A STORY OF GAMBIAN PROPORTIONS
By Andrew Biggs
I wonder how many of my readers could pinpoint the country of Gambia on a map.
No, no reaching for Google Maps. What does it border? What is it famous for?
Such questions need not bother you too much, especially if you are feeling like I am this morning following a prolonged visit from Uncle Smirnoff and his delightful travelling companion, Ms Absolut, just last night.
I couldn’t pinpoint Gambia either. It’s in West Africa, a tiny country sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau which probably doesn’t help you that much. It has a population of just 2 million and looking at the map, it’s as far away from Thailand as you can go before starting to come back round the other way.
And yet this remote little speck on the African expanse has incurred the wrath of our volatile Prime Minister and his government here in Thailand.
Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is a destination for sex tourism, primarily older female Europeans looking for younger beach boy types. While prostitution is illegal, it is widespread and encompasses child prostitution.
The Gambian government has launched a campaign to clean up sex tourism. The Tourism and Culture Minister of Gambia, Hamat Bah, kicked it off this week by announcing: “We are not a sex destination. If you want a sex destination, go to Thailand.”
Well, didn’t that set the bells ringing over at Wat Rakhang?
There are not that many words that instantly engage the fury of a Thai military junta. “Democracy” and “elections” spring to mind, but they are trumped by anybody describing Thailand as an A-list destination for international sex tourists.
This is a news story that never stops coming. For more than two decades the Tourism Authority of Thailand has pushed the beaches, mountains, temples, food, festivals, culture and smiles of the local populace. And yet, ask the average foreigner to think of Bangkok, and what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
Is this reputation justified? Absolutely not, but in defiance of the Jackson 5, one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch, girl.
And this very issue got your favorite columnist into a whole lot of trouble back in July, 1993. It presents some food for thought for our Prime Minister, who this week, amid official diplomatic protests over the Gambian comments, announced that Thailand had to change its international reputation as a sex tourism destination. Now. Or else.
Back in July, 1993, a scandal of unforeseen proportions erupted in Thailand that threatened to escalate into an international incident.
British publisher Longman put out a new English dictionary, — “A Dictionary of Language and Culture” — defining words in a more relaxed tone.
It defined Bangkok as a city known for “its Buddhist temples and a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.”
You could have heard the collective shriek of discontent from as far away as Gambia. Academics threatened Longman book burning events. Police officially banned the publication, marking the first and last time in Thai history that the local constabulary took an interest in English dictionaries.
A spokesman for the then government, a handsome young man fresh out of Oxford by the name of Abhisit Vejajiva, said that defining Bangkok by its prostitutes was a bit like defining English by its soccer hooligans.
A weekly political magazine asked me to write a column, in Thai, about my take on the whole thing. It was my first attempt at a column in Thailand, and talk about starting off with a bang if you’ll excuse the pun.
In that short column I argued that Longman was wrong to define Bangkok as it did … but could you blame them?
The truth was, any male arriving in this country was bombarded with Thais offering them sex. I used my own experience as an example.
At Don Muang International Airport, there used to be a counter where you could sign up for a Bangkok By Night Tour (ie. brothel trip) before you even left the restricted zone. Once past that counter, you’d get into a cab where the driver would ask you if you needed a woman for the night.
At your hotel there were prostitutes working the bars and lobby sofas, as well as glossy brochures advertising massage services in your room.
Strolling down Silom, young men thrust cards in front of your face advertising trumpets, razor blades and ping pong balls, none of which were for sale.
Tuk tuk drivers asked if you “want lady”. Thai guys dressed as used car salesmen shouldered up next to you: “You want lady?” Pause. “Man?” Longer pause. “Boy? Girl?”
Can you see where I am going, dear reader? Bangkok may not have been a city full of prostitutes – but the locals sure as hell made you think that way.
This is what I wrote in that column of mine. Where else in the world could I arrive and in the space of 24 hours be asked if I wanted sex by an airport official, taxi driver, tuk-tuk driver, hotel attendant, casual passer-by and every single bar worker in the Silom area?
That’s what I wrote, and boy did the >>pla ra<< hit the fan when it was published.
There were howls of discontent from conservative elements of Thai society, calling for my immediate ejection from the Land of Smiles. There were also people who begrudgingly agreed. As one reluctant supporter wrote, supposing everywhere I went in Thailand somebody offered me chocolate. Was the country going to jump up and down when I went home and told everybody that Thailand was the land of chocolate?
And that was just for the tourists.
There used to be brothels on every corner of this city catering for the local Thai males. They went by names such as “massage parlors” and “coffee shops”, the latter of which never had coffee on the menu. Even “barber shops” were fronts for brothels.
The remnants of that era are the giant massage parlors along Ratchadapisek and environs, such as Victoria’s Secret which was recently embroiled in that human trafficking scandal.
I visited one of those giant brothels once. It was one of the most demeaning sights I’d ever seen.
You chose girls from behind a glass window. There they sat, on tiers, with numbers attached to their bikinis. They were divided into three groups. To the left the girls sat under a sign saying “AVERAGE”. The middle girls sat under a sign saying “BEAUTIFUL”, while the far right were the “FIVE STAR” girls. I was just waiting for somebody to come up and ask how I’d like my steak cooked.
You chose a number. An attendant repeated the number into a speakerphone. The girl in question gathered up her handbag, got up, and left the room. If you looked closely you’d see a quick roll of the eyes to her friends as she left.
I pray that those days are far behind us. Like every big city in the world Bangkok has a thriving sex industry, but is this a city where sex is more rampant and abundant than anywhere else?
Probably not. The prime minister says Thailand must change its image, but that does not happen from the outside in.
It’s like the Burmese getting angry at the outside world when they slaughter a couple of hundred thousand Rohingyas. Before shooting the Gambians, we should be aiming our gun towards the navel first.