The cast may be evolving, but the scenery and soundtrack remain the same. The gorgeous half-moon of Pattaya Bay swoops around the headland to (slightly) more refined Hat Jomtien, and delicate sea-breezes whip up a heady cocktail of suntan lotion, fast food, and motorcycle and jet-ski fumes. Wide-eyed package tourists jostle with Indian tailors, ruddy-faced middle-aged Western men, and beachfront fruit and seafood vendors. Thumping beats, cruising ‘baht buses’ and the commercial hubbub provide an irresistible symphony. And after dark the tourists’ eyes open even wider with a stroll past Pattaya’s infamous go-go bars amid the sex tourism hub of Walking St.
Pattaya’s a stay up late kind of town, but wake up earlier than most and there are activities galore to redress your daytime/nighttime balance. Hit the dive shops to explore the city’s offshore reefs and wrecks, or get some fresh air on world-class golf courses. And if you’re here with the family, the kids (and mum and dad), will find plenty to do to make it a real holiday. The town’s wicked essence remains defiantly intact, but around the fringes it’s softening and becoming more inclusive. If you welcome it with a dash of confidence and a pinch of adventure, Pattaya’s sun-kissed pursuit of happiness might prove irresistible.
US GIs kick-started Pattaya’s dramatic transformation from quiet fishing village into throbbing tourist Mecca when they ventured down the coast in search of fun and frolics from their base in Nakhon Ratchasima. That was 1959. During the Vietnam War, the flow becomes a flood as troops on leave arrived to soak up Pattaya’s cocktail of sun, sand and sex. Package – and sex – tourists followed, and Southeastern Thailand’s golden goose grew fat on the seemingly bottomless pot of dollars pouring into the local economy.
More recently Pattaya is striving to re-position itself as a ‘family-friendly’ destination, and while the grit, glitz and seedy glamour remain, the ‘town that sex built’ is now offering more attractions that won’t have the kids asking awkward questions.
Curving around Ao Pattaya (Pattaya Bay), Hat Pattaya (Pattaya Beach) is the city’s showcase stretch of sand. Th Hat Pattaya (known colloquially as Beach Rd) runs along the waterfront and is lined with hotels, shopping centres and, towards the north, go-go bars. At the southern end of Th Hat Pattaya, ‘Walking St’ is a semi-pedestrianised jumble of restaurants and nightclubs. The alleyways running between Th Hat Pattaya and Th Pattaya 2 each have their own character: Soi 13 is filled with pleasant, midrange hotels while Soi 3 is the heart of the gay area, dubbed ‘Boyztown’. Development is ongoing, and at the time of writing the third street back from the beach, Th Pattaya 3, was awash with the construction of new hotels, bars and restaurants. If you’re after a tad more tranquility then head to Hat Jomtien, a 6km stretch of attractive beach and cleaner water, 5km south of Hat Pattaya. Hat Naklua, a smaller beach 1km north of Pattaya, is also quiet.