An underage rose seller. Photo by Jack Kurtz
Bangkok's Khaosan Road is not the kind of place you want to take your kids. The strip of neon-lit bars and nightclubs, budget hostels, and 24-hour Burger Kings is what happens when generations of tourists remake a street in their own image; its nickname is the "center of the backpacker universe." Young Westerners flock to Khaosan to drink from plastic buckets of alcohol, inhale greasy piles of 2 AM pad thai, and deck themselves out in elephant-print pants, all to the beat of the pop music that blasts from every available speaker.
Despite Khaosan's party-hard, R-rated feel, a troupe of children-some as young as five-can be seen trailing the tourists as they move from one watering hole to the next. The Khaosan kids show up when the party starts and stay until the bars close. They're here to sell roses, yet contrary to what most tourists assume, they aren't from Thailand and the money they make doesn't go to their families. Most of the rose-sellers are Burmese and have been "purchased" from their parents by brokers promising to send home money every month.
More often than not, the checks never arrive and the kids never come home. Vittanatpat Rattanawarepong, who runs the Stop Child Begging campaign for the Mirror Foundation in Bangkok, believes at least 500 children are selling roses to tourists in Thailand as a result of this type of trafficking.
For those behind the rose-selling business, Khaosan Road is a gold mine: Every night brings a new flood of foreigners with cash to burn, many of whom have never been to Asia or encountered the complications of child begging before.
Photo by the author
"It's fun for us, and it's money for them," said Katpin, a 20-something German tourist, when asked why he bought a rose. "It's a win-win situation," his friend Moritz added.
The youngest of the rose-selling children stumble around Khaosan, weaving through the drunk and drugged-out dancers. Untrained in the arts of street marketing, they bring in meager amounts of cash from tourists who are moved by their innocent and desperate gazes.
The older children, many of whom speak basic English, have developed more complicated schemes. They make jokes, challenge tourists to hand games, and goad men into buying flowers for their dates. But their smiles are practiced, fading as soon as the sale is made.
While some tourists buy the roses thoughtlessly, others genuinely believe that their purchase is helping the children's lives. Few know that in reality, their money is precisely what's keeping them enslaved.
"We had to sell every day," said Nyi Nyi, one of the Burmese rose sellers. "When we couldn't sell out the flowers, we were violently beaten."
Preying on Poverty
Nyi Nyi, a bright kid with a big smile, was seven when he left his home in Mae Sot, a town about 300 miles northwest of Bangkok, on the Thai side of the Myanmar border. He was given to a man who promised to send his mother, Mya Hla Tin, 1,500 baht ($46) every month. Soon after, Mya Hla Tin sent her ten-year-old son Ko Ko to follow.
But after an initial payment of 3,000 baht, the money stopped coming.
"Finally I received a call," Mya Hla Tin recounted from inside the makeshift shanty where she lives in Mae Sot. "I said, 'Send my children back to me, I won't let them work there anymore.'"
But the voice on the other end of the line said she couldn't have her sons back unless she found two other children to replace them. There was little Mya Hla Tin could do. Like many of the Burmese in Mae Sot, she was living in Thailand illegally and seeking help from police was not an option.
Every year, hundreds of Burmese families are driven by extreme poverty to sneak across the border to Mae Sot, hoping for a better life. Yet once they settle into the city's crumbling slums, they become easy prey for the middlemen who supply children to the rose-selling business.
Like many others in Mae Sot, Mya Hla Tin originally made her livelihood by collecting and selling recyclable bottles from a local dump, earning 70 baht ($2) on a good day. But hypertension and a pain in her legs, she said, forced her to stop working. With no father around, her sons became the breadwinners, spending their days sorting through trash.
"If they stayed with me, the children would have to collect garbage," explained Mya Hla Tin. "But if they went to Bangkok, they would have an opportunity to learn Thai. So, I let them go."
Photo by the author
When Nyi Nyi and Ko Ko arrived in Bangkok, they were given to Mi Cho: a short Burmese woman in her 40s who had been living in Thailand for more than a decade. She sent them out onto the streets of Bangkok to sell roses that same night.
The children on Khaosan Road sell their roses at 20 baht apiece, bringing in up to 3,000 baht ($92) a night. That's twice the amount their parents receive a month, if they are paid at all. The rest of the money goes to the children's "bosses" in Bangkok, the brokers who transported them there, and local officials who are paid to look the other way.
But all of the money springs from the same source: the pockets of tourists. Unable to tell the difference between a Thai and Burmese child, many assume the rose-sellers are just local kids trying to pay for school.
"It's is a surreal environment where you are taking in a million things at once," explained Andrew Fortnum, an expat tour leader. "Most people, they're drunk, they give five bucks, and they think they're doing a good thing."
Yet it's not just ignorance that keeps the demand for roses alive. Some tourists understand what's going on but continue to buy the flowers anyway.
"No matter who the money goes to, when a child comes up and looks you in the eyes and asks for money, it's really hard to refuse," said Andrew Savage, an American tourist spending a Friday night on Khaosan.
And he has a point. Buying a rose may keep the business going, but it also could prevent a child from getting beaten later that night.
Nyi Nyi, for example, says he was hit with a broomstick if he did not sell enough flowers. And not only that: The more roses Nyi Nyi sold, the more he was able to eat. His boss only provided one meal in the morning and 6 baht (19 cents) for him to spend on food at night. When he was able to make more than 3,000 baht selling roses, Nyi Nyi would keep some of the money for himself and spend it on food.
While facts such as these complicate the issue, others see still see it as black and white. "It's basic economics," said Vittanatpat from the Mirror Foundation. "If there's no buyer, there will be no seller. What's the point of buying more kids if nobody wants to buy the flowers?"
Photo by the author
"A Balloon Under Water"
According to Sanga Ruangwattanaku, the president of a nightclub on Khaosan, the police are fully aware of the rose-selling children's situations.
"They are not paid off, but they collect fees," Sanga said with a smile.
Police raids on Khaosan Road and similar areas are generally about filling quotas or positive PR. The most recent raid on Khaosan took place in June, a day before the US State Department was set to release its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Anticipating the report, and possible sanctions, Thailand's military rulers ordered authorities to prove they were serious about cracking down on traffickers.
Forced to act, police picked up seven Burmese rose sellers and a suspected "boss" who is still awaiting trial in jail. It failed to make an impression on the report writers.
According to the report, "local and national-level police officers established protective relationships with traffickers in trafficking hot-spot regions to which they were assigned." Thai officials also "colluded with traffickers; used information from victim interviews to weaken cases; and engaged in commercial sex acts with child trafficking victims."
Saw Sai Nawng Hkio, who works with the humanitarian organization World Vision in Thailand, says combating trafficking is like trying to keep a balloon under water.
"When trafficking happens in this spot and we take action in this area, it always comes back and pops up in another spot."
It doesn't matter how many children are picked up in raids. Traffickers will always be able to find news ones to replace them. In the two most recent raids, in 2008 and 2014, police only arrested the children's caretakers in Bangkok. The network of brokers who struck deals with parents and transported the children to Bangkok-the entire trafficking infrastructure-was left untouched.
The Long Road Home
After less than a month in Bangkok, Ko Ko escaped. He ran away with two other children and through the help of one child's uncle, was able to reconnect with his mother in Mae Sot. Nyi Nyi on the other hand, sold roses for more than year before he was rescued by police.
Although his boss, Mi Cho, was arrested, her husband-who beat Nyi Nyi if he didn't sell enough roses-was never charged. He regularly visits Mi Cho in jail where she is serving six years for human trafficking.
After the raid, Nyi Nyi was placed in a state shelter in Bangkok. According to social workers, he was lucky to be rescued; only a couple of the rose-selling children are every year. Yet even those "fortunate" children face a long road home. It takes the collaboration of dozens of state agencies and NGOs to rehabilitate the kids, locate and evaluate their parents, and sort through legal matters.
But there's a heartbreaking twist: The shelter is often the nicest and most nurturing place these children have ever lived in. There are three meals a day, classes, and games. They get to be children again.
Nyi Nyi was reunited with his family after spending more than a year at the shelter. Back in Mae Sot, they live in a cramped, shoddily constructed shack stilted over a pond of sewage. The two brothers have returned to providing for the family. Ko Ko collects recyclable bottles from the dump and Nyi Nyi helps clean up a nearby market, earning less than a dollar a day.
Asked how it feels to be home, Nyi Nyi said, "I want to go back [to the shelter]. I was happy there."
Follow Sally Mairs on Twitter.
Names in this story have been changed to protect individuals' privacy.
Additional reporting carried out by Rachel Kessler.