discreet about it.

Dave Phillips' photo of a Thai prostitute.

Sexual tourism in Thailand. Photo by Dave Phillips.

Perhaps this issue is not as black and white as I would like to think.  It’s conceivable that a few (very few) of these women might live better lives because of having this avenue available.   And there are probably a lot of relationships that are closer to the trading-sex-for-security end of the spectrum than any of us want to admit.  Indeed, if I thought these women had options and were making this career choice free of coercion, maybe I wouldn’t judge.  But I don’t think that.  And I don’t really believe that Red, Handsome or Brit think so either.  These women are not Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places. They’re not even Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

As travelers, we are the ones with the power.  We have the money to fly to the other parts of the world.  Having power also means, or should mean, having responsibility.  Do I find it a little fascinating that women can shoot darts out of their vaginas? Yes. But its not something I want to support so I didn’t go see it.  Sexual tourism means that women’s bodies are turned into a commodity – something people can make money on by controlling.  Sexual tourism could not exist without sexual tourists.  It’s there because of us.

To me this seems like a pretty straight forward case for applying the Golden Rule.  If you would not want your sister/daughter/mother/child put in this position, then don’t put someone else’s sister/daughter/mother/child there.  Simple as that.

Hats off to all of the western men (and there are a lot of them) who travel to Thailand and do not participate in “sexual tourism”.  I hope Red, Handsome and Skinny Brit will reconsider before their next trip there.


Published in Culture and People, Thailand

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Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.


  1. Jeff

    I only recently arrived in Thailand for an extended stay to do some work and writing and this is an issue I am grappling with. I completely agree with your sentiments and I have also met many foreign guys that seem completely fine to spend time with yet seem to show a similar attitude as your trio. In fact, it seems that invariably conversations steer toward discussions of Thai women despite no inclination on my part. It’s as if every guy is assumed to be part of the “club” and will clearly understand and welcome such discussions (and the inevitable “tips”). It actually makes me uncomfortable, but the other guys seem to show no inhibition, moral hesitancy or any other form of restraint, as if the situation is completely normal and acceptable. I find the entire situation sad, so much so that I even hesitated for years to visit Thailand exactly because of the sex tourism reputation. Now that I am here, I find it a great country with lovely people, yet I still feel always somewhat uncomfortable walking around, wondering if everyone (foreigner and Thai alike), just assumes I am another sex tourist.

  2. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    As a man of a certain age, I felt quite uncomfortable in Pattaya. The saddest for me was seeing a 70-ish year-old man on the beach being helped along by a teenage Thai boy. That said it all for me.

  3. OCDemon

    Same issue in Eastern Europe, though not as pronounced. There were a lot of mail-order brides and other arranged meetups between Westerners, Ukrainian girls, and a translator. So very awkward. I would think so, anyway. But I think as certain economies develop, the income dichotomy will shrink, and these awkward moments will be…somewhat…less frequent.

  4. Jennifer Choban Post author

    Thank you for your comments. Reading them made me realize that as a woman I was spared the conversations you describe, Jeff. And was also spared being approached as a potential client.
    OC, you’re probably right that less income disparity would mean fewer women (or children) being compelled into the business (the supply side), but it seems to me if all travelers had higher standards of behavior we could put a quick end to it by removing the demand.

    Thanks again for being willing to share on a touchy subject.

  5. Jo (The Blond)

    It’s a blind circle, I think. The girls come from poor backgrounds and don’t have any other support, so they go out on the streets and work in brothels. Plus, their families usually support them in what they do as they are the only source of income.
    And tourists? well, as long as there’s prostitution, there will be men willing to pay for those women’s services.

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