by Meghan Jones
I finally found it, after an entire day of searching— carrying a duffel bag filled with two weeks worth of clothes, a backpack with meaningful souvenirs, a purse clutched tightly to the front of my person to protect from secret theft, and a large 1.5 liter bottle of water which I had picked up at the 7/11 near the bus stop. What was I looking for? A guest house, a place to rest. It had been a long time coming— a very detailed trip to the southern end of Thailand which involved an overnight train from Chiang Mai, a tuk-tuk through Bangkok, and a day long over-booked bus ride to Pattaya.
Whenever I mentioned this part of the trip, anyone who bothered to learn anything about Thailand shook their head in disapproval. “Don’t go to Pattaya. You’ll be kidnapped and sold into the sex trade.”
A few days prior, in a different city, I had a confusing run-in with an illegitimate taxi driver and his friend who had me convinced for at least 25 minutes that I was actually being kidnapped. They were just lost, and couldn’t understand my directions. Or, maybe they didn’t like the fare I had negotiated and got a better offer. Either way, it turns out I wasn’t being kidnapped, just abandoned. I was worried briefly, but mostly I was in strategy mode. How can I get out of this situation? They had pulled over. Nobody was saying anything to me. After a while, the man in the car got out, came around back to where I was in the bed of the truck, and beckoned me out. This was when I got scared, but when I emerged, he put his hand on my shoulder, pointed, and sternly said: “go home.” I didn’t question his command, and started walking in the direction he pointed me, not caring where it led.
By the time I was in the sex capital, I was brave as can be. The first situation taught me to pay closer attention. Nothing is stopping a taxi driver from taking you wherever he pleases, and this happened to me multiple times. This was a critical lesson for me to learn. However, it certainly didn’t cure me of future stupid decisions. I was hyper-alert while also underestimating the capability of others who I knew nothing about.
My favorite thing to do in a new city is explore areas outside of the tourist comfort zone. This was easy in Pattaya. It was on the coast and like most beach cities, all the action is by the water. The rest is usually given the “we don’t give a fuck” treatment. In an exotic place, you might see a beauty that you’ve never seen, resulting in utter ignorance of what that beauty is disguising.
Taking a ferry 20 minutes away from the coastline to an island, I found the truth behind the poverty-stricken country which uses profitable sex trade as a mask for what it really is: a consumerist wasteland in the most beautiful part of the world. Part of it is the inability for a poor country to properly handle the high waves of consumerism that tourists bring; part of it lies in the hopes of big buildings, pink lights, and crystal clear water keeping people distracted enough to ignore everything else.
I rode my moped off the path on dirt roads that I wasn’t sure the small motorbike could handle. When I got to an area that I determined most tourists didn’t go, I was struck dead in the face with a Hunter S. Thompson-esque feeling. That is, despite the world being such a beautiful place, the only people who can appreciate it for its beauty are the ones destroying it. This side of the island, facing the coast of Pattaya, was covered knee-deep in the trash that had floated out from the beach. It was disheartening to see what massive tourism did to destroy the town where only about 100,000 people live.
Entering a guest house in a Russian laundromat/brothel in the pink light district (pink, instead of red—and a more pleasant color, honestly), I had to use the muddied Thai language I had learned to convince the woman at the desk that I was a student, I had no money, and I would like a room with air conditioning. It’s not that I couldn’t afford the whopping $13 for the night, but I had learned that anyone will negotiate if you try. I also suspected that she thought I was there for foul play, and I spent an exhaustive amount of time attempting to tell her, no, I wasn’t a prostitute and, no, I wasn’t planning on having a prostitute in my room that night. I thought, at first, that she was going to deny my business, or maybe thought I was brash. As soon as I accepted my fate that I would be sent out in an attempt to find another room, she seemed to notice the disappointment on my face and gave me the room for $10 dollars a night. It was true, in this instance, that you pay for the convenience and high availability of sex.
That same woman, who was beautiful in her own right, commented on the “beauty” of my pale skin with a gesture of brushing her own arm, to the man who showed me to my room. This might seem shady or odd, but during my time there, I had at least 10 complete strangers tell me about it, and a few even asked to take pictures with me.
Uncomfortably shifting with all my bags, I trailed behind the mid-70-year-old Russian man who showed me to my room. It had a deadbolt on the outside and I thought maybe I chose the wrong place. My toughness (read: idiocy) helped me to ignore the signs reading “Maybe Not Here” and thought, if not here, then where? I had traveled for 20 hours on a train while sick with travelers illness and all I wanted was a hot shower. I went in, got comfortable, and hoped that I wouldn’t be locked inside the room forever.
I felt sorry for the countless women sitting outside nearly every residence in Pattaya by nightfall. Some were very old, the heat and stress of daily life showing in their still beautiful faces, and some were younger than I would like to share. They would coo and beckon even me to come in and find comfort in them, and I tried not to cry when I saw the younger girls lifting up their tiny dresses at everyone who walked by. I was attempting (and failing) to find a restaurant to eat within 15-20 blocks that didn’t have pink lights. There was no way to escape or ignore prostitution in this city, which I had to confront to myself. The restaurant I finally chose was a family-style restaurant, and I sat at a table meant for 4 with a tourist picking apart the bones on a gigantic fish. There were no pink lights, and he struck a nerve with the waiter when he unknowingly motioned for him to come to the table using an upward palm, a gesture used in Thai tourist culture to call a hooker. I made sure to be clear when I called for my check that my palm was facing down.
While I wandered around the city, I realized that, despite my moral objections, without the blatant exploitation of Thai women and girls (boys too) in this city where prostitution is its only staple, it would be a ghost town. It would have no monetary support, everything looking like the distant trash-covered corner of the island off the bay that I witnessed. The people who lived there would be stuck living the lives of the desperately poor people in the rest of the country, and nobody on the outside would even register that they were there.
The happiest woman I saw in my stay was a McDonald’s worker, realizing that McDonald’s is a high-end job. It provides air conditioning, steady hours, regulated pay, and discounts on food. Not everyone can work that job— you have to be skilled, speak English, and have enough experience to live up to corporate standards for operation. However, the only reason the McDonald’s is even present in that place is because there are enough prostitutes to keep tourists coming to visit. It’s sad to say, but it all allows the women to stay in their homes with their families. To voice my opinion that it is wrong is truly insulting to them. Work is work. Without it, they would move to Europe with their sugar daddy, and risk being abandoned with no social skill after if/when he found someone new.
Thankfully, the country with the largest sex trade in the world also has strict regulations for foreign men bringing Thai women out of the country. It might seem like a way to keep them in and hoard the money; to them, it’s protection for being abandoned and broke in a place five times more expensive than the place they’re in now.
In another part of the country, I talked with my guest house owner (who was Belgian) about this. With deep frustration, he explained how he was engaged to a Thai woman and they were looking to close business, move to Europe, and build a family. They wanted children, and seemed to be a very happy couple. Though she was not a prostitute, they were still unable to attain government approval for him to even take her to visit his family for 2 weeks, let alone move. In this conversation, I came to full terms with everything I had experienced in Pattaya. I was sorry for this couple and their frustrations but relieved that any man who promises a better life cannot take a woman from their homes if they are not prepared to fulfill that promise.
I entered this place with a western perception that it was not safe. There were times when I felt un-safe— not because I actually was, but because I was told to feel this way. Travel forums for the country are riddled with all the ways in which tourists can be put in danger, and I, of course, read each and every one of them. These moments, however, were vital. I was able to see beyond the terrified ramblings of ignorant tourists, and take them for what they were. People feel danger in Pattaya because they’ve decided that these women are in a profession that is unsavory by their terms, and thus conclude they are there against their will. I just realized that my idea of what their “will” is, and theirs, are probably two different things.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, my opinions on moral, safe, and successful occupations are based on my privilege of living in a country that can provide better opportunities for me. It’s frustrating, confusing, and because of that, I can only sit and type sententious words. It’s not much, but it’s still more than what they have, and I’m sorry and thankful for that all at once.
Meghan Jones is a senior English major with a passion for creative nonfiction, so much so that she was the nonfiction editor for this issue. A Harrisburg enthusiast, she has been published in a number of small local magazines, and runs an artisan flea market downtown. She hopes to be a teacher and travel the world spreading her knowledge of the English language.