Bangkok's industrial-strength sex trade first developed during the Vietnam War to cater to American soldiers on R&R. Since then, it has mushroomed, luring both locals and sex tourists from around the world. Viagra has enlivened the industry, bringing a whole new generation of men to the Bangkok night scene. A survey by a leading Thai university estimated that between 1999 and 2002, 2.8 million Thais participated in the sex business this in a country whose entire population is 65 million. Roughly 800,000 of those sex workers were underage; most came from poor farming households in Thailand, as well as nearby Burma, Laos, Cambodia and China. Some came willingly to escape a life in the rice paddies. Others, of course, were sold into the business. Did I mention? Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, although you wouldn't know it to walk the streets of Bangkok.
TIME's Bangkok bureau sits on a quiet residential soi, or street, where Buddhist monks stroll by in saffron robes. Parents drop off their kids at the local elementary school; university students in uniforms yes, college kids wear uniforms in Bangkok lug backpacks full of books. But just a few blocks away is one of the city's many saucy neighborhoods: Soi Cowboy, a neon-lit stretch boasting clubs such as Spice Girls and Doll House. During the day, I can walk Cassius, my pet schnauzer, down Soi Cowboy, and she gets friendly pats from sex workers in hot pants and plastic miniskirts. Even the poodle owned by a fearsome-looking mama-san doesn't mind a fuzzy interloper. With Cassius in tow, my husband does not get asked to "lookee, lookee." Pet dogs accomplish what wives apparently do not.
The contrast between Soi Cowboy and the neighboring streets is all the more striking, because the majority of Thai women are quite modest. Their collars are high, their hemlines low. Their bra straps do not peek out from under their shirts. A local newspaper recently ran an advice column counseling that girls should not get their ears pierced before the age of 18. Walking the residential lanes of Bangkok, you rarely see decolletage or muffin-tops, those rolls of flesh that peek out between hip-huggers and shrunken tank-tops. But then you turn a corner and a clutch of women gyrate in front of a bar in costumes that would make a Hooter's waitress blush. Cassius the schnauzer is the only one who doesn't notice.