The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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.

The Beach.. kinda

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.

Walking Street

But, Pat­taya.

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.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Gavin Burgess on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Like that you said it. Don’t like that aspect of Thai­land at all.

Gavin Burgess on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Like that you said it. Don’t like that aspect of Thai­land at all.

Jon Lowther on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm

sure­ly pre­cise­ly as you expect­ed just worse!

Jon Lowther on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm

sure­ly pre­cise­ly as you expect­ed just worse!

Petra Zoe on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Gut­sy and infor­ma­tive writ­ing, from a first per­son point of view. Dig it.

Petra Zoe on Face­book
August 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Gut­sy and infor­ma­tive writ­ing, from a first per­son point of view. Dig it.

Mar­tin Stow­ers on Face­book
August 14, 2012 at 12:50 am

Well wri­iten Simon, that’s the Pat­taya I remem­ber 25 years ago,appears it still has­n’t changed.

August 14, 2012 at 3:40 am

You write well Simon.…
As a side note, did you real­ly allow your name to be used in the bar sign/road pic post­ed?
Nah, I did­n’t think so. Cheers*

Kirsty Rob­son on Face­book
August 14, 2012 at 4:33 am

It is ghast­ly and sad and I know what you mean about the Russ­ian fam­i­lies. Bizarre.

Paul brown
September 12, 2012 at 4:42 am

I worked in Pat­taya in the ear­ly nineties. Made about 20 vis­its over 5 years, the longest being 2 months. We were build­ing 50 meter car­bon yacht masts. Back then you did see mid­dle aged men hand in hand with very young boys. I could nev­er under­stand the expa­tri­ates going on about the won­der­ful life they had while liv­ing above a dirty noisy sleazy bar in front of a pol­lut­ed beach (back then). Inci­den­tal­ly Simon, I have just fin­ished work­ing for 20 months in Banyuwan­gi East Java and found it a far more pleas­ant envi­ron­ment (the job that is) there will still the same expa­tri­ates though not many and they were more inte­grat­ed.

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