Monday, March 30, 2015

Country Overview: Thailand

Thailand was my first experience of an Asian country besides those in the South Asian region (India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka...). I expected the culture to be different, of course, but I thought perhaps it would be a smooth transition. Not at all. This country totally took me by surprise, and for two reasons.

First, the culture of Southeast Asia (and even Thailand exclusively), is extremely unique. Like I said, it seems to be vastly different from the other sub-regions of South Asia. Honor and respect are far more highly regarded. The work ethic is higher. In Thailand particularly, western culture and tourism has more than arrived. It permeates the every day life of those in the major cities.

Second, the problem of sexual exploitation is far more exposed, yet unaddressed, than anywhere else I've been before. The influx of tourists and a promiscuous culture probably have something to do with that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll finish that train of thought further along in this post.

The Basics

An estimated 67 million people live in Thailand. After my experience, I'm convinced that all of them live in Bangkok alone. Not really, but it's capital city is certainly crowded. It felt like an Asian New York City to me. Nearly everyone speaks Thai, and surprisingly, the songthaew (red-truck taxi) drivers know very little English. This was quite a shock for me after being in India and Nepal, where my English was sufficient to get from point A to point B. In Thailand, I had to always get help from English-speaking locals with communicating my destination.


The major religion in Thailand as a whole is Buddhism; 95% of Thai citizens report to be practicing Buddhists (read on for more about this). The currency is the Thai baht, and their economy does well with the large influx of western tourists. An expat there said to me, "This is Europe's Hawaii," and it made total sense. I heard so many different European languages walking around in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

Thailand and My Project

Unfortunately, though, this tourism has a more problematic side.

The major cities of Thailand are filled with red light areas where the laws against prostitution are blatantly unenforced. Thousands of western men pour into these cities every year to take advantage of this situation. Many come in order to find a subservient Thai wife after a few failed marriages in their home country. Most of these men are unaware (or in denial) of the manipulation and coercion (usually by families) that leads the women to work in this industry.

Many also do not realize that many of the women in these areas are actually underage girls. Everywhere you walk, there are bars filled with older white men, chatting with Thai women that are clearly working as more than a waitress. The picture on the right shows a complex that is run by an American man. He faces no consequences for breaking the law.

I will talk more in a later post about the cultural factors that drive the problem of sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia. For now it is safe to say that the demand is almost wholly created by western tourists (and a significant Japanese population).

Thailand was downgraded last summer by the Trafficking in Persons office to a Tier 3 country. This is the worst rating you can receive. For the two years prior to this downgrade, Thailand was provided with many opportunities to prevent such an occurence by addressing the situation. Unfortunately, according to all of the NGO's I met with, the country has done very little to respond to this embarassing assessment. It amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Here are the questions I was looking to answer in Thailand:

  1. Where do most of the victims come from - are they Thai, from a local "hill tribe," or coming from surrounding countries?
  2. Why is there such a large gap between the law and reality for the issue of prostitution in Thailand?
  3. How does the culture and religion of Thailand play a role in the exploitation of women and girls?
  4. When Thai people are made aware of this issue, how do they respond?
  5. With such an emphasis on honor, respect, and saving face - what is the best model of aftercare in this context?

First Impressions

There is a clash of ideologies in Thailand that is hard to miss. The country as a whole is well off economically. The streets of Chiang Mai are always filled with stalls selling overpriced souvenirs that toursist willingly buy. In Bangkok, you can hardly walk a block without finding a beautiful mall, often filled with high end products imported from western countries. I need to admit right now that I bought approximately four Reese's cups while there. If you want it, you can find it. In short, lots of money is coming into this country


This contrasts sharply with the tenets of Buddhism. Buddhism at its core is about ridding yourself of worldly attachments and cravings. The middle picture above is a visual representation of the contradicting thought processes. A huge idol to and instruction on how to rid yourself of these worldly attachments is placed right in front of one of the ritziest malls in all of Bangkok. But yet, I'm told, "To be Thai is to be Buddhist, and to be Buddhist is to be Thai." I still have yet to wrap my mind around this.




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