Thailand: Plotting a New Course for Pattaya

  • Koh Laan’s Samae Beach.

    Koh Laan’s Samae Beach.

  • Beach Road traffic.

    Beach Road traffic.

  • The lobby at the new Dusit D2 Baraquda.

    The lobby at the new Dusit D2 Baraquda.

  • Thien Beach on Koh Laan.

    Thien Beach on Koh Laan.

  • Overlooking Pattaya’s Soi Post Office.

    Overlooking Pattaya’s Soi Post Office.

  • Inflatable accessories in the shallows of Koh Laan, a popular offshore playground.

    Inflatable accessories in the shallows of Koh Laan, a popular offshore playground.

  • Steamed prawns on the beach.

    Steamed prawns on the beach.

  • Mugging for the camera on Koh Laan’s Thien Beach.

    Mugging for the camera on Koh Laan’s Thien Beach.

  • A post-cabaret photo op outside Tiffany Theatre.

    A post-cabaret photo op outside Tiffany Theatre.

  • Pattaya’s very own Elvis, at the Zab Café.

    Pattaya’s very own Elvis, at the Zab Café.

  • Souvenir shopping.

    Souvenir shopping.

  • A neon-drenched strip of go-go bars.

    A neon-drenched strip of go-go bars.

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Above: Day-trippers riding the ferry back to Pattaya from the island of Koh Laan.

With its go-go bars and katoey cabarets, Pattaya is as brazen as beach towns come in Thailand. But can an upsurge in holidaying families and luxury-hotel development bring some good clean fun to this notorious Sodom-by-the-Sea?

By Christopher R. Cox
Photographs By Christopher Wise

It’s already after 11 p.m., hours to go until last call, and still no sign of Elvis. The house band gamely kills time with a cover version of “Pretty Woman.” They manage to lure a few more punters in from Walking Street, a pedestrian-only parade of Thai hawkers and hookers, tattooed British lads and golf-mad Koreans, fleshy European men with comb-overs and flashy Russian couples with money to burn.

Behind the stage at the Zab Café, I catch a sparkle of glittering rhinestone and snow-white jumpsuit through a crack in a dressing- room door. Elvis—or at least his Southeast Asian incarnation—is in the building. At half-past the hour the band finally launches into a jaunty rendition of “See See Rider,” and a spangled, paunchy, pompadoured pretender saunters across the floor. Though the baritone needs a little tuning, the King’s trademark half-sneer is worthy of a Vegas lounge.

I am, however, a world away from the Nevada desert. Yet the lights here burn bright and brash, the air is warm and seductive, and the possibilities for entertainment, for food, and for love seem as boundless as a dim sum menu. This can only be Pattaya, Thailand’s notorious Sodom-by-the-Sea, a brazen beach town trying to put a new family-resort facade on its fleshpot foundation.

“Pattaya is 24/7,” says Pathira Nakngam Riley, communications manager at the Sheraton Pattaya Resort, who grew up just down the coast in the still-sleepy town of Sattahip. “It’s like a 7-Eleven store.”

Or a great big candy store.

Yet it was a very different scene 50 years ago. Find an old-time local and he may tell you of an era when the beach was graced by a sleepy fishing village, and bioluminescent plankton made the fishhook-shaped bay glow at night. Tourism then was limited to a few modest beach cottages used by affluent Thais as weekend getaways. But in 1959, a group of American soldiers rented out the bungalows for a weeklong holiday.

Other servicemen would follow. The trickle became a torrent in the mid-1960s as the United States expanded its military involvement in Indochina. Sprawling U-Tapao Airfield, complete with a three-kilometer-long runway, was built just east of Sattahip in 1965 and soon filled with B-52 bombers and KC-135 Stratotankers. When they weren’t flying, many crews headed for Pattaya, where a few hotels, including Nautical Inn and Nipa Lodge, had sprouted along Beach Road.

It wasn’t long before the U.S. military was airlifting hundreds of GIs a day into U-Tapao for R & R, and enterprising Thais were erecting more hotels, bars, and bawdy houses along Pattaya’s four-kilometer-long strand. For young, combat-weary soldiers, the mix of sun and sand, suds and sex, was the perfect elixir. R & R was supplanted by “I & I”—shorthand for “intoxication and intercourse.”

Business slumped in the mid-1970s with the end of the American war in Vietnam, but Pattaya managed to retain its raunchy reputation, especially among expats and male travelers from northern Europe and Scandinavia. And since 1982, the U.S. armed forces have managed to paint the town red during the annual Cobra Gold war games in Thailand. A darker, seedier side flourished as well. Among the hordes of Western visitors were more than a few men with a taste for underage girls or boys; Pattaya had become synonymous with illicit sex tourism.

My introduction to Pattaya came in 2002. I was on a newspaper assignment to track down a former Catholic priest accused of pedophilia who had sneaked off to Pattaya on holiday. I never found the runaway reverend, but I did encounter a sordid scene. Unbridled development and untreated sewage had rendered the fabled beach unfit for swimming. The promenade was crawling with katoey (transvestites), drunken American sailors, drunker Russian mobsters, and drunker-yet British football hooligans, not to mention thousands upon thousands of aggressive touts and bargirls from Thailand’s impoverished northeast.

And yet, the town had at least a glimmer of mainstream normalcy: decent international restaurants, several reputable hotels, excellent golf courses, even a Hard Rock Cafe. Change was afoot. Like an aging courtesan undergoing a facelift, the town was attempting a makeover.

According to an old maxim, only three things matter in real estate: location, location, location. And Pattaya, just 147 kilometers—a two-hour drive—southeast of Bangkok, is simply too convenient for beach-starved city dwellers to remain the private playpen of farang punters. For the live-and-let-live Thais, the honky-tonk beach town holds no special stigma.

“It’s quite accepted to the public,” says Niti Kongkrut, the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s director for Chonburi province, where Pattaya is located. “They understand [the town] very well.… The face of Pattaya has changed from a destination for sex. Thai families enjoy themselves here every weekend.”

They enjoy it so much that the largest contingent of Pattaya visitors now are Thai, who flock to family-oriented resorts and condominium towers lining Jomtien Beach, a long, narrow sweep of sand about five kilometers south of the go-go bars. The businesses here—casual restaurants, photo labs, dental clinics, dive shops—cater to middle-class needs, not male mid-life crises.

Even better beaches await on Koh Laan, or Coral Island, less than eight kilometers west of Pattaya in the Bight of Bangkok. Ferries connect to Koh Laan’s only town as well as to Hat Ta Waen, an ivory-white beach backed by a kilometer-long collection of restaurants, water-sports kiosks, and souvenir stalls. The place is wildly popular with tourists, few of whom conform to the old-farang-with-young-Thai-“girlfriend” stereotype. I watch as a group of young Chinese men engage in a spirited football match on the flat, hard-packed sand while their girlfriends take cheesecake photos of each other in the shallows. While an Indian family clings for dear life to a banana boat being towed by a high-speed runabout, hot-dogging Thai teens zip around on WaveRunners.

A few kilometers to the west, the island’s Hat Thien beach could almost be mistaken for a Baltic or Black Sea resort. The Speedo- and spandex-clad crowd here is overwhelmingly Slavic; in less than a decade, Russia has become Pattaya’s top foreign market, far overshadowing China, Korea, or other Europe countries. In 2007, close to 900,000 Russians checked into local hotels—up 84 percent on 2006 arrivals. On Koh Laan and elsewhere, the newcomers are so prevalent that in certain neighborhoods almost all businesses display signs in Cyrillic.

Pattaya is also one of Southeast Asia’s best golfing destinations. At least 20 courses lie within an hour’s drive, including Laem Chabang International, designed by Jack Nicklaus, and Chonburi Century Country Club, designed by Nick Faldo. Niti, who likens Pattaya to a casino-less version of Las Vegas, cites other mainstream attractions: Underwater World, an aquarium with a collection of tropical fish species best viewed by way of a walk-through tunnel; the Million-Year Stone Park and Crocodile Farm, a landscaped garden with rare reptiles and mammals; and Elephant Village, a camp that offers demonstrations of working elephants and pleasant treks through the surrounding countryside on the backs of banana-fueled pachyderms.

“Pattaya can be everything for everybody,” says Darrell Woolley, an eight-year town resident and owner of Tequila Reef, a Mexican-themed restaurant on Pattaya’s Soi 7. “This used to be simply a town to prance around in for the nightlife, for the girls. Not anymore. This is a specific tourist destination, especially with the new airport.’’

According to Woolley and others I meet, the most important factor in Pattaya’s reboot has been the 2006 debut of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, located 30 kilometers east of central Bangkok. The sprawling new complex, which replaced north-side Don Muang Airport, radically reduced travel time to Pattaya. Taxis can now make the dash from Suvarnabhumi to Pattaya in less than 90 minutes—less time than it takes to drive from the airport to gridlocked downtown Bangkok during rush hour.

The new airport prompted upscale hotel chains to reconsider Pattaya. One of the first to enter the market was the Sheraton, an exclusive 156-room resort that opened in 2005 on a lushly landscaped headland just five minutes’ drive south of Pattaya Beach. December saw the debut of the Dusit D2 Baraquda, a contemporary-chic property in downtown Pattaya with 72 sleek guest rooms, an iceberg-inspired chill-out bar, and a rooftop cocktail lounge. And this summer, the 555-room Centara Grand Mirage Beach Resort Pattaya—complete with a “Lost World” theme, a water park, and eight bars and restaurants—is scheduled to open in Naklua, just north of town.

The new hotel projects (which by 2011 will also include a Le Méridien resort) will add to an inventory that approaches a mind-boggling 30,000 rooms; one property, the 5,000-room Ambassador City on Jomtien Beach, touts itself as the world’s largest resort complex. The retail scene is growing up as well: the seven-billion baht (about US$200 million) Central Festival Pattaya Beach, which claims to be the biggest shopping mall in Asia, opened in January.

“We aren’t competing with Phuket or Samui, but we will compete with Bangkok,” says Niti, who believes that the city has untapped potential to host large conventions. “We don’t have traffic here, but we do have beaches, entertainment, and now shopping. We’re easy to reach and our [hotel] prices are better. So why not Pattaya?”

And that, in a nutshell, is Pattaya’s appeal: easy access and low-budget affordability. Like it or not, that mass-market popularity also has a lot to do with the town’s kitschy, carnivalesque character.  Despite its ambitious attempt to achieve respectability, Pattaya remains surreal.

At the center of it all is the Tiffany Theatre, which has been mounting a katoey cabaret since the mid-1970s. Out front, a fountain sprays a knock-off of Michelangelo’s David, surrounded by a crowd of vamping Thai “ladyboys” in sequined ball gowns, feathered boas, and outlandish headgear that would give Carmen Miranda neck cramps. Three times a night inside the purpose-built theater, more than 50 transvestites vogue through a smorgasbord of flamboyant stage sets—Moscow’s Red Square, a Versailles palace—and lip-sync tributes to Tina Turner and Judy Garland.

But wait, as a late-night ad on cable TV might intone. There’s more.

There’s the Elvis guy. And the gyrating Slavic pole dancers and tone-deaf cover bands in Walking Street’s canyon of clubs. And the R-rated pageantry of hustling katoeys in micro-miniskirts along Beach Road. There’s even a real, if redundant, sideshow—Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum—located in a beachfront department store, where an “Odditorium” exhibits a three-legged horse, a four-eyed man, and a model of the Titanic made from matchsticks (more than a million of them, believe it or not). About the only thing missing is a two-headed elephant.

If there is such a thing as understated absurdity it is Mini Siam, a popular roadside attraction that touts itself as “one of the most famous model villages in the world.” The mishmash of iconic structures includes Lilliputian versions of the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, and Egypt’s Abu Simbal rock temples, all rendered in different scales and arranged in no particular geographic or chronological order. The enterprise is a bit like a mini-golf course, without the putting greens.

The oddities are not confined to the city limits. Twenty kilometers south of Pattaya, a sheer limestone cliff face on the side of Khao Chi Chan displays a 109-meter-tall etching of the Buddha, carved with the help of laser beams to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s reign. Just beyond the mountain, a billboard announces the area’s most controversial attraction: a village of the so-called “Long-Neck Karen.”

Originally from the borderlands of Myanmar’s Karenni State, the Padaung are best known for girdling the necks of female tribal members with heavy brass rings, a centuries-old practice that seems to elongate the women’s necks. (In actuality the heavy loops—as much as 15 kilograms —create enough downward pressure to  displace the collarbone and ribs.) Beginning in the 1980s, groups of Padaung fled the ethnic violence in Burma for neighboring Mae Hong Son province in northwestern Thailand. The striking look of the women, whose slumping torsos and be-ringed, swan-like necks suggested champagne bottles, became a popular tourist attraction. In time, Thai businessmen would hire groups of Padaung women and exhibit them hundreds of kilometers to the east, near the more-touristed cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. In the spring of 2008, a Pattaya entrepreneur hired 10 Padaung families and relocated them from Chiang Mai to rural Chonburi, more than 800 kilometers away.

“It’s good here,” says Fa, 25, who supports her husband and younger sister. “In Chiang Mai, I would lose money. No customer.”

During the low, summer season in Chonburi, Fa says she earned 4,000 baht a month (about US$115) selling handwoven scarves and souvenirs. Her family did have a “problem” with the local authorities: their work permits were only good for Chiang Mai province. But a bribe seems to have solved the issue. She hopes to earn 6,000 baht a month during the high season.

It’s nearly 11 a.m. on this drizzly day, however, and I’m the only visitor. But a dozen buses have just arrived at Khao Chi Chan and are disgorging their loads of Chinese and Russian tourists. Business should improve. Still, not everyone is pleased by these exotic interlopers.

“This is not their life,” Niti says of the Padaung community. “It’s like a zoo.”

He’s right, of course. And yet Fa has no regrets about moving to Pattaya.

“China and Taiwan, many people come and buy,” she tells me. “They are good customers. I have big money.”

“Hellooo, where you go?” It’s the siren call of Pattayaland: shouted or sung or, since this is the Kitten Club, literally purred by a pride of young female barkers clad in their best Schoolgirl Fetish uniforms—fitted white dress shirts and plaid miniskirts —and preening in front of the Soi 13 nightspot. Inside, a tattooed, shirtless Russian man dumps a laundry basket filled with small plastic balls onto the beer slickened floor, setting off a mad “Pussy Scramble” of topless bargirls and transsexual dancers, who can collect 20 baht (less than 60 cents) for each ball they grab. Up on the revolving Kitty Carousel and “Marilyn Monroe Air Stage” (think of the classic scene in The Seven Year Itch with the subway grate and Marilyn’s billowing dress) a gaggle of statuesque, implanted dancers are bumping and grinding to a thumping Big ’80s beat. Lithe and pneumatic, their showgirl bodies are perfect—too perfect, on closer look. They are all katoeys.

The scene is similarly raunchy at nearby Handy Boy and other gay bars along a street with a garish neon sign that reads boyz town. Nor is there any shortage of foot traffic on Soi 6, a gauntlet of go-go bars like Tornado and Club 69 fronted by bargirls whose come-hither invitations border on sexual harassment. Yet the local authorities would have casual visitors believe the advisory on the Kitten Club’s drinks menu, which disingenuously proclaims that prostitution is illegal in Thailand. Last fall, when the Belgian press declared the city was a sex destination with one-third of its citizens actively involved in the sex trade (a stretch, even in randy Pattaya), newly elected Mayor Itthipol Khun-pluem reacted. A young, savvy man from a politically powerful Chonburi family, Itthipol tackled the problem in 21st-century fashion: he announced funding for a Web site to create a more wholesome image of Pattaya, and set up a PR unit to monitor negative international press. But there was no move to shutter the nightclubs, though a 3 a.m. curfew now exists for beer bars, which used to pour until dawn in the bad old days.

“You hear this talk about how people want to turn Pattaya into a family town,” says Woolley, whose mainstream restaurant is just down from a lineup of open-air pubs like the leering Cockwell In Beer Bar. “It’s a pipe dream. If that ever happened, this would be a ghost town.”

Woolley advocates a laissez-faire approach: tourists who want peace and quiet can head over Buddha Hill to the Sheraton or kick back with the family at Jomtien Beach. If they choose to go in the other direction, Pattaya’s demimonde of pleasure domes is open—and eager—for business.

Niti, a chain-smoking realist with an all-too-limited budget, takes a long-term view. “We realize we cannot get rid of those prostitutes,” he says, firing up another Mild Seven cigarette. “They are there. Pattaya was born as a whore. You cannot change it to a garden ground for families in a year or two or five. It will take time.”

Until then, Pattayaland continues to cater to all comers. Late last fall, the World Evangelical Alliance, the planet’s largest fundamentalist Christian body, held a five-day gathering in town. The cabarets and bars of Walking Street and Boyz Town didn’t skip a beat. The sinners still outnumber the saints, and Elvis hasn’t left the building.

THE DETAILS:
Pattaya

Getting There

Pattaya is less than two hours by car or bus from Bangkok, depending on traffic. Thai International Airways operates a limousine service from Suvarnabhumi International Airport from 1,500 baht (about US$42) one way; taxis also make flat-rate trips.

When To Go

Pattaya has a year-round tropical climate. The best weather also coincides with the November– February high season, though any long holiday weekend can be crowded. The hot season runs from March through June, followed by the summer monsoon.

Where To Stay

Commanding a headland with sweeping views of the Gulf of Thailand and Koh Laan, the 156-room Sheraton Pattaya Resort (437 Phra Tamnak Rd.; sheraton.com; 66-38/259-888; doubles from US$184) offers five-star luxury with all the trimmings in a surprisingly sedate setting. The DusitD2 Baraquda Pattaya (435/1 Moo 10, Pattaya 2 Rd.; dusit.com; 66-38/769-999; doubles from US$151), a new property in the center of South Pattaya, features 72 contemporary-chic rooms and enough mod cons to satisfy any Bangkok hipster. With a large swimming pool and garden-like grounds, Pattaya’s pioneering hotel, the 74-room Nautical Inn (10/10 Soi 11, Pattaya Beach Rd.; nauticalinn.co.th; 66-38/428-110; doubles from US$35) offers old-school atmosphere and good value.

Where To Eat

It’s a bit removed from the Beach Road circus, but Mum Aroi (83/4 Moo 2, Na-klua Soi 4 Banglamung; 66-38/223-252) is wildly popular among Thais for its winning combination of beachfront ambience and fresh seafood dishes. In the thick of South Pattaya’s beer-bar district, Tequila Reef Cantina (Soi 7, Pattaya Beach Rd.; 66-38/ 414-035) serves sizzling-hot fajitas and barbecued pork ribs. Closer still to the crowds, La Notte Pub & Restaurant (220/2-4 Walking St.; 66-38/ 429-792) is a handsome bistro with an inviting terrace and an excellent French-twist menu.

What To Do

Pattaya has a surplus of just-say-cheesy attractions, but Tiffany’s Show (464 Moo 9, Pattaya 2 Rd.; tiffany-show.co.th; 66-38/421-700), the long-running transvestite cabaret, retains the over-the-top tiara. Seven kilometers east of city center, Pattaya Elephant Village (elephant-village-pattaya.com; 66-38/ 249-818) offers daily shows and treks through the countryside. Ferries to Koh Laan run throughout the day. Fare for the 45-minute crossing is just 20 baht (less than US$0.60). ­–CRC

Originally appeared in the April 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Plotting a New Course”)

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