A gentleman’s journey—from the rat race of Bangkok to the placid shores of Pattaya
It happened on a Sunday: I was walking around a shopping mall in Bangkok with my son, wondering both why I had taken him there, and when had my imagination deserted me. It struck me at that moment that I could have been anywhere in the world, as every mall looks the same no matter where you are. I remembered that the Thailand I loved was the smell of garlic and chilli frying in woks, drifting towards me on hot and humid air, or palm trees and wide natural smiles accompanied by the screeching noise of chaos—not this shopaholic’s paradise (or purgatory). It was then that I decided to do what we old Bangkok hands say we will never do… I decided to move to Pattaya. So I contacted the house agents, loaded up the lorries with all my worldly goods, put the wife and kids in the Chevy, and set forth on a new adventure.
Pattaya’s not a fishing village anymore, it’s a bona fide city now. I remember when it became one because I watched them put the sign up saying “Welcome To Pattaya City”. When I first started coming to Pattaya in the 1970s it was already more than a fishing village, but many buildings short of the city it is now. It was just after the Vietnam War, and Pattaya was suffering from the endemic schizophrenia that came with that tragedy. The American residents, as well as the spivs, gamblers, scammers, and grunts that didn’t want to make the journey home, were typically either longhaired hippies in flowery shirts, or gung-ho military types with short-back-and-sides. They may have got drunk in the same bars but they certainly didn’t mix. There was a clearly defined demarcation line between those that had been pro-war and those that had been rabidly against it. Coming from the UK I found that we Europeans were not taken very seriously in all this—we were outsiders, and tourists to their war.
The European celebrities back then were eccentric. There was Dolf Riks, who owned a restaurant of the same name on the beach road just in front of Walking Street. He exclusively painted monks in saffron robes, and his restaurant’s walls were filled with canvases of different shapes and sizes, all with saffron oil paint as the unifying theme. The food there was excellent, and many a day I slipped away from the crowd of drinkers to have a solitary lunch and a moment to myself. Then there was Alois Fassbind, the manager of the Royal Cliff hotel, famous for his wild gay parties and his very eccentric personality. He ran the best hotel in town and that made him huge in the expatriate community.
There was also a retired American colonel that tried to teach me how to ride a big motorcycle outside his bar (my first attempt) while we were both drunk. Then there was a deaf Air America pilot whose house I used to stay in, and what came out during the drinking bouts in his garden left me with no doubt that all the crazy things we have ever heard about the Vietnam war were true. Of course, there were plenty of other colourful characters too, but you get the picture.
Pretty girls and palm trees is mainly how I remember those days, all washed down with beer and whisky of course. I was a teenager and that’s about all you need when you’re that age. How I survived the madness, drunkenness, jealous women, and car wrecks is an amazement to me today and, to be honest, not many did survive it all. But I will save those stories for my autobiography that I will begin work on the first day of my retirement, whenever that is.
At any rate, it was all a long time ago and now I have other needs: being near to schools so my children don’t sit in traffic jams, clean air to breathe, the sound of birds with my morning coffee, and of course the cost—as it’s a lot cheaper living in Pattaya than Bangkok. It’s been less than a year since I moved, but so far I like living here, and it’s less than two hours to Bangkok so I still get to go back occasionally.
Much in Pattaya has changed over the decades but much has remained the same. The Americans are mostly gone, but mass tourism has arrived. It all looks like a city now, albeit a rather disorganized one. Back in the day we used to drive to Bang Saray in the evening for the seafood restaurants, and when I did that recently I discovered my favourite restaurant was still there—and hadn’t changed a bit! It’s a seafood restaurant on a pier so you are literally “dining out at sea”. It’s called Ruan Talay and it’s in the old section of Bang Saray town.
The rest of Bang Saray has grown a bit and the signs are in Chinese and Russian now, but it’s still charming and remains what it was then—Pattaya’s shy and innocent cousin. And the jewel at its centre is still Ruan Talay. They used to breed imported dogs in rooms off the middle of the pier back in the 1980s, Saint Bernards included (I do not exaggerate!). Today the kennels still exist but they house mongrels now. The huge furry Saint Bernards are gone, and that’s a good thing, life in the Swiss mountains being far more pleasant for them than a pier in the Gulf of Thailand. But such madness was once the norm in this city.
I also went to Walking Street recently, for old time’s sake, wondering if I would meet Jerry’s ghost. “Jerry”, whose real name was Gerald Norman Bryant II, was one of the street’s infamous personalities. Born in the USA, on the 4th of July no less, he was the man behind Dang’s Hot Dog Stand. And although his legendary hot dog stand is no more, the big tree it stood parked in front of still remains.
Jerry had been shot several times in the stomach in front of his hot dog stand, and incredibly survived being thrown in the back of a pickup truck and driven with great speed on roads full of potholes all the way to the hospital in Chonburi. The first time I met him he was still a young man, and when he walked into Tippy’s Bar on Soi Post office they made him lift his T-shirt and show me the scars. “He survived that,” they told me proudly. Everybody liked Jerry. Well, everybody except the mad policeman that shot him that is.
Jerry became a good friend and I saw him most weekends for a while. He expanded his business to the building on the water behind the big tree and the hot dog stand. It was called the The Saloon Bar, and inside—at the back, over the ocean—was an open section where Jerry set up the mechanical bucking bull he had imported. I was thrown every night, more than once, and would hit the cushioned floor hard. Such things didn’t bother us back then, as nobody was supposed to live past 30 anyway. When the mechanical bull went out of fashion Jerry traded it in for a big screen TV and a video machine. He also served the best American style pizza in all of Thailand. Many an afternoon he would unlock this little sanctuary and it would be my own private cinema complete with pretty girls to bring me beer and pizza. Doesn’t sound like much today, but back in the early 1980s such lifestyles were reserved for the rich and famous but I got it for free. Well, almost free… I did pay for the beer and pizza, or signed the bill when I was broke and paid Jerry later.
Walking Street today is certainly still entertaining. Too organized and commercial for my tastes though, and it’s lost its sense of community. But it’s worth a visit even if you don’t speak Russian or Chinese. When I was a teenager I knew almost everybody there (those were the days!). I knew lots of pretty girls back then too, and I suspect I met their granddaughters last time I was there—it has been 40 years after all. The girls today are bigger than their parents were—a fast food diet has made sure of that—and they appear to suffer from the stress of modern life and debt. They seem a lot less happy than their elders, and that’s not good. And the music is different (and much, much louder). It’s not for me anymore.
Another change is that they are cleaning up the beaches and cleaning up crime, although not necessarily in that order. Rumours abound regarding Pattaya’s bright shining future, and we hear rumblings that over a trillion baht investment is coming. There’s also a fast train to Bangkok in the works, even a casino perhaps, and the possibility that foreigners will finally be allowed to own land. It will be an ASEAN hub, we are told, and a new Pattaya for the new millennium. I like a bit of optimism with my morning coffee so, I’m in. Yes, let’s do it! I could happily spend my oncoming old age writing books during the day and going to a casino’s poker room at night. As you can guess, I am still something of a rogue, but ready for Pattaya to be the global city it has long shown promise of becoming.
Pattaya is certainly a golfer’s paradise, as well, and there are more golf courses than you could shake a nine-iron at. I hung up my golf shoes about 16 years ago however, when I made the mistake of buying a set of clubs for my then 2nd wife. She was Italian, and turned every round of golf into a drama equal to a La Scala production of Tosca. My own golf clubs are now covered in dust at the back of the garage somewhere.
But there’s plenty for the children to do too, and that means I don’t find myself in a shopping mall with them every Sunday. There are some nice beaches at the naval bases, but apart from Sai Kaew Beach they are off limits to foreigners. Last time I was stopped and told “no foreigners allowed”. I then suggested they put a sign up saying “No Dogs or Foreigners”. “Oh no,” the navy guard told me, “Dogs are allowed.”
Fortunately, Sai Kaew Beach is a very nice place, and they still allow me entrance so it will have to do. As to why foreigners are banned elsewhere—your guess is as good as mine. I have bought a fishing rod and have found that fishing is a nice thing to do with my kids. We haven’t caught anything yet, but we live in hope. I also have an idea to buy a Royal Enfield motorcycle with a sidecar and go exploring with my children. So far sanity has prevailed, but with us writers it’s only a matter of time before eccentricity wins the argument. I could strap the fishing rod to the sidecar or put my golf clubs in it. It seems like I am doing an excellent job of talking myself into this. Perhaps I should grow a beard as well.
Back in the day a very close friend from Bangkok had a teak workboat that he leased out to the oil service companies in Sattahip. It was called The Harpoon, and on weekends we would bring it from Sattahip to Pattaya for our pleasure. One night we stumbled out of the Marine Bar at 3am and decided to go to Koh Lan, the now popular tourist island off the coast. Beers in hand, we pointed the vessel at the island and then all fell asleep. Luckily my friend had been a naval man, and somewhere in his drunken slumber alarm bells were going off. He woke up just before we hit the beach and saved the day, or saved the morning at least. We were a little bit more careful after that—but not much.
I recently made a new friend with a boat, and he took us to the islands—albeit in a more sober, and safer, fashion. Having a friend with a boat is something I highly recommend, and messing around on the water is very good for the soul. You can lunch at one of the nearby islands, and then head back to harbour for a pizza and a few beers at sunset. Now, I shouldn’t tell you this because the place is very special, and people that know it wouldn’t want tour buses pulling up outside, but there is a very wonderful bar and restaurant—a throwback to the 70s—made of wood and jetsam and sitting on a quiet beach not far from Pattaya City. I will probably not be popular for this, but here goes: it’s called Drifters Café (5/30-31 Na Jomtien Soi 8, Moo 1). Don’t tell them I sent you though, as I’m sure to get in enough trouble with the regulars for spilling such treasured beans.
Overall the restaurant scene in Pattaya is relaxed. You don’t need to wear a jacket, nor trousers for that matter, and the cost is about half of what you’d pay in BKK. Of course, the tourist type seafood restaurants are expensive, but everything else isn’t. Pattaya is a great place to dine out, and you can have endless fun exploring the various cuisines on offer.
There are also all kinds of hotels to choose from in Pattaya, much more than in the past, and the prices are generally very reasonable. The roads are also much better now, and that reminds me of another story. Back in the late 1970s the Vietnam veterans in Patpong used to hire a bus to Pattaya once a year. All monies that were collected in the charity boxes in the bars of Patpong during the year were taken to Pattaya and handed over to the orphanage with great ceremony. I was once invited to join this annual excursion by my friend Jim, who was one of the organizers, but we decided—last minute—to let the bus go on without us and continue our Bangkok bar hopping around Patpong. At about two in the morning we decided it was finally time to leave, and with great difficulty we convinced a taxi to take us to the Montien Hotel in Pattaya in the middle of the night. This was no mean feat, as in those days the taxis were not air-conditioned and were held together by bungee cords—and let’s not even mention the brakes, or lack of them!
Back then the old two-lane road from Bangkok to Pattaya ran between rice fields and had very little lighting. All around us raced ten-wheel transport trucks, some going much faster than us even though our driver had his foot all the way to the floor. Jim had fallen asleep, as people around me often seem to do at two in the morning, and I was calculating the odds of us living to see sunrise. I was probably 18 years old at the time and you can see why I didn’t anticipate a long life. How I got here today is a mystery, but it could also be destiny.
I remember that night that every time the taxi hit a humpback bridge too hard Jim would wake up, look around him, then look at me very seriously and say, “When it all goes wrong our only chance of survival is if the driver is smart enough to veer off the road and crash into the rice fields,” or words to that effect. Then he would immediately go back to sleep until the next humpback bridge. I miss my old friends. They are all dead now, but certainly not forgotten.
For me, even in my autumn years I see that Pattaya is still an adventure—a high-octane rollercoaster ride for some, and a round of golf or a day at the beach for others. And thankfully, you no longer have to take your life in your hands to get here. I’ve been living here now for almost a year, and feel I have barely scratched the surface.
So if you’re out for an evening stroll in Pattaya, and you spot a Royal Enfield with sidecar, remember that it might belong to the man you see nearby, the one drinking a cold beer and watching the sun go down; staring at the horizon contemplating the meaning of life, and wondering where the sea and the next storm might take him. By Harlan Wolff
About The Author
Harlan Wolff left London and arrived in Bangkok in 1977 shortly after a coup but in time for martial law and a curfew. So began his long relationship with Thailand, complete with its economic roller coaster rise and fall, and curious clandestine occasional democracy. At one time he had overstayed his visa by seven years and was therefore an illegal alien—possibly the most wanted illegal alien in Thailand, as there were very few foreigners in those days and even fewer like him. However, he rectified the situation in his late 20s, and has been a legal alien ever since.
Having turned survival into an art form, and having become fluent in Thai, his situation gradually improved, although it was still a harum-scarum existence fuelled by alcohol, and accompanied by rogues. The supporting cast included foreign businessmen and criminals, alcoholics, local and imported gangsters, gamblers, whores, politicians, and policemen. The salt of the earth to this aspiring writer.
His maternal grandfather was a well-known Swedish war correspondent, and Harlan claimed from early childhood that he too would be a writer—and the search for the required life experiences was the driving force behind his decision to travel to Thailand at such a young age. By the 1990s he had become the person foreigners went to when they had problems, and so began his life as a private detective and troubleshooter. In the last 20 years he has successfully solved cases of theft, industrial espionage, extortion, kidnapping, and murder, both in Thailand and around the world. The life of his fictional character Carl Engel, featured in novels such as Bangkok Rules, is not far removed from the author’s own experiences.
The private investigation business was successful enough to provide Harlan with a life of five-star hotels, fast cars, slow lunches and beautiful women. He took to the high life like a duck to water and although he found the low life an interesting place to have visited, he says he is glad he didn’t have to stay there forever. He was also the man behind Wolff’s Jazz Bar on Sukhumvit Soi 11 (although that venue closed its doors in 2016). Now into his third marriage he retains a fondness for single malts and Cuban cigars, and remains an avid collector of leather-bound books and classical music on vinyl. He began writing after his 50th birthday, claiming he had at last acquired sufficient ammunition, and promises an autobiography when, and if, he turns 60.