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Border Bordellos

John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME.
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH: Hat Yai is known for its sin places.

The sex trade moves south—to the border between Thailand and Malaysia
By ROBERT HORN Thai Changloon

Pimping is a tough job in a small town. "It's not like in the big city," says Wichien, 55, a bordello tout with leathery skin, pomaded black hair and one yellowed tooth. "There's too much competition here. Maybe a hundred places." So each day Wichien walks the dusty, broken streets of Changloon on the border of Thailand and Malaysia, flagging down Malaysian men in their air-conditioned Protons and extolling the charms of the girls in his Awan Café. "Before, this town had nothing. Not even electricity. Now look." He waves at a street lined with seedy hotels, massage parlors and dozens of prostitutes lounging outside. "This is the new prosperity."

The world is scored with borders, and thousands of settlements have sprung up along them. But the classic border town emerges when conditions differ markedly on each side of the line. Few places fit that bill better than Changloon, half of which lies in Malaysia and half in Thailand. On the Malaysian side, the government is rigid and Islam is the dominant religion. In Thailand, the Land of Smiles, you can get almost anything if you're willing to pay. Consequently, the southern side of Changloon is sleepy while the northern part is a boomtown—a boom built on the sex trade. The girls are all Thai, the customers mostly Malaysian Chinese. "There's nothing but sex tourists here," says Cha, who sells clothes to bar girls from a stall on the town's main road.

The bordellos of southern Thailand lack the notoriety of their counterparts in places like Bangkok and Pattaya, and few people outside the region have ever heard of Thai Changloon. But just north of the border, the glitzy city of Hat Yai has long had a reputation for sin. In May the town's charms prompted another tirade from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "I very much regret that Malaysians are going to Hat Yai merely to seek pleasure," he said. "I ask our people: if you go overseas, do not do that bad thing." Malaysian men, he added, were catching hiv and bringing it home.

That remark caused a small furor in Thailand for a number of reasons. Malaysian men have been flocking to Thailand's border towns for decades. And the hiv remark was considered a low blow. "Mahathir should realize that aids is everywhere," says Penny Ritthikan, president of the Tourist Industry Association of Songkhla province, "even in his own country."

Most importantly, Hat Yai is trying to transform itself from a dirty weekend capital to a regional shopping and entertainment hub, similar to the way that Las Vegas has reinvented itself as a family destination. And the effort has reaped results. Ritthikan's organization, along with other local businesspeople and activists, has pushed the government to clean up the city. Prostitutes no longer openly solicit on the streets. Wives and children are welcome in the city's cavernous nightclubs, where a succession of young, tuneless women sing and dance in outlandishly sexy costumes. And the city's other attractions are also bringing in the tourists. "We come here for the food and the shopping," says Ginnie Leong, an office worker from Kuala Lumpur. "The prices are so much cheaper than in Malaysia." Each month some 40,000 tourists from Malaysia visit Songhkla province.

Even the owners of brothels—and they remain in full flower—enjoy Hat Yai's new image. Andrew Napathalung, 27, manages the Pink Lady Entertainment Complex, which his father has owned for nearly three decades. It's the biggest and most established joint in town, employing 250 women in its combination nightclub, massage parlor, feel-up bar and hotel. Since Thailand was knocked askew by the regional financial crisis, the Pink Lady's clientele has changed dramatically: today almost 90% arrive from Malaysia and Singapore, compared to 30% before the crisis. Napathalung says, "We get more families coming now, and families spend more money. It's good for Hat Yai." Among the beneficiaries of the boom is "Supermodel" Jop, 24, one of his best-paid employees. She says she makes about $2,000 a month entertaining men. Back in northeastern Khon Kaen province where she was raised, farmers can earn less than $200 a year.

The biggest grumble you hear in Hat Yai these days concerns drugs. But in that realm too, Hat Yai has moved decidedly upmarket. A decade ago, the city was a regional transshipment and negotiating center for heroin coming out of the Golden Triangle. Today, Hat Yai's drugs are found mostly in its packed discos—Ecstasy from Malaysia and amphetamines brought down from the Burmese border.

But in a perverse law of economics, the sleaze Hat Yai is shedding hasn't disappeared. It has simply slid further south toward the border. In Thailand's slice of Changloon, prostitutes call out to customers just outside the walls of the local Buddhist temple. "All this happened in the past five or six years," says Phra Acharn Choey, the temple's abbot. "People are more immoral now." Many girls come to him for help, Choey says. Some have aids. In Songhkla province, 2,527 people contracted HIV during the past five years, according to the Ministry of Public Health, ranking it 11th out of Thailand's 76 provinces. (The number of new cases dropped, however, from 607 in 1998 to 367 in 1999.) "Before, people were concerned about being good Buddhists," Choey says. "Now, they will do anything for money. If there is a job to murder someone, they'll do it because the money is good."

Thongchai Winnichakul, a professor of history and author of Siam Mapped, a study of Thailand's border regions, says Changloon almost cannot help being a magnet for sleaze. "Shadow businesses, such as drug smuggling, people trafficking and prostitution, are often pushed to the border areas," he says, "because the borders are regarded as the margins of society." That's little consolation for the citizens of Thai Changloon. "Maybe if the economy goes bad again, they'll all pack up and leave," Choey hopes. What has happened to his town is hardly prosperity, he says—"It's a pity."

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