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THE PEOPLE’S PARADISE
Love it or loathe it, Pattaya is where Asia’s mass tourism started
By Andrew Marshall Photographs by John Stanmeyer/VII
IF you’re reading this at one of Asia’s many spectacular tourist destinations, please spare a thought for the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Isolated in the Ural Mountains, this military-industrial center once produced half the Soviet Union’s tanks—its nickname is “Tank City.” It has also been called the most contaminated place on earth. Chelyabinsk’s million or so citizens have endured three nuclear catastrophes, one caused by an explosion at a waste-containment unit, which spewed Chernobyl-level doses of radiation into the wintry sky. One of Chelyabinsk’s advertised tourist draws is “a visit to a treatment center for victims of radiation poisoning.” Spare a thought for Chelyabinsk, but for God’s sake don’t go there.
Very possibly the most beautiful thing from Chelyabinsk is a 24-year-old English teacher called Zhanna Balagurova. She is tall, blond and positively glowing—not with radioactivity, thankfully, but with the sheer, unalloyed joy of not being in Chelyabinsk. Zhanna is holidaying with her boyfriend Oleg in the sun-drenched Thai beach resort of Pattaya. It is her first foreign vacation.
“This is a great place for a Russian,” she beams. “It is warm, it has a nice sea.”
“And the whiskey is cheap,” winks Oleg.
Zhanna laughs. “And the Thai people are so funny and friendly and warmhearted. Not like at home. They seldom smile in Chelyabinsk.”
Zhanna sounds like she’s died and gone to heaven. But this is Pattaya, which is not only easier to get to, but with about 5 million visitors every year, probably a lot more crowded. Boosters call the resort Thailand’s Riviera. To others, it is a mystery and an affront. Pattaya is “designed to attract the worst kind of Western tourist,” sniffs Lonely Planet, meaning the randy males who trawl the girlie bars, brothels, short-time hotels and massage parlors that dominate the city. Thailand’s Riviera? Not quite. This is Sin City, Sodom-on-Sea, the Gomorrah of Tomorroh. So why do tourists flock there? Three reasons, huff its critics: 1) sex; 2) golf—there are six courses within a 20-minute drive; 3) what could be called the Chelyabinsk Factor—if you hail from a post-Soviet hellhole, then Pattaya is paradise.
Pattaya is no Chelyabinsk, but it ain’t St.-Tropez either. 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 waves. It’s rush hour out in the bay: dive boats weigh anchor and chug off in search of undestroyed coral; speedboats drag shrieking tourists on inflatable bananas; jet skis whine and slalom insanely, excreting plumes of water.
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. You can enjoy “Polynesian-style dining” at the Mai Kai supper club, fish and chips at the Big Ben Pub, or a bowl of borscht at Rasputin’s. You can eat an English breakfast at 5 p.m. at a place called Shagwell Mansions, or walk into the Black Pussy Bar and order a White Russian. You can browse the beachfront stalls, where the goods bespeak an odd combination of enthusiasms: Buddha statues; Beckham T shirts; stun guns, flick-knives and retractable coshes; rubber face masks of Saddam or Osama; hard-core porn CDs; penis-shaped cigarette lighters.
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, of course. By noon, disheveled women emerge from dormant bars and go-go joints to light incense at small, spirit shrines outside. By sunset, the Viagra vendors are out, selling four pills for about $25—”Genuine, sir, not copies.” 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. This year is the 150th anniversary of the first overseas package tour organized by Thomas Cook, the father of mass tourism, who in 1855 took a party of fellow Brits on a two-week circuit of Europe. With cheap packages and the growth of railways, Cook brought mobility to the masses. He democratized tourism, then the jet age globalized it. Today, it is one of the world’s largest industries, responsible for 200 million jobs and more than 10% of global GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Cook would have approved: he believed travel broadened the mind and fostered peace and understanding between nations. But would he have approved of Pattaya, the ultimate 21st century climax of a century-and-a-half of package tourism? Put it this way: Cook was a teetotal Baptist lay preacher who abhorred indolence and found the can-can dance performed in 19th century Paris “an unnatural and forced abandon.” In a word, no
SPOILS OF WAR
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 intoxication.
One of Pattaya’s first attractions was U-Tapao itself, the largest B-52 base outside American territory. “We’d drive our customers over there in a minivan to watch the planes take off,” recalls Bill Burbridge, 75, a longtime Pattaya resident and dive-shop operator. “We called them B-52 tours.” Bombers took off every 15 minutes or so, and were so noisy that “everything would be shuddering and shaking,” says Burbridge, including the minivan and its occupants. Pattaya’s other main attraction was the sea. “It was pristine. The coral was unspoiled and we often saw pods of dolphins break the surface.” One of Burbridge’s contemporaries recalls walking down the beach and eating oysters straight off the rocks.
Pattaya soon attracted other kinds of visitors. The Royal Cliff, the doyenne of Pattaya’s luxury hotels, was opened in 1973 by an extravagantly named Swiss man called Alois Xavier Fassbind. His success in popularizing the area earned him the nickname “Mr. Pattaya,” although he purportedly distanced himself from the town’s later notoriety by putting “near Pattaya” on the hotel stationery. The city was also enlivened by a visit from Norwegian rock gods Septimus, then a household name in Thailand for now forgotten hits like Sha-la-la and Thailand Girl. After one sellout concert, their lead singer Steinar Fjeld was almost shot by a disgruntled Thai fan dressed in an Elvis costume. This classic Pattaya tale, reported in the magazine Thailand Time Out, has a classic Pattaya ending: Fjeld returned to the city this year to look for a retirement villa.
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. They created what Lonely Planet’s founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler were already calling “a groove in the face of the map” by 1973, the year they published their first guide. Goa was a byword for drugs and beach parties until a crackdown by Indian police in the 1980s drove the hippies’ Ecstasy-age heirs to populate the freewheeling Thai island of Koh Phangan instead. By now, the whole world was on the move. Idyllic Bali’s future as an international tourist showcase was sealed in 1969 with the construction of an airport, which allowed foreign flights to land directly on the island. That year, 30,000 people visited Bali; a quarter-century later, 4 million arrived. Swaths of the island also changed forever. FOR SALE signs outside ancient family-owned rice farms became the motif for modern Bali.
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.”
Nature revolted too. Years of untreated sewage pumped into Pattaya Bay was killing fish and giving bathers itchy rashes. The official response to this catastrophe, also in 1997, came in the Bangkok Post: GREEN AND STINKING SEA IS NATURAL, SAYS MAYOR OF PATTAYA. The mayor was not only unfazed by the transformation of his bay into an enormous bowl of week-old asparagus soup; he also predicted it would have only a “short-term impact” on tourism. Amazingly, he was right: the city’s popularity, especially among Bangkok residents, hardly wavered. Still, in a later spurt of p.r., foreign journalists based in Thailand were treated to a Pattaya tour. First stop? The new sewage works.
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, 35, 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 38-year-old 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.”
Zhang was unmoved by the orchid display near the garden’s entrance, where tourists can also pay 50 baht ($1.25) to pose with a cataract-blinded Malaysian sun bear that has had its front claws and teeth removed to protect visitors. English-language signs throughout the park are also present in Chinese, Russian, Korean and Vietnamese—cheap foreign holiday packages have caused a surge in Vietnamese visitors—though not in the language of those unrivaled package tourists of yesteryear, the Japanese. They’re still around, I’m told, but just swamped by the new Asian travelers.
Zhang and her friends take their seats in a fan-cooled hangar packed with other tourists. The show is a brutally abbreviated introduction to Thai culture: a bit of traditional dance, a round of Muay Thai boxing, some endearingly bad ethnic drumming. Zhang fans herself with the fluorescent orange baseball cap handed out by her tour company. “It was O.K.,” she pronounces. “Nothing bad. Nothing special.” But then comes the elephant show, held in an adjoining arena, and Zhang is soon hooting with laughter as the animals ride tricycles and kick footballs. Afterward she and her colleagues take turns to clamber onto a baby elephant’s head to pose for photos. “That was so much fun,” beams Zhang.
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,” he says. “If you doubled their numbers, that’s worth over $30 million.” This sum, he argues, more than compensates for their occasionally loutish reputation. “Russians sometimes behave like babies,” shrugs Ilyin. “Let them! They make this city rich.”
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.
Today, many Asian towns are hard to tell apart beneath the concrete buildings and advertising billboards that have marched across this fast-developing region. Ever more tourists now march with them. At some places—for example, Vietnam’s old imperial capital of Hué—planners puzzle over how to accommodate thousands of visitors while preserving cultural wonders. Other places are left to fend for themselves. At Kampot, a charismatic town on Cambodia’s lesser-traveled coast, beautiful colonial-era architecture is being torn down to build hotels to house all the tourists coming to see the beautiful colonial-era architecture. Must development always be synonymous with plunder? Sometimes it seems the tourism industry is staffed by only two kinds of people: those who understand that the region’s world-beating treasures, whether man-made or natural, are fragile and exhaustible and require painstaking management; and those who think orangutan boxing is a pretty neat idea.
Which kind will Pattaya get? 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. “When I came here 11 years ago, Pattaya was a village,” recalls Ilyin. “To be honest, I miss that. Now Pattaya is a place to make money.”
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.