People & Culture

Bangkok is both utterly Thai and totally foreign. Old and new ways clash and mingle, constantly redrawing the lines of what it means to be ‘Thai’. Despite the international veneer, a Thai value system – built primarily on religious and monarchical devotion – guides every aspect of life. Almost all Thais are dedicated Buddhists aiming to be reborn into a better life by making merit (giving donations to temples or feeding monks), regarding this as the key to their earthly success.

Sidebar: Thailand Demographics

  • Population: 68.4 million
  • Fertility Rate: 1.5
  • Percentage of people over 65: 10.5%
  • Urban population: 52.7%
  • Life expectancy: 74 years

People of Bangkok

Bangkok accommodates every rung of the economic ladder, from the aristocrat to the slum dweller. It is the new start for the economic hopefuls and the last chance for the economic refugees. The lucky ones from the bottom rung – taxi drivers, food vendors, maids, nannies and even prostitutes – form the working-class backbone of the city. Many hail from the northeastern provinces and send hard-earned baht back to their families in small rural villages. At the very bottom are the dispossessed, who live in squatter communities on marginal, often polluted land. While the Thai economy has surged, a truly comprehensive social net has yet to be constructed. Meanwhile, Bangkok is also the great incubator for Thailand’s new generation of young creatives, from designers to architects, and has long nurtured the archetype of the country’s middle class.

The city has also represented economic opportunity for foreign immigrants. Approximately half of its population claims some Chinese ancestry, be it Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien or Teochew. Although the first Chinese labourers faced discrimination from the Thais, their descendants’ success in business, finance and public affairs helped to elevate the status of Chinese and Thai-Chinese families.

Immigrants from South Asia also migrated to Bangkok and comprise the second-largest Asian minority. Sikhs from northern India typically make their living in tailoring, while Sinhalese, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Pakistanis can be found in the import-export or retail trade.

Feature: The Chinese Influence

In many ways Bangkok is a Chinese, as much as a Thai, city. The presence of the Chinese in Bangkok dates back to before the founding of the city, when Thonburi Si Mahasamut was little more than a Chinese trading outpost on Mae Nam Chao Phraya. In the 1780s, during the construction of the new capital under Rama I (King Phraphutthayotfa; r 1782–1809), Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka Chinese were hired as labourers. The Chinese already living in the area were relocated to the districts of Yaowarat and Sampeng, today known as Bangkok’s Chinatown.

During the reign of Rama I, many Chinese began to move up in status and wealth. They controlled many of Bangkok’s shops and businesses, and because of increased trading ties with China, were responsible for an immense expansion in Thailand’s market economy. Visiting Europeans during the 1820s were astonished by the number of Chinese trading ships on Mae Nam Chao Phraya and some assumed that the Chinese formed the majority of Bangkok’s population.

The newfound wealth of certain Chinese trading families created one of Thailand’s first elite classes that was not directly related to royalty. Known as jôw sŏo·a, these ‘merchant lords’ eventually obtained additional status by accepting official posts and royal titles, as well as offering their daughters to the royal family.

During the reign of Rama III (King Phranangklao; r 1824–51), the Thai capital began to absorb many elements of Chinese food, design, fashion and literature. This growing ubiquity of Chinese culture, coupled with the tendency of Chinese men to marry Thai women and assimilate into Thai culture, had, by the beginning of the 20th century, resulted in relatively little difference between the Chinese and their Siamese counterparts. By the turn of the 21st century, approximately half the people in Bangkok were able to lay claim to some Chinese ancestry.

Sidebar: Cultural Readings

  • Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings (Ajahn Chah; 2001)
  • Very Thai (Philip Cornwel-Smith; 2013)
  • Sacred Tattoos of Thailand (Joe Cummings; 2011)

The Thai Character

Much of Thailand’s cultural value system is hinged upon respect for family, religion and the monarchy. Within that system each person knows their place and Thai children are strictly instructed in the importance of group conformity, respecting elders and suppressing confrontational views. In most social situations, establishing harmony often takes a leading role and Thais take personal pride in making others feel at ease.

Other notable cultural characteristics include a strong belief in the concept of saving face and an equally strong regard for sà·nùk, Thai-style fun.

Monarchy

The Thais’ relationship with their king is deeply spiritual and intensely personal. All Thai kings are referred to as ‘Rama’, one of the incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, and are seen as a father figure (the previous king’s birthday is also the national celebration of Father’s Day). Thailand's previous monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, was the longest-serving in Thailand and the world until he passed away in late 2016. He has been succeeded by his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, Rama X.

It’s worth mentioning that, in Thai society, not only is criticising the monarchy an extreme social faux pas, it’s also illegal.

Religion

Religion plays a sigificant role in the life of most Bangkokians. Indeed, the people of Bangkok could be said to literally wear their religion on their sleeves, as clothing, amulets and other talismans are often clear indicators of one's faith.

Around 90% of the city's inhabitants are Buddhists, who believe that individuals compound merit through a combination of good works, meditation and study of the dharma (Buddhist philosophy). Other belief systems that feature prominently in Bangkok include Islam and animism.

Guardian Spirits

Animism predates the arrival of all other religions in Bangkok, and it still plays an important role in the everyday life of most city residents. Believing that prá poom (guardian spirits) inhabit rivers, canals, trees and other natural features, and that these spirits must be placated whenever humans trespass upon or make use of these features, the Thais build spirit shrines to house the displaced spirits. These dollhouse-like structures perch on wood or cement pillars next to their homes and receive daily offerings of rice, fruit, flowers and, frequently, bottles of Fanta.

Theravada Buddhism

The social and administrative centre for Thai Buddhism is the wát (temple or monastery), a walled compound containing several buildings constructed in the traditional Thai style with steep, swooping roof lines and colourful interior murals; the most important structures contain solemn Buddha statues cast in bronze.

Walk the streets of Bangkok early in the morning and you’ll catch the flash of shaved heads bobbing above bright ochre robes, as monks all over the city engage in bin·tá·bàht, the daily house-to-house alms-food gathering. Thai men are expected to shave their heads and don monastic robes temporarily at least once in their lives.

Taxi Altars: Insurance on the Dashboard

As your taxi races into Bangkok from the airport, your delight at being able to do the 30km trip for less than US$15 might soon be replaced by uneasiness, anxiety and eventually outright fear – 150km/h is fast, you’re tailgating the car in front and there’s no seatbelt. You can rest assured (or not), however, that your driver will share none of these concerns.

All of this makes the humble taxi trip an instructive introduction to Thai culture. Buddhists believe in karma and thus that their fate is, to a large extent, predestined. Unlike Western ideas, which take a more scientific approach to road safety, many Thais believe factors such as speed, concentration, seatbelts and actual driving skills have no bearing whatsoever on your chances of being in a crash. Put simply, if you die a horrible death on the road, karma says you deserved it. The trouble is that when a passenger gets into a taxi they bring their karma and any bad spirits they might have along for the ride, which could upset the driver’s own fate.

To counteract such bad influences, most Bangkok taxi drivers turn the dashboard and ceiling into a sort of life-insurance shrine. The ceiling will have a yantra diagram drawn in white powder by a monk as a form of spiritual protection. This will often be accompanied by portraits of notable royals. Below this a red box dangling red tassels, beads and amulets hangs from the rear-vision mirror, while the dashboard is populated by Buddhist and royal statuettes, and quite possibly banknotes with the king’s image prominent, and more amulets. With luck (such as it exists in Thailand), the talismans will protect your driver from any bad karma you bring into the cab. Passengers, meanwhile, must simply hope that their driver’s number is not up. If you feel like it might be, try saying cháh cháh soothingly – that is, ask your driver to slow down. For a peek inside some of Bangkok’s 100,000 or so taxis, check out Still Life in Moving Vehicles (www.lifeinmovingvehicle.blogspot.com).

Feature: What’s a Wát?

Bangkok is home to hundreds of wáts, temple compounds that have traditionally been at the centre of community life.

Buddha Images

Elongated earlobes, no evidence of bone or muscle, arms that reach to the knees, a third eye: these are some of the 32 characteristics, originating from 3rd-century India, that govern the depiction of the Buddha in sculpture and denote his divine nature. Other symbols to be aware of are the various hand positions and ‘postures’, which depict periods in the life of the Buddha.

  • Sitting Teaching or meditating. If the right hand is pointed towards the earth, the Buddha is subduing the demons of desire. If the hands are folded in the lap, the Buddha is meditating.
  • Reclining The exact moment of the Buddha’s passing into parinibbana (post-death nirvana).
  • Standing Bestowing blessings or taming evil forces.
  • Walking The Buddha after his return to earth from heaven.
Buildings & Structures

Even the smallest wát will usually have a bòht, wí·hăhn and monks’ living quarters.

  • Bòht The ordination hall, the most sacred prayer room at a wát. Aside from the fact it does not house the main Buddha image, you’ll know the bòht because it is usually more ornately decorated and has eight cornerstones to mark its boundary.
  • Chedi (stupa) A large bell-shaped tower usually containing five structural elements symbolising (from bottom to top) earth, water, fire, wind and void; depending on the wát, relics of the Buddha, a Thai king or some other notable are typically housed inside.
  • Drum Tower Elevates the ceremonial drum beaten by novices.
  • Gù·đì Monks' living quarters.
  • Hǒr đrai The manuscript library: a structure for holding Buddhist scriptures. As these texts were previously made from palm leaves, hǒr đrai were typically elevated or built over water to protect them from flooding and/or termites.
  • Mon·dòp An open-sided, square building with four arches and a pyramidal roof, used to worship religious objects or texts.
  • Săh·lah (sala) A pavilion, often open-sided, for relaxation, lessons or miscellaneous activities.
  • Wí·hăhn (vihara) The sanctuary for the temple’s main Buddha image and where laypeople come to make their offerings. Classic architecture typically has a three-tiered roof representing the triple gems: the Buddha (the teacher), dharma (the teaching) and sangha (the followers).
  • þrahng A towering phallic spire of Khmer origin serving the same religious purpose as a chedi .

Other Religions

Thai royal ceremony remains almost exclusively the domain of one of the most ancient religious traditions still functioning in the kingdom, Brahmanism. White-robed, topknotted priests of Indian descent keep alive an arcane collection of rituals that, it is generally believed, must be performed at regular intervals to sustain the three pillars of Thai nationhood: sovereignty, religion and the monarchy.

Green-hued onion domes looming over rooftops belong to mosques and mark the immediate neighbourhood as Muslim, while brightly painted and ornately carved cement spires indicate a Hindu temple. Wander down congested Th Chakkaraphet in Bangkok's Phahurat district to find Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple where visitors are very welcome. A handful of steepled Christian churches, including a few historic ones, have been built over the centuries and can be found near the banks of Mae Nam Chao Phraya. In Chinatown, large round doorways topped with heavily inscribed Chinese characters and flanked by red paper lanterns mark the location of săhn jôw, Chinese temples dedicated to the worship of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities.

Visual Arts

Buddha sculptures and murals communicate a continuous visual language of the religion and are arguably Thailand's highest art form. Adapting traditional themes to the secular canvas didn't begin until around the turn of the 20th century, when Western influence surged in the region.

Much of Bangkok’s best ancient art is on display inside its temples, while the city’s museums curate more contemporary collections.

Divine Inspiration

The wát served as a locus for the highest expressions of Thai art for roughly 800 years, from the Lanna to Ratanakosin eras. Accordingly, Bangkok’s 400-plus Buddhist temples are brimming with the figuratively imaginative, if thematically formulaic, art of Thailand’s foremost muralists. Always instructional in intent, such painted images range from the depiction of the Jataka (stories of the Buddha’s past lives) and scenes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian Hindu epic Ramayana, to elaborate scenes detailing daily life in Thailand.

The development of Thai religious art and architecture is broken into different periods defined by the patronage of the ruling capital. The best examples of a period's characteristics are seen in the variations of the chedi shape and in the features of the Buddhist sculpture, including facial features, the top flourish on the head, the dress and the position of the feet in meditation.

The Modern Era

In general, early contemporary Thai painting favoured abstraction over realism, and often preserves the one-dimensional perspective of traditional mural paintings. In the 1970s Thai artists tackled the modernisation of Buddhist themes through abstract expressionism. In the 1990s there was a push to move art out of museums and into public spaces. Today, there are two major trends in contemporary Thai art: the updating of religious themes and tongue-in-cheek social commentary. In particular, Thai sculpture is often considered to be the strongest of the contemporary arts.

Sidebar: Recommended Arts Reading

  • Flavours: Thai Contemporary Art (Steven Pettifor; 2003)
  • The Thai House: History and Evolution (Ruethai Chaichongrak et al; 2002)
  • The Arts of Thailand (Steve Van Beek; 1991)

Cinema

When it comes to Thai cinema, there are usually two concurrent streams: movies that are financially successful and those that are considered cinematically meritorious. Only occasionally do these overlap.

Bangkok Film launched Thailand’s film industry with the first Thai-directed silent movie, Chok Sorng Chan, in 1927. Perhaps partially influenced by India’s famed masala movies – which enjoyed a strong following in post-WWII Bangkok – early Thai films blended romance, comedy, melodrama and adventure to give audiences a little bit of everything. Popular Thai cinema ballooned in the 1960s and '70s, especially when the government levied a tax on Hollywood imports, which spawned a home-grown industry.

However, the Thai movie industry almost died during the ’80s and ’90s, swamped by Hollywood extravaganzas and the boom era’s taste for anything imported. From a 1970s peak of about 200 releases per year, by 1997 the Thai output shrank to an average of only 10 films a year. The Southeast Asian economic crisis that year threatened to further bludgeon the ailing industry, but the lack of funding coupled with foreign competition brought about a new emphasis on quality rather than quantity.

Thai cinema graduated into international film circles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul earning accolades from critics, including at Cannes. Film-fest fare has been bolstered by independent film clubs and self-promotion through social media. This is how low-budget filmmakers are bypassing the big studios, the censors (who are ever-vigilant) and the skittish, controversy-averse movie theatres. At the same time, Thailand's big studios continue to put out ghost stories, horror flicks, sappy love stories and camp comedies. Popular and elaborate historical movies serve a dual purpose: making money and promoting national identity.

Sidebar: Recommended Thai Movies

  • Ong Bak; Muay Thai Warrior (directed by Prachya Pinkaew; 2003)
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; 2010)
  • How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (directed by Josh Kim; 2015)

Other Feature: Bangkok Fiction

Visitors to virtually any of Bangkok’s English-language bookstores will notice an abundance of novels with titles such as The Butterfly Trap, Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye, Even Thai Girls Cry, Fast Eddie’s Lucky 7 A Go Go, Lady of Pattaya, The Go Go Dancer Who Stole My Viagra, My Name Lon You Like Me?, The Pole Dancer and Thai Touch. Welcome to the Bangkok school of fiction, a genre, as the titles suggest, defined by its obsession with crime, exoticism and Thai women.

Crime & Romance

The birth of this genre can be traced back to Jack Reynolds’s 1956 novel, A Woman of Bangkok. Recently reprinted, the book continues to be an acknowledged influence for many Bangkok-based writers and Reynolds’ formula of Western-man-meets-beautiful-but-dangerous-Thai-woman – occasionally spiced up with a dose of crime – is a staple of the modern genre.

Standouts include John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 (2003), a page-turner in which Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half-Thai, half-fa·ràng (Westerner) police detective investigates the python-and-cobras murder of a US marine in Bangkok. Along the way we’re treated to vivid portraits of Bangkok’s gritty nightlife and insights into Thai Buddhism. The book's five sequels have sold well internationally.

Christopher G Moore, a Canadian and longtime resident of Bangkok, has authored more than 20 mostly Bangkok-based crime novels to positive praise both in Thailand and abroad. His description of Bangkok’s sleazy Thermae Coffee House (called ‘Zeno’ in A Killing Smile) is the closest literature comes to evoking the perpetual male adolescence to which such places cater.

Private Dancer, by popular English thriller author Stephen Leather, is another classic example of Bangkok fiction, despite having only been available via download until recently.

Jake Needham’s 1999 thriller The Big Mango provides tongue-in-cheek references to the Bangkok bar-girl scene and later became the first expat novel to be translated into Thai.

Sidebar: Recommended Fiction

  • Bangkok 8 (John Burdett)
  • Sightseeing (Rattawut Lapcharoensap)
  • Jasmine Nights (SP Somtow)
  • Four Reigns (Kukrit Pramoj)
  • Bangkok Days (Lawrence Osborne)

Sidebar: Thai Fiction

English-language versions of Thai literature are hard to come by, but translations of several Thai short stories and novels can be downloaded as e-books at www.thaifiction.com.

Music

Throughout Thailand you’ll encounter a rich diversity of musical genres and styles, from the serene court music that accompanies classical dance-drama to the bass-heavy house music shaking dance clubs in the bigger cities.

Bangkok, not surprisingly, is the epicentre of the country's music scene, home to its biggest record labels and studios, although immigrants from upcountry have introduced a thriving culture of lôok tûng and mŏr lam, roughly analgous to country-and-western music in the US.

Classical Thai

Classical central-Thai music (pleng tai deum) features a dazzling array of textures and subtleties, hair-raising tempos and pastoral melodies. The classical orchestra (þèe-pâht) can include as few as five players or might have more than 20. Leading the band is þèe, a straight-lined woodwind instrument with a reed mouthpiece and an oboe-like tone; you’ll hear it most at moo·ay tai (Thai boxing; also spelt muay Thai) matches. The four-stringed phin, plucked like a guitar, lends subtle counterpoint, while rá·nâht èhk, a bamboo-keyed percussion instrument resembling the xylophone, carries the main melodies. The slender sor, a bowed instrument with a coconut-shell soundbox, provides soaring embellishments, as does the klòo·i, a wooden Thai flute.

Lôok Tûng & Mŏr Lam

Popular Thai music has borrowed much from Western music, particularly in instruments, but retains a distinct flavour of its own. The best selling of all modern musical genres in Thailand remains lôok tûng. Literally ‘children of the fields’, lôok tûng dates back to the 1940s, is comparable to country-and-western in the USA and is a genre that tends to appeal most to working-class Thais. Subject matter almost always concerns tales of lost love, tragic early death and the dire circumstances of farmers who work day in and day out and, at the end of the year, still owe money to the bank.

Another genre more firmly rooted in northeastern Thailand, and nearly as popular in Bangkok, is mŏr lam. Based on the songs played on the Lao-Isan kaan, a wind instrument devised of a double row of bamboo-like reeds fitted into a hardwood soundbox, mŏr lam features a simple but insistent bass beat and plaintive vocal melodies.

In recent yearslôok tûng and mŏr lam from the 1960s and '70s have seen a resurgence of popularity in Thailand and have also garnered a cult following abroad, largely aided by successful retro compilations.

Songs for Life

The 1970s ushered in a new music style inspired by the politically conscious folk rock of the US and Europe, which the Thais dubbed pleng pêu·a chee·wít (literally ‘music for life’) after Marxist Jit Phumisak’s earlier Art for Life movement. Closely identified with the Thai band Caravan – who still perform – the introduction of this style was the most significant musical shift in Thailand since lôok tûng arose in the 1940s.

Pleng pêu·a chee·wít has political and environmental topics rather than the usual love themes. During the authoritarian dictatorships of the ’70s many of Caravan’s songs were banned. Following the massacre of student demonstrators in 1976, some members of the band fled to the hills to take up with armed communist groups.

T-Pop & Indie

For more than three decades now, Thailand has had a thriving teen-pop industry – sometimes referred to as T-Pop – centred on artists who have been chosen for their good looks and then matched with syrupy song arrangements. Thongchai 'Bird' McIntyre, who released his first album in 1986, is arguably the king of this genre. In the 1990s labels such as GMM Grammy and RS Productions released a flood of T-pop copycat acts, often emulating Western-style boy bands or Japanese and Taiwanese musical trends. The current crop of Thai pop stars can be seen imitating the signature dance moves of Korean pop stars (Japan pop, or J-pop, is out).

In the 1990s an alternative pop scene – known as glorng sĕh·ree (free drum), also pleng đâi din (underground music) – grew in Bangkok. Moderndog, a Britpop-inspired band of four Chulalongkorn University graduates, is generally credited with bringing independent Thai music into the mainstream and their success prompted an explosion of similar bands and indie recording labels. Although some of the influential indie labels have been bought out by bigger conglomerates, today the alt scene lives on in a variety of other forms – lounge pop, garage rock and electronica.

Sidebar: Recommended Playlist

  • Bird Hits for Fan: Love Hits (Bird Thongchai; 2011)
  • Moderndog-Soem Sukhaphap (Moderndog; 1994)
  • Mint (Silly Fools; 2000)
  • Palmy (Palmy; 2001)
  • Romantic Comedy (Apartment Khunpa; 2006)
  • Begins (Big Ass; 2006)

Sidebar: Thai Music

A handy English-language resource for contemporary Thai music is Deungdutjai (www.deungdutjai.com), which also has English-language translations of popular Thai songs.

Traditional Theatre & Dance

Bangkok’s high arts have declined since the palace transitioned from a cloistered community, although some endangered art forms have been salvaged and revived for a growing tourist community. The most famous example of this is kŏhn, a dance drama that depicts the Thai version of India’s Ramayana.

Folk traditions enjoy broader appeal, though the era of neighbourhood stage shows is sadly long gone.

Kŏhn

Scenes performed in traditional kŏhn (and lá·kon) – a dance-drama formerly reserved for court performances – come from the ‘epic journey’ tale of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana), with parallels in the Greek Odyssey and the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. In all kŏhn performances, four types of characters are represented – male humans, female humans, monkeys and demons. Monkey and demon figures are always masked with the elaborate head coverings often seen in tourist promo material. Behind the masks and make-up, all actors are male. Traditional kŏhn is very expensive to produce – Ravana’s retinue alone (Ravana is the Ramakian’s principal villain) consists of more than 100 demons, each with a distinctive mask.

Lá · kon

The more formal lá·kon nai (inner lá·kon, which means that it is performed inside the palace) was originally performed for lower nobility by all-female ensembles. Today it’s a dying art, even more so than royal kŏhn. In addition to scenes from the Ramakian, lá·kon nai performances may include traditional Thai folk tales; whatever the story, text is always sung. Lá·kon nôrk (outer lá·kon, performed outside the palace) deals exclusively with folk tales and features a mix of sung and spoken text, sometimes with improvisation. Male and female performers are permitted. Like kŏhn and lá·kon nai, performances of lá·kon nôrk are increasingly rare.

A variation on lá·kon that has evolved specifically for shrine worship, lá·kon gâa bon involves an ensemble of about 20, including musicians. At an important shrine such as Bangkok’s Lak Meuang, four troupes may perform in rotation, each for a week at a time, as each performance lasts from 9am to 3pm and there is usually a long list of worshippers waiting to hire them.

Lá · kon Lék

Lá·kon lék (little theatre; also known as hùn lŏo·ang, or royal puppets), like kŏhn, was once reserved for court performances. Metre-high marionettes made of kòi paper and wire, wearing elaborate costumes modelled on those of the kŏhn, were used to convey similar themes, music and dance movements.

Two or three puppet masters were required to manipulate each hùn lŏo·ang – including arms, legs, hands, even fingers and eyes – by means of wires attached to long poles. Stories were drawn from Thai folk tales, particularly Phra Aphaimani (a classical Thai literary work), and occasionally from the Ramakian. Surviving examples of a smaller, 30cm court version called hùn lék (little puppets) are occasionally used in live performances; only one puppeteer is required for each marionette in hùn lék.

Another form of Thai puppet theatre, hùn grà·bòrk (cylinder puppets), is based on popular Hainanese puppet shows. It uses 30cm hand puppets carved from wood and viewed only from the waist up.

Lí · gair

In outlying working-class neighbourhoods of Bangkok you may be lucky enough to come across the gaudy, raucous lí·gair. This theatrical art form is thought to have descended from drama-rituals brought to southern Thailand by Arab and Malay traders. The first native public performance in central Thailand came about when a group of Thai Muslims staged lí·gair for Rama V in Bangkok during the funeral commemoration of Queen Sunantha. Lí·gair grew very popular under Rama VI, peaked in the early 20th century and has been fading slowly since the 1960s.

The Sex Industry in Thailand

Thailand has had a long and complex relationship with prostitution that persists today. It is also an international sex tourism destination, a designation that began around the time of the Vietnam War. The industry targeted to foreigners is very visible, with multiple red-light districts in Bangkok alone, but there is also a more clandestine domestic sex industry and myriad informal channels of sex-for-hire.

An Illegal (and Vast) Industry

Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand. However, anti-prostitution laws are often ambiguous and unenforced. Some analysts have argued that the high demand for sexual services in Thailand limits the likelihood of the industry being curtailed; however, limiting abusive practices within the industry is the goal of many activists and government agencies.

It is difficult to determine the number of sex workers in Thailand, the demographics of the industry or its economic significance. This is because there are many indirect forms of prostitution, the illegality of the industry makes research difficult and different organisations use varying approaches to collect data. In 2003 measures to legalise prostitution cited the Thai sex industry as being worth US$4.3 billion (about 3% of GDP) and employing roughly 200,000 sex workers. A study conducted in 2003 by Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University estimated 2.8 million sex workers, of which 1.98 million were adult women, 20,000 were adult men and 800,000 were children, defined as any person under the age of 18. A 2007 report compiled by the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 active female sex workers in Thailand at any given time.

Child Prostitution & Human Trafficking

Urban job centres such as Bangkok have large populations of displaced and marginalised people (immigrants from Myanmar, ethnic hill-tribe members and impoverished rural Thais). Children of these fractured families often turn to street begging, which is a pathway to prostitution, often through low-level criminal gangs. According to a number of reports conducted by different research bodies, there are an estimated 60,000 to 800,000 children involved in prostitution in Thailand.

In 1996 Thailand passed a reform law to address the issue of child prostitution (defined by two tiers: 15 to 18 years old and under 15 years old). Fines and jail time are imposed on customers, establishment owners and even parents involved in child prostitution (under the old law only prostitutes were culpable). Many countries also have extraterritorial legislation that allows nationals to be prosecuted in their own country for such crimes committed in Thailand.

Thailand is also a conduit and destination for people-trafficking (including child-trafficking) from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and China. As stated by the UN, human trafficking is a crime against humanity and involves recruiting, transporting, harbouring and receiving a person through force, fraud or coercion for purposes of exploitation. In 2015 the US State Department labelled Thailand as a Tier 3 country, meaning that it does not comply with the minimum standards for prevention of human-trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.

Economic Motivations

Regardless of their background, most women in the sex industry are there for financial reasons: many find that sex work is one of the highest-paying jobs for their level of education and/or they have financial obligations (be it dependants or debts). The most comprehensive data on the economics of sex workers comes from a 1993 survey by Dr Kritaya Archavanitkul, a demographer from Mahidol University. The report found that sex workers made a mean income of 17,000B per month (US$18 per day), the equivalent of a midlevel civil-servant job, a position acquired with advanced education and family connections. At the time of the study, most sex workers did not have a high-school degree.

The International Labour Organization estimates a Thai sex worker's salary at 270B (US$9) a day, the average wage of a Thai service-industry worker.

These economic factors provide a strong incentive for rural, unskilled women (and, to a lesser extent, men) to engage in sex work.

As with many in Thai society, a large percentage of sex workers’ wages are remitted back to their home villages to support their families (parents, siblings and children). Kritaya’s 1993 report found that between 1800B and 6100B per month was sent back home to rural communities. The remittance-receiving households typically bought durable goods (TVs and washing machines), bigger houses and motorcycles or automobiles. Their wealth displayed their daughters’ success in the industry and acted as a free advertisement for the next generation of sex workers.

History & Cultural Attitudes

Prostitution has been widespread in Thailand since long before the country gained a reputation among international sex tourists. Throughout Thai history the practice was accepted and common among many sectors of society, though it has not always been respected by society as a whole.

Due to international pressure from the UN, prostitution was declared illegal in 1960, though venues (go-go bars, beer bars, massage parlours, karaoke bars and bathhouses) are governed by a separate law passed in 1966. These establishments are licensed and can legally provide nonsexual services (such as dancing, massage or a drinking buddy); sexual services occur through these venues but they are not technically the businesses’ primary purpose.

With the arrival of the US military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War era, enterprising forces adapted the existing framework to suit foreigners, in turn creating an international sex tourism industry that persists today. Indeed, this foreigner-oriented sex industry is still a prominent part of Thailand’s tourist economy.

In 1998 the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, advised Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, to recognise prostitution as an economic sector and income generator. It is estimated that one third of the entertainment establishments are registered with the government and the majority pay an informal tax in the form of police bribes.

HIV & AIDS

In Thailand in 1990, there were approximately 100,000 new cases of HIV. In the three years that followed, that number leapt to an estimated one million. A progressive-minded regional bureaucrat, Dr Wiwat Rojanapithayakorn, noted that the vast majority of these cases were among sex workers and kick-started a local campaign to encourage the use of condoms. This was a herculean task, as not only did most Thai men at the time eschew condoms, but the central government essentially did not acknowledge the existence of Thailand's sex industry. By collaborating with local authorities and venue owners, Dr Wiwat distributed free condoms and established a 'no condom, no sex' policy among sex venues that, within months, caused transmission rates to plummet dramatically.

Given his success and the immense threat that HIV/AIDS posed to Thailand in the early 1990s, Dr Wiwat proposed implementing his initiative on a national scale. The government enlisted the help of a charismatic family-planning advocate known colloquially as Mr Condom, Mechai Viravaidya. By 1993, the government budget for anti-AIDS programs was increased nearly 20-fold and a massive anti-AIDS public awareness campaign was launched, with frequent messages broadcast on TV and radio and free condoms distributed nationwide. In less than three years, condoms were essentially de-stigmatised in Thailand and their use among sex workers went from an estimated 25% to more than 90%; indeed, for a while, condoms were known as mechai in Thai. Between 1991 and 2001 new transmissions of HIV in Thailand dropped from 143,000 per year to fewer than 14,000, and Thailand's methods in tackling the problem became a model for other countries, both in the region and elsewhere.

Thailand's campaign continues to be successful today. According to the UN program on AIDS/HIV (UNAIDS), in 2000 there were an estimated 683,841 people in Thailand living with HIV; by 2014 this number had dropped to an estimated 445,504 and, during the same period, new transmissions of HIV plummeted by approximately 75%. Likewise, during the same period, the rates of HIV infection among female sex workers in Thailand continued to drop, and in 2014 was at an estimated 1.1%.

Indeed, some feel that Thailand's anti-HIV/AIDS campaign has been too successful, in effect leading Thais to believe that the disease no longer poses a risk and that they don't need to protect themselves. A UNAIDS report from 2010 estimates that only 50% of venue-based sex workers had undergone an HIV test in the last year, and after an alarming spike around 2005, Thailand's rate of HIV infection among men who have sex with men remains relatively high at an estimated 9.2%, according to a 2014 report compiled by the same agency.

Working Conditions

The unintended consequence of prostitution prohibition is the lawless working environment it creates for women who enter the industry. Sex work becomes the domain of criminal networks that are often involved in other illicit activities that circumvent the laws through bribes and violence.

Sex workers are not afforded the rights of other workers: there is no minimum wage; no required holiday pay, sick leave or break time; no deductions for social security or employee-sponsored health insurance; and no legal redress.

Bars can set their own punitive rules that fine a worker if she doesn’t smile enough, arrives late or doesn’t meet the drink quota. Empower, an NGO that fights for safe and fair standards in the sex industry, reported that most sex workers will owe money to the bar at the end of the month through these deductions. In effect, the women have to pay to be prostitutes and the fines disguise a pimp relationship.

Through lobbying efforts, groups such as Empower hope that lawmakers will recognise all workers at entertainment places (including dishwashers and cooks as well as ‘working girls’) as employees subject to labour and safety protections.

Other commentators, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), argue that legalising prostitution is not the answer, because such a move would legitimise a practice that is always going to be dangerous and exploitative for the women involved. Instead, these groups focus on how to enable the women to leave prostitution and make their way into different types of work.

Pros & Cons

Women's rights groups take oppositional approaches to the issue of prostitution. Abolitionists see prostitution as exploitation and an infraction of basic human rights. Meanwhile, mitigators recognise that there is demand and supply, and try to reduce the risks associated with the activity through HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs (especially for economic migrants). Sex-worker organisations argue that prostitution is a legitimate job and the best way to help women is to treat the issue from a workers' rights perspective, demanding fair pay and compensation, legal redress and mandatory sick and holiday time. Also, according to pro-sex-worker unions, the country's quasi-legal commercial sex establishments provide service-industry jobs (dishwashers, cooks, cleaners) to non-sex-worker staff, who would otherwise qualify for employment protection if the employer were a restaurant or a hotel.

Sidebar: 1

Help stop child-sex tourism by reporting suspicious behaviour on a dedicated hotline (1300) or by reporting perpetrators directly to the embassy of their home country.

Sidebar: 2

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW; www.catwinternational.org) is an NGO that works internationally to combat prostitution and trafficking in women and children.

Sidebar: 3

Created by a sex workers’ advocacy group, This Is Us is a museum that leads visitors through the history and working conditions of sex workers in Thailand.

Sidebar: 4

Organisations working across borders to stop child prostitution include Ecpat (End Child Prostitution & Trafficking; www.ecpat.org) and its Australian affiliate Child Wise (www.childwise.org.au).