IT’S a warm Monday evening, and somewhere in southeast Asia an Australian man is about to enter a bar filled with beautiful young women.
Dan isn’t ashamed to say that he’s spent a lot of time in karaoke bars and red light districts around Thailand. After all, he’s just one of many Western men doing the same thing.
But while Dan could be your average Australian sex tourist there’s one thing that sets him apart; he’s actually an undercover rescue worker, searching for underage girls and trafficking victims.
“It’s a rough industry,” he admits, as we talk of the girls he has seen rescued and the men who travel to Thailand to purchase them.
While the exact figures vary, research has shown Australian men to be among the largest contributors to sex tourism in southeast Asia, with cities such as Pattaya becoming a “home away from home” for an increasing number of Australian retirees.
However, despite being surrounded by beautiful beaches, cheap dining and endless sex, Dan says that many of the Western sex tourists he meets still feel like “something is missing”.
“These men who’ve moved to Thailand, moved to Pattaya, moved to Bangkok, they’ve all got the same story,” he says, sharing with me about the sex tourists and expats he’s gotten to know over the years.
“They think coming to Thailand for sex is going to fill a void in their lives, so they pursue this dream — and then they realise that the lifestyle they’ve chosen is empty and meaningless.”
Over the years Dan has spent time talking to many western sex tourists, many of whom — he says — seem to share a hauntingly universal story of broken relationships and regrets.
“[At first] they say, ‘I get sex whenever I want, it’s great!’ But when you go a little bit deeper they always talk about their broken relationships, and how [their marriage was] the only one time that they felt true intimacy and love; that they could truly trust somebody,” he reveals.
In particular, Dan remembers an Australian man who threw away his relationship back home to follow a lifestyle of freedom and pleasure in Thailand; a decision the man admitted was the ‘biggest regret of his life.’
“He tried everything [to fill the void],” says Dan. “Sex with young girls, sex with ladyboys, everything. And then one day he got to a point where he was like, ‘what’s next? What’s left to try?’
“I was sitting next to him, and out on the street in front of us were deaf girls, prostituting. He said: ‘Hmm, deaf girls. Do you think they might be a good root?’
It’s easy to understand the emotional toll that such work takes on rescue workers and anti-trafficking staff like Dan, but it’s a cause he says he never regrets leaving Australia for.
“Sometimes I wish that my calling was back in Australia, but there’s a lot of hurt and broken girls that need assistance, and that’s why I’m here,” he says.
Sharing with me the impact that his work has had on him, Dan says that journeying into red light districts at times feels like he is entering the “most evil places on earth,” but the joy that comes from helping young women inspires him to keep going.
“When we first meet them [the girls] they hate themselves … these girls were raped and abused, and now they feel that’s all they’re worth,” he says. “So to see them loving life and thriving is what gets me off.”
It’s evident that Dan feels deeply for each of these girls, and his voice is often drenched with emotion as he talks about the damage done to young women at the hands of men looking to satisfy their own lust.
“Men pay for sex and then they leave; they don’t journey with the girl,” he says. “They don’t see her crying in her room … they don’t see the side I see [after a rescue].
“The more men that have had sex with them, the harder it is and the less worth they feel. Lots of guys say ‘they love it, they love this work.’ No, they don’t,” Dan says emotionally.
As I listen to Dan recount story after story, I wonder how a man so moved by justice can bear to speak to the men who purchase girls and women for sex. After all, many of the girls he has seen rescued were once raped and paid for by western sex tourists, men who Dan says excuse their behaviour by claiming that they are helping the women.
“I feel like saying, ‘if your daughter ended up in Thailand and didn’t have any way to make money, and she was working in one of these bars, would you mind if I went and had sex with her? Would you see that as me helping her?’
“They would do anything to get them out of there, but they justify it [when it’s a Thai girl],” he says.
Incredibly however, for a man who has at times seen the worst of humanity, and heard every possible excuse, Dan can’t help but feel sadness for the men he meets.
“Understandably, a lot of people in Australia, a lot of women, look at these men with bitterness and hatred and anger, but when you talk to these men, you realise the truth; that they’re hurting men, they’re lost men, they’re men who’ve made decisions that have set them on a path of destruction,” he explains.
“I remember one man asking, ‘do you think after we die, we’ll have to pay for all of these bad things that we’ve done?’” he recalls.
Recognising that each of these men are fighting their own battles does not mean that Dan condones their behaviour, but rather, he understands that sex tourists need help to overcome their addictions — which in some cases, are killing them.
Over the past five years there have been many reports of Western men “obsessed with the Pattaya lifestyle” committing suicide from their hotel balconies; some of which have been caught on camera.
“Pattaya is meant to be the capital for men who want to move overseas for sex, but so many men commit suicide there,” says Dan sadly.
“We were working with police and they showed us a video of a guy who threw himself off his balcony. They call it the ‘Pattaya Plunge.’”
Discussions on the website ‘Thai Visa’ show that Western suicides are common, with many referring to the mysterious deaths as ‘the Pattaya Flyers club.’ Some attribute the high rate of deaths to the region’s wild and unsustainable lifestyle.
“ … all the balcony jumpers is becoming all too frequent (sic),” says one user.
“Maybe after all it isn’t paradise here, as some want us to believe?” says another.
It’s an issue that has caught the attention of several organisations and ministry groups around Thailand such as Night Light International, and the MST Project, both of which aim to provide support to male sex tourists.
It’s something that Dan agrees is well needed, not only to help men overcome their addictions, but to also help stop the damage done to young girls caught in the industry.
“I think if there were a group of men who went to the bars to meet these guys — not to preach at them — but to get alongside these men, to become mates with them and listen to their stories …[ that would definitely help],” Dan says.
As we come to the end of our chat, I ask the rescue worker what he would say to these men if he could say anything; if he didn’t have to hide who he was.
“If I could say everything and anything, I guess it would be: ‘are you happy with who you’ve become, are you happy with this life?’
“You can use all your skills and abilities to help people, not to take from them,” he says.
“It’s not too late to turn things around and become the man you’re proud of.”