For a brief period in the mid- to late 1970s, Pattaya reigned supreme as Thailand’s premier beach resort. It was the destination for Bangkok’s growing band of expatriates, as well as for wealthy young Thais who were coming around to the idea that trips to the ocean could be worthwhile. Foreign tour operators were quick to spot the opportunities arising from Pattaya’s sudden popularity, and they dispatched vacationers by the plane-load.
All reveled in the natural splendor of this once-thriving fishing village, with its long bay, fringed by soft sands and palms, following an almost perfect curve. A sprinkling of offshore coral islands promised endless possibilities by way of day excursions. The nightlife was simple and, for Thailand, rather tame—mainly seafood and Thai restaurants, plus a few open-air bars.
Visitors had a wonderful array of new and luxurious hotels to choose from, with room rates as low as anywhere in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Pattaya could be reached in less than two hours from Bangkok, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the north. The highway was rarely busy; congestion was unknown.
Since then Pattaya has grown fat and, frankly, not very pretty. Its reputation as a world-class destination has all but been washed away, a situation summed up in the now-familiar phrase “the Pattaya Syndrome,” used to describe the similar plight of other gaudy resorts. Pattaya became the victim of its own success. As wave upon wave of tourists poured into the place, rampant and uncontrolled construction was allowed without any thought for the future. Buildings remarkable for their tasteless design sprang up along roads intended more for bicycles and ox carts than for tour buses anci jeeps. The infrastructure was strained way beyond its limits, traffic sometimes backed up all the way to Bangkok and the water in Pattaya Bay became less and less appetizing. By the early 1980s, Pattaya’s youthful bloom had gone; in its place was an unwieldy giant desperate for freshwater supplies and adequate sewage facilities—or at least the legislative power to enforce their provision.
The local tourist industry and authorities, in a healthy display of self-analysis, have acknowledged the mistakes of the past and are now trying to improve Pattaya’s image and performance. Part of the new image campaign is to emphasize Pattaya’s amazing list of attractions. No other resort in Southeast Asia, they say, comes close in terms of offering ways to enjoy yourself. Leisure pursuits, for example, range from archery and golf to go-carting and shooting (real guns and live bullets!). At sea, there’s wind surfing ten is regarded as the best wind-surfing beach in Thailand—parasailinga
yachting, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing. For those who like to be on the move, motorbikes are available, from the smallest buzz-box to the mightiest of machines (you don’t need a license or a helmet; if you drink, that’s allowed, too), along with jeeps and cars. You can even go horseback riding.
Shopping is a favorite activity in Pattaya. In the past, this was restricted to a few rather tasteless tailors and general-purpose stores. These days, Pattaya has its own supermarkets and department stores. Popular with the tourists are the countless stores and stalls along Beach Road and the other main roads that specialize in knock-off Rolex watches, Polo shirts, Gucci bags and other items bearing the likeness of famous brand names. There’s also a thriving trade in painting; any one of dozens of artists will paint your portrait from a photograph or have you sit down for a modeling session. The end result is no Van Gogh, but neither is the price tag.
Some say Pattaya isn’t what is used to be—and that’s to be lamented by those who knew it ten or fifteen years ago, or wish they did. Pattaya’s growth and development have been far too fast and, as a result, it is bursting at its ill-stitched seams. Today it is a massive, often wild, beach resort striving to cope with its infrastructural problems. That said, it does offer something to suit pretty much every taste and every budget—including one of the best hotels in Thailand, the Royal Cliff. Whatever you want, Pattaya has it—in many ways at its peril. It remains an immensely popular destination, and for those who enjoy nonstop action, it might just be paradise.