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From Ying Nakhon Sopheni to Sao Borikan: Banality and Originality in the Development of Prostitution in Thailand

De Ying Nahon Sopheni à Sao Borikan: banalité et originalité dans le développement de la prostitution en Thaïlande
Jean Baffie
p. 143-186


À la différence du tourisme sexuel, la prostitution pour les locaux a peu été étudiée en Thaïlande. Cet article retrace rapidement les principales phases de cette histoire depuis l’époque d’Ayutthaya (xive-xviiie siècles) jusqu’à nos jours. L’objectif est d’abord de montrer – ici comme ailleurs – l’importance de l’aspect commercial, la prostitution étant un échange marchand d’un service sexuel contre une rémunération. Mais, dans le cas présent, depuis au moins un demi-siècle, l’argent est devenu un véritable dieu (ngoen khue phrachao) et la perspective de s’en procurer autorise tous les comportements et toutes les corruptions. Mais le développement de la prostitution s’explique aussi par un terreau socio-culturel favorable, comme le montre le statut de la mae mai, terme improprement traduit par veuve par les dictionnaires, formatés par les premiers lexicographes qui étaient des missionnaires chrétiens.

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1Academic disputes on prostitution in exotic countries probably insist too much on specific aspects of this phenomenon. In Southeast Asia, as everywhere, prostitution should be considered a business, a trade, a deal between a woman (or a man) who has something she (he) is willing to sell and a customer who wants to buy it. The shocking part of the transaction is that, in this case, what is bought and sold are bodies, or more exactly sexual services. In fact, the most important aspect of prostitution—in France, in Brazil, or in Thailand—is money, usually cash money. This is indeed the first element to keep in mind: selling the pleasure that their bodies can produce is the work that a lot a women have found to earn a living, raise their children, and help relatives.

  • 1 Even if the subject is particularly interesting, I decided not to include male prostition in my stu (...)

2However, several aspects of this occupation are interesting to the historian and the sociologist studying Thailand and call for explanation: How did prostitution come to Thai society? Why do women choose to work as prostitutes when they could have found alternative work? Who are their customers? What are the official and local academic positions and discourses on prostitution? How large is the role of prostitution in the national economy? What is the actual influence of the West? And, of course, what the cultural obstacles and inducements that could at least partially explain the huge number of prostitutes in this country.1

3The aim of this article is to draw data from books in Thai, as well as Thai academic journals and magazine articles that have been much neglected by researchers either because they were unable to read Thai or because they had difficulties finding the sources. Generally speaking, works by European researchers focus on that part of Thai prostitution that exists between Thai women and western men. Indigenous prostitution—i.e., prostitution for local men—is generally neglected in articles and books written by western researchers. On the other hand, numerous Thai scholars, journalists, officials, and novelists have written about prostitution for locals, but their works have not been translated and remain little known.

Names and Numbers: Ambiguity and Imprecision

Many Names for the Same Trade

4There is no word for prostitution in Thai dictionaries. Thais usually translate the idea by paraphrases such as kankha praweni (the commerce of sex or sexual intercourse), kan khai tua (the selling of bodies) or even kan ha kin pen ying nakhon sopheni (earning one’s living as a prostitute) (Sethaputra 1939: 2889) and kan pen ying sopheni (being a prostitute girl) (Hiranto 1982: 155). Well-known historian and lexicographer M.L. Manich Jumsai chose to give “prostitution” as an equivalent to sopheni and put together ying (girl, woman) and sopheni to translate “prostitute”; but ying sopheni is almost never found in the related literature (Jumsai 1959: 809). A 1962 French-Thai dictionary by a European proposed a new substantive made with sopheni and the prefix kan that should be understood here as “the fact of being” (Maekintai & Macintyre 1962: 407). However, I have never found kansopheni in a document.

  • 2 This is a personal and free translation since tua is the standard word for body and that, in Centra (...)

5But, if the Thai language ignores prostitution, it proposes a plethora of words to translate “prostitute”. The standard modern Thai word for prostitute is sopheni, but, as in many languages, an impressive number of terms and expressions can be found in Thai to designate female prostitutes. A slang dictionary gives, for example: sopheni, ying ngam mueang (pretty urban girl), ying ha kin (literally starving women), ying dok thong (golden flower women), kari or krari (curry?), i tua (dirty body2), i raet (dirty rhinoceros females), i kradae (dirty unshamed women), i sampheng (naughty women of Chinatown), i dok (dirty flower), i nang khom khiao (dirty lady of the green lantern), nang lom (?), khun so (a polite but ironic term for khun sopheni), nang phaetsaya (?), phuying samson (?) (Suwannaphanit 1999). Also, quite a number of other words and expressions could be mentioned such as ying borikan (service girls) or ying khon chua (bad women) or the Pali word khanika. In northern Thai (Suwannaphatthana 1998: 63, 72) we find such words as mae ying hai (?), khon bo di (bad women), and sao chok, probably a shortened form of chokkari, a slang word (with a hindi origin) not so popular today (“Dae ‘chokkari’” 1983: 5).

  • 3 Obviously, from the content of the article, this is a shortened form of ying khai nuea sot (girls s (...)

6Pejorative terms such as i tua are sometimes used without quotation marks even in a progressive daily like Matichon (August 29, 1981: 1). Popular magazines often use other pejorative expressions such as nuea sot (fresh meat) (“Saoropchat” 1984).3

7The expression ying nakhon sopheni—literally “girl”, “city”, and “pretty girl”—was the most commonly used until the mid-20th century, when it was supposedly shortened to sopheni. However, I have never found a true explanation. In one of the oldest Thai documents mentioning prostitutes the expression is ying lakhon sopheni (“Khamhaikan…” 1969: 56). The word lakhon being a general term to name all kinds of theatrical entertainments, it could be hypothesized that, in older times, prostitutes used to be dancers or actresses.

8The expression yam cha (tea waitress) is worth a special explanation. This is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Mandarin yin (drink) and cha (tea). Teochiu Chinese, who have constituted the Chinese majority in Thailand from at least the early 19th century, pronounce the same characters chia te. Not all ying yam cha or girls attending tea room clients—yam cha for short—may have automatically provided sexual services in the former period (Mahatanobon 2002: 29). However, the expression is now synonymous with low-class prostitutes working in brothels locally called rong nam cha (tea lounges).

9This profusion of names for prostitutes in Thai probably denotes the importance of the phenomenon, but also its multiplicity and its complexity and possibly the local difficulty in apprehending the question.

“Pretty Urban Women” (ying ngam mueang)

  • 4 Sopheni women were smart, with knowledge in not less than 64 arts such as poetry, classical dancing (...)

10Still, there could be some ambiguity at the very beginning concerning the status of the prostitutes in Thai culture. Expressions such as ying ngam mueang or khanika to designate prostitutes literally mean “pretty women of the city” or “women earning their livelihood by means of their beauty”. One of the oldest Thai dictionaries—published in 1873 by American missionaries—gives the following explanation for nakhon sophini: “name of women such as prostitutes [ying khon chua] who make cities beautiful” (Bradley 1873: 326). In a 1929 trilingual dictionary a sopheni or sophini is only a ying ngam, a “femme jolie” in French, a “beautiful woman” in English (Chunsiriwong 1929: 890). Eight years later, we find a “student dictionary” that gives three equivalents for sopheni: beautiful, woman, and courtesan (Dansuputra 1936: 326). The Pali-Sanskrit radical subh or sobha means “beautiful”, “handsome”, “splendid”, “resplendent”, “grace”, “charm”, and even “virtuous” and “pure” (Macdonell 1924: 316). Still today in Thai, sao sopha is a literary form sometimes used for “pretty girl” (“Prachasamphan…” 1974: 53). European languages also have positive or neutral expressions to designate prostitutes. A Thai-English dictionary published in the 1960s chose to translate sophini or sopheni by “fille de joie” and “street walker” (Phloyphrom 1965: 628). Indeed, in Lord Buddha’s times there were two kinds of prostitutes: high-class prostitutes or sopheni who were like an Indian version of the Japanese geisha,4 and ordinary prostitutes or khanika. The first category served the princes and the nobility while the second served the ordinary people (Kabinsing 1991: 20-21). The two words are known in the Thai language, but neither is pejorative. An article in one of the most popular Thai weeklies, Khu sang khu som, explained that, at the time of the Buddha, not just any woman could become a ying nakhon sopheni but only those who were pretty to a certain degree (Thongprasoet 1981: 55).

  • 5 According to an explanation, a long time time ago, a restaurant famous for its curry was situated i (...)

11The slang word kari is one of the more frequently used in novels and short stories, but its etymology is uncertain. It could come from curry, as the two words have exactly the same spelling in Thai;5 or kari (prostitute) could be a deformation of kali, a word that designates the flower of the hemp (Faeng-em n.d.: 28). However, neither of the explanations is particularly pejorative. Another author explains that kari and kali designate people who smoke marijuana, a habit quite widespread in Thailand and—although illegal—not really despised by the population (“S. Nopphon” 2001: 60).

  • 6 The Thai chua could alsos originate from the Chinese (Teochiu) tchua which also means “not good”, “ (...)
  • 7 In Lao and Isan (Northeastern Thai) dictionaries, mae chang is given as equivalent to “prostitute” (...)

12Another common expression to designate a prostitute in Thai, although obsolete today, is ying chua. Usually translated as “naughty” or “bad”, the first meaning in Thai of chua is “temporary”.6 The idea that the difference between a prostitute and a wife depends on the length of the relationship is not new. The mia chao (rented wife) is probably an ancient institution connected with foreigners settling in the country for a while. It is beyond doubt that mia chao (or mae chang the Lao equivalent)7 can be classified as prostitutes by definition, but their status is often viewed as intermediate.

  • 8 Literally Khom khiao designates only the “green lantern” that used to indicate to local residents a (...)

13It should also be pointed out that the usual word for “massage girl”—even when they are prostitutes—i.e., mo nuat is particularly respectful since mo is the common term of address to designate all traditional and modern specialists and especially medical doctors. In today’s magazines we can find some positive images such as “night butterflies” (phisuea rattri) to designate prostitute (Phanlam 2000: 109). Some authors do not hesitate to make use of rather provocative words; for example, the well-known author Suwat Woradilok entitled his novel Wirasattri chak khom khiao (The Heroine Coming from a Brothel),8 which takes place in 19th century China, fully aware that the word wirasattri is usually used for nationalist heroines, most of them from royal families or the nobility (“Raphiphon” 1970).

  • 9 The exhibition was arranged by the Klum sinlapin ying (Women’s Artists Group) on the occasion of In (...)

14The most frequently and almost official expression for prostitute (sopheni) in the administration is ying kha praweni (woman selling sex). But praweni is just another form of prapheni and means “custom”, “tradition”. In dictionaries this is usually the first meaning given, before “sexual intercourse” and sometimes no mention of the second meaning is even made (Sethaputra 1987: 565; Chunsiriwong 1929: 698). In March-April 1995, an art exhibition9 held in Nonthaburi, a northern suburb of Bangkok, chose as its title “Praweni-Prapheni”. The foreword of the accompanying booklet explained that, while usually praweni means “sex between women and men”, in the present context it should be understood more as “shared existence between female and male human beings” (Phonlasawek 1995: 5).

15The common word for brothel, song, probably of foreign origin, probably Chinese, was first used to designate a secret meeting place. Later on, associated with other words, song had more specific and negative meanings, such as song chon or a “thieves’ den”, song kanphanan or a “gambling den” and song sopheni or a house of prostitution (Thongprasoet 1975: 118). Finally, song alone retained the meaning of brothel though the expression song chon is still used when reference is made to angyi, the Chinese secret societies, a song chon being, according to the law, a place where more than four criminals meet (Wisut 2002: 14). However, the official word for brothel is samnak sopheni where the first element, samnak, means “office”, “bureau” and is used, for example, to name the “Office of the Prime Minister” (samnak nayok ratthamontri), a very prestigious and powerful governmental department.

16Just as in other cultures, in Thailand, hypocrisy is common in the field of prostitution. General expressions such as thurakit bon kha on (business on frail legs), chiwit klang khuen (midnight life), or yisip ha chuamong (25th hour), are well accepted, especially by Thai men, as references to some forms of prostitution.

17But this rather favorable treatment of prostitution is not only limited to the vocabulary. School and university manuals on Sangkhom thai (Thai society) or Panha sangkhom thai (Thai social problems) never forget to give the “good” points of prostitution: filling the needs of special groups of men such as foreign troops and unmarried men, reducing the number of rapes, preventing the increase of broken homes (Suphap 1977: 126, 131), providing an alternative to taking “minor wives” (mia noi), stimulating the growth of foreign tourism, providing incomes and jobs to people in need and related business such as massages parlors and restaurants (Wongsawan & Wongsawan 2000: 393-394). In their manual, which apparently received Ministry of Education approval, renowned authors Professor Kramol Thongthammachat and Vice-Professor Anon Aphaphirom even chose to present the positive consequences (phon di) before the negative ones (phon sia) (Thongthammachat & Aphaphirom 1977: 100-101).

18Even some ironic sentences—often used as titles of articles—such as “Thai prostitutes: a merchandise that the foreign countries are asking for” (Sopheni thai sinkha thi tangprathet tongkan) or “Thai prostitutes are of the best quality in the world” (Sopheni thai khunnaphap di thi sut nai lok) (Chithradap 1995: 20) have almost favorable connotations never entirely suppressed by the content of the articles.

A Lot of Prostitutes in Thailand, But How Many?

19A political weekly in 1974 gave a figure of 426,908 prostitutes. However, the method of counting was not supplied (Chunlaniphat 1982: 2). In December 1976, according to the director of the Public Welfare Department, Thailand reported 2,000 places of prostitution and a little more than 100,000 prostitutes (The Bangkok Post, December 23, 1976). Three years later, Khunying Pierra Vejjabul, a well-known social and health activist, put the prostitute population at 300,000 (The Nation, December 27, 1979). A reference book on Thailand noted that in the mid-1980s between 100,000 and one million prostitutes were working in Thailand, but the range is so huge that it is of little use (Tuchrello 1989: 93). The situation was, however, then judged alarming.

20Data given in the 1980s by the Ministry of Public Health’s Office of Venereal Diseases were most reassuring. As shown in the Table 1, the total number of prostitutes never exceeded 87,000 persons.

Table. 1. Official number of prostitutes in Thailand between 1982 and 1991

Year Open prostitutes Hidden prostitutes Total
1982 15,808  30,822 46,630
1983 26,952 32,638 59,590
1984 31,791 36,701 67,998
1985 31,180 37,680 68,860
1986 37,511 39,867 77,378
1987 39,145 44,018 83,163
1988 38,315 44,277 82,592
1989 38,233 46,652 84,885
1990 33,240 53,258 86,494
1991 28,737 47,706 76,443

Source: Survey by the Office of Venereal Diseases of the Ministry of Health as quoted in Matichon raisapda (August 27, 1993: 34).

21In the early 1990s the controversy over the number of prostitutes developed when Sanprasit Khumprapan of the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights claimed that Thailand had about two million prostitutes, of whom 800,000 were children; that is to say, under 18. Sanprasit explained that about 700,000 prostitutes were working in “legal” establishments such as massage parlors, tea lounges (rong nam cha), cocktail lounges, and discotheques; and another 1.3 million prostitutes were in illegal establishments. He estimated that roughly 40 percent of the two million girls were under 18 (Vanaspong 1996b: 24).

22In a seriously researched report published in 1994, Wathinee Boonchalaksi and Philip Guest from the Institute of Population and Social Research of Mahidol University reviewed available estimates and concluded that between 200,000 and 300,000 women worked in the sex industry; however, the authors later made use of the lower estimate of 200,000 (Boonchalaksi & Guest 1994: 32, 37, 38). Furthermore, they mentioned the estimate of 200,000 more Thai prostitutes working outside Thailand, although they themselves suggest that a number less than 100,000 would be more plausible (Boonchalaksi & Guest 1994: 39). In the same year, statistics from the Ministry of Public Health announced the presence throughout the country of 67,067 prostitutes available in 5,754 locations (The Bangkok Post, August 12, 1994: 6). The precision of the number is suspicious to the social scientist. And the ratio of 11.6 prostitutes per location is probably too low.

23Nevertheless, prostitution is an important phenomenon in Thailand. For comparison purposes with a country with approximately the same population, we can look at France, whose 2016 female prostitute population was estimated at about 30,000, most of them in Paris (​dernieres-depeches/​afp/​la-prostitution-en-france-les-principaux-chiffres-57055bf435708ea2d445a079).

The Rather Banal History of Thai Prostitution

24Even well-disposed Thai authors, such as Sukanya Hantrakul, then permanent secretary of the National Women’s Council of Thailand, sometimes give inaccurate sketches of the history of Thai prostitution, either to support an ideological position or just because hard data are difficult to find, when she writes: “Long before the arrival of disruptive foreign males—such as the Chinese in the mid-19th century, American soldiers during the Korean and Vietnam wars and, more recently, tourists from around the world—Thais had institutionalized vice as a way of life for themselves” (Hantrakul 1983: 27).

25Prostitution’s beginnings in many cultures involve slavery. Prostitution, thus, is not the oldest profession in the world but the situation of women deprived of freedom. But the intent of that so often quoted paraphrase for prostitution underlines the ties between love and money or material interests.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya: The First Elements of Knowledge on Thai Prostitution

  • 10 This definition is used for ying phaetsaya, for instance in a law dictionary (Saensiri 1961: 289).

26Most of the laws that were in use during the Ayutthaya period have been recorded in the Kotmai tra sam duang (Law of the Three Seals). Two classes of women who are today considered prostitutes were mentioned: khon or ying nakhon sopheni (or sophini, or ying nakhara sopheni) and ying phaetsaya (or phetsaya). We are not certain the two words were equivalent, however. No definition is given for ying nakhon sopheni but a ying phaetsaya is said to be “a woman who has sex with at least two men a day” (“Kotmai …” 1972: 210).10 There was probably a difference between sopheni and ying phaetsaya as both are mentioned in a list of people whose testimonies were not considered valid during a legal action. They are placed among slaves, dishonored people, deaf persons, the blind, and pregnant women (“Kotmai…” 1962, 2: 74). Other laws seem preoccupied by the trend to marry prostitutes, a phenomenon widespread enough to be regulated (“Kotmai…” 1962, 4: 278).

27Historical data on prostitution during the Ayutthayan period are too sketchy to enable us to understand the selling of sexual services from the 14th to the 18th centuries. In his famous description of Siam in the 1680s, French envoy La Loubère speaks of a certain man who has the license of prostituting Siamese girls and women sold into slavery by their fathers and husbands. La Loubère put the number of prostitutes at 600, most of them wives convicted of infidelity (La Loubère 1691: 74; Wongthet 2001: 213). Later on, La Loubère identifies that nobleman as okya (phraya) Min. He adds that he is a very contemptible person, only in relations with debauched men but recognizes that he bears quite a high title (La Loubère 1691: 85).

  • 11 This is an approximate translation since it is not possible to find a 17th or 18th century Thai lan (...)
  • 12 Its name was later changed to Takhian Canal.
  • 13 Some historical thematic maps of Ayutthaya do not hesitate to show the location of these brothels ( (...)
  • 14 In a Thai book on prostitution in Thailand, amateur historian Thepchu Thapthong estimates the numbe (...)

28To my knowledge, only one other historical document of the Ayutthaya period mentions houses of prostitutes. That document—published as late as 1969 by an official commission on national history—precisely locates four brothels with girls “to be hired to make love to men” (rapchang thamchamrao kae burut)11 at Talat Ban Chin (the market of a Chinese settlement) at the mouth of Khunlakhonchai Canal,12 southwest of the island of Ayutthaya, a strategic place close to a harbor and roads where Chinese shops were numerous, Chinese goods were easier to find than Thai goods, and where a Chinese sanctuary could be found (“Khamhaikan…” 1969: 55-56; Wongthet 2001: 213, 2016).13 That market was one of five Chinese markets in Ayutthaya at a time when the Chinese population was estimated at 4,000 (Sawetwimon 2001: 106-10).14

Fig.1. A 17th Century European (French?) sailor with a Siamese woman (prostitute?)

Fig.1. A 17th Century European (French?) sailor with a Siamese woman (prostitute?)

Buddhist monastery mural painting used as front cover of a book on Thai women (Tanchaiyanan 1990).

The Bangkok Period: From the End of the 18th to the Early 20th Century

29The major social and ethnic characteristic of this period is the massive and continuous immigration of Chinese, particularly since a king of Chinese origin, Taksin (1767-1782), reigned over the country and encouraged that flow. Most of the immigrants were men going abroad to work for a few years and remit money to their families. Some were single, some had wives and children back home. Because of the huge gap between the sexes—only between 2 and 10 percent were women during the 1893-1917 period according to Skinner’s estimates (1957: 126-127)—brothels multiplied in Bangkok and large provincial towns. Chinese girls were permitted to enter Siam to work as prostitutes in these brothels. Most of these girls were Cantonese, as “Cantonese families were said to be willing to do anything for money, including selling their daughters” (Jackson 1980: 33). It is also well accepted by scholars that a number of these “Chinese” prostitutes actually were “Siamese” girls who assumed Chinese names as these were easier for the customers to pronounce (Bao 2003: 134).

  • 15 Liang means “to feed, to raise, or to take care of”, khon means “people”, and ha ngoen can be trans (...)
  • 16 Khao kaeng is the staple food of workers in Thailand.

30In the mid-19th century, we do not have the impression of an over-developed prostitution sector of in Siam. Archbishop Pallegoix, in 1854, gave an estimate of the annual income of the country. The tax on registration of prostitutes (“impôts sur les femmes publiques”) came in 26th place, with only 50,000 baht a year, far behind lotteries and tobacco (200,000 baht each), gambling dens (500,000 baht a year), and taxes on swallow nests (100,000 baht) (Pallegoix 1854, I: 311). Evidently, the situation had already changed by 1883 when the now well-known Sarabanchi suanthi 2 khue ratsadon…samrap chaophanak-ngan krom praisani krungthepmahanakhon (Bangkok Postal Directory) was published. In this I counted 38 brothels (usually designated as a place which “liang khon ha ngoen” [shelters people who are looking for money]),15 almost all in small lanes (trok) of Chinatown. At the time, brothels were intimately associated with opium dens (then legal and taxed) and shops selling spirits. Two of the best-known lanes were Trok Tao and Trok Taeng. In the first, a short lane of 24 houses, you could find brothels at numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 22, and opium dens at numbers 11, 12, 13, 15, and 19; number 20 was selling Chinese medicines (ya chin) and number 21 was selling spirits. Numbers 10 and 23 were pagodas built by Vietnamese, while number 24 was a khao kaeng (rice and curry)16 restaurant. The 29-house Taeng lane had brothels at numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 26, 27, 28, 29; opium dens at numbers 6, 8, 11, 20, 22, 24; and spirits sellers at numbers 17, 18, and 23. Three hairdressers occupied houses number 19, 21, and 25; and a physician had his office at number 4 (Sarabanchi… 1998: 358-9, 367-8).

31However, from a list of brothels and prostitutes in Bangkok at the end of the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), it is evident that most of the places of prostitution had very few registered women: from three women at Madame Iam’s brothel (located at the beginning of the trok leading to the Rong Kuak sanctuary) to 19 women at Madame Ho’s brothel (in Trok Rong Khram) (Mettarikanon 1983: 43).

Fig. 2. A prostitute in ancient Siam, under the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910)

Fig. 2. A prostitute in ancient Siam, under the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910)

From Ying khom khiao (Green lantern women) by Thepchu Thapthong, 1983 (2526), Chao Praya.

32The special tax on prostitutes in the reigns of Rama IV (1851-1868) and Rama V (1868-1910) was called “Tax for the Improvement of the Roads” (phasi bamrung thanon). In fact, the tax was spent in the construction of canals as well as roads. Just as for most of the other taxes, the Thai government invited bids for each province or for groups of provinces, and the person making the highest bid was appointed chao phasi bamrung mueang. Dararat Mettarikanon found in the archives of the 5th reign of Bangkok the names of some of these farmers in Bangkok and Phuket with the sums they remitted to the Siamese state. From data given in Table 2, it is surprising to see that tax income from prostitution in Bangkok often fluctuated between 1890-1891 and 1907-1908.

Table. 2. Prostitution tax for Bangkok farmers and revenues given to the Siamese government by these farmers, 1890-1908

Year Farmer Govt revenues
1890–1891 Nai Mon 24,720
1891–1892 Nai Pae 20,000
1892–1893 Nai Sang 24,080
1893–1894 Nai Sang 9,200
1897–1898 Nai Wan 22,400
1898–1899 Nai Daeng 9,600
1899–1900 Nai Daeng 9,600
1900–1901 Nai Daeng 12,000
1901–1902 Nai Daeng 14,400
1902–1903 Nai Daeng 17,680
1903–1904 Nai Daeng 13,600
1904–1905 Nai Daeng 13,600
1905–1906 Nai Daeng 24,080
1906–1907 Nai Daeng 16,000
1907–1908 Nai Seng 20,000

Source: Mettarikanon (1984: 12).

33What is surprising in these data probably is that the highest sum received—i.e., 24,720 baht—was in the first year (1890-1891) and that it decreased to 9,200 baht in 1893-1894, and 9,600 baht in 1898-1899 and again in 1899-1900.

Prostitution During the Inter-War Period

  • 17 These Japanese women called Karayuki-san (literally “gone to China”) were very numerous in Southeas (...)

34In the first two or three decades of the 20th century many prostitutes in Southeast Asia were from Japan. A Frenchman, Sylvain Bonmariage, who visited Siam in the late 1920s, met Japanese prostitutes17 on Rachadamnoen Road, at the Phaya Thai Hotel, even on a railway train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border (Bonmariage c.1950: 163-65).

35Depicting the social situation of Siam during the years 1932-1937, an American scholar devotes several pages to prostitution in the mid-1930s (Landon 1939: 161-166). At that time, the number of Chinese brothels and prostitutes had notably decreased as Chinese women had started migrating in numbers during the 1920s. It was said that those who frequented brothels were mainly Hainanese Chinese, latecomers among the Chinese, whose women still seldom migrated to Siam. Actually, while the number of Siamese brothels remained the same between 1929 and 1936, the number of prostitutes decreased from 128 to 97; the number of Chinese brothels decreased from 137 to 63 and prostitute numbers from 646 to 326. However, clandestine prostitution was already widespread in Siam. Landon, who had lived for many years in Thailand, remarked that unlicensed streetwalkers could be found everywhere, that beer halls, very fashionable a few years after the first Thai beer had been produced, were places with a lot of prostitutes, and that no Chinese hotel was free of prostitutes (Landon 1939: 164).

Table. 3. Number of brothels and prostitutes according to police statistics, 1969

Year No. of brothels No.of prostitutes
1937 79 319
1938 61 273
1939 70 234
1940 52 224
1941 338 1447
1942 254 959
1943 206 1009
1944 169 706
1945 51 204
1946 57 156
1947 92 478
1948 100 682
1949 99 491
1950 92 406
1951 82 332
1952 78 415
1953 73 596
1954 70 632
1955 68 550
1956 64 544
1957 54 524
1958 48 344
1959 43 308
1960 41 298

Source: Monthly Sangkhomsat parithat, 10, 12 (December 1972), p. 66.

36When Lee Mortimer (1904-1963), a writer prolific on the light side of American cities and the world capitals he visited, stayed in Bangkok, the nightlife in the city apparently was less thrilling than in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Tokyo. Mortimer explains that young girls who come from the farms “generally end up as dance-hall girls, hostesses or prostitutes” and locates most of the Bangkok brothels on Bangkapi (Sukhumwit) Road, describing them as “private houses with from six to a dozen girls in attendance, plus visiting amateurs out to make a few tics [baht] on the side”. He himself, however, visited first-class nightclubs and places of entertainment such as the Hoi Tien Lau, the Sala Thai Club and the Lido, where he met a Siamese taxi-girl, and also a Cambodian and two Vietnamese girls (Mortimer 1956: 226-228).

The Second World War and the Vietnam War

37“Wars are always a chance for the whores”, writes W. Bradford Huie in the biography of Mamie Stower, a famous American prostitute who amassed a small fortune by working in Honolulu in the early 1940s when Hawaii was swamped with servicemen and who married a U.S. squadron leader (Huie 1956). Japanese troops (up to 150,000 a year) were present on Thai soil between 1942 and 1945. In 2001 a Thai researcher revealed that Thai women were recruited as “comfort women” alongside women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. However, Thailand being an official ally of Japan, it seems that almost all of these women were already prostitutes who got tied to the Japanese Army. Assuredly, their plight was unenviable, but not very different from those of the many prostitutes who provided sexual services in temporarily constructed shelters/brothels along the River Kwai or elsewhere in Thailand. Very few data are available on these so-called provincial daen sawan (paradisiac areas) (Hicks 1996: 18; Baffie 1998: 616; “WWII ‘Comfort women’” 2001; Tangwisutijit 2001).

38Prostitution became an important economic sector for Thailand in 1966 when American servicemen in Vietnam began coming to Bangkok on one-week Rest and Recreation (R & R) visits. A press correspondent remembers:

Entire hotels were taken over by the US military; bars and nightclubs sprang up all over town; and thousands of girls were employed, with the tacit encouragement of the Thai and US governments, to help the US troops unwind. (Peagam 1976: 27.)

39Ironically enough, it was just a few years after prostitution had been officially declared illegal in Thailand by Marshall Sarit Thanarat’s government in 1960.

40By 1969, between 46,000 and 48,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in eight air bases (Don Mueang in Bangkok; Takhli, Nakhon Sawan Province; Utaphao, Chonburi Province; Nam Phong, near Khon Kaen; Nakhon Ratchasima; Nakhon Phanom; Udon Thani; Ubon Ratchathani) and a naval base (Sattahip, Chonburi Province). In addition, GIs from Vietnam could choose Thailand for their R & R leaves. According to an agreement, every ten days up to 2,000 US soldiers came through on holiday. In 1973, Bangkok was well known as “the city with 30,000 call-girls” (Nouvelle… 1973: 2).

41Very few sociological studies on these prostitutes were conducted in the 1960s and the 1970s. Nevertheless, we know, for example, that Nakhon Ratchasima had a couple of hundred prostitutes at the beginning of 1961, but by the end of the year the number had grown to over one thousand girls and—because of the arrival of the U.S. forces—to almost four thousand in 1970-1971. In 1966 the U.S. Army began employing a medical doctor and three nurses specifically to check venereal diseases. In order to work in bars or other entertainment establishments, the girls had to present a health book, the “Pink Book” (Buraphangkul 1973: 19-20).

42Literary works supply additional elements of information. For example, in a short story (first published in 1971), a Thai author tells the story of a prostitute in Takhli who killed a GI after he had raped her daughter (“Supphalak” 1978).

The Tourists: From the 1970s to the Present Time

43Writing in 1972, a French author explained that prostitution in Bangkok was less exposed than ten years before, but still flourishing. He concluded: “It seems that Bangkok is still the most ‘amoureuse’ city in Southeast Asia” (Milley 1972: 105). Actually, when the GIs left, locals and European tourists replaced them. In particular, the massage parlors of New Phetchaburi Road started catering to Thai customers. However, Thai men dared to venture in number to Patpong Road only in the late 1980s. Also, although Pattaya Beach had been a holiday place for the Thai high society of Bangkok in the 1950s and early 1960s, before it became known as an American beach, it was only in the mid- or late 1980s that Thai families chose to bypass Bangsaen, the seaside resort for the Thai, to rediscover Pattaya, which had the reputation of being too expensive for locals.

  • 18 The novel was first published in 1959 but with no author or publisher indicated.
  • 19 In the novel, Thai men play a very small part and Thai women almost none. It chooses to depict almo (...)
  • 20 Both the book and the movie were forbidden in Thailand and the Thai had to buy and see them in Hong (...)

44In 1967, Emmanuelle Arsan, whose real name was Marayat Krasaesin (1932-2005) and who was better known as a second-ranking actress in Hollywood productions, published Emmanuelle, a partly autobiographical novel set in Thailand.18 The book was a big success mostly due to its erotic content: the sexual initiation of a young European woman in an exotic country.19 Many European tourists to Thailand of the late 1960s and early 1970s had read Emmanuelle, but that was nothing to compare with the movie that was shot by Just Jaeckin in 1973 in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and released in 1974. By 1986 almost nine million people had seen it (Baffie 1988: 119).20 Concurrently and propitiously, air transport tariffs between Europe and Southeast Asia were freed from the control of the International Air Transport Association, and Swiss and German companies such as Kuoni and Neckermann started a system of charter flights, which promoted Thailand as an affordable destination for a major part of the European population. Arsan’s book and the movie would not have been sufficient to start a major influx of European tourists into Thailand.

  • 21 This advertisement was used on the cover of a professional journal for publicists, Khon kotsana, vo (...)

45During the 1970s and early 1980s several airlines and tour companies used advertisements showing scantily dressed Thai girls with ambiguous text. It would be easy to give many examples. In 1973, Thai International, the national airline company, distributed an advertisement showing a colored photograph of the silhouette of a scantily-clad (or naked?) girl on a beach at sunset with the words “Get into it” in large letters.21 The July 1983 edition of Tourist, a magazine “given to all tourists free” with advertisements by major companies such as Thai Airways and British Airways, showed a sleeping Thai woman on its cover with the comment: “Calm, charming, relaxing, natural and always sexy is a Thai”. Perhaps, the English-speaking reader might have been inclined to compare that image with American, English, or Australian women.

46In August 1983, the arrival of four World Snooker champions illustrated well the omnipresence of sex tourism. Steve Davis, Terry Griffiths, Doug Mountjoy, and Tony Meo came to Bangkok to play in the “Bangkok Golden Cue” and were greeted at Don Mueang Airport by a “fashion model” (often some kind of high-class prostitute) hired to welcome them, carrying a poster proclaiming “Bang Ka Lo Pump-Pump”, seemingly an expression coined on the American airbase of Takhli during the Vietnam War to refer to sexual services. “It is destroying the image of the whole Thailand … this is an odious thing” reacted one of the best-known columnists of the country (“Wai Tathip” 1983: 16).

47In the late 1980s attention was focused on child prostitution, both male and female. Universities organized seminars and encouraged research, and several books were published in the Thai language. During his first term as Prime Minister (June 1992 to September 1995), Chuan Leekpai made it clear that child prostitution would be severely suppressed.

Fig. 3. A Bangkok map for womanizing German tourists

Fig. 3. A Bangkok map for womanizing German tourists

(Are mentioned girly bars, massage parlours, prostitution houses...)

48In the 1990s, however, as in the previous decades, few politicians were really interested in trying to solve the whole prostitution problem or improve the lot of the prostitutes. In a 1994 press conference on child prostitution, it was even claimed that some parliamentary candidates were giving money to brothel owners in order to persuade their prostitutes to vote for them (“Chi phawa…” 1994: 40).

Two Disturbing Incidents

49Some events have more or less profoundly impressed local opinion. These are frequently anecdotal history but they have had serious consequences and given birth to the realization that prostitution, in some of its appearances, could be a real problem, a position not widely shared before the 1980s.

The Case of Hotel 28 in Phaya Thai, Bangkok

50On February 2, 1982, the year of the bicentennial anniversary of Rattanakosin—i.e., of the Chakkri Dynasty and the choice of Bangkok as capital city—Crime Suppression Division police raided Hotel 28 in Phayanak Lane, located in the vicinity of Bangkok’s Asia Hotel. Suspicions that Hotel 28 was a brothel proved true when the police found 99 girls captive, some not more than 13 years old. Some managed to escape, but police were able to arrest 62 girls and 12 pimps. Almost all the Thai-language newspapers made headlines of the incident and a female official of the Women Lawyers’ Association’s Emergency Home contacted police officers in order to give some assistance to the girls and help them get back to their villages. The woman realized then that the girls were no longer under the “protection” of the police but were being kept back in Phayanak Lane, in a shophouse owned by the same man who managed Hotel 28. Finally, police officers told the woman that all but five of the girls had escaped the previous evening. The five girls explained that some pimps from Hotel 28 had taken most of the girls to Hotel 588, another prostitution house. In the days that followed, Phaya Thai police came up with various excuses and finally argued that they released the prostitutes because of the shortage of space at their police station (Mahatanobon 1982: 5).

51The interior minister at that time, General Sitthi Jirarote, was an honest person and a close friend of the then Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda. Six Phaya Thai policemen were transferred out of Bangkok and a commission was named to investigate the scandal (“Scandal...” 1982: 22). Thai dailies revealed that the Hotel 28 owner used to pay a monthly fee of 40,000–50,000 baht to the Phaya Thai police station and that policemen frequently visited the brothel and slept with the girls for free (“Krachok khao” 1982: 14).

The “Phuket Case”

52On January 30, 1984, a fire broke out near the market place of Phuket city, on the island of Phuket. The fire spread to a nearby street where approximately 60 brothels were located. One of them was entirely devastated. Five prostitutes who were tied in heavy chains could not escape and their charred corpses were found in the ruins. Seven other girls were injured, some of them seriously. These prostitutes had been lured from the northern and northeastern parts of Thailand to serve Chinese residents and tourists in Phuket during the Chinese New Year Festivals (Thayahathai 1985: 25). The dead prostitutes had been arrested by the police a few days before but were released, probably after a bribe had been paid or other special arrangements made (Bangkok World, February 15, 1984: 6). The “Hell in Phuket” case had a profound impact on the minds of the Thai population. Luckily the chief of the Police Department in Bangkok at that time, General Narong Mahanond, was also an honest civil servant. The brothel owner, a Chinese called ko Leng Thian-ngarm, was arrested and received a life sentence, and two other pimps were condemned to 10- and 21-year jail terms. The three police officers in charge in Phuket at that time were also transferred (Baffie 2008: 20).

53Traditionally the Thai particularly dislike the wide publicity of such cases. By the early 1980s, most of them were well aware that their country had for more than a decade had the reputation of being a paradise for prostitution customers. But, as the Thai language press chose to avoid front-page headlines, everybody’s face could be saved. Of course, foreign publications frequently devoted space to lengthy stories on massage parlors, bar girls, and red-light zones, but only English-, French-, or German-reading Thais were aware of them, and these news articles almost always covered only prostitution for tourists and foreign residents. The myth of prostitution as an external evil could be preserved.

54The Hotel 28 and Phuket cases were much publicized and had a lasting impact on the Thai mindset. Usage of words such as slave (that) and Hell (narok) was common. Such cases of police links with brothels owners were quite frequent before and after the early 1980s, but none was as dramatic as the Phuket case. The press of the time may have been advised not to make headlines of prostitution stories, probably to save the country from receiving a poor image. Likewise, we can speak of “before the Hotel 28 and Phuket cases” and “after the Hotel 28 and Phuket cases”. From then on, prostitution was considered a serious problem. Even before the AIDS years, prostitution could kill young country girls.

The Major Laws Relating to Prostitution

55In Thai culture, laws seem to have no value to anyone apart from the big men (kings, prime ministers, judges, etc.) who have the power to create, repeal, or implement them. Many laws have thus remained dead letters. This has been particularly true for the laws on prostitution.

56When in 1905-1906 King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) liberated Thai slaves, a new regulation was necessary to determine the prostitutes’ status. In 1908, a law on transmissible diseases known in Thai as Phraratchabanyat pongkan santchon rok r.s. 127 was promulgated. Prostitutes had to be attached to houses of prostitution, of which only women could be managers (Art. 5). The female prostitutes had to be over 15 years old and could move from one house to another with the owner’s agreement. Taxes had to be paid every three months: 30 baht for the brothel and 12 baht for each prostitute. Before authorization was given the girls had to be examined by a physician and a government official had to verify the girls’ willingness to become a prostitute. The law required that a lantern be hung in front of the houses of prostitution. No color had been specified, but, in practice, almost all were green.

57In 1928 an Act on the Prevention of Trafficking in Women and Children was promulgated in Siam. A prison sentence of not more than seven years and a fine of not more than 1,000 baht could be given to people involved in women and child trafficking, most of them being, at that time, Chinese women and girls. One thousand baht was quite a heavy fine at the time the Act was promulgated, but a much lighter sum twenty or thirty years later.

58Prince Sakol was the Siamese envoy to the Conference of the Central Authorities of Eastern Countries on the Trafficking of Women and Children, held in Bandung (Java, Indonesia), February 2-15, 1937. It was the first step toward the complete prohibition of prostitution in Thailand. On December 2, 1949, the United Nations asked all UN members to ban prostitution completely. Thailand was one of four East Asian countries to have been admitted to the UN since October 24, 1945, but it was only in October 1960, under the premiership of Marshall Sarit Thanarat, that prostitution was effectively banned in Thailand. A decree comprising18 articles abolished the 1908 law and provided that prostitutes, pimps, and brothel owners were liable to a 2- to 12-month imprisonment and a 1,000- to 4,000-baht penalty. The new law has never been seriously implemented. On the contrary, Thailand started gaining the reputation of a country with openly available prostitution.

59Nearly all Thai governments since the early 1970s have drafted new bills on prostitution. The Thanin Kraivixien government (November 1976-October 1977) almost promulgated a law legalizing prostitution. The registration tax would have been only 10,000 baht for a brothel, and then a yearly tax of 5,000 baht thereafter (Parithat Weekly, April 29, 1977: 9). The government was overthrown before the bill could become law. Again, in February 1991, Chatichai Choonhavan’s government was overthrown before the parliament could pass a bill modifying the 1960 decree on prostitution.

60At last, a bill for the prevention and repression of sexual commerce (Phraratchabanya pongkan lae prappram kankha praweni) was passed on September 4, 1996, and promulgated in the official gazette on October 22. The 1960 law was nullified but prostitution remains an illegal activity; penalties for prostitutes are relatively light (not more than 1,000 baht) compared with those for pimps, brothel owners and managers, and parents who sell their children (Arts 7-11). For the first time prison sentences of up to 6 years and fines of up to 120,000 baht are prescribed for clients when child prostitutes younger than 15 years old are implicated (Art. 8). As for owners, managers, and pimps of brothels with child prostitutes younger than 15 years old, they risk a 10- to 20-year jail sentence and a 200,000- to 400,000-baht fine (Art. 11). Arrested prostitutes younger than 18 years old will be put in “protection and vocational development institutes” where they will acquire new knowledge enabling them to quit prostitution.

61The new law was not well received by feminist activists, and two years later, Sukanya Hantrakul wrote (Hantrakul 1999):

Indeed prostitutes deserve far better treatment than just arrest and confinement in any form. The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act 2539 BE must be scrapped. Its centralised and authoritarian framework is anachronistic. Prostitutes [sic] must be decriminalised. They must be freed from all forms of exploitation that all layers of state employees in the judicial, penal and reformatory systems as well as well-meaning NGO’s, individuals and the international community helped to create by locking them up in an illegal profession.

62In 2002-2003, as governments, parliaments, and the law regard prostitutes as minors (while those under 18 are officially considered child prostitutes), more and more voices are asking for the legalization of prostitution. In fact, the two sides are probably not referring to the same prostitutes, as the phenomenon takes a considerable variety of forms.

Brothels (samnak or song) and Prostitution Hotels (rongraem)

63These are the traditional houses of prostitutes that were perfectly legal until 1960. Every tricycle or taxi driver and many Thai men know where they can be found but, when interviewed by newspaper correspondents or researchers, police officers in charge usually deny their existence.

  • 22 The rate of the baht to the US dollar was fixed at about 20 baht to the dollar until the late 1980s (...)

64From time to time popular magazines publish lists of these brothels. For instance, in June 1980, the Chiwit tong su weekly gave a list of 15 hotels and 11 brothels with prices for intercourse in 1974, 1979, and 1980. The most expensive prostitutes mentioned were in Chavala Hotel in the Khlong Tan neighborhood: 200 baht in 1974, 250 in 1979, and 300 in 1980. Most of the hotels mentioned were cheaper, the cheapest being near the railway in Khlong Toey slum: 20 baht in 1974, 40 baht in 1979, and 50 baht in 198022 (“Khao…” 1980: 21).

65Two years later, while Thai officials were busy trying to convey a good image of Bangkok during the dynasty’s bicentennial celebrations, the same magazine reported that it was easier to find a Thai prostitute than a Chinese pastry named pa thong ko, and it published a guide to the best-known prostitute hotels in Bangkok, particularly in the Bang Khun Phrom-Wisut Kasat area, and along Sukhumwit and Phetburi Tat Mai streets (“Men khi fan…” 1982).

66Specialized guides for some streets have been published in nightlife magazines, in particular for Wisut Kasat Road, which was from the 1960s to the 1990s the best-known street where Thai men went to find prostitutes. In its December 1983 issue Fai klang khuen (Midnight Lights) presented 16 prostitute hotels in the Wisut Kasat area: they usually employed between 40 and 80 sex workers and prices were set at 110-170 baht for short-time (three hours) services (“Samnak…” 1983). This special kind of guide was then produced in a pocket size booklet. The wording on the cover was:

Places where girls are pretty, where the atmosphere is pleasant, where the music is good: cocktail lounges, discotheques, massage parlors, coffee-shops, bars, night-clubs, motels, list of the brothels (thamniap samnak khomkhiao). (Khumue… 1984.)

67Wisut Kasat Road used to be the best-known prostitution area for locals. Close to the Parliament and the hotels accommodating provincial representatives when attending parliamentary sessions, the street was also not very far from one of the major military districts of Bangkok. Its true celebrity came during the 1960s when the girls of Wisut Kasat brothels introduced song yang (two things) package; in fact, they introduced the practice of fellatio among Thai prostitutes. However, after a time, most of the prostitutes and masseuses had adopted the trend. Wisut Kasat prostitutes tried to promote a sam yang (three things) package, adding to sexual intercourse and fellatio, a shower or a bath with the customer (Numsao,June 26, 1979: 17-18).

68Among the other known brothel areas of Bangkok a few are always mentioned: Phayanak Lane, near the Asia Hotel, and the Suthisan area close to the North-East Bus Station. But second-class hotels and motels in many areas have a few girls ready to provide sexual services to lonely men or have catalogues of prostitutes usually available in a short time.

Tea Lounge Girls (ying rong nam cha)

69Tea lounges are an old institution in Thailand, and are especially associated with old Chinese men. It may be the legal place of prostitution having the most similarities with illegal brothels. In Bangkok (at Suthisan, and Thonburi near Phra Pin Klao Bridge, among other places) several of these old-fashioned tea lounges have been renamed karaoke or restaurants during the last decade. For example, since the early 2010s, the one I had observed for three decades at the Suthisan-Pahon Yothin intersection presents the appearance of a cheap eatery.

  • 23 Thian Kua Thian used to be a well-known Chinese movies house. Nowadays, it shelters a UOB Bank bran (...)

70They were popular until the mid-1980s. An article in a feminist journal gives some details of a police raid on the Chomphu (Pink) Tea Lounge in the Phra Pin Klao Bridge area (Thonburi side) on June 20, 1981. Of the 72 girls, four were 14 year olds and none was more than 20. The place stayed open between noon and midnight. Customers were charged from 80 to 400 baht, but the girls had to pay for their room, food, etc., so that they had very little money left at the end of the month (“Kongprap…” 1981: 4). In his autobiography massage tycoon Chuwit Kamolvisit (born in 1961) tells about his experience in a Chinatown teahouse in Thian Kua Thian building located in front of his family’s home along Yaowarat Street.23 He used to go there to drink tea, talk with the girls and sleep with them (Kamolvisit 2003: 17).

71A few teahouses survive, however. In 2002, an author who does not reveal his true name wrote a two-page article about his visiting a teahouse prostitute in Bangkok. The man in charge of the establishment was a Chinese who supplied a condom to the client. The rooms were cubicles measuring 2 x 2.5 meters. The girl was 35 years old and the price was 220 baht, of which only 40 baht went to her (“Nai Thongdaeng” 2002: 64-65).

Fig. 4. Thai novels and guides on prostitution and massage parlors

Fig. 4. Thai novels and guides on prostitution and massage parlors

Massage Girls (mo nuat)

72Many massage parlors provide sexual services, including sexual intercourse. Presenting massage parlors in Ratchadaphisek Road, renowned as “Bangkok’s new red-light district”, a magazine mentions the prices and adds: “Both menus include having sex with the masseuse and you need not pay extra unless you are willing to give her a tip” (“Nightlife…” 2000: 10). In fact, massage parlors in Thailand and most countries in Southeast Asia are a special kind of brothel. Writing in 1968 about Sumaree, a massage girl he met first in 1962, John C. Caldwell assumed that “her profession, once an honorable one in Thailand […], is now only a step removed from that of prostitute” (Caldwell 1968: 15). According to the author, the massage parlors were introduced in Thailand by the Japanese Army during the Second World War. In Bangkok “five large and well-established massage and ‘Turkish bath’ houses” remained after the Japanese soldiers returned home. By 1960 the number had increased to ten and by 1968, when the U.S. Army presence in Thailand was at its peak, there were 152 massage parlors in Bangkok and many more in the six provinces with air or sea bases (ibid.: 17). But Caldwell writes that, in the early 1960s, sexual intercourse with massage girls did not take place on the premises but in nearby motels (ibid.: 31).

73In a more recent book, Alan Dawson informs us that the first massage parlor in Thailand, the Bangkok Onsen, was opened on October 22, 1956, in Patpong, the little street synonymous with “Bangkok by Night” for many tourists and European residents. Sex with customers was strictly forbidden and most of the masseuses were Japanese girls recruited with the help of the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok, which insisted that 30 percent of the girls’ earnings be kept for eventual repatriation and in case of criminal activity (Dawson 1988: 28-29). The Bangkok Onsen’s customers were Japanese expatriates, Thai police officers, and high-ranking civil servants. That first massage parlor closed down in 1958 because of the competition with brothel-type massage parlors.

74I have not found well-researched works in Thai or English on the development of massage parlors in Thailand, but popular references see the origins of massage parlors in the opium dens of Chinatown that developed in rong nam cha or tearooms (“Massage….” 1980: 63). Massage services were provided to customers be they older Chinese men or middle-aged traders. An author assumes that some massage girls were also opium addicts and had to sell their bodies to get extra money (Moli 1969: 29).

75In 1960, when brothels were declared illegal and had to close or go underground, some businessmen started to open massage parlors and tearooms as lightly disguised brothels. Because such places were legal, several surveys and academic studies of massage girls have been conducted in Bangkok, in 1979, 1982, and 1987.

76The 1982 research by Pasuk Phongpaichit was written in English and was widely read. As only 50 masseuses were interviewed, the results should be treated with some caution. Selecting only country girls in her sample, as the research concerned migration, she found that 48 percent of the masseuses came from the North, 26 percent from the Northeast, 20 percent from the Central region, and only 2 percent from the South. Before coming to Bangkok, 37.5 percent were helping their family on the farms, 16.7 percent were housewives, 14.6 percent were small traders, 10.4 percent were students, and the rest were factory workers, waitresses, and salesgirls (Phongpaichit 1982: 12-13). Pasuk asked about the fate of former masseuses. Of 36 mentioned cases, 16 were married and had gone to the countryside, two were married and had gone abroad, one was married and in Bangkok, two were minor wives, seven had opened shops (such as hairdressing salons), one had simply returned home to the farm, and seven were still part-time masseuses during stays in Bangkok (Phongpaichit 1982: 18).

77In the late 1980s, as rumors of VD and HIV infections among Thai masseuses spread, massage parlors lost popularity. A few high-class massage parlors such as Cleopatraon Phloenchit Road in Bangkok—declared their establishments “off limits” to western customers. Less than ten years later, a new generation of even bigger massage parlors has arisen in the Ratchadaphisek area. Even in higher-quality magazines such as Boss: a Magazine for Company Directors (Nittayasan khong chai nak borihan) a high-class massage parlor, the New Cleopatra—with about 300 rooms—is given as one of the ten major Bangkok entertainment places for men (Siworanon 2001: 148-151). However, prices were so high—particularly after the July 1997 financial crisis—that fewer and fewer Thai (and European) likely customers could afford their services.

Bottom-of-the-Line Prostitutes

78Probably a large majority of the prostitutes would claim that selling their body is just a way to earn money, but there is a huge difference in income among prostitutes. A headline on the front page of Thai Rah daily in July 2002 refers to “miserable prostitutes” (sopheni rakya) in the southern town of Nakhon Si Thammarat. These women, who live in a slum in front of the railway station, ask only 20 baht for sexual intercourse and make illegal use of empty carriages that remain at the station during the night. A town councilor explained that these prostitutes have used the station for a long time, that they used to be more numerous, but that their numbers have much shrunk lately (“Reng chuai…” 2002: 19).

79In Bangkok, many of the prostitutes ready to work in the streets and other public places have been fired from commercial sex establishments because they are too old or they have been infected by sexually transmitted diseases, particularly incurable ones such as AIDS.

80The case of “Samon” was slightly different. Originating from the northern province of Lampang, she came to Bangkok in the mid-1950s with her husband, a building worker from the northeast. She also started to work on building sites for 20 baht a day. After a few years, the family grew to three children while their income remained unchanged. She went to Phra Pradaeng, south of Bangkok, to work in a plastic factory for 25 baht a day, but it was not enough. Then, one day, at a bus stop in Chinatown, she noticed a girl asking male passers-by to sleep with her for 30 baht in a nearby hotel. The independence of this kind of job pleased “Samon”. Her first customer was a sailor; she asked for 50 baht but had to accept 40. In 1979, when she told her story to the weekly Chiwit tong su, “Samon” was probably around 45 years old. She still worked in the factory from midnight to 7 a.m., but, from midday to 10 or 11 p.m., she was one of the more than 50 cheap prostitutes working along Yaowarat Road in Chinatown (“Phop…” 1979: 6-7).

  • 24 This fourth location was particularly the meeting place of gay prostitutes (“Kai long…” 1995: 3).

81Sixteen years later, in 1995, a popular magazine published a map of Bangkok showing four areas where cheap streetwalkers could be found: 1. At Sanam Luang, the royal field in historic Bangkok. 2. Around Lumphini or “suan Lum”, the largest public garden in central Bangkok. 3. At the July 22 Circle, an open square at the entrance of Chinatown, near Hualamphong Railway Station. 4. On Phahon Yothin Road in front of Kasetsart University24 (“Kai long…” 1995: 3). They squat in bus stops, particularly at night, when very few buses are in service, and during the rainy season, when finding a shelter is much valued.

  • 25 And sometimes “nang lom bon ruea yot” or “prostitutes on a yacht” (“Khai tua…” 1979: 22).

82Until the early 1980s Bangkok had a number of prostitutes on the canals. One history tells us that in 1936, a prostitute named Bang-on, who used to work in hotels, rented a boat on the Saen Saep Canal to serve her customers. At that time, she charged 5 baht for sex and paid only one baht for the boat rental. The profit was so good that in a few years 28 prostitutes were working on Saen Saep Canal. They were later mockingly called “nang bon ruea yot” or “ladies on a yacht”.25 In the late 1970s the practice had become much less profitable.

83We reach the very bottom of the ladder with homeless prostitutes. In November 1979, the Chiwit tong su weekly told the sad story of Rattiya, a semi-disabled young girl from Chonburi Province who lived under the Phut Bridge in Bangkok. She usually sold her body for 30 baht but had a very irregular income and would sometimes wait from 6 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. without any client. Worse, she told the magazine that she was once molested and raped by three men (“Thepthida…” 1979). This case is neither exceptional nor out of date. I personally met in the Saphan Khwai area of Bangkok, in the late 1990s, a young prostitute who lived on the sidewalk and solicited western and Muslim visitors as well as Thai men.

Bar Girls

84Until the mid-1980s, bars in Patpong, the NEP (Nana Entertainment Plaza), and the soi (lane) Cowboy of Sukhumwit Road had almost no Thai customers. Like Pattaya, the seaside resort southeast of Bangkok, the places were considered too expensive for the Thai purse, and Thai men were afraid that—just as in bars for Japanese of soi Thaniya—bar girls would prefer to serve farang (Westerners) reputed to be more generous and less condescending. Besides, bar girls often looked ugly to Thai men as they were too suntanned—naturally or because of frequent stays in the seaside resorts of Pattaya, Phuket, or Ko Samui with previous clients. However, during the 1980s, Thai-language nightlife magazines such as Fai klang khun started publishing short sections (two to three pages) on Patpong and soi Cowboy bars.

Cocktail Lounges, Pubs, Karaoke Bars, Clubs, etc.

85Hostesses in cocktail lounges, karaoke bars, and clubs are developments of the “partners” and taxi-girls of the 1960s and 1970s, categories of hostesses who keep patrons company, talk and drink with them, and try to evaluate how much they could ask for a night or a few hours of sex. Usually these girls receive a basic monthly salary from the establishment and have a percentage on the drinks offered by the customers, but this represents only a small percentage of their earnings, which come mainly from selling sex. Exclusive cocktail lounges and membership clubs developed in the mid-1980s and were especially popular in the late 1980s and the early 1990s during the most virulent phase of the HIV-AIDS period that coincided with a time of easy enrichment for the middle and upper urban classes. It became very prestigious to be a member of the best known of these establishments, which tried new ways to satisfy their customers.

86In 1995 a doctoral thesis was submitted at the Sri Nakharin Wirot (Prasanmit) University of Bangkok on women working in cocktail lounges, pubs, and karaoke bars. In an example mentioned in it, it is specified that for a yearly membership fee of 5,000 baht—in the mid-1990s—a patron was allowed to drink ten bottles of foreign spirits, usually French cognac or Scottish whiskies, and sleep with six girls (Soponkanaporn 1995: 86).

87Almost all Thai-language nightlife guides of the 1980s and early 1990s were directories of cocktail lounges and exclusive clubs. Thus, the No. 100 (vol. 10, 1993) issue of the monthly Fai Klang Khuen (Midnight Lights) introduced the 25 most popular places in Bangkok at that time. Allusion to sexual services was made very differently for each establishment: some only indicated that “the price of the girl is not included” (mai ruam khatua phuying), that the membership fee included several “dates” with hostesses, or that “it is not permitted to take the girls out of the club, but that, after having bought some drink, it was possible to go out in the wind to admire the view” (Fai klang khuen October 1993: 105).

88Karaoke bars and clubs are an example of business in the sex sector adapting to new tastes and crazes. These establishments usually keep a large staff of pretty young girls who receive only a small salary. Ordinary tips but also sexual services to customers are a widespread way to increase earnings (“Karaoke…” 2002: 5).

Actresses, Singers, Models

89In May 2001, a woman’s magazine published a survey of girls regarding their dream professions. Besides air hostess, which has been the most popular job for many decades in Thailand (29 percent), in second place is actress (16 percent), and singers and models in sixth place (7 percent each) (“Phanthiwa” 2001: 88-89). It is no big secret, however, that actresses, singers, and models are jobs that quite often lead towards some form of prostitution. In many nightclubs, singers can decide to “off” (i.e., leave, usually to have sex in a nearby short-time hotel) with a generous customer. Some nightlife places organize “fashion shows” of girls in titillating clothes and underwear, and so on. Even well-known singers, actresses, and models are seemingly tempted to travel abroad—a few years ago to Brunei, then to Macao—to earn large sums of money as high-class prostitutes.

90This is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1950s and early 1960s beauty contests were already very numerous and beauty queens frequently ended as minor wives of military officers or politicians. In the following decades, most beauty queens reached more secure and dignified status, but it was well known that runners-up often entered the high-class prostitution ring.

91In May 1971, a movie monthly with a very imposing name, Dara Rat (State’s Star), published an article entitled “Dara rue sopheni” (Stars or Prostitutes). A subheading was even cruder: “Malarin Bunnag, Mali Komenphichai, Khomphat Atthaya, and Naowarat Watchara [well-known starlets at that time]: How Much Will You Have to Pay for Them”? The first of the “stars” mentioned in the title, Malarin Bunnag, was of mixed ancestry and had a diploma from a professional school. Her mother was a writer and had an advice column in a newspaper. Malarin decided very young to live independently. She entered beauty contests and was elected “Miss Audace”, a well-known shampoo brand. She then entered the “Miss Thailand Contest” but was only chosen as a runner-up. She started playing nude roles in a few movies. The author of the article accused Malarin of having mixed screen parts with daily life. Other members of the prestigious Bunnag family denied Malarin the right to use their surname (“Damru” 1971: 6-8).

92Thai people have a rigid hierarchy for prostitutes. A novel published in 1969 gives an interesting summary of the content right on the cover (Bang-o 1969: 1):

[This is] the behavior of nude stars of the Thai cinema world… Out of the screen they were high-class prostitutes… Then, they fell down to be partners and sell caresses in bars, and, at the end of the game, fleshy pleasures in… hotels.

The Development of Prostitution in Thai Provinces

93According to data drawn from old local religious and literary texts, prostitutes were well known in northern Siam during the Ayutthayan Period (15th to 18th centuries). Northern Thai women taken to Burma as prisoners of war were also required to perform sexual services (Bunruang 1984: 86-87).

94Since surveys show that most prostitutes originate from the North and Northeast regions, a number of studies are available on the prostitution trade in these parts of the country (cf. Rawangphan & Phonsiriphong 1996; Suwannaphatthana 1998). As early as 1982, economist Pasuk Phongpaichit concluded her well-known study of Bangkok masseuses saying that “young girls [were] one of the rural resources to be exploited for the sake of the balance of payments and urban growth” (Phongpaichit 1982: 76).

95However, many provinces are well known for having a large number of places of prostitution. Beside tourist cities and seaside resorts such as Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Pattaya, and Patong in Phuket, most provincial capitals have a nightlife area, usually around the largest hotels, with massage parlors, nightclubs, karaoke, and brothels. In 1996, for instance, it was said that Nakhon Pathom, the first city west of Bangkok, sheltered 43 brothels (Vanaspong 1996a: 17). Even smaller towns such as district (amphoe) towns usually have one or two brothels or eateries opened late at night where would-be customers know they could find prostitues.

96There is an evident specialization. The North provinces supply places of prostitution for Thai men (and Asian tourists) in Bangkok, Samut Prakan, Hat Yai, and Songkhla with usually young girls with clear complexions while the Northeast provinces supply bars and massage parlors in towns and resorts with many western tourists (Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Ko Samui) with not-so-young women with darker complexions. Burma, Yunnan, and Laos are like an extension of the North region: very young girls from these nearby countries, many belonging to chao khao minorities (hill tribes), have been found in Bangkok, Central, and Southern brothels for several decades. The South provinces supply hardly any prostitutes but prostitutes from the other regions flow into the South, many on their way to Malaysia and Singapore (Baffie 2008).

Sociology of the Prostitutes

97Who are the prostitutes? As it is a too complex subject to be treated in a few lines, it will suffice here to give only brief insights, keeping in mind that trends may be changing quite fast.

Fig. 5. Translated from comics drawned by famous Thai cartoonist Ed

Fig. 5. Translated from comics drawned by famous Thai cartoonist Ed

From Daily News (Deli Niw), 9 August 1983.

Profiles of Thai Prostitutes

98Run, the character created in 1937 by K. Surangkhanang in her novel Ying khon chua, used to be a young peasant girl in Chachoengsao Province. She meets Wichai, a young man from Bangkok, and follows him to the capital. She loses her virginity to Wichai, who puts her in a brothel and disappears. Free to leave, she chooses to stay, as she knows no one in Bangkok. Just one month after her arrival, she meets and falls in love with Wit, the son of a nobleman. But Wit disappears without knowing that Run is pregnant. From Bangkok, Run goes to work as a prostitute in various provinces (Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Nakhon Sawan). Five years later, she looks so old and tired that Wit no longer recognizes her when he meets her again (Surangkhanang 1994). Run is the archetype of the Thai prostitute. Although biographical details frequently diverge, it is almost impossible not to draw on the list of personal stories—as told in interviews, surveys, research, novels, or other fictional works—which present a girl seduced by a young urban playboy or deceived by an agent and sold to some brothel.

99In 1999, six Thai researchers from the Chulalongkorn University Institute of Sexology interviewed 81 prostitutes working in various places (massage parlors, tea lounges, hotels, restaurants, “cafés”, night clubs), who were being treated for venereal diseases at a Bangkok hospital (Yamarat et al. 1999). This survey has the advantage of taking account of the diversity of the prostitutes, the weak point being the relatively small number of the interviewees and the unscientific sampling method.

100Quite unusually, more girls originated from the Northeast region (38.3 percent) than from the North region (37 percent). The percentage of girls who came directly from the country to work as prostitutes was 64.22 percent. Only 13.6 percent of the girls were farmers immediately before entering prostitution, while 28.4 percent were construction workers, 14.8 percent domestic helpers, 12.4 percent restaurant waitresses, 7.4 percent sellers, and 7.4 percent hairdressers or dressmakers. Only 11.1 percent had had no other form of work before becoming prostitutes (ibid.: 46).

101Also very important is the fact that 74 percent of the girls lost their virginity with a boyfriend or a “husband” when 17.7 years old on average. Indeed, only 19.8 percent considered themselves as single, while as many as 44.4 percent answered they were mai, i.e., divorced, widowed, or more frequently separated, as very few had officially registered a marriage (see infra). As many as 64.2 percent of the prostitutes had children, and 33.3 percent more than one. (ibid.: 42, 43, 48). A very large majority of the girls have known a broken “marriage” or a love disappointment which was a major reason for their adopting the trade of prostitute.

102Little information is available on the ethnic origin of the prostitutes. In 1980, it was estimated that about 10 percent of Thailand’s prostitutes were Thai of Chinese ancestry (Jackson 1980: 64). Girls of mixed ethnic origin, usually with fathers from the USA, Europe, Japan, or the Middle East, are very popular among Thai clients who are reluctant to pay for the (more expensive) services of Russian and East European prostitutes, easily available in Bangkok and Thai seaside resorts. The local customers’ interest in chao khao prostitutes, an extensive category that includes not only official hill-tribes (Akha, Karen, Hmong) but also Chinese Ho and Shan, and girls from bordering countries, particularly Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, can be explained by the Thai view of exoticism, strengthened by a large number of slanted magazine articles, pseudo-scientific documents, movies, and unscientific books.

103Since the 1980s Thai academics and welfare workers have turned their attention to child prostitution. Official manipulation of the number of under-age prostitutes is quite easy. In most places of prostitution for Thai men until the 1980s, the majority of the girls were between 15 and 20 years old. It would make a huge difference to statistics if the authorities were to decide to legalize the start of adulthood at 13, 15, 16, 18, or 20. Even in the 1960s and the 1970s, when penalties were light, few prostitutes were less than 15 years old, but a large proportion were between 16 and 18. In November 2001, in an interview for Hi-Class monthly magazine, the Interior Minister, Police Captain Purachai Piumsombun, insisted that prostitution should be prohibited for “children” aged less than 20 years old (Kongbannathikan 2001: 29).

104Nowadays, child prostitutes form a few distinct categories. First, we have street children, a large majority being boys, who earn their living by collecting empty cans, old newspapers, and used plastic bags, and, at times, by selling their bodies to Thai or western homosexuals (Rai-ngan… n.d.: 10). Then, in tourist resorts such as Pattaya, on the Gulf of Thailand, under-age girls and boys work as independent prostitutes for western tourists and residents. Young girls usually try to find customers at night in south Pattaya, where most nightlife spots are concentrated, while young boys know that they will find pedophiles in a strip of the Chomthian Beach just outside the city of Pattaya.

Sociology of Sex and Gender Relations

105This essay does not intend to propose a general theory of prostitution in Thailand or Southeast Asia. However, if I do not believe in a general cultural or social explanation, it seems possible to propose modest theoretical schemes produced by the Thai society and history that could permit a better understanding of the prostitutional phenomenon in Thailand.

The Mae Mai Syndrome

  • 26 The Thai word mae mai means not only widow but more generally women whose husbands have disappeared (...)

106My own hypothesis is that prostitution had a very specific function in the Thai rural society of the first half of 20th century. Women who entered prostitution were almost never virgins or young innocent girls but women who had been deserted by husbands or boyfriends, girls with broken hearts, phuying chai taek (Suwannaphatthana 1998: 74-77) or “widows”26 (Rawangphan & Phonsiriphong 1996: 12). Many probably had children to bring up. Most of all, it was a loss of face for their whole family and they had little expectation of finding a new husband in the village. Their leaving the village could be seen as a kind of banishment or punishment. Their fault may have consisted more of having been abandoned by their husbands than of having had sexual relations per se. Going to the city, selling their bodies, and sending money back to their families was an appropriate way to redeem their “faults” while repaying their debts to their parents and giving them financial support to take care of their children.

107Compare this with what was said of khanika or ganika (whores) in ancient India (Aether… 2000):

Ganika are women who have fallen from grace, perhaps been divorced from their husbands with no possibility to go back to their own families, or thrown out of their homes for some slight they have committed. Surviving through prostitution, they step the very fringes of society, as outcasts and rejects.

108After a while, these prostitutes were regarded differently: as grateful daughters, good mothers, and rich people. The few years in town as prostitutes could be viewed as a period of penitence. Back in their country villages, they could consider a new life.

109In ancient India it was regarded as normal for widows to sacrifice themselves by being burned to death on their deceased husbands’ pyres. Many of them, however, fell into prostitution (Lefebvre 1951: 47-48).

Fig. 6. Prospects of the mae mai (“self-styled widows”)

Fig. 6. Prospects of the mae mai (“self-styled widows”)

110In a classic book on the subject, Havelock Ellis hypothesizes that prostitution constitutes an essential part of the matrimonial system. Young men not rich enough to rightfully acquire a spouse could find among young girls—whom nobody wanted to marry and who were destined to remain single—some who had decided to temporarily sell their favors as a social function (Ellis n.d.: 58). David Buss mentions the case of the Hokkien women of Taiwan repudiated for adultery who cannot remarry and non-virgin girls in traditional Chinese and Burmese societies who were unlikely to marry (Buss 1994: 102). As for Thailand, it could complete the case examples with widows—lato sensu—for whom remarriage was almost impossible and who frequently fell into prostitution.

Love and Sex, Marriage and Family

111Phuchai khit duai samong phuying khit duai huachai” (“Men think with their brains, women think with their hearts”) is a belief that the Thai share with many people (Kittikowit 1987: 39). Feelings are a privilege, but a weakness that is supposedly typically feminine.

112Important men in Thailand—today, most of them of Chinese ancestry—rarely mix marriage, sexual pleasure, and love. The aim of marriage is to found a large family. “If you have a lot of children, it will be almost impossible to stay poor” says a Chinese proverb. Another proverb specifies that “the wife builds the prosperity”, which means that she need not be pretty but kind, smart, hardworking, and have a gift for talking (Ngowcharoenkun 1999: 29, 53). In Shanghai, before 1937, parents arranged almost 55 percent of the first encounters between future husbands and wives and only 8 percent of them were entirely unplanned (Shi 1991: 36-38). During my long stay in Bangkok (1978-2009) I realized that matchmakers were still often hired by well-to-do Thai-Chinese families, particularly to find a suitable spouse for a son. Love was not viewed as a condition but more as a result of marriage, particularly if the wife produced many sons. As a Chinese social scientist wrote in an article on prostitution:

Emotional or intimate love and enjoyment of a sex life were never valid elements within the subject of marriage. Women were regarded as reproductive mechanisms to continue the family lineage. Fidelity to one’s husband and maintaining pre- and post-marital chastity verged on cultism. […]The chastity of men, of course, was never an issue in ancient Chinese society. (Xin Ren 1993: 99.)

113Another proverb in the collection mentioned above advises the husband to be discreet when visiting prostitutes (Ngowcharoenkun 1999: 54). As men do not choose wives to whom they are sexually attracted and even think that pretty women would be bad mothers, they have to look for sex and eroticism elsewhere—in brothels, high-priced cabarets, or with individual mistresses, depending on their earnings.

Ngoen khue phra chao (Money is God): The Economy and Politics of Prostitution

114Money and love, or money and sex, are far from being separate worlds. Even in very different cultural spheres the power of money is felt when it comes to exchanging love. In some cases, it is quite impossible to say if the exchange is prostitution or not. For example, anthropologist Claudine Vidal fails to mention prostitution when talking of sexual relations between single or married men and “pretty women” (school-girls, students, or others) in 1970s Abidjan, but the difference between a kept mistress and a free-lance prostitute seems particularly weak (Vidal 1979).

  • 27 The author, who signs himself “Siri Phatthana”, a pen-name meaning “luck-development”, was probably (...)

115The question arises of when money began to be the dominant factor in Thai society. Thai people assume that it was always so and that money is the most important thing, not only for locals but also for everyone in any country in the world. Long-time European residents are inclined to think the same. I was quite surprised in the early 1990s when a European woman—married to a Thai and resident in the country for more than 20 years—working as an accountant in a foreign company argued that everybody was for sale provided that the price was right. “Everybody has a price” (thuk khon mi kha tua; that is to say, literally: /every/person/have/price/body) is the title of an article published in 1959 in the alumni journal of Chulalongkorn University, the most prestigious tertiary institution in Thailand.27 The author takes his examples from stories set in Mexico in the 1920s but the last sentence, which is identical to the title, seems to be given as precept to new and old students (“Siri Phatthana” 1959: 86).

  • 28 According to the Far Eastern Economic Review Bangkok correspondent, writing in January 1976, “The T (...)
  • 29 The expression comes from tok khao khiao, which designates a practice whereby a farmer sells standi (...)

116The habit of putting money above all is not a very recent trend. As early as the 1950s, Donald Moore stated, “It has been said that the Thais are the most charming people that money can buy” (Moore 1960: 71). American journalists and diplomats frequently came to the same conclusion in the following decades.28 “Money as God” (ngoen khue phra chao) is believed to be an urban value introduced to the countryside along with other aspects of materialism (Sa-nguanseriphanit 1994: 85). One of the most extreme impacts of that ideology in the field of prostitution is the practice called tok khiao.29 It consists of brothel agents “reserving” a baby or young girl for a fixed sum of money, paid to her parents. When the girl completes her compulsory education, usually at 12, the agents come back, pay some more money, and take the teenager away with them.

117Prostitution is often called a profession, a trade, an industry, a business, etc. Sexual services are supplied by an expert (women, but sometimes men) who is paid for that, usually with money. In a 2002 French television talk program shown in France, Micheline, a Belgian prostitute, answered the question, “Is prostitution a profession?” with: “No! It’s just a profitable activity. Contrary to a profession, with prostitution you get less money as you become older” (Micheline 2002).

118In January 1970, a list of vacancies at a Bangkok employment agency included 14 jobs: the best paid were schoolteacher, probably at a private institution (950-1000 baht per month), bar worker (800-1500 baht), and masseuse (800-1500 baht). The second and third jobs provide sexual services and require no initial qualification, in contrast with the first one. The two other jobs offered to women were restaurant waitress (600 baht) and hotel maid (450-500 baht) (Bunnag 1970: 9).

119In many countries at given times prostitution may be a major trade or industry. Thus, in the France of the early 1950s an author calculated that on the basis of daily earnings of 3,000 francs and a total number of 50,000 prostitutes, the yearly turnover could be estimated at 50 billion francs and concluded: “With such a yearly turnover, prostitution may be the most important French industry” (Jammot & Rocheteix 1954: 85-86). In Thailand, prostitution became a real industry in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, but it was at the beginning of the 1980s, before the HIV epidemic, that the industry experienced its boom.

  • 30 The police officers—who usualy get paid by the owners—have for decades denied that sex was availabl (...)

120As for Thailand, massage parlors being in effect “legal” brothels,30 they provide a reliable example. Several very large massage parlors had been built along downtown Si Ayutthaya and New Phetchaburi roads: Chao Phraya 2, then the largest massage parlor in the world (250 rooms, total cost: 100 million baht) and Mona Lisa (120 rooms, total cost: 60 million baht). In 1983, Bangkok had 116 of these official massage parlors with a turnover of more than 10 billion baht, not a negligible part in the economy of the city.

Hypocrisy as a Way of Life

121Among the advertisements in Chumnum Chula (15, 3, February 1962), the well-known journal of the prestigious Chulalongkorn University of Bangkok, was one for Niagara Hotel in the Sathon area. Pictured is a motel, the indispensable shelter for illegitimate couples and, in particular, the place where many prostitutes such as bar-girls take their clients.

Politicians and Prostitutes

122The best known “Madame” of Thailand is Mrs Chintana Bunnag, better known as “Oi B.M.”, a reference to the BMW she used to drive. Her girls are high-class escorts and club hostesses. In a 1997 magazine interview she explained that she kept 30–40 percent of the income, while the girls got the remaining 60 percent (“Oi Bi Em” 1997: 29). After a few years as a servant of former Prime Minister Marshall Sarit Thanarat (1958-1963), Chintana worked as a “partner”, a kind of taxi-girl. She gave birth to a girl, but did not stay long with the father. She returned to prostitution as a high-class procurer. She opened cocktail lounges and escort agencies to serve members of parliament, ministers, and distinguished foreigners, sometimes official guests of the Thai government. She knew at least four former prime ministers and several vice-prime ministers well (“Raboet…” 1997: 9). In 1994, one of the best Thai female novelists published a two-volume biography of Oi B.M. An advertisement for the second volume announced, “This world can be divided in two parts, day and night; during the daylight, we have a prime minister named Chuan [Leekpai], but when night comes our prime minister is called ‘Oi B.M.’” (Thomayanti 1994: 287).

  • 31 In 2010, an article in a business weekly online, Prachachat Thurakit, did not mention any differenc (...)

123For decades, the most appreciated brothel in the Visut Kasat area of Bangkok was the Parliament Hotel, effectively located close to the Parliament Hall and mainly patronized by provincial MP. In 1983, the owner of Chawala Massage Parlor, Olarik Phayakhaphon, was elected a member of parliament in Bangkok for the Prachakon Thai Party. In an interview with Matichon weekly, he explained that, when he opened his massage parlor in 1957, the only service provided was massage and that the situation changed later only at competitors’ massage parlors. At Chawala he would not hesitate to fire a masseuse who behaved improperly. Besides, he pointed out, the money spent by foreign tourists in entertainment places was good for Thailand (Phayakhaphon 1983: 20-21).31

124In a few cases, Thai politicians did not follow the hypocrisy trend in public. Thai feminists have never forgotten that Boonchu Rojanastien, a former vice-prime minister, one of the most influential ministers of finance in the 1970s and 1980s, and the leader of three political parties successively, once encouraged provincial governors to develop the industry of prostitution to increase their income (“Somsi” 1981: 13).

125Are things changing and will the ngoen-khue-phra-chao ideology put an end to the prevailing hypocrisy? In February-March 2003, officials from the National Economic and Social Development Board proposed again to legalize prostitution and tax sex workers in order to collect around $3.8 billion extra for the state coffers. NESDB secretary general Chakramon Phasukavanich justified the move in an interview with an Australian reporter and explained:

If we are able to expand a little bit on this hidden informal sector, say if we are able to get it say 10 percent more that means it’s a hundred billion baht more… In reality, this is the oldest profession in the world. We accept the fact that it is happening, right? Nobody can prevent it, even though you are an angel, and then why not help them instead of put, you know, you are bad girl, you know, you know, outlaw, it’s not right, it’s not right. (Thai Authorities… 2003.)

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Note de fin

1 Even if the subject is particularly interesting, I decided not to include male prostition in my study, due to the number of pages it would have been necessary to add.

2 This is a personal and free translation since tua is the standard word for body and that, in Central Thai, i is a particularly derogative term frequently placed before personal names of female criminals, ai being an equivalent for males.

3 Obviously, from the content of the article, this is a shortened form of ying khai nuea sot (girls selling fresh meat) (“Saoropchat” 1984: 61).

4 Sopheni women were smart, with knowledge in not less than 64 arts such as poetry, classical dancing (Kabinsing 1991: 21).

5 According to an explanation, a long time time ago, a restaurant famous for its curry was situated in front of a brothel and husbands used to tell their wives they went to eat curry when they planned to visit the brothel (Baffie 2010: 447, note 1).

6 The Thai chua could alsos originate from the Chinese (Teochiu) tchua which also means “not good”, “bad” (Thaikhuruphan n.d.: 120).

7 In Lao and Isan (Northeastern Thai) dictionaries, mae chang is given as equivalent to “prostitute” (nakhon sopheni, nakhala sopheni) (Onmanison 1992: 438; Atchananukhom… 1962: 619; Phinthong 1989: 620).

8 Literally Khom khiao designates only the “green lantern” that used to indicate to local residents a house of prostitution.

9 The exhibition was arranged by the Klum sinlapin ying (Women’s Artists Group) on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

10 This definition is used for ying phaetsaya, for instance in a law dictionary (Saensiri 1961: 289).

11 This is an approximate translation since it is not possible to find a 17th or 18th century Thai language dictionary.

12 Its name was later changed to Takhian Canal.

13 Some historical thematic maps of Ayutthaya do not hesitate to show the location of these brothels (Kongchana 1990: 48).

14 In a Thai book on prostitution in Thailand, amateur historian Thepchu Thapthong estimates the number of these prostitutes at only forty in five brothels (Thapthong 1983: 159).

15 Liang means “to feed, to raise, or to take care of”, khon means “people”, and ha ngoen can be translated by “looking for money”. It is evident that only the central part of Bangkok is covered. For example, the Phayanak area, later well known for its motels with prostitutes, has not been included.

16 Khao kaeng is the staple food of workers in Thailand.

17 These Japanese women called Karayuki-san (literally “gone to China”) were very numerous in Southeast Asia at that time, particularly in Singapore, the Malay states, and Siam (Warren 1989).

18 The novel was first published in 1959 but with no author or publisher indicated.

19 In the novel, Thai men play a very small part and Thai women almost none. It chooses to depict almost exclusively the expatriate circles of Bangkok (Arsan 1967).

20 Both the book and the movie were forbidden in Thailand and the Thai had to buy and see them in Hong Kong or Japan (Thatsanasuwan 1976: 87-89).

21 This advertisement was used on the cover of a professional journal for publicists, Khon kotsana, volume 5 (1973). Very few people probably read the five other lines of text, in much smaller characters, that seem unrelated to the photography.

22 The rate of the baht to the US dollar was fixed at about 20 baht to the dollar until the late 1980s. Then it was about 25 baht to the dollar until July 1997. Since the July 1997 financial crisis, the exchange rate has fluctuated: it was 34.23 baht on September 19, 1997; 41.85 baht on August 24, 1998; 38.05 baht on April 11, 2000; 44.83 baht on September 11, 2001; 41.61 baht on July 4, 2003; 34.9 bahts on September 20, 2016.

23 Thian Kua Thian used to be a well-known Chinese movies house. Nowadays, it shelters a UOB Bank branch and Hua Seng Heng gold merchant. The teahouse was upstairs.

24 This fourth location was particularly the meeting place of gay prostitutes (“Kai long…” 1995: 3).

25 And sometimes “nang lom bon ruea yot” or “prostitutes on a yacht” (“Khai tua…” 1979: 22).

26 The Thai word mae mai means not only widow but more generally women whose husbands have disappeared for whatever reason.

27 The author, who signs himself “Siri Phatthana”, a pen-name meaning “luck-development”, was probably an alumnus, maybe a teacher at the university.

28 According to the Far Eastern Economic Review Bangkok correspondent, writing in January 1976, “The Thais are the nicest people money can buy,” which was the favorite saying of American reporters in the days of Thailand’s military dictatorship (Peagam 1976: 26).

29 The expression comes from tok khao khiao, which designates a practice whereby a farmer sells standing crops usually at a low price when in imperative need.

30 The police officers—who usualy get paid by the owners—have for decades denied that sex was available inside the massage parlours rooms. With the Chuwit (Kamolvisit) case, in 2003, some light was brought on police corruption: for about € 10,000 a month, Chuwit could buy off the entire police station in the district where several of his massage parlours were located (Baffie 2010: 212).

31 In 2010, an article in a business weekly online, Prachachat Thurakit, did not mention any difference between Chawala and other massage parlours on New Phetchaburi Road or Ratchadaphisek Road known to be prostitution places. In 2014, Chawala has been sold to property develpers who have built there a 30 storey Condominium (Anonyme 2010, 2014).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1. A 17th Century European (French?) sailor with a Siamese woman (prostitute?)
Crédits Buddhist monastery mural painting used as front cover of a book on Thai women (Tanchaiyanan 1990).
Fichier image/png, 707k
Titre Fig. 2. A prostitute in ancient Siam, under the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910)
Crédits From Ying khom khiao (Green lantern women) by Thepchu Thapthong, 1983 (2526), Chao Praya.
Fichier image/png, 1,4M
Titre Fig. 3. A Bangkok map for womanizing German tourists
Légende (Are mentioned girly bars, massage parlours, prostitution houses...)
Fichier image/png, 387k
Titre Fig. 4. Thai novels and guides on prostitution and massage parlors
Fichier image/png, 1,9M
Titre Fig. 5. Translated from comics drawned by famous Thai cartoonist Ed
Crédits From Daily News (Deli Niw), 9 August 1983.
Fichier image/png, 353k
Titre Fig. 6. Prospects of the mae mai (“self-styled widows”)
Fichier image/png, 27k
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Pour citer cet article

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Jean Baffie, « From Ying Nakhon Sopheni to Sao Borikan: Banality and Originality in the Development of Prostitution in Thailand », Moussons, 29 | 2017, 143-186.

Référence électronique

Jean Baffie, « From Ying Nakhon Sopheni to Sao Borikan: Banality and Originality in the Development of Prostitution in Thailand », Moussons [En ligne], 29 | 2017, mis en ligne le 27 mars 2017, consulté le 23 mai 2017. URL :

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Jean Baffie

Jean Baffie, sociologist, historian. Research fellow at the CNRS from 1992 to 2016. Associate researcher at Aix-Marseille Univ, CNRS, IrAsia, Marseille, France.

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