The secret border
Stories of sex workers in Thailand

The secret border

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It’s ten in the evening and, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand is under lockdown. In the cities everything is shut. Bolted. The lights are off and the night clubs deserted. There is nobody outside and for anyone looking for a bit of fun or wanting to spend the evening with someone the only option seems to be to stay at home.  However, travel just a few kilometres down the highway towards Laos and you will find some open clubs.

Standing in the desolation of these empty streets, just a few kilometres apart, are dozens of small karaoke bars, as they are defined. They are almost invisible, you need to know how to spot them. Insignificant shacks put together using recycled materials. Dirty neon signs or small lights signal their presence to passing motorists.

The signs are in Thai, indicating that these are not places for tourists or foreigners. These are clubs where local men, peasants and manual workers, come to spend a few hours with young girls, get drunk and pay to have sex.

The girls come from poor families in Laos. They have come to Thailand to seek fortune and they risk being arrested and deported. Prostitution in Thailand is forbidden, but even more so is illegal work by irregular immigrants. Despite this, every year, tens of thousands of young women cross the border, an invisible migration flow which fuels this underground and uncontrolled business.

The women do not have a salary. They receive a commission for every drink consumed by the man in their company, generally between 20 and 40 centimes for each drink. And of course, if they want, they can offer their clients sex in exchange for money, at a rate of approximately 30 Euros.

In the province of Ubon Ratchathani alone, official numbers reveal there are nearly 3000 girls working as prostitutes in these small karaoke bars, a number which is rising due to the pandemic. If we multiply this number by all the provinces along the 2000-kilometre border, the phenomenon’s economic but also social relevance becomes clear.

However, a radical change is occurring. In the past these young women, generally aged 18 to 25, would come to Thailand as victims of racketeering, sold by their families to gangs of criminals. They were slaves, convinced they would be working in high-end clubs or restaurants who then ended up as prisoners in some far-off brothel in the rice paddies. Today this is rarely so, the situation is changing.

Nowadays we find that the migrants are more aware. The young women know where they are going and what awaits them. Thanks to technology and smartphones being a widespread commodity at all social levels guaranteeing constant connection, the women can not only communicate with family and friends, but also have the possibility of seeing where and how they will be going to work before leaving their life in Laos. Of the dozens of women we met, nearly all were aware of what awaited them across the border. All of them had kept their passports and documents and all were happily in contact with their families back at home.

Ning shows us her phone as we talk. She is 18 and has just arrived. “Only a month ago” she tells us. She does not sleep with the clients yet, just drinks and karaoke she assures us “I have the chance of earning well here. In my country I had no work opportunities. Every month I earn up to over 400 Euros just with drinks. Of course, if I wanted to go to bed with the clients, I would earn a lot more, but for the moment I don’t want to and nobody is forcing me.” She laughs and shows us that she is chatting with her mother in Laos.

Despite the karaoke where she works being a filthy shack made of wood and rags, Ning says things are not so bad. The girls sleep together in rooms at the back of the building, on old mattrasses on the floor with a few cuddly toys, reminding us they are barely more than young girls.

Those who want to go with the clients, explains Yem, must go to their cars or look for a motel. “I only go with the clients if I like them. I ask 35-40 Euros and then I get them to bring me back here. But first I try to get them to drink because if the club doesn’t earn anything it can’t keep us here.” Yem is 25 and has been working for four years. You can tell she is experienced and knows what to do: when she isn’t drinking with the clients, she waits outside the club snoozing on a bamboo bench or playing on her phone. She too has a boyfriend and a three-year-old son, and she misses them a lot. But thanks to the smartphone they can video call several times a day.

The club owner does not appear at all worried by the freedom the girls enjoy. Other than scolding them when they spend too much time on their phones in the company of clients, she looks calm. We ask more questions.  But the stories are often similar: poor families, no work in their villages, the journey to Thailand.

One girl tells us she had not understood what work she was going to do. Initially she had thought it was a restaurant, but then she adds: “Once I got here, I understood what it was about. I talked with a friend who had travelled with me and we decided to stay. I haven’t decided yet whether I will have sex with the clients, but I think I will. I just have to find the courage to do it the first time. I can earn a lot more money and I’d rather stay here where I don’t run the risk of being arrested by the police.

The girls choose these places precisely to stay off the police’s radar. In a city they would immediately stand out. Everybody would know they are not Thai, and some envious club manager would probably report their presence. Here, along the border, the police turn a blind eye. Besides, given the lack of any kind of entertainment, these are the only places where Thai men can have a drink outside their homes.

Ploy arrived here a year ago. She tells us she came with a group of friends. “The four of us travelled here by bus because there is work. We knew what kind of job we would be doing because before setting off we video called the owner who showed us the place and explained what we would be doing. I am 19 and I have a young son who needs money. Here I can save enough to send money home each week. The owner does not charge us for the room, and we always cook the food all together. It’s very convenient. Sometimes I go with the clients. If I find the right one, I might end up engaged to a Thai man who will take care of me. But right now, I’m not really thinking about that, “she laughs as she shows us all the messages clients send her every day on her phone.

This is work too: “We keep in contact with our clients during the week as well, and then we invite them to drop in and have a drink with us. Sex is a constant request, but I know how to handle them. Some girls have even found love but it’s complicated. Most of the men here in the countryside are married or engaged and those who aren’t are either old or ugly,” she laughs again and shows us photos of clients and suitors, men of all ages, from 18 to 70.

Probably the only problem is boredom, she confesses: “We cannot go out freely for fear of being stopped for ID check. We live here 24 hours a day. We get up late in the morning, we bathe together and do our washing. The owner lives with us and she gives us a hand. Then we all cook together and at about 2pm we get ready for the first customers.  We make ourselves up and we wait, sitting on the benches by the side of the road or opposite the club. Men stop by asking us to go to a motel or simply to “check out” what the girls in the club are like that day. Our job is to get them to go inside and have a drink and earn something extra”.

The girls stand united and support each other. Often, they come from the same village and have known each other since they were at school. They also need to act as a group in order to protect themselves from the customers which, in places such as these, represent the true danger. Even we cannot stay too long in one place and are forced to change every day. Not only not to give rise to suspicion, but also to avoid arousing the jealousy of those regular clients who, as they see it, have a very special relationship with the girls. Some arrive already drunk and are ready to go on drinking.

Weapons and drugs are plentiful here and you really need to be on the lookout. One need only look at the signs at the club’s entrance: they clearly indicate it is forbidden to carry weapons or drugs, although nobody checks. Gangs of raving youngsters wander along the highway at night, looking for cheap booze and girls. They are not always friendly and are often under the effect of methamphetamines. The girls know how to handle them and calm them down, but the same cannot be said for customers passing though. Episodes of jealousy and violence as well as shootings and murders are not rare. You need to know when it is time to pay the bill and move on.

Before we leave, we stop by the side of the road where the girls are cooking and scrolling through Facebook again, waiting for their next clients. They ae laughing and joking and shout out “See you tomorrow”. Maybe, for the first time, the use of technology really has changed a paradigm. Maybe for the first time these women, once exploited and reduced to slavery, can be in control of what they do and how they do it.  This does not mean it is good for them. This type of work will definitely bring drastic changes in their lives and leave drastic marks. Their young age, and low levels of schooling, will certainly not help them make the best choices.