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If the international headlines over the arrest of alleged Canadian pedophile Christopher Neil has put a chill on Southeast Asian sex tourism, it isn't evident on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. It takes all of 30 minutes to find a boy who earns his living having sex with foreigners.

Just go to the backpacker district, a shabby collection of bars, budget travel agencies and cheap hotels. Sit down at an outdoor table, order a beer and wave to the first street vendor who walks by. A teenaged bookseller in a baseball cap and flip-flops first offers himself, then heads off to find someone even younger.

Minutes later, Mai appears. He has full lips, died blond bangs and a diamond-shaped stud in one ear. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up to expose his slender biceps. His nickname is the Thai word for ponytail, after the wisp of hair styled to fall down his neck. He claims he is 15, but with his hairless cheeks and unbroken voice, he looks no more than 12.

He's not shy about telling a reporter about his trade. The price to take him to your room is $6, he says, twice that if you want to take his best friend Tien along too. Mai and Tien do it all the time - with Frenchmen, Australians, Englishmen and yes, as recently as the other day, a Canadian. Mai says he met one right over there, at the corner table.

Mai says he sometimes goes home to his mother's place in another part of the city to give her a few dollars of his earnings. When he's not on the street, Tien lives with his grandmother and his mother, who was left alone when his father left her and his sister got married. He claims his mother needs money for cancer treatment, though its impossible to verify any part of the boys' stories, which they may adapt for foreigners.

No, he doesn't know Christopher Neil, he says, shaking his head at a picture of the man accused of preying on Asian children and posting their pictures on the Internet. Told of the Canadian's arrest in Thailand, he says "he got what he deserves."

But it's unlikely the arrest of Mr. Neil will make any difference to children such as Mai. Pedophiles have been thronging to Southeast Asia for decades, drawn by the warm weather, smiling people and ready supply of pretty, available young boys and girls.

One year, the hot spot is a waterfall in the Philippines, the next a beach resort in Vietnam. Thailand and Brazil were once the choice spots for child sex tourists. Now Ecuador, Indonesia and Cambodia are favoured. Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, does a roaring trade in virgins, sought by Korean, Japanese and Thai men who believe that deflowering a girl is a kind of elixir.

The child sex trade has drawn worldwide attention over the past few years, generating new laws and big publicity campaigns, conferences and conventions, and a blitz by social activists from Melbourne to Winnipeg to Bangkok. The abusers show little sign of being deterred. Asia is their happy hunting ground, a lure for pleasure seekers since American GIs came to the bars and brothels of Bangkok for R&R during the Vietnam War.

In a place such as the backpacker district, it is all too easy for pedophiles to find a street kid like Mai and slip into one of the many little hotels that line the crowded streets. The hoteliers won't make a fuss. Neither will the boys, who are eager for the quick money they get for spending an hour with a foreigner. It would take them a week to make as much selling books or shining shoes.

"It is widely recognized that only a very small proportion of offenders are ever detected," says a recent report from a child sex task force of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"There are too many of them," said Rosalind Prober, president of Beyond Borders, a Winnipeg-based children's rights group. "There are so many places where they can think they can just get away with it - and they are probably right."

Cellphones and the Internet have made it much easier for pedophiles to share information about where to go and who to seek out for child sex. "They look for willing hostels, willing taxi drivers, willing travel agents, and what's worse, willing kids," Ms. Prober said. They even trade information on "what the kids will do and the size of their genitals. These are sick individuals."

They are often smart and sophisticated, too, a far cry from the image of the lurking child molester in a dirty raincoat. Christopher Neil wore a crisp white shirt and worked in a responsible job as a teacher in South Korea and Vietnam. The new abusers are often not child sex tourists but child sex residents - Westerners who move to Asia or Latin America, get a job, settle in and ingratiate themselves with the locals as a cover for their pursuit of children. They don't always go to cities any more.

"In an increasing number of cases, offenders are noted to be infiltrating more isolated communities, renting houses, employing local domestic staff and building the trust of local community members including vulnerable families and children," the ASEAN report says.

Australian Peter Smith lived in Indonesia for seven years before being arrested on charges of child molestation, working as an English teacher and using his computer to catalogue his victims. When he wanted to see a child again, he would print out a photo and send another child out to find him. A German named Michael befriended a young postcard seller in Rangoon, Myanmar, and then persuaded the father to let him adopt the boy. He paid for the boy's English lessons and met other boys through him. American Michael Joseph Pepe had three girls aged 9 to 11 in his house when police arrested him in Cambodia last year. They confiscated hundreds of pornographic photographs and a rope for tying up his victims. Police said the mother of two of the girls had "rented" them to Mr. Pepe for $30 a month.

In one telling e-mail exchange intercepted by Cambodian authorities, two unidentified teachers exchange tips about how to lure boys to their apartments.

"To gain access to my apartment one has to go down an alley and up two flights of stairs. So, people don't really know where the boys are actually going," writes one of the teachers in a transcript published by Beyond Borders in 2004.

"Most of the boys are homeless and range in age from 10 to 14. Some are shoe-shine boys and others beggars. Some sniff glue and others don't. One day I had 7 boys staying with me. I have a very big apartment. There are two mattresses and loads of space for the boys to play. They often play soccer, badminton or cards. They also spend time playing video games, watching movies or cartoons and listening to music."

"I am having a wonderful time with them sexually. Some of them are very interesting. There is never a dull moment."

The child abusers often win over their victims with gifts - videos games, new running shoes and T-shirts, the latest movies on DVD.

In what Ms. Prober calls "doing good to do evil," the abusers play kindly uncle or best pal to the kids. To call them predators is wrong in a way, she argues. They often really seem to believe they are simply nice guys helping children in need. Because of that quality, "they become above suspicion and people like them very much. They have developed skills that put everyone at ease."

The children, often abused or abandoned by their own families, respond to the attention. When the cameras come out for nude pictures, the children may think, "this is my friend and so it can't be wrong," Ms. Prober said.

Mai seems to harbour no outward bitterness toward the men who abuse him. With the exception of one or two who yelled at him, he says, the men treat him well, buying him pizza, Cokes and other gifts. He says he even went to the post office the other day to phone an Australian man he knows to come back to Vietnam.

What he fears most is not violence but disease. He goes to the hospital every month for an HIV test. A social worker who knows him says on those days, the usual cheerful and outgoing Mai goes quiet, nervously awaiting the results. So far, they have been negative.

Mai got into the trade when a Frenchman asked him to come to his room. The man asked if they could take a bath together and he agreed. There was no sex that first time, he says.

He has moved along since then, going with foreign men as often as two or three times a day to have oral sex or pose for pictures (never videos, he insists). Often the pedophile will bring along Mai's friend Tien to make a threesome. Sometimes they will hire a girl too.

 "It makes me feel sad," Mai says, "but what can I do? I have to make money to eat."

But it isn't just material need that pulls boys and girls to the sex business. "They see themselves as stylish and modern. They want to show that they're grown up and that they can decide how they live," said Hoang Thuy Lan, head of a Vietnamese social group that tries to educate children about the dangers of sexual abuse. "They don't see themselves as abused."

Often the men don't see themselves as abusers, either. The majority are "situational" child sex tourists, a Canadian on vacation in Thailand, for example, who goes to a bar and takes home a young-looking girl without bothering to ask her age.

They may tell themselves people in Asia are "less inhibited" and that the local culture somehow lacks a stigma on underage sex. They may feel that, in a bar full of cheerful, laughing girls in a city where the sex trade is practised unabashedly, the usual rules are suspended.

"All of these have been excuses behind which sex tourists hide their crimes," said Giorgio Berardi, of the Bangkok-based anti-child-sex organization ECPAT.

Asian and Western governments are trying to change attitudes. Hotels are training staff to identify child sex tourists and deny them rooms. Some governments have set up hot lines for reporting suspected abuse of children. Tourist areas of Cambodia and Vietnam sport posters saying "Don't turn away, turn them in."

More than 30 countries, including Canada, have passed "extraterritorial" laws allowing them to prosecute abusers at home even if the crimes were committed abroad. Asian police, who often turned a blind eye to the problem or even profited from it by taking bribes from offenders, have become more aggressive. The Thai police poured resources into catching Mr. Neil after German police unscrambled a disguised photograph of him taken from the Internet. Interpol is asking Vietnamese who may have been abused by him to come forward. Two weeks later, another Canadian man, Orville Mader, 54, sought in Thailand for allegedly paying an eight-year-old boy for sex was arrested in British Columbia on his return.

Still, progress is slow. Justice systems are often corrupt or poorly equipped to prosecute shadowy sex crimes. Bribes can sometimes make a charge go away. Convictions and full sentences are rare. The British rock 'n' roll musician Gary Glitter got three years in jail for abusing two Vietnamese girls, a crime with a maximum sentence of 12. He gave $2,000 to each of the girl's families before the trial.

Southeast Asian countries rely heavily on tourism. More than 53 million visitors came to ASEAN countries last year, generating $153-billion for their economies. Governments have been reluctant to disrupt it by drawing attention to an ugly problem.

In countries such as Vietnam, "there's a taboo about talking about such things," said Jimmy Pham, who runs a Hanoi group that trains street kids to learn a vocation.

He says there is little in the way of a support network for abused kids. "The basic feeling is that you should just move on."

Will Mai be able to do that? His chances have to be rated as poor. He has been in the trade for more than two years. One day he would like to be a waiter in one of the bars of the backpacker district, but he doesn't read or write and has never been to school.

He stays up late, sleeps on a park bench and often doesn't rise till 3 or 4 p.m., spending his time playing video games in a local Internet café, hanging out with Tien or going to a local street kids' shelter for a meal or a laid-on trip to the arcade. "My parents think I'm selling gum," he says.

Where are you from, he asks his visitor? Given the answer, he flashes a brilliant white smile: "Canada number one! Vietnam number one!" He must have said the same thing about Germany and France and New Zealand and who knows how many other countries, but it is somehow winning all the same.

The questions done, he wolfs down a proffered meal of chicken and rice with hot sauce, pausing to stare at a Chinese kung fu drama on the bar TV with the trance-like absorption of a child.