Perhaps it's something to do with becoming middle-aged, but I've found lately that weekends have become awfully routine. And the truth is my wife and I like it that way. On Saturdays we'll potter around the house in the morning and do a few odd jobs. We'll go out to a local restaurant for lunch. Perhaps some reading or a movie in the afternoon, and then evenings are usually given over to watching Premier League football or waiting for the scores to come through on the internet. Sunday is a shopping day. We'll compile a shopping list, analyze what we need to buy, and then decide whether it's going to be a ‘big shop' at either Tesco or Foodland, or a leisurely stroll around Paradise Park Mall and pick up a few ready meals for the freezer. And of course we collect our laundry on the way home. It's jet-set stuff.
This weekend, thanks to England preparing for a meaningless international, there was no premier league football. This meant going to bed earlier than usual and getting up early on Sunday morning to face a long day ahead of us.
"Let's go out for the day" my wife suggested.
"OK where to?" I said.
"What about Pattaya?"
I almost choked on my Cornflakes. "Pattaya! You mean Thailand's favorite beach resort? The Pattaya we haven't been to for almost twelve years despite it being less than two hours away. That Pattaya? The Pattaya that in the words of the bloke who wrote ajarn's region guide, is, in its very essence, the stale, rank smell of the morning after. It is youth and age entwining together and supping from the same cold pot. It is the deep chill of regret and the flushed heat of need. It is the mist-wracked border-land between the night-fumbled dreams of stilted adolescence and the crass cash-fueled opportunities of middle age. You mean that Pattaya?"
"Er.......yes" my wife said.
I couldn't believe I was in the mood to make such reckless, spur-of-the-moment decisions, but thirty minutes later, we were filling up with gas and buying snacks for the journey. We were most definitely on our way to Pattaya. Sod the laundry and to hell with the grocery shopping. We were both flushed with a certain devil-may-care attitude. It doesn't take much to make us happy.
A 90-minute leisurely drive is all that's required - and suddenly you are tootling along Pattaya's beach road in its full glory. I rubbed my hands together with glee. I could barely conceal my excitement. It had been a long time.
What struck me about Pattaya - at least observing it from the angle of the beach road during daylight hours - is how similar it is to Benidorm on Spain's Costa Blanca. At least in the way it feels. Shirtless tourists wander around a tad bleary-eyed from the previous night's excesses and there is always somewhere you can get a full English breakfast. My wife made the same observation. She's been to Benidorm several times.
"Why would Europeans travel to the other side of the world to do the same things they could do much cheaper at a Spanish resort like Benidorm?"
A three letter word beginning with S immediately came to mind but it was far too early in the day to engage in an analysis of society and market demands. So I just nodded in agreement.
We stuck the car in the very impressive-looking Hilton Hotel Complex, and emerged into the Pattaya sunshine ready for a stroll along the beach road and to find somewhere for a late breakfast / early lunch.
The pedestrian walkway, which skirts Pattaya's main beach, is still one of the greatest places on earth to people-watch. There are small clusters of ex-pat retirees, all white hair and leathery sun-tan, sitting on the wall chatting and putting the world to rights. There are Thai hoodlums and chancers necking back large bottles of Singha - their eyes peeled to see which gullible tourist might be up for a hustle. There are Thai operators selling boat trips to the islands as well as jet-skis, parasailing, scuba-diving, snorkeling, and all manner of activities aimed chiefly at tourists who can't go to a beach and just sit still. There are the ordinary Thai working-class day-trippers, who have set up a small picnic mat and are now getting excited about a bowl of fish heads. And then of course there are the ladies of the night. Those in particular who have found themselves the wrong side of forty and have to resort to hustling in broad daylight, dressed up to the nines, and hoping to catch the attention of a flabby retiree looking for a bit of lunchtime slap and tickle. The whole scene is a wondrous melting pot of the good, the bad and the ugly. I love it. Benidorm isn't in the same league.
After a half-hour walk along the beach road, taking in the sights and sounds but getting ever hungrier, we happened upon the Hard Rock Café Complex with its restaurant, shop, hotel, swimming pool and a rather fetching giant-sized guitar handle that seems to have just erupted from out of the ground. We've been in the Hard Rock Café in Siam Square, Bangkok several times and while the menu prices always prompt a quick call to the bank manager, the food quality is always exceptional.
We walked into the very large and very empty Hard Rock Café restaurant and I instantly regretted the decision. Eating an overpriced Sunday lunch is one thing, but eating it in a place where you are the only diners and all there is to do is watch the staff as they re-arrange bar towels, break large lumps of ice into smaller lumps and polish wooden table-tops is quite another.
We sat there and ate our meal and watched a succession of music videos performed by a veritable ‘who's who of rock bands I can't stand' - Dire Straits, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick - you get the picture. Just above us was a glass case in which a military jacket allegedly worn by Sting during one of his concerts was mounted. To the left of this was a hat worn by George Harrison while he was filming ‘Let it Be'. Nice if you like that sort of thing.
I can never complain about the food at The Hard Rock Cafe though. We ordered a combo platter of spicy chicken, beef brisket and spare ribs with a side order of chips, beans and salad. The citrus salad dressing was delicious, the food was piping hot throughout and the meat just fell off the bone. It's just a pity that to wash it all down you get stung for Coke or Sprite at 185 baht a glass. Plus 7% government tax. Plus 10% service charge. You do however get to keep the souvenir glass but you aren't allocated shares in the company or given a seat on the board, which is what I half expected. No wonder the place was empty - almost eight dollars for a soda. There was an open-air beer bar I noticed a few yards down serving all drinks, including beer, at 40 baht a glass. And at no extra charge, a dusky maiden would give you a rub-down with a cold towel and you could play Connect 4 until your fingers bled.
Before we hit the streets to continue our tour of Pattaya, I paid a quick visit to the gents. The toilets were spotlessly clean. My mom would have appreciated that.
Back on the beach road, we decided to plonk ourselves down on a couple of deckchairs. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than snoozing under an umbrella on Pattaya's gorgeous beach (no, don't laugh) with a young coconut, a good book and listening to the roar of a jet-ski as it decapitates a German holidaymaker. And then of course there are the beach vendors - that endless stream of sellers who file past your deckchair, invading your personal space, and trying to flog you an array of stuff you're in no mood to buy. In the space of barely twenty minutes, I counted eight ice-cream sellers, four people selling sunglasses made in Italy (I know this to be true because it said "Made in Italy' on the frame), six people who were willing to decorate me with tattoos, a dozen or so vendors selling deep-fried squid and two chancers wanting me to part with cash for the wooden frog that croaks when you run a stick along its back. And if you haven't seen the wooden frog, you've never been to Thailand. When the bloke with the full-size poster of four dogs playing pool in a whisky joint made an appearance, I grabbed my wife by the hand, threw 120 baht at the deckchair owner for two chairs and two young coconuts - and ran!
A lifetime ago, I sat on Pattaya Beach for the very first time and spent all day saying ‘mai aw khrap' to a thousand beach vendors. They got so tiresome at one stage that I had a Thai friend write a message on a piece of cardboard, which I would then rest on my chest whenever I just wanted to close my eyes and do a spot of sunbathing. It said "I do not wish to make any purchases so please kindly fuck off" - or words to that effect.
I was under the impression that the authorities had banned vendors from Pattaya Beach. If anything, the situation was worse than it was twenty years ago. I invented a whole new acronym - VPM - vendors per minute. Wouldn't it be useful if they had small signage boards along the beach giving you an estimated VPM. This would give you an inkling of how many times you are likely to be bothered if you choose to sit in that particular section of the beach.
"Oh I'm not sitting there my love. The VPM is way over ten. I'm looking for somewhere with a VPM of one or two - certainly single digit."
"Gone up-market" is always a risky expression to use where Pattaya is concerned, but that's genuinely how I felt about area around the beach road and the sea-front. Gone were many of the tatty beer-bars I remember from yesteryear and in their place was an assortment of pricey Indian restaurants, air-conditioned shopping malls (none more impressive than the one where we had parked the car) and a selection of swanky hotels. Getting the idea that Pattaya might well become a decent place for a weekend getaway, we decided to enquire about a few room prices, starting with a modest-looking hotel that appeared to have some spacious corner units with an attractive sea-view.
I walked into the lobby and marched up to the receptionist, a middle-aged woman with a face like thunder, who looked me up and down as if I were an imperfectly formed piece of shit.
"What?" she barked. Nothing else. That was it. "What?" Just one word.
I don't think I've ever had the desire to punch a woman quite like I had at that moment. Conjuring up my finest snarl, I asked about the rates for the corner rooms with the nice balcony - the ones with a sea view. "1500 baht a night" The receptionist spat the answer back at me. This was fantastic. We were like two stags locking horns in the morning mist. My wife - with a far higher degree of politeness than the situation merited - asked if we could see a room. I closed my eyes and waited for the woman to chase us out of the hotel with a broom. Surprisingly she tossed a key at some hotel handyman and the three of us squeezed into the world's smallest elevator. The rooms looked far better from the street outside. From the inside, they were like a shrine to plastic vinyl and chipboard. There was no way I could stay there even though the thought of winding up the receptionist appealed to me immensely. "These rooms are only 1300 baht a night" said the handyman in a desperate last-ditch attempt to convert a walk-in.
We stuck our heads into the bathroom where another one of the hotel staff was hosing down the bathtub. She told us without any prompting whatsoever, that the rooms were 1100 baht a night. So at least we had a good idea of the room rates. Basically the staff didn't have a clue. They just made it up as they went along.
On the same soi, leading off the sea-front, was the A-One Boutique Hotel. The term ‘boutique hotel' always lowers my spirits. I can picture a flat screen TV, a remote control unit still in its original cellophane, a pastel-colored bath-towel lying on the bed and arranged in the shape of a swan, and all this in a room so tiny you have to go outside in order to change your mind. To get to the reception, you had to skirt an elaborately designed swimming pool and a patio with expensive-looking wicker furniture. I asked the receptionist if she had any special weekend rates and was quoted 3,500 baht a night. The normal rate was apparently 7,500.
I wanted to ask what time she would be coming upstairs to tuck me in if I parted with over a hundred dollars a night for a boutique hotel in Pattaya but opted to ask if the hotel had wi-fi instead. Free wi-fi was indeed available in the lobby but if I wanted to use my laptop in the room, it would cost me an extra 500 baht a day. But she went to great lengths to assure me that for 500 baht I could use the wi-fi all day for a 24-hour period. I told her I would take a brochure and have a think about it. Then I left just in case she charged me for standing there and asking too many questions. The brochure and name-card both went into the nearest bin.
By now the afternoon heat was at its most fierce. We had intended to walk in the other direction towards South Pattaya but I'm sure it's an area best savored at night and perhaps we should think about heading home. We decided to have a stroll around the Hilton Hotel Shopping Complex and ponce off the air-conditioning. The complex boasted three floors of retail space with the usual designer brand names.
I went into menswear shop, Nautica, to ask if they stocked any men's jeans. Although I'm not one for ambling along the jetty in a striped rugby shirt or splicing the mainbrace with a sweater draped casually around my shoulders - an image that Nautica seems to promote - I do like their jeans. I thought that the snarling woman on the reception back at the first hotel was perhaps an isolated case of ‘Pattaya folk jaded by tourism' so it was reassuring in a way that the sales assistant who approached me in Nautica was every bit as rude and obnoxious. After giving me the unfriendliest welcome imaginable, he directed me to a modest pile of jeans, and then stood so close to me I could almost smell what he'd had for lunch.
It was refreshing to see that a few Pattaya folk - those who are given the responsibility of dealing with the general public - are still as nasty as I remember them all those years ago. But I'm certainly not going to let a few grumpies spoil the day. It was a nice change to be back in "Thailand's favorite beach resort' and I'm sure we'll return soon. I won't leave it more than ten years next time. Honest