Sex is big business in Bangkok. There is only so much that the Thai government can do to stop it, and the government doesn't do that much.
At almost every hotel in Bangkok, the free weekly tourist magazine in the lobby is laced with ads for traditional or "special" Thai massage. There are escort services pitching male or female companions "far beyond your expectations." The color ads offer lean-bodied "delicious, young" go-go dancers.
What's the harm if Bangkok has an overactive libido? This is not just a fantasy land for consenting adults. It has plenty of victims whose only fantasy is to make enough money to stay alive. The sprawling metropolis has become the hub for international child prostitution. The young boy leaning against the massage parlor wall is not waiting for his parents to pick him up.
Bangkok's sex arcade isn't relegated to a red-light district where only the earnest seeker or the dedicated deviant find it. It is part and parcel of the Bangkok tourism package.
It's impossible to miss the sex sales pitch. One of the city's largest craft markets where tourists can buy Thai souvenirs fills Patpong Road, creating a sweaty gridlock of international foot traffic weaving around the craft booths and past the strip joints.
Before you pooh-pooh the Thais for creating this Sodom and Gomorrah of Southeast Asia, remember, they are not in this alone. Europeans and Americans make up a big share of the clientele and have even cashed in on the business side.
Earlier this year we reported the story of Mark Morgan, a Utah man who was arrested by Thai police because they suspected he was running a house of child prostitution under the guise of an orphanage. The "orphanage" was shut down, but the boys who lived there are still a marketable commodity. They were snapped up like assets in a going-out-of-business sale.
Our associate Jim Lynch visited Bangkok and talked to Santhana Dhammasaroj of the Street Children Assistance Project. He said most of the boys in Morgan's house are now living with another American man suspected of being a pedophile.
Santhana said there are many foreigners buying and selling Thai boys. The demand for child sex is soaring. Boys 8 to 14 are plying the trade, charging $40 per customer, but they keep only about $12 and the rest goes to their pimp. Five downtown hotels are in on the racket.
What the boys have in common are fresh faces and poverty. They come from the slums where entire families live in rickety shacks with rusted sheet-metal roofs. Adults prey on the boys, coaxing them into prostitution by promising them more money than they have ever seen.
Santhana tries to talk the children out of their work to keep them alive. AIDS has ripped through Thailand with a vengeance in the past three years. The World Health Organization says AIDS cases are jumping from IV drug users to the heterosexual population in Thailand.
In a country where heroin and sex are business staples, AIDS could do more than reduce the tourist trade. It could kill boys who, in spite of their profession, are not savvy enough or informed enough to understand that they are flirting with an epidemic.