Repression hits red light districts in Bangkok
Over the years I’ve reported on sex shop shutdowns in Vietnam, go go bar raids in Angeles City and strip club crackdowns in Japan but truth be told I never thought I’d find myself reporting on a similar if less severe situation in Thailand where prostitution is a multi-billion dollar industry. I’ve refrained from talking about the turmoil in Thailand over the last few years here because it wasn’t directly related to the subject at hand. Now things seem to have spilled over into the adult entertainment area.
I’ve never been a big proponent of the widespread use of the term “redlight districts” outside of what I’d say are actual red light districts like De Wallen in Amsterdam but I guess it’s fair enough to apply to the term to a lot of what goes on in Bangkok. Some of the shops selling adult services are only steps away from huge corporate shopping malls but that’s no different than Seoul, where the Cheongnyangni 588 redlight district complete with women sitting in small shops with big windows is located behind the massive Lotte Department Store. Cheongnyangni 588 isn’t as tolerated as it is a difficult to remove obstacle though. The shops in Bangkok have always seemed to operate with more impunity including things like local protection and even some regulation with rules about licensing and testing in certain venues.
Over the last few weeks though there have been numerous activities that indicate that arrangements may be changing. I have no doubt that adult entertainment will continue to flourish in Bangkok, but some of the places that played a role in the industry for years may no longer be there when the dust clears.
Back in November the army which now rules the land required many Bangkok massage parlors with special services to close. Many were also asked to take down their websites or at least modify them to remove suggestions of anything more than a massage. Most were allowed to reopen soon after but the surprise visits scared some of the women working in the massage shops out of country or even out of the business altogether. This may be a boon for some related venues in South Korea or Singapore but it doesn’t bode well for the local industry, unless you consider the massive soapy massage complexes catering to local guys with money to burn that seem to have gone untouched.
Indeed some shops seem to have closed altogether for whatever reason. From what I’m told, Lilly Massage on Soi 24/1, Paradise Massage on Soi 26 and another shop on Soi 33 have been shuttered ever since. And that may not be the end of it.
In Early January a similar set of shutdowns occurred with officials requiring some shops on Soi 24 to close their doors yet another time. I don’t know what the official or even unofficial reasons were for any of this but it may tie in with some sort of safety campaign. Around the same time the first closures took place another annual installment of safety night was held in Nana Entertainment Plaza.
Things don’t seem to be limited to massage parlors of even Bangkok. I have no way to know if any of this is related but there have been reports of raids on massage parlors in Pattaya which reportedly acted as fronts for prostitution (can you imagine, in Pattaya of all places!) and a few police have been hanging around Soi Cowboy nightly occasionally asking foreign men who pass by to show their passports and take urine tests for drugs on the spot. There are also even more worrying stories about unsuspecting tourists and visitors being asked to pay bribes or suffer the consequences.
There have also been many troubling reports of police searches and shakedowns taking place in Bangkok, often in broad daylight and in the middle of heavily populated commercial areas. A reporter for Time magazine says he found himself in a scary situation in Silom after visiting a bar and the Bangkok Post has picked up on many similar stories.
The reports are not limited to these major news outlets though. They’ve been floating around the internet for some time. It doesn’t take much searching to come across more than you could read in a day, including this travel warning about shakedowns in Bangkok, this report on Facebook posts talking about Bangkok tourist shakedowns, and this report on increase harassment of tourists by police in Bangkok [report has since been taken offline], which includes a handy collection of links to even more reports.
Thankfully I’ve never been a victim of this kind of treatment and hopefully I never will be. Even though I don’t use drugs I would rather not be forced under duress to piss in a bag on a busy sidewalk or taken for any of my hard earned money that could be put to much better use elsewhere.
Tourism accounts for a large percentage of Thailand’s annual gross domestic product. Tourism has been down in recent years for a combination of reasons including drops in the Russian ruble and Japanese Yen, fear of flying after the Malaysian Air disaster and the aforementioned unrest and subsequent developments like martial law, which still remains in effect.
Some official outlets are apparently reporting that tourism numbers aren’t too far off the mark at the moment but I hear a different story from business owners and women who work in the entertainment industry. Many tell me there is an obvious decline. Some shops are even closing hours earlier than they usually do on a regular basis because they have no customers to entertain.
I don’t know where things will go from here but I will do my best to update readers when I feel its warranted.