The Life of Burmese Male Sex Workers in Chiang Mai

By Kyaw Kha 18 November 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In the backstreets of Chiang Mai near a roadside bar, a man in a dark suit stood and smiled, and then discreetly pointed us to a door dimly lit up by a red light. He opened it and ushered us in; as we entered we were welcomed by upbeat disco beats.

On a small stage, around 20 young men in tight white briefs were dancing under disco lights. They were good looking and appeared young; the oldest ones were perhaps 25 years of age, while some of them looked like they could be teenagers.

Dozens of customers sat at tables around the stage drinking, smoking and reveling in the lively maneuvers of the dancers.

Most of the customers appeared to be Western men, others were Asians, and at some tables sat some Asian women. During a pause in the music, some of the dancers came down from the stage to chat with the guests, who offered them free drinks.

Often, the club’s clientele also ask to pay them for sex and the young men will accept.

During a break, four dancers joined our table, all came from neighboring Burma and we spoke with them in Burmese. Their heavy accents quickly revealed their Shan background and the young men said they came from Shan State’s Panglong, Loilem and Mong Nai townships.

“The boss [of the club] is English. All the dancer boys are from Myanmar; most of them are Shan and some are ethnic Lisu, Lahu and Akha,” said one of the dancers, adding that all had come to Thailand and entered the gay bar scene in order to support their families in their impoverished native villages.

Thailand is home to between 2 million and 3 million Burmese migrant workers, and northern Thailand has long been a destination for many seeking to leave Shan State. Migrant workers often perform low paid, unskilled labor in sectors such as construction, manufacturing, tourism and fishing. Many are at risk of running afoul of the law because they lack proper legal documentation and working permits.

The dancers in Chiang Mai’s gay “show bars”—of which there are four, according to one guidebook for same-sex visitors to northern Thailand—are at constant risk of arrest by police as their work is illegal under Thai law. They can get fined when caught.

Asked about the age of the dancers, the young man at our table quickly replied that all are older than 18 years. Suddenly cheers from the crowd focused our attention back to the stage, where a well-built, tall dancer going by the show name Ai Long was doing a naked solo dance to a slow melody.

A little later, he came to our table and the 23-year-old said he grew up in Loilem Township in an area under control of Shan ethnic rebels. When he was about 14 years old, his parents feared that he might get conscripted by the rebels and they sent him to live with a relative in Chaing Mai.

Five years ago his financial situation became dire and he entered into sex work at the bar. “I’ve been here for a long time and no one here speaks Burmese. As the time passes, I’ve begun to forget some words,” he said.

Ai Long said he is the top earner among the dancers and popular among the bar’s Western visitors due to his physical characteristics and good looks.

“If your body is small, I mean, if one does not meet the standard of body structure and penis size they set, you can’t entertain in a one man show. As I can do a one man show, I earn more,” he explained, adding that he earns a salary for his dancing act of around US$1,500.

The other dancers earn salaries of $600 to $1,200 per month, while many earn more from selling sex, for which they charge around $100 per night, according to Ai Long, who said that the owner the club also earns a $10 charge for such services.

The income from the work represents a large sum of money for a Burmese migrant worker in Thailand, most of who earn about $100 to $300 per month.

Ai Long explained that a wealthy Swedish man regularly visits and lavishes gifts and money upon him; the Swede matches his 23-year-old’s salary and demands he spends all his time with him. He also bought Ai Long a motorbike.

Not Gay

Later in the conversation Ai Long revealed that he is married and has a wife and a four-year-old son in Loilem. Like most of the Shan men at the club, he is not gay and only does the work because it pays well and allows him to send money to his family, adding that five of the club’s 20 dancers are married.

Ai Long said he and many of the dancers do enjoy the work and are not proud of it—he has told his family and friends that he works as a waiter in Chaing Mai.

“We don’t accept to take the passive role, but most of the Westerners demand that sort of exchange of roles,” explained another dancer, who goes by the show name Sai Han.

Ai Long said he hopes to start his own business in his native Loilem region someday to support his family, adding that he has already bought a plot of land and built a house there.

“Uneducated people like me can find no way to lead a decent life, even if we work very, very hard. When I have a capital to start a business, I will go back to Loilem and live with my family,” Ai Long said.

He held up a photo on his smartphone showing a picture of his wife and son. “I will send my son to the school in Loilem. I will make him an educated person; I don’t want my son to lead a hard life like me,” he said, holding back his tears.

Health Risks

The sex work is not only a difficult job; it also exposes the young men to serious health risks, such as infection with sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and drug abuse.

Some of the men use cheap methamphetamine tablets, also known as yaba, to help them stay awake during the night time dancing or sex work.

“Most customers do not like quick sex and don’t want to give money and won’t call you next time if they are not satisfied. If customers are satisfied, they give tip money. So, some [sex workers] use yaba to last longer,” said Ai Long, adding that it was common practice.

The dancers said most customers will have protected sex, but it’s not unusual for customers to try and force the dancers to have unsafe sex, exposing them to the risk of contracting STDs.

Sai Han said he contracted unspecified STDs on four occasions, twice from having unprotected sex with male customers during nights of heavy yaba use, while he also contracted STDs twice while paying for sex himself with female prostitutes. “Now, I always use condoms, either when having sex with male customers or female sex workers, and I rarely use yaba now,” he said.

The dancers said they knew of no case where a fellow male sex worker had been infected with HIV/Aids, although infection with other STDs was common.

Mplus, a Chiang Mai-based organization working for the rights of same-sex couples and raising HIV/Aids awareness, often visits the gay show bars to educate sex workers about the health risks.

A staff member at the NGO said HIV/Aids infection had occurred in the past among workers, but no case had been reported in the past year or so, possibly as a result of the expanding awareness-raising programs.

The NGO worker, who asked not to be named, said he was conducting a survey among male sex workers to research health issues and he had found that many of the young men who became infected failed to seek proper health treatment.

“Male sex workers are too shy and fear having their occupation exposed, so are reluctant to go to a clinic when infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Everyone says they are not infected with HIV/Aids, but no one wants to have their blood tested,” he said.