Many of us have ventured to Bangkok with a mental tick-list; hedonistic nights on Khao San Road, shots of snake blood, temples, maybe see some Muay Thai boxing. And, if you wish, hire a local prostitute.
After all, what happens in Bangkok stays in Bangkok.
During a recent trip to Thailand, I decided I wanted to speak to a westerner who'd been in contact with this sex industry. I was curious why they might engage in activities here they wouldn't dream of doing at home.
Brad is an Aussie in his 40's. We met in a restaurant when he dropped his business card next to the male backpackers I was dining with. It stated his services; the sale of rare gems and antiques. Since it was Bangkok I just assumed the commodities listed were euphemisms for types of prostitutes on offer. Sometime later I called him to ask for an interview. Luckily he laughed at my presumption he was a pimp. In fact, he actually does sell jewels for a living. But he also travels to Thailand for work often, and when he does he hires prostitutes.
"Sex is everywhere in Bangkok. I went for a back massage and they asked me if I wanted the mouth too," he says. "In Australia it would cost $300 for an hour. In Bangkok it's cheap and accessible. It's also the intimacy I'm looking for. In a western brothel you can't kiss, that's extra."
"The supply fuels demand. This has been going on for centuries."
Thailand has been a destination of sex tourism since the Vietnam War. In 1960 prostitution in Thailand was actually made illegal as the Thai authorities came under pressure from the United Nations.
This, however, was countered in 1966 by a law that allowed for the creation of establishments offering special services for entertainment purposes. A change of thinking driven by the desire to generate income from the US forces stationed in Thailand and Vietnam.
Also, polygamy is still tolerated in Thai culture, and many Thai men think it a right to have a Thai girl as a mistress. Essentially, Thai prostitution is driven by economics and cultivated by the country's attitude to its women.
In a 2013 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that there were 250,000 sex workers in the country.
"A lot of the women [I've met] have kids," says Brad. "And partners who probably know what they do for a living."
He's noticed a growing trend of hard-drug use.
"They're smoking ice [crystal meth] to stay awake at night. That's not something I saw two years ago," he says.
And he's noticed an acceptance towards unprotected sex.
"It scared the shit out if me that I had to insist to wear a condom. The girls don't care, they don't understand about AIDS or other diseases," he adds. "I asked one girl and she said that with a lot of customers she doesn't use one. And they don't get checked or visit the doctor, it's too expensive for them."
Bangkok's Patpong night market - a famous red light district.
Picture by Katie McQue
I wish that I had spoken with some of these women. But they don't take kindly to western females and you can understand why.
The Thai girls have a general lack of respect to western girls. Think they've had it too easy; they have too much too young and they don't understand how, Brad explains.
"Most are almost born into it. Maybe their mother did it before them; their dad is probably also a crook. They were brought up without the self-belief that somebody from the middle class may have, they can't see a way out."
In Bangkok underground slavery roams blatantly over ground. It might not be easy to distinguish who voluntarily works in the sex trade and who does not.
Thailand is a major source and recipient of trafficked woman and children for commercial sexual exploitation. Some are trafficked from Thailand's relatively poorer neighbours of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos; tricked into thinking they will be given mainstream employment opportunities abroad. Others are shunted within Thailand's borders from desolate rural communities in search for a better life.
"The majority of Thai [trafficked] victims identified during the year were found in sex trafficking; sex trafficking of both Thai and migrant children remains a significant concern," states the US Secretary of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2013.
Although Brad is reasonably sure he's only interacted with prostitutes operating on free will.
"The girls also usually work in groups. These groups are controlled by one prostitute that usually the smartest. I have not seen situations where there is a pimp or an older madam," he adds. "The women are usually attached to bars, somehow it's safer. The bars now guarantee they're not ladyboys, this is new."
While a night with a Thai prostitute quickly evaporates into a drunken memory for the guy; a story chuckle over with his mates back home. Many of these women are bought over and over again simply because they can't afford not to be.
"They're poor and it's the best way for them to make money," Brad admits. "In Bangkok you'd have to be exceptional to make anything of yourself. They have very little education, what else is there for them?"Suggest a correction