You either love Pattaya for its bars and sleaziness, or you despise it.
I thought I would be in the latter category forever. That changed when I visited recently for the first time in a long time. The few times I went in the past, I could only stand its seediness for a couple nights at most. I even avoided telling friends and family where I actually was, so famous is its reputation as the #1 Sin City in the world.
As a long-term expat in Bangkok, I always laughed every time the local media talked about the gentrification of Pattaya and infinite arrivals of quality tourists. Internet forums and regular discussions with other expats fooled me into believing Thailand can only go in one direction - down, and as fast as possible.
That's exactly what I found has happened to nightlife in Pattaya. Bars are now poor value for money, but not because Thailand has become a failed state. On the contrary, it's because Thailand has experienced dramatic economic growth for decades.
Poverty and unemployment are at their lowest levels in history. Education and healthcare have never been more accessible. It seems everyone has an expensive smart-phone or car no matter what their job is. Most expats have seen lovely Thai girls selling products on social media or LINE. Thailand has one of the largest social commerce markets in the world, particularly among young people. Barriers to entry are so low, almost anyone can start selling online. Thailand 4.0, another media gimmick I used to laugh at, is real and tangible. The middle class has mushroomed as a result.
Isaan, where most bargirls are from, has benefited the most economically out of all the areas in Thailand.
Many girls destined to bar work in the past are now either in university, selling online, or working at another easily obtainable job. As Westerners, we may not consider all the new McJobs as the epitome of a thriving economy, but to many young Thai girls, it's a perfect life. The economic expansion has left behind only a small part of society. The girls who end up in bars nowadays are society's leftovers - the poorest and least educated who are unable to benefit from the modern economy.
The death of nightlife?
Decades ago, expats and tourists looked forward to epic nights out every time they stepped into a bar. Prices were cheap. Girls were friendly and always in a good mood. Mamasans were glad to see you and there was little pressure to pay for extras. These days, girls are crass and Mamasans are mercenary. Thai smiles and fun are gone. Prices are through the roof. Pressure is regularly applied immediately to buy lady-drinks and bar-fine. The whole environment is often inhospitable.
Open-air bars are more like cesspools than adult playgrounds. It's a struggle to find just one attractive girl out of hundreds. Unable to entice even the most decrepit punter with the tried-and-tested, "Hello handsome man, where you go?" many bars are completely empty. Society's leftovers fighting over scraps.
Tourists - the new breed
At the same time, young tourists fill new shopping centers and restaurants along Beach Road. The sidewalk along the beach is wider, full of new trees, and is surprisingly pleasant to walk along. Most tourists are now from Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. Families with kids are everywhere.
In many ways, it's like nightlife doesn't exist unless you specifically go looking for it, just like in most cities in the world. If you had never heard of Pattaya before, you would never know in the past it was full of Western tourists who mainly came for bargirls. There's no doubt the industry is dying.
I never thought I would say this when I first came to Thailand, but Pattaya 4.0 is here and I like it.
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