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In Thailand’s red light districts


Kate Weatherly is a multimedia producer living in Asia. The following story is the first of three installments of Kate’s personal account of what she felt, heard and witnessed as she traveled to one of the largest cities in Thailand to photograph women lured into the sex industry. Click here to see AsiaStories’ Part 2 and Part 3.

Day One

My midday flight landed in the city of nearly 7 million people. After settling into my hotel room, I met with friends who were attending a small retreat for Christian women. The city was bustling in the afternoon heat as vendors sold their wares to hundreds of tourists. My friends and I ventured out for Thai massages and dinner.

Several months had passed since we last saw each other so we talked, laughed and caught up with each other’s lives. One friend teaches in a neighboring country and the other was a teacher at a local university in a different part of the city. I shared with them my assignment: capture scenes of the sex industry. The real work would begin tomorrow, but I needed to get a feel for the area so they decided to accompany me on my search for nightlife.

Our taxi driver had some difficulty getting us to our destination — trying to navigate four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic based on directions three foreigners who had never visited the city.

We finally exited the taxi close to where we thought we wanted to go. One friend ran inside a convenience store to put credit on her phone, I double-checked my camera’s settings and cleaned the lens. As I waited, an Asian woman in a tan and black dress downed an energy drink near the store. Her dress was tight enough to see every curve, and upon observing her posture and mid-section, I wondered if she was in the early stages of pregnancy. We were getting closer.

My friends exited the store. I didn’t know which direction to go, so I followed the woman as she walked carefully down the step in her platform shoes. She was beautiful, but her face seemed lifeless as her hair swished around to hit her mid back. 

It was a short walk. We kept our eyes focused down so we didn’t trip on the uneven sidewalk. Then the darkness was suddenly invaded by the bright neon lights coming from a side-street off the main road, advertising numerous bars and dance halls. Dumbstruck, we hesitated at the entrance of one of the bars.

My friends looked at me. Apparently, I was in charge. Right-oh. I took a few pictures of the entrance and we timidly walked through. Granted it was warm for us foreigners but not for these Asians who were costumed in what appeared to be swimwear.

We walked slowly through the bar; I awkwardly raised the camera, taking a photo of my friends, carefully capturing images behind them. We didn’t belong and we knew it. We could feel that everyone else in the bar knew it, too. With all this pressure, could I gather enough information to help others understand this lifestyle? I only had three nights to capture images. Now it was two.

Day Two

The women at the conference had hoped for a retreat — a place to get away from their noisy lives and find rest. But the spiritual warfare they were encountering made them regret their convenient hotel booking. Several of the women told me of their vivid nightmares, which they were not prone to having, and others said they had hardly slept because of the noises coming from their neighbors.

“Oh it was awful! It was like they were right in our rooms—we could hear everything. It was so nasty,” one of my friends shared.

I tried to work from my hotel room that morning, but I couldn’t accomplish a thing. There seemed to be a heaviness clouding my thoughts, plus I like to be around people. I packed up my gear to check out my surroundings and find a coffee shop. Sweat made my bangs stringy after just a few minutes of walking in the humidity. Gross. The street kitchens I passed were sending signals to my body—time to eat. I passed several promising establishments serving western food that I’d been craving but hadn’t eaten in a while. Each filled with hungry-looking men with Asian cocktail waitresses sitting temptingly close.

Seriously? It’s lunchtime! Frustrated, I bartered for some mini mangos and hopped on a motorcycle taxi headed for the nearest mall. The air felt refreshing as my driver sped past the remaining scenes of the daytime hustle. So sad — and odd — how the sex industry never stops, day or night.

Evening Two

At the beginning, Lynn Andolini* and I stood outside the bars on the sidewalk, observing people. It was overwhelming. What do I shoot? Andolini had worked with Heartweavers, a Christian ministry focused on sex workers, and was used to this atmosphere.

She stood rigid by my side against the grimy bar wall as I dropped to one knee for a better camera angle on a group of young women — independent sex workers — who were applying makeup in front of a hotel sign across the street. 

Andolini let out an air of frustration. “That man is staring you down. Oh my word, he is not happy with you,” she said. “He is looking at you like you were some worm.”

I was now slightly alarmed, “Should we move?” I asked, snapping a few frames as the women smiled and mingled with a backpacker. Maybe he’s asking for directions. His eyes wandered.

“Oh, no, honey. I got your back,” Andolini said. “He is fat and old and I can outrun him anyway. No, keep on shooting.” 

I lifted my eyes above my camera to see who was giving me the stink-eye. An obese man with a red flannel shirt and blue jeans stood in front of me, hunched over from aging—or maybe it was the freshly grilled chicken kabob he was consuming from the street cart vendor.

Funny how righteousness is twisted in the darkness; I am the one frowned upon for being there, photographing, as if the shame was on me and not those men. The sidewalk was small, and shooting whatever images I could find lit by the neons and flashy signs was difficult. This was going to be a long night.

*Name changed

A light of hope for beggar girls

minaraLaura Fielding reports for AsiaStories:

As the morning sun filters into her family’s one-room shack, Minara wakes up in the bed she shares with her mother, Rahima,* and 1-year-old sister, Sakehna.* She sits up and stretches, her reddish-tinted hair — a sign of malnutrition — askew from last night’s sleep. The rickety bed frame, about the size of a double bed, takes up nearly half of the family’s 8-by-8 house.

This is one of the city’s major slums, where ramshackle homes line either side of two parallel railroad tracks. Numerous trains barrel past each day, violently shaking the flimsy structures sitting just a few feet away. In between the passing of trains, adults and children loiter on the tracks — small children playing tag, women sitting and shucking beans, young boys playing board games and men playing cricket.

The poorest of the poor dwell here — the rickshaw drivers, day laborers, garment factory workers, beggars, single mothers, the unemployed and unemployable. The shacks are makeshift one-room structures of bamboo, wood and corrugated tin with dirt or concrete floors. Minara’s family pays about $15 rent each month to live here.

Minara’s “home” lies at the end of a row of six shacks, three on each side of a narrow, dirt alleyway. The houses share walls as well as a common bathroom area located at the end of the alley. A ragged cloth hangs as a privacy curtain for the enclosed area, which is divided into two small spaces: one for bathing and one for the “toilet” — a hole in the middle of a concrete slab ….

Rahima has been taking care of her children on her own for the past six years. … Six days a week, Rahima and her two daughters are on the street from 9 a.m. until early afternoon — or late at night depending on how much money they make or how they feel. Their daily goal is to earn between 100 and 150 taka (about $1.25 to $1.88).

This isn’t the life that Rahima wants for her children. … “My hope and dream is to give a better education and environment for my children — to help them to become a good woman,” Rahima says quietly. “I do not have any dream for myself. I only have dream and hope for my children.”

Last year, Rahima’s dream came true for Minara — she was able to attend the Light of Hope Learning Center. There, Minara learned to write her name, the Bengali alphabet and numbers; basic hygiene practices such as the importance of brushing teeth, taking regular showers, washing hands and wearing clean clothes; and stories from the Bible about Isa, Jesus. Though Minara and Rahima are Muslim by birth, Minara loves hearing Bible stories — her favorite is when Jesus brought a young girl back to life — and Rahima has “a good impression about Jesus.”

The center also helped support Minara’s family while she attended — Minara received a healthy meal each day, and the center provided the family with food, blankets, school uniforms and shoes.

But after one year, Minara was forced to quit — Light of Hope leadership had to suspend the program because of lack of funding, resources and staff.

Read more about this excellent justice ministry by clicking here.
Make a difference for these girls through OneLife by clicking here.

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