Monday, October 29, 2007

Sin City

In the interests of research into one of the topics of this blog, I journeyed south to Pattaya, the original Sin City and the prime destination for international sex tourism. For three days and nights this past weekend, I wandered through the crowded streets (garishly lit by neon at night), browsed in several upscale shopping malls, waded in the surf and swam in a pool, reclined in an umbrella-shaded beach chair to read and watch Thais swim in their clothes, and visited various open-air beer bars and dimly-lit go-go dancing emporiums to see if Pattaya lives up to its fabled reputation. In short: it does. But two days would have been plenty.

Pattaya is a two-and-a-half-hour ride from Bangkok in an air-conditioned bus. For years it was a small fishing village on the western shore of the Bight of Bangkok until the Americans set up an air base nearby forty years ago during the war in Vietnam and it became the favored location for R&R (rest and recreation). Wherever GIs congregated, Thais saw a way to turn a profit. Bars were built and girls came from all over the country to give solace to the weary American troops. When the war ended in the mid 1970s, Pattaya reinvented itself as the sex capital of the world, a strange feat given that prostitution was then and is now illegal in Thailand. A construction boom followed that has yet to let up. Americans have been replaced by flocks of males from Japan and Korea, as well as Eastern Europe, especially Russia (many of the restaurants feature menus in Thai, English and Russian). The gently curving bay shore dotted by palms is lined with high-rise resorts, hotels, condominiums and serviced apartments. On the water is a flotilla of speedboats, yachts, jet skis, restaurant ships, and parasailors. There are ferries and boat rides to several offshore islands. Snorkling and diving can be done. In central Pattya city, a tiny strip of sand between the road and the sea is filled with umbrellas and deck chairs and a paved beach walk along the street is peopled with vendors, joggers, bicyclists, and ladies of the night (who also ply their trade at dawn).

Despite the the presence of couples with their kids and the increasing number of family-friendly activities promoted by Pattaya to attract a wider range of tourists, the city's raison d'ĂȘtre is undoubtedly sex. Most of the visitors seem to be my tribe of older men in all colors and sizes, but mostly out of shape and unattractive according to their home country's standards. In Pattaya they find love, temporarily and at a price. There is an enormous number of women working to serve their needs; in most of the city's hundreds of bars they outnumber the customers 10 to 1 (judging by my random sample). Pattaya is the mother of all sex towns, even the red light districts in Bangkok, Phuket and Koh Samui (which I've seen) seem puny in comparison. Even the seedy enticements of Tijuana are not in the same league. The morality crusade of the former prime minister (ousted by the military for alleged corruption) had some effect on the raunchiness of sex shows, according to reports, but there is a wide variety of "entertainment" available. Jacuzzis and simulated lesbian sex seem to the currently for jaded hedonists. In some places most of the girls are naked, and in others they wear bikinis and lingerie copied from Frederick's of Hollywood. Often the girls wear numbers (when they're wearing anything), for making a request I suppose. There is a gay-friendly area called "Boyztown," but ladyboys with enhanced breasts can be found also in the straight clubs and bars, perhaps attempting to fool the male customers with their exaggerated femininity. On the streets old men and young Thai women can be seen walking hand in hand (a no-no ordinarily in Thailand outside the big cities where public affection is frowned on). Women stroll the beach-side path, saying "hello, how are you?" to the passing males, and "Can I go with you?". Tourist police on Walking Street, the most concentrated section of the nighttime Disneyland of Sex, maintain a presence to prevent crime while illegal activity surrounds them. Pirated DVDs of the latest films and a wide range of porno videos (also illegal) are on sale openly.

It was good to smell the sea air again, even if polluted by gas fumes from the boat and four-wheel traffic. After a easy (if cramped on the crowded bus) trip ($3.50) to Pattaya from Ekamai station in Bangkok, I jumped on a sawngthaew (pickup truck bus with facing rows of seats in the back) for the ride down Beach Road to the Ma Maison Hotel I chose from Lonely Planet on quiet Soi 13. Central Pattaya is a collection of 16 or so side streets between two major roads. Walking Street is at the south end of town, but the nightlife is spread out from one end to the other. My hotel was perfect, a small collection of rooms ($25 a night) on two floors surrounding a pool with a restaurant-bar in front. The beach was minutes away but most of the bathers I saw were Thai, who frolic in the water fully dressed, and not tourists who most likely spent the daylight hours nursing hangovers. While sitting in a deck chair (rental: 75 cents) one morning I watched a stream of vendors file past selling balloons and other beach toys, some unidentifiable fried food, sunglasses, steamed shrimp and dried squid, cotton candy, newspapers, caged sparrows (for gaining merit from their liberation) and the always-popular foot massage. Inner tubes could be rented, but the surf, where boats and jet skis came and went with abandon, looked dangerous to me.

When you get bored with the beach, and you're not yet ready for the bar scene (which never seems to sleep), the Royal Garden Plaza Mall is directly across from the water in the center of town. Air-conditioned, it provides a respite from the hectic streets and crowded sidewalks where shoppers browse stalls selling every kind of knock-off brand objects, from clothes to electronics and the ever-popular watches (care for a Rolex at a bargain price?). One popular item is a silly putty tomato that splats flat on the ground before reconstituting itself. You could even buy a taser gun from a merchant on a motorbike. Inside the mall was every kind of brand name store imaginable, along with a movie theater and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit. All of the usual fast food imports from America were on hand, including Sizzler's. On the top floor a fine view of Pattaya Bay could be seen from the Starbucks deck. Outside the mall, a couple of enterprising Thai women were letting tourists hold cuddly little monkeys for a price. And on Road 2 on the other side of my soi a new mall called The Avenue is in the process of opening. It has yet another cinema multiplex (the city's third) along with a bowling alley on the top floor. Of course it will include a Starbucks (I saw at least five in Pattaya, and several Golden Arches).

My visit to Pattaya was short, and obviously my sampling of the city's charms was limited and partial. There is a large expat population, perhaps many of them Vietnam vets reliving their R&R glory days. They've chosen to live out their days far from home in a hot and humid climate, sometimes cooled by tropical breezes, among smiling Thai women who affirm their desirability: "You handsome man...I like old farang...they have warm heart." Can we blame them?

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