BANGKOK – Located in Thailand’s most remote south, some 1,200km from the capital Bangkok, Betong is a lively part of Yala province.
The area, together with neighboring Pattani, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla, has been hit by decades of violent armed conflict between separatists and Thai authorities.
Thousands of shootings and bomb attacks have rocked the region since 2004, while hundreds of cases of arson have destroyed schools and homes.
The violence has resulted in more than 4,000 deaths and about 10,000 injuries over the past 15 years. Many incidents took place on a stretch of road connecting Betong with central Yala.
It is known locally as “the road of death” as the route winds through areas frequently targeted by insurgents.
Constant Threat of Bombings
In June, a bomb attack rocked a security checkpoint outside a bank in Yala’s Bannang Sata district.
On the map, Betong is about an hour’s drive away from there. The border town itself also faced bomb threats earlier this year.
Yet, despite the potential risks, it manages to draw a steady stream of visitors – mostly foreigners who cross the border from Malaysia.
Betong’s strategic location next to the Malaysian state of Perak provides tourists with relatively safe and easy access to an abundance of nightclubs, discotheques and karaoke bars.
“When it comes to security, Betong is considered the safest among 37 districts in the deep south,” said Betong district chief officer Anand Boonsamran.
“Malaysian and Singaporean tourists account for 80 per cent of Betong’s visitors.
They can travel from Malaysia to the town centre through the Betong border checkpoint. The distance is only 7km and it’s the safest route for tourists,” he added.
But while visitors seem willing to make the short hop over the border, those coming from elsewhere in Thailand seem more nervous.
“We have to admit that for Thai visitors, who have to travel 140km from central Yala to Betong, we haven’t been able to establish enough confidence for them yet,” the district chief said.
Each year, Betong welcomes hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors – Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indians and Chinese – who mostly arrive by land from Pengkalan Hulu in Perak.
In 2018, more than 524,000 visitors came to the border town.
Many of them are drawn by the pristine nature in the area and local delicacies.
But for others, it is the infamous sex trade that operates freely in this border town which is the main attraction.
Inside Batong’s Underground Club
On a narrow street in the city centre, dance music thunders from an underground club.
Inside, the pyjama party is in full swing. The air hangs heavy with the smell of cigarettes. Alcohol is everywhere. So are women in revealing nightclothes.
Many of them are chatting to male customers, smiling and laughing in a light embrace. Others are up on a narrow stage, swaying to the deafening music.
The room is pitch black save for the disco lights.
“No photo, please,” one of the staff told customers ahead of the night’s highlight. “You can’t take any photos of the next show.”
While regular clients can guess what is about to happen, newcomers look at the stage with growing anticipation. As soon as a new song plays, a file of women in lingerie takes to the platform.
One by one, they strip as the rowdy crowd cheers.
“It’s very easy to find someone at night,” said one of the regular customers.
The 30-year-old lives in central Yala and often visits the border town to have fun with his friends. Their favourite place is the underground club, where many tourists come looking for sex workers.
But this is not always straightforward
An additional issue for those wanting to visit Betong for adult entertainment is that prostitution is illegal in the Buddhist country.
But like many other Thai towns, Betong has people in the industry who have worked out how to operate within these constraints.
For instance, many sex workers have a legitimate job at adult entertainment venues.
These establishments can operate openly as they do not position themselves as venues where sexual trysts are sold, but plenty of deals are done discreetly between sex workers and customers.
“The main customers are from Malaysia.
They get women from clubs and bars or brokers who have contact with hotels,” a customer told CNA.
Betong is a business district in Thailand’s most remote south, which has suffered decades of armed conflict between separatists and Thai authorities.
Prostitution is an open secret in Betong, and commercial sex is relatively easy to find. Male tourists who do not travel with family are likely to be approached by hotel staff who can liaise with sex brokers.
It is also fairly common for guests to request assistance from hotel employees themselves.
Despite its unlawful nature, the multinational sex trade in Betong has enjoyed decades of prosperity.
It is well organized and relatively open despite the heavy presence of law enforcement officials in the restive south.