Sea, sand and sun are what most people expect when they come to visit Pattaya. But one thing that makes Sin City so infamous is its wealth of nightlife and entertainment venues. For this beachfront city, the day seems to stretch on endlessly into the wee hours.
Visitors swarm the streets of Pattaya day and night. Among the most popular tourist spots is Walking Street, where at night the darkness is lit up by flashing signs and booming sounds from the hundreds of bars and restaurants in the area.
Though local police and government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of the “ladies of the night”, men can be routinely seen descending on Walking Street en masse with one thing on their mind — the goal of finding a lady to keep them company throughout their stay in Pattaya.
Bar girls and sex workers have a visible presence in Pattaya. Women and girls from neighbouring countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar have made up a large slice of the sex worker demographic for as long as people can recall.
The number of expats moving to Thailand, legally or not, is on the rise, with many opting to settle in Sin City. Some of these newcomers have joined the sex work scene there. For example, residents are now accustomed to seeing Russian women lining the bars on Walking Street and pick-up areas on the beach.
Among the most recent round of newcomers are some women from Africa. Talking to them, they confirm that Pattaya really is a transnational sex work hub. “It started off with Asian girls from Cambodia and Laos, then white girls from Russia, and now we have black girls from Uganda,” said Supa, a 46-year-old Pattaya resident. “As a resident who has seen this city grow since 40 years ago, I have to say that the city is now out of control.”
NEW IN TOWN
Last week Pattaya City police arrested 12 women from Uganda on Walking Street, charging them with advertising for sex work. As per procedure, the police made them pay a fine and then freed them.
Sex work is no new phenomenon in Pattaya, but it’s only recently that the police have aggressively tried to stamp out its seedy reputation. The efforts are in response to media reports of the city’s out-of-control sex work scene.
The main beachfront road, a key sex worker hotspot, is now regularly lined with police cars. Police have also set up desks along Walking Street to scare sex workers away.
Surang Janyam, director of the Service Workers In Group Foundation (Swing), has sought to improve sex workers’ livelihoods, as well as promote safe sex, for decades now. She regularly visits the areas in Pattaya most frequented by sex workers.
She attests to the latest trend of African women coming to Pattaya for sex work. Although they are new faces, the arrival of these women could have been predicted, she says.
“I usually see a lot of black ladies hanging out on Sukhumvit in the Nana area of Bangkok,” Ms Surang said. “But when I came for field work and research in Pattaya last year, I was a bit surprised to see them there.
“Ever since the country was taken over by the military, many things have been made stricter, and the sex worker control laws are among them. I was surprised to see [African women] in Pattaya at many local bars and the beach, but I’m not surprised by the reasons behind their decisions since they feel safe and can earn a living there.”
LAND OF OPPORTUNITIES
Besides being the land of smiles, cheap beer and affordable living, Pattaya is known as the land of opportunities by many outsiders. A Cambodian sex worker based at a bar on Walking Street told Spectrum that she came to the city to earn a living five years ago. Pattaya improved her life, she says, and she wants to remain there for as long as possible.
“I started off as a waitress at one restaurant in Pattaya,” explained one Cambodian sex worker who wanted to remain anonymous. “Then my friend told me I could earn more money by entertaining tourists and I began doing that. I don’t really care much about how I manage to make money as long as I have the opportunity to do it. That is more than enough for me. Back at home, I can’t even earn 10% of what I am earning here.
“I notice a lot more black girls these days but none of us get intimidated by this. After all, we also came here to find an opportunity to make a better living. Their target customers are different from us too. White men tend to come for someone more like me, Arab and Indian men tend to go for black girls like them.”
Findings in Ms Surang’s research indicate that most foreign sex workers in Pattaya come from Cambodia and Vietnam, while Lao and Myanmar women dominate the sex work scene in Bangkok. The latter is due to the fact that Thai men generally have a preference for lighter skin.
Thai sex workers who save up enough money can go abroad for their profession to places like Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
“Many people may feel like Pattaya is just Sin City, but for many sex workers this is a safe space for them,” Ms Surang explained.
“Many African ladies feel like they are not safe to work in Bangkok. So they come to Pattaya where there are a lot more tourists and it is less strict than in Bangkok.
“Wouldn’t you go where you think it is better for you to make more money? I never interviewed any of [the sex workers] specifically but I usually give out condoms to them and speak to them briefly.
“One thing I know is that they are not victims of human trafficking. They voluntarily come here to be sex workers. I know it’s because they don’t get the opportunity elsewhere, especially back at home. Pattaya seems like the most perfect choice for them as the town never lacks tourists who go there to entertain themselves.”
Pol Col Apichai Kroppech, the superintendent of Pattaya City police station, told Spectrum that the number of African sex workers has been increasing since 2015 when the authorities first sighted them wandering around on the beach.
“This particular group of ladies is difficult to detect since they come here and blend in as tourists,” Col Apichai explained. “They pretend to visit places like any tourists do but they start to find customers when authorities aren’t looking.
“Whenever we arrest sex workers wandering around on the beach or on Walking Street, we write their name and details down. This way, we can register them and if they cause any trouble, we can find them easily.
“However, we can’t do the same with this group since they have visas that indicate that they are here as tourists.
For the past two years, I don’t usually see the same person get arrested twice. There must be a large number of them staying in the area.”
Col Apichai said that the police are working harder than ever to ensure that people abide by the law and are protected from any harm while visiting Pattaya nowadays.
“The number of crimes in Pattaya has dropped this year,” he said. “This is thanks to my team’s heavy patrolling of the sensitive spots of Pattaya to ensure the safety of visitors as well as residents. Even the number of the crimes committed by ladyboys has decreased. I registered most of them already, so if they commit any crime, we know where to find them. The whole city is under control and we are working hard to make sure everyone is safe here.”
MAKE IT RIGHT
Throughout her years of experience with sex worker groups, the one thing Ms Surang found most disturbing in Thailand is the prostitution control laws. She considers them outdated and irrelevant to current realities. She says the police should revise the laws to ensure that people are protected more equally.
“Does the law we have control the number of sex workers? Does the current law ever make this problem go away? Personally, I can say that the law as it stands doesn’t help anyone at all. It doesn’t help sex workers and doesn’t help the police,” Ms Surang said.
“The lawmakers should look at the current situation and see what we can do to help improve the lives of people across all occupations.
“My suggestion and wish is to see prostitution legalised. Legalising this occupation would help fix many more problems. There will be no more corruption or tea money being paid to the police. The sex workers themselves can also earn benefits by being protected under the same law. Now, they are living as outlaws, even though they are just trying to make better livings like the rest of us.”
As it stands, Ms Surang is content with how the police have handled the influx of African sex workers in Pattaya. She says the police have dealt them with them reasonably so far.
“Many women and transgender people in Pattaya have been arrested, even without having been asked what they were doing in the first place on the beach or Walking Street. Many of them end up paying a fine for something that they didn’t do — just so that they can get the hassle of dealing with the police over with. But the police actually check the African sex workers’ passports and treat them more humanely,” said Ms Surang.
“The problem will never go away if we are still using the same law. I urge those who are involved to consider revising the prostitution control law so that everyone can enjoy equal treatment no matter what they do or who they are.”