Pattaya Grows up

Guest blogger John Borthwick checks-out Thailand’s self-described “Extreme City”.

Pattaya, Thailand’s fastest-growing resort town has many faces — sunny, templed, bawdy, raucous, delicious — but never shy. Basking on the Gulf of Thailand 150 km southeast of Bangkok, it has long outgrown its military R-and-R origins of Vietnam War-era apocalyptic partying. If there’s anything like a uniform these days in Fun City it is shorts, beach shirt and sunburn.

Many visitors add golfing gear to that fetching ensemble, thanks to the multiple nearby courses. Growing sophistication in its restaurants and resorts sees Pattaya now attract almost ten million visitors a year, not to mention Thai families, expats and retirees.

Girl in blue Pattaya hotel pool. Copyright John Borthwick
Girl in blue Pattaya hotel pool. Copyright John Borthwick

Beaches and nightlife were what it was all about some 60 years ago when a group of US Air Force men on leave discovered the balmy shore and flamboyant sunsets of snoozy Pad Tha Ya fishing village. Fast-forward six decades and the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index for 2019 logged Pattaya as the world’s 15th most visited city, with an extraordinary 9.44 million international visitors.

Local passenger transport, known as 'songthaew' (two-seat).
Local passenger transport, known as ‘songthaew’ (two-seat).

Pattaya’s main beach is dense with deck-chairs and watercraft, so head south over the hill to Jomtien for wider, whiter sands, or north to the coves of Wong Amat. The best way (and best fun way) to move around town is on the “baht bus”, the blue pickup trucks that loop constantly along Beach and Second roads. (Their Thai name is songthaew — “two seat”.) With twin bench seats in the back, passengers hop on or off anywhere, paying a flat fare of ten Thai baht.

Pattaya Bay by dusk, looking south from Dusit Thani hotel. Copyright John Borthwick
Pattaya Bay by dusk, looking south from Dusit Thani hotel. Copyright John Borthwick

For family fun, the surrounding Chonburi province has quality theme parks such as Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens and Ramayana Water Park. Near the latter is Buddha Mountain, a 100-metre high image etched in gold on a cliff-face. Meanwhile, the most celebrated attraction is the Sanctuary of Truth at Wong Amat just north of town. This extraordinary, all-wood structure surmounted by a 105-metre spire honors an amalgam of eastern religions and mythology, and was 30 years in the making.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

The Gulf region around Pattaya could be known as the Golf of Siam, with some 20 courses and driving ranges within an hour’s travel. Less physically exerting are the Thai-style massages available everywhere across town. The quality varies, but at under $10 an hour you can afford to sample several shops. Recommended is a skilled one at the Thai Blind Massage Institute in the Jomtien Complex shopping centre.

Neon nights, Pattaya, Thailand Copyright John Borthwick
Neon nights, Pattaya, Thailand, Copyright John Borthwick

Nightlife is still Pattaya’s middle name and parts of town don’t really get going until dusk when scores of beer bars start filling up. You’ll find industrially spiced nightlife along South Pattaya’s Walking Street, a garish strip of go-go bars, buskers and wide-eyed, flag-following tour groups. Pull up a pew here at an open-air bar, order a brew and contemplate the passing circus in its extremes of beauty and bawdiness. Keep in mind as you watch that the city’s welcome archway at Jomtien Beach declares, “Pattaya the Extreme City”, as both a boast and caution.

Tiffany Show. Copyright John Borthwick
Tiffany Show. Copyright John Borthwick

Pattaya has entertainment for all, and for all three sexes. Its most glamorous transvestite cabaret, the famous Tiffany Show stars elaborately costumed kathoey (lady boys) whose high-kicking, lip-synching routines are lots of fun and family-rated, too.

Shopping comes high on the list for many visitors and Pattaya obliges with swags of bargain beachwear, shoes and luggage. For quality, brand-name goods at fixed prices, try the beachfront malls like Central Festival or Royal Garden.

Sanctuary of Truth, teak temple, Pattaya, Copyright John Borthwick
Sanctuary of Truth, teak temple, Pattaya, Copyright John Borthwick

You’re spoiled for bed choices here with major hotel brands including Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Dusit, Marriott, Hilton and Accor. There are also scores of quality, mid-budget hotels stretching from Naklua in the north, through the party zone of central Pattaya and south to Jomtien. 

© John Borthwick 2009
© John Borthwick 2009

SURVIVAL TIPS: Swim at Jomtien or Wong Amat rather than in the dubious waters of Pattaya Bay. Never rent a jetski (scams galore) nor use a camera in a go-go bar (bouncers galore). Don’t ride in a taxi without first agreeing the price. Avoid Pattaya during Thai New Year, Songkran, in mid-April, when you’ll be drenched day and night for a week in the world’s largest watertight. Fun at first, then not.

Words and photographs © John Borthwick 2020

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