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PHOTOGRAPH FOR TIME BY JOHN STANMEYER—VII 

FIGHT CLUB Boxing is part of the drawing card at a bar on Beach Road

The People's Paradise
Love it or loathe it, Pattaya is where Asia's mass tourism started

If you're reading this at one of Asia's many spectacular tourist destinations, please spare a thought for the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Isolated in the Ural Mountains, this military-industrial center once produced half the Soviet Union's tanks—its nickname is "Tank City." It has also been called the most contaminated place on earth. Chelyabinsk's million or so citizens have endured three nuclear catastrophes, one caused by an explosion at a waste-containment unit, which spewed Chernobyl-level doses of radiation into the wintry sky. One of Chelyabinsk's advertised tourist draws is "a visit to a treatment center for victims of radiation poisoning." Spare a thought for Chelyabinsk, but for God's sake don't go there.

PHOTO ESSAY

Sin City
Thailand's Pattaya resort is Asia's first mass tourism mecca
Very possibly the most beautiful thing from Chelyabinsk is a 24-year-old English teacher called Zhanna Balagurova. She is tall, blond and positively glowing—not with radioactivity, thankfully, but with the sheer, unalloyed joy of not being in Chelyabinsk. Zhanna is holidaying with her boyfriend Oleg in the sun-drenched Thai beach resort of Pattaya. It is her first foreign vacation.

"This is a great place for a Russian," she beams. "It is warm, it has a nice sea."

"And the whiskey is cheap," winks Oleg.

Zhanna laughs. "And the Thai people are so funny and friendly and warmhearted. Not like at home. They seldom smile in Chelyabinsk."

Zhanna sounds like she's died and gone to heaven. But this is Pattaya, which is not only easier to get to, but with about 5 million visitors every year, probably a lot more crowded. Boosters call the resort Thailand's Riviera. To others, it is a mystery and an affront. Pattaya is "designed to attract the worst kind of Western tourist," sniffs Lonely Planet, meaning the randy males who trawl the girlie bars, brothels, short-time hotels and massage parlors that dominate the city. Thailand's Riviera? Not quite. This is Sin City, Sodom-on-Sea, the Gomorrah of Tomorroh. So why do tourists flock there? Three reasons, huff its critics: 1) sex; 2) golf—there are six courses within a 20-minute drive; 3) what could be called the Chelyabinsk Factor—if you hail from a post-Soviet hellhole, then Pattaya is paradise.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES
The Smiling Lures Of Thailand
"What elsewhere one sees only in travel brochures, one finds in Thailand daily. It often seems, in fact, as if ancient gods—Bacchus, Neptune, Zeus and Venus—conspired to make the land a composite of holidaymakers' fantasies..." Oct. 17, 1988

Archive links are premium content
THE WORLD'S PLAYGROUND
Pattaya is no Chelyabinsk, but it ain't St.-Tropez either. Take a walk down Beach Road, Pattaya's main promenade. Its renovation is comically never-ending and so unsightly that you must remind yourself it was Phuket, not Pattaya, that was hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Every 50 meters or so, bewildered Thai laborers peer into newly excavated holes like bad performance artists, while plants wilt in unfinished flower beds. (The city is plagued by water shortages.) The long, gracefully sweeping beach—Pattaya's raison d'être—is fringed with shabby parasols and lapped by trash-peppered waves. It's rush hour out in the bay: dive boats weigh anchor and chug off in search of undestroyed coral; speedboats drag shrieking tourists on inflatable bananas; jet skis whine and slalom insanely, excreting plumes of water.

Nobody actually comes from Pattaya. Until a decade ago, it was rare to meet a Thai who was born there. It is an invented place—a Vegas without the casinos, a Dubai without the oil. You can enjoy "Polynesian-style dining" at the Mai Kai supper club, fish and chips at the Big Ben Pub, or a bowl of borscht at Rasputin's. You can eat an English breakfast at 5 p.m. at a place called Shagwell Mansions, or walk into the Black Pussy Bar and order a White Russian. You can browse the beachfront stalls, where the goods bespeak an odd combination of enthusiasms: Buddha statues; Beckham T shirts; stun guns, flick-knives and retractable coshes; rubber face masks of Saddam or Osama; hard-core porn CDs; penis-shaped cigarette lighters.

Nobody comes from Pattaya but everyone seems to go there. At weekends, the foreign crowds are swelled by day-trippers from Bangkok and elsewhere. Among them are Thais from the landlocked northeast who have never seen the sea before, and who bathe in it fully clothed, in the demure Southeast Asian style, and take sneaky photographs of Eurotrash in microscopic swimsuits. There used to be a Thai saying: "If you want to see a naked foreigner, go to Pattaya."

And naked Thais, of course. By noon, disheveled women emerge from dormant bars and go-go joints to light incense at small, spirit shrines outside. By sunset, the Viagra vendors are out, selling four pills for about $25—"Genuine, sir, not copies." By night, the city is ablaze with pink-lit bars overflowing with Thai women beckoning to potbellied Westerners in Camel Active wear. Pattaya also has Asia's largest gay scene, with its own gay beach and attendant sex workers—a giant Boys-R-Us. It is the capital of cross-dressing, too, with at least three ladyboy song-and-dance shows. The oldest one, called Tiffany's, has an adjoining shooting range, as if watching a transvestite cabaret might provoke a crisis of manhood that only firearms can soothe.

Continued...




Jul. 26, 2004
Aug. 18, 2003
Aug. 19, 2002


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