My privilege of traveling throughout Southeast Asia with One Body Village allows me to observe the differences in what sex trafficking looks like, who is affected, and how it proliferates in different countries. From January 20 to 24, 2015, Father Martino invited me to join his undercover trip to Laos. I find Laos a beautiful country with even more beautiful people. They are calm, polite, and courteous. Much of the Laotian culture is profoundly influenced by Buddhist thinking, attitudes, and behaviour. Tolerance and acceptance is a Laos worldview while respect for authority, patriarchy, and the collective good dominates the Laotian culture. Family and tribal relationships is valued above everything else; so much so that it is illegal to have sex outside of wedlock. Therefore, prostitution is much less common in Laos than it is to its neighbour of Thailand. It is regarded as criminal activity and sometimes the punishments can be quite harsh. Laotian law bans foreigners from having sexual relations with Laotian nationals other than their spouses. The foreign offender can face hefty fines (up to $5000 USD), imprisonment, or deportation. Furthermore, most hotels do not allow foreigners to take girls to their rooms as it is officially prohibited. A sign on the back of our hotel room door read, "No guns, drugs, gambling, or sex with man or woman who is not your husband or wife".
Even though the Laos government does not want foreigners having sex with their nationals, the fact that Sex Sells isn't lost on them, nor is pragmatism for that matter. After all, almost one-third of the female population in Laos lives below the poverty line and the country has one of the worst poverty rates in Southeast Asia. This makes their people a prime target for sex traffickers among other forms of trafficking. Most Laotian women and children are trafficked to Thailand for its flourishing sex industry, while the majority of the sex workers in Laos are Vietnamese as "the work is deemed unsavory by Lao Nationals". Their government seems to turn a blind eye to these foreign women. Its principle aim appears to be discouraging sex with local women. On top of that, sex workers in Laos do not have access to condoms and basic medical care. There's only one brand of condoms, ironically called "#1" and is available in only one size!
In the capital of Vientiane, I met many Vietnamese people, especially Vietnamese women. They seemed to dominate every food stall, every foot and body massage parlor, and mobile nail salon. I met a young Vietnamese girl named Nga who was 21 years old. Her father was of Thai and Vietnamese descent, while her mother was Laos. Nga was born and raised in Vietnam and moved to Laos with her three sisters and brother in law 2 years ago. She works at a massage parlor 28 days out of a month and makes about 10,000,000 Kip (~$1200 USD). Of that, 7,000,000 Kip is paid towards rent, and $100 USD is transferred to her parents back in Vietnam. That leaves her around $200 USD to support herself every month. I asked her why she left Vietnam in the first place. Like many Vietnamese nationals, Nga said that competition, violence, corruption, and low morale drove her away from her home country. I can see why the idea of prostitution may seem attractive to many people, because on the surface, one can make more than a month's earning in one night. However, many women are naive and ignorant to the violence, torture, rape, abuse, and the domineering control by pimps that goes along with it.
However judicious and diligent the local police are in catching bad foreigners with Laotian nationals, there are always loopholes in this slimy sex trade business. In the old capital of Luang Prabang, all Father Martino had to do was ask his tuk tuk driver for a phone number to call and then so easily he had a 15 year old Laotian girl delivered to our hotel room! I spoiled his undercover mission though, when I returned from my day trip to the Kuangsi Waterfalls 2 hours too early without telling him. Oops! I guess I am far from an undercover agent and I will stick to blogging...
Even with all the shaming, there is no shortage of foreign men looking for "love" in Laos. At every cafe, every bar, and every stroll down the street I spotted a foreigner with a young, hot asian woman. Her broken english and his disinterest for table conversation is telling of their obvious contract of a relationship. She may not be Laotian, as many online sex forums would warn the novice sex tourist to resist, but she is still a woman who is impoverished and exploited. She may smile and be flirtatious. She may laugh at his jokes without knowing what they mean and stroke his arm lovingly. She's only with him for one reason. Survival.
The thing about Laos that is notably different than the other Southeast Asian countries that I have visited is their advocacy against child sex tourism. Many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang displayed posters created by international NGOs warning against child sex tourism. In 2009, the government introduced a hotline for reporting child sex tourism and placed ads in many tourist locations throughout the country to encourage people to report suspected cases of child sex tourism. I admire the effort, but child sexual exploitation is blooming in Laos as its tourism industry continues to grow and education among the local and indigenous population is lacking. It was so easy for Father Martino to find a 15 year old girl. How many other thousands of children have been hand delivered to the front steps of sexual predators?
This was in our hotel magazine. The Lao government wants to attract "wholesome" tourism . It shares many linguistic and cultural traits with its richer neighbour Thailand but it is sending a strong message of wanting to avoid the "undesirable" sex tourism that flocks to its southern neighbour. Messages on a back of a magazine hardly deters any sexual offender. OBV currently has six Laotian children under our care who were victims of sexual exploitation.