Pattaya ain't St Tropez. Take a walk down Beach Road, Pattaya's main
promenade. Its renovation is comically never-ending and so unsightly
that you must remind yourself it was Phuket, not Pattaya, that was hit
by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Every 50 meters or so, bewildered Thai laborers
peer into newly excavated holes like bad performance artists, while
plants wilt in unfinished flower beds. (The city is plagued by water
shortages.) The long, gracefully sweeping beach—Pattaya's raison
d'être—is fringed with shabby parasols and lapped by trash-peppered
Nobody actually comes from Pattaya. Until a decade ago, it was rare to
meet a Thai who was born there. It is an invented place—a Vegas without
the casinos, a Dubai without the oil.
Nobody comes from Pattaya but everyone seems to go there. At weekends,
the foreign crowds are swelled by day-trippers from Bangkok and
elsewhere. Among them are Thais from the landlocked northeast who have
never seen the sea before, and who bathe in it fully clothed, in the
demure Southeast Asian style, and take sneaky photographs of Eurotrash
in microscopic swimsuits. There used to be a Thai saying: "If you want
to see a naked foreigner, go to Pattaya."
And naked Thais. By night, the city is ablaze with pink-lit bars
overflowing with Thai women beckoning to potbellied Westerners in Camel
Active wear. Pattaya also has Asia's largest gay scene, with its own gay
beach and attendant sex workers—a giant Boys-R-Us. It is the capital of
cross-dressing, too, with at least three ladyboy song-and-dance shows.
The oldest one, called Tiffany's, has an adjoining shooting range, as if
watching a transvestite cabaret might provoke a crisis of manhood that
only firearms can soothe.
But Pattaya is more than just a sexual playground or a monument to the
perils of overdevelopment. The city was discovered and popularized by
American soldiers on R. and R. (rest and recreation) from the Vietnam
War in the 1960s and '70s. It is arguably the birthplace of mass tourism
in modern Asia, and still its undisputed capital. It is also a crucible
of future travel trends, attracting package tourists from increasingly
prosperous countries such as Russia, India and especially China. They
arrive in ever greater numbers, often on first holidays abroad, unaware
that they are making history.
Pattaya was built on sex and war. It was just a remote fishing village
on Thailand's eastern seaboard when, in the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers
on R. and R. discovered its palm-shaded beach and sparkling waters. Its
fate was sealed by the American military buildup at the nearby Thai air
base of U-Tapao, which was modified to handle the monstrous B-52 bombers
that pounded Vietnam. "Living has always been easy in Thailand,"
observed a U.S. Air Force guide, which read much like a modern tourist
brochure. "The Thai people are friendly hosts and share our desire for
peace and freedom." As for other American desires—namely, for sex and
booze—the Thais proved equally accommodating. The Marine Bar, opened in
a converted fishing shed at the bay's southern end, became the nucleus
of a red-light district whose rapid growth mirrored the U.S. buildup in
Vietnam. In Pattaya, a room cost 50¢ and a female companion not much
more, and R. and R. also became known as I. and I.—intercourse and
With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the U.S. military presence
wound down and Pattaya briefly stagnated. It soon found itself with
rivals. The war had boosted mass tourism not only by supplying an influx
of U.S. soldiers, but also by creating a generation of disaffected
Western youth who blazed a hippie trail across Asia.
In 1978 Pattaya was officially declared a city and, like the rest of
Thailand, entered a period of breakneck development that only the Asian
financial crash of 1997 could halt. Wealthier Thais, who traditionally
bought beach houses in the royal resort town of Hua Hin, now came to
Pattaya instead. The city boomed, but crime boomed with it. Violent turf
wars erupted between local Thai gangsters, while the 1991 collapse of
the Soviet Union—and the advent of direct flights from Moscow to U-Tapao—saw
an invasion of cash-rich Russian mobsters. There were so many victims of
murder and misadventure that in 1997 the Pattaya Mail even published a
story with the headline POLICE ASKED NOT TO LET DEAD BODIES WASH UP ON
SHORE. A subsequent police crackdown on prostitution, drugs and other
vices generated only further lurid stories ("Police raided two Pattaya
bars late on Monday and rescued several ducklings used to perform
'hatching' sex shows"). Dozens of foreign sex tourists died of heart
failure from an overdose of a powerful tranquilizer that prostitutes
smeared on their nipples to drug and rob their clients. NAKED BY NOON,
DEAD BY DAWN, screamed a headline in the men's magazine Maxim, which
named Pattaya "the world's riskiest beach resort."
Pattaya has not only kept its core clients—thousands of American
soldiers return every year for a Thai-U.S. military exercise called
Cobra Gold—but has also attracted new ones. Some 15 million Chinese
traveled overseas in 2003, almost 50% more than the previous year, with
Southeast Asian destinations such as Pattaya among the major
beneficiaries. Europe is also bracing itself for a deluge: last year an
agreement was reached granting mainland Chinese tour groups entry to 29
European countries. Not surprisingly, Lonely Planet is now planning its
first Chinese-language guidebooks.
Chang Meiying, a Guangzhou bookseller on holiday with her two sisters
and elderly parents, might stock them one day. She and her family sit in
the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden near Pattaya, waiting for something
called the "Thai Cultural Show" to start. Chang's six-day trip to
Thailand cost 5,000 yuan (about $625), which Chang feels is poor value.
Thai food is too sweet, she notes sourly, and this garden
isn't that special either. We have places just like it in China.
Zhang Limei, a secretary from Guangzhou who is traveling with workmates,
is slightly happier, largely because her vacation cost less: "2,000 yuan
is very cheap," she says. This is her first trip abroad. Her verdict so
far? Thailand is not as nice as China, and I'm still waiting to see
something really exciting.
Phew. Is it always this hard to please Chinese visitors? Maybe. While
Chinese do not yet travel overseas in great numbers, they are
experienced tourists in their own vast and varied land, and have
understandably high expectations of other people's. Still, you suspect
that no foreign trip would fully satisfy Zhang. Her map of the world
seemed to be divided into two parts: "China" and "Not as nice as China."
What she might have wanted was a holiday just bad enough to confirm how
good home was. Perhaps that's what we all want.
Assuming their economy doesn't falter, Chinese tourists will slowly
transform holiday destinations worldwide, starting with Pattaya. The
Queen Victoria Inn and the Big Ben Pub will one day be eclipsed by the
People's Liberation Pub and the Long March Bar & Grill. But don't forget
the Russians, warns Mikhail Ilyin, an Estonian who runs Ilves Tour, the
Pattaya agency that arranged Zhanna Balagurova's vacation. Many Pattaya
hotels have Russian television channels and Cyrillic menus, notes Ilyin,
who becomes suddenly animated when discussing travel statistics. Some
6.5 million Russians take overseas holidays every year, mainly in Egypt
and Turkey; about 115,000 come to Thailand, most of them to Pattaya.
Ilyin believes this market could double in two years' time. An
average Russian tourist spends about $650 in Thailand. If you doubled
their numbers, that's worth over $30 million. This sum, he argues,
more than compensates for their occasionally loutish reputation.
And they make it more respectable: Russians usually come as couples or
families, not as lone male sex tourists. The resort supposedly wants to
shift further in this direction, but it's a tough task when even more
sex-club owners are arriving to avoid stricter police enforcement of
closing hours in Bangkok. You can open later in Pattaya and you can
show more flesh, says a British go-go bar manager. He adds that a
similar crackdown on bars and clubs in Pattaya is unlikely because many
local officials get a cut of the profits. Even the website of the
Tourism Authority of Thailand promotes the city's "glaring erotic shows"
and notes that "any fantasy can be fulfilled, especially after sunset."
Can Pattaya have its cake and eat it? Can it really be a child-friendly
red-light area? The Thai, British and Russian families at my four-star
hotel shared their breakfast buffet with fiftysomething Western men and
their teenage Thai companions. Nobody seemed to mind.
Which kind of town will Pattaya become? It doesn't actually matter.
Pattaya has no historical buildings to preserve, no culture to erode. An
invented place is free to reinvent itself, although Pattaya will
probably always be a tabloid town with broadsheet pretensions. There is
talk of building a Monaco-style racing-car circuit through the city, or
of opening Thailand's first legal casino. While developers in Spain tear
down multistoried beachfront hotels because tourists don't want to stay
in them anymore, Pattaya is still building them high and fast, along
with mammoth condos to compete with favored European retirement
destinations such as Spain and Portugal.
In Alex Garland's iconic novel The Beach, some intrepid backpackers
discover a Thai island untouched by mass tourism and establish a utopian
community, which later collapses amid jealousy, greed and violence. The
moral of the story is not that paradise doesn't exist. No, the moral is:
paradise does exist, we just don't deserve to live there. Until we do,
there will always be Pattaya.