In Thailand’s red light districts
Kate Weatherly is a multimedia producer living in Asia. The following story is the first of three installments of Kate’s personal account of what she felt, heard and witnessed as she traveled to one of the largest cities in Thailand to photograph women lured into the sex industry. Click here to see AsiaStories’ Part 2 and Part 3.
My midday flight landed in the city of nearly 7 million people. After settling into my hotel room, I met with friends who were attending a small retreat for Christian women. The city was bustling in the afternoon heat as vendors sold their wares to hundreds of tourists. My friends and I ventured out for Thai massages and dinner.
Our taxi driver had some difficulty getting us to our destination — trying to navigate four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic based on directions three foreigners who had never visited the city.
We finally exited the taxi close to where we thought we wanted to go. One friend ran inside a convenience store to put credit on her phone, I double-checked my camera’s settings and cleaned the lens. As I waited, an Asian woman in a tan and black dress downed an energy drink near the store. Her dress was tight enough to see every curve, and upon observing her posture and mid-section, I wondered if she was in the early stages of pregnancy. We were getting closer.
My friends exited the store. I didn’t know which direction to go, so I followed the woman as she walked carefully down the step in her platform shoes. She was beautiful, but her face seemed lifeless as her hair swished around to hit her mid back.
It was a short walk. We kept our eyes focused down so we didn’t trip on the uneven sidewalk. Then the darkness was suddenly invaded by the bright neon lights coming from a side-street off the main road, advertising numerous bars and dance halls. Dumbstruck, we hesitated at the entrance of one of the bars.
My friends looked at me. Apparently, I was in charge. Right-oh. I took a few pictures of the entrance and we timidly walked through. Granted it was warm for us foreigners but not for these Asians who were costumed in what appeared to be swimwear.
We walked slowly through the bar; I awkwardly raised the camera, taking a photo of my friends, carefully capturing images behind them. We didn’t belong and we knew it. We could feel that everyone else in the bar knew it, too. With all this pressure, could I gather enough information to help others understand this lifestyle? I only had three nights to capture images. Now it was two.
The women at the conference had hoped for a retreat — a place to get away from their noisy lives and find rest. But the spiritual warfare they were encountering made them regret their convenient hotel booking. Several of the women told me of their vivid nightmares, which they were not prone to having, and others said they had hardly slept because of the noises coming from their neighbors.
“Oh it was awful! It was like they were right in our rooms—we could hear everything. It was so nasty,” one of my friends shared.
I tried to work from my hotel room that morning, but I couldn’t accomplish a thing. There seemed to be a heaviness clouding my thoughts, plus I like to be around people. I packed up my gear to check out my surroundings and find a coffee shop. Sweat made my bangs stringy after just a few minutes of walking in the humidity. Gross. The street kitchens I passed were sending signals to my body—time to eat. I passed several promising establishments serving western food that I’d been craving but hadn’t eaten in a while. Each filled with hungry-looking men with Asian cocktail waitresses sitting temptingly close.
Seriously? It’s lunchtime! Frustrated, I bartered for some mini mangos and hopped on a motorcycle taxi headed for the nearest mall. The air felt refreshing as my driver sped past the remaining scenes of the daytime hustle. So sad — and odd — how the sex industry never stops, day or night.
At the beginning, Lynn Andolini* and I stood outside the bars on the sidewalk, observing people. It was overwhelming. What do I shoot? Andolini had worked with Heartweavers, a Christian ministry focused on sex workers, and was used to this atmosphere.
She stood rigid by my side against the grimy bar wall as I dropped to one knee for a better camera angle on a group of young women — independent sex workers — who were applying makeup in front of a hotel sign across the street.
Andolini let out an air of frustration. “That man is staring you down. Oh my word, he is not happy with you,” she said. “He is looking at you like you were some worm.”
I was now slightly alarmed, “Should we move?” I asked, snapping a few frames as the women smiled and mingled with a backpacker. Maybe he’s asking for directions. His eyes wandered.
“Oh, no, honey. I got your back,” Andolini said. “He is fat and old and I can outrun him anyway. No, keep on shooting.”
I lifted my eyes above my camera to see who was giving me the stink-eye. An obese man with a red flannel shirt and blue jeans stood in front of me, hunched over from aging—or maybe it was the freshly grilled chicken kabob he was consuming from the street cart vendor.
Funny how righteousness is twisted in the darkness; I am the one frowned upon for being there, photographing, as if the shame was on me and not those men. The sidewalk was small, and shooting whatever images I could find lit by the neons and flashy signs was difficult. This was going to be a long night.