Despite bombings and gunfire, illicit sex trade draws tourists to Thailand’s restive south
(CNA) – CNA’s Pichayada Promchertchoo travelled to one of Thailand’s most infamous nighttime hotspots on the southern border with Malaysia, where illegal sex trade thrives freely amid the threat of violent conflict.
Laila is mesmerised by the view outside the glass window.
Sixteen floors below her, the lights of Betong glisten among dark, undulating hills. Somewhere down there, her colleagues are entertaining customers – male tourists who came to play in the vibrant nightlife of the small border town.
“Work here is quite exclusive and very sexy,” Laila said. Her long bronze hair brushes lightly against the angel wings tattooed across her back.
“We sell our beauty. The more beautiful you are, the more money you get.”
Laila is a nighttime entertainer. She works at a popular club on a narrow lane in Betong – the beating heart of a regional sex trade that operates in one of the most dangerous territories in Southeast Asia.
Located in Thailand’s most remote south, some 1,200km from the capital Bangkok, Betong is a lively part of Yala province. The area, together with neighbouring Pattani, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla, has been hit by decades of violent armed conflict between separatists and Thai authorities.
Thousands of shootings and bomb attacks have rocked the region since 2004, while hundreds of cases of arson have destroyed schools and homes. The violence has resulted in more than 4,000 deaths and about 10,000 injuries over the past 15 years. Many incidents took place on a stretch of road connecting Betong with central Yala. It is known locally as “the road of death” as the route winds through areas frequently targeted by insurgents.
In June, a bomb attack rocked a security checkpoint outside a bank in Yala’s Bannang Sata district. On the map, Betong is about an hour’s drive away from there. The border town itself also faced bomb threats earlier this year.
Yet, despite the potential risks, it manages to draw a steady stream of visitors – mostly foreigners who cross the border from Malaysia.
Betong’s strategic location next to the Malaysian state of Perak provides tourists with relatively safe and easy access to an abundance of nightclubs, discotheques and karaoke bars.
“When it comes to security, Betong is considered the safest among 37 districts in the deep south,” said Betong district chief officer Anand Boonsamran.
“Malaysian and Singaporean tourists account for 80 per cent of Betong’s visitors. They can travel from Malaysia to the town centre through the Betong border checkpoint. The distance is only 7km and it’s the safest route for tourists,” he added.
But while visitors seem willing to make the short hop over the border, those coming from elsewhere in Thailand seem more nervous.
“We have to admit that for Thai visitors, who have to travel 140km from central Yala to Betong, we haven’t been able to establish enough confidence for them yet,” the district chief said.
Each year, Betong welcomes hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors – Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indians and Chinese – who mostly arrive by land from Pengkalan Hulu in Perak. In 2018, more than 524,000 visitors came to the border town.
Many of them are drawn by the pristine nature in the area and local delicacies.
But for others, it is the infamous sex trade that operates freely in this border town which is the main attraction.
INSIDE BETONG’S UNDERGROUND CLUB
On a narrow street in the city centre, dance music thunders from an underground club.
Inside, the pyjama party is in full swing. The air hangs heavy with the smell of cigarettes. Alcohol is everywhere. So are women in revealing nightclothes. Many of them are chatting to male customers, smiling and laughing in a light embrace. Others are up on a narrow stage, swaying to the deafening music. The room is pitch black save for the disco lights.
“No photo, please,” one of the staff told customers ahead of the night’s highlight. “You can’t take any photos of the next show.”
While regular clients can guess what is about to happen, newcomers look at the stage with growing anticipation. As soon as a new song plays, a file of women in lingerie takes to the platform. One by one, they strip as the rowdy crowd cheers.
“It’s very easy to find someone at night,” said one of the regular customers.
The 30-year-old lives in central Yala and often visits the border town to have fun with his friends. Their favourite place is the underground club, where many tourists come looking for sex workers.
But this is not always straightforward. An additional issue for those wanting to visit Betong for adult entertainment is that prostitution is illegal in the Buddhist country.
But like many other Thai towns, Betong has people in the industry who have worked out how to operate within these constraints. For instance, many sex workers have a legitimate job at adult entertainment venues. These establishments can operate openly as they do not position themselves as venues where sexual trysts are sold, but plenty of deals are done discreetly between sex workers and customers.
“The main customers are from Malaysia. They get women from clubs and bars or brokers who have contact with hotels,” a customer told CNA.
At local nightclubs, customers often buy particular items to solicit prostitution. The most common is known as a “garland” – a plastic necklace worn by adult entertainers during their work hours. These garlands are for sale at entertainment venues and customers buy them for women they like. Once a conversation starts, an agreement can be made to take things further.
Prices for these items range from 100 Baht (US$3) to thousands, depending on what they are – garlands, tiaras, capes or sashes. The more items workers get, the more they are paid at the end of their contract with the business venue, usually every 10-20 days. A commission is also deducted on a percentage basis.
And the business is highly lucrative, paying enough to tempt some to work in an illegal trade situated in a town that is close to insurgent violence.
“It depends on how much they like the woman. Some rich customers want to show off their wealth. So, they spend US$640-US$960 on the tiara and cape for us. I feel wonderful every time I get those things. I feel like I’ve won a competition,” said Laila, who used to get US$3,200 in one night.
“But do I go out with customers? Well, it depends. If I’m single, it’s up to me, isn’t it?”
For Laila, working in Betong is not dangerous despite its location in Thailand’s restive south. Since she moved there about a year ago, there have been no major incidents.
“The situation is normal here,” she said. “I’m not afraid at all. I just think I come here to make money.”
THE ‘OLD-FASHIONED’ TOURISM
Prostitution is an open secret in Betong, and commercial sex is relatively easy to find. Male tourists who do not travel with family are likely to be approached by hotel staff who can liaise with sex brokers. It is also fairly common for guests to request assistance from hotel employees themselves.
One of them is Chob, a manager at one of the local hotels. The 59-year-old has introduced numerous women to many VIP guests in the past three decades. Most of them are full-time prostitutes working in brothels or “houses”, as the locals call them.
“If our guests want women, I’ll call them from the houses for them to choose. There are about a dozen houses in Betong today. Some of them have 10-20 women, others 4-5,” Chob said.
As for sex workers, he added, they have come from different parts of Thailand as well as overseas, including China, Vietnam, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. “But the last two have had visa issues with Thai embassies. So, their women don’t come here anymore,” Chob told CNA.
Despite its unlawful nature, the multinational sex trade in Betong has enjoyed decades of prosperity. It is well organised and relatively open despite the heavy presence of law enforcement officials in the restive south.
“We have to admit every tourist destination exists with the adult entertainment industry; they can’t be separated from one another. But here in Betong, we monitor and regulate it,” said district chief officer Anand.
He added that officials regularly visit local entertainment venues to ensure the businesses do not involve children and the sex trade is not conducted “so openly” it tarnishes the district’s image.
In 2018, the immigration office recorded 524,469 travellers entering Thailand from the Betong border checkpoint. About 70 per cent of the visitors are Malaysians and Singaporeans. According to Anand, the town is just one of many tourist destinations in the country with an active nightlife.
But things are starting to change, and the main attractions that Betong is famous for are becoming less sleazy.
“That’s old-fashioned tourism. Adult entertainment is no longer the main tourist attraction here. It’s starting to disappear,” Anand said.
Efforts have been made to give Betong a different look. According to the district chief officer, the town’s zoning has limited the presence of adult entertainment venues in the main commercial neighbourhood.
There has also been a push to promote local natural attractions among foreign tourists, including the sea of mist above the Iyerweng lake where a 50m-long suspension platform is being built to draw visitors. It is scheduled to open in 2020 along with a new airport the local government hopes will boost Betong’s tourism.
Yet, some locals doubt the new infrastructure could transform the remote border town into something much different.
“Betong is small. It has limited natural attractions which also exist elsewhere. It doesn’t have much to appeal to tourists apart from the entertainment venues which help develop its economy, let alone the insurgency,” said a local official, who requested not to be named.
Nobody knows how long the nighttime entertainment industry will continue to thrive in the border town. But for Laila, she does not want to be an adult entertainer for the rest of her life. She knows the time will come for her to leave the night scene and the good money she now makes.
“You can’t stay in this industry for long. When your beauty is gone, the money will be gone too. So, you just have to make it while you can.”
In front of her, Betong stretched out under a starry sky. The cool fresh air greets Laila when she walks out of the hotel. She looks forward to having a relaxing evening before returning to the gentleman’s club the next day and doing her best to win as many garlands as possible.