Every man has his price; it turns out mine is somewhere around three drinks. That was all it took for me to break the solemn, heartfelt promise made to my mum years ago that I’d never get on a motorbike. Yet here I was, a few frosty beers later, climbing on the back of a motorbike taxi, about to follow two of my friends down the dark, sordid rabbit hole that is central Pattaya on a Saturday night.
I fumbled with the poorly fitting bike helmet, awkwardly straddled the back seat, and before really having time to think about the implications of breaking that flimsy childhood oath my driver launched us straight into the traffic, where I was left to focus on the far more urgent business of clinging on for dear life.
Pattaya is Thailand’s Sin City; a place I’d steered well clear of on previous visits having heard its reputation for sleazy sex tourism, and a little scared that apparently this place could make Bangkok seem tame. My friends have been living on the outskirts of town (in the nicer neighbourhoods) for years now, raising a family and working as teachers, and this was my first visit. I’d been staying with them for a fortnight, during which time we taken speedboats to the islands, eaten like kings in the local restaurants, and generally behaved entirely respectably. I’d been assured, however, that no visit to Pattaya could be complete without at least getting a sense of the Saturday night depravity in all its sordid glory.
My bike taxi weaved through the traffic, and I was lost to the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of the place before we’d even got started. The three lane highway we were on was choked with traffic, but we cut swathes through it like sharks diving through a shoal of baitfish: the bikes of my friends popping in and out of my peripherals as their drivers negotiated the gridlock. Sirens rang in my ears as a police car came blazing past us; red and blue lights reflecting from the chrome of my bike. The police were soon snarled up in traffic and we swept past again, mounting the curb and tearing down the sidewalk to miss the worst of the roadblocks; two street cops stepping aside tolerantly to let us pass.
An enormous Muay Thai arena seemed to rear up against the skyline as we cut down a side street to get off the main road. A sea of people (mainly farang – foreigners like me) were flowing through the doors, drawn like moths to the lights, and intoxicated at the prospect of violence. The booming voice of the fight announcer rang out on the streets, staccato switching between Thai and English as though he was calling the faithful to prayer.
The side street we had shot down, like so many in this part if the world, was lined with street food vendors and their hungry customers. At this pace individual aromas were hard to pick out, but the combined effect was powerful and mouthwatering. Faces flashed past – some caught in the streetlight, some lost to the shadows. I tightened my grip on the bike as my driver raced on, and the carts and food stalls gave way to neon-lit bars pumping trance music into the night. Bar girls sat on stools outside and tried to coax punters in off the streets, smiling with their mouths but not their eyes. My attention was unexpectedly caught by plasma screens in every bar showing Premier League football being played at that moment back in freezing England. The night time sea breeze blew warm against me as we plunged deeper into the heart of the madness, and home has seldom felt so far away and yet so close.
Our bikes dropped us at the Hilton; a glistening ivory tower soaring high above its gaudy surroundings. We rode the elevators to the sky bar and revelled in the views as we drank a round of cocktails that cost more than my daily budget for the trip. It was an elegant beginning, but in its way just as surreal and disconnected as the rest of the night would prove to be. As we descended to street level it didn’t take long to leave the trappings of sophistication and style far, far behind us.
On the seafront we jumped aboard a songthaew and headed towards Pattaya’s famous Walking Street. The distance is only around a kilometre and a half, but every few metres of that route is lined by hookers plying their trade under the lights of the seafront promenade, as seedy old Western men parade up and down taking it all in with hungry eyes. These girls are just the tip of the iceberg in this town – there are hundreds more in the bars, clubs, massage parlours and hotel rooms. I’ve wandered through the red light districts of European cities like Amsterdam and Paris before, but the sheer scale of this place is staggering.
I’d started the night with a playful sense of adventure about the whole thing, imagining myself aloofly observing the city like a twisted parody of David Attenborough watching creatures in the wild. Now I was immersed in it the novelty was swiftly fading, and the reality of the place was setting in with a little more bleak grimness than I’d been prepared for. The working girls didn’t bother me in the slightest; it’s a more honest way of making a living than many ‘respectable’ careers, like banking or politics. The seedy, leering punters were far harder to tolerate though. As we sat at a bar on the edge of Walking Street nursing beers and watching the crowds flow past like litter-strewn waves at the beach, a group of Russian football hooligans behind us bellowed aggressive terrace chants, stuck their tongues down the bar girls throats, and one pulled his dick out and started slapping it on the nearest girl. It wasn’t particularly late at night, and wasn’t in a particularly seedy bar. The girls took it in their stride and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. We finished our beers and left.
It was all downhill from there really. I enjoyed the company of my friends, and we had some interesting and funny conversations with some of the bar girls and ladyboys in the bars we stopped into. They all seemed to appreciate the fact that my friends were a married couple and I was only looking to buy drinks, as it gave them some brief respite from the sleaze. I very quickly learned that it is essentially impossible to beat a bar girl at connect 4, and we found a fun rotating bar called Carousel where they let us play our own music instead of the cheesy technoshite that seems all pervading in the rest of the city. My friend’s wife dragged me through the doors of a couple of the more notorious bars whilst shielding her eyes from the stage shows, and although we didn’t linger there was the slight sense that the girls on the stage were more in control than the potbellied ranks of farang observers. Any novelty had been left behind on that long depressing ride down the seafront though, and the sleaze of the punters left me feeling grubby by association.
Everyone had been right: downtown Pattaya on a Saturday night has to be seen to be believed. It’s a sensory overload – Sin City in the pulsing flesh. I’m not planning on going back anytime soon.