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).
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.
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.