Liz Hilton

PHUKET ISLAND, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)–The high season is in full swing in Phuket Island’s beach towns and tourism is starting to pick up again, a year after the Asian tsunami killed 5,395 people in Thailand, according to government figures, and left around 700 others officially missing.

In downtown Patong, disco lights flash and music booms onto the streets from row upon row of open-air bars. Clusters of women wait around for their evening customers, looking bored.

These days, no one wants to talk much about the tsunami, which claimed 200,000 lives in 12 countries and displaced 2 million others. But an undercurrent of sadness runs just below the surface. It is quickly felt by talking to a woman called Mam, who, like all the sex workers interviewed for this article, asked that only her nickname be used.

Mam had only just started her new job at a Patong bar when the tsunami waves washed over Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast. Before she knew it, she found herself clearing wreckage from the beach and restoring order to the bar where she worked so it could reopen within days. Other women, the brave ones, she said, recovered the bodies from the beach, a gruesome but urgent job.

In Phuket, women such as Mam are a vital and visible part of the tourism economy. Like most sex workers who are Thai nationals, they don’t live and work in brothels. Instead, they are "bar girls" who earn a commission off of expensive drinks that customers buy them at their bar and split the "bar fine," or fee that customers must pay the bar owner if they want to take a sex worker away for the evening. They set their own price for sex and keep all of the money that customers pay them.

Many sex workers in Phuket come from the impoverished north and are often known only by their nicknames and their home province. Mam remembers the police coming to her bar and holding up photos of women’s corpses for her and the others to identify in the days after the tsunami.

"That was all there was," said Liz Hilton, a coordinator for Empower Foundation, a 20-year-old Thai nongovernmental organization made up of thousands of sex workers who, because of the illegal nature of their trade, rarely give out much information about themselves. "You can’t register a nickname and a province."

Sex Workers Threw Themselves into Rescue

Immediately after the tsunami, Mam and many other sex workers threw themselves into the rescue effort, and since many speak English, helped local officials communicate with stranded tourists.

Phuket wouldn’t have recovered without sex workers, Mam told Women’s eNews through a translator.

But when it came time for the government to hand out recognition and small grants to help residents rebuild their lives, sex workers and their advocates say women such as Mam missed out.

"Sex workers especially have been invisible in the whole of the recovery and considering how much tourism money they bring in they should have been given some consideration," Hilton said.

Sex work is criminalized in Thailand so there are no reliable estimates of the numbers of sex workers in Phuket. Nationwide the government estimates there are 200,000 but, as Hilton points out, "I think they haven’t counted."

Either way, as a walk down the bar-laden alleys of Patong will confirm, it is an area that depends heavily on sex tourism. Both men and women work the bars night after night and call passersby into their establishments. Many of the bars fly flags from European countries and sex tourists mingle with families and couples decked out in colorful beach wear.

Identical scenes can be found in other tourism hotspots in Thailand, such as Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand, and Bangkok’s Pat Pong neighborhood.

"It’s important not just for Phuket’s economy but all of Thailand’s economy," Mam said.

Drop-in Center Opens After Tsunami

Mam sat on the floor with her legs curled to her side on a Monday afternoon last month at a drop-in center recently opened by Empower. She shared a mid-afternoon meal of sticky rice, spicy papaya salad and a dish of chicken and bamboo with another drop-in named Nid, two visitors and Hilton, who maintains the center. Behind her a third woman worked on a typing tutorial on one of the center’s three computers.

 Liz Hilton (center) of Empower Phuket assists Thai sex workers at a center in Patong.

Empower did not have an office in southern Thailand before the tsunami. A group of Empower women from Bangkok were on holiday in Phuket when the waves hit and ended up pitching in with the recovery effort along with everyone else.

They began collecting information about missing sex workers and two women from the group ventured north to Phang Nga, a mountainous province on the Andaman Sea that was Thailand’s tsunami ground zero. It was there that Hilton estimates the most sex workers were killed but because they were mostly undocumented migrants from neighboring countries they are not included in the official toll.

Eventually, Hilton says, local women decided they wanted Empower to open a center in Patong. In February they got their wish, thanks to support from two Australian sex worker advocacy groups, Sex Workers Outreach Project Australia and the Scarlet Alliance. The center now has about 300 registered members.

A Place to Meet and Share

The three-room bungalow is a place for Patong’s sex workers to meet, take an English or computer class, trade information about pay rates, share a meal and otherwise seek refuge and friendship in a line of work fraught with financial insecurity, harassment from bosses, clients and police, and the risk of arrest.

Empower operates three other centers in Thailand, mostly run and operated by sex workers who lobby the government for the eventual decriminalization and regulation of the country’s sex trade industry. Bangkok’s Pat Pong office offers informal education for women who hope to get their school diplomas and almost 100 women have gone on to university, Hilton said.

Mam and the other women at the office that day agree the best reward they could get from the government for their help in the tsunami aftermath would be decriminalization of their livelihoods. Barring that, they could have used some money, Mam said.

But the Thai government’s promises of financial assistance to those affected by the tsunami did not include them. "We’re outside of the labor law," Mam said. As the tourism industry disappeared after the disaster, women began to pool their earnings and take turns sending money to families and children back home.

The women at Mam’s bar dwindled to half a dozen in the weeks following the tsunami. Many went to look for work elsewhere. Mam said one of her co-workers finally killed herself in despair.

"No customers; no business," she said.

Megan Cossey is a journalist living in Bangkok, Thailand.

For more information:

Empower Foundation:

Scarlet Alliance:

Sex Workers Outreach Project: