I am coming to the end of a two week stay in Pattaya of all places and I have seen this unique city from a very different perspective. That is surprising in that my previous visits had afforded some contrasting experiences given that they included coming as a solo male traveller, a short stay in Thailand with my (then) 85 year old mother after disembarking from the QE2 and also with two teenage daughters when one of them was hospitalised in Thailand. On both the latter occasions I thought the famous 5 star Royal Cliff Hotel was a suitable place for both an 85 year old to relax and bathe in the sea and for elder our daughter Sarah to recuperate and on each occasion and on both occasions I obtained complementary or heavily discounted rooms as a Tour Operator.
For those who are not aware of Pattaya’s unchallengeable stature as the world’s Sex Tourism capital it will follow that the first profile is fairly typical of the majority of the Pattaya’s six million annual visitors whereas the visits with my aging mother and teenage daughter s were very definitely not!
It can be truly written that Pattaya is to sex what Las Vegas is to gambling. Once a quiet fishing village about 120 miles east of Bangkok, Pattaya developed rapidly as a resort offering much needed R and R to American troops on furlough during the war in Vietnam – and Pattaya has never stopped growing since as it catered for a the needs of single males who are looking for a drink, attractive company and even preferably together.
In case you think I am exaggerating let me try and quickly describe the Pattaya that attracts so many males, primarily but not exclusively from Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
I am not sure if anyone has counted the Bars in Pattaya but I suspect the figure might end up between 2,000 and 4,000 and most employ between 10 and 80 girls on a retainer of perhaps $200 for a 28 day month (28 days on, three off) who are paid a commission on all the drinks they sell to punters after the first 30 drinks each month and who are expected to earn a minimum of eight Bar Fines a month.
A Bar Fine is incurred when a Tourist pays the Bar between $10 and $20 to remove the young lady from the Bar for the balance of the evening/night and for successive days – for which the Bar Fine is still paid and the young lady in question is most grateful as she can be wined, dined and entertained without having to put in a shift at the Bar. And as well as a Bar Fine the young lady, for young read anything between 18 to 40, will earn her own fee for accompanying the male tourist, usually around $15 for a ‘short time’ (several hours) to between $30 and $50 for overnight and/or a day’s company depending on what she thinks she can earn and the gullibility or generosity (probably interchangeable!) of the visitor!
Consequently if a single guy, or a group of guys are walking around Pattaya they will be continually regaled by shouts and entreaties from up to 20 girls at each of the bars they walk past. The Bars are located cheek by jowl with often 20 bars in one centre – the same economic and geographical location factors that result in congregations of Electrical Goods stores on Tottenham Court Road, London, and Bookshops in Hereford Wales and casinos in Las Vegas!
In Pattaya the bars try and differentiate from each other by having their girls shout louder, by playing the music louder to drown out the bar next door and by broadcasting live Premier League football or La Liga or Serie A and often at the same time in the same bar! I enjoy the Camaraderie of watching football with a variety of nationalities but struggle to concentrate with all the noise so prefer to watch football in Thailand from my hotel – every single Premier Game is televised live on multiple sports channels. It is probably cheaper for English fans to relocate to Thailand than buy a Premier League Season ticket and travel to 18 away games each year if they want to watch every game their team plays!.
You are perhaps beginning to understand why Thailand is expatriate heaven for many western males when you combine inexpensive Beer and Football with its nocturnal attractions!
As well as the infamous Bar Girls there are an equal number of freelance females lining the Beach Promenade and most parts of town so a single male, in a group or alone can barely last 20 paces in most of town without a ‘Where you going?’ or ‘I come with you?’ or ‘You want Massage? being whispered, spoken or even shouted in case you missed the first overture.
Now if we add in all the Gay Bars and pre and post operative Ladyboys (far more extrovert and aggressive than the average Thai) you will appreciate that Pattaya really does offer something for everyone whatever one’s preference.
So this is the stereotypical image of Pattaya and let’s be honest, it is also the Pattaya that attracts most visitors. In most parts of the world you can go out for readily available fast food or have pizzas delivered to your room. It is the same in Pattaya but with the same availability of women as food options and the city has literally been built on the back of hundreds of thousands of Isaan Bar Girls who have worked and plied their trade here over the last 40 years.
The city I always compare Pattaya with is Las Vegas. Both are loud, brash and over the top. Both fulfil a need and both have come from nowhere creating large and vibrant residential communities based on fulfilling a primeval urge – to gamble or get laid.
Accept them for what they are and if they are not for you – don’t moan and groan about it but move on.
Thais have an ambivalent attitude to sex. This is a Buddhist company where none of Pattaya’s tens of thousands of sex workers would dream of walking or riding past a temple or religious statue without offering a prayer. Most would hesitate to wear a bikini on a public beach but in other ways they have an open and healthy regard to sex not unlike the German’s who have never had the puritanical hang ups of our island race, and which perhaps explains the strong attractions of Thailand to Germans? Thailand is a country like many in Asia where a male may have a mistress or Mei Noi (Second Wife) and certain rules, standards and courtesies should apply and be followed.
However for years despite clearly sitting on a Gold Mine the City Fathers of Pattaya have been trying to market Pattaya as a Family Destination and the cynic in me wondered ………Why bother?
In reality whatever was working was working well as more and more hotels were built and Pattaya will not be the first or last place in the world where people bemoan the lack of planning constraints or complain about where the raw sewage is (sorry was) being dumped. Sure the city was selling sex but if the shoe fit why look for another?
Pattaya is just the most famous destination a country whose liberal and tolerant laws make it very easy for males to meet females who in the west we might demeaningly describe as prostitutes, call girls, hookers or whatever. But we could just as easily be talking about many other countries in Asia or South America.
Now I know this is going to upset some readers but please bear with me and OK – as an elderly male I may be biased but don’t think there is anything wrong the role that Pattaya fulfils. I did not think so 40 years ago when I first passed through Thailand and I don’t think so now either!
On one hand in our Western society we have an ever increasing number of marriages that fail and like me you have maybe noticed that if marriages do not fail in the first few years it is perhaps after 25 or 30 years when a couple have seen their kids through to adulthood that they then may discover they have less in common than they thought – or perhaps realised this long ago but decided it was best to stay together for their kid’s sake.
I really do not like generalising about sexes but I think many women may be better equipped to deal with aging and life on their own? On the other hand many western men seem less well equipped to live alone, crave company and still yearn for a physical relationship. After retiring they may have accumulated some disposable income, perhaps a pension and indeed in Asian terms are very wealthy.
Now you see where we are going?
To the north of Pattaya is Isaan – the hot dry north east of Thailand where most of the Pattaya girls come from. The average income in Thailand is probably around $300 a month but wages are much higher in Metropolitan Bangkok and the thriving Coastal and Tourist Communities whereas in Isaan work is scarce. The sons migrate to Bangkok and there is little work for the females who are left in their villages which offer no employment prospects and the girls are left with two choices – to stay at home looking after aging parents, and tend the family buffalo, plant and harvest the rice etc or to follow their brothers and migrate to the coast or the South and take labouring or menial work to help support their parents.
But there is a third option for Isaan women and some who want to contribute and support the family will go to Pattaya or Phuket or Bangkok and work as Bar Girls – and send a fair proportion of their earnings to their families. And perhaps they will meet a Farang (Foreigner) who falls in love with them and marry them and help support their families.
So lonely men in the west and hardworking, loyal girls in Asia looking for someone to support them short term or long term. It can be argued Pattaya is filling a social need!
My philosophy as I go through life has been to specialise in one vice (gambling before you ask) rather than flirt with three so I have never drank alcohol, smoked or done drugs. Neither appeal to me and as I am aware I have an obsessive and addictive personality that finds it hard to pursue any interest in moderation I have known for decades to steer clear of tobacco, alcohol and drugs as I would not have been able to partake any in moderation. When after 40 years I feared my obsessive interest in gambling was turning into an unhealthy addiction I stopped gambling in a heartbeat going from about 500 -800 bets a year to maybe five bets in the following five years. And that is the sign of an addict – all or nothing and I clearly have an addictive personality which I have battled all my life.
And I have never worked out why smoking tobacco is legal and smoking cannabis is not. Similarly I have never understood why people get so hung up over the commercialisation of sex which as far as I am concerned does not go hand in hand with the sexual abuse or exploitation of minors any more than being a smoker does not go hand in hand with being someone who stubs out their cigarettes on minors.
So in defence of Pattaya I believe the city fulfils a need on two sides and to illustrate this let me tell you about two friends of mine who I genuinely believe would benefit from coming to Pattaya or Thailand.
Pete is in his mid 40s – ambitious, focussed, a high achiever. Generous with praise, very sensitive but quick to take offence, sexist and patronising without realising it and cannot cope well with change. He rarely sees the bigger picture and is selfish in that he only sees things from his perspective and as a result he is difficult – almost impossible to work with. The bottom line however is that his heart is in the right place. His colleagues admire his work ethic, know he means well and bend over backwards to accommodate him and then he slags them off or fails to see a situation from anyone’s point of view other than his own. When they object Pete complains that ‘people don’t like me’. He is the walking manifestation of the phrase ‘His own worst enemy’. Pete is single and is clearly lonely. He often spends Saturday nights at Bars in Exeter hoping to meet a lady and like so many others in the digital age is also using Dating Sites to find the right lady. It is not going to work.
After a Seminar with his colleagues some years ago I commented ‘There isn’t a woman in the western world who will marry Pete’ and one of his colleagues, also a friend of Pete’s just cracked up. ‘In one sentence Michael has just written off maybe two billion females as potential partners for Pete – and you know what, he is probably correct’
And let me also tell you about John who I met in Fiji in the mid 70s. He is American and after a gap of almost 20 years since our last meeting John recently stayed with me in Virginia. Like many of us John has struggled with Depression but perhaps more acutely than most and sadly is getting divorced from his wife and partner for almost 40 years.
He realises this is for the best but is still deeply sad about it. He has never strayed in the past 35 years, has not had so much as a cuddle let alone sex for over 20 years and not surprisingly was lonely in his marriage and fears being lonely outside of it and would crave some physical affection to remind himself that he is alive – and folks we are talking about holding hands as a starting point here.
And finally let me tell you about Nong or Mai or Nan or most of the tens of thousands of female sex workers in Pattaya – spending evenings here and nights there with various tourists. She is someone who has been brought up to care and provide for her family, to be loyal to and to care for her partner, to respect authority and to provide for the disadvantaged.
Can you tell me that putting Nong with Pete and Mai with John is not a win win situation for all concerned?
Yes I know you will find no end of horror stories posted on the internet by expatriates who will moan how they were ripped off by their Thai girlfriend or wife and I can tell you in a heartbeat where the fault lay in 95% of these occasions. The male has made no effort to understand or relate to the culture or society of his partner, was probably not very selective in his choice in the first place and the relationship was doomed before it started because it was based on a few nights in the sack and an attitude of ‘How lucky she is to have me rescue her from all this so she can come to the UK and look after me’
Pete and John are decent sensible individuals but because of Pete’s idiosyncratic personality and Jim’s age and scars neither are going to find what it is they are looking for where they are. But if they come to Thailand and look around and get to know some of the young ladies they meet, visit their homes and families they will likely find a potential partner who will be loyal, provide companionship, nurture them and put up with their idiosyncrasies and probably be willing to relocate to the UK or USA although contrary to popular belief most Thai women want nothing more than security and to be looked after – they are not chasing wealth or the opportunity to live overseas. But they will expect their new partner to send a couple of hundred dollars home to the family every other month or so when you can afford it and in return you will have a devoted partner from a land where age is venerated.
Is it a problem or a cause of alarm that this woman might have previously slept with some tourists to earn some money to send to her family? Give me a break please.
And the ever increasing numbers of elderly westerners with middle aged Thai partners on their arm will show you that contrary to popular lore many of these unions do last. I have three friends – one in Belgium, one in the USA and one in Canada who have all married younger Asian brides and as it should be, in each case a successful marriage has been the highlight of their lives.
So I am sorry but I do not think Pattaya has to pretend its ‘seedy’ side does not exist. It does exist. It meets a demand and I will argue that for many Thais and overseas visitors it provides a service that can be rewarding on both sides , dare I say it for a ‘short time’ and longer!
But from here on I think Pattaya is going to be successful on two fronts. .
In 50 years time visitors will likely still see (usually) elder Male tourists with young Thais on their arm (Thai Takeaways as my friend Amanda dismissingly refers to them) but Pattaya has really begun to attract a wide range of visitors and to lay the foundation for a future as one of South East Asia’s major economic hubs.
I have noticed this broader mix of visitors on recent visits but what I had not realised until this visit was that Pattaya can also be a nice place to live if you locate away from the overcrowded downtown area replete with girls, bars, massage parloursetc
So what has brought about the change that I think will impact on Pattaya’s future?
Step forward Taksin Shinawatra , exiled former Prime Minister and Public Enemy Number One for half of Thailand (the problem being he is venerated by much of the other half and his sister is the current Prime Minister but dare not Pardon him!) and Mikhael Gorbachev. You may consider my combining Gorbachev with Pattaya to be a stretch who may be a stretch until you recollect that Gorbachev was the individual most responsible for bringing the Cold War to an end and dismantling the Soviet Union.
Shinawatra made things happen in Thailand (according to his opponents often for his personal gain) including the construction of the new Bangkok Airport – the largest single terminal airport in the world and on the eastern side of Bangkok. Using Army Hit squads to kill Drug Runners was another Taksin initiative but whilst popular internally this led to an iffy international reputation as far as human rights was concerned!
The airport has made a BIG difference to Pattaya. It will normally take 40 -50 minutes plus to navigate Bangkok’s often gridlocked traffic to get to a centrally located hotel from the airport but with the new freeway a normal kamikaze Taxi driver will have you in Pattaya well under two hours from the airport which is not too shabby – I can handle a net extra hour after a 10-11 hour flight from Europe and I think other residents and Business Executives are thinking the same way. The last ten years have seen a phenomenal growth of new condominium developments in Pattaya and neighbouring Jomtien that shows zero inclination of abating as more and more executive 30 floor towers are built and often sell out off the plan before construction starts.
And Gorbachev liberated the Russian people – when I was growing up Russians did not send their kids to school in England nor buy second homes in Cyprus. And whilst the oligarch’s might fancy London for their abodes of choice it is Thailand that is the warm weather external holiday destination of choice for most Russians – and certainly for Siberia, Eastern Russia and the former ‘stan’ republics and Russian charters and package holiday flights land directly at Pattaya’s local military airport as well as flying into Bangkok. Once the airport is upgraded and attracts direct flights from the rest of the world Pattaya will surely be due another boom. It is Russian not German or Swedish that is the most common language after English in Menus and Shop Windows and the Russians are doing for Pattaya what the City Fathers never quite pulled off – genuinely making it a family destination. The Russians come as couples, as families with their children and not primarily as single males and even import their Russian own Bar Girls for any homesick Russian males! They are coming for an affordable vacation and the weather.
I was a fairly successful Tour Operator for 31 years and can smell a contrived Tourist Attraction at the drop of a hat so for many years chose to relax around the pool or occasionally on the beach when I passed through Pattaya but in recent years I have started to visit some of the local attractions that are on offer.
The Animal Park offers good value unless you are going to take a politically correct stance on performing elephants but I believe any nation that can train elephants to paint watercolours better than I can manage as to have a lot going for it! The Elephant Football team looked pretty good too! The Nong Nooch Botanical Gardens are outstanding (Ignore the replica Stonehenge!) and the artificially created Floating Market is well worth a visit.
The Sanctuary of Truth is one of the world’s biggest timber structures, the Big Bhudda Temple Complex overlooking Pattaya on Pratumak Hill combines far reaching views over the City with impressive sculpted statues and the Chinese Temple just below has a wonderful philosophical montage. My favourite was the panel of a dutiful son eating his father’s excrement to banish the evil spirits and cure his father of his ailments. When I emailed the image to our son he commented I would have to be VERY ill before he could be that dutiful!
I have declined the opportunity to zip ride down to ground level from the 56th floor of the Pattaya Tower which involves a sheer drop of over 500 feet and exposure of which I cannot conceive but there is no shortage of willing punters it appears.
Pattaya’s Beach stretches some two miles around the Bay and is full of umbrellas and deck chairs to rent but nearby Jomtien is less crowded and there are several islands off shore than are serviced by daily ferries. And if you play Golf (I don’t) there are over 30 courses within an hour’s drive and the city has both hospitals and cinemas better specified than any I have seen in the UK – our eldest daughter stayed in one hospital in 2003and I frequently enjoy the futuristic and very comfortable cinema complexes when passing through Pattaya.
So Pattaya actually has a lot going for it and I was disappointed to note that the usually excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand is unbelievably dismissive of Pattaya as a destination and uncommonly sparse in its description of the accommodation and attractions on offer. I can only believe there are so many hundreds of hotels that the reviewer did not know where to start but I was not expecting such a moralistic and judgemental view from Lonely Planet – more BBC and less Tony Wheeler since the BBC acquired a majority ownership perhaps?
On this last visit I rented an inexpensive villa with a private pool less than two miles from Pattaya’s infamous walking street crammed with bars and was surprised at how quiet it was. I was located next door to an upmarket Resort called Cabbages and Condoms (I kid you not – only in Pattaya!) which played the most delightful classical music over its sound system through the day presumably to sooth the cabbages.(shades of Price Charles!) and it was not at all disturbing or intrusive.
I ate inexpensively at Thai, Indian (Sorry Nepali) and European Restaurants and met up with some local expats who enjoy living here year round. I even viewed some property and put in a Mickey Mouse offer for one house just in case the seller was desperate to sell!
So take a bow Pattaya.
On this visit, some 27 years after I made my first visit here when breaking a journey between Australia and the UK, I actually thought this could be a place to have a base rather than just for an overnight or two when passing through. Pattaya is well located for getting to Bangkok, the islands of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, Angkor Wat and Cambodia is within a day’s drive and it is easy to reach most parts of Thailand and South East Asia from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, usually only 90 minutes away.
When you consider that Pattaya is located in Thailand’s most dynamic commercial region at the shoulder of Bangkok, capitol of this economically rich country which itself is located between India and China, who are set to dominate the world’s economy for the next century, and I don’t think you can go wrong if you buy well in Pattaya.
And in defence of Pattaya I am happy to join the City’s Fathers who can now justly parody the most appropriate American President and say …………….
‘It’s not only about the sex, Stupid’
© Michael Bromfield 2012