Fabrizio Marsani wrote: “There is a disingenuous naivety” when it comes to sex in Laos. “To paint a better picture, the following is a conversation I had with a young 20 something waitress in a restaurant who appeared confused by the fact that someone could have children out of wedlock. A—the waitress) “How you have daughter but you no married ?” B—Fabrizo) “Well you know, man and woman get together, have sex and then….. “ A) She blushed and responded, “No in Laos” B) “What do you mean no in Laos, you told me you had a boyfriend before. Well maybe it could have happened to you … to become pregnant.” A) “No No, is no possible . No in Laos” B) “ What do you mean not possible. If you have sex of course it’s possible." A) “No, no possible.” [Source: Fabrizio Marsani, August 15, 2012]

B) “What did you do with this boyfriend ?” A) “We hold hands and talk.” B) “That’s all, just hold hands and talk ?” A) “Yes” B) “Not even kissing ?” [ she nodded to confirm ] How long did you and this boyfriend stay together ?” A) “6 months ” B) “ You stayed together for 6 months and you only held hands and talked ? [ she nodded again ] B) “Ha ha, that’s why you don’t have a boyfriend any more.” I cheekily told her. She turned bright red and playfully punched me on the arm.

Prostitution is much less common in Laos than it is in Thailand. It is regarded as a criminal activity and sometimes the punishments can be quite harsh. Some Laotian women go to Thailand to work as sex workers. Many of the prostitutes in Mukdahen, a Thai town near the Laos border, are from the Laotian town of Savannakhet, which lies just across the Mekong River from Thailand.

A study at bars and karaokes in Laos found that 20 percent of the sex workers are Laotian and 30 percent of the customers are Laotians and Cambodians. Sex workers in Laos do not have access to condoms and basic medical care. There’s only one brand of condoms available in Laos, called, ironically, "#1" and it’s available in only one size.


Decadence in During the Vietnam War

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

"In 1975, the CIA's Laos was on its last legs," wrote British journalist Donald Wilson, "It was one of America's expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported." In “The Great Railway Bazaar” , written around the same time, Paul Theroux wrote that it was "surprising" Laos "existed at all, and the more I thought of it, the more it seemed like a lower form of life, like the cross-eyed planarian or a squashy amoeba, the sort of creature that can't die even when it is cut to ribbons."

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975): “Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. ...When you find beer at midnight and are sitting quietly, wondering what sort of a place this is, the waitress offers to fellate you on the spot, and you still don't know. Your eyes get accustomed to the dark and you see the waitress is naked. Without warning she jumps on the chair, pokes a cigarette into her vagina and lights it, puffing it by contracting her uterine lungs. So many sexual knacks! You could teach these people anything. There are many bars in Vientiane; the decor and the beer are the same in all of them, but the unnatural practices vary. The only English film I could find in Vientiane was a pornographic one. [Extracted from The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) by Paul Theroux]

Vientiane Bar Life During the Vietnam War

During the war Vientiane was more notorious in excesses than Bangkok today. In the book “Air America” , Christopher Robbins wrote that millions of CIA dollars temporarily turned Vientiane "into a swinging town offering very sort of perversion and diversion."

The most famous bars in Vientiane during the war were the Purple Porpoise, a watering hole for CIA secret warriors, the Green Latrine, Monica's, The Lido, The White Rose and Rendezvous des Amis. The White Rose featured floor shows in which women smoked cigarettes and flung ping balls with their vaginas.

The Rendezvous des Amis, wrote Robbins, was run by a woman known as Madame Lulu who was "a broken-down French woman in her 60s with her hair set in an outrageous bouffant, her face thickly camouflaged in makeup, and a theatrical cigarette holder forever in her hand." The bar specialized in "warm beer and oral sex" with 'every one of Madame Lulu's girls had been personally coached by the grande dame herself" who "combines tawdry elegance with spirited vulgarity."

Other diversions included nightclub called “The Spot” , run by a pair Corsican gangster-drug dealers, and a five-story casino run by royalist general and U.S. ally, with an opium den with enough room for 150 smokers.

Sex Tourism and Children: " No in Laos"

The law does not contain penalties specifically for child prostitution, but the penalty for sex with a child (defined as under 15 years of age, the age of consent) is one to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 to three million kip (approximately $60 to $360). The law does not include statutory rape as a crime distinct from sex with a child or rape of any person. Child pornography is not treated differently from pornography in general, for which the penalty is three months' to one year's imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 kip ($6 to $24).^^

A general increase in tourism in the country and a concomitant rise in child sex tourism in Southeast Asia in recent years attracted the attention of authorities, who sought to prevent child sex tourism from taking root. The government continued efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex through periodic raids and training workshops. The government and NGOs hosted seminars to train tourism-sector employees, including taxi drivers and tourism police. Many major international hotels in Vientiane and Luang Prabang displayed posters created by international NGOs warning against child sex tourism. In 2009 the government introduced a hotline for reporting child sex tourism and placed ads in many tourist locations throughout the country to encourage people to report suspected cases of child sex tourism.^^

Fabrizio Marsani wrote: Sex tourism is illegal in Lao PDR and child-sex tourism is a serious crime...Laid Back Laos…. But don’t expect to get laid...Unlike neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia where this segment of the tourism market is well catered for.[Source: Fabrizio Marsani, August 15, 2012]

The Lao government wants to attract ‘wholesome’ tourism - BYO partner preferred tourists for want of a better label. While Laos may share linguistic and cultural traits with its richer neighbour Thailand, it’s sending a strong message of wanting to avoid the ‘undesirable’ sex tourism which flocks to its southern neighbour. Cambodia on the other hand acknowledges its tenuous diplomatic and historical relations with its Thai Big Brother. But recognizes a good earner.

Laos has laws in place to discourage Thailand- Cambodian style Sex Tourism.Notices on the back of hotel doors regularly remind guests that it is illegal to enter into sexual relationships with a Lao national and that stiff fines will be imposed on those who break the law. Foreigners are forbidden to invite Lao nationals back to their hotels for sexual relationships. They risk being detained by police, having passports confiscated and hit with hefty fines if caught in the act.

The following is a notice posted on the back of my guesthouse door: A) Do not any drugs, gambling or bring women and men which is not your own husband or wife into room for making love. 2) Do not allow domestic or international tourist bring prostitute and others into room to make sex movies.

They don’t want foreigners having sex with their nationals but the fact that Sex Sells isn‘t lost on them, nor is pragmatism for that matter. In Luang Prabang most of the massage shops offer the choice of either male or female masseuses. As a ‘mature aged single bloke’ I’m often mistaken for being gay and offered young effeminate men to massage me. The first time this happened I didn’t want to offend the young guy so I reluctantly agreed. But it turned out to be an awful massage and he was oblivious to the notion of what a full body massage was , as promoted on the shop front. He spent most of the allotted hour rubbing my inner thighs. I now make a point of saying that I only want women to massage me. Based on my experiences, prudishness prevails in amongst Lao women masseuses.

Many of the sex workers in Laos are Vietnamese as “the work is deemed unsavoury by Lao nationals. Laos is endeavouring to resist neighbourly pressures by legislating a National Moral Code of sorts. Its principal aim appears to be discouraging foreign tourists having sex with local women.

Gay Scene In Laos

There was no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Within lowland Lao society, despite wide and growing tolerance of homosexual practices, societal discrimination in employment and housing persisted, and there were no governmental efforts to address it. Reports indicated that lesbians faced greater stigma and discrimination than gay men. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Lao people are generally tolerant of homosexuality but there is not a highly visible gay and lesbian scene in Laos like there is in Thailand. Reporting from Vientiane, Julia Steinecke wrote in The Star, “It’s pouring rain but I’m determined to find a gay bar in the capital of Laos. My tuk-tuk driver has a note with a name, Pack Luck, and approximate location, written in Lao by a bilingual local, and after turning around twice, we pull up to a neon sign with a rainbow flag. I dash inside and find myself in a tiny, dimly lit space with a sprinkling of customers. A friendly expat strikes up a conversation with me. In the middle of this, my friend, Anan, arrives, flipping his shiny scarf. Anan, who works as a Peer Education Project Co-ordinator for MSM ("men who have sex with men"), has been telling me about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgende] life in Laos and charming me with his infectious laugh. Tomorrow, Anan will lead a workshop on how to persuade teenage boys to use condoms... Because of HIV, the government supports health-related organizations working with MSM and this has raised gay men’s self-esteem and visibility in Lao society. [Source: Julia Steinecke, the Star, October 11, 2008 ]

“Things are different for lesbians, who live in isolation; none of the gay men I’ve spoken to know any lesbians. Transwomen, of whom I’ve seen several in Vientiane, have some visibility because of their presence in Thai media, broadcast widely in Laos. The community can’t organize social or recreational events without government permission, and clearance is mainly given for serious things like HIV prevention training and MSM drop in-centres where any man can go for counselling, workshops, English classes, games and camping trips.

“LGBT tourists have an easier time than locals. Sharing hotel rooms and beds is a non-issue, I’m told, even in remote village homestays. Public displays of affection are not common among Lao people of any orientation, so it’s best for tourists to follow suit. A tourist dating a local might meet with some negative reaction because folks will assume the local person is a sex trade worker. Theoretically, sex between tourists and locals is against the law but this is hardly ever enforced.

“Even in Luang Prabang, which has a mandatory bar closing time of 11:30 p.m., I was advised by the gay bar owner to "stick with the Lao people; they know how to party." After Khob Chai closes, Somphorn Boupha and his staff like to go bowling for a few hours. As another resident tells me, "When Somphorn goes to the bowling alley, it’s a gay spot."

“In Vientiane, it’s almost midnight when the show begins at Pack Luck. The place is full now, with locals and a few falang (foreigners). More friends have joined us. Stage lights shine at the far end, and a series of female impersonators in elegant attire act out a full range of emotions as they lip-synch to American and Asian pop songs. I can hear Anan humming along. When the show ends and we get ready to go, a local woman strides up, sits on top of me and begins dancing. She offers me a dazzling smile and rubs her body against mine. I turn a little red and my friends smile. After a while she gives up and walks away.

HIV-AIDS and Gay Sex in Laos

In 2009, Chris Lyttleton of wrote: “Unprotected male-to-male sex with multiple partners is one of the three main modes of transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the Asia-Pacific region (the other two being unprotected sex in the context of sex work and unsafe injecting drug use). According to a recent report of the Commission on AIDS in Asia (2008)1, at least 75 percent of all HIV infections in Asia are caused directly by these three behaviors; among adolescents this figure reaches 95 percent of all infections. [Source: Chris Lyttleton,, January, 2009]

“In Thailand, 30.7 percent of a sample of men who have sex with men (MSM) recruited in Bangkok entertainment venues tested positive for HIV in 20072, and men who have sex with men currently contribute to 21 percent of all HIV infections in Thailand3. In Lao People Democratic Republic, a recent survey (2007) found that 5.6 percent of MSM in the capital Vientiane tested positive for HIV. Condom use is very low and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases is high. Meanwhile, the general population prevalence of HIV stands at 0.2 percent. This would mean that a large proportion of HIV infections in Lao PDR are caused by the male-to-male transmission route – perhaps more than 75 percent of all infections. ==

“In contrast to what was thought not very long ago, the HIV epidemic driven by male-to-male sex is not an isolated ‘boutique’ epidemic – and it probably has never been. HIV prevention among MSM is now deemed more important than ever, and Asian countries will be unable to retain their status of ‘low level’ epidemic and/or reduce overall population prevalence below 0.1 percent without scaling up HIV prevention, care and support interventions for MSM. We know that unprotected anal sex is an effective route for transmission of HIV. ==

“It is more difficult to understand in which situations, contexts and circumstances men do or do not use condoms and water-based lubricants to protect themselves. Understanding better the context of unsafe sex will enable us to design interventions that can lead to behavior change. It is essential that we focus not only on the behavior and the context in which it takes place, but also on the individuals engaging in it and the communities in which they live. The variety of men who have sex with men is enormous in terms of age, class, religion, and ethnicity, but also in terms of self-identity and how this identity fits (or does not fit) with the society in which an individual is a part.” ==

Transsexuals in Laos

Jill McGivering of the BBC wrote: Khom was born male. But she has thought of herself as female since she was about nine years old. Now 28, she could easily be accepted as a woman. She has long, styled hair, make-up, and a gentle, feminine manner. But when she talks about her experiences of being "katheoy" in Laos, her voice is solemn. They’re not fully accepted, she says. She uses the example of trying to find a job. If she fills in an application form, it always needs a photograph as well. The selectors look at his gender – "male" – and at the photograph. It goes in the wastepaper bin, and she never gets called for interview. [Source: Jill McGivering, BBC News, June 18, 2009 -]

“But after being largely ignored for so long, katheoys like Khom are suddenly the focus of attention from the Lao government. Some are "long-haired" katheoys like Khom, who present themselves as women. Others are "short-haired" katheoys who present themselves as men. Both groups have sex with men. They have emerged as the country’s highest risk group for HIV/Aids – and are now the target of a special campaign. -\

“I went with Khom and her friend to walk along the banks of the Mekong river. Families were having picnics under the trees in the sweltering heat. Children were playing on the nearby swings, and vendors were selling cooked meat and cold drinks from carts. Everyone I asked knew exactly what katheoys were. Many people described them as a "third" gender. One or two people frowned when they saw Khom and her friend pass. One man said he would rather not talk to katheoys. But most people seemed sympathetic. "It’s their nature, they were born that way. They can’t help it," shrugged one middle-aged man. I asked one man how he would feel if his son was katheoy. "I’d be disappointed," he said. "But I’d learn to live with it. It’s not something you can change." Khom hopes for greater tolerance. "I just want to be accepted," she told me, "and not separated from the rest of society." -\

Transsexuals, Gay Men and the Laos Government

Jill McGivering of the BBC wrote: “In Vientiane, I visited one of three new men’s health and social centres which target katheoys and their male partners. The centres have free internet access, dance classes and a social programme – alongside education about safe sex and condom use, and a doctor’s clinic which specialises in treating sexually transmitted infections. Rob Gray of the charity Population Services International showed me around it, and explained the particular focus on katheoys and other men who have sex with men. Last year, he told me, a government survey found the HIV rate amongst men who have sex with men in Vientiane was 5.6 percent. For Laos, that’s very high – higher than the rate amongst other high-risk groups, including female sex workers. [Source: Jill McGivering, BBC News, June 18, 2009 -]

“For Laos government officials, mostly drawn from the older generation, addressing the issue of men having sex with men has apparently not been easy. Five years ago, say health officials, it would have been unthinkable. Dr Chansy Phimphachanh is the director of the government’s Centre for HIV/Aids. It has been a struggle, she says, to get senior leaders to understand and confront the idea of sexual behaviour which seems to them to be unorthodox. -\

"The first time we really held a meeting about men who have sex with men, it was hard for policymakers and some government officials to recognise this. At the beginning, it was very hard. The issue was new and it was hard to explain it. Now we can talk about it much more openly." Wider Lao society seems far more in touch with katheoy culture – and generally tolerant of it. -\

A thesis by Ditte Hjorth Hansen found: “Targeted prevention programmes are sparse because of limited understanding of male-to-male sex and sexuality. Peer Education Programmes (PEPs) have been implemented as health interventions to reach MSM in Laos to increase their knowledge on safe sexual behaviour and reduce their risk of HIV. The study shows that PEPs have succeeded in reaching and teaching their target group about safe sexual behaviour using different outreach activities. The PEs find it challenging to perform outreach, discuss health issues with their peers and to behave as good role models. This has implications on the intervention’s effect on peers. [Source: “Reaching the (in)visible men of Vientiane…A qualitative study of peer education programmes among men who have sex with men in Vientiane, Laos”, a thesis by Ditte Hjorth Hansen, October 2009]

“Sexual practices, sexual identity and communities were found to play a role for the risk of HIV among MSM in Vientiane, and it is these factors that PEPs should be aiming at. The peers have negotiated a meaning concerning condom use and HIV, indicating that they are able to understand and learn from the way they have been taught, but they have not been able to personalise the messages given and relate them to other situations in their lives. Therefore, despite having learned new practices and gained more knowledge, most peers continue to engage in high risk sexual practices.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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