A t-shirt in Thailand says “Good guys go to heaven but bad guys go to Pattaya.” Pattaya, about a 90-minute drive southeast from Bangkok, looks like Australia’s Surfer’s Paradise from afar and has about as much charm but arguably more character.
Anthropologists and some sociologists might even find it fascinating, psychologists too. Visitors cover the whole realm of human kind; holiday makers, retirees (young and not so young), families, backpackers and travellers, package tourists of all description and some defying description. There are even Danish Hell’s Angels on Harleys in their full regalia, and gargantuan bodybuilders attracted by the gyms, climate and easier access to steroids.
Pattaya is a veritable human zoo and a fascinating place to people watch. For years I avoided it like the plague, until I discovered it’s not all sleaze. Pattaya, and indeed Bangkok, can be reached from Phnom Penh in a day by road.
Thai minibus drivers like to speed. Preferably this should be done as close as possible to the vehicles in front or to the side, hopefully while being distracted while on the phone (texting is good) or changing a CD, and best of all when visibility is poor, such as at night during some tropical downpour, which should act as no deterrent at all to speeds in excess of 100kph.
Thailand has been accepting tourists increasingly in their droves since modest beginnings in the late 1950s. But it was the Vietnam War, when American GIs really kicked off the whole tourist thing using Pattaya’s fleshpots and beach attractions to escape their war experiences. Even today the US Pacific fleet’s arrival is announced ahead of time in the local papers.
Now with the opening of Bangkok’s new airport at Suvarnabhumi, visiting Pattaya has become even easier. Tourism is important to Thailand and it’s estimated that Pattaya alone generates up to 8 billion baht annually (to get the dollar figure divide by 30) for the Thai economy.
Pattaya can be divided roughly into thirds. There’s upmarket Wang Amat Beach with its high-rise developments and where special deals allow foreigners to buy property.
To the south is the more genteel Jomtien Beach where the beachfront road runs for several kilometres past countless convenience stores, cafes and restaurants on one side and palm trees and jet skiers on the other. The latest scam is for Thais to rent jet skis to foreigners (farangs) after extracting a hefty deposit against any damage that the vehicle may incur, which is secured by evidence of a digital photograph before hire commences.
However, once out on the water and out of sight, the photo is then removed and replaced with a doctored image. When the time is up the skier returns to discover that some, or all, of their deposit is withheld because of the “damage” to the equipment.
In between both these spots is Pattaya itself where it appears to be happy hour for some all day every day. The sun shines most of the time and it’s always warm. During the rainy season the streets turn to canals. High season starts around December and goes through to about April, though prices drop off by then.
So many tourists come to Thailand it’s possible to generalise about some of the more noticeable groupings, like the British for example, or more particularly, the English. They appear to be divided between back packers on their “gap year” in one group, those approaching a genteel retirement in another (less conspicuous), and those who could be best described for want of a better term, as poor white trash.
The latter fall into one of two demographics, pre and post-middle age. Those post-middle age are often in poor physical condition, no doubt resulting from bad diet and poor lifestyle choices. Addicted to nicotine and alcohol, they can invariably be seen sitting around in the numerous bars. Their faded tattoos, usually of some banal subject matter, stain their withered limbs. Their inter-group conversations, usually confined to their regional groupings of origin, criticize all that is lacking in Thailand, and what they invariably miss about the home country, which makes you wonder why they are here at all.
The younger ones, as in the previous example, are more heavily tattooed than the older grouping, and walk about topless whenever out and about, as if involved in some pre-mating ritual. They often seek counsel with the older members of the pod, learning behaviour, as if being groomed. Neither group appears keen on making any concession to the local culture. Most come half way round the world to a country with one of the finest cuisines on the planet to eat pizza, eggs, chips and beans.
Often of pasty complexion, their skin becomes red and blotchy when reacting to sunlight. With their tattoos and ashen skin, lack of grace and poor demeanour, one is reminded of prison inmates recently released or football hooligans, or both. Hence their collective nickname “lifers”.
Latterly observers of Pattaya sociology and demographics report large increases in visitors from the Indian sub-continent, and more latterly, from Russia. The latter stand out. Often young couples or family groups they don’t “do” casual dress well. Favourites are 1980s football shorts, usually too small and worn high up over the waist, and often mixed, or mis-matched, with loud polo shirts.
Middle-aged Russian women, sometimes over weight and the colour of lobsters after hours of UV abuse on Pattaya’s beaches, wander about air-conditioned shopping malls at 9pm still in their beach attire. Their behaviour, as it seems with many in this town, can sometimes cross the line. Two men seemingly unwilling to make it to the fitting rooms just metres away, were down to their baggy stained Y-fronts in Mike’s Shopping Mall while trying on clothes.
Pattaya is famous for its nightlife and bars, many located around Walking Street but also clustered throughout the town. There are boy bars, lady bars, ladyboy bars (the cabaret shows are legendary but don’t pick a fight with one), go-go bars, biker bars, sports bars, blues bars and restaurant and bars. Some of them do imaginative things with fruit and vegetables – the bars I mean. Happy hours start somewhere at about 10am and go most of the day, and it’s not uncommon to see some of the “lifers” sitting drinking from mid-morning onwards.
Many of the bars are staffed by women from the Thai province of Isaan, a major rice growing area prone to drought, and subsequent harvest boom-bust cycles. The resulting economic woes drive them into the cities and flesh pots of Bangkok, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Pattaya. Once there they staff the open air bars, some of them literally a meat market as the layout resembles market stalls, and calling out “Welcome” to any male passers-by.
These girls can be “bar-fined” the fee going to the bar owner and some, less, to the girl. The customer then takes the girl (I say girl as they’re called “bargirls”) back to the hotel or out sometimes for days on end, and another fee is then negotiated between the girl and the customer, which can be hourly or daily or weekly. Bar fines are for each day the girl isn’t working in the bar. While in the bar she’s expected to earn a certain number of “lady drinks” from customers at inflated prices for which she receives a cut, this is also added to her base monthly salary, which can be about 6-8000 baht.
The younger, good-looking ones, or the more savvy – one usually turns into the other – latches onto a farang longer term. When the farang returns home messages are exchanged with expressions of undying love and affection from one to the other in broken English. Usually the girl maintains the relationship in order to receive money from the farang who promises to return as soon as possible to his “love”.
One bargirl showed me a text message on her Blackberry, or a lookalike brand, from an Aussie who said he was “working like fuck” to get back to see her. “What does this mean? She asked “working like fuck.” I explained that it meant he was working very hard. She showed me the text she had sent him, it was quite eloquent and word perfect in English, so I assumed some other sober punter had composed it for her, as from her spoken English I assumed she wasn’t up to the task.
Sometimes, though rarely, these relationships end in marriage and sometimes, I’m told, they actually work. But usually the bargirl has three or four such “loves” and may be receiving money from them all as well as continuing to earn in the bar. Much of the money may be sent home back to the family, as Thais seem to regard the girls of the family as simple earners. If they’re not married and out of the family’s way, then they better go earn and pay for things for the family, even if it means that the girl winds up in debt or living a hand-to-mouth existence.
Regardless of what they earn, and some, a few bargirls, are clearing 30-40,000 baht per month from their various sources, they still live in pretty basic accommodation, often sharing a single fan room with a squat toilet and cold shower with another girl to save money. Their clothes are usually cheap and they eat down the markets unless with a customer, who pays for restaurant food and hotels. Most however, struggle to get by and the loan sharks and pawn shops earn the most.
But Pattaya has other “attractions”. The shopping is pretty good there being several large malls with all designer brands and then, on the doorstep, all the knock-offs and fakes, for a fraction of the price. Shopping in Pattaya would be better than that found in Cambodia.
There are several islands offshore such as Koh Laan cheaper than some of the more farang-orientated islands but then Thailand operates a dual-pricing system so farangs are invariably charged more regardless. And then there are theme parks and museums, temples and galleries, though what proportion of visitors make to these in another matter. The tattoo parlours do a roaring trade and some of the artwork is amazing. The fish restaurants down the far end of Jomtien are highly recommended and popular with Thais.
The farangs who choose to make Pattaya home (you can earn a Thai retirement visa at age 50) try to make the place as much like the home country as possible while enjoying those pieces of Thailand that remind them all they’re still somewhere different. They arrange golf competitions, surround themselves with compatriots, cheer on their favourite teams and return to the “old country” regularly, though wouldn’t return to live, but then never really assimilate into their adopted “home” either.
So you can get away from the sleaze in Pattaya if you want. But if you’re offended by the sight of fat old men with scantily-clad diminutive Thai women, then Pattaya may not be for you.