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LUANG PRABANG, Laos ? Prostitution, a sensitive issue in conservative Laos, is not always discussed openly. But sex workers, tourists and even government officials acknowledge that it has become more visible these days, amid the increasing openness of this South-east Asian country.
Since it opened up in the early nineties, Laos has become much easier to travel to. It has just been over 15 years since the country opened up to foreign tourists, in 1991, throwing up the challenge of how a traditional society can cope with the social changes that tourism brings.
From just 37,613 foreign tourists in Laos in 1991, nearly 850,000 visited the country in 2004. Tourist arrivals are growing at an average rate of 27.61 percent, according to reports by the Lao News Agency. Some 80 percent of arrivals are from neighbouring Thailand.
Locals say that although growing tourist arrivals have brought about badly needed revenue to the country, there is a downside as well. Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site that is among Laos? most popular destinations, now has its share of sex workers. Some tourists keep coming back not so much for its well-preserved architecture and temples but for the young men who sell their bodies for a fee.
?This is my third visit here,? a gay Thai tourist says. ?I love the quaint, small-town atmosphere. The place is beautiful and the people are so kind and hospitable. I particularly love the young men here. They?re so cute.?
He recalls having a beer in a bar one night when a ?good-looking guy? approached him, ?one thing led to another? and they ended up having sex. The guy asked him for some money, and from then on, going out with such men became a pattern for him. Sometimes he gave money, other times he "gets it in exchange for a beer?. The Thai tourist refuses to call these men prostitutes: ?If they demand some money, I take it simply as an exchange that they deserve, nothing transactional.? He also would not stereotype them as ?easy? or ?promiscuous?, saying most of them were just experimenting or trying out something new?.
For her part, Kham Soi (not her real name), a transvestite who is a wage worker by day but goes cruising in bars at night, says she prefers Western tourists because ?they are usually loaded?. She adds: ?I?m not too keen on Thais or other Asians because they tend to be stingy. Westerners are also easier to deal with, although some can be stingy, too.?
?I don?t consider this a job,? Kham Soi says, her voice rising above the loud music in the bar. ?It?s something to cure my boredom with, and if I?m lucky, I?ll make some money and enjoy myself at the same time. Who knows? I might even find myself a serious boyfriend who can support me.?
She adds that men have had different reactions after finding out that she is a transvestite, ?but those who accept me? they usually treat me really well ? like a lady even ? and they?re also very generous?.
In a place where well-paid jobs are hard to come by, Kham Soi says it is no wonder people resort to prostitution to earn a living. ?Everyone?s struggling to make ends meet, so it no longer matters what method one uses.?
Conversations with a few government officials and development workers show that many are aware that commercial sex work exists, even if they are not totally sure of how to cope with it in this fast-changing, but still largely traditional, society.
?There?s one thing that we?re concerned about -- that more and more young people will be lured into this business. This (Luang Prabang) is a tourist spot attracting large numbers of tourists each year. We know money isn?t easy to come by, so if tourists can offer them something in exchange for easy work, they take it,? Bua Wiang (not his real name), a government worker who is a native of Luang Prabang, says in an interview.
?We?re trying to instill in our youth a love of their country, their culture and their traditions, but I?m afraid we can?t compete with materialism and consumerism,? he sighs.
The government does have penalties on prostitution. Establishments that allow either solicitation or sex work face the risk of closure, but these places often just disguise their real ?business? with a legitimate front. There are other legal establishments too whose workers find ways of luring customers on their own.
?Matters like these are beyond our control. How can you rein in sexual urge? The more you prevent it the more you may be encouraging it,? Bua Wiang says. ?Prostitution has been around for a long time.?
Another transvestite who calls herself O, interviewed in Vientiane, says it is easy to find sex in bars. ?Most of the guys here don?t have any hangups about having sex with another guy or even ?katoey? (a transvestite) like me,? she adds.
?It?s also probably easier than having sex with a woman since prevailing norms and morals here are still rather strict,? she remarks.
But she also warns that condom usage, especially among teenagers, is very low. ?You have to be extra careful when going out with them. I myself never used to see the need for any protection until I learned more about (sexually transmitted) diseases and the benefits of condom use. But I?m considered to be in the minority in this sense, since we?re still lagging behind in terms of both information and condom use.?
Lek (not her real name), owner of a traditional massage establishment in Vientiane, says today?s increasingly consumer-oriented environment also sees young boys and girls from poor families ending up in commercial sex work, so they can then afford luxuries like mobile phones and cars.
Lek relates that some of the masseuses she has are students ?eager to earn some extra income, since wages in this country are still low?. Customers might get to know these boys and girls, ask them out, and later have sex.
?Many of the kids end up that way. From selling their skills, they end up selling their bodies,? Lek says. ?I?ve even heard of some of them ending up in Pattaya, Bangkok or even going as far as Malaysia. In the end though, they still find their way back here.?
Or, who works with a non-government organisation but prefers to remain unnamed, also cites as worrisome the presence of public notices in hotels and other lodgings around Vientiane these days that warn against the sale of sexual favours to minors.
In other cases, she says women can be trafficked or recruited by someone from their own village who promised them jobs that later ended up to be in the sex trade. Some are taken to other parts of Laos, while others end up in neighbouring Thailand.
The government, with the assistance of private groups and foreign agencies, is trying its best to combat and prevent human trafficking, but open borders also add to this already difficult challenge.
A lot of what goes on, however, is not talked about openly. ?Prostitution is a very sensitive issue in Laos. One realises that these things exist everywhere. As long as there is a market, there?ll always be a response,? Or points out.
Right now, she says, ?When villagers are discovered to have taken up prostitution, they face censure and reprimand ? so much so that they cannot continue living in their community.?
Adds Bua Wiang, the government official: ?In a small town like this, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, you can?t keep it a secret. So it has become society?s habit to conceal the fact that such things exist. Even though we realise what is happening, we tend to remain silent since we feel we?re not involved.?
One positive piece of news, however, is that HIV prevalence in Laos is still low, he points out. Official figures by the United Nations Development Programme put the HIV prevalence rate in Laos at 0.1 percent as of 2006. Bua Wiang says there are also cases of STDs, ?but how certain are we that in the future the numbers won?t increase??
?It is our hope that the young will learn the importance of protecting themselves,? he continues. ?It is far more effective to take precautions before problems occur.?
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