Story By Don Coppock
There is no place on earth like Pattaya. It’s a frantic city, a celebration of hedonism, an unabashed paean to the joys of sex and drink. It has a reputation, a well deserved notoriety, which is precisely the reason men come here from all over the world. They’ve visited here on military leave, heard about it from friends, read about it or seen it on the net, so most have an idea what this community is all about before they set foot here.
Still, upon each arrival it never fails to surprise, because Pattaya, especially at night, is a city that will amaze, shock, amuse, provoke and/or disgust. It’s a town of bars, women, nightclubs, hotels, and music. It’s been referred to as Patpong (Bangkok ’s most famous red light district) on steroids. The nightlife of Phuket doesn’t hold a candle to it. It’s a city of love and heartbreak, tenderness and cruelty, joy and sorrow. It’s a place where men lose everything in a pursuit of affection and occasionally leap out of buildings when they realize their mistake, where women seek the security money can bring and any man who can offer it, where people believe sex is as essential as food and drink.
It is, quite simply, unlike any other city in the world.
I lived in Pattaya for two years, patronizing bars into the wee hours, frolicking with ladies who occasionally shared their ambitions and heartaches, and listening to ex-pats chronicle their misadventures. Ultimately I met my girlfriend in one of the seedier clubs there before electing to take a teaching job an hour up the road in Chonburi.
And while the two small cities are near to each other, philosophically they are light years apart. Chonburi remains essentially a Thai community, an early to bed, early to rise city with the few foreigners living here having a purpose other than lying on the beach, shopping and pursuing women. Pattaya, on the other hand, is a polyglot amalgam of the multitude of nationalities that however briefly make it their home.
Pattaya is about 80 miles south of Bangkok . It has a registered population of about 107,000 Thais, but with the ex-patriates and Thais registered in their own home towns, most estimates suggest the populace is as much as five times that much.
Usually upon arrival at the international airport you’ll have a decision to make. You can choose the 20 minute journey to Bangkok , head north to Chiang Mai, catch a flight to Phuket or catch a cab to Pattaya. It’s a huge choice, one that will likely shape your opinion of Thailand, so choose accordingly.
If you’re a tourist desirous of seeing sights and shopping, you’d probably do best to choose Bangkok . If your goal is soaking in Thai culture and exploring mountain terrain you’ll head to the Chiang Mai region, and if it’s beaches you’re looking for, Phuket is probably the most popular destination. But if you’re a older single man, a divorcee or a widower who hasn’t been with a woman in decades, and doesn’t give a damn what folks back home think, you’d be advised to head to Pattaya.
Sure, you’ll probably regret it, but when you leave you’ll have a completely different opinion about yourself. You’ll likely even have a little spring in your step, because this city is as close to the fountain of youth an old man is going to get. And odds are you’ll be back.
If arriving in the daytime most minibuses or taxis make it a point to drive down Soi 6, one of the small lanes devoted to daytime activity leading to Beach Road, where throngs of young women in various alluring attire sit in front of bar after bar and beckon and grin at the faces peering from the glass in disbelief. There are sailor suits, cheerleading outfits, nurses as well as other various theme attire designed to titillate and entice. If at this point the passengers aren’t grinning from ear to ear you can pretty much bet they’re not going to enjoy their stay here. It’s definitely not for everybody.
I like Pattaya. I like the weather here. I like the air and the ocean breezes. I like the Thai shop keepers I encounter, the young men I play basketball with, and the women in the clubs I’ve become friends with. Most, like me, regard their environment with a sense of humor and shake their heads as the sometimes lunatic environment roils about them. And I like the anything goes feeling, the freedom, the sense that anything can happen, so I was excited to return.
I checked into the Sunbeam Hotel, a centrally located hotel on Soi 8 near the beach in South Pattaya and then stepped out the doors. Of course it was different. There were new shops, new hotels, new streets, new bars and new ladies to replace those who married, or ran out their string here. And the faces of the tourists have changed. Where once it was Europeans and Americans, there are now significantly more Russians, Koreans and Chinese.
But other than that, it’s the same, a puritan’s nightmare and a reprobate’s dream.
Wandering down Soi 7 the solicitations were the same, though the faces had changed.
‘Welcome,’ young ladies sang, or ‘handsome man’ they hooted in delight, as though you were the sexiest creature they’d ever encountered. Saunter down any small street and you’ll find variations on the same theme as young men, young women and young I’m-not-sure-whats attempt to lure you into little bars by convincing you you’re hot property, one in a million, a real find. And the kicker is you begin to believe them.
Early in the afternoon I watched from a distance as a man so insensibly drunk he was falling down tried to negotiate his way clumsily down Soi 8. Within minutes a young Thai lady approached. Before you could say ‘robbery in progress’ both were on the back of a motorbike taxi heading into an uncertain future. Perhaps she offered help. Perhaps she would assist him home. It happens. There are lots of decent people here. But often as not, here, as anywhere, you often pay a price for stupidity.
I wandered past vendors selling anything from knock off clothing to the latest bootleg dvds for 100 baht (about $3) and proceeded by the many food stalls and restaurants, soaking in the air redolent with a confusing and exotic array of smells, from barbecues to beer to the sickly sweet stench of overripe fruit, and occasionally peppers made my eyes tear.
Early in the evening Beach Road begins to fill up, as old men find a seat and and young women troll. The men represent financial gain and perhaps better opportunity. They’re a chance to escape what for most women here is a poverty level existence, a chance to send money to families in outlying districts and perhaps a chance for happiness, though their definition of happiness is perhaps different from the men they hook up with.
As night descends the city really begins to roll as thousands of bars begin filling up with ladies of every size and description, all with one purpose in mind. And if you’re a man, no matter what shape you’re in, that purpose is an evening with you. You may be fat, ugly as sin, have a weakness for drink, smoke like a psychotic, have a skin rash in full bloom and slobber when you talk…no matter. It won’t take long before some young woman convinces you those are attributes! There is a catch however. You’re going to need money. Here money can’t buy love, but it can buy a damn good facsimile.
Ultimately everyone finds their way to Walking Street , a street along the shore full of go-go bars, where scantily clad women undulate until the wee hours. After 9 PM walking street is always crowded. There is break dancing, transvestites, children performing a variety of acts, magicians and card sharks. There are stairways leading to shows in which women perform acts you won’t see on television. And of course there are the throngs of ladies beckoning outside the bars of each and every club trying to drum up business. I strolled past multitudes of tourists, taking photos of anything and everything, and revisited old haunts, clubs such as the Bacchara, the Peppermint, and the Beach Club, where I was greeted by the doormen and ladies as though I’d never left. I was led to my seat where I joined a club full of other men gazing raptly up at the women dancing on the stage.
And judge as you will, these are the men and women of Pattaya. Here I’ve discovered that often the only differences between a prostitute and a loyal wife are desperation and opportunity, and Pattaya brings them together, for better or for worse, as no place else.