In February, NPR published a story about the toll of the pandemic on Thai sex workers. Before the Covid19 pandemic hit, international tourism made up 20% of the country’s gross domestic product — fueling a thriving sex industry. It collapsed like a house of cards in March 2020, when the country closed its borders to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The sex workers in the cities of Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya struggle with the lack of sex tourists. Most of them barely come then and many of them returned to their home provinces in the countryside.
We contact Khun M., one of the sex workers we interviewed who has requested anonymity due to individuals being ostracized by their families or banned by their communities for association with this illegal industry stigmatized in Thailand.
When we interviewed sex workers in Thailand in September 2020, many hoped the coronavirus pandemic would end soon. But the country’s coronavirus crisis has only gotten worse, if not disastrous, with the average daily number of new infections peaking on August 13 with 23,418 infections. While some holiday islands, such as Phuket, have reopened to vaccinated foreign tourists, tourism is far from recovering.
We spoke to 38-year-old Khun M., who we met in the Thai tourist center of Pattaya. Before the pandemic, she made good money as a topless dancer in a go-go bar and as a sex worker. But when we spoke to her during the crisis last year, she said she didn’t have enough money to send to her mother, who takes care of her twice as she shares a studio apartment with two other women who worked in the same bar. In January, she returned to her hometown in the northeastern region known as the Isaan and started working as a bookkeeper at a local hospital.
- Mon, one year ago you were afraid that if tourism in Pattaya did not improve, you would have to move back to Isaan. What led to your decision to leave town?
The COVID situation became more serious. No tourists or foreigners came to Pattaya and I was very concerned about Covid19 virus. I started thinking about going home because there were almost no customers. My roommates went home again last November. It was a sad state. The room became quiet and austere, and I still had to pay rent [only] for the room. Fortunately, on New Year’s Eve, I earned some money from a client from Bangkok who came to Pattaya for an island vacation, then I was able to make ends meet.
- How the pandemic has changed the lives of Thai sex workers
At the beginning of January, the bar owner decided to close the business. I knew nothing else to do in Pattaya. I called my mom and told her I was coming home. But I only left for [a few weeks] because I tried to find a job in a [government-designated quarantine] hotel in Pattaya, but unfortunately without success.
- What was the city like the day you left?
I was speechless. I lived in Pattaya for [six years] and never thought that Pattaya would become an abandoned city. Pubs and bars that were always lit at night are now closed. The beach is lonely without tourists. At night, the beach has become a sleeping place for people [who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19], and others go there to donate food to the homeless. When I think about it, my heartaches. I’m glad I survived.
- Before the pandemic, you dreamed of saving enough money in Pattaya to buy more farmland for your family and start your own rubber tree plantation in Isaan. How much has the pandemic gobbled up on your savings?
I only had a small amount left. I had saved about 10,000 baht [€260,-) and used it to pay off my rent in Pattaya. I sent some money [in advance] to my mother for the cost of my two sons, about 3,000 baht [€77.-]
- What was it like when you first came home to your province?
When I returned to my hometown, I was not allowed to stay in our house. I had to report to the village leader and quarantine for 14 days. My mother planted me our [small] rubber plantation. She had some food and drinking water delivered.
After the quarantine period was over, I was able to go home. I didn’t have much to do except [help my mother with her] rubber plantation. I was frustrated because I didn’t know what to do with my life. I started looking for work, starting to apply as a Grab rider. There aren’t many food delivery restaurants in my hometown, so most of my work was collecting passengers or packages. It didn’t make much money, but it was better than twiddling your thumbs at home and earning nothing.
I also picked up a few shifts at the 7-Eleven and worked as a life insurance agent.
- Your mother and sons depended on your income as a sex worker for their livelihood. How did they survive when you returned to Isaan and did not have a steady job?
Living at home without money [in Isaan] is not as difficult as living in Pattaya. We have a house in the countryside, so we don’t have to pay rent. My mother grows vegetables for herself. Sometimes we buy meat from the market, and the price of fresh food is not expensive like in Pattaya. Last year my mother rented out half of her rubber farm to a few farmers, so she made enough money to live on.
- What are you doing now?
I [started] as a financial controller in a hospital [early July]. My friend told me the hospital was looking for staff. I had to pass an accounting exam to be able to apply. I wanted this job because I intended to [make enough money to] keep improving our house.
- Before the pandemic, you said that your job in the red light district of Pattaya made you more money than your previous office job. Are you earning enough money in your office job now?
I am a full-time employee with a monthly income. The salary may not be much, but there is health care, education for children and retirement benefits.
- How will COVID continue to affect you?
I am afraid that I will get infected with COVID because infected patients come to the hospital. I protect myself by wearing a double mask.
- How is life for you now?
My routine has changed. On the weekends I have time to be with my family. I make new friends. [Instead of going to bed late because of my evening shift at the bar], I get up early and go to a day job. It’s funny – I used to complain that one day I would have to sleep like a normal person!
- Missing something about Pattaya?
Haha, The party life, handsome guys, and drinking with girlfriends. I hardly drink anymore because of my new profession, but I miss it very much.
This report by Aurora Almendral, Aurora is an American journalist living in Southeast Asia.
Catch up on more stories here
Follow us on Facebook here