It is hard to imagine, but Pattaya's near-deserted "Walking Street" used to teem with revellers, as pulsating music filled the air and neon lights flashed until the early hours.
Before the pandemic, the coastal city south-east of Bangkok was a buzzing party scene, and was once described by the Lonely Planet travel guidebook as "an eye-popping sensory explosion".
Today, bar stools sit atop dusty tables, the odd light bulb flickers and "For Rent" signs hang on bars, nightclubs and restaurants up and down the infamous red light district.
Crowds of tourists from all over the world have vanished – the only people around are a few locals heading home before the COVID-19 curfew kicks in.
For 42-year-old sex worker Dao, Pattaya has never looked this depressing.
"Pattaya was a 'never sleep city'. There used to be so many people here, there was almost no space to stand," Dao told the ABC.
"Now it is so quiet, it is lonely and quiet."
Pattaya offers a glimpse of what is happening in other cities around Thailand, where bustling red-light districts in Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai were shuttered during the pandemic too.
The steady stream of business for sex workers away from the go-go clubs and beer bars also dried up.
Thailand reopened to fully vaccinated foreign travellers from more than 60 low-risk countries, including Australia, on November 1. But bars and entertainment venues are still closed because the government is concerned about the virus spreading in them.
Sex workers worry it will be years before their industry recovers.
A billion-dollar industry that operates in the shadows
Dao is one of approximately 50,000 sex workers who made a living in Pattaya before COVID-19 hit. Experts suggest at least four times that number were operating across Thailand.
The mother-of-five now earns less in a week than she did in an hour.
"It is barely enough. I've had to spend from my savings money and it is almost finished, almost gone," she said.
"My main goal is to work … to give my children an education, so I need a safety net."
Sex workers support charity Service Workers in Group [SWING] helped Dao set up a street food stall, and she still meets the occasional local client.
But it is still not enough to get by.
"I'd rather work as a sex worker as I did before the pandemic," Dao said.
SWING president and Thammasat University political science professor Chalidaporn Songsamphan said before the pandemic Thailand’s sex industry contributed about $8 billion a year to the country’s economy.
"The Thai economy had been relying on the tourism industry for quite some time," Professor Chalidaporn told the ABC.
"Tourism had been the major source of income for the whole economy, and sex work was a large part of this tourism."
Despite this, sex workers have been forced to work in the shadows because prostitution is technically illegal.
Penalties include fines ranging from $40 to $1,600, or even a jail sentence of up to two years.
With COVID-19 having decimated the tourism-reliant economy, some sex workers believe the time is right to push the government to recognise an industry that may be crucial to the recovery.
'Tiny spare parts that nobody cares about'
At a protest earlier this year, a group of men and women wielding high heels and underwear gathered outside the national government's headquarters to demand their labour be recognised and regulated.
"We're Thai people and we generate income for the country. Please accept the reality that prostitution exists and it does have value and dignity just like other professions," one protester told the media.
The pandemic has only made working in the industry harder.
Sex workers are unable to access any of the government's unemployment benefits, which were offered to other professions shut down by COVID-19.
"The experiences of sex workers during this pandemic showed us that this ambiguous status of sex workers obstructs them from getting help from the Thai bureaucracy, from the Thai state," Professor Chalidaporn said.
"So maybe this is a good time to actually think about this decriminalisation of sex work, because the criminal status of sex work here has hurt so many people in this society for quite some time.
"They cannot negotiate, they cannot bargain with anyone at all, and they have been exploited by so many groups of people because of the status of sex work as a crime."
Dao said she would really like to see her industry legalised, but she believes the government sees sex workers as "just tiny spare parts that nobody cares about and nobody supports".
She said that in Pattaya, at least, they drove the pre-COVID economy.
"All foreigners came here for women like me, there were no tourists who came here to see temples or just for sight-seeing," she said.
As their clients disappeared and the pandemic persisted, sex workers have been forced to find other sources of income.
What does the future hold for Thai sex workers?
Thirty-six year old Pattaya sex worker Om has moved online.
The mother of three said she did not want to catch the coronavirus, so she has been meeting clients via a mobile phone app.
"I'm afraid to go out to meet them as I don't know who they've been meeting with, so online is the best," she said.
"We make an agreement: 'If I show you this, you have to pay me that amount.'"
The money is only a tenth of what Om used to earn, which has made it difficult for her to support her children, who live in another province.
"Before the pandemic everything was fine, it was easy to make money and I did not have problems sending money home," she said.
"I wish COVID would go away so things could go back to [normal]."
Om said she would like sex work to be legalised "so we don't need to be hiding".
But Professor Chalidaporn said successive governments had not made moves to legalise sex work because the issue had not "caught the attention of the Thai public".
"If you are going to talk about sex work you cannot just talk about decriminalisation of sex work itself, or just talk about some groups of sex workers, you have to discuss the root cause of what we call sex outside marriage," she said.
"It is going to be quite painful and difficult for many groups of people, so that's why they are not willing to discuss [it], they just ignore this issue of sex work."
A long road to recovery
Thailand has slowly been reopening to fully vaccinated foreign visitors from low-risk countries since July, with most coming in through a special no-quarantine program on the island of Phuket.
With hotel quarantine scrapped or reduced from this month in other parts of the country, things are looking up for the tourism sector.
But Professor Chalidaporn does not expect the sex industry to bounce back quickly.
"If we are lucky it might take a year at least, not just for the sex industry but the whole tourism industry in Thailand to recover," she said.
"And the problem is, how are people who have been in this industry going to survive if there is another round, another wave of the pandemic?"
With no financial assistance from the government, many sex workers have been relying on charity – either money sent from past clients who live overseas, or food handouts from SWING and other organisations.
The Australian embassy in Thailand recently donated 500 "survival bags" of food, medicine and personal hygiene equipment to SWING to give to sex workers and other Pattaya locals doing it tough.
The ABC followed SWING staff and Australian ambassador Allan McKinnon as they handed the bags out to desperate people in long queues that stretched for several hundred metres along Pattaya's main beach front.
It was welcome assistance but it was just a drop in the ocean – hundreds of people missed out.
“It’s going to be difficult for all of them to recover from the pandemic, that’s for sure,” Professor Chalidaporn said.
Posted 11 Nov 202111 Nov 2021Thu 11 Nov 2021 at 9:55pm, updated 12 Nov 202112 Nov 2021Fri 12 Nov 2021 at 1:40amShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp