With its streets full of high-rise hotels and hustlers on every corner, PATTAYA is the epitome of exploitative tourism gone mad, but most of Pattaya’s two million annual visitors don’t mind that the place looks like the Costa del Sol bathed in smog because what they are here for is sex. The city swarms with male and female prostitutes, spiced up by Thailand’s largest population of transvestites (katoey), and plane-loads of Western men flock here to enjoy their services in the rash of hostess bar-beers, go-go clubs and massage parlours for which “Patpong-on-Sea” is notorious. The signs trumpeting “Viagra for Sale” say it all. Pattaya also has the largest gay scene in Thailand, with several exclusively gay hotels and an entire zone devoted to gay sex bars.

Pattaya’s evolution into sin city began with the Vietnam War, when it got fat on selling sex to American servicemen. When the soldiers and sailors left in the mid-1970s, Western tourists were lured in to fill their places, and ex-servicemen soon returned to run the sort of joints they had once blown their dollars in. These days, at least half the bars and restaurants in Pattaya are Western-run. More recently, there has been an influx of criminal gangs from Germany, Russia and Japan, who reportedly find Pattaya a convenient centre for running their rackets in passport and credit-card fraud, as well as child pornography and prostitution; expat murders are a regular news item in the Pattaya Mail.

Local tourism authorities are trying hard to improve Pattaya’s image, and with surprising success have begun enticing families and older couples with a catalogue of more wholesome entertainments such as theme parks, golf courses, shopping plazas and year-round diving. Russian holidaymakers seem particularly keen and Cyrillic script is now much in evidence around the resort. A recent flush of more sophisticated boutique hotels and restaurants is also starting to bring in a younger Thai crowd, which has brightened the picture a little. But in truth the beach here is far from pristine – way outshone by Ko Samet just along the coast – so after-hours “entertainment” is still the primary inducement.

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