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.
Though Pattaya’s reefs are far less spectacular than those along the Andaman Coast, they can be dived year-round, and underwater visibility is consistent. Most dive trips focus on the group of “outer islands” about 25km from shore, which include Ko Rin, Ko Man Wichai and Ko Klung Badaan, where you have a reasonable chance of seeing barracuda, moray eels and blue-spotted stingrays. There are also three rewarding wreck dives in the Samae San/Sattahip area. Be careful when choosing a dive operator as there are plenty of charlatans around. All tour agents sell snorkelling trips to nearby islands, the majority of them going to the reefs and beaches of Ko Larn. You can also make your own way to Ko Larn by public boat from the Bali Hai pier at the far southern end of Walking Street.
Beachfront stalls in Pattaya and Jomtien offer waterskiing, parasailing and jet-skiing, but you should avoid the last-mentioned: the jet-ski jockeys are notorious for finding scratches on the machine at the end of the rental and trying to charge an exorbitant amount in damages.
In among the full-body soaps and “full-service” massage joints, you’ll find the traditional Soi Yodsak, where you can have a proper Thai massage, or a herbal compress, oil or foot massage; it also offers two-week massage training courses.
Happy Home offers morning (including a market visit) and afternoon classes, with vegetarian versions of all dishes available, and including a weekly dessert class.
Of the thousand-plus bars in Pattaya, the vast majority are staffed by women and men whose aim is to get bought for the night – depending on whom you believe, there are between six thousand and twenty thousand Thais (and quite a few Russians) working in Pattaya’s sex industry; most depressing of all is that this workforce includes children as young as 10, despite fairly frequent high-profile paedophile arrests. The vast majority of Pattaya’s bars are open-air “bar-beers”, which group themselves in neon clusters all over North, Central and South Pattaya so that there’s barely a 500m stretch of road without its rowdy enclave. The setup is the same in all of them: from mid-afternoon the punters – usually lone males – sit on stools around a brashly lit circular bar, behind which the hostesses keep the drinks, bawdy chat and well-worn jokes flowing.
Drinks are a lot more expensive in the bouncer-guarded go-go bars on Walking Street in South Pattaya, where near-naked hostesses serve the beer and live sex shows keep the boozers hooked through the night. The scene follows much the same pattern as in Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, with the women dancing on a small stage in the hope they might be bought for the night – or the week. Go-go dancers, shower shows and striptease are also the mainstays of the gay scene, centred on Pattayaland Soi 3 (Soi 13/5), South Pattaya.