I’m back from Thailand, and am now at home in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where we are in the middle of a fierce snowstorm.
Thailand was fun. The weather was great, warm enough to stroll about in shorts and t-shirt but not swelteringly hot like Dubai in summer. We spent almost all of our time lying by the pool or lying on a beach, reading books and drinking cocktails. Having spent most of my previous holidays charging around visiting friends and relatives or climbing on and off Russian trains, it was nice to have a holiday where I did almost nothing. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was my first holiday as a married man, and my wife was of course with me. Maybe I’m getting middle aged.
The first thing I found was that after nearly five months in Russia I automatically speak Russian to anyone who is not native English speaking. Snapping out of this habit in Thailand took a few days, during which time I’d spoken Russian to Thai waiters and taxi drivers who looked at me as if I was Russian, until I switched to English after the first sentence whereupon they looked at me as if I was a complete idiot.
Anyway, Pattaya was an interesting place in many ways. In stark contrast to the likes of the UK or Russia where to embark on any kind of business venture requires several dozen licenses and approvals, in Pattaya it appears that all you need to start your own business is three square feet of land, which need not even be yours: a pavement or beach will suffice. As a result, everything is a terrible mess. Shops, bars, stalls, hostels, tumble over one another in a cascade of chaos, with neon signs stacked up above and behind each other advertising anything from fresh lobster to not-so-fresh lady. Jungles of electrical cabling, installed without much thought and liberally added to with none at all, run along every street on poles, crossing sides almost at random. This is typical for many parts of south east Asia, and the very lack of regulation and resulting chaos generates a place of enormous character, if not much charm. I liked it.
Getting about was good fun. A taxi in Pattaya consist of a surprisingly smart Japanese pickup truck with a lightweight roof bolted to the back and a row of seats installed down each side. There are no individual seats, and of course no seatbelts. You can even stand up on a running board on the back if there are no seats left. The concept is similar to a Russian marshrutka whereby you clamber in with a load of other people along a predetermined route, only in Thailand this route can vary depending on how much you pay the driver to make a detour. They are dirt cheap to travel in. The other way of getting about, which I didn’t try, is by scooter. In Thailand, every man, woman, and child over ten is entitled to a scooter which must be driven with complete disregard to ones own mortality. Thai law forbids under-utilisation of the pillion and if you are caught with only two people on your scooter you will be stopped and asked why there is not at least one other person on the back and a small child on the petrol tank. Helmets, though compulsory, are optional. Scooters are ridden in Pattaya by an entire cross-section of society, taking in old, young, male, female, local, and expat alike. Watching the scooters trying to cheat death from the back of a taxi is good fun.
The population can be split into about four groups of people, the first obviously being the local Thais whose sole purpose in life seems to be to flog any kind of item or service they reckon a tourist or expat resident could possibly want, which results in some pretty weird stuff being touted. Cheap tacky souvenirs are as you would expect the main things on offer, followed closely by food which is often unidentifiable and cooked and sold from little carts and stalls at the side of the road. Pattaya is the only place in the world I have seen a food vendor, with a full array of meat gently cooking in front of him, wearing a pollution mask. This part of Thailand represents capitalism at its most unrestrained. I doubt there is a single item or service which anybody could want which is not on offer in Pattaya. Then of course there are the Thai women. Personally, I wasn’t impressed with the local women as far as looks go, but maybe I’m just too used to walking about in Russia, where even in a remote town like Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk a squad of supermodels would barely turn a head. But that said, they were friendly as hell, and they really made an effort. They were trying to part us from our money of course, but they were awfully pleasant about it. Several times we went for a foot massage, and the girls doing the works were full of beans, asking us all kinds of questions and trying to learn some Russian (my companions were Russian), laughing heartily as they did so. Makes a change from the sullen women who serve you, or pretend to, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
But whereas I wasn’t tempted to file for an instant divorce and run down the street after a Thai girl, many others plainly were, and this brings me onto the second group of people you see in Pattaya: the old, fat, tattooed British men. Whereas there is a general absence of young British lads on holiday in Pattaya, there is instead a mass of late-middle aged to young-elderly British men, almost all patrolling the streets with a 19 year old Thai woman on their arm. You’d see a similar thing in Dubai with the Fillipino and Chinese girls, but in Pattaya the men were just a bit older and almost all sported tattoos on their forearms, and many on the hands. If Dubai is the place where middle class men come to find a foreign girl when they hit their mid-life crisis, Thailand is where the working class come at the twilight of their careers. A few, but embarrassingly enough, had grown long grey ponytails and sported an earring. No doubt this was a big hit with the girls.
The third group of people, who I really didn’t expect, were the Scandinavians, mainly Finns and Danes. They were everywhere, and especially concentrated around our hotel which shared the building with the Danish consulate. Probably a third of the bars in Pattaya boasted Scandinavian flags, menus, and beers. These were inevitably full of Scandinavians who were generally elderly, burnt to a crisp by the sun, with their wives and husbands, with the men not in the least bit interested in the local women. Watching a table or two of them for a while and it became clear that the Scandinavians shovel beer down their throats with as much enthusiasm as the Russians. I guess it’s the climate.
The fourth group you find in Pattaya, of which there are hundreds, is Russians. Russians can get a visa on arrival in Thailand, so as with Turkey and Egypt, the place is full of them. Every other group we passed on the pavement was Russian to the point that all I kept hearing was Russian and I wondered if I’d somehow ended up in Sochi. They were mainly youngish couples, whereby the men would stroll along with their (inevitably) very attractive, tall, blonde wives or girlfriends in tow, completely ignoring the advances of the local women. Enterprising Thais had learned a few Russian words to tap into this lucrative customer base, and it was not unusual for me to be mistaken for a Russian and have somebody come up to me whispering “Xorosho! Xorosho! Sex show! Davai!” On one of the days we went to an island a few miles offshore Pattaya, and I think of about 150 people I was the only non-Russian.
I wouldn’t say that Pattaya is a place you’d go to for a great cultural experience (nor scuba diving, for that matter), and I very much doubt that it is representative of Thailand. But for a place to go to lie about doing very little and putting the snow and ice of Sakhalin out of your mind, it wasn’t bad at all. To sign off, here is a picture of me with a ladyboy.