As the bus to Pattaya lurched out of Bangkok airport I took in my fellow passengers for the first time. A sea of grey, balding and rather sweaty male heads bobbed above the seats in front of me. On my left sat a clumsy, rotund man with oversize lips, and a withering case of halitosis. ‘Var are you from?’ He asked, enveloping me in a noisome cloud. ‘England’ I replied monosyllabically, hoping my brevity would discourage much further conversation. ‘I’m from Germany’ He continued, excitedly, before he realised he was in the wrong seat and thankfully tripped off to the other end of the bus.
My other neighbour was equally unappealing. Piggy eyes were framed by thick spectacles, and a few wisps of greasy hair were stretched across a shiny, balding pate. For most of the journey his fleshy fingers fumbled nervously with a his hotel booking documents, sweat collecting in dark patches on his shirt. Every single person on the bus was male, at least fifty and travelling alone. If Pattaya’s reputation didn’t thunder before it, you could have mistaken it for a Saga or golfing holiday. But these men were coming to Pattaya for something very different. Sex. Cheap, plentiful sex.
Ever since the Vietnam war when GIs flocked to Pattaya on R&R, the city has been a global mecca for sex tourism. Every year over 1.5 million tourists flock here, mostly male – and increasingly Russian and Indian. The mere mention of its name elicits raised eyebrows, grimaces and references to Gary Glitter and ping pong.
I was here for a rather different reason, to visit two great friends of mine (Mr and Mrs P) who’d recently moved here from the UK to teach at international schools. With only a single night in town they (or was it me?) insisted we take in some of the sights that have made Pattaya famous.
Our night started with a stroll down the seafront, and it wasn’t long before my jaw was on the floor. In England it’s surprising if you see one prostitute loitering on a street corner, yet on this single strip in Pattaya there were hundreds, if not thousands of them. “Every single one of these girls is a prostitute” confirmed Mr P “I’ve heard that in low season you can get a shag for as little as 400 Baht (about £8).” The girls were mainly young, and mainly beautiful. They stood alone, smoking, applying make-up and exuding ennui, their feet crunched into painfully high heels, waiting for some leering lothario to pick them. “Crikey, he must think he’s hit the jackpot” nodded Mrs P towards a septuagenarian who was arm in arm with a strikingly beautiful, lithe Thai in spray on hot-pants. “Yes, until he finds out that’s she’s actually a he, then he might not be so happy.” Often the most beautiful women are ladyboys, and for the untrained eye it can be very hard to spot the difference. Until it’s too late…
At the end of the strip we turned left into Walking Street, the vortex of Pattaya’s seediness. It made Amsterdam’s red-light district look like a tea party in the Cotswolds: a sensory overload of neon lights, thumping house music, scantily-clad bodies, gawping tourists and vulpine touts. Gobsmacked groups of Sikh men stumbled out of bars. Sinewy ladyboys with supermodel figures stood alluringly in doorways. Hatchet-faced, pallid Russians eyed up the women, like bears circling their prey. Everyone was looking at everyone else, watching, waiting, selecting.
“As you’re only here for one night, we’ve got to take you to a ping pong show” said Mrs P. “Er, yes, sure” I replied, my revulsion overcome by curiosity as to quite how a lady was able to fire a ping pong ball out of her, well, interior parts. At that moment a slippery looking man appeared beside us, waving an obscenely printed flyer, “You wan’ ping pong?” he said, before ducking away through the crowd, gesturing for us to follow.
Two minutes later we’d paid 200 Baht and were sitting in a dark, cramped bar, sandwiched between a turban-wearing Sikh and a corpulent Russian. On a podium infront of us an exceptionally bored looking girl lathered her naked body in foam, ignored by most of the clientele. Instead, all eyes were on a stunning bikini-clad girl cavorting on a bed, being spanked enthusiastically with a giant black rubber tube by a surprisingly young Russian. He looked as if this might be the most exciting moment of his life, eyes gleaming, his long blonde hair stuck to his face with sweat. The corpulent man to our left laughed as he watched, occasionally leaning forward to give his compatriot an encouraging slap on the back. We later learned that they were in fact father and son, and that the night before they had shared a prostitute while the wife and mother slept in the hotel room next door. How absolutely revolting and utterly wrong in every possible way.
If you don’t know what a ping pong show is, it sure ain’t the type of ping pong involving bats and a table. Oh no, this is a very different sort of ping pong, involving taut Thai ladies and flying ping pong balls. Not only ping pong balls, but flying darts, chains of artificial flowers, flying bananas and a host of other alarming tricks. Somehow though, watching this series of acts unfold, there was nothing remotely shocking or sexual about it. The girls looked bored, robotically popping out balls and firing darts at balloons. They did this every night after all, for them it must have been about as exciting as typing a letter or answering the phone. The most shocking thing was when men volunteered to catch the bananas, or pull out the neverending chains of flowers (how did they fit all those flowers up there?) I do hope they washed their hands afterwards.
From a voyeurs point of view, Pattaya is fascinating, a night out there a window onto a world so incredibly far removed from my own. But I was left with an uneasy feeling, that not far beneath the neon-lit surface were disturbing layers of depravity and sexploitation. As we were leaving Walking Street I asked Mr P what he thought about this. “Oh yes, definitely, there’s alot of dark stuff that goes on here, alot of mafia, and alot of very young girls. Occasionally you hear on the news that a severed head has been found washed up on the beach, normally a Russian, someone who’s perhaps found out too much.” It didn’t surprise me at all. And on that note we turned off the strip, away from the bright lights and prostitutes and headed home for the night.