Setting the bar high

The premises of this medium-sized bar at 322, Chiang Mai lane in Thailand are filled with slogans like these — ‘Well behaved women rarely change the world’, ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.’

Do not misconstrue this for some protest site. During the day, the place looks like a nondescript coffee shop that is closed down, with nothing but a couple of empty tables and chairs piled outside. A couple of women loiter around or go about some mundane cleaning chores, while others lounge around with a book. The magic happens later in the day, when the unassuming venue moonlights into the happening and vibrant Can Do bar — Thailand’s only bar that is run and owned by sex workers.

Lillee Mayoe chats with a customer

Take the ciggies and sex outside
In the year 2006, a group of sex workers, with the help of Empower, an NGO, collectively pooled in 1 million Baht (approximately Rs 18 lakh) and started the bar.

Lillee Mayoe, in her mid-thirties, has been working in the bar since its inception and has been in the business of sex work for little over a decade. Wearing a pair comfortable shorts and a simple t-shirt with no trace of make-up, she is all set to welcome the customers for the day when we meet. “Oh, I don’t need to wear sexy clothes to get customers,” she says with a cheeky wink. Mayoe later explains that the women working in this bar are free to wear whatever they feel like, unlike at other places where they are expected to doll up for customers.

“Running a bar gives us the opportunity to be in control of the entire process. We are not just entertaining customers here. We are involved with the finances, logistics, management and so many other things,” says Mayoe. “We feel society thinks we are stupid. We are here to make a point that that’s not really true.” She is now learning different ways of making cocktails by reading books and using the Internet to improve her bartending skills.

Can Do bar works like any other bar in the city — except for the fact that it employs sex workers as bartenders, waitresses and in other capacities. The bar gets all kinds of clients. They can come here, have a few drinks, watch TV, listen to music, play pool and even negotiate with a sex worker who catches their fancy. However, no sex work is allowed inside the bar itself. The client will have to take the sex worker outside the bar for sexual services. The sex workers also promote safe sex and provide condoms free of charge at the bar itself. Keeping in mind the health of their employees, the bar also has a separate smoking section outside.

For the employees
We spotted a ‘Your pleasure is our business’ poster right inside the bar — but it’s not just suggestive posters and slogans that are unique about Can Do. You will also find political posters talking about the rights of sex workers. In the evening, the bar is lit with soft lights, making it quite cosy. Unlike other bars, Can Do is a quiet place, with not many customers. The regulars saunter in, and sit at their fixed spots. Most customers walk in alone, and quietly sit in a corner while enjoying their drink, while others enter and begin talking to the waitresses almost immediately. Unlike other bars which play very loud music, the fact that the volume is regulated here, makes it a great place to go to if one wants to enjoy a quiet drink with friends. Can Do also hosts occasional party nights where the waitresses put up a performance or two.

Interestingly, everything from decor to sound has been arranged after taking the needs of their employees into account. Hearing loss is a common complaint that sex workers working in bars all over Chiang Mai face. Liz Hilton of Empower says, “This happens due to the loud music that is constantly played in bars. At Can Do, we have ensured that the music is not played beyond a specific decibel level.”

The bar also provides free training and mentoring to women working in different bars. “Since we are a collective, we help other women from our community, even if they don’t work in our bar. Many women come here to learn how to engage with the customers in English and even different ways of making a cocktail, among other things.”

There are other ways in which Can Do stands out from other bars. Employees enjoy labour rights, social security and health benefits unlike those who work in other bars in the city. Hilton says, “The women working in other bars are often exploited by the bar owners. They have no social security. If they fall sick, their salaries are cut. Here, every employee also gets a minimum wage of about 180 Baht per day.” 

Most bars in Thailand have a quota system. A sex worker ought to have had 150 drinks bought for them every month. If they are unable to reach the quota, their salaries are cut. Can Do Bar does not have such policies.

Prostitution is illegal
All this, even though prostitution is illegal in what is popularly regarded as the ‘sex capital’ of Asia, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the continent.

So how does a sex workers’ collective operate freely in such an environment? Pat comes the reply. “Oh! The government has to catch the sex workers in the act. Only then is it illegal,” says Hilton.

Strangely, even as prostitution is illegal, the Entertainment Places Act of 1966 allows massage parlours, karaoke bars and other establishments to have ‘service providers’, who are separated from the non-sexual staff. However, activists point out that the ambiguity in the law allows for prostitution to be conducted in these entertainment centres.

Hope can do
Can Do bar, located inside Chiang Mai lane, which is outside the main tourist area of Chiang Mai and consists of many ‘entertainment centres’, does not figure prominently in any of the major travel portals or sites, and not many know about it. However, a 2012 entry in a travel book called Bizarre Bangkok is bringing some attention to this initiative. The relative anonymity however, doesn’t bother the sex workers. “Fortunately, the sex workers do not depend on the bar alone for their income. They depend on sex work for that. The bar exists to prove a point to the society at large. However, we are also positive that things will improve soon. These things take time,” says Hilton.

The collective takes a strong position that sex work is a profession like any other and clearly states that this position does not mean that they condone sex work owing to human trafficking. They complain that the illegal nature of prostitution does not ensure the safety and labour rights of the sex workers. “Eliminate the exploitative conditions associated with sex work. Why should sex work be abolished?” says Mayoe, emphatically.

The women receive more commission for every non-alcoholic beverage in comparison to an alcoholic beverage that the clients buy for them. The bar and the employees do not encourage the customers to buy them an alcoholic drink. The employees of the bar do not drink alcoholic beverages even if the customer buys one for them. Hilton has a simple explanation for this. “Nobody wants to be drunk during work, right?”

Chiang Mai
>> According to the Tourist Authority of Thailand, the year 2011 saw almost 10 lakh Indians visiting the country. Figures also peg Indians as one of the top 10 nationalities visiting Thailand every year.
>> Chiang Mai happens to be one of Thailand’s cultural hotspots. Situated in northern Thailand, the quaint city ranks high on Thailand’s must-visit list. Just about 40 square kilometres, the colourful, quaint temple city of Chiang Mai, with its close proximity to beautiful hills and rivers, makes a very popular destination amongst tourists

>> The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, BE 2539 (1996) (the ‘Prostitution Law’), is the central legal framework prohibiting prostitution. The law defines prostitution as any act done to gratify the sexual desire of another in exchange for money or any other benefit, but only if it is done ‘in a promiscuous manner’
>> It is year 2555 BE (stands for Buddhist Era) in Thailand right now. They don’t follow the official Roman calendar. The Thai calendar is 543 years ahead of the Christian calendar
Courtesy: Thailand Law Forum

Getting there
There are direct flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai every day. Most flights stop over in Bangkok before you can head to Chiang Mai. You can avail of a visa on arrival in Bangkok

Where to stay
>> Budget travellers can check out the Blue Bird Guest House, a hostel for travellers. It is situated in the heart of the city. The rates are as low as 100-120 Baht per day/per bed. A great place for conversations if you want to meet interesting people from different countries. Facilities are basic but if you are on a tight budget, this is the best place.
>> Tripadvisor (.in) recommends Secret garden and Rimping Village as mid-range category hotels, while the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi and The Chedi Chiang Mai are touted as good luxury.

When to go 
The best time to visit is from October to February. It is relaxed as far as dressing is concerned but it is advisable to cover oneself while visiting temples  

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