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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 13:50 GMT
Life as a Thai sex worker
go-go bar
Many bar girls are sending money to their families back home
Bangkok is a notorious destination for sex tourism. But the lives of many of the city's sex workers are full of danger, disease and the urgent need to send money home.

Pim, who recently left her job in a go-go bar, has a typical story.

"I grew up in the countryside in Phetchabun, northern Thailand. My parents were farmers and I helped them in the fields. We were poor but we always had enough to get by.

When I was about 15, my family fell apart. My father always drank a lot, but it became worse and worse, and he started becoming violent. So my mother, sister and I moved out.

I wanted to study to become a nurse, but when my parents split up I had to leave school and find work as a day labourer, harvesting crops for local farmers. I didn't like it much, and it only paid 100 baht ($3) a day.

At about that time a good friend moved to Bangkok, and when she came back to visit she told me she was earning a lot of money there as a waitress.

Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's sex districts
Bangkok is known as a prime destination for sex tourists
There was gossip in the village that she was doing something other than waitressing, as she was sending 10,000 baht ($300) home a month, but she always denied it.

She asked me to come with her, but at the time I was still 16 and too scared. A few years later, though - when I had given birth to my daughter, and my husband and I had separated - I changed my mind.

I left the baby in Phetchabun with my mother, and told her I needed to earn some money in Bangkok. But I didn't tell her what I was doing - I still haven't. She'd be so ashamed.

'Can I do this?'

When my friend took me to a bar in Nana Plaza for the first time, I was really shocked. I'd never been to a place like that before, and at the beginning I didn't even know what the dancers were doing.

When I finally realised, I couldn't take it and I walked out of the bar. I kept thinking 'Can I really do this?'

Initially I decided to work there just serving drinks, but the dancers earned a lot more money, and eventually I agreed to do that too.

For the first month, the bar owners allow girls to get their full salary even if they just work as dancers. But after that you have to meet a quota of at least 10 customers a month, or your wages will be cut.

THAI SEX WORKERS
Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, but the law is very rarely enforced
Estimates of the number of sex workers vary from 30,000 to more than a million
Most Thai sex workers actually cater to local men, rather than sex tourists
Most prostitutes come from northern Thailand, while others are from Laos or Burma
Child prostitution and trafficking is also known to be a problem

My first customer was a Western man in his 30s. It was scary and I really didn't like it, but I just kept thinking about the money.

I couldn't wait for him to leave, and when he did I had a shower for a very long time. I started crying, and thought about what my parents would think if they knew what I was doing.

None of my customers ever asked me about my life; they didn't care. There was one time a guy asked me if I was okay, but I didn't know what to say, so I just looked away.

While I was working in the bars, I was often worried about disease, and also about safety. Some girls earned extra by going out of the bars with the men, but I always used a room upstairs as I was too scared of the risks involved.

My friend once went with a guy to his hotel room, and found lots of other men there too. She wouldn't tell me what happened after that, but she was shaking for a long time when she got back home.

I also had some scary experiences myself. One time a Japanese man followed me all the way home at the end of the night, and he kept screaming at me.

Taxi drivers can also be threatening to bar girls, and we would only dare go home in groups.

Looking forward

Despite these problems, new girls often arrive. Many customers prefer children or young girls, and the bar owners always encouraged us to recruit teenagers from our home villages.

Even though I got used to it in some ways, I always hated working in the bars. I made some good friends but there was nothing good about the life I was leading.

Ex-bar girl at Nightlight, looking at the jewellery stock
Nightlight gives jewellery-making jobs to ex-bar girls
I felt good about sending money home, but I didn't feel good about myself. Soon I was getting penalized as I wasn't getting enough customers.

That's when a friend of mine told me about Nightlight [a Christian charity offering training and employment for former sex workers, through a jewellery-making business].

Since I've started working there, my life is so much better. I don't earn as much as I did in the bars, but it's worth it, and people here listen to me and care for me.

I've now got the opportunity to look forward in life. I want to finish school, and study accounting, so I'll be able to pay for my daughter to have a good life.

I wish I had never become a sex worker. I think some foreign men think it's okay to pay for sex here in Thailand, as they think the girls actually want to do this.

But these men don't understand that most of us have no choice - we're just trying to earn money for our families, and waiting for a chance to leave."

Interview by Kate McGeown, BBC News, Bangkok.




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