Downtown Bangkok has finally stopped smoldering, and the curfew was recently lifted after anti-government protesters looted and burned downtown. * The shaky calm has both Thai officials and millions of men all over the world asking: Is it safe enough for sex tourism yet?
Thailand's sex trade, which pumps millions of dollars into the Thai economy, has taken a big hit since the protests began this spring. Thailand was once paradise for these men—among them fetishists and pedophiles—but the spell has since been broken. No one really wants their exotic intercourse interrupted by machine-gun fire or beer runs inconvenienced by police checkpoints, although some are, of course, willing to live with it if that's what it takes. Frustrated sex tourists are now being forced to cancel their vacations or wait it out in their cheap rented rooms until the party starts up again.
I came to Bangkok in early May to cover the red-shirt protests and ran into many sex tourists not quite ready to throw in the towel. Most of the men I met in the city's sex districts back then, before the violence began in earnest in the city center, brushed off the conflict completely. They were sure it wouldn't get bad—this is mellow, eager-to-please Thailand, after all—and continued on their merry boozing and screwing ways. Patpong, Thailand's most famous sex district, had been closed by demonstrations, but there were always other places to go to.
The mood turned somber after what happened around Nana Plaza. A popular, multistoried complex of go-go bars featuring women wearing numbers pinned to crotchless bikini bottoms who stare vacantly and listlessly sway against metal poles, the place was suddenly surrounded with razor-wire and signs designating the area a "live-fire zone." Now it was harder to keep up the fantasy, and Thailand's problems were suddenly the problem of every sex tourist from Japan to Germany. The curfew, which went into effect last week, also shut down Pattaya, a town a few hours southeast of Bangkok, where it seems the entire local economy revolves around the sex trade and which is known for tolerating prostitution by underage boys and girls.
Men—and there are thousands of them—who live heavily intoxicated here for weeks at a time, stumbling around from bar to bar, prostitute to prostitute, had a rude awakening when Thailand's major sex tourism destinations were disrupted. "They fucked this country up," a man named Tom told me indignantly, as though he had been scammed on a time-share. "I've been coming here for years. I'm 75. Where else am I going to find a 25-year-old girl who will sleep with me?" Indeed. How inconvenient for Thailand to have political turmoil that disrupts elderly men's Viagra-fueled sex binges. Couldn't they have waited—until he was dead, perhaps—to hash out their grievances with what they feel is an illegitimate government?
Thailand "sexpat" forums are full of speculation on what will become of the country and how it will affect their lives of debauchery. Many of them are living on pensions and retirement. They don't want to move, but the violence seen over the past weeks and the unpredictability of the situation have left them uneasy and looking for alternative locations. Finding another place in Southeast Asia where sex is so easy and the locale for it so accessible is a tricky task. Thailand is a perfect blend of cheap, nonthreatening, and permissive. Thai people are extremely accommodating. As the men like to tell me, they will make your food "not too spicy," and they will giggle at your jokes even if they have no idea what you are saying. By comparison with surrounding countries, Thailand is more developed and has until recently always been considered quite safe.
So now that it's not, where else is there to go? A man with the username UKmatt on the popular expat (and sexpat) forum thaivisa.com suggests the Phillipines as a viable alternative to Thailand. There, he says, there are "beautiful Hispanic-looking women with big boobs," but goes on to cite a high crime-rate and bad food as reasons for not going. As for other countries: Sex tourism is not permitted in Laos or Malaysia, and neither Cambodia nor Vietnam has, to my knowledge, ever been referred to as the "Land of Smiles," as the popular Thailand slogan goes. Also, the advanced age of many of the men who come to Thailand for sex also means they need to be close to adequate medical care, which much of the rest of Southeast Asia lacks. Thailand has fantastic hospitals for those who have a heart attack or an erection lasting longer than 48 hours.
One evening, I went for a drink at a bar called Ice in the small town of Nong Khai in the northeastern region of Thailand known as Issan. An off-the-beaten-path destination for sex tourists that has become more popular in the past several years, Issan is the ancestral home of most of Thailand's prostitutes who leave at a young age to go find work in the bars of Pattaya and Bangkok. Nong Khai is home to several hundred western men who either have Thai girlfriends or are looking to sleep with loads of women whose destitution makes them especially willing. Ice Bar is filled with run-down women in spandex dresses trying to convince customers to put down money on a game of pool. I met a man named Terry who has been retired in Thailand for two years but isn't sure that he wants to hang around much longer. It's become kind of a pain in the ass, he explains. "You never know when the situation may make a turn for the worse, and then what? Go to Laos?" He gestures at the direction of the Mekong River. At about midnight, an adorable little girl who looks like she might be about 6 years old comes into the bar selling flowers. "Where else in the world," says Terry, "could I give that girl 1,000 baht, take her outside and do whatever I wanted to her?"
Correction, June 7, 2010: This sentence originally said the curfew was still in effect, although it had been lifted. Also, it implied looting went on for two months. Protests went on for two months, but the looting and burning happened for a much shorter period after the protests. (Return to top.)