It felt like a lucky escape. Back in Bangkok, some 36 hours after we left, both Brigid and I looked at each other – over a much-craved drink or five – and said simultaneously ‘thank god’.
It was Pattaya.
It was hell on earth. And we spent a night there (on business).
Everyone’s heard of Pattaya of course. Some 180km south-east of Bangkok, the town was more or less created by the US air force during the Vietnam war when they plonked a giant B-52 base close-by at U-Tapao, which in turn quickly led to a vast red-light district beyond the gates.
I was talking to Dad today about this and he said that, notoriously, in his airforce years it was often noted that most US military establishments around the world come with this happy bonus for the surrounding town – whether they want it or not. In the case of Pattaya, it seems to be the gift from Richard Nixon that keeps on giving and giving. Forty years after they stopped plastering kids and hamlets with high explosive, agent orange and napalm, Pattaya remains a den of indefinable awfulness where, so the guidebooks say, some 100,000 sex workers, and others employed in the industry, live or earn a living in this town of about a million.
And it’s easy to see why, once Uncle Sam turned what was once a sleepy little beachside village into a giant carnal servicing machine for the 2 million or so GIs that funnelled through Thailand between 1967 and 1975, it grew to become the happy holiday resort it is now. The answer is the roadway.
Thailand was smart. It was pragmatic. Once it became clear that the USA was going to use them as a large aircraft carrier and R&R destination to support their deadly freedom machine, the Thai government determined to extract all it could from the superpower overflowing with $$$. Thus Pattaya was quickly connected to Bangkok by an eight-lane highway, some 80km of which were raised.
Indeed, as payment for their compliance Thailand got the beginnings of a vast roading network (which they built on and today makes NZ’s highways look like county tracks) and massive amounts of infrastructure.
Now a second brand new (Thai built) eight-lane motorway supplements that first, US constructed roadway. 16 lanes there and back.
New Zealand – also US-allied in the same awful and pointless war – seemed to extract an ANZUS expulsion, and now ACTA and TPP. A little Thai pragmatism may have gone a long way. Whereas Thailand took the US for all it could, New Zealand’s relationship, especially under various National governments, seemed and seems to be one of subservience and currying for favour. Whereas we’ve bowed and scraped to the USA, Thailand has, with a wai, lifted their wallet.
And then put that in the past. Earlier this year the US asked if they could base a NASA U-2 at U-Tapao – for ‘climate research’ – and the Thai government declined. The US media happily portrayed this as an internal political issue, and that was an element, but the accompanying reality was also clear in the Thai media: we don’t want to go back there again, as the USA tries to muscle China. As one TV voice said ‘awful things were done to the people of Cambodia and Vietnam from our lands. Never again’. And whereas in the 1960s and 1970s this was a developing nation desperate for infrastructure, it’s now a nation with a stronger economy than most in the west.
It’s awful. It’s huge and it’s in your face. The beach itself is tragic – almost non-existent in glorious South East Asian terms: the region has literally thousands of fabulous beaches. The deck-chair overcrowded, grey sanded strip is not one of them.
It may be very clean (it is) and largely sewerage free (it’s not Kuta), but I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would sit on it. Unless of course, your personal resort history is Blackpool or the Crimea. In which case it may be paradise. It has palm trees, warm water, cold beers are served on the beach and there are girls, girls, girls, and girls who used to be (or still are) boys – all of whom are happy to love you for as long as you are willing to pay. Some, indeed many, are also happy to marry you – if you continue paying.
Which takes us back to the strip behind the beach. For 4 kilometres, and going back at least a kilometre from the beach, you have sex for sale, and give or take the odd Starbucks, 7/11 and bank, not much else. Bars with hookers, bars with ‘exotic’ dancers, street hookers and plain brothels. With swarms of mostly older men – European, Japanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern – looking for whatever they personally wanted from the endless flesh on offer.
Oddest were the huge Russian family groups – bring mum, kids, grandparents and extended whanau to Pattaya where Dad and Uncle Ivan can screw merrily until it’s time to get back on the charter flight to Volgograd. You can see the charter planes at the airport and you can see the kids sitting in the open air go-go bars watching while poppa ogles the pole-swingers fingering his wallet.
Our hotel had 4 channels in Russian (two in English) although this perhaps reflects a global reality that English speakers are increasingly a tourist minority.
Many men come and never leave – as above: paradise – and you can see them in some numbers in the morning sitting in the countless horrible bars sucking on a stubby-holder waiting for the girls to come back from the night’s work.
I guess it’s easy to get self-righteous about all this – as one observer said, at least it’s in the open, unlike Bali where often hypocritical religious mores mean that some 40,000 hookers officially don’t exist. And families sell their virgin daughters to horrific vast sleaze pits in Jakarta, operated – like Bali (and no doubt Thailand, as they were in many Western countries, NZ included, for years) – by the cops, to finance a new patio (as calmly stated by a woman on a harrowing doco on Indonesian TV a couple of years back). You also don’t see the fat older European men with pre-teen boys as you do in Indonesia – although I have no doubt it exists, just not as blatantly, and such is prosecuted here, unlike Indonesia where, again, the cops are implicit in that as procurers.
I sit on the fence on all this (aside, of course, from the underage sex): many working there are doing so willingly, but equally many are not and they are lives destroyed simply to offer pleasure to our compatriots. That said, sex work and prostitution are also a part of Thai society going back far beyond the massed GI arrival and the attitude to such things is far more complex than any righteous Western outrage.
Mostly I simply find the old Farang men on the prowl ugly and sleazy, and the areas that cater for this trade are much, much uglier than the areas that cater for the local trade.
Either way, Pattaya was and is an awful hellhole. It gathers together pretty much all of the most hideous aspects of Thailand’s tourist and historic relationships with the rest of the world and throws them in your face.
I won’t go back.