'The holiday that opened my eyes to Thailand's seedy underbelly.'

Goldfish. Birds. Frogs. Baby turtles. It’s hard to believe the things women will put in – and shoot out of – their vaginas in the neon-lit clubs of Thailand’s notorious Bangla Road.

Walking down the loud, crowded strip you soon find yourself accosted by hustlers holding up signs listing the objects the strippers will use their pelvic muscles to eject at these ‘ping pong shows’. Trust me when I say they are way more than just small white balls.

Inside the clubs and go-go bars, middle-aged western men in singlet sit drinking beer as scantily clad Asian women dance suggestively around poles. Prostitution is rife. A sign outside a doctor’s clinic advertises its services: hangover treatment, contraception injection, rapid laboratory tests for syphilis, hepatitis B and chlamydia, post-HIV exposure treatment…

"I do not want to spend a single Thai baht here." (Image: iStock)

We’d planned to stop and have a drink at a bar while we were there, but I am reluctant. I do not want to spend a single Thai baht here. I do not want to encourage or fund this madness.

Bangla Road in Patong is often touted as the centre of Phuket’s nightlife. But I can’t help thinking it is the closest I have come to hell on earth.

I’m embarrassed to admit it isn’t my first visit to the area. That was many years ago, at the end of a two-week small group tour of Thailand and neighbouring Laos. Seeing a ping pong show was just one of those things you did as a first-time visitor.

Listen: Journalist Luke Williams talks about his experience as a money boy in Pattaya, Thailand. (Post continues after audio.)

I was shocked. I couldn’t help wondering about who the women who worked in such establishments were, and how they came to be there. The last thing I did before returning home was buy a book about sex trafficking in the newsagency at Phuket International Airport. It was enlightening, to say the least.

In Australia, we are lucky to have a generous welfare system. Our elderly receive an age pension. Single mums receive parenting payments from the government. Thailand’s social justice system is very basic, and there is huge cultural pressure for children to provide for their parents. All too often poorly educated girls from poor villages are enticed away to jobs such as maids in other parts of the country. They then find they have been tricked and end up being forced to work in go-go bars or as prostitutes to pay off large debts to human traffickers.


According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, sex trafficking remains a significant problem in Thailand’s extensive commercial sex industry, with victims not only from Thailand, but also nearby countries Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma). The Thai government is trying to address the problem in many ways, ranging from increasing border control enforcement and denying entry to known sex offenders to campaigns that aim to raise awareness about the severe criminal punishment of those found to be involved in child sexual exploitation. In 2015 it identified 720 trafficking victims, up from 595 the previous year.

After my first visit to Thailand sex trafficking became the issue I am most passionate about, and the cause I am most likely to donate to. There are many charities working towards ending sex trafficking, including World Vision, Save the Children, International Justice Mission, Destiny Rescue and Relentless (

"It was 10 times worse than I remembered. That night, I cried myself to sleep." (Image: iStock)

I’m not sure why I went back to Bangla Road. I was staying at a resort on the other side of the island, in a group that included people who had never been there before. They wanted to see it, and I guess curiosity got the better of me. It was 10 times worse than I remembered. That night, I cried myself to sleep.

Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is a beautiful country and I’ve had some amazing travel experiences there. I’ve eaten incredible street food and drank cocktails at rooftop bars in Bangkok, swam at Maya Bay where the Leonardo Di Caprio film The Beach was filmed on Ko Phi Phi Leh and explored amazing cave temples filled with Buddha statues.

I would never discourage anyone from taking a Thailand holiday. But avoid Bangla Road like the plague.

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