Dispatch: Pattaya, Thailand

Last week I traveled to Thailand on a story collection trip with Nations. I wrote a brief update on the trip, reposted below. Or head over to Nations' blog to read the piece accompanied by some gorgeous photos by the talented Haley Withers

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Last week I traveled with Nations to a city known as the world’s sex capital. Pattaya sits two hours south on a dusty highway from Bangkok. The beach city used to be a fishing village but since the Vietnam War, Pattaya’s sleepy charm and clear water have been obscured by bars and brothels clogging its downtown.

We spent the week with staff from Thrive Rescue and Shear Love International. The team graciously introduced us to their work and the darkness they’re up against. I’m still processing what I saw there, so this post is an abridged reflection (and a reason to order Nations Journal Volume 2 for the full feature!).

Here is what I saw in Pattaya:

I saw young women emptied of resources, forced to sell their bodies because they are told they have nothing else to offer. I saw men roving the red light district, many of whom carry traumas and loneliness that cause them to exploit desperate women and trapped children.

I saw individuals—like the Thrive and Shear Love team members—who came to Pattaya and stayed, despite all of its dirt and difficulties. These individuals stand in solidarity with people shoved to the fringes of society and accompany them on a path to freedom. I saw kids and women who’ve been through the worst a person can live through and who’ve emerged into full and free healing. 

As is often true, darkness and light exist very close together in this city. Humanity’s shadows and goodness bump up against each other on Walking Street, on Beach Road, and in the dark corners where girls in stilettos sit on their heels and devour a plate of noodles before getting back to work.

Maybe corruption in Pattaya is more visible, manifested in the exchange of cash for sex, the expressions of detachment, and the smell of sewage and trash. Yet grace is there too, embodied, for instance, by the young woman who stepped out of the shadows where she was soliciting to drop money in a blind woman’s begging hand. Grace abounds in the laughter of kids from Thrive's safe homes, and in the easy friendship between the women in Shear Love's vocational program.

Pattaya’s central shame—sex trafficking—is not just a story about perpetrators and victims. It’s not a question of tourism or sustainable development. It’s not even about the many factors—poverty, abuse, exploitation, pornography, and cultural norms—that continue the trafficking cycle. It’s bigger than all of that.

This place embodies a particular truth about our world, albeit more overtly than most. The exploitation of human lives, both male and female, is nothing new. It happens every day in every city in a thousand different ways.

People say Pattaya is a lost cause. Humanitarian groups and NGOs have written it off, concentrating their efforts in other areas of Thailand. I can’t tell you what the right approach is to such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem. I can tell you it’s incredibly complex, and that I left Pattaya with a firm sense of hope. This was due in part to the good work of Thrive, Shear Love, and their radically compassionate staff. It was also thanks to the young women and men and the kids we met who cling to courage, solidarity, and a persistent innocence in the face of injustice.

Mostly, though, it’s because Pattaya is not a lost cause. God hasn’t abandoned the city. It is full of people who are seen as outcasts, and these are the people that Jesus gravitated toward—that He still gravitates toward. No number of NGOs or reformers can fix Pattaya, but thankfully fixing is not our job. God, who liberates captives and frees the oppressed, only asks us to partner with Him in this process of liberation.

I had the chance to interview Thrive's Assistant Program Director Prae Saechang (pictured below), who articulated this idea beautifully. “If you look at the city, you get hopeless,” she said. “If you look to yourself, you’ll have no strength to fight the darkness because it’s too big. But when you look at Christ, you know how great he is and how much he can do for you and for the world. We do our best. The rest is God's job."

Prae’s words echo the poet Hafiz, who gives us another way to see our call to work with humility and hope:

I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through. 

Listen to this music.