I’m still not entirely sure what made us decide to visit Pattaya. I think it had something to do with the unspoken dare present when people claim that something is “the biggest” or “the most” of anything. Since coming to Thailand, we’ve been repeatedly told that Pattaya is the unofficial sex tourism capital of the world. Yes, the world. I was driven by a twisted sense of curiosity to find out what kind of a town this made Pattaya, if there really were that many prostitutes, and if Pattaya really was that sleazy.
With loud club music filling streets lined with grimy bars and guesthouses, the areas around Pattaya Beach reminded me a little of Khao San Road in Bangkok. But instead of the wide-eyed and intoxicated backpackers of Khao San, Pattaya was overflowing with men over 50 skulking around the streets wearing Hawaiian shirts, and eyeing up every girl that passed.
I like to think that I can usually find my orientation relatively quickly in a new city, but Pattaya was a literal maze in which I couldn’t tell one massage parlor or go-go bar from the next. It all blurred together and we found ourselves getting lost in the shuffle. Instead of Thai food, the street stalls sold Cornish pasties and sour cabbage. Other stall owners rushed around selling skintight dresses and bedazzled shoes, as though an emergency requiring these items could occur at any moment.
The culture of prostitution in Pattaya is the source of many jokes in Thailand, and I could understand why from the moment we arrived. It was easy to see the dark humor in the excessiveness of it all: The blatant, neon signage for sex services, the giggling girls wearing revealing outfits, and the crowds of stereotypically gruff and lecherous-looking patrons.
Part of me didn’t want to spoil the party by reflecting on the moral implications of this oversexed city, but they were difficult to ignore. I would never presume that I understand the lives of sex workers in Pattaya, but from the little I do know, most come from poor, rural areas of Thailand, hoping to support themselves and their families. I can’t imagine it’s an ideal life.
Similarly, I can’t really know the motivations of the thousands of foreigners who regularly flock to Pattaya, but I couldn’t help but feel a strange sympathy for them too. During our 2 days in Pattaya, Brent and I were ludicrously overcharged for drinks, transport, and even for a spot on the beach. It’s safe to say that sex businesses in Pattaya are making a substantial profit from naïve, lonely old men.
Pattaya has recently been trying to clean up its reputation, yet the whole city seemed almost devoid of real Thai culture. The Westerners come for the warm weather and easy access to sex, but afterwards they seem to expect to be able to retire to an air-conditioned room, watch the Australia Network and eat a Shepard’s Pie. And Pattaya provides.
To be honest, there’s really nothing all that pretty about Pattaya. It does have two beaches: Pattaya and Jomtien. We spent the day at Jomtien, which was supposed to be the nicer of the two. It wasn’t unpleasant (because really how bad can a sunny day at the beach be?), but Jomtien Beach reminded me more of the “beaches” we have back home in Ontario. The scenery was boring, and the sand was course and dull. It didn’t come even close to measuring up to the average Thai beach.
The sex workers hanging around the entrances to massage parlors and bars called out to the other men who passed by, but they didn’t try to lure Brent in because they recognized that we were together. Then, at one point, Brent and I were walking down the middle of a road, and saw a car approaching from behind us. We crossed to opposite sides of the street to let the car pass, and for less than 10 seconds, Brent was alone and out of my sight. When the car cleared the road, I looked across the street and saw in the instant that we had been separated, 2 massage parlor girls had latched their arms onto Brent and were cooing in his ear. So, if you’re still trying to get a sense of how many sex workers there are in Pattaya, that story pretty much sums it up. Yes, it really is that sleazy.
Have you ever visited Pattaya or another place where sex tourism is prominent? What did you think?
Edit: I strive to promote an open dialogue on this blog, and I encourage constructive criticism and well-argued counterpoints, but any comments perceived as intentionally derogatory or malicious have been and will continue to be deleted. It’s fine if you disagree with me, but let’s keep it clean.