What the Phuket?! A Glimpse at Thailand’s Sex Tourism Industry

Hotels & Resorts, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Thailand — By on March 7, 2007 at 10:05 am

Nearly every backpacker we’d spoken with in Thailand vehemently recommended we skip Phuket in favor of one of the islands that hadn’t been choked to death by concrete and commercialism. Unfortunately, having not done enough advanced word-of-mouth research, we’d already advised Beth Frey, our college friend and NYC roommate, to meet us there to kick off her winter vacation. Incredibly, the three of us actually ended up bumping into each other in the massive domestic check-in area of the Bangkok Airport as we prepared to make our connecting in-country flights (insert typical squeal-filled girlfriend airport reunion here).

During the 45-minute drive from the  airport, our taxi weaved through a series of narrow streets dominated by sprawling super-resorts, Phuket hotels hemmed in by a massive concrete wall designed to give the impression of safety and seclusion. I’d been warned that Phuket had been transformed into a theme-park for package tourists more eager to immerse themselves in bowls of rum-punch than Thai culture, so the fortifications weren’t a surprise. I wondered though, if there were any locals still left in the area to keep out.

After Beth recovered from her jet-lag (and Jen and I took turns removing 27 layers of traveler grime in a much-missed hot shower) the three of us decided to take a shuttle bus to Patong Beach, the epicenter of the island’s nightlife. When we pressed our hotel manager for a description of the scene, he told us with a heavy French accent that it was “all shiny and glittery, with lots of the blink-blink lights and the sounds and the constant activity.”

Hmmm. This sounded more like a description of the Vegas strip than a beach town, but seconds after arriving, we realized that our man had been dead-on.

In Patong proper, night had been blasted into day by enormous neon signs, floodlight ATM terminals and the artificial glow of cheap restaurants, sports bars, tour companies, travel agencies, nightclubs, pirated DVD stalls, tattoo parlors and by-the-hour hotels. Little kids trying to sell cheap crap were unflaggingly persistent, but try as we might, we couldn’t escape from the three hardiest space invaders: Starbucks, Haggen Daaz and McDonalds.

As we walked, we saw gaggles of lady boys parading in their spandex, nylon and taffeta down the main drag (so to speak). British and Aussie teens on gap year poured huge buckets of Red Bull and vodka directly down their throats, then moshed spasmodically to alt-rock music pouring out of Buick-sized speakers. We guessed there was a two-for-one special on hookers, because almost every middle aged man we saw sported a barely dressed, under-aged Asian prostitute on each arm.

As Manhattan girls who’d long since learned to push through the commercialized mayhem of Times Square without batting an eyelash (without even looking up, really), the three of us were struck speechless by what we witnessed in Patong Beach. By comparison, old 42nd Street seemed downright provincial.

A few cocktails did nothing to enhance our perspective, so we called it a night.

When I got home, another shower seemed in order.

Below, a few more photos from our neon safari:

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  • TheGecko says:

    our taxi weaved through a series of narrow streets dominated by sprawling super-resorts, each one hemmed in by a massive concrete wall designed to give the impression of safety and seclusion.

    You got all that from driving past a hotel entrance? Resorts in Phuket are not like that – I’d be interested to hear you name a couple so I can understand exactly what you are talking about.

    We guessed there was a two-for-one special on hookers, because almost every middle aged man we saw sported a barely dressed, under-aged Asian prostitute on each arm.
    Nice generalisation there. Did you check the id’s of all those under-age girls while you were staring at the street??

    Sorry for such a negative comment, but all this sounds like the normal crap that people spout when they get somewhere like Patong (Patong is not Phuket ladies – please understand that and don’t generalise) and don’t even know anything about the place they are going.

    I’d love to hear what you think about my comments. Hope you enjoy Thailand more than you did Patong.

  • jost gantar says:

    hey! Lol on the impression of Patong. Had a totaly same same one when i was there a month ago. Just came to Phuket thinking thats my travelling brake and easing on the beach place will be and BAM! … didnt even get into the sea and just turned around, went back to my guesthouse and booked a trip for next morning to go away not even bothering about agency fee and even booked for 7am !!! think about that. Phuket is just not owned by thai people anymore. At least it seems like it. btw… nice work on the blog.. im enjoying it. jost

  • Desert Songbird says:

    Your photos of this place really captured the essence of this area: my disgust is almost visceral. Ugh. I will NEVER visit this place.

  • Alan says:

    Strange how being from the “media” qualifies you to make jusgements without asking questions or even anything as trite as attempting to establish the facts. There’s no doubt Patong is confronting for young Americans who always want to see their own concocted culture and correctness reflected everywhere. What a pity their view, like American culture, is so limited. Keep travelling, girls . . . you’ll get it one day.

  • TheGecko says:

    PHUKET is beautiful, PATONG is not to everyone’s taste. There is a distinction there for everybody reading this thinking that the whole of Phuket is a shithole.

    If people take the time to research Phuket before they come and don’t let travel agencies dump them in Patong they will find Phuket to be a wonderful place…with more than 20 beaches to choose from, plenty of activities, and friendly locals.

    lol, Phuket is just not owned by thai people anymore You do know that not one foreigner owns one piece of land in Phuket?!? Can I ask why you didn’t know what Patong was like before you got there? DO you normally just turn up without actually using the internet first? I’m gobsmacked!

  • jost gantar says:

    short reply hehe… Gecko dude dont get angry about other peoples impressions. Personaly I know some stuff about Phuket but not so much as you apparantly but I dont even want to. What I saw was enough to not go there anymore. Maybe when I will be ready to pay 100$ a night or more for a fancy resort with a private clean beach. And maybe when I will want to read my menus in german language. I have read some things about Phuket and I know you can also find some places that can be fun like the national park and stuff but mainly the island is far far gone for backpacking. peace

  • TheGecko says:

    I will get angry when people write their assumptions about whole islands based on their experience of one particular town. how many of you people actually ventured out to Phuket Town which is where most of the locals live and socialise?? by the sounds of it none.

    It makes me laugh/cringe when I hear people like you say I “don’t want to know anymore” and “I’ve seen enough”. Well quite clearly you haven’t.

    Normally when I read blogs like this everything is pretty much based on assumptions and no real experience comes into it at all.

    It’s funny that you are the second person I have read saying that it pisses them off that they have menus in German. I suppose as long as it is in English only that is OK, no? It’s pretty smart to cater to the tourists that come to your restaurant, which is why you will also see swedish translations as well.

  • jost gantar says:

    yo gecko dude… I was in Phuket town and it also sucks totaly but you are quite right on the english in the menus. But still… english language is like second in most of the non english speaking countries and german is for sure not. It didnt bother me that i couldn read german because i can… i speak german also. It bothered me that even in thailand there is such a strong german influence. English influence is as you said also a problem but it doesnt come only with tourism but also with movies, music, buisness and its different cause its quite common to the world. Where you can see also other languages so widely represented you now there is nothing genuine about the place you visited anymore. And that for me is Phuket. Respect others opinion and enjoy your next holidays in Phuket.

  • TheGecko says:

    I don’t believe external influences make a place non-genuine. Look around the world and you see places everywhere that are what they are now because of external influences.

    For this example try Thai food, renowned around the world, but there is almost nothing in modern thai cuisine that is truly Thai. Chillies – no, Coconut – er no. Portugese influences brought these to Thailand, and also their architecture to Phuket Town which is so highly revered and being preserved by the Thais themselves.

    On another level, look at our modern Metropolis – London, New York etc.. there is so much external influence it is almost unbelievable. Reading recently there are over 200 languages spoken in London now! Crazy!

    I do understand that people have issues when visiting countries like Thailand and see such external influences and at the level they are, but the very fact that they are there means that they are contributing to it. If people want an authentic Thailand then they should all bugger off home 🙂

    Oh, and just to say that I live in Phuket, so may be why I am defending it so much! (No, I do not have 2 underage hookers on each arm, but when I am fat and middle-aged it might sound like a nice idea!)

    ps, I do respect people’s opinions to the upmost, as long as they are based on facts and not hearsay and assumptions which I think is very fair.

  • the_cookie_maudester says:

    I can relate to everybody who made a comment. I was born and raised in the Philippines although living in the US now. The Phils., having more than 7,000 islands leaves 7,000 different impressions from foreigners. You can’t totally blame a foreigner for relaying their impressions because that’s what they are, impressions. Foreigners, too, should go slow on their (unintentional) judgmental comments especially if it’s anything related to women. Like Thailand, the Phils. has suffered being narrowed down as a pleasure spot for foreigners and as much as I would want to criticize that, it is true. And as much as it is true, it does not apply to all Filipinas.

    I guess when you blog these things and people read it, you will always hear two things. A lot of people who are interested to know more about these places you’ve been to will really take your words for it since everything is apparently empirical. So when you say “this place is awful”, people are less likely to doubt you. Bad review spread like wildfire and that’s why gecko, being a resident there, got defensive. Also Gecko, you should consider that these girls are just being honest and that they don’t intend to ruin Thailand’s tourism reputation or anything. They just write what they experience.

    So there. I hope this sprinkles some water to the embers. You girls go on blogging. I love it! All the luck!

  • TheGecko says:

    Hi there!

    I am certainly not saying that the girls should not be blogging about their experiences – but again I say that people should write based on facts and not assumptions.

    The comment about underage prostitutes was an assumption, and a damaging one at that. Thailand has enough bad press from idiotic journalism in the West, we just do not need anymore from people who spend 1 day in town and then make a judgement.

  • The Lost Girls says:

    We just wanted to say thank you to everyone who commented on this post (even you, Gecko!). Our intention was never to offend or create “bad press” for Phuket as a whole, but merely to share our first impressions of the Patong Beach nightlife scene. No, I didn’t check the ID of the very young women that I witnessed accompanying much, much older men, but hundreds of women’s rights groups (not to mention the UN itself) can confirm underage prostitution it still a problem throughout Southeast Asia–that goes for Thailand, too.

    As a New Yorker, I can understand the desire to be fiercely loyal about the place you call home. I’ve often been reminded how “dirty,” “crowded” and “crime ridden” my city is…but rather than getting defensive or blame the speaker for her impressions, I explain how things have changed in recent years and give her specific examples of why locals are so proud of NYC.

    Phuket’s natural setting is, indeed, stunning—but as with many of the world’s most spectacular locations, overdevelopment remains a problem. Massive resorts dominate parts of the island and yes, as a journalist, I did visit with a few general managers of large resort to ask them about the properties and the hotel’s relationship with the local community.

    The girls and I have now spent three months in Southeast Asia and as we get caught up on posting, we’ll continue to write things as we see them. These essays, of course, merely represent our opinions and we continue to welcome yours in this section.

    Happy travels!

    Amanda (and The Lost Girls)

  • Jamie Monk says:

    I won’t be as angry as the Gecko, but he is right. That line about narrow streets and sprawling super resorts? Sorry, but I have lived here for 7 years and don’t know any such streets. Where did you actually stay, by the way?

    And I also think you will find that the underage girls you saw are not underage. The police crack down on this all the time and check id’s. Bar owners can face prison for having underage staff.

    And Gecko is very very right. Patong is Patong, not Phuket.

    I started my Phuket blog about a year ago to show the real Phuket away from the tourist beaches that occupy perhaps 2% of the entire 540 square km of the island. Have a look, please.


    Happy Travels

  • TheGecko says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I’m a regular reader of your blog and I enjoy it very much.

    I’d be interested to hear more from Amanda about the resorts she visited and what the GM’s had to say about Phuket. I assumed from the blog that they just moved straight on and didn’t spend anymore time in Phuket. Ladies?

    Going back to the underage girls comments, that subject is huge and is not as simple as saying that the UN and other groups confirm that underage prostitution is a problem in SE Asia which includes Thailand. You are merely lumping Patong into the same equation which again is not true. Thai society as a whole has many social problems which include prostitution, and much to people’s surprise the vast majority of prostitution in Thailand is Thai/Thai based and not farang (foreigner) based. As I said this subject is worthy of a much larger forum, but I wanted to make the distinction for people reading this that may not be aware of the facts.

  • Anonymous says:

    Very nice , next time come to this place http://www.casabonitaphuket.com/

  • surf seeker says:

    I have 5 English friends who live(and have various internet/ boat/building/restaurant business in Phuket) They have been there for over 12 years– and 4 of them have Thai girl relationships -that have lasted over 10 years–When out with two of them and their respective ladies-the girls who are both in their early thirties — look so young that you can see(and often hear) the disaproving looks and comments.
    The girls tell me(and they all live and socialise around patong and simnlar areas that in fact-thank god there is very little underage sex trade and if there was they would have heard about it…Thais discapprove as much as westerners — allthough between consenting couples(unpaid) sex is legal at 13!…but thankfully definitely not in bar escort worl.Incidently I still remember(at 61 years old) when marriage and sex was legal in Tennessee and Louisiana at 13 — and in fact it still is in 8 countries of europe–I am not condoning , approving or agreeing–just pointing out the facts–
    You lost girls seem a little naive-I am glad your’e travelling to broaden your minds-as sadly for most of us in ‘the old world’our impression is that most Americans seem to feel that seeing a country from 30,000 feet from a plane gives them the right to expect and influence democracy, local religions, and to re-design families,faiths and propertiy with high impact –bombs–and of course the USA is still dropping clusters of bombs with thousands of bomblets–that are maiming children for years to come — now that really is something for the UN.
    OH yes–in your travels try-The Gambia or the areas just around the big Resorts in Ocho Rios Jamaica–thats where the sex trade is reversed with American(and English German etc)women of indeterminate age paying for sex with fit young local men–takes all to make the world i guess.
    Keep travelling Girls.

  • kurt says:

    Looks like paradise. Anything goes, and everyone is nice and beautiful. I think I’ll move there.

  • To those afraid about the conditions in Bangkok, let me advice you, avoit Bangkok!

  • Epiphanie says:

    I think Gecko and Jamie have some very valid points. I just came back from 2 weeks in Phuket Town, and I loved it so much there that I didn’t even go to any of the beaches! The architecture was beautiful, uplifting and intelligent, I made a Thai friend who had studied overseas and travelled to many places, and I loved the international influences. I have travelled extensively through Thailand and I love every part I’ve seen. Not everyone is going to like Phuket, but if you had done some research you could have avoided Patong and gone to someplace with a different character.

    I agree that Asians often look very youthful even when they’re older, so without knowing the ages of those girls you shouldn’t assume that they’re underage.

    Btw, Phuket is pronounced Pu-kett (the H is silent).

  • Caroline says:

    I though Phuket was the most disappointing place I visited in Thailand. It just, in my opinion, lacked any character. The downtown was gaudy, and I remember being asked to see a Ping Pong show by a pregnant lady. Very bizarre!

  • Mauritius says:

    @caroline..Ping Pong Show!!..lol..I never heard this word before. I have just google it and got to know… 😉

  • Lost Girls says:

    @caroline I can’t believe that happened to you! Actually, I can…Phuket is crazy and raunchy like that.

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  • ecashonly says:

    You only feature Soi Bangla(as seen from your pics)…that’s noy the full prespective of Patong area. Phuket is a huge island. Patong(especially Soi Bangla) that your pics show is the sleazy side of the place.

    Anywhere else and it’s way different. Phuket is one place that travelers all over the world either have visited or would love to visit. Like the other guy Alan who commented earlier….keep travelling, you’ll get it one day.

    For now, maybe you should just travel within your own country before you pass judgment on others.

  • having a regular nightlife can make your life a very colorful one, i enjoy having nigh outs -:~

  • Paul Coffey says:

    Why don’t you stay in your own disposable wonderland and concentrate on fixing that before you cast ill informed and uneducated opinions on other cultures.

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