I must have only been one week into my Thailand travels when I first heard about Pattaya. It was a place that seemed to carry nothing but connotations of disgust and dread and I was told to avoid it at all costs. Often when it was brought up, people – who hadn’t even been a part of the conversation beforehand – would butt in and emphasise how awful it was. I heard terrible tales of the nightlife on Walking Street; the grubby beaches; murky waters and obscene amounts of prostitution. One man from Chile actually described the city as “decay”, to which my initial thoughts were: wait…why hasn’t this place been quarantined already?
Anyway, after one particularly long and difficult week at school, my friend and I decided that we wanted to get out of Bangkok. As teachers, we only had Saturday’s and Sunday’s to ourselves (and a rather low-budget) and so we decided to go on an adventure, take the plunge and see the city of “decay” for ourselves.
From Bangkok to Pattaya
At around 9 am, we arrived at Ekkamai bus terminal (which can be found a few meters from exit 2 at Ekkamai BTS station). The buses left every half hour, so after waiting in a small queue, we paid the delightful price of 150THB for our air-conditioned van and had already set off within the hour. The roads were almost empty so early on in the day, meaning that the drive took just over 2 hours. Annoyingly, we were dropped at the side of a highway upon arrival – which coul be slightly daunting if you’re on your own or not used to the Thai lifestyle. Luckily, songthaews and taxis waited nearby and so, with no hostel booked, we jumped on the back of a motorbike and asked him to take us to the dreaded Walking Street.
As we took the back alleys, we noticed an abundance of restaurants serving even more American and British food than in the capital. Slowly, Irish pubs, sports bars and strip clubs accounted for almost every window en route and then finally, after passing an enormous Hooters, we came to a halt at the Walking Street arch which displayed the words “Passion of Colourful Paradise”. Interesting to say the least. Its venues were blackened inside as if repelled by the sunlight and staff scrubbed away at…everything…from the night before. Rats hopped along the pavement and the stench of alcohol was quite overwhelming but my God, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but be completely intrigued by what went on inside these places after sundown. Everywhere had daft names; for example; Frog, Alcatraz and Iron Club. The street was fascinating, even in the day time when it was deserted. As the sun was at the highest point, we realised the day was getting on so we set off in search of accommodation. And beer.
Finding a Hostel
It took us a good hour and a half to find a hostel for a decent price. The main road was block after block of sleazy hotels and pay-by-the-hour motels, all of which seemed to be decked out with tacky furniture and bad lighting. Even when walking the streets so early in the day, the pavements were filled with old, white (often overweight) men who would clutch to their beautiful Thai woman with the strangest, misconstrued pride.
So far, I bet you’re probably wondering why the hell we stuck around. When you think of Thailand, you imagine lying on a hammock, sipping juice from a coconut whilst watching the sun rise and fall behind the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. Pattaya, itself, offers nothing like this. If and when you go to Pattaya, expect sleazy, expect dirty and expect surprises. The Thai people have a saying: ‘mai pen rai’, which, roughly translated, means ‘no worries’. If you are someone who enjoys being pushed out of their comfort zone slightly and who doesn’t mind slumming it; someone who’s there for a laugh, to make memories and, already, lives by the ‘mai pen rai’ motto; then go.
Eventually, we wandered back towards the alleyways and found a hostel called 18 coins. It was relatively well-priced at 350THB each, per night, for a double bed, air-con, a private bathroom, shower and a balcony. Though we were a little way from Walking Street by this point and were almost sure we could find a cheaper hostel if we carried on walking, the heat of the Asian sun had worn us out. We ditched out bags, grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the opposite end of walking street in search of the Bali Hai Pier (just head towards the wannabe-Hollywood, fluorescent Pattaya City sign. You can’t miss it).
Pattaya beach is not really a beach; it’s a strip of sand beside grubby seawater and, wherever you lay, you’re never more than five meters from the pavement where the prostitutes stand to sell their services. It’s not exactly relaxing. If you want a real beach (one that’s more sand than cigarette butts) then Koh Sak or Koh Larn is where you want to be. There are a few more surrounding islands, such as Koh Si Chang and Koh Phai, however, I never managed to make it to those two. I do know that Koh Si Chang is quite far from Pattaya and, in fact, I’m not sure that there’s a frequent ferry. Koh Phai is about 2 hours from Bali Hai and has great snorkelling opportunities. Though, unfortunately, there are no restaurants, no accommodation and no public facilities.
The island has two beaches; the southern one being ideal for snorkelling with an immense coral reef. Unfortunately, the island has no connecting ferry and so the only way to get there is by speedboat. It takes around 20 minutes and speedboat runners can be found selling their services all around the Bali Hai Pier (and yes, you can haggle their prices!)
Koh Larn is 45 minutes by ferry, 15 minutes by speedboat and is the most accessible and popular one. The island has 6 beaches, all of which specialise in an array of different things from snorkelling and water sports to relaxation and (incredible) sunset views. My personal favourite is Samae Beach. With only a short motorbike (or songthaew taxi) ride, you can dart between the Koh Larn ferry port and Samae Beach within 10 minutes. The final ferry back to Pattaya leaves at 18:30 every day which, I know, is annoyingly early. Of course, there is the option of an overnight stay on this island, however, like I said, our funds were running low and these options weren’t exactly in-budget. Samae Beach offers crystal clear waters, restaurants and white sand. What more could you possibly want?
Nightlife: Walking Street
Now, if the beauty and variety of Koh Larn isn’t enough to keep you here for a few days; then just wait for the night to begin back in the city. It’s weird, it’s mad and, if you’re a boy, it’s a night for you to switch roles with us girls (as the prostitutes can get a little handsy). The strip is full of clubs and bars of all sorts: from muy-Thai bars with boxing rings (which are open to the public), go-go dancer bars (in which I ended up playing Jenga with a stripper) and my personal favourite: the reggae bar. After wandering down the street for a while, you can get a bit carried away and forget that you’re there to find a place to drink. Before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the strip and have to double-back on yourself.
After an afternoon on Koh Larn, we returned to Pattaya feeling sandy and clammy. As we made our way back to the hostel, something caught our eye. Opposite the ‘Crazy Russian Girls’ club, was a clean, contemporary, wooden box, with no TV’s, no poles and not one item of leopard-print furniture in sight. Above the doorway, in a groovy sixties font, were the words ‘Reggae Rock ‘n’ Soul Bar’ and we knew we’d struck gold. In there, you won’t come into contact with one hire-girl, nor a creepy, white, overweight male. I can’t quite put into word how much I loved this bar. We stopped for one drink at 7:30 pm and ended up leaving at 4 am. Every night, a live band plays the most amazing renditions of Bob Marley and classic covers from 9 pm until 1 am. They love it when you get up to dance and once you’re involved (whether you like it or not) you’re part of their act. They’ll invite you on stage and ask you to sing and dance with them and not only is it one of the best nights you’ll have in Thailand – it’s one hell of a workout, too.
A Few Things I Learned on my Return Visits:
- There is a specific ferry which can take you to Samae Beach and back for a slightly higher price, meaning you wouldn’t have to waste time taxi-ing there and back. However, the last return is at 17:30 from the Samae Beach port and so you would miss the sunset.
- The Hilton hotel in Pattaya offers incredible views of the city. As a place with very few “scenic” spots, the Hilton offers a 180-degree view and it’s free to sit up there for a few hours. You do, however, have to be a guest of the hotel to use their infinity pool.
- Speedboat prices can be haggled down like I said before, so if you can afford it – do it: arrive in style.
- The prices on Koh Larn are expensive and often there isn’t an ATM machine near the beach. There is a shop at the main ferry port with a hole-in-the-wall, however, so you’re not totally screwed.
- Koh Larn doesn’t have much of a nightlife. If you’re staying overnight, expect a few peaceful beers by the sea and an early turn-in. On the plus side, you don’t have watch all the old men bargaining with the prostitutes. *shivers*.
- One more thing about accommodation. You may be someone who books in advance and if so, I’m sure you’ll be fine. We, on the other hand, never turned up with a booking. 18 coins was nice, but a little expensive and quite far from Walking Street. On our second visit, it was a Thai national holiday and there were absolutely no rooms available anywhere. We were almost ready to panic until a lovely Thai lady and her family asked if we wanted the spare room in their home. For 300THB per night, we got everything that you would from a hostel. So, don’t panic: the Thai people are known for being hospitable.
This account is of the first time I went to Pattaya. Over my 6 months in Thailand, my friend and I returned two more times to the city and it just got better and better. The nearby islands offer a peaceful retreat for the daytime and, at night, Walking Street is exciting to say the least. It’s not a city you would spend more than 2/3 days at a time in, but it is worthwhile – even if just for the memories. The reggae band is my favourite thing about the visit and by far the best live cover band I think I’ve ever heard. I’ve pressured Umbriel – the pianist, singer and songwriter – countless times for a CD and, still, they don’t have one. So, if you do go – and before I manage to return to Thailand – keep pressuring them. It’s just selfish if you ask me.
In all honestly, I have no idea why Pattaya has such a bad rep – yes, the sex-trade industry is intrusive and crude but that’s difficult to escape anywhere in Thailand. The city offers a great time and some of the beaches on Koh Larn could be plucked straight from the south.
If you’re looking for a whacky weekend in Thailand, don’t listen to the rumours!