Pattaya is a city most popular with what’re known as “sexpats”, foreigners who come for to Thailand to take advantage of the largely unregulated sex trade. This is a city that boasts upwards of 4000 prostitutes, the kind of city where your hotel room includes a pack of complimentary condoms (no, I’m not kidding).
Clearly, I didn’t visit the city for any of the above, but a good friend of mine, a former tour guide, calls the city home, and so I have been there several times and, thanks to her expertise, have learned that Pattaya and the surrounding area has much more to offer than its reputation might have you believe.
Pattaya is on the coast, about a 2.5 hour bus ride east from Bangkok. The air conditioned bus costs all of $4 and, while the food there is more expensive than in the capital, and taxis or motosai (scooter taxis) would be required to navigate the city, a weekend trip still won’t cost much more than $200, excluding accommodation, of which there’re plenty of cheap but comfortable options.
I can’t exactly recommend Pattaya to everyone, but it represents a fascinating and genuine (and arguably unfortunate) side of Thailand and, as mentioned before, it is more than just prostitutes and those who seek them out. Of course, I had a personal guide to show me around and, honestly, without her, the trip likely would have been disappointing and I likely never would have returned. But, as is the case with many cities, sometimes you simply have to know it to truly enjoy it.
But, well, let’s get the city’s infamy out of the way before we move on. Pattaya’s seedier side is best exemplified by its Walking Street. It is a sight to see, like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street on mescaline. The street is lined with dance clubs, strip clubs and other clubs of less obvious denominations. Women gyrate in windows under a canopy of neon signs. In the street, people simply wander, often looking slightly dazed. Many of these are Russian men, all beefy and with blindingly white skin, hair shorn close to the scalp, and every one of them of indeterminate age–anything from late twenties to late fifties. Russians have made up the bulk of visitors to Pattaya for years–many signs in the city are in Russian–though my friend told me they are being quickly supplanted by the Chinese.
Though we never stopped into any of the Walking Street restaurants, bars or clubs, the spectacle was worth experiencing. It’s a different side of Thailand, a seedy and darker side of it, but one I’m glad I witnessed—and one I’m glad I am in no way a part of. It’s a little gross, a little depressing, but it’s also a very real part of Thailand, and worth seeing at least once.
Still, there are reasons to visit Pattaya aside from Walking Street. A short scooter ride takes you to lookout points above the Pattaya sign and overlooking the bay. There is also an impressive Big Buddha worth a visit.
Bring a few coins to either balance in the grooves of the Buddha’s enormous footprints, or toss into the Buddha’s gaping navel (it’ll all make sense when you get there).
Pattaya’s beaches aren’t exactly stellar, given that they tend to be quite crowded, while the bay itself is crammed with pleasure boats and jet skis. Still, Jomtien Beach is quieter, more popular with local families, and certainly cleaner. As a beach getaway, though, Pattaya is better treated as the gateway to Koh Larn, a nearby island, which I’ll write about in a later post.
However, it’s location on the coast means more than just boats and beaches, it also means seafood. Pattaya has some of the best seafood I’ve ever had and, if you know where to look, you can find it for incredibly cheap. For delicious and affordable seafood, head to the old part of the city, called Naklua.
Now, be prepared: Naklua is not only the oldest part of the city, but also the poorest. You’ll see children playing among broken bikes and motorcycle parts and old men fishing plastic bottles out of canals to sell them for recycling, but this is part of Pattaya—and Thailand—too.
Despite its poverty, Naklua is also a rather charming area where you’ll see few tourists and get a look into local Thai living.
Parts of Naklua are over a hundred years old, and this includes its market. Walk among the stalls literally overflowing with live and not-so-live fish, crab, squid and shrimp (I’m not kidding when I say they are overflowing with their wares; you actually have to watch where you’re walking to avoid stepping on a writing fish or stunned crab). Choose your dinner, paying a fraction of what you’d pay in even the cheapest restaurant, then bring it to the grill man who, for about $2, will cook your seafood to perfection. Next, take your food to nearby Naklua Park and watch the sunset as you dine among locals.
Pattaya can also be used as a convenient base from which to visit some of the area’s odder attractions. Nong Nooch Gardens, for example, is a ridiculously eclectic place. A short drive outside Pattaya, you can wander through a Versaille-style garden dotted with dinosaur statues and golden stupas, before stumbling into an English Garden, then finding yourself among bristling cacti.
After we’d explored the gardens for a while, my friend asked me if I wanted to see the cars. Though confused, I said yes, of course. It seems that, upon his passing, some rich dude’s family didn’t quite know what to do with his collection of vintage super cars, and so stored/displayed them at the gardens. I don’t know a thing about cars, but I could tell these were pretty impressive.
Now, after gawking at the cars, my friend said we could go to the “cat room”, to which I stammered, “Uh, sure?” Beyond the automotive showroom, a small alcove-like room held a display case of trophies and two tables draped with about a dozen cats. These cats were uniformly fluffy and lazy and many were grumpy, but most allowed themselves to be caressed and seemed open to being photographed.
The gardens also included a theater and tickets included entry to a traditional Thai dance performance.
After the gardens, as we drove home, my friend said she wanted to show me “the big Buddha”. Honestly, my first thought was, “Oh, great, another big Buddha” but I trusted her and figured, hell, it’s why I’m here, so I agreed readily. She took me to a mountain at the foot of which stood a small temple, but the mountain itself is what catches the eye immediately, given that its face is emblazoned with a carved image of the Buddha, fully 130 feet tall, one of the largest Buddha images in the world. The thing was carved using lasers and filled with gold to commemorate the late King’s diamond jubilee.
While I was there, I noticed a couple of men working on the carving, just below one of the Buddha’s enormous hands.
Anyway, the point is, there’s more to Pattaya than its sexpat reputation. If you’re a little tired of the capital and want a change, or want to experience a few different but no less genuine aspects of Thailand, Pattaya is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Bangkok.