By 3 AM the hookers lose their subtlty: a tap on the elbow, a jerking nod down the road. I smile and shake my head. They move off, tired but efficient.
We wander down Khao San Road, vaguely trying to find one last good bar and keeping our eyes out for (white) girls to flirt with. As we stroll, the fizzling third act of the Friday night sex trade plays out around us, and we watch it with a morbid fascination. The uniform is uniform: unbelievably short shorts or ass-hugging skirts, sleeveless tops tight over often enhanced chests, tall strappy heels and fine little handbags, just enough makeup to not be classy. The signs are telltale when you know what to look for, but many girls Western and Thai are out on Fridays in attire just a few degrees more conservative. The truth comes out in body language, however. The way they roam, eyes reading the crowd for marks, or sit expectantly, waiting for the inevitable approach. The way they lean into their prospective clients as flirtation turns to business. Light touches to the forearm or lower back or, later, up and around the neck. Any affection is suspect. I simply can’t believe that so many white guys would have wooed themselves Thai girlfriends legitimately.
Much of the sex trade takes place in more sophisticated ways, though hot-lines or websites or any number of hypermodern platforms. You have them sent to your hotel room, rather than picking them up on the streets. But those arrangements are made earlier in the day, and by this late hour the prostitutes are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for business that will at least help them break even. As the streets empty, an arguably playful game becomes predatory. The guys get drunker, and the girls get less choosy, not to mention briefer with their sales pitches. Everyone gets more desperate. Western men hoping to win a Western girl for the night will take a Thai hooker as a consolation prize.
In a thumping, buzzing club green lasers fan out over the revelers and silhouette the exultant, smoke shrouded DJ. Bodies bob in rhythm to the bass, but no one is dancing on the dance floor. Everyone in the room is too busy either keeping their belongings in their pockets or bent low and close over girls, slyly negotiating the price.
“What percentage of these girls in minidresses and six-inch heels are hookers, do you think?” I ask Greg, shouting over the music.
“Oh, one hundred percent,” he replies immediately. I was going to be generous and say 90%, but Greg has been around here longer than me and probably knows better.
“And what percentage of these same girls are actually originally men?” I ask.
Greg thinks for a moment. “About thirty-five, I’d say. You have to watch the hands and chins.” Sounds about right to me.
During the day the crowds obscure things a bit, but still sex tourists looking for the “girlfriend experience” stick out like bruised thumbs. Guys in their mid-fifties shuffle around the mall in flat-billed caps and flashy Nike kicks, an impossibly proportioned 20 year old Thai girl on their arm. Chubby, sweaty British guys with bad haircuts, shorts, ratty tennis shoes and pulled up athletic socks are led from jewelry stall to sandal stall by gorgeous guides. The girls giggle and take john’s hand in their practiced way, playing the role and putting at ease until maybe the men actually fool themselves into believing in a love story of piercing foreign beauty seeing the charm through unappreciated exteriors — but I doubt it. Along the way the men are unsurprisingly milked for gifts and drinks and patronage at businesses that will later pass on a kickback. The industry is very sophisticated like that: bars, restaurants, hotels, pimps, police and all must each be sated with a sizable slice. Sex tourism provides some 3% of Thailand’s GDP, and Thailand is not a small or unproductive nation.
Official government policy censors any references in movies and television to the existence of prostitution or sexual promiscuity in Thailand. And of course prostitution and drugs are nominally illegal. Still, in many of the most touristed areas the rule of law curves to accommodate the vices of Westerners. I’ve heard that on the islands vendors sell psychedelic mushroom shakes (all clearly labeled) in broad daylight. Corruption is often happily accepted as an appropriate element of Thai society, even by the citizens who suffer from it. My host in Khorat explains cheerfully that I can borrow her truck, no problem, because if I get pulled over for not having a proper drivers license all I have to do is give the cops 100 baht.
Sex with prostitutes doesn’t appeal to me, personally. I understand the titillation and the ease of satisfaction, but I’m not good at letting human beings be my vices. And high school STD assemblies left a deep, nerves-twinging impression on me, and I’ve read enough about the HIV rates in Southeast Asia to be worried. Still, I must admit that many of these girls are genuinely beautiful. Not all, but many. I wonder what sorts of regimens they are put through to maintain their figures. Some are model pretty, and I suspect could be models if they had lighter skin.
The working girls don’t often approach me. One or two, late in the evening. But most look me over and can see that I’m not buying. Oddly enough, during the day I get stopped by every Indian guy trying to drag pedestrians into overpriced tailors for lousy Italian suits. Are my temptations that obvious?
After one night of beer, football and people watching on Khao San Road, I feel at once newly enlightened about human nature and colossally ignorant. The scale of the sex trade in Thailand staggers me, even just based on this brief but vivid glimpse. I don’t know how one could begin to tackle an issue of this size and complexity. Maybe the key is to be like the girls themselves: efficiently approaching one troubled soul at a time. Even when you are tired. Even long past midnight.