It's a long way from London to Bankok, but my journey was made pleasant by British Airways staff being quite nice (in contrast to my previous experiences) and efficient. Of course being BA the plane itself was decades old a 747-200) and rattled a lot (I was in the tail) but flights over Asia are usually free from turbulance in my experience. Also there was a lovely Australian guy (25) in the window seat, who I could try out my smalltalk on.
When visiting Thailand I miss out Bankok and go straight to Pattaya, a seaside resort 150 km down the coast to the south-east. It has many of the attracytions of the big city without most of the pollution. If I had more time no doubt I would want to see the city itself for its temples, palaces and floating markets, but for a three day stop there is more than enough to do on the coast.
At the airport I messed around for a bit before finding out that the bus to Pattaya was in a few hours time. I decided to take a taxi instead, which was more expensive at B1800 (£28). I later found out that you could take a bus from Pattaya to Singapore for this amount of money!
This did get me there much faster though, since my taxi driver was confused - he seemed to think his surname was Shumacher, driving at 150 km/h when the roads were clear. There was obviously a massive highway building process going on, since huge lumps of concrete were being shaped in the form of motorway supports. I just hoped he didn't drive onto the ones which ended in mid-air! The tollways were fast, presumably since the proleteriat didn't fancy stumping up B30 three times per journey. The traffic jams where highways crossed were terrible though, with the car stopping for ages.
In contrast with my previous journey, I saw far fewer mopeds, but still lots of pickup-trucks with a dozen people in the back. I spotted the irrigation ditches and gardeners of my previous visit, but didn't notice as many water towers as before. Perhaps this was because the route was different, bypassing several towns.
My impressions driving into Pattaya were that there must be a factory nearby mass-producing cheap coloured flourescent lightbulbs, because they were everywhere, lighting up the foliage in bright pink and blue. Some were arranged in the pattern of the Thai flag. Everywhere there were vast pictures of His Majesty the King, with arrays of lights in front of them. This was obviously a jubilee year. You could see the country's flag everywhere, though in the morning I noticed that the flags on boats in the harbour were very ragged. Perhaps the weather is not always so calm and balmy.
Going straight into the bright lights of South Pattaya with a backpack on, a hotel employee was quick to tell me of the attractions of his establishment, so I checked it out. It was cheaper than the two other hotels I remembered from before, utterly central and the rooms were very acceptable, so I accepted.
One thing should should budget for when going to Thailand is clothes. By this I mean don't take many when you go for a visit, since you may want to buy a lot out there. T-shirts and shorts are incredibly cheap in cotton or Thai silk, but the real bargain is tailor-made suits, which I had resolved to get this time round.
Picking a tailor was the difficult part, since there are so many of them. I got a respectable deal from one tailor - three suits for 10,000 Baht (£150) - two linen and one silk. Perhaps I should have got a wool one also, since those materials are not so well-suited to the British winter. Still, I'll look fab in summer.
I went in to pick the material on the first morning, came back for the first fitting that evening and the second fitting the next morning. All three suits were ready on the second evening, which impressed me. The fact that the shop was open at 11pm says a lot about the hours people keep in Pattaya.
You can get any sort of food here, and it is generally cheap. Some of the western style food I have tasted better in other places, but no doubt at more expensive restaurants you would get what you pay for. The Thai food of course was excellent, although I did not eat as much of it as I could, being a little nervous as I had had digestive problems recently in London.
The PIC Kitchen was a classy establishment, set in traditional Thai houses with a good menu.
The main drag of South Pattaya is "Walking street". This doesn't mean there are no cars on it, but they travel a bit slower than the main two streets, which pen tourists into a strip of hotels and bars. The main street is so busy that on the rare occasions that traffic stopped, I crossed the road on general principle! Walking street is in the process of being paved, with those concrete tiles that breed in pedestrian precincts. Hopefully this will put more distance between me and the sewers. The street and the district is a riot of neon lights, but strangely I could not find any postcards of the sin district (in complete contrast to Amsterdam, which treats it as a tourist attraction). Perhaps there is a movement to turn Pattaya into a family holiday destination, and this would not be seen as helping.
The sky was nowhere near as clear as in New Zealand, with only first magnitude stars visible - worse even than London! I am not sure if this was due to the neon glow of the city or a tropical haze.
The street was home to many stray cats, streetsellers with electricity siphoned precariously off power poles, amputees begging (more than I remember) and young children selling lighters.
You can get in the back of a "taxi" pickup-trunk for B10 if you bargain well (B20 otherwise), and I found this generally acceptable, although I was once begged for B10 in the back of one. The city definitately needs more footpaths, and it might help to help pedestrian corssings that made it the whole way accross the street instead of stopping halfway :-)
There were a lot of Russian bars and restaurants that were not there eight years ago - obviously some New Russians like visiting the place as well as the more traditional Germans and Scandinavians. Every tourist generating nationality had a bar with its flag up, and many bars were showing English football matches. The amount of kids wearing Manchester United shirts would confirm many people's suspicions about how many of its fans live anywhere near Old Trafford.
The cabaret (Alcazar, Tiffany's, Simon's) are Pattaya institutions, and I found them entertaining, popular and reasonably affordable. Going to Alcazar, I was in a minority of a couple of dozen westerners who had bought independant tickets. The rest of the vast auditorium was filled with coachloads of Chinese and Korean tourists. The coach park outside would put many cities' central bus stations to shame. I was grateful that the multi-lingual program included so many English numbers, as going by audience numbers we would have only rated one non-chinese song. The songs were in English, Chinese, Korean and Thai. A concession to the coachloads was the chinese compere who turned up halfway through the performance and gave an obviously humourous monologue and a live song. The rest of the program was lip-sync.
The show had gorgeous sets, amazing costumes, beautiful faces and lithe bodies (apart from the "ugly sister" who usually gets more tips than anyone else) but asyncopated dancing in the chorus. The stars are good however, and pose for photos arfter the show. The seats and sound system at the show were also good, but the drinks were no great thing.
It's not called the Land of Smiles for nothing. Everyone here seemed incredibly friendly and helpful. The vendors were enthusiastic, but not nearly as mercenary as those in Fiji (see later). No doubt Bankok is less tame than Pattaya, but that's why I like the place.
The people I talked to had nice simple names, like Naan, Rin, Lek and Nop, and seemed good-humoured and reasonably happy. No doubt the tourist dollars make it a more prosperous place to live than where their families come from. Working as a waiter or even an assistant chef has advantages over guiding oxen over paddies all day, although one guy thought that one route to a better lifestyle, Thai boxing, had disadvantages too - i.e. it hurt!
The place was a bit quiet over the millenium - perhaps tourists were reluctant to travel - but it certainly didn't seem dead like some English towns are in the off-season.
What I missed
I did not have the time to visit the tourist sites which have sprung up, perhaps helping to promote Pattaya as a family destination. Frankly I overslept, being too tired! But given time I would have loved to go out on a boat-trip, or seen the tiger zoo. There is easily enough to keep you occupied here for a week, and many expatriates have liked the place enough to settle here.
When I get the time and the money, I would love to come here again for longer, as the place has a vibrancy and friendliness found in few other places.
Leaving this aside, I took the mini-bus straight back to the airport, ready for my lightning visit to Australia.
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