The Kingdom of Thailand, like other nations in Southeast Asia, boasts many pleasures for the sightseer: sun, surf and golden temples. A darker side of the tourist boom, though, is a flourishing sex trade that ropes tens of thousands of desperate women and children into selling their bodies for as little as $15. On Friday, Thai police announced that a three-year global manhunt for suspected pedophile Christopher Paul Neil had ended in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima after the 32-year-old Canadian teacher was tracked through cellphone calls to a house he had been renting with a Thai transvestite friend. Neil had been on the run ever since German police officers had succeeded in unscrambling Internet photos that showed a Western man with a digitally obscured face abusing children across Southeast Asia.
Police believe Neil is that man and that he sexually assaulted children as young as six years old in at least three countries: Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. In an attempt to nab him, a security-camera photo taken on October 11 as Neil arrived at the Bangkok airport was released by Interpol. Thai police have charged him with paying a nine-year-old local boy for oral sex in 2003 and have indicated that further charges related to at least three other minors may be filed soon. Neil, who arrived in court wearing dark sunglasses and sweatpants, denied the charges, which carry a penalty of up to 20 years' imprisonment. If convicted, he could be extradited to Canada where he may be liable for prosecution for sexual abuse of minors committed in other countries.
Neil, who since 2000 taught at international schools in South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, is one of a series of high-profile suspected pedophiles to be arrested in the region in recent months. Last year, American John Mark Karr, another international-school teacher who falsely confessed to killing child beauty-pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, was picked up in Bangkok. Karr was wanted in California on child pornography charges that were later dropped. Also in 2006, British pop star Gary Glitter was imprisoned in Vietnam for sexually abusing minors.
Although Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have tried to crack down on child sex abuse, kids are still easy prey. In Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, for instance, the airport is plastered with posters warning against pedophilia, and, as in Thailand, foreigners are photographed by security cameras at immigration. But travel to bars or nightclubs just minutes away and pimps openly try to sell little boys and girls to foreigners. In some cases, as Western men walk by at night, locals push children in front of them and ask the tourists to feed the kids. What the foreigners do after the meal is up to them. Although several foreign residents, including a teacher and doctor, have been arrested in recent years on pedophilia charges, there's still a sense in Cambodia that a bribe can ward off the police.
Thailand has done a better job of cleaning up its act. Although adult prostitutes openly ply their trade, child sex workers are no longer as visible as they were a few years ago. Still, that's not to say they don't exist. Not long ago, a stroll through a brothel district in Bangkok elicited the following tout from a pimp. "Girl? Boy? Big? Small? What you want? I have."