Thailand's Prostitutes: Caught Between Passion And Compassion

The Thai government may be trying to cast away its image as a destination for sex tourism but the Walking Street of Pattaya is blissfully unaware of this. It continues to attract girls from all over Thailand, who use their bodily endowments to make their fortunes.

Pattaya, a gamey city south of Bangkok, recently made the world press again when photos were flashed around the world showing three suspected Iranian bombers cavorting with prostitutes in the resort city. They later managed to blow up their rented house in Bangkok and one of the three blew off his own legs trying to throw explosives at police. All are in custody, one in Malaysia.

As the sun sets and the neon lights come on on Walking Street, out of the numerous massage parlors and all along the lanes nearby emerge highly made up women. The offers come for foot massage, body massage, Thai massage and greater promises of love all night or 'massage by beautiful lady'! Some of the parlors say they offer only massage. Others do not say anything. A signboard at the entrance to Walking Street says more. It reads: 'Passion of Wonderful Night'.

There are young girls sitting outside the shops and interestingly many shops have uniforms for them. Some uniforms are more exotic than trousers and shirt; they are sarongs and colorful ethnic tops. Most of the girls are in their 20s. For miles on either sides of Walking Street, stalls are set up for shopping, street carts serving exotic and authentic Thai food are doing great business and it seems like Pattaya is fully awake as the night wears on.

Says a businessman and sports enthusiast living in Bangkok, "These girls do not all belong to Pattaya. Many are young divorcees who come in from the north and north-eastern parts of Thailand due to poor living conditions. They work for about 10 years and then go back to their village. Often they get married again and this time more happily because they are rich."

Their monetary independence makes them more attractive, according to the businessman, who add that "there is not much stigma attached to their profession." And yet, in the same breath, he adds, "We come from Chiang Mai, which is very conservative and would not let our girls into such a profession."

As though to reinforce his contention, Julia -- her western name, which she uses for the ease of her customers - says, "I worked in Walking Street when I was young. The number of years you can work there is short... the luckiest work for about 10 to 13 years. I have now taken to this." Julia looks down at her cart where she has a variety of fruits stacked. She cuts them for you, individually or as a fruit salad.

"No life is good life, it just depends on what you make of it," she says in her broken English. Her husband left her two years after her second child was born. "In Thailand, women do no fear being alone, we know that is the reality. I think my husband had married me for the money I had," Julia observes stoically.

Is there a link between this stoicism and the relatively recent emergence of a class of women, locally known as Mae chiis, or "lay nuns"? 'Mae' means mother in Thai and 'chii' means renunciant. Not part of the Buddhist Mahasangha, which is exclusively for monks, these nuns shave their heads and eyebrows, don white robes and take eight vows, including that of celibacy, with their heart set on nirvana. Until about 20 years ago, they were treated as social rejects. Today, though, the Mae chiis have large followings. While it is rare to view a monk as a misfit in society, a woman who becomes a Mae chii did not get immediate respect.

The irony is that these women, who seek out a life of austerity and penance, are not initiated into the Sangha. This is because of a strong belief in Theravada Buddhism that women, if ordained, will be a source of distraction for the monks – so the further away you keep them, the safer is the life of a monk and his possibilities of attaining nirvana.

Punvadee Amornmaneekul emphatically refutes this. Punvadee is Secretary to Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, founder of Sathira-Dhammasathan and Savika-Sikkhalaya, Buddhist University, as well as Co-Chair of Global Peace Initiative of Women. She says, "No, that is not true. I don't know who said that but we have never heard monks say that to us. Most of the monks who follows the Buddha’s teachings will know the Buddha always said any human has the potential to get to nirvana... that means all ages and all genders can attain nirvana."

But Punvadee admits, "We don't get any support from the government although we do co-operate and network with them. While the monks are managed by the Mahasangha, a national board of elder presiding monks, the nuns are independent. The government supports the Mahasangha, so the monks get facilities from the government."

Standing in no man's land, as it were, when Punvadee says the nuns do not get any facility from the government like the monks do, she means they miss out on free education, free medical care, subsidy for travel, and so on. However, a Mae chii is denied her right to vote for she is considered a cleric for that purpose. Moreover, they are also not allowed to stay within the precincts of a Buddhist temple for they could be a threat to the monks' vow of celibacy.

The concept of Mae chiis is very ancient and until recently there was no organizational structure for them. But today, with the society responding to their compassionate activities, their own organizations have grown and they initiate and mentor younger aspirants.

"The girls and women who wish to ‘take robes’ and practice the monastic life have to apply. They are carefully screened for intention, and we invite respected or senior monks to ordain our nuns," says Punvadee, adding, "Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee was once a top fashion model who walked the runways in Thailand. But this way of life became hollow and uninteresting to her, despite the fame and wealth it brought her. She has a special interest in providing shelter to unwed and abandoned mothers, because Ven. Mae Chee's own mother was a single woman, who raised her lovingly." Embodying the true spirit of Buddhism, these nuns, give to the society, asking nothing for themselves.

In 2003, the government toyed with the idea of legalizing prostitution and the law punishes an offender only if he "shamelessly and openly" solicits a prostitute. Thai society also cites the tradition that it is the foremost duty of a daughter to look after her parents, by whatever means it may be. However, the uncomplaining renunciant is only being understood by her compassion and not by the administration in the pleasure-seeking society. Caught between the masculine grip of passion and the fear of its arousal, this is the story of the women of Thailand.

(© Women's Feature Service)