BANGKOK -- Most of us can read about sex trafficking with a sense of detachment. It is only when we see its results up close that we are forced to confront the full extent of its horror.
Nana Plaza is one of several "red light" districts in Bangkok. It is less than two blocks from my upscale hotel, but worlds away from it, a distance, you could say, separating Heaven from Hell. Girls -- and that's what many of them are -- wear almost nothing. They are there to please. My guide points out a three-story structure. "The higher you go," he says, "the raunchier it gets." It looks raunchy enough on the ground floor.
In the song "One Night in Bangkok," a line describes my feeling: "I can feel the devil walking next to me."
Prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but the Thailand Government Public Health Department estimates there are 75,000 prostitutes in the country. Some nongovernment organizations put the figure much higher. "Sexual tourists" come here, their visits set up by travel agents, as if they were booking people for a cruise or a trip to the beach. The newspapers constantly rail against corrupt officials who tolerate the sex trade and turn a blind eye to exploited women.
Into this den of iniquity have come Bonita and Roy Thompson, two Christian missionaries. Eight years ago they gave up careers as California educators to come to a place where they make less money and receive little notice.
Their payment comes in the lives of those girls they are able to save from a life of prostitution. Their ministry is called Home of New Beginnings
At a Christmas party they give annually for the "bar girls," more than 200 prostitutes show up to play games like musical chairs and to hear a message from a former prostitute who tells her story of redemption, offering them a new life if they will only trust God.
A few respond. One is called "Nim," not her real name. Nim says she was abandoned by her mother and later sold by an opportunistic "auntie" to a couple who needed her to care for their aging parents. Nim says her work proved unsatisfactory and she was sold again to a bar where she was forced into prostitution.
When the Thompsons rescued her they took her to a doctor who estimated her age at 11 or 12. She had no formal schooling, but they tutored her and she is now in a regular school. Nim recently received a "character pin" from the oldest daughter of Thailand's king in recognition of her changed life and academic success.