Having survived Bangkok (we saw no evidence of trouble at all), we're currently sunning ourselves on the beach, topping up our tans and spending as little money as humanly possible. I've been really ill for the last week or so, which certainly helped in terms of economising - food was pointless and i've hardly ventured further than our hotel. This has given me plenty of time for reading, thinking and taking stock of the last few months...
Throughout my journey across south-east Asia, there has been an unspoken acceptance that the sexual politics and norms of the west have been (at the very least) subverted. On numerous occasions extraordinarily beautiful young girls and boys have been witnessed caressing and carousing wrinkly and greying westerners. This has caused concern and consternation. But it's easy for us to moralise and dismiss the sex tourists and the perverts and the paedophiles - they have nothing to do with us backpackers, gap-year students and travellers. Or do they?
A trip down Bangkok's famed Kho San Road blurs the distinctions and boundaries as effectively as anywhere else. Here, silicon-breasted ladyboys rub their broad shoulders with drug dealers, tailors, waitresses and street hawkers. Wherever you are on Thailand's premier tourist strip, the unmistakeable seediness of sex tourism rears its ugly head. A quiet beer inevitably involves a waiter/waitress (it's often impossible to tell) flirting clumsily. A journey from one bar to another means running the gauntlet of scantily clad 'ladies' offering enticing deals on cheap Thai lager. Women with underwear-as-outerwear dance provocatively for the benefit of anyone who glances in their direction, whilst their colleagues throw themselves bodily at passers by, legs wrapped around their waists and hands on their crotches.
Regardless of your sexuality, the promise of a 'ping-pong show' is never more than ten metres away. For a few hundred baht, a tuk-tuk journey can be swiftly arranged. At the destination, amazing and fantastic marvels can be witnessed. In days of yore, these might have seemed impressive. It now seems depressing that anyone can be entertained by a woman producing strings of razor-blades from her vagina. Maybe my refusal to endorse such depressing spectacles with my presence is a sad reflection on the limited scope of my 'open mindedness'. It seems that i'm extraordinarily naive in my belief that the Western world might be more mature than to view such 'marvels' as being in any way entertaining: i'm clearly in the minority. Those who justify their attendance by saying they are 'just curious' are as important to this industry as the leering lecherous perverts - after all, everyone pays the same ticket price.
It's difficult to believe that many of the women involved in the sex industry (at whatever level) began selling themselves through choice. From the dancers to the ping-pong girls, the prostitutes to the attractive young girls sleeping with porcine Westerners, all are seeking to better themselves through their only saleable asset - their bodies. And whilst the traditional view of the Western sex-tourist is that of the ageing, overweight, vest-wearing falang, it's worth noting that those who use illicit sex services do not always fit that stereotype: most backpackers will have heard at last one of their number regaling a group with tales of their sexual exploits. I'm sure most patrons are not so brash.
The market in sex, the trafficking of women and the barely hidden paedophilia should be no more acceptable here than they are anywhere else. But in the 'land of smiles' it is often harder to see them (or easier to ignore them) beneath the layers of lip-gloss and neon lighting. It's a shame that those who participate in this Southeast Asian meatmarket don't look around at the amazing scenery, cultures and cuisines the region has to offer and take advantage of those instead.
I have a week to go, a further trip to Bangkok (where trouble has escalated again), a flight to London via Moscow and then the search for gainful employment begins...