In this specially selected excerpt from the book Bizarre Thailand, author Jim Algie prove looks can be deceiving in Thailand’s Sin City.
With golf and scuba-diving, go-karts and shooting ranges, cheap hotels and motorcycles, bars with Happy Hours that run from 10am until 10pm, and working girls on tap 24/7, Pattaya is a young man’s—or an old lecher’s—wet dream come true.
As diverse as the city and its denizens are— a motorcycle club of Harley riders who do charity work for underprivileged kids? A mosque and sizable Islamic community beside a Catholic church?—its reputation is best summarized by the popular T-shirt slogan: “Good Guy Goes to Heaven, Bad Guy Goes to Pattaya”.
Try as people have to paint the city in black and white terms, or denigrate it as some Asian Babylon, Pattaya and its floating populace of visitors, migrant sex workers, and expats is far too colourful for those monochromatic stereotypes.
In the funhouse mirror that is ‘Fun City’ appearances are distorted and deceiving. The Harley-riding bikers whose hubcap for nightlife is the Tahitian Queen Rock ‘n’ Roll Bar on Beach Road are not the outlaw motorcycle gang they resemble. Dressed in their leathers and jeans, rumbling down the roads astride their ‘hogs’ the members of the Jesters Motorcycle Club are actually good Samaritans who pride themselves on working for underprivileged children and other charities. Their biggest event of the year is travelling en masse to Phuket for the annual “Bike Week” held every April, when motorcyclists from all over Southeast Asia gear up for rallies, revelry, tattoo contests, a Miss Phuket Bike Week pageant, and, yes, doing good deeds for the community.
Opened in 1978, the Tahitian Queen is the oldest bar in the city. Run by former GIs, it has not changed much in the last three decades. There are no ‘naughty’ shows, the dancers do not strip, the décor is gilded Vegas kitsch, and the medleys of vintage rock, from the Doors and the Stones to KISS and Jimi Hendrix, echo the soundtrack of the Vietnam-era film Apocalypse Now, famously described by filmmaker Frances Ford Coppola as “the first rock ‘n’ roll war”.
Until the late 60s Pattaya was a comatose fishing village. During the Vietnam War, it became an enclave for GIs on R ‘n’ R, catering to the soldiers with all the down-home comforts of America like go-go bars and Western-style clubs with Thai musicians (most notably Thailand’s last machine-gun executioner Chaovaret Jaruboon, who passed away in 2012), playing covers of rock-solid standards.
Much of the city was planned and built by American engineers. That explains why the lanes along Beach Road are arranged in numerical order and why the city’s grid and wide roads make it one of the country’s most well-planned and easy-to-navigate destinations. By the time the war ended in 1975, around 700,000 GIs were descending on Pattaya every year. Many traded in their army fatigues for shorts and flip-flops, married local women and set up travel-oriented businesses and nightspots.
Over time, the American influence has waned. It’s most prominent every year during the joint naval exercises called “Cobra Gold” when the warships of the United States, Thailand and, in 2010, Korea, formed an armada of Marine Corps might. “You used to see all the American warships in Pattaya Bay,” explained an American professor of English who goes by the nickname ‘Scooter’. “But in recent years they’ve docked at Sattahip, the Thai navy base. Maybe in the past the sailors were rowdier when they came into town, but they’re pretty well behaved now. The Shore Patrol checks up on them. The Marines also get involved with some charity projects like building houses for the less fortunate.”
With pillars-of-the-community gangsters, good Samaritan bikers, massive campaigns to stop violence against women, well-behaved sailors, and quite possibly the only group of foreign police volunteers in Southeast Asia—the Foreign Tourist Police Assistants (FTPA), made up of ex-cops, ex-soldiers and businessmen—what is Pattaya coming to? This might be the most philanthropy-minded citizenry in the entire country, but few of those stories will ever make it beyond the city limits.
As Michael Moore discovered during the making of his documentary Bowling for Columbine, the murder rate had actually decreased in many large American cities. At the same time, TV coverage of murders had increased by more than 700 percent. Good news means bad ratings. Hence, the majority of do-gooders will continue to get cropped out of Pattaya’s big picture so the media can blow up mug shots portraying the minority of scoundrels like Jeff Savage. The video of Savage threatening to loot and torch the Central World Plaza in Bangkok during the 2010 protests went “viral” on the Internet. The British citizen and Pattaya resident was given a 45-day sentence after pleading guilty to violating the Emergency Decree. Since he had already spent some time in jail, Savage was released from custody pending deportation. Upon hearing the judge’s verdict, he burst into tears. “It’s a miracle, I am surprised, and there is justice in Thailand. I want justice for all – the dead, red shirts and even yellow shirts,” he told the press.
Lest anyone finger certain nationalities as the chief troublemakers in the city, author Christopher Moore, the Canadian novelist and Bangkok expat who penned the 2004 thriller Pattaya 24/7, shared a few words of wisdom. “No countries have a monopoly on producing morons and hooligans,” he said with a dry chuckle.