PATTAYA, Thailand (Reuters) - Under the neon-lights of Pattaya, the Thai town renowned for its sex industry, boys and girls as young as seven try to sell flowers to western tourists.
Some will end up selling their bodies.
“These kids start by selling sweets to tourists who aren’t interested, so they use sexual tactics like holding arms or legs,” said Sudjai Nakphain of World Vision, who works on a project for children in Pattaya.
“While some kind adults just give them money, others exploit those selling tactics and many kids, who have already been sexually abused by their families, end up selling sex,” she said.
Once a small fishing village until American servicemen started “relaxing” there early in the Vietnam War, Pattaya is now a “pedophile paradise”, where anything goes.
Even the government’s Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is not embarrassed to boast about the town’s sex industry.
TAT says on its Web site (www.tourismthailand.org) the beach town, 180 km (110 miles) east of Bangkok, proclaims “exotic erotic shows” and “sauna & massage parlors” alongside elephant rides, water and aerial sports as star attractions.
Pattaya, it says, offers “an incomparable array of possibilities to unwind during an exotic holiday beach vacation”.
There has been a steep jump in the number of sex tourists and child prostitutes in Pattaya in recent years, social workers say.
Two decades ago, the town had 500 bars. Now there are more than 20,000, mostly sidewalk bars with a few stools and scantily-clad, overly made-up girls -- many as young as 14.
There are no official figures for the numbers of street children or child prostitutes in the town of 500,000 people, but one child welfare agency estimates 2,000 children wander the streets of Pattaya selling everything from sweets to sex.
“Pattaya has attracted children from all over the country both voluntarily and lured by traffickers,” said Supagon Noja of the Pattaya-based Child Protection and Development Center.
“Word of mouth from children in the industry always lures new faces to Pattaya,” said Supagon.
Some boys aged between 10 and 15 can earn 10,000 baht ($280) a night having sex with a foreigner, more than a college-educated civil servant makes in a month in Thailand.
Some pimps set up arcade games in shops to lure boys into prostitution. Young boys become addicted to the computer games but soon run out of money, said Supagon.
So they pay upstairs by having sex with western tourists, said Supagon, who has led police on raids of brothels to arrest pedophiles.
At any time, there may be as 200 Western men hanging out at bars on one strip, waiting for boys to be delivered by brokers. Police turn a blind eye, he said.
“They (my customers) took me out to McDonalds,” said Yo, 17, a former male prostitute, now being rehabilitated in a government boys home in the nearby town of Rayong.
“After I got money, I spent it on computer games,” he said.
A 62-year-old woman hotelier, who has built a business empire in Pattaya, is now trying to clean up the town.
Sopin Thappajug, who owns hotels, restaurants and bars, apartment buildings, and a golf driving range, says she wants to make Pattaya a “family-friendly” destination.
“Many women just never want their husbands to come to Pattaya, even if they come here for business,” said Sopin, who told Reuters she divorced her husband some time after they moved to Pattaya from northern Thailand.
“I feel bad when I see those women trying to seduce tourists walking along the beach with their wives. Pattaya has more to offer,” said Sopin, whose bars lure customers with bands and large TV screens showing sport instead of go-go dancers.
The sleaze in Pattaya and nearby towns drove Sopin to become active in social work and raising funds for charities through golf tournaments and other events.
Sopin hires former child prostitutes to work in her businesses and has helped set up a network of social workers.
The social workers fan out through villages around Pattaya warning parents and children against human traffickers looking for new recruits for the sex industry.
Sopin instructs her hotel reception staff to warn guests who bring child prostitutes back to their rooms that underage sex is illegal in Thailand.
“I know we can’t stop them from doing what they want to do here, but at least we try. It won’t succeed, but if we don’t do it, who else will,” said Sonpin.