Travels in Thailand 2015 – Pattaya Beach and the Rest of the World
After a cool relaxing boat ride on the Chao Phaya River under rainy clouds, we board a taxi for our new home base: my wife’s friend G’s condo. We had earlier dropped our bags off before heading to the river, so we had the security card and the keys. She lives in what was once the hot new condo complex in Bangkok that one time had a few Thai TV stars as residents. It was built to look like some of the more popular venues of Paris, but with the passage of time, this complex has started to look more like the les banlieues area. The buildings are poorly constructed and covered with huge amounts of plaster and tile ornamentation. Either the architect was psychotic or someone in the tile business bribed him. When it was new and we first came here, it was gaudy but still nice. Now, things are starting to break. The security station is mostly empty, most of the lights in the hallway are not working, and the broken security card reader has been replaced by a sensor, crudely bolted onto the glass door. Most of the original thriving first floor shops are now abandoned. The whole complex looks like an old movie studio for a gothic ghost movie.
Inside G’s condo, it was more of the same. The toilet has a small leak that seems to be unfixed for some weeks, an electrical wire is exposed in the hall light, and there is no cable TV or wireless in the condo. This situation makes no sense as G is fairly well off from a family gambling business with connections to Thai higher-ups. Why doesn’t she just pay someone to have these things fixed? I suspect she will live here until it becomes intolerable and then sell the condo at a loss or even abandon it. This seems to be the lifecycle with many of these poorly designed Thai projects. Nevertheless, my wife and I are grateful to have a free place to stay with a decent bed, a working shower, and easy access to a 7-11 for life’s essentials. As it turns out, we will be spending little time in this ornate ghetto except to sleep, which we will do plenty of this night. For tomorrow, we are off to Pattaya for a few days of sun and fun, all under the guiding influence of a lovable lunatic.
In the morning, G arrives in a minivan with a driver who is an old family friend from Korat. He seems very amiable as he helps us pack our stuff into the van. Besides my wife and me, G has invited a female friend of hers along as well. It’s an easy trip to Pattaya, with cloudy skies and the air warm instead of hot, so we have our windows open. We arrive in the early evening to a boutique hotel in Jomtien that is surrounded by emerging condo buildings, only one of which has active construction going on. It’s a funky little hotel that is well designed and appears to be available at bargain prices (forgot the name, sorry). This is G’s trip and she is paying the driver and the hotel costs. As per Thai custom, I will find a way to repay our host at various points along our journey. For now, I thank G for her generosity and she gives me a big hug and kiss in return.
After we check into the hotel, we pile back into the van to find a place for dinner. When traveling with a group, this is the only way to go in Thailand, as with many other places in Asia. Instead of worrying about parking or taxis, just pay a flat fee and rent a van and a driver to take you everywhere. On this night, having a driver could not have worked out better. He drives us to a seaside restaurant, where there is little or no parking, and drops us at the front door. After our meals, he picks us up and drives us to the entrance of Walking Street, which the girls have decided to see for the first time. Again, I am the reliable escort for Thai women curious about the farang underworlds. Walking Street is a mad scene of drunken men who are parading among the many tourists, with loud music blaring out of every shop. We join the throng and actually enter a few bars, which are mostly vacant compared to the street scene. It seems everyone is having a better time outside than inside the bars. My female entourage, who were expecting to see human debauchery at its lowest level, soon become bored with it all and call the driver. He picks us up at the now super-crowded entrance and takes us to our hotel for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
My wife and I have one room with a queen bed, but I am not sure of the sleeping arrangements of our other three passengers. It appears they are also in one room. I discreetly ask my wife how does that work? She says that since the driver is related to G’s family in some strange Thai way, he sleeps like everyone else; he in one twin bed and the women in the other. Since G has gobs of money, why not buy an extra room for the driver I ask? My wife gives me one of those “duh” looks and I guess it’s not about money as much as it’s about thrift or the appearance thereof. This is the difference between Thai people who are rich by sweat instead of by entitlement. It’s almost like they believe they could lose it all at any moment, which in Thailand could be very true. Nevertheless, it was still a refreshing quality to see and it increased my respect for G even more.
The next morning we are deciding where to go for breakfast. I say as long as I can get some coffee, one egg and one toast, I’m good. The driver takes us to a restaurant that looks nice enough, but there is a problem. It has a strictly Thai breakfast menu without the ability, or desire, to cook my simple breakfast. Now my Thai crew is in a quandary. After some discussion, they decide I will go with my wife to the Foodland and order my western breakfast to go, and then return to Thai restaurant where we will eat together. It seems like a lot of fuss for one breakfast, but I hold my tongue and put a big smile on my face. This simple breakfast takes a while to cook for some reason, giving me a chance to observe all the older farangs and their young wives milling about the Foodland. They look happy enough but I notice the guys are buying western food and newspapers, while the women seem to have a lot of Thai items. I guess this Foodland is the real place where East meets West.
Our breakfasts are done so off we go to the original restaurant. The others have mostly finished their breakfast so everyone gets to watch us eat ours. It is interesting how bringing food into a restaurant to eat is not a big deal in Thailand, as my wife and I have done it many times before. Yet, I still eat with one eye open, waiting for the rude server to tell me to leave. However, everything is cool, so we pay our bill and leave a nice tip. All the servers wai us goodbye. Another Disney ending in Thailand whereas in the west, they might have thrown us out on our ear for bringing food in.
When we go back to the hotel, there is some discussion about what we should do next. I jump in and say we are at a beach town so we need to go to the beach. There is another Thai huddle and when my wife emerges, she says that’s great idea. I am more than a little surprised, so I remain suspicious, as I fear there will be a Thai twist to this journey. A few minutes later, we pile into the van and are on our way to the beach. We find a place for the driver to stop in front of the Holiday Inn and we all embark. I find a chair near the water and relax under the partly cloudy sky. The girls are milling about and looking bored, so they approach me with a plan. How about they go shopping and leave me on the beach for a while. So this is the twist. No matter, as this is a win-win for me. I profess how much I will miss them, which gets me a knowing smirk from my wife, and soon I am alone on the beach relaxing.
After a few minutes, I am starting to get hot, so I decide to take a swim. This is not an easy decision as I can see a fair amount of trash in the water. Oh well, I tell myself, I’ll just swim around the garbage. However, on my third step in water, I feel something swishy underfoot that could be either a turd or a sausage. I decide not to find out and retreat to my chair in the sand. As I am drying myself off, I notice an older gentleman (not that I’m that much younger) who has pulled up a chair close to mine. I decide to say hello and we start to talk about living in Thailand. He’s a retired Scot who recently bought a small house in Pattaya for relaxation away from his permanent girlfriend in Isaan. I completely understand this arrangement. Then he tells me how much he paid for his house and I am shocked at the price. He’s either lying or the real estate market really has tanked in Pattaya. A few minutes later, my wife and her friends arrive to collect me.
We go back to the hotel to shower as we have busy day ahead of us. I am not sure what it is, but I know better than to ask for details. The day will be what it is and that’s all. We get into the van and start driving away from the beach. We approach a compound of sorts. I am told it’s a “zoo”, but In fact, it’s the famous Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens which turns out to be a strange combination of gardens, animal sculptures, and real animals. This odd assortment feels like an alternative world, all randomly put together such that one moment you’re walking through a flock of sculpted flamingoes and the next you’re standing next to a tethered live tiger. Of course, this is background gold for a group of Thai women who love to take hundreds of selfie pictures. At first, it’s the standard pictures with the girls, like petting a fake giraffe but as we approach the orangutan statues, I notice the girls getting a little friskier. As I write this, I am looking at a picture of my wife bent over receiving service from one them. I don’t have to tell you what happens after we encounter a very large wooly mammoth with a very large red penis. Sorry guys, these are private snaps. Below is a more family-friendly picture of the park.
After we have taken every imaginable picture in this park, my Thai entourage seem ready to move on to new picture venues. However, this time, we are going I know they have picked out just me. Knowing that I prefer wine to beer these days, we are going to a vineyard; something I didn’t think existed in Thailand’s tropical heat and super-humid air. We approach what looks like a huge farm beautifully situated against some low hills. Later, I can see the vineyards. In some ways it certainly does look similar to vineyards in California. It is called SilverLake Vineyard and my wife tells me a Thai movie star of some renown owns it. After taking some pictures against the beautiful lake and mountains, I am anxious to try some of the wine. We enter the wine bar, which is mostly empty. I ask the sommelier for a glass of their best wine, which she says is their Shiraz. She pours my wife and I a glass, and it turns out to be pretty good. The sommelier says that they have a winery tour leaving in a few minutes, so we sign up immediately.
Soon a John Deere Gator arrives to collect us a few others to ferry us around on our tour of the winery. After driving through fields of grapes we arrive at a large building. Inside there are the windowed rooms where the wine is made. The equipment looks new and the whole facility looks clean and well run. Eventually we make it to the tasting bar, where a very friendly Thai man greets us. At first, I think he is just a marketing guy but in fact he is the production manager of the winery. We drink the different wines they make, so many per ticket, and I tell him I am impressed with the wine and the facility. He is visibly proud and offers me a glass of their Shiraz reserve. Wow, it’s very good and he tells me they get most of the grapes from Australia which they mix with their own. He said the goal was to one day have all the grapes come from their vineyard. I purchase a bottle of the reserve and as I am signing the receipt, a horde of loud-talking and rude Asian people enters the bar. The manager whispers, “Chinese”. I know it is our cue to leave. On the ride back to the visitor center, I wonder how tourist Thailand will react to the ever-increasing number of Chinese tourists. I am not sure why, but I have yet to meet a Chinese tour group that acted respectfully to their Thai hosts. I wonder if in the near future, Thais will long for the days of the goofy, friendly, and over-tipping western tourists who used to be the norm in Thailand.
We get back to the hotel in Pattaya and there is no time to waste. The girls have decided that we must see the ladyboy show at Tiffany’s. I know many Thais revere these shows so I am not too surprised we are going. Fearing another embarrassing another ladyboy encounter, I briefly consider feinting a bad stomachache or even a fall down the stairs, but my wife assures me it will be fun. Yeah, right, fun for them and terror for me. I quietly accept my fate and get ready.
Our driver picks us up at our hotel an hour before the show. Everyone is in good spirits except for me, who is sitting in the front seat quiet as a condemned man. We soon arrive at an ornate theatre with a grand façade and neon sign. Of course, it is the famous Tiffany theatre, and there is already a large crowd in front. As we make our way inside the theatre, I find a small bar and order a couple of glasses of wine for the wife and me. I chug the first one and go back for another. I ask my wife will the show be like. She says the ladyboys just strut around on stage to various pop music and wearing different costumes. Sounds like I’ll be a safe distance away from the action, so I start to relax as the show starts. My wife’s is correct, just dancing and prancing in elegant gowns. Half way through I am getting bored, but the Thai audience seems to enjoy it. After the show, we flood outside with all the other patrons and I wait for the driver in the front parking lot. I suddenly look up and see a ladyboy in what looks like a white wedding gown emerge from the front doors. She is walking towards us but as soon as she sees me, she makes a beeline for us. She wraps her arm around mine and preens for the crowd as if she has found her new husband. My Thai entourage is laughing hysterically while my wife is taking pictures. If you could see these pictures, and you never will, you would see a farang with an expression that can only be described as “dumbfounded”, being held by a slightly masculine-looking bride. She soon releases me and just stands beside me. I figure out that the performers are collecting their tips for the show, much like the Muay Thai fighters do. I fish out two hundred baht notes for which I receive the most elaborate wai I will probably ever get from someone resembling a female. It’s a long ride to the hotel as I am apparently the butt of many Thai jokes I couldn’t translate. In the room, I cannot get to sleep fearing what will be my next brush with semi-femininity.
The next morning I am glad to hear of our ladyboy-free agenda for the day and I say a little prayer of thanks to Buddha. We will be working our way back to Bangkok for a last few days before my trip back to America. After a quick breakfast, our first stop is to a nearby park called by my Thai hosts “Mini-Siam”. In fact, it is a miniature re-creation of Thailand and the world’s major venues, both present and past. If you can’t afford to travel the world, you can visit this park and have your picture taken with the world’s great monuments in the background. I couldn’t resist such obvious Thai kitsch. My favorite is the re-creation below of an American aircraft carrier leaving San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is obviously the US Navy is on its way to Pattaya Beach to defend the honor of Thailand’s working girls.
After what seemed like hundreds of pictures later, we run into a group of Thai students, young teens mostly, who immediately zoom in on the only farang in the park. With ten or more students, we engage in that favorite of Thai games, “stump the chump” with the farang as the chump. This is a game where the students get to try out their English skills on me with basic questions. When I respond, no matter what the answer I provide, everyone breaks out in laughter. After a few questions, I am bored with this game and after a few more, so are the Thai students. My wife (thankfully) steps in to explain in Thai that it is time for us to leave. The students depart with big smiles and waves of goodbyes. I wave as well, like the village idiot they probably think I am. Oh well, it was all in good fun, something the Thais learn to excel in at an early age.
Even without ladyboys harassing me, the next few days will again test my resolve, as we will visit some of the craziest Thai venues I have even seen. However, the worst experience will come at the very end of my trip, when for a brief minute; it appears I will not be allowed to leave the country. Stay tuned.
Next: Travels in Thailand 2015 – Bangkok and the Kissing Fishes.