3 conversations in the bars of Thailand forever changed me. 3 heart wrenching stories of real girls and boys who are trapped altered my view of sex-trafficking. I want to share their stories with you, may they impact you as they did me. Be sure to check out my previous post from the bars here.
In a rural Thai village many hours and miles away from any formal road there lived a beautiful family. Their community was full of farmers and weavers, children running about and chickens on the loose. This family raised their 2 precious children in the traditional Thai ways, as responsibility and honor were drilled into them from birth. Their son Tak was a protective older brother to his sister Sao and they spent all of their free time dreaming up wild adventures and playing in the rice fields.
The village rarely received visitors, and most people wouldn’t travel further than the next village over, but there came a day that changed this little place forever. Visitors showed up offering a future for their children. Promises of education and occupation filled the dreams of every parent, they couldn’t believe their fortune and happily obliged to send their children with these strangers. The visitors guaranteed that their little ones would not only gain experience but that they would send allowances home for their parents to live on. It seemed like the best decision every parent could make and many did. Tak and Sao watched as their friends loaded into the back of a truck and disappeared forever.
Within months the families around them started to build nicer homes, they began eating better rice and working much less. Rumors spread through the village that their precious little ones weren’t receiving education but were employed as prostitutes in bars, selling their virginity, their bodies, and their life for money. But instead of feeling outraged and horrified the families began begging their neighbors to do the same—how blinding desire for more can become, money was their only focus.
Tak and Sao’s parents began to struggle as drought began and harvest was spare. They hoped and prayed for a way out and when the visitors came again they found it. They’d seen it prosper for the families around them and they had no reason to believe it wouldn’t work for them as well. This time was different though, the visitors offered to give them money up front for their daughter, Sao. They couldn’t believe their luck, not only was Sao going to send them money every few months but they were getting a large amount at the beginning. Tak, being the protective older brother he was and knowing exactly what was happening couldn’t stand the thought of his sister selling herself for sex every night and ran to intervene. As his sister was loading into the truck his mother stopped him dead in his tracks and said “someone has to go.” Tak immediately jumped in the truck and left Sao standing on the road as they sped away.
Tak is a real boy, by a different name. Tak now serves men as a lady-boy in the saturated sex scene. He spends his days dressing the part of someone he is not, servicing men day and night, witnessing them commit suicide, and feel life-changing regret after discovering he is a man. (A lady-boy is a man who dresses, acts, and sometimes believes he is a woman. There are many levels of commitment to becoming a lady boy. Some just dress and talk the part, others have half surgery, getting breast implants and many change all of their body parts to be completely converted.) Tak’s desire is to return to his village and farm the land alongside his sister but he knows she’s no longer there, and that she like him is servicing men all the same.
I didn’t expect to walk down streets that were screaming “sex” and “fall in love.” I noticed her right away, there was something different in her eyes, something beautiful in the way she was dressed. She was sitting at the bar, not standing behind it or dancing on it. Her smile was so timid but so welcoming. She knew we were not her next customers but she was delighted for the distraction. “I’m Lim,” she said as her eyes strayed from men walking by to meet mine. I ordered a diet coke, knowing that the only way to have a conversation with her was to sit at the bar and wait. She came and sat down next to my friend and I and began asking us about ourselves. A handful of other girls from that bar and the bars around kept stopping by to comment on how beautiful we were, introducing themselves and sharing a bit of their story as well.
Lim had lived a life many Thai women dream of for 8 years. At a young age she married a dashing foreign man who was able to financially support her and her family. They had a lovely romance and eventually gave birth to a beautiful little girl whom they named Jessica. As the girl grew so did the separation with Lim and her dashing man. He spent more time away on business than he did at home and Lim began to suspect he had another woman somewhere else. Her assumptions proved to be true and before she knew it she was standing before her man reluctantly saying good-bye to the life she had known and watching him take her beloved daughter as well. She despised that day, hated that she knew her daughter had a better chance leaving with him than staying with her. It had been years since that horrid day and her daughter had grown into a beautiful 10 year old who resembled her mother in ever graceful trait. Lim scrolled through photos, pride sweeping her face with each one, as she shared her delight with me. She was swept away in memories and dreams of being with her loved one again when the bar “mom” grabbed her arm and drug her towards a group of men. The suddenness of the situation was contained in her expression and my heart broke. In the few minutes the bar “mom” attempted to sell her all I could do was pray and wait. When she sat back down her face was ashen and ashamed. Her gaze cast down and heart was instantly reawakened to her reality. She looked at me and began sharing secrets that had yet to find a place to settle. She let us in, she whispered the reality of her trapped life and trusted us to steward her story well. Her nights and mornings meet with shame, she works on the bar and behind it until around 4am, she cleans up and heads out linked arm in arm with whichever customer deemed her worth a dollar or two and spends the new few hours serving him however he chooses. Once her work is finished she walks home to the tiny room she rents for way too much money a block from the bar district and sleeps until she can’t sleep anymore. She wakes when early afternoon hits, grabs a quick bite to eat from the soup lady on the corner and heads back to the place she hates. At the bar she makes the equivalent of $5 for every 3 customers she pulls in and convince to purchase a drink. With 200+ bars in her building of bars, finding customers is quite the challenge and many evenings she is unsuccessful in her drink sales. She hates climbing up on the poles that surround their bar, but she knows that if she does not draw attention she won’t get paid. The bar “mom” requires each girl dance on a 30 minute rotation and that they bring in 350 baht ($10) per night, through sales or sex. They all must go home with a man at the end of the night to attain their requirements. For ever man she sleeps with she makes between $10-$15. One man will account for her intake but if she goes a night without brining in her allotment she has to double or triple up until she pays back the debt.
All I could think was, “that’s less than the price of a t-shirt.” I think of just the number of t-shirts I own and the equivalence of the times she has sex with a stranger, it’s ABSURD. I’m sitting, my soul silenced by her reality wishing more than anything I could take her from that place. Listening as she tries to justify her reason for working in the bars; “there’s no where else I can make this kind of money, how else can I save up to visit my daughter in Singapore, I can’t afford to leave…” I’m infuriated that this is her story, this is her day in and day out, that I’m leaving tomorrow and heading to the luxurious beaches and she’s going to sit here dreaming of her daughter. I could see she wanted to trust, wanted love and yet believed it was all a lie. I brought Nick to the bars with me on our last night and she couldn’t take her eyes off of us. She began sharing that she had never seen anything like it, a man whose attention was on his wife and not on the thousands of essentially nude girls dancing around him. She’d never seen such love and didn’t believe it existed until we sat down. As I hugged her good-bye she whispered in my ear something that will never escape my heart; “Meeting you and your husband has given me hope, I want to believe that such beautiful love is possible for me too, thank you for inviting me into hope again…”
Lim will continue to spend her days working to see her daughter, hoping she made the right decision and dreaming of a way to get out and chase her own desires.
We met a few years ago in a bar called “Kitty Cat,” she was the definition of beauty. Her long hair wisped around as she danced from the pool table to the bar where the men were watching her with attentive glares. Her smile perfectly complimented her demeanor, she was the bar’s greatest asset. It took days of coming and sipping diet coke to get her attention but she eventually made her way to us. She quickly became so much more than the girl who wanted the men’s attention, she was strong-willed, independent, a dreamer with opinions so strong you’d think she was in politics. She moved to Chiang Mai years before, forced to support her family and her daughter by working the nights and she played the role well. We spent weeks meeting up during the day for coffee and walking the markets growing in understanding. She was more than happy to share her thoughts on Thailand but reluctant and fearful when it came to sharing her own story. It took 3 years to make my way back to her but I sat anxiously awaiting her arrival as I sipped my Thai Tea. She came waltzing through the door, as beautiful as the first time I’d seen her but there was something new and distinctive about her. She hugged me with such thrill and sat down sharing all the newness of her life. She told me she had left the sex industry and worked at a water-park serving drinks now and also helped at a travel agency. She was more alive than I’d ever seen her and she felt safe. She had had a few serious boyfriends in the time since we last saw each other but she didn’t think they were good enough to be her husband so she left them. She had watched her daughter grow from a distance and had been able to bring her to the water-park a few times to spend the day together. And then, something happened 3 years in the making, she began sharing her story.
Muk came from a rural village when she was hardly a woman at the time she was married to a local boy. She didn’t know what she was walking into but knew she had no choice but to move in with his family and serve them. The boy’s mother despised Muk, and she quickly became the family slave. She was forced to labor in degrading ways this new family of hers. They abused her and made her sleep outside of the house on a mat. She eventually gave birth to a daughter and the family hated her even more. She broke her story to say that in rural Thai culture daughters are worthless, often abandoned, killed and sold. Every family wants a son and because Muk had a daughter they were outcast. Muk and her new little one left and returned to her families home. They were disgraced but welcomed home the new grand-daughter. Muk’s father came to her one evening and said that if she didn’t leave for the city to make a living in the sex-trade she wasn’t allowed to keep her daughter here anymore. She packed her few belongings and headed to the big city. She explained the honor system within Thai culture, once children are old enough to care for themselves they must commit their lives to caring for and providing for their families and village. She grew up in those bars but told herself that someday she would get out.
And here she stood, free. She showed me a picture of her daughter and said that her parents had been raising her as a “boy,” because in her village all girls that are sold and working in the cities have to send home money each month to pay for the education of any boys in their village on top of their own children and families. I found a freedom to ask her hard questions about the sex-trade and hearing her experience brought light to a complicated market. She explained that when Bar owners, mafia men, or Pimps come to the villages to buy children that the families are aware of where their daughters will be going. They know they will not work in a hotel and only hope they are one of the lucky ones to work the massage parlors, but that most of them will be on top of the bars. The families watch as their neighbors build larger homes and buy nicer clothing and want that as well, so they sell their daughters without a second thought and wait for their rewards. She told me that if girls leave on their own accord and go home they will be shamed and unwelcome and that’s why so many stay. They are trapped by honor and the bar with no path out. “They are without hope…but I got out and they can too!”
Muk continues to see her daughter, but only in the city because she has been shamed by her village. She is thriving in her new work and thrilled to be doing something for herself for a change.
These 3 stories bring me to my knees everyday, in hope of hope. These girls, this young man are forever engraved on my heart and their stories have more value than they will ever know.
The Price of sex costs a tourist less than that of a t-shirt but costs a girl more than her life.