But Pattaya is more than just a sexual playground or a monument to the perils of overdevelopment. The city was discovered and popularized by American soldiers on R. and R. (rest and recreation) from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s. It is arguably the birthplace of mass tourism in modern Asia, and still its undisputed capital. It is also a crucible of future travel trends, attracting package tourists from increasingly prosperous countries such as Russia, India and especially China. They arrive in ever greater numbers, often on first holidays abroad, unaware that they are making history. This year is the 150th anniversary of the first overseas package tour organized by Thomas Cook, the father of mass tourism, who in 1855 took a party of fellow Brits on a two-week circuit of Europe. With cheap packages and the growth of railways, Cook brought mobility to the masses. He democratized tourism, then the jet age globalized it. Today, it is one of the world's largest industries, responsible for 200 million jobs and more than 10% of global GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Cook would have approved: he believed travel broadened the mind and fostered peace and understanding between nations. But would he have approved of Pattaya, the ultimate 21st century climax of a century-and-a-half of package tourism? Put it this way: Cook was a teetotal Baptist lay preacher who abhorred indolence and found the can-can dance performed in 19th century Paris "an unnatural and forced abandon." In a word, no.
SPOILS OF WAR
Pattaya was built on sex and war. It was just a remote fishing village on Thailand's eastern seaboard when, in the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers on R. and R. discovered its palm-shaded beach and sparkling waters. Its fate was sealed by the American military buildup at the nearby Thai air base of U-Tapao, which was modified to handle the monstrous B-52 bombers that pounded Vietnam. "Living has always been easy in Thailand," observed a U.S. Air Force guide, which read much like a modern tourist brochure. "The Thai people are friendly hosts and share our desire for peace and freedom." As for other American desiresnamely, for sex and boozethe Thais proved equally accommodating. The Marine Bar, opened in a converted fishing shed at the bay's southern end, became the nucleus of a red-light district whose rapid growth mirrored the U.S. buildup in Vietnam. In Pattaya, a room cost 50¢ and a female companion not much more, and R. and R. also became known as I. and I.intercourse and intoxication.
One of Pattaya's first attractions was U-Tapao itself, the largest B-52 base outside American territory. "We'd drive our customers over there in a minivan to watch the planes take off," recalls Bill Burbridge, 75, a longtime Pattaya resident and dive-shop operator. "We called them B-52 tours." Bombers took off every 15 minutes or so, and were so noisy that "everything would be shuddering and shaking," says Burbridge, including the minivan and its occupants. Pattaya's other main attraction was the sea. "It was pristine. The coral was unspoiled and we often saw pods of dolphins break the surface." One of Burbridge's contemporaries recalls walking down the beach and eating oysters straight off the rocks.
Pattaya soon attracted other kinds of visitors. The Royal Cliff, the doyenne of Pattaya's luxury hotels, was opened in 1973 by an extravagantly named Swiss man called Alois Xavier Fassbind. His success in popularizing the area earned him the nickname "Mr. Pattaya," although he purportedly distanced himself from the town's later notoriety by putting "near Pattaya" on the hotel stationery. The city was also enlivened by a visit from Norwegian rock gods Septimus, then a household name in Thailand for now forgotten hits like Sha-la-la and Thailand Girl. After one sellout concert, their lead singer Steinar Fjeld was almost shot by a disgruntled Thai fan dressed in an Elvis costume. This classic Pattaya tale, reported in the magazine Thailand Time Out, has a classic Pattaya ending: Fjeld returned to the city this year to look for a retirement villa.
With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the U.S. military presence wound down and Pattaya briefly stagnated. It soon found itself with rivals. The war had boosted mass tourism not only by supplying an influx of U.S. soldiers, but also by creating a generation of disaffected Western youth who blazed a hippie trail across Asia. They created what Lonely Planet's founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler were already calling "a groove in the face of the map" by 1973, the year they published their first guide. Goa was a byword for drugs and beach parties until a crackdown by Indian police in the 1980s drove the hippies' Ecstasy-age heirs to populate the freewheeling Thai island of Koh Phangan instead. By now, the whole world was on the move. Idyllic Bali's future as an international tourist showcase was sealed in 1969 with the construction of an airport, which allowed foreign flights to land directly on the island. That year, 30,000 people visited Bali; a quarter-century later, 4 million arrived. Swaths of the island also changed forever. FOR SALE signs outside ancient family-owned rice farms became the motif for modern Bali.