The room was on the 14th floor of an expensive apartment block, facing on to a balcony suspended far above the miasma of the city centre. A gleaming combination of shiny black granite, polished teak wood and windows, it was visible before we reached it - the light shining through the open door and bouncing off the stark white walls of the corridor, was accompanied by the sing-song buzz of engaged voices.
It was a delightfully hedonistic affair: generously heaped platters of snacks laid out on sparkling surfaces, a perennial flow of fine wine and cocktails, and two luscious, attentive barmen clad only in jeans and their six-packs. One of them - dark, tall and muscled - caught my eye as I walked in and stared at me intently with a practiced gaze until I looked away. "Love the eye candy. Are they straight?" I asked our host, Pete, a little later. "Oh yes, absolutely", he answered emphatically. "There are so many women coming to my party that I thought I'd do something for the girls tonight."
A few hours and a substantial number of drinks later, things had begun to turn pleasantly pear-shaped. Tongues and ties were loosening as the horizon flashed with the approach of a tropical storm and glances at the naked torsos behind the bar were no longer quite as furtive. The boy who had greeted me at the door swaggered up to our balcony table, dispensing Cosmopolitan refills from a leftover songkran bazooka. It was then that I really noticed his companion for the first time, standing quietly behind the bar. Aung had a strong, refined beauty - square jaw, full mouth, alabaster skin. When I began speaking to him later that night he commented on the traditional patung I was wearing and pulled a laminated photograph out of his wallet. His father, mother and grandmother, he told me, both women wearing sarongs similar to mine. "I haven't seen them in four years."
"If your friend wants to take him home she's perfectly welcome," I was surprised at Pete's message when it was relayed to me. At that moment I realised the power of the human ability to repress what we know to be true. In the recesses of my consciousness I had known all along that Aung was for sale, but as a virgin to the sex trade, I was having some trouble getting my head around it.
Over the next four months I became close friends with Aung and the complexities of his story became clearer to me. Like more than half of Chiang Mai's male sex workers, he was of Shan (Thai Yai) origin. A shared border between Shan State in Burma and Chiang Mai makes our Northern Province one of the most accessible areas to Thai Yai men seeking work outside Burma. Aung was 19 years old when he arrived in Chiang Mai via the Taichilek-Mae Sai border, four years previously. His Shan father and Chinese mother were farmers and money was always in short supply during his childhood. "Burma is not like Thailand," he told me on one occasion. "In Burma, the government doesn't help you if you can't afford to go to school. My parents were poor and couldn't help me either, so I left school five years early."
When Aung was 6 years old, three of his four siblings - two brothers and a sister - died suddenly, leaving behind a devastated family. "When I turned 17 I left home to look for work," he says. I went everywhere in Burma to find a job that would give me good money, but I couldn't find one, so I came to Chiang Mai," Aung said during one interview. "My parents cried when I left, but it was the only way I could earn money to help them. When I got to Thailand I didn't know anybody, I didn't know where I was going, I didn't understand the language. Thai is similar to Shan so I have mastered it, and now I am studying to improve my English."
Aung's first job in Chiang Mai was in a restaurant kitchen, working seven days a week from 8 a.m. till midnight, for a salary of 2,000 baht a month. When his Thai improved he moved on, taking a day job at a restaurant and working evenings as a barman in Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar. It was here that he was approached by his first customer, a Singaporean woman who offered him a thousand baht to spend the night with her. "I was excited," he responded when I asked him how he had felt. "At the bar I earned just 4,000 baht a month. What could I do? I needed to send my father and mother money to build a new house." It was not long before Aung extended his services to men, though he told me he restricted these encounters to a few times a month ("otherwise I don't have the power") and by the time I met him he was completely immersed in the sex trade - working days at a massage parlour and nights at one of Chiang Mai's most popular go-go clubs. With the money he earned there he was in the last stages of paying off his parents' new house.
My first visit to his bar shook me up, literally. There is nothing subtle about the city's go-go bars - though I never saw full sex performed on stage, the shows are explicit and are followed by a brief parade in which all 'waiters' strut their stuff. My hands were trembling when I left that first night, but it was not so much the naked bodies on stage that upset me as the sight of Aung's name placard emblazoning his tie. It was that small detail that made me acutely aware that he, too, was the potential object of a simple monetary transaction. But as I became familiar with the scene, the violence of my initial reaction soon subsided to subtle discomfort. I didn't mind going to visit Aung at his bar anymore - I felt comfortable as long as he was there and I enjoyed talking to some of the boys I met, who were friendly and polite. There was even something strangely thrilling about a world in which society's conventions did not apply - a cultural underbelly governed entirely by the human desire for money and sex - and I realised how easy it would be to become entirely de-sensitised to the environment.
"It's not difficult to understand how young boys from poor families get drawn into selling sex", says Pad Thepsai, drop-in manager of Mplus, a non-profit organisation that provides health and information services to men who have sex with men (MSM) - homosexuals, transgender people and male sex workers. "Many boys come here from their villages in the hope of being able to send money back home to their families. Some of them are hill tribe, others are from Isaan and many are from Burma, where people are treated like animals - especially the ethnic minorities like the Shan or Karen."
The issue of male prostitution, he explains, is closely tied to the problems faced by Burmese refugees who come to Thailand looking for a better life. "Because most are illegal immigrants, they are often exploited. Many start out working in the construction industry and are paid only a portion of their salaries because the companies they work for know that, without ID cards, they can do nothing about it. And to get ID cards they need cash. They speak to other boys who are already working in the bars, making good money and this is the way they start. Everybody wants more money, a better life. Education is the best way - but not all sex workers have access to education. Most of them start selling sex when they are very young and have no idea what they are getting into. They get lost in this world, they don't understand the impact of the work they are doing - they don't have anybody to tell them."
Mplus provides the north's only free MSM clinic, as well as a drop-in centre and information resource centre dealing with MSM issues and education. The organisation also does outreach work with male sex workers and youths, providing information and distributing free condoms with the aim of curbing the spread of STDs. While the incidence of AIDS and other STDs is lower in Thailand than in some other parts of Asia, a 2005 study revealed that approximately 11.4% of male sex workers in Chiang Mai are HIV positive.
Like all thriving industries, Chiang Mai's male sex trade is a well-organised web of working spaces, systems and protocol. "There are so many places where sex is sold," says Thepsai. "Mplus works all over Chiang Mai - in gay bars, cabarets, saunas, spas, massage parlours, cruising parks, stadiums - even one public toilet." There are approximately 36 gay meeting points in Chiang Mai, he tells me, many of which are frequented by male sex workers - some as employees of the bars, others as freelancers.
The fact that much of the city's male sex trade is concentrated in gay-friendly venues does not mean that all visitors and/or paying customers are gay men - or even men, for that matter. Several of the boys I met at the bars said they sold sex to all kinds and during my visits to the clubs I was offered sex by both heterosexual and homosexual workers who said they sold sex across the gender barrier. Aung puts the division of customers at his go-go club around 80% gay men to 20% women. "But there are also others that come to the bars - bisexual men, or married men that are mostly straight but like something different. And twice I have been with couples who wanted me to have sex with both of them."
The go-go bars are overseen by one or more mama-san - a management individual or team that provides the channels of communication needed for transactions in the bars to be smoothly conducted, including the payment of a 'bar fine ' should customers wish to take a boy home. Fluent Thai and a reasonable command of English are pre-requisites for this position in Chiang Mai: 'captains' - as one told me he preferred to be called - often need to negotiate on behalf of Shan, Burmese, Isaan and hill tribe sex workers who aren't proficient in the languages of their clients. "Not all the boys go with customers and not all of them will sell full sex," says Ae, who has worked as a captain in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, "but for most its easy money. A good mama-san knows exactly what each of his boys will do - whether they sell full intercourse or oral sex or only hand jobs. He finds out from the customers what kind of boy they like and what services they are looking for and helps to make a good match."
Aung tells me that he usually requests between 1,000 and 5,000 baht from customers for full intercourse, 10,000 baht if they appear to have the money to spend. "Most Thai customers will only pay 1,000 baht, sometimes 2,000 baht, but farang will often pay more, so I ask for more." While some boys working the go-go scene prefer not to go home with customers, Aung tells me that almost all will do so for 1,000 baht or more. "But not all customers come to the bars to buy sex," he adds. "Some just come for the show or to talk to the boys and then go home."
Monthian Promlatthisorn, Mplus project manager, estimates that male sex workers in Chiang Mai can make between 15,000 and 40,000 a month, a financial bracket far beyond the average earning potential of most student-aged Thais, and one that many Burmese refugees may never have dared to dream of. Quite simply, the money can't be beaten. "Approximately 95% of sex workers in gay bars are heterosexual," says Promlatthisorn. "They don't want to have intercourse with other men, but sex is the bridge to the money they want." I asked Aung at one of our meetings how he felt when he was servicing male customers. "I don't feel," he replied. "It's work…I just close my eyes and do my job." During this conversation he was calm and composed, even detached, but at another interview a few months later he became visibly upset. "None of us who work at the bar likes to do it. We are all there for the money. I don't work for me - I work for my mother and father."
"The issue of prostitution in Thailand - both male and female - can't really be separated from the country's cultural framework," says Tey, an eloquent Thai man who spent time studying and living in Germany and the United States. "In Western countries individuals can be independent from their families, while here there is an enormous degree of dependence on the fact that children will take care of their parents. If you look at it in the light of these expectations it's easy to see why the sex industry here is so successful. It is part of Thailand's cultural fabric. And people looking in from the outside need to understand that if you break down this system you not only break individuals, but whole families."
At the Night Bazaar one evening I talk to Tua, a bar owner. The area around this popular night market is worked by boys playing pool, massaging or drinking with customers. Things work slightly differently here than at the go-go bars - though sex is just as easily available for purchase, not everybody sells it and those that do work on a freelance basis. "Many of these boys first come here selling flowers," says Tua. "They earn hardly anything in a day, and when they are offered 500 baht to give some guy a hand-job, they see it as easy money. Some of them start working in the sex trade as young as 10 or 11."
It is at the Night Bazaar that I meet Zach, a gentle, soft spoken Canadian who has twice taken boys home from this bar strip. After many months of exploring the sex trade from the perspectives of its purveyors, my conversation with him offers insight into another angle of the issue - that of those supplying the industry's demand. "These boys provide a service," he says, "which they are willing to sell and others are willing to buy. They can always say no if they don't want to go home with a customer - the choice is there."
Two other paying customers I speak to have a very similar outlook on the situation. At the same bar a few nights later, Belgian Gerry introduces me to his 20-year old 'boyfriend'. "He likes girls," says Gerry, "but that's not a problem for me. He comes with me at night, but he does his own thing during the day, because we both need our freedom. It's a good arrangement - a relationship that works."
Dave, 45, is a regular visitor to the gay bars and massage parlours of his adopted home. "I don't go to bed feeling guilty at night," he tells me. "The way I see it, every relationship is a contract. These boys come here from the villages looking for money - so they get what they want and I get what I want, which is no-strings-attached sex."
On the last night I see Aung at the go-go bar, he shows me an Mplus card declaring him HIV negative and tells me he has decided to stop selling sex. "It's not good," he tells me, "I don't want to do it anymore." "Some things are more important than money", I say to him. "Your health is more important, your happiness is more important." "My life is more important," he agrees. But I am not surprised when three weeks later he relocates to a bar at the night market. For a while he continues to tell me he is no longer involved in the sex trade and only works as a barman, but later admits that he still services customers occasionally. He wants to open a small shop one day, he says, and hasn't saved up enough money yet.