In February, NPR published a story on the tolls of the pandemic on Thailand’s sex workers. Before COVID hit, international tourism made up 20% of the country’s GDP – and fueled a thriving sex industry. That collapsed in March 2020 when the country shut its borders to keep the coronavirus at bay.
Sex workers in the cities of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket struggled to cope with the lack of sex tourists. Most were barely scraping by, and many returned to their home provinces in the rural countryside. We check in with M., one of the sex workers who we interviewed and who has asked for anonymity because individuals have been disowned by their families or ostracized by their community for association with a stigmatized, illegal industry.
When we interviewed sex workers in Thailand back in September 2020, many were holding out hope the pandemic would end soon. But the country’s coronavirus crisis has only gotten worse, with the average number of daily new infections reaching its peak on August 13 at 23,418 cases. While some resort islands, like Phuket, have reopened to vaccinated foreign tourists, tourism is far from having rebounded.
We caught up with M., 33, who we met in the Thai tourist hub of Pattaya. Before the pandemic, she was earning good money as a topless dancer at a go-go bar and as a sex worker. But when we spoke to her amid the crisis last year, she said she was struggling to send money to her mother, who was caring for her two sons, and sharing a studio apartment with two other women who worked at the same bar. In January, she returned to her rural hometown in the northeast region of Isaan and started a job in accounting at a local hospital.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A year ago, you were worried that if tourism didn’t improve in Pattaya, you’d have to move back to Isaan. What led to your decision to leave the city?
The COVID situation became more severe. There were no tourists or foreigners staying in Pattaya and I was very worried about COVID. I started to think about going home because there were almost no customers. My roommates went back home around November last year. It was sad. Our room was quiet, and I still had to pay rent for the room [on my own]. Luckily, over New Year’s Eve, I made some money from a customer from Bangkok who came to Pattaya for an island holiday, and I saved it.
In early January the bar owner decided to close the business. I wasn’t sure what else to do in Pattaya. I called my mother and told her I was coming home. But I didn’t leave for another [few weeks] because I was trying to find a job in a [government-designated quarantine] hotel in Pattaya but no luck.
What was the city like on the day you left?
I was speechless. I lived in Pattaya for [six years] and never thought that Pattaya would become a deserted city. Pubs and bars that were always lit up at night are now shut down. The beach is lonely without tourists. At night the beach has become a place for people [who have lost their jobs due to COVID] to sleep, and others go there to donate food to the homeless. When I think about it, my heart aches. I’m happy I survived.
Before the pandemic, you had dreams of saving enough money in Pattaya to buy more farmland for your family and starting your own rubber tree plantation in Isaan. How much of a dent did the pandemic put in your savings?
I only had a small amount of money left. I had about 10,000 baht ($300) saved and used it to pay off my rent in Pattaya. I sent some money [in advance] to my mother for the expenses of my two sons, about 3,000 baht ($100).
What was it like when you first got home to your province?
When I returned to my hometown, I still couldn’t stay at our home. I had to report to the village leader and was required to quarantine for 14 days. My mother sent me to live on our [small] rubber plantation. She sent me some food and drinking water.
After the quarantine period was over, I was able to go home. I didn’t have much to do apart from [helping my mom with her] rubber plantation. I was frustrated because I didn’t know what to do next with my life. I began to look for work, starting with applying for a job as a Grab rider [a motorcycle delivery and ride-hailing app]. There are not many restaurants for food delivery service in my hometown so most of my job was picking up passengers or parcels. It did not earn much money but was better than staying home and earning nothing.
I was also picking up a few shifts at the 7-Eleven and working as a life insurance agent.
Your mom and sons depended on your income as a sex worker to supplement their living expenses. How did they survive when you returned to Isaan and did not have a steady job?
Living at home without any money [in Isaan] is not as difficult as living in Pattaya. In the countryside, we own a house so we don’t need to pay rent. My mother grows vegetables for herself. Sometimes we buy meat from the market and the price of fresh food is not expensive like in Pattaya. Last year my mother leased half of her rubber plantation to some farmers, so she made enough cash to live on.
What are you doing now?
I [started] working as an accounting officer at a hospital [in early July]. My friend told me that the hospital was looking for staff. I had to take an accounting exam to be able to apply. I wanted this job because I intended to [make enough money to] continue improving our house.
Before the pandemic, you said your job in Pattaya’s red-light district earned you more money than from your previous office job. Are you making enough money in your office position now?
I’m a full-time employee with a monthly income. The salary may not be much, but there are health care, child’s education and pension benefits.
How does COVID continue to affect you?
I’m afraid I will be infected with COVID because there are infected patients who come to the hospital. I protect myself by wearing a double mask.
What is life like for you now?
My routine has changed. On the weekends, I have time to be with my family. I’m making new friends. [Instead of going to bed late because of my evening shift at the bar], I get up early and go to a daytime job. It’s funny, I used to complain that someday I would have to sleep like a normal person!
Do you miss anything about Pattaya?
Party life, handsome men, drinking with friends. I hardly drink now because of my new profession, but I miss it so much.
Suchada Phoisaat is a Thai producer based in Bangkok.
Aurora Almendral is an American journalist based in Southeast Asia.