Thailand has no shortage of vacationers, backpackers and expats. However, many travelers miss one of the most exciting and unusual places in both the country, as well as the world: the city of Pattaya, a beach resort “paradise” located on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand in the Chonburi province, only about an hour and a half via bus from Bangkok.
A few years ago, I was assigned a 6 month job in Pattaya. Described as a “paradise city”, I imagined a heavily commercialized, tropical vacationer’s dream. This was incorrect. After my first couple of days, I learned that the city would be better described as Disneyland for adults. It is a strange, often sordid realm of every vice imaginable; sometimes painted with a veneer of being a family-friendly beach town.
I soon discovered that expats outnumbered local Thai people. Generally, those I talked to ended up making Pattaya into a permanent, or near-permanent residence for one or more of the following reasons:
- The low cost of living compared to the West, with cheap beach-side houses.
- The availability of retirement visas and an economy that desires expats.
- Great food.
- A paradise for international Muay Thai boxing enthusiasts and competitors, including training grounds for boxers, gyms, etc.
- Business opportunities, including real-estate investment, plus low start-up and operation costs through hiring in Thai dollars.
- The Thai prostitution and matrimonial economy.
- Various other vices that bring people to a city that sometimes feels lawless.
Most expats live in Pattaya because of a combination of one or several of the factors listed. The least appealing benefit to us regular backpackers and tourists not interested in catching venereal diseases is prostitution. However, make no mistake about it: since Pattaya first began catering to U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war, prostitution has been the backbone of the economy. As soon as you arrive, you will discover that every other bar is filled with cocktail “waitresses” who are particularly friendly to male patrons. And, let’s not forget an endless amount of “massage” parlors and other types of loosely-disguised brothels.
While this certainly makes Pattaya into a den of vice that would make Las Vegas blush, there’s an interesting flip-side: many expats end up marrying their Thai girlfriends. In Thai culture, there are no qualms about marrying into a Western family with money, and it’s not uncommon at all for a foreign man in his 50s, 60s (or older) to marry some bar girl he met who’s half his age. Sometimes these marriages work out surprisingly well, and other times they’re disasters (but isn’t that life?). Nonetheless, it’s become an unmistakable part of Pattaya culture and you will find aged British men shopping for their young Thai wives at any department store in the city.
Visiting Pattaya: What to Do if You’re Just Passing Through
Although Pattaya is one of the top expat destinations in the world, not everybody wants to settle long-term into such a crazy city. Indeed, for most of us it’s wisest to just experience a taste of the place before going on your merry way. As someone who spent more time in this weird city than I’d probably have preferred, Here’s my Pattaya travel guide to help you get started in this crazy place:
Nightlife (Besides Prostitution)
Pattaya is not the best place for party-goers and EDM fans, as by far the best locations locations for that in Thailand are Phuket, the full moon parties, etc, but it’s not the worst place, either. After-hours there’s always a dance party going on at clubs like Mixx discotheque. On the way to Mixx, you’ll travel down Thailand’s infamous “Walking Street“. This huge expanse of foot-traffic will get you accosted by go-go-girls (hookers) every few meters if you’re male (and sometimes female). Nonetheless, this all-night party has tons of regular (non-prostitution related) bars and late-night eateries, as well.
As someone with zero interest in ever buying a prostitute, I still found it entertaining when five go-go girls dressed as French maids or schoolgirls grab your arm and try to drag you into their overpriced cocktail bar. Sometimes these locations are still fun to have a drink with your friends, as paying the “bar fine” and taking such a girl back with you is entirely optional in most venues, and I actually never got pressured to do so by the girls or by management in such places.
Hilariously, I would find massage parlors in some corners of Pattaya with names like “JUST MASSAGE, NO SEX!”. And these are actually worth checking out. Thai massage is no joke; it’s an ancient therapeutic practice. During my stay, I had a nasty injury, and I credit almost daily $6 Thai massages to helping me recover and get healthy fast. Just make sure you ask for a “mild” massage unless you want a skinny little Thai girl twisting you around like a pretzel and occasionally suffocating you. The masseuse girls who are legitimately practicing their profession don’t often make much money, so be sure to tip them well.
Eating, Eating, Eating
Anyone who loves Thai food will be delighted to find that the food in Pattaya is both cheaper and better than Bangkok. The best places to eat are, by far, mom-and-pop cafes and small family owned restaurants (by locals, not expats). Here you can get your fill of green (Kang Keau Wan) and red curried dishes, soups like Tom Yam Kai and Tom Kam Khai, and ubiquitous Pad Thai (fried noodle dishes). Pattaya, however, contains a myriad of different cultures. I’ve found restaurants ranging from Indian to Russian, and sometimes this multi-cultural fare is very good, as well. I even found a Mexican restaurant owned by a guy from San Diego, and it was as good as anything I’d eat back in the Sunshine State.
Buy a cheap tour of Pattaya, or if you’re extremely brave rent a motorbike or car, and check out some of the go-to tourist spots. In particular, there’s the famous 130 meter-high mountainside Buddha image known as Khao Chi Chan. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an endless amount of very interesting Buddhist temples and monuments to discover, like the Sanctuary of Truth: an entirely wooden temple / palace that is a wonder to behold.
Being a seaside city, there’s also plenty of exciting tropical islands to visit, including:
- The coral island of Koh Larn.
- The nearby surfing spot Koh Krok.
- The exclusive “bamboo island” Koh Phai, which requires special boat access but represents a scenic and remote nature preserve.
- Koh Rin, also called the “Gnat Island” which is by far the WORST marketing for any island name ever, but it’s really a beautiful, scenic beach paradise.
- Finally, be sure to check out Monkey Island. Not to be confused with the popular 1990s computer game of the same name, on Monkey Island there are no pirates to beware of–just lots of macaques that have learned to entertain tourists for money (I mean food).
Really Nice Hotels
Understand that Pattaya is a rapidly developing city, and real estate moguls all over the world are adding skyscraper hotels and luxury accommodations, fit for anybody who desires to splurge on their time in Thailand. As far as beach-side luxury in Southeast Asia is concerned, Pattaya is probably on the top of the list.
Enjoy the Craziness, but be Careful
Probably because of its focus on vice, Pattaya attracts a very…unusual crowd of people. During my months there, I used to liken the place to the modern day version of Port Royal (the infamous scoundrel den from the 1700s in the Caribbean). This means there’s never a dull moment. Of course, this can be for better or worse. If you plan to make any type of extended stay, I’d suggest to keep your wits about you, as the longer you spend there, the more likely you may fall victim to a scam or some type of crime. Always keep an eye on your valuables, be wary of overly friendly strangers, and try to avoid getting caught in any off-the-beaten path bars and clubs–the ones that are sometimes run by foreign mafia. Here’s a good list of scams to beware of at this link.
Pattaya is most certainly a unique location. Completely international, often unpredictable, and with a backdrop of sex–it would make an excellent location for a TV show or movie. This makes Pattaya into a place I recommend during your tour of Thailand, if nothing else as a quick stopover point on your way to somewhere else like Phuket. However, if the crazy lifestyle of the city appeals to you, perhaps you’ll end up as one of the countless permanent expats, who experienced one taste of the place and decided to stay for good, or at least for a few months the tourist visa expires.