PATTAYA: In a daring nautical themed outfit, sex worker May confidently predicts the survival of Thai sleaze town Pattaya despite a junta attempt to tame the kingdom’s “Sin City”.
She is bullish because she, like tens of thousands of others in the industry, have no plans to give up their jobs. And there are no signs the hordes of foreign sex tourists are abating.
Two hours east of Bangkok, Pattaya’s bawdy reputation hails from the Vietnam War era when American GIs partied in their downtime.
Today it spins money off its no-holds-barred reputation and its most successful sex workers earn anywhere between 70-150,000 baht ($2-4,400) a month, as much as ten times the national average wage.
“I make good money here, for me and my family,” May told AFP as she touted for clients near ‘Walking Street’ –- a mile-long drag festooned with bars and clubs pouring out ear-crushing EDM music.
But concerns about the impact on Thailand’s reputation have spurred authorities to act, while frequent reports of underage sex workers, drug abuse and mafia operations further muddy Pattaya’s name.
May, who is transgender, said the strip has felt more subdued in recent weeks as police and soldiers conduct frequent patrols as part of a clean-up ordered by the censorious ruling junta.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Sulasak Kalokwilas is one of those tasked with what many might deem the ultimate Sisyphean task: weaning Pattaya off sex.
“We are suppressing obscene and dirty shows. We’re trying to make those bars disappear,” he explained.
As he spoke, lines of women stood behind him in revealing outfits enticing punters into bars with names like Taboo and G-Spot as well as Fahrenheit — a nightspot boasting “The Hottest Girls in Pattaya”.
“The lady boys and women working there, they are not involved in the sex trade,” said Pattaya’s police chief Colonel Apichai Kroppeth, echoing the kind of Thai police rhetoric commonly divorced from reality.
“They work as waitresses, sit and chat with customers, some dance in shows,” he said.
Bar fines, short-times
For many residents of the city the latest moral outrage fits a familiar pattern: negative overseas headlines prompt authorities to launch high-visibility — yet limited — crackdowns on an industry that pays the bills for everyone.
“You’re expecting the poachers to be the gamekeepers?” said one westerner who has made Pattaya his home, when asked if the latest clean-up will work.
The sex trade is a cash cow for the bar owners, girls, massage parlours, hotels, taxis, mafia and, many have long alleged, the cops charged with policing.
Thais call it “pon prayote”, says British journalist Andrew Drummond who reported on crime in Thailand for two decades.
“It means everyone benefits… it brings in massive amounts of money and simply couldn’t happen without police connivance.”
Apichai insisted there was “no bribery for sure” in his force.
Prostitution is illegal in conservative Thailand. Yet it remains ubiquitous for local and foreign customers alike.
Businesses use a well worn loophole to avoid prosecution, hiring sex workers inside the bars merely to entertain and talk to patrons.
A small “bar fine”, usually around 500 baht ($14), secures private “short time” away from the bar where any deal struck for sex is purely between the punter and prostitute.
While authorities have vowed to shutter the trade, there is little discussion on what happens to the sex workers — who often support large families with their earnings.
There are no exact numbers, but a 2014 UNAIDS report suggested some 140,000 females are employed by sex work across Thailand. Tens of thousands are thought to operate in Pattaya alone.
Par for the course
Tourism officials are optimistic for change, citing the increasing number of families coming to the town’s resorts and its popularity for sports, such as jet-skiing and golf.
“In terms of facilities I think we are already there,” said Suladda Sarutilavan, Pattaya’s director of tourism.
Last year some 12 million tourists — seventy percent foreigners — visited a city which now boasts over 100,000 rooms across 2,000 hotels, from cheap backpackers to swanky golf courses and family apartments.
While not everyone who comes is a sex tourist, she admits the city’s seedy image and crime headlines are a problem.
“It makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable,” she said.
Two recent killings have renewed the spotlight on the city’s reputation as a bolthole for foreign criminals.
In January, British businessman Tony Kenway was gunned down as he left the gym, a hit police linked to “boiler room” scams.
In 2015 an Australian former Hells Angel was kidnapped in broad daylight and murdered.
Foreigners who have made Pattaya home lament the killings, but say they fail to tell the wider picture of a largely safe, affordable city.
“Every night I went out in Coventry there was always one or two fights. I feel completely safe here,” said Briton Bryan Flowers, who moved to Pattaya a decade ago and now owns a dozen bars.
Others argue fancy hotels, malls and golf courses can flourish in step with the town’s party reputation.
“It’s why a lot of people come here,” Simon Peatfield, another Brit who owns restaurants and sports bars, said.
“There’s only so much golf you can play.”