Over the Christmas holiday we longed for quiet beaches and hammocks swaying in the breeze, but instead we ended up in Pattaya, Thailand. Sure it’s a town with plenty of beaches and hammocks but little did we know that it’s also Thailand’s main center for buying sex. Why didn’t we know ahead of time you ask? Well, we travel based on connections and community and so when we were sharing our routing with family/friends and found out our kinfolk and fellow muso’s, Sammy & Kylie Horner were going to be in Pattaya over Christmas we were thrilled to have the familiarity of friendship over the holiday. So, that was that, we planned our routing and booked our guesthouse.
We spent five long and emotional days in this place, learning about how historically prostitution has been regarded as a norm in Thai culture from its Kings on down. Among many Thai people, there is a general nonchalant attitude that prostitution has always been, and will always be, a part of the social fabric of Thailand. And, although illegal, it continues to be practiced by the majority of Thai men. Intertwined with this social norm is a distortion in Thai Buddhism, that says women are “impure, carnal, and corrupting.” And although the current Dalai Lama has repeatedly asserted that women can attain enlightenment and function as equals to men in spiritual matters, his branch of Buddhism is not the one practiced in Thailand. In present day Thailand rather, sex with a prostitute and the suffering a woman might experience from it, is viewed by many as a result of karma.
We learned about how US soldiers came to Bangkok and Pattaya for R&R during the Vietnam war and capitalized on that Thai trait, creating a western market place for prostitution. And, Pattaya’s reputation as a sex capital is well deserved, with hundreds of beer bars, go-go clubs and massage parlors. Pattaya boast about 10,000 “Lady Boys.” These are young men who over a seven year period transform into women, specifically for the purpose of selling their bodies. There are an equal amount or more women and young girls available as well. The city of 100,000 residents, doesn’t have just one red light district like Amsterdam or Vegas but rather the whole city is a red light district, catering to every form of sexual perversion you can think of from ‘rent a girlfriend/ladyboy’ for a week to the newest offerings being a menu of acts from the book “Fifty Shades of Grey.” About 10 million tourists come every year with about 80% being there for that one purpose. The other 20% are families who didn’t get the memo on the cities main industry and have come because of the beaches, which are quite lovely. Of those who come to buy sex, most are white males between 45-90, although there is a growing number of couples and there are also clubs that cater specifically to women buyers.
At the end of the day, however, for the westerner the issue isn’t just about sex, it’s about the effects of war, consumerism and taking advantage of an warped internal cultural norm. It’s about those with wealth imposing their ‘user’ mentality on others by exploiting poverty stricken citizens into fulfilling their unhealthy habitual need for power and pleasure. As a result, one of Thailand’s most honorable qualities of caring for their elders has become warped and distorted with many of the girls returning to their home villages with a foreign patrons support. Thus, the dream to find the same luck continues to spread through the nation. A once beautiful ideology of community has now been replaced with a demanding spirit that has taken the young people of Thailand and told them that their value is based on their ability to make an income & that by allowing others to use their bodies they can fulfill this obligatory cultural/religious practice and thus honor their parents. It has reduced these precious humans to mere animals used for a single purpose rather than developing as the dynamic, spiritual, creative persons of worship that they were created to be.
In many of our circles the topic of “sex trafficking” has become a buzz word, a hot topic but usually the conversation only goes as far as an agreed disgust, specifically about the men buying the sex and maybe an idealistic thought or two about how the government should crack down on he issue or maybe a heart warming story about a friend who works with girls who have been ‘rescued.’ However, that’s about as far as we’ve gotten and we know it’s not far enough. So, what can we do about it?
Firstly, were singing to the choir here but we must understand the Sex trade is a bi-product of Empire and driven by a consumerist model of hierarchal, thus those with wealth have power over those who need wealth and subsequently responsible for how they wield their power. So, in our everyday lives we can begin to make a difference by admitting and renouncing any ownership attitudes we might have because of our wealth. Secondly, know that every interaction has a purpose, paying attention to our impact on others when participating in any sort of sales exchange, seeking to understand who we will be exchanging dollars for services with and seeing the greater experience is about a human connection and deeper than that it’s about a spiritual connection. Ask questions and let owners of businesses know you care about how employees are treated and paid at your local restaurants, nail salons, shopping malls, stores, mechanic shops, etc… And, when looking for “me” time make efforts to seek healthy alternatives that don’t involve exploiting other human beings. But mostly, we can push through from conversation, reading articles and developing opinions to understanding that this issue truly is bigger than we can handle alone. We need to seek the heart of God for justice on this one, asking for understanding, conviction and direction. For instance, when your friend tells you about a friend who is working to stop sex trafficking ask more questions. Find out if a commitment to prayer or resources, time or talents is being called for.
Speaking of… one such group is the Tamar Center in Pattaya. Dutch Founder Nella Davidse, told us her inspiring story of coming to Thailand with a sense of purpose, finally landing in Pattaya 16 years ago. She shared how for the first years she quieted her heart and spent hours and hours in prayer (which honestly, must have taken an immense amount of discipline as Pattaya evokes a number of deep emotions and thoughts). She said that prayer and building relationships with those who were already doing things into the area to make a difference were the foundational building blocks to Tamar Center. From intense and consistent prayer and worship came an open door to buy a building outright in the heart of Pattaya, where she set up a drop in prayer/meditation room and an ESL school. And, later a salon, restaurant trade school, creative arts program and spiritual/counseling center for those who decided to leave the sex trade to heal and learn a new skills to support their families. Nella, and her tribe, spend day after day immersed in this toxic place, consistently offering a cup of cold water to any who desire. By being present on a consistent basis, Tamar Center has been a lifeline to many of those longing for more to life and we heard amazing stories from those impacted by the beacon of light that Tamar Center has been. Nella said the key Tamar centers success in Pattaya has been and continues to be on total reliance on God to move in the hearts of those they are surrounded by and a patience to wait for His faithfulness to bring them through the doors.
We joined Nella and her community down on Soi 6 on Christmas Eve. We sang songs of peace and love and blessings over those on the streets and in the open air bars. We called out for the living God to soften hearts and break bond’s. We were fighting back tears as an older single white male sat on a stool, in the bar directly to our right, young person on his lap, eyes glazed over, as we sang our final song longing for liberation. We listened intently as a few of the “lady boys”, shared their spiritual transformation stories and how they were no longer slaves to the sex trade industry but free and because of that freedom they experienced the beauty of worship and connection with a God who loves them no matter what. And, how that has impacted and empowered their identity as a child of God.
We were encouraged and reminded of a moment in the ancient text where Jesus walks down to Jacobs well and sits down. When a woman comes to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” The woman is surprised that Jesus would even talk to her and she points out their obvious differences. Jesus answers her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” She replies saying, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman is in awe and asks for this living water but first Jesus deals with her heart and gives her an opportunity to see herself a new. Then he tells her what she’s really created for; freedom to truly be loved and in response to that unconditional love, to be able to worship the God of all gods.
And, this is what we saw in Pattaya, those once in bondage released and genuinely offering thanks for their freedom, daily drinking in that living water and in turn offering it to others. In this dark and deprived place we saw a glimpse of heaven and if nothing else, it was worth coming all the way around the world to see.
One of our last nights in Pattaya, we along with our Tamar Center friends and Sammy & Kylie all went down to the beach to swap story and song with the sunset as our audience. Our spirits were encouraged and calmed after a week of high emotions as we cared for each other and those around us. We were able to leave with open eyes and open hearts.
PS; We are always learning and in no way think we know the whole story. We are open to correction and even though this was a highly emotional place to be we tried to weed through our emotions to understand and see a bigger picture. This is just a glimpse of what we’ve gleaned and our hope in sharing our insights is to start a conversation. If you’ve felt any sort of nudge while reading this entry, please share your heart, send me a note, reach out to Nella at the Tamar Center or others who might be waiting for you to encourage them by sending support or joining them in this amazing work of restoration.