Rubbish-strewn beaches. Grown men brawling on the street. Foreign gangs and real-estate scams. Transsexual pickpockets and endless traffic jams. Beggars hanging outside McDonald’s restaurants and the thick scent of sewerage hanging in the air.
Welcome to Pattaya, a resort city on the Gulf of Thailand, 150km south of Bangkok with more hotels than Singapore that draws in a whopping 10 million foreign visitors every year – more than Australia and Fiji combined.
So what’s the attraction? Why would anyone go there?
Sex, that’s why.
Sex and its commodification on a size and scale larger than anything that has ever been seen before.
Every night, around 30,000 sex workers from Thailand’s dirt-poor northeast, Cambodia and Laos stream into Pattaya’s mean streets to sell their bodies for as little as AU$20. Combined with the Thai’s famous tolerance and police complicity, it has turned Pattaya – a string of fishing villages that first boomed in the 1960s as an R&R destination for US troops during the Vietnam War – into the ‘sex capital of the world’.
Pattaya is regularly in the news for all the wrong reasons: bashings, paedophile rings and gangland killings. But what’s it like for the average tourist who simply wants to take a walk on the wild side in Pattaya? Is it ‘dangerous’? Is there really sex on tap? I caught a bus down from Bangkok for the weekend to find out.
WELCOME TO PATTAYA
No one fucking says welcome to Pattaya at the bus station. It’s stinking hot. I’m soaked in sweat. Taxi drivers refuse to use their meters, quoting astronomical fares. To avoid getting ripped off I jump on a songthaew – a covered ute with two rows of seats in the back and Pattaya’s answer to public transport.
Soon after getting on I wish I hadn’t, for it fills with pasty-skinned, sandy-haired, funny-looking Russians who spend the next half hour yelling shit at each other in Russian right in front of my face. And every time our driver comes to a stop, the lathery, warm bingo-wings of the fat Russian woman sitting next to me slap me on the shoulder.
Russians. Goddamned bogans of the world. They started arriving in Pattaya in droves after the fall of the Soviet Union, direct from Moscow on charter planes to U-Tapao Airport, a former US Air Force base, 60km to the south. They opened Russian restaurants, Russian condos and Russian clubs. Russian girls followed, so did the Russian mob. The same week I arrived in Pattaya, news sites reported Pattaya police had arrested a group of Russian sex ‘students’ who paid thousands of dollars to attend a ‘sex-training’ class. Ten Russian ‘tutors’ were also arrested and charged with working in Thailand without a permit. The story was accompanied by a heavily pixelated video clip that shows Thai policemen entering a room where a woman with long black hair is being double ended by a couple of guys in a spa bath.
Image: Pattaya's infamous walking street.
After checking into my hotel, I shower, grab some fresh clothes and hit the streets. Within 30 seconds of exiting the lobby I receive offers for sex from a group of Thai women in tight red dresses loitering in front of a massage joint. “Is this a massage block?” I say, wriggling past the sea of groping hands. “Massage your cock!” one of them says. Everyone laughs.
Pattaya is grimy and petrol-stained but at the same time alluring and enticing. Every square inch of footpath is crammed with vendors selling everything from fried chicken, to banana pancakes, to dildos, to $20 Rolex knock-offs. I see a Thai man in a long white coat standing outside a teeth-whitening clinic smoking a cigarette. Thais are generally upbeat. Yet this guy, like so many Pattayans, looks exhausted, as though he woke up one day, looked around and said, ‘What the fuck happened to this place?’ before resigning himself to progress.
The farangs or foreigners of Pattaya are an eclectic bunch. On top of Russians, there are legions of Indians and plenty of what Australian police would describe as ‘men of Middle Eastern appearance’. But it’s the dirty old white men who stand out the most, walking around hand-in-hand with Thai women a third of their age and half their size. They are not sex-tourists but ‘sexpats’ – Western men who somehow convinced themselves the solution to their lifelong love woes was a submissive Asian woman. But things don’t always work out so well. Some sexpats will go home with significantly fewer savings. Others will dig their heels deeper into Thai soil and fall one step further down the evolutionary ladder: the dreaded ‘deathpat’. I see thousands of these old curmudgeons drinking their disappointment away in Pattaya’s 1,000-odd bars. They sit in small groups of three or four, barely talking, nursing beer after beer after beer. Some have even brought their Western wives along – leather-skinned chain-smokers who look like trophies from another age. As one sexpat’s wife laments on the Pattaya Daily News’ chatroom: “I am also here with my husband, I am so glad he keeps me around. I am too fat and ugly for him to make love to anymore so I understand that he has needs, it is annoying having to listen to him from the next room.”
ABANDON ALL HOPE
I grab a burger at McDonald’s, of which there are also legions in Pattaya. To digest the slug, I walk all the way to Walking Street, the epicentre of Pattaya’s multibillion-dollar sex industry – a kilometre-long neon-lit pedestrian mall for prostitution, which, by the way, not that anyone seems to give a shit, is illegal in Thailand.
As I stand under Walking Street’s domed archway, a river of Chinese package tourists five people thick led by a single guide holding a pennant pour around me like lemmings. They appear to have no interest in engaging sex workers, only in photographing them – much to the disapproval of a row of Thai chicks in bondage gear who yell “no photo” at the Chinese as they cascade by. But the Chinese don’t give a fuck and redouble their efforts.
Walking Street really is the United Nations of perverts. I see Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Chinese, Turkish, Nigerians, Saudis, Aussies, Americans, Swedes, Poms – dirty old men sniffing, shopping, picking, alone. The Indians in contrast hunt in packs. It’s not unusual to see six or seven of them standing around a sex-worker deep in conversation.
I’m offered drugs: marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine. I’m accosted by two crazy Russian girls who try to drag me into a bar called Crazy Russian Girls. And I am astounded by Russian family men who reckon Walking Street is a suitable place to take the wife and kids out for some ice-cream on a Friday night.
“Come inside, mister, sexy show,” say spruikers as I weave and bob my way around their octopus-like grips. Other times they shake laminated A3 colour photos of nude Asian girls in bubble baths in front of my face or menus offering “Pussy Drink Coke Show” and “Pussy Firecracker Show”.
When I finally succumb to a random solicitation, I find myself inside a dimly lit go-go bar. Half a dozen short, fat strippers with hairy vaginas shuffle unenthusiastically to cheesy pop music on a stage. A bunch of dirty old white men sit around the girls, nursing their beers and whatnot. I walk to the back to find a place I can sit alone but instead find a plus-size stripper naked on a couch, two enormous milky breasts rolling down her chest like the contours of a hill. Only then do I notice she is jerking off two dirty old men sitting on either side of her. She shoots me a crooked grin. I get the fuck out of there as fast as I can.
Back outside, the talent isn’t much better. The girls of Walking Street rate between one and five out of 10. Drinking doesn’t soften my opinion; it steels it. The only semi-decent looking girls on the entire strip are not even girls, but Jessica Rabbit-like ladyboys with their gravity-defying tits. The ladyboys of Walking Street are said to be not only practiced impersonators but also practiced thieves. If they see a really drunk guy they will sometimes mob him, flash their tits, distract him, pinch his phone, pinch his wallet and send him on his way.
Later in the evening, I’m at a bar when I meet a bloke I’ll call Tom from the Hunter Valley of NSW. Tom has come to Pattaya every year for the past 17 years. “I’ve got yellow fever,” he says. “My dad’s second wife is from Thailand so I must’ve inherited it.”
One of Tom’s mates rocks up, a bloke I’ll call Jerry. Jerry has a story to tell about what went down in the Jacuzzi last night. There were five guys and five girls, the girls were in the middle and the guys were sitting on the edge, and the girls went around in circles blowing one guy after the other. “I was like, pulling this chick off whatshisname’s cock and pushing her head on to mine,” Jerry recalls, slapping me across the back.
At 2am I call it quits. The last person to offer me sex this evening is a grandmother in a raggedy old tank top standing in front of a 7-Eleven near my hotel.
Image: One of the many bars littered along Walking Street.
POISONED TWICE IN ONE NIGHT
At around midday the next day, I rush to the bathroom and vomit violently. This is no normal hangover. It’s alcohol poisoning. The last time I got it was in Bali 20 years ago when I bought a bottle of cheap ‘vodka’ at a BBQ joint on the street. On that occasion, one could say I hadn’t taken adequate precautions. This time I thought I had. I thought I had purchased premium spirits and mixers at licensed venues at one of Thailand’s most popular tourism destinations. But what I was really buying was dirt-cheap moonshine. And instead of buying ice like most bars in Thailand, some of the bars on Walking Street are making it on-site using bacteria-rich Thai tap water. I know this because I am now leaking at both ends. And I thought I was going to be the one doing the fucking in Pattaya.
The vomiting ends after an hour or so, but the diarrhoea persists well into the afternoon. When I can take no more, I crawl out of bed and drag my sorry arse to a chemist and buy some charcoal tablets. I take three times the prescribed dose and feel better almost immediately. So, instead of going back to my hotel, I head to the promenade on Beach Road and find a shady spot under a tree to watch the sunset.
I peer down the coast, at the tall white buildings piercing a blood-orange sky. If I could somehow block out the sound of techno music thumping out from a bar across the road, and somehow also block out the stench of uncollected rubbish, I might for a second think I was on a nice beach somewhere. “This sure is a beautiful place,” comment a couple from Tehran sitting next to me.
To be fair, there’s a lot more to do in Pattaya than boozing and whoring. The street-food scene is fantastic – a microcosm of Bangkok’s. If you’re into golf, there are 19 courses within 40 minutes’ drive of the city. Into diving or fishing? There are dozens of offshore islands to explore. Got a pack of nagging kids to entertain? Pattaya has water parks, theme parks, an aquarium, temples, museums, cabaret shows (with transgender performers), an international beauty pageant (also for transgenders), a tiger zoo and an elephant village where a tour guide was unfortunately trampled to death in December after a Chinese tourist pulled the animal’s tale. “Pattaya is whatever you want it to be,” says Matt Carrell, a British author living in Pattaya.
As I walk back to my hotel, I see a Thai woman sitting on an older man’s lap. He says something to her, she laughs, throws her arms around him and gives him a big sloppy kiss. It makes me think back to my conversation with Tom from last night, when in a moment of candour, he admitted to me that women in Australia just look right through him. If it weren’t for his dalliances in Pattaya, he’d have “fuck all to look forward to in life,” he said.
Like it or hate it, sex-tourism puts food on the table for millions of people in Thailand – people like Apple, one of thousands of middle-aged freelancers working the promenade on Beach Road. Before she came to Pattaya, Apple was a waitress near her home in Thailand’s northeast. She earned 15,000 Baht (AU$300) a month – $10 a day. Now Apple earns 2,000 Baht ($80) for sex but she has not had a client for two days and is keen to strike a deal: “Do you want to play pool? If you win, you win me and not money. I say welcome, come with me please for my Buddha, buy me a drink, you help me when you die, you go up, your God,” she says, pointing to heaven. “If you help me for one drink, when you die, for your future, you will be OK.”
Now I’ve heard a lot of weird shit over the years. But never before have I been told I’ll go to heaven for fucking a prostitute in a third-world country.
Image: One of the many ways tourists can entertain themselves in Pattaya.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT SOM
Early the next morning, I catch a songthaew to Jomtien Beach, 3km south of Pattaya. A residential area with high-rise condos and rows of colourful umbrellas in the sand, Jomtien looks like Waikiki from a distance. But when I get closer, I see it’s more like a rusted, rundown facsimile of Miami circa-1950s. The Westerners who live here or holiday on Jomtien are downright retrogrades. At 10am I see a fat old drunk in speedos run out of a bar and chase a coin down the street with his bum crack showing. “Got it!” he yells in a thick Cockney accent. Three old bar-girls who watched the whole thing roar with approval when the fat fuck returns to their bar with treasure in hand, as though he’d just fucking won gold for Thailand at the Olympics.
On Jomtien’s northern end, I find the enormous Pattaya Park Resort, a relic from the 1980s with a 240m tall observation tower that doubles as a jumping tower and old candy-coloured waterslides that shoot holidaymakers into a giant lukewarm whirlpool full of kids pissing in their swimsuits. From there, I walk up a steep street lined by Russian restaurants and Russian real-estate agencies where a tall woman with Slavic features hands me a pamphlet for City Garden Towers, an off-the-plan condominium where I can buy my dream home for only 1.4 million Baht (AU$60,000). But a fresh report by local news site Pattaya One urges caution: “More than 100 Thai and foreign investors are still waiting for the return of money after one of Pattaya’s biggest and most luxurious condo projects has gone bust. All building has stopped at Centara Grand Residence in Jomtien as the company building the project has said that debts of more than 911,000,000 baht have been racked up.”
I continue to Wat Phra Yai, a temple with a giant golden Buddha statue and staircase flanked by dragons. The 360-degree view of Pattaya – a calamity of white apartment buildings marching down the coast and into the hills – is impressive.
That evening I return to Walking Street and do it all over again, this time without the drink. Everything is clearer but much the same: clammy, desperate, cliched. But this night ends slightly differently. I am at a chicken stall a few blocks behind Walking Street when I meet Som, a pretty girl with elegant slim shoulders and honey-coloured skin. Som wants to fuck me for 1,000 Baht (AU$40).
“How old are you?”
“Do you like your job?”
“I don’t know... I don’t like it.”
“Why do you do it, then?”
“Because I am unlucky in life.”
“Could you work anywhere else?”
“I don’t know. I never tried.”
My food arrives. Chicken biryani. I share it with Som. It’s good so we order another, followed by mango sticky rice for dessert. Som is cool. She doesn’t take herself seriously and is a good laugh. In short time, she wears down my defences.
On the way to my hotel, we stop at a 7-Eleven to load up with drinks, smokes, condoms and whatnot. We’re at the counter, I’m right behind Som, standing only centimetres from her shoulders, when an uneasy thought enters my head. I ask Som if she is katoy (a gay man).
Som is not impressed, turns around and points at her crotch. “Pussy!” she says. “You want to see?”
Som goes to hitch her dress up right in front of the check-out chick but I stop her. I finish paying and we walk out, in silence.
“Because if you are a ladyboy,” I say moments later, “The deal is off. You need to be truthful with me.”
Som throws her hands up in the air. “OK you want to see?” she says, pointing to her crotch. “I show you!”
“No! Just be honest,” I say, scanning her neck for an Adam’s apple. There’s no sign of one. Am I being paranoid? I must be. Have I been in Thailand too long? Probably. Then I look at Som’s feet. She doesn’t have the dainty toes of a lady. Som has the short stubby toes of a man.
I walk off alone weighed down by Som’s indifference, overpriced shit from 7-Eleven that’ll end up in the bin and the opening monologue of Watchmen, a dystopian thriller about superheroes gone rogue: “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’... and I’ll whisper ‘no’.”