“Girls from Isan have no other choice than going to Pattaya”

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Isan, Thailand

Pattaya attracts flocks of tourists every year, and many go for more than just its beaches.

Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, with about fifty percent of its inhabitants living in rural areas.

Pattaya’s main commodity is its sex tourism. Some even call Pattaya the unofficial sex capital of the world. “Good guys go to heaven; bad guys go to Pattaya” is what they say on the streets. And let’s call a spade a spade: the sex industry is alive and well. The (in)famous “Walking Street” even looks a bit like Las Vegas, and above all, it is cheap.

But there is a much darker side to this industry which is often ignored: most of these girls simply don’t have many other choices. The statistics never lie: the majority of these girls originate from Isan – the northeastern region of Thailand. Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, with about fifty percent of its inhabitants living in rural areas. The spoken language is something closer to Lao, which is undoubtedly caused by the proximity of Isan to Laos.

I had the chance to look inside a few homes of the girls that worked in one of the many Go-Go bars. Go-Go bars are famous for having an easy system: lots of barely dressed (and sometimes fully naked) girls perform in the middle of the bar, and all are wearing something like a sticker or a badge with a number on it. If you’re interested in a girl, you just give her number to one of the owners, and she’ll come have a drink with you. For the price of a Vodka Red Bull, one can do almost anything that he pleases with the girl. The life of such girls is unimaginable: either being drunk or having a hangover for the whole week, sleeping with four other girls in a small room without a mattress, and so on. I even met a girl who had to attend high school every morning after working as a Go-Go dancer until very late at night. Many girls I’ve seen had wounds on their arms and legs from cutting themselves.

Many of the young prostitutes get pregnant, and, in line with Thai culture, the grandmothers back in the villages in Isan have to take care of the children. Nowadays, many girls and their parents think there is nothing wrong with working in Pattaya. Also in line with the culture, most girls will send at least half of their earnings back home. And most of the parents couldn’t live without that income, as Isan is very poor. Some of the eastern regions even suffer from malaria, although it is rare.

The great thing about Isan is that, unlike other regions in Thailand, it is relatively unknown to tourists. When I cycled through villages in Amnat Charoen, people came out of their homes to wave hello at me. I even got invited for a meal a few times every hour. And the times when I took that opportunity were special: there were fresh and delicious papaya salads, chicken feet and lots of sticky rice. And everything is eaten only using your hands, of course! Although, nothing compared to Bangladesh, where people even eat yoghurt or ice cream with their hands.

It was also in Isan, this time in Si Sa Ket, where I worked on a farm for a few days. It was another great experience which involved learning lots of things I never did before. If you’re up for an authentic cultural experience, and you want to enjoy untouched rural sights in Thailand, Isan is the way to go. I still have to go back and see how big the banana trees I planted have grown.