Over the last 20 years or so the numbers of Russians visiting Southeast Asia have gone from hardly any at all to a flood, and much like a flood have receded somewhat, but probably not for long. Russians now account for billions of dollars in tourism revenue in Southeast Asia and rank second after Chinese travellers in number. Thailand is by far their favourite destination, but they like other countries too, like Vietnam and Cambodia.
Their Cyrillic alphabet is now plastered on sandwich boards and menus, and vendors in parts of the region have taken to learning some Russian words.
The rest of us are having to get used to their peculiar dress sense, which seems to follow them the world over whether in Asia or not. One travel writer, writing on the influx of Russian tourists and accompanying sex workers to a cash-strapped Cyprus, said of Russians and their dress sense as; ‘easy to spot, thanks largely to a sartorial style originated by Englebert Humperdinck's costumier and watches the size of grapefruits.’ Throw in guys with pasty white skin, many overweight, in fake peaked sailor hats, loud polo shirts and overly tight football shorts often pulled high up around the waist, and you could be in Pattaya or Phuket. Generally, it must be said, Russians don’t seem to “do” casual dress well.
During the Cold War Russian tourists were limited to Soviet-approved travel destinations like China, Turkey, Poland and Finland. Those countries once accounted for 80 percent of all Russian travelling abroad. Then, with freedom to travel and increased affluence, Russians looked further afield to Southeast Asia, and to Thailand and Pattaya in particular. Political unrest notwithstanding, Thailand is still one of the 10 most visited countries on Earth, and Pattaya for better or worse, one of its most popular destinations.
Once Russians didn’t figure in Thai tourism statistics at all, but that’s changed. In 2015 for example, they were the largest single group of Europeans to visit Thailand – 1.7 million of them – and ranked only behind Chinese and Malaysians in national groups visiting the Kingdom of Smiles. Russians are also the seventh largest group to visit Vietnam and eleventh largest in Cambodia. While Thailand is much preferred Russians like to visit, in descending order; Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines as destinations.
They can be a distinctive lot. I’ve seen some the size of Olympic weightlifters wandering about air-conditioned shopping malls at night the colour of lobsters still in their beach attire, or down to their baggy stained Y-fronts whilst trying on clothes. Russians generally travel as couples or families and come in large numbers. Hotels love their spending habits. They settle in for the duration and rely heavily on in-house food-and-drinks, the most profitable portion of any hotel's business. Russians like buying gold, and finding expensive caviar and champagne. They don’t seem to do temples or culture and are interested in shopping, sun and beaches. In places like Pattaya, Russians seem blissfully ignorant of the sex industry either as observers or consumers. As one Thai-based eastern European observer noted "Few of them are even aware of the girls offering sex for money. Most are middle-aged and travel with their wives.” While Westerners (as opposed to Easterners) read up in their guidebooks, “Russians generally have no idea what to expect.”
So prominent are they becoming in Thailand and in Pattaya, they have their own television channels, radio stations and figure prominently in sales of local apartments. According to the Bangkok Post, Russians recently accounted for 65 percent of real estate sales in Pattaya, with half of all Russian visitors to Thailand spending at least some time in the resort. They use purchased apartments as time shares, one lot no sooner leaves and the next shift begins. Pattaya even has its own Russian-language magazine specialising in real estate. Russians also fly direct on charter flights to Phuket, where it’s been long rumoured super wealthy Russians are buying villa condos and other properties as tropical bolt-holes.
Russians aren’t just tourists in Thailand. Fair-skinned, blond Russian prostitutes can be seen at night in Walking Street in Pattaya pole dancing in street-side booths. Recently, Russian as well as Kazakhstani go-go dancers (who’d have thought) were arrested by Thai police for working without permits in police crack-downs on human trafficking. Though anyone familiar with the region will be aware of the juxtaposition of some local law enforcement with certain criminal activities. There exists, as one observer puts it “the shady world of gangsters, police and civil authorities who in a seemingly paradoxical symbiosis often control criminal activities.”
There are reputedly thousands of Russian prostitutes working in Thailand, in Vietnam too. This is because while there is no shortage of local sex workers, rich Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean businessmen prefer white girls. It gives them prestige. The girls are believed to have come to Asia through networks operated by the Russian mafia.
Russians are far fewer in Cambodia, probably because there’s really only one beach location in the whole country at Sihanoukville. Greater numbers are starting to find their way to the small town on the Gulf of Thailand, but it’s all very low key compared with what’s on offer in neighbouring Vietnam or in Thailand. In any case, tourists to Cambodia appear only in large numbers at Siem Reap, the jumping off point for the ancient city of Angkor.
The attraction of Vietnam for Russians lies partly in its status as a former satellite, and the large number of advisers among compatriots giving it a sense of familiarity. In 2013, Russian tourist arrivals in Vietnam more than doubled as the national carrier Vietnam Airlines began direct flights between Moscow and Cam Ranh Bay, near the beach resort of Nha Trang. The latter is described as being “overloaded with overweight joyless Russians” who reportedly treat Nha Trang the way many Europeans treat Mallorca or the Costa del Sol. Pity, I used to quite like the place.
Despite Vietnam being one long beach, the country, much like Cambodia has come to the regional tourist party much later than Thailand, which despite all its relative political upheaval, remains streets ahead in terms of visitor numbers. Vietnamese also tend to travel inside their own country, more so that Cambodians, possibly even Thais, so can fill up domestic tourist destinations all on their own.
There’s another dimension to Russian interests in Southeast Asia, in the Mekong countries anyway, and that’s mob money. Anecdotally, I’ve heard “half the hotels in Da Nang are mob owned.” But then such things are almost impossible to confirm. Where Russians go to play and to work, the mob follows. According to Bertil Lintner, a Swede and a long-time observer on Asian affairs based in Thailand, the Russian “quarters” springing up in places like Pattaya are full of Russians who are officially “tourists”. In reality many are small time merchants buying cheap electronica and textiles which they sell back home for small margins. Many others remain behind to run restaurants catering exclusively for Russian tastes. Many Russian gangs are involved in both legal and illegal activities; like gem trading or have interests in Vung Tau, a port and beach resort in the Mekong Delta where many foreign oil companies operating in the South China Sea are based. They can make big bucks providing protection for Russian businesses wanting to set up in Southeast Asia.
There are other unwelcome guests, some high profile like the convicted paedophile, Alexander Trofimov, former head of Snake Island Developments resort project at Sihanoukville. After much shenanigans by Cambodia’s justice system, Trofimov was arrested, jailed, pardoned (inexplicably) and deported.
The Cambodians also managed to arrest the fugitive Russian property tycoon Sergei Polonsky last December. Once ranked by Forbes as one of the richest men in Russia with a fortune valued at US$4.35 billion, Polonsky has been living on his private island, one of eight he owns, also at Sihanoukville. He stands accused in Russia of embezzling some US$114 million in a shonky property deal.
Russian roubles have been good for tourism in Thailand (as much as tourism is a good thing) and arguably rejuvenated jaded tourist destinations like Pattaya. The Americans may have built Pattaya for GIs in the 1960s, but the Russians helped save and maybe reinvented it. Perhaps there’s a post-Cold War lesson in that. Though some may argue places like Pattaya with its sleazy reputation should’ve been put out of its misery, it’s now more upmarket with giant hotels, shopping centres and eateries. There’s still the sex industry, but in Pattaya it’s concentrated in some areas and mostly not in others. Wangamat has gone upmarket and Jontiem is very low key, and there doesn’t seem to be girlie bars in either.
Russians in immigration queues at airports in Southeast Asia can be a challenge. For reasons unexplained they seem woeful at filling in arrival forms, a process they generally only start once they get in the queue. So notorious have they become Thai immigration now have staff roaming through incoming passengers looking for Russians to spur them on.
Russians don’t possess much in the way of language skills other than their own. This would be okay if others spoke Russian also, but aside from savvy Bangladeshi tailors in Pattaya, and some desk clerks in Phuket, few others do. So you can get caught up in queues of Russians seemingly inept at negotiating even simple processes, like checking in or filling in visa forms. Never mind that you’ve done it, you have to wait for those that haven’t even started, and many of these are Russians. To be fair, you’ve have to wonder how many English speakers would get on if they didn’t have the luxury of their language being the predominant lingua franca on the planet. Russians don’t speak any Southeast Asian languages and for the most part speak no English, so rely on each other and unless the hospitality staff speak some Russian everything must be reduced to sign language.
Now Russian tourism is in a semi-crisis. The country’s currency has fallen sharply, over 43 percent against the US dollar in recent months, hurt by plunging oil and gas prices and Western sanctions imposed over Russia's role in the Ukraine political crisis. It’s all exacted a toll on Southeast Asian tourism as Russians think twice about heading off on their next beach holiday to Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. Russian visitor numbers were down in 2015 in Vietnam by one-quarter, Cambodia by 50 percent and Thailand by almost half. Even in the Philippines numbers dropped 12 percent.
It can be true that as one door closes another opens. Events in the Syrian crisis may impact Southeast Asia. Following the breakdown of relations with Turkey after the downing of a Russian jet that entered Turkish airspace, Russia foreign relations has turned eastward, forging new economic relationships in Cambodia akin to those previously enjoyed with Turkey. On the back of the downing, the Kremlin has tightened restrictions on relations with Turkey; among them a ban on charter flights between Russia and Turkey. Russian travel agencies have also been told to stop selling tours to that country.
Instead they’re heading east. It was reported recently in Cambodia that a new Russian deal with Cambodia would open up a flight path that has not existed since the 1990s, when Russia's Aeroflot carrier used to operate a service between the two capitals. Back in the 1980s, Russia supported Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia post-Khmer Rouge, and the then Soviet Union wielded financial and cultural authority. Russian became a popular second language and many Cambodian students travelled to study in the USSR. So now maybe some of the 4.4 million Russian tourists who went to Turkey in 2014, may decide to descend on quiet little Cambodia. Everything, as they say, moves in cycles.
The Russians have arrived and likely as not, are here to stay. Do svidaniya! That’s poka for short.