Down the Dirt Road: An Unexpected Glimpse of Human Trafficking in Laos

It was around 3pm while I was sitting in my hotel room that I decided fatigue’s lure to the bed needed to end— how often would I be in Laos after all? With only two nights and three days in the country’s capital, my time was limited, and of course, I had to see some of the sites while in town for an unexpected visa run (a print error on my old visa nulled two months of my stay in Thailand). On this particular Friday, I had just picked up my newly issued visa from the Thai consulate and headed back to the hotel room. I drank one of the delicious and dark BeerLao’s that was left over in my fridge from the previous night and looked through the ripped Lonely Planet pages I managed to scrounge about everything Vientiane (though the information was dated~ 5years, it was still useful in finding my way around). The only thing that really piqued my interested in the “attractions” section was the Buddha Park, a site containing over 200 Hindu and Buddhist inspired statues. It was recommended that traveling on an empty stomach would be best, as the road is quite bumpy. I had a sizable breakfast and thought I wouldn’t have a problem making the 45-minute journey without lunch or another large meal.

I hopped on a local bus bound for the Friendship Bridge after getting a bit of guidance from my tuk-tuk driver, and after many local stops, we finally made it to the Thai/Laos border crossing where I asked around about ways to get to the park. I was informed that a minibus leaves on a random schedule. After hopping in the rickety bus, I began reading my book, and after waiting for about 20 minutes with no signs of leaving, I asked another driver about ways to get to the park. I was the only one sitting in the bus and I assumed the driver was waiting for more passengers before heading out. It was about 4:45PM and the sun would be going down shortly. Not wanting to miss my chance to see the park, I took up the offer of the other driver for the higher price of 8,000 Kip ($1 US). His vehicle was much nicer than the one I was sitting in and the price was fine by me! I knew more Thai than he did English (most Laos people have a very good grasp on Thai, as Lao and Thai are very similar languages), which made for a great opportunity for me to practice my Thai skills, something I was eager to try, as communication would have been impossible without my limited knowledge of the language.

The road was definitely bumpy, and I cannot begin to imagine what the ride would have been like in the bus I was sitting on just minutes prior. It took nearly forty minutes to drive 7km. It’s a wonder that this place is a top attraction, as I would have expected better infrastructure or at least an attempt to fill in the giant holes in the road. When we arrived, I was relieved and pulled out my camera to take some shots of all of the impressive sculptures, most of which were cast by unskilled artists. My driver entered the park and offered to take some pictures of me (I didn’t have any pictures from Laos of myself so I was happy to show him how to use my camera).

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After sufficiently exploring and taking several photos, we were back on the road. The sun began to set and my driver agreed to take me back to my guesthouse near the Thai consulate. I had built some rapport with him and he seemed so happy to be taking me along the way. I explained that I was hungry and thought he would know of a good local spot to stop at on the drive back. He instead asked if I wanted to grab a quick BeerLao. Earlier in the trip we had a conversation about how good BeerLao was, and it was a kind gesture for him to offer to take me to get one. I agreed.

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We were still on the bumpy road and Vientiane was probably about a half hour away. The sun was almost completely down as the truck stopped in front of an unlabeled and poorly fashioned shed-like structure. After just one second looking inside as we walked closer, I saw two scantily dressed girls and knew exactly what I was about to step into. I continued walking into the establishment, not knowing what to do next. When we sat down in the plastic chairs surrounding wobbly table, the two girls joined us as three adults behind me sat and watched various karaoke DVDs (two women and one man).  I drank my beer quickly as I didn’t know what else to do in the situation.

In my previous blog post, I had expressed my interest in going local— seeing how locals lived, ate, and worked. I was definitely getting a lesson in “acceptable” local treatment of women as I watched my “friend” grope the girl next to him and peck her on the cheeks. She giggled as she brushed his hands away. I was encouraged by the driver to get close to the girl sitting next to me. He demonstrated his “smoothness” as he rubbed the leg of the girl sitting next to him. The driver made several gestures to me in attempt to convey what I already knew—- these girls were for sale and sex was available just a walk upstairs.  I repeatedly insisted “Mai aw” (I don’t want) and explained in Thai  “Phom mi fane thii mueangphom… Phom rak khaw” (I have a girlfriend in my home city. I love her). The girls smiled sweetly at me as if relief fled over them. The driver continued egging on the girl next to him, getting her phone number and even calling one of his friends to join. The driver’s friend and I switched seats. I was now drinking my second beer and the two men seemed surprised at how fast the light lager was going down for me.  Again, nerves were getting the best of me and drinking the beer or smoking a cigarette they offered  were the my best choices to stay calm and not get upset with what I was watching unfold. The driver let me know that there was a hotel upstairs where I could go to have sex, motioning with his hands. The sun was down by now and the string of Christmas Lights sparkled in my periphery. My driver eventually got the point that I wasn’t interested, and after three beers, we went back to the truck (I didn’t allow my driver to have more than one). I paid the tab, hoping that this gesture of goodwill would ease my driver’s thoughts about who I was and what I had thought about the situation— ultimately I was in his hands in this small town along a dirt road, just over 30 minutes outside of the capital. I certainly didn’t want to piss him off, so I did my best to remain calm and appear unaffected by the situation. Paying was the least I could do to show my “appreciation” for the stop along the dirt road.

After leaving, relief swelled over me, but just five minutes after getting back into the truck, we pulled over again. I hoped that we were just making a stop for food. My driver’s friend pulled up next to our vehicle and joined us as we began walking down a small hill in the general direction of a bar with a large group of girls sitting out front. I immediately stopped and insisted “Mai aw” but was pulled inside, as he insisted we would have just one beer. Three girls joined my two “friends” and I, my driver obviously proud that he had brought a farang to the establishment.  He bragged that two of the girls sitting in front of me were 15 years old. He pointed to the August calendar’s 15th day to make sure I understood how young they were “Sip ha pii” (15 years).  He then explained that the girl sitting next to him was from Japan, hence her different look. He groped her breasts hoping to excite me into making a move. The girl didn’t speak during our time there, and I question whether or not she even knew Lao or Thai. The room was dark and lit with a variety of Christmas style lights and there was obviously a lot more organization to this particular brothel than the prior (just from the sheer number of girls —probably around 15—- and the drink service they provided—getting ice and filling our glasses continuously). I again drank my beer fast; after all, this would give me good reason to go to the restroom and be alone for a moment, collect myself and sit back down. My $1500 worth of camera gear was locked in my driver’s truck, and I continued to play off the situation nonchalantly (I wasn’t interested because I had a girlfriend). The men insisted, “Mai bpen rai” (no worries). I was, after all in Laos and nowhere near the girl I spoke of. The driver forced a girl to grab my leg and forced my hand onto her’s. I whispered in the girl’s ear that I didn’t want anything and that I was sorry for my friends. I told her she was beautiful several times—I didn’t know what else to say. And they were beautiful. The makeup caked on their faces made the illusion of age and experience, but their innocence could shine through any veil. The driver let me know that for 50,000 Kip ($6.50) I could have sex upstairs with the girl of my choosing.  My stomach churned at the thought of these girls being bought for a night.

I sat there in disbelief at what I was seeing—- two girls aged 15 and another girl from Japan. What were they doing in this brothel along a dirt road 20 minutes outside of the Laos capital? I have read several books on human trafficking, but to see it firsthand like this tore me up inside unlike anything coming out of the pages I had devoured before my trip to Thailand. This situation seemed to play out like all the stories I had read. Were the girls sent away from their homes for whatever reason and forced into karaoke bars or brothels to pay off debts or support their family? No definite answer can be given, though from the looks on their faces, I could tell something ran deeper. I can only imagine what the young Japanese girl’s story is, but I know she didn’t end up in the bar on her own accord. I stared each of them in the eye trying to convey some humanity and compassion. I’m not sure what they took my stares as but I hope the message got through that I was sorry for the situation they were in and that I wasn’t interested in exploiting them as the two men with me were. The two men laughed and carried on as they groped and poked the girls who were obviously not enjoying the attention. I got up several more times to use the restroom and at one point was in tears in the bathroom. I gathered myself though and remained calm when entering back into the bar. My glass was continually filled with beer and ice, and even Redbull was mixed in. After a few beers split between us all, we got up and left the establishment. I knew that rocky road was over for me and I remained calm as the driver took me back to my guesthouse. It was about 10PM when we got back on the road, my stomach growling in disgust and hunger. We had left Buddha Park around 7PM and I had somehow endured nearly three hours in two brothels. Hardly a word was spoken between the two of us while a French public radio monologue filled the void.  The driver asked if the station was okay, though I was pretty indifferent to whatever was coming through the speakers— my mind was still back at the bar.

What will happen to those girls, I can’t be sure, but their situation is so prevalent in SE Asia. It is heartbreaking that these girls must endure constant objectification and forced sex, while being deprived of education and a bright future. It’s just another reminder of why I am here Thailand doing what I am doing. We all need to stand up against this and I am writing this blog to hopefully paint the picture for many people who are (not by their own fault) ignorant to the plight of many HUMANS throughout the world. This is a not just a women’s issue—it’s a HUMAN issue, and my work with Urban Light has opened up my eyes to the plight of boys in similar situations.

Western, solo, male travelers in SE Asia probably experience something similar to what I did in Laos, as it is almost an expectation that men are in these countries for sex. Perhaps my driver had taken other westerners to similar spots in the past with no objections. Shutting the door to this expectation of sex tourism does not rest solely with travelers, but needs to be addressed in media as an unacceptable excuse for travel.  The constant references to “easy sex” in Thailand and SE Asia constantly shows up in movies and television shows. These reference increase demand which in turn drives supply, and the need for money harbors opportunity to exploit vulnerable populations.

The situation I was in was difficult to watch, but I feel as though I did all I could without compromising my safety or morals. My driver’s intentions were not malicious towards me and he undoubtedly just wanted to show me a good time. He probably saw a solo traveling farang and thought, “What more could this guy want?” Sex tourism is so prevalent in SE Asia and the purchase of women for sex so rooted in culture, all of it probably seemed relatively normal to the two drivers accompanying me. I wonder what they thought of the farang who didn’t buy in to cheap and available sex. It’s hard looking back on the situation, but I’m satisfied to know, at the very least, that I showed the drivers another side of my culture.

Please share my story to spread awareness of the realities of human trafficking in SE Asia. I had just a small glimpse of it up close and know there is so much more that goes unseen everyday.

25 thoughts on “Down the Dirt Road: An Unexpected Glimpse of Human Trafficking in Laos

      • Hi Elliot, I have two small complaints about your activities described above.

        First, I wonder why you pulled out the classic “girlfriend card”? Lame. Why didn’t you just say no? It has worked for me under similar circumstances.

        Second, I would have been more impressed with you if you had gone to the police to complain. Naturally everyone thinks the Thai police are corrupt – but this was in Laos. right? I have had good experiences with Thai police. Who knows what the Laos police might have done. The Thai Special Affairs Police have had several news stories about their success at stopping just this kind of trafficking. You might have been pleasantly surprised at the result in Lao. Had you said you did that, I would add you to my nobility list. Without doing that and with all this eye contact you interpret liberally, I wonder if you fully understood what you were seeing and only reported the sensational story you want to tell.

        Lots of local teenagers might hang around a Thai bar in the countryside for lack of anything else to do. Scantily clad Thai women are easiest to find in a big shopping mall in BKK. Big deal. Lots of local prostitution takes place for Thais only – and the same all over the world, including the USA – that is never intended for tourists.

        I am primarily a media critic and I question your report in those terms. But a great story in any case. You should write a book.

        • There are always going to be the “could have should have arguments,” but I was in a new country for two days doing a visa run, repeatedly said “no” multiple times to my driver, and was purely in this individual’s control for transport back to my hotel, given the isolation of the area I was in. The whole situation seemed like I was being treated as one of “the guys” being taken out to have a good time. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for the efforts and I also did not want to offend these guys, ESPECIALLY since I was alone in an area I wasn’t familiar with. I appreciate the critical view you are taking of the whole situation, and I do look back on the whole thing thinking I should have done this or I should have done that, but this is what happened— this is what I felt. Your condescension doesn’t change that and you yourself are doing way too much speculation on the situation I was in, but again, I appreciate your comments and possible other points of view that I may have missed. I wrote this piece the day I got back to Thailand (the day following the whole situation) and laid it out how I experienced it. The claims of trafficking and child exploitation come from what I heard from the driver and could see from girls sitting in front of me (very tiny girls, obviously young and a girl that did look ethnically different from the others).

          This journey is all a learning process and I am now better equipped to deal with situations like this if I am in them again. Perhaps a book is in order in the future, but I have much to learn and experience before that undertaking. I appreciate the encouragement!

  1. What a saddening reality for these girls…these are the kinds of stories people need to shar. And they aren’t just happening there….so scary.

  2. I’m reading this again, just as a reminder. I feel like I learn so much from your posts, good and bad…and just real. It’s people like you, that really put yourself out there, that make a difference.

  3. Found your post via UrbanLight’s FB page! Thank you for sharing your story…I am especially thinking of your response to the girl who was pushed to touch your hand. Thank you for telling her the truth about herself – that she’s beautiful. I hope you were a light to her in a dark place.

  4. I got your post from a colleague of mind who also does human trafficking work in Thailand and Laos. This is a very interesting phenomena and I am so proud of you who taught local guys a lesson of being a good man. This is a problem of gender base violence in the region. I just got back from conducting research on Human trafficking in Laos. I had opportunity to interview 13 participants who are medical. social, mental health providers, 21 sex workers, and 25 human trafficking survivors. The story they share were hearth breaking.

    As for your case seeing a girl who was referred to as she is a girl from Japan could not be true. my assumption is that your driver just make a joke and tried to draw your attention and curiousness to sleep with her. The driver or whoever take costumers to bar, hotel, or to sleep with a girl in the specific bar will get commission from the bar owner. In fact, the girl might be a girl from ethnic group who could not speak Laos and Thai and not come from Japan at all. I learned this from my two years working in Laos and hearing from the drivers who asked me to bring guest for their services. My husband was also approached by drivers and local guys to go bar and sleep with girls. My husband was sick in his stomach every time he heard of local guy tries to sell young girl to him. We can’t rescue any girl because we are foreigners. We can only do to work with NGO and informed them of what we have experience. However, everything is money talk there. This is sad situation and big problem for the young girl who just try to find way to earn income to meet basic human need and support their family by letting themselves to become victims of sex trafficking.

    Your decision not to touch any girl is very right thing to do. There are stories about local guy tries to make money from foreigners by grouping up with corruption officers and hooking up foreigners with prostitute then arrest foreigners and accuse them of violate women right and find them. Your post is very helpful to other who travel to different countries for sex purpose. Your post will teach many men to respect the right and dignity of the women who are human being.

    If anyone interest in doing research work with human trafficking and sex workers in the region especially Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam please let me know.

  5. I feel sorry for your being exposed to this sort of thing with your weak stomach and all. Maybe next time you will stay where tourists actually go and not find yourself in weird off the road places that rarely see a farange. When you say things like this you completely distort the facts. Bkk, Pattaya and also Vientiane have many obvious, well lite places with young, but adult, women who will clearly be happy to meet you (for money) and are under no pressure or abuse either. That is the majority where first world men interact with prostitutes and your story is about an exception, if it is indeed true at all. If an NGO wants to get involved, I urge caution when wearing American attitudes on your sleeve. But if you expect our government to take a hand that is a huge mistake because that will surely offend a lot of nations around the world in fundamental cultural, political and, yes, religious ways. Tone it down. Every country can and always has had the ability to do, or not do, what they wish to protect women. That is their sovereign right. This is not our fight.

    • As I mention in the post, I was informed of the Buddha Park from a Lonely Planet book, one of the world’s most respected travel guides. Yes the book did mention that the road was bumpy and outside of town, but it also mentioned how worthwhile the trip was. Culturally sensitivity is obviously important in addressing issues of trafficking and sexual exploitation. This narrative is my experience, and I feel it is unfair for you to judge any empathy I may have felt for individuals clearly being touched against their wishes and being treated with disrespect. My “sick stomach” is an acknowledgment of circumstances that led a 15 year old to be selling sex to strangers. No child should EVER be expected to do something like this. Your generalizations of sex workers and the exploitative social systems in place that you lack to acknowledge does not legitimize your claim that women may or may not be “under pressure or abuse.”

      Again, this is my experience. You generalize that this is the “exception.” Obviously there is a wide variety of “well lit” commercial sex venues available; however, I am sure this type of thing happens more frequently than we all might like to think. These areas of countryside may have even more commercial sex available than the “well lit tourist areas.”

      With that being said, I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and contributing to the dialogue attached.

      • Do as you please. But our country is at risk – at least of appearing to be a big bully – if we continue to trample on the sovereignty of other countries by demanding that they must feel the same way as you do about this issue – when they don’t. In America the misplaced interest in just finding trafficking victims in the US takes a lot of money away from family counseling efforts and similar outreach where it is needed more. If I were at home, instead of Madagascar looking into trafficking here, I would give you an exact quote – but recently Ed Reasoner in an interview said approximately this, “The USA can’t solve everyone’s problems – and shouldn’t try.” But you go ahead and have a good hearted time of it. I do wish you well as long as you don’t drag our country into it and I say that as a DoS retiree.

        • THe fact that I am American is secondary to the fact that I am working with an organization that is directly addressing a neglected, marginalized, and exploited group of individuals who need varying levels of assistance in Chiang Mai (male sex workers). Our staff is 100% Thai and our we do not tread as an organization run by outsiders. Collaborative efforts between other NGOs and government officials is part of the strategy and we are looking into better ways we can serve this population.

          • Hi Elliot, Helping people of a country do things they chose to do is critical. In that regard I wish you well. There certainly are a lot of male sex workers in BKK and in Pattaya but I would not think so many in Chang Mai. I wonder if you saw the multi-page story in the BKK Post not long ago about the several new “host clubs” in BKK mostly for Japanese women to hook up with Thai men? That is a new but growing trend elsewhere too especially in former French colonies. And you also have a lot to learn about the “NGO life style.” It is common for NGO workers on contract to have a monogamous relationship with a new woman with each contract and let her go when they move on to a new country under a new contract. My ex-wife used to work for USAID and I got that inside scoop over my dinner table. They called it “serial monogamy.” Here in Madagascar three of the senior 30ish women in the program I just was a part of each had handsome, younger, native Malagasy men as “companions.” As an NGO worker now you too can have a good time while you are in Thailand – or maybe not. But, regardless, you certainly are learning a lot about life overseas, right?

  6. This is a great post (as all your posts are). I do think that this happens very frequently, obviously if the driver might be trying to get commission if you chose to partake in any trafficking activity. I assume this because almost all the drivers I have ever hired while traveling, though not brothels, have stopped at shops where they can make commission off me. And since the dirt road to Buddha Park is frequently used by foreigners, that makes the brothel locations prime for foreign business, at least in my opinion. I think your sensitivity to the matter is admirable and your work is making a difference. Your nationality has nothing to do with your good-willed heart and desire to make a difference. Thanks for sharing your experience, I really enjoy you blog!

    • Thanks so much for reading and the feedback. The whole thing didn’t seem like a commission based thing, but it very well could have been. I sincerely thought the guys was just trying to show me a good time (he didn’t make me pay for my ride back home either, which I thought was a bit odd). Either way it was an eye opening experience. Best of luck with your preparations to come Thailand! So exciting– you will love it!

  7. Elliot. I have met Katherine Welch and know the work she is doing. Your story is very true and sadly very typical. I have only been here in Chiang Mai for a few weeks and Thailand for two months, but I already have that feeling that a ‘single western male over 50 in here to buy cheap sex’ is my suppsed reason for being here. I ran into similar experiences in Mexico and other places. I can relate to your state of mind there. I felt that too. thanks for writing that!

    • Thanks so much for reading! It’s a worldwide issue and I appreciate you talking about your experiences abroad. Dialogue is essential in breaking down this “expectation” of solo male travelers. Best wishes and enjoy your travels!

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