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Ghosts In The Darkness

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High heels, blood-red lipstick, a skintight T-shirt and cut-off jeans may not be the typical dress code of a som tam street vendor.


But then Gae, 23, is not a regular street vendor. "I earn my living by pretending to sell som tom on the street. In fact, I don't even know how to make som tam," the young woman from the northeastern province of Mukdahan says." I mainly make money from selling special homemade booze made from lao khao [local Thai rice liquor] mixed with water and red soda pop. The papayas, cucumbers and tomatoes you see are all fake; they're all plastic."


Gae is one of many women who line the streets near Hua Lamphong railway station using som tam stalls as fronts for their illegal businesses. Many of them are freelance sex workers serving tuk-tuk drivers and building workers who cannot afford to go to Bangkok's more prominent massage establishments. Rung Dum, a tuk-tuk driver in his fifties, tells <em>Spectrum</em> the som tam vendors in front of Hua Lamphong are well known to drivers looking for low-cost sexual services. "I'm a regular customer of these ladies. There are many places to go around this area for short-time fun at a low cost. I don't make a lot of money and these ladies don't charge me that much money. So we are a perfect match," he says."


These ladies only accept regular customers like me. They don't want to get arrested by the police, who often run sting operations and pose as customers. If they are not familiar with your face, they won't go with you."Gae, however, insists she's not there to sell her body. "I'm not that kind of person. I'm not sleeping with men for money," she says."But if you want me to, I can go to a local karaoke shop with you if you pay me 300 baht. Then we can see what happens next."



Ratchadamnoen Nai Avenue is listed in tourist guidebooks for its prominent cultural icons _ the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha Temple and many others. But just a short stroll away, to the side of Atsadang road, known locally as Khlong Lot, stand rows of shop houses, local restaurants _ and, at night time, dozens of "ghosts". Phi khanoon (jackfruit ghosts) is the name given to the group of street sex workers who wander around the Khlong Lot area _ which is littered with jackfruit trees _ looking for customers.


Kiet, a 47-year-old taxi driver who mainly collects passengers around this cultural area, tells Spectrum that Khlong Lot has long been known for its nocturnal activities. After almost 20 years driving a cab, Kiet says that there is nothing he hasn't seen in this area. "I usually drive the taxi at night since there are many kinds of tourists out at night: backpackers, night shoppers and of course those looking for a bit of action," he says. "One of the things I do on a nightly basis is take passengers around the Grand Palace, the Sanam Luang and the Khlong Lot areas to help them look for sex workers. Once they negotiate a price, I drop them off at a nearby motel."


Kiet says he usually asks his passengers what type of person they are looking for. Then he can take them to the right area. He tells Spectrum that the sex workers in this area have their own designated zones _ young women, transgenders, men and older women. The freelance sex workers based around Sanam Luang are mostly young and beautiful. They stand on one side of the street while their boyfriends, who act as pimps, stand on the opposite side. The women are mostly the girlfriends of "Vanz boys", or motorcycle racing gang members. The area in front of Saran Rom Park, opposite the Grand Palace, is the zone for male sex workers, while the Khlong Lot area is where older and less beautiful ladies wait for customers.



During the day, Khlong Lot is active with many local businesses. But the setting at night is different entirely. After the sun goes down, the shops all roll down their metal shutters. Few people wander the streets. The footpath that is so active during the day turns to a desolate concrete stretch occupied only by the homeless and their makeshift cardboard beds. Further down the road, an unusual change in the landscape occurs; in the dark alcoves of buildings or unlit sois linger women with long hair, white faces and red lips _ the "jackfruit ghosts".


The name derives from the fact these women usually remain in the shadows, often beneath jackfruit trees. They are visible only when a car approaches to negotiate a price for the woman's services. Then they will either vanish with the car or back into the darkness. Pa, originally from the South, looks like a typical housewife. She is one of the many ghosts that sit along the street, placing a bottle of energy drink nearby as a signal that they are available to potential clients. Pa is a good looking and well-dressed 58-year-old widow who visits Bangkok sporadically to see her son who lives here. Despite her age, Pa manages to make money every night selling "massage" services in Khlong Lot. "I sit here from 10pm to 4am every night. I usually make 400 or 500 baht per night. My regular customers are tuk-tuk drivers, taxi drivers and construction workers. Most are on a low budget or are older people," she says. "I have been doing this since I was 30 after my husband left. I have a son and I had to take care of him. I have no education and have no other career options. If had a choice, I wouldn't want to do this."


Pa's son works in a market during the night, so is unaware of his mother's nocturnal activities. Pa sits on the street in the Khlong Lot area all night and catches a bus home when the sun is almost up. She repeats the same routine every night during her visits to Bangkok. On another side of Khlong Lot, around Sanam Luang, a similar scene plays out _ though the age and appearance of these women is much different. The ladies around Sanam Luang area are called the "tamarind ghosts", so called because of the plentiful tamarind trees which grow there. "Do you want to have a good time?" Nong asks as she approaches a taxi to negotiate with a potential customer. At the age of 20, it is not difficult for Nong to attract clients, and she can charge a premium for her services. "My rate is 500 baht, but that is just the rate for me to go out with customers. If they want more, there will be an extra charge," Nong says with attitude "I'm new here. I've never done this before, but my friends told me that I can make a lot of money per night. "And they were right: I can normally make at least 1,500 to 2,000 baht per night.



In May this year, police officers from the Children and Women Protection Sub-Division raided several areas in Bangkok: Khlong Lot, Sanam Luang, Lumpini Park and Chinatown's Wong Wian 22 July roundabout. They arrested 44 Thai women, three foreign women, 16 ladyboys and three men for prostitution. Each was fined and promptly released. Pol Col Napanwut Liamsanguan, the superintendent of the sub-division, tells Spectrum that similar raids are carried out every three months. Each time the police raid an area, they arrest at least 100 sex workers from the street. The most arrests are usually made around Wong Wian 22 July roundabout and Sanam Luang. But Pol Col Napanwut says the raids are less about intimidation and more about monitoring the freelance sex trade and the number of workers.</p> <p>The law states that the penalty for prostitution is a maximum fine of 1,000 baht and no jail time, meaning sex workers caught up in police raids are released almost immediately. "Technically, the police just penalise them and let them go. The penalty in each area is different [as it is up to police discretion]. In the area around the Grand Palace, for instance, the fine for each sex worker is around 200-300 baht," Pol Col Napanwut says. "In other areas such as Lumpini Park, each sex worker may be forced to pay a fine of 500 up to 1,000 baht." The Children and Women Protection Sub-Division is in charge of Bangkok and its vicinity. Statistics from the sub-division show prostitution _or at least the number of related arrests _ has risen from last year.


From October, 2011, to September, 2012, the sub-division arrested 261 people for prostitution. From October, 2012, to last month, there were 936 arrests. Pol Col Napanwut explains that customers who pay for sexual services are also breaking the law. However, despite its illegality, no one has ever been arrested for buying sex. "The reason that police never arrest the customers is because there is no obvious evidence to use against them," he says. "The law specifically mentions that to be found guilty of supporting sexual services, the accused must be arrested while engaged in sexual intercourse or there must be proof that the person has already ejaculated."</p> <p>If found guilty, the customers can face up to three years in prison and/or a fine of up to 60,000 baht.



Pol Col Napanwut says the reasons why street sex workers enter this often dangerous line of work vary between individuals, though it is usually out of desperation. That person may not earn a lot of money or be chronically unemployed. Working as a prostitute becomes an attractive solution since it is seen as an easy way to earn a lot of money, he says. But not everyone wants to be seen doing this type of job, so they choose to work independently on the street rather than in bars or brothels where they might be afforded better protection. To offset some of the dangers, street sex workers often choose to work in a location where they feel comfortable _ perhaps they know the area and the people there, Pol Col Napanwut says. Some of the areas also have ''protectors'' who come to collect fees from the workers. ''In the Khlong Lot area, some protectors come by on their motorcycles to collect protection fees from the sex workers. The fee is not much and it is helpful for the workers since they will be informed about any impending raids by the police,'' Pol Col Napanwut says. Every time the police do carry out a raid, it is usually familiar faces who are swept up. Some are regular housewives looking to make some extra money for their family, others are simply destitute.


''People who become sex workers are often people without hope. They must not have anything left but themselves to make money. But if there are no sex workers in our society, there will be a lot more crime and rape problems. This is not something disgusting; it is a basic human nature,'' Pol Col Napanwut says. ''It is possible to get rid of all of the sex workers from our country, but what would happen then? There will be many more problems in the future. There will be more rape cases. We can't deny that sex workers are part of our society.'



While the plight of freelance sex workers is often ignored, and the workers themselves face discrimination, they are not completely alone. The Service Workers in Group (Swing) Foundation was founded to support and improve the lives of sex workers in Thailand. The group uses the term ''service workers'' in a bid to remove the stigma attached to their line of work. They argue these workers are simply providing a service, the same as any other profession.


Swing says sex workers are not a problem in themselves _ it is others who create the gap and discriminate against them that create the problem as it means many sex workers are denied access to medical treatment and other basic rights. ''They should be able to have access to basic needs _ education, health care, human rights and equality,'' says Swing Foundation director Surang Janyam. ''To service workers, Swing is their home. This is the place where they can receive an education since we opened an informal education centre here. This is the place they can come to take a nap, take a shower, have some meals, or even come for medical treatment from the registered nurse that comes every Wednesday to Friday.''


The central message that Swing is trying to send out to society is that sex workers are human beings, they exist in our society and they should have equal rights as everyone else.



Swing sends outreach workers to talk with street sex workers every night. Their staff are mostly former sex workers themselves, and they distribute free condoms as a way of both gaining trust and promoting safe sex. ''Service workers don't usually trust anyone to begin with since they don't think anybody sees them as equal. Therefore, handing out condoms is a means of communication to bridge the gap and build up a friendship,'' Ms Surang says. 'Once they get to know each other, our staff will introduce them to Swing and suggest they come along to use our facilities.'' Ms Surang says her foundation used to see street sex workers from the age of 20 to their late thirties, but that age bracket is now getting wider at both ends _ some are now below 18 and others well over 50. ''Swing has no intention to support underage prostitution but we don't have a discrimination policy either. Anyone can come to receive services,'' she says. More than 500 people use the services at the Swing centre per year, but the outreach team speaks to more than 3,000.



The Children and Women Protection Sub-Division has the power to arrest sex workers, but has no right to detain them or offer them help.This wasn't always the case. A regulation used to be in place that forced arrested sex workers to attend a career training centre in Surat Thani to encourage them to learn new skills. ''That policy no longer exists since we can't force them to go if they are not willing to,'' Pol Col Napanwut explains. ''There should be law enforcement for those who are arrested and found guilty of prostitution, the same way there is for drink-drivers. The government unit which is directly involved with human security issues should prepare a solution for these people. If sex workers are not allowed to do their job, there should be another job for them to do.'' Ms Surang sees the issue differently. She explains that Swing respects everyone's career choice. If they want to continue working in the sex industry, Swing will make sure that they perform their job safely and offer help when they need it. ''We never tell them not to do what they are doing, or that what they are doing is wrong. We usually encourage them to make the decision for themselves,'' she says. The foundation asks sex workers what they want to do in the future, how they feel, and whether they still wish to continue in their current line of work. If they begin to feel unhappy about their work, Swing will help them make plans for the future. ''One service worker told us she wanted to quit and sell noodles instead. We helped her research how to go about opening a noodle shop, and she now sells noodles for a living and is proud of what she is doing,'' Ms Surang says. ''For all of the 10 years we have been operating, there have been many people who have told us they don't want to continue being a service worker any longer. So we help them search for other career opportunities.''

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So what can be done? I think too often people misunderstand and blame the very people that need help. I think education is the key to turning this thing around. Why not a real som tam stall, or a pad thai stall? Why not teach these people a trade? The solution is hardly rocket science. A common creed of combined greed and willful incompetence are at work. The police certainly tax these people, 1000baht is serious money - so the question is what do they receive in return? What!? They don't go to the gaol? How nice of them...


Also the rather euphemistic term service worker reveals the clue - they provide a service. Like any industry why aren't they protected and insured? Because no one cares, or shock horror their moral principles are tainted?


I'm not against prostitution however I feel for the plight of these people.

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