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Thai city of sleaze tries to clean up
Somewhere in the world there may be a city with a more seedy reputation, a place more devoted to the sex industry and more notorious as a haven for criminals on the lam. But probably not. When dusk comes to this beach resort, a sea of pink neon bulbs casts a pale glow onto the thickly made-up faces of thousands of women (and some men) who sit on bar stools waiting for their patrons. If Las Vegas is Sin City, Pattaya is a bear hug from Lucifer himself.
And yet, amid the back alleys jammed with girlie bars and a beachfront peopled with what the Thais euphemistically call "service women, " there are signs of change. Indian couples, Chinese tour groups and vacationing Russian families stroll around the city. A dozen luxury hotels cater to the weekend crowd of wealthy Thais from Bangkok who mingle with tourists at a huge shopping mall. Pattaya has a growing number of fancy restaurants, an annual music festival and, perhaps most improbably, regular polo tournaments. Long derided as a city of sleaze, the city is reaching for respectability.
A two-hour drive from Bangkok, Pattaya was little more than a fishing village four decades ago, when US soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War discovered a pristine, coral-filled bay. Tens of thousands of lonely soldiers armed with dollars sought respite from the war in a country of relative poverty, lax law enforcement and historically tolerant attitudes toward prostitution. The result was predictable.
Pattaya survived the departure of the GIs by expanding into sex tourism. Visitors to Thailand in the '70s were offered brochures at the Bangkok airport showing pictures of available escorts. The booth at the airport no longer exists, but the business lives on: for the past decade, men have outnumbered women as tourists in Thailand. They make up about 60 per cent of foreign visitors in Thailand compared with 52 per cent in nearby, law-abiding Singapore.
In recent years, the Pattaya tourist industry has sought to diversify its client base. Hotel managers learned that, despite jokes about recession-proof industries, relying on a Western male clientele was unwise at a time when the US and Europe were buffeted by recession. Tourism agencies now actively seek out visitors from the rising economies of China and India. "There's definitely been a change, " said Shyam Anugonda, a 39-year-old lawyer from Bangalore, India, whose first trip to Pattaya was eight years ago, when he was single. "It was more sex oriented before, " Anugonda said as he shopped for Thai fabrics with his wife.
This time, Anugonda's five-day vacation included an elephant show and parasailing. The government is encouraging the rebranding of Pattaya by developing a master plan for the city, including a monorail to help relieve trafficclogged streets, a redrawn waterfront and a high-speed rail line from Bangkok. The plan is awaiting approval from the Thai cabinet.
The police, too, say they are trying to clean up the city's image. "There are people who say Pattaya is the paradise of criminals, " said Atiwit Kamolrat, head of the immigration police. "It's now going to be impossible for them to hide here. " His office's Transnational Crime Data Centre combs through lists of wanted criminals from foreign governments and cross-references them with hotel registration logs and visa renewal applications. Since the beginning of the year, the office has arrested 12 foreign criminals hiding out in Pattaya, he said.
Somchet Thinaphong, a board member charged with the city's redevelopment plan at the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration, a government agency, said Pattaya's face-lift would cost 32 billion baht, or about $1 billion. He spoke in generalities about "sustainable development" and making the city more ecologically friendly.
But here in Pattaya, officials chuckle derisively at the notion that the city can be sanitised. Stamping out Pattaya's sex industry is fantasy, said Niti Kongrut, the director of the Pattaya branch of the Thai government's tourism office. "You talk about sustainable development, how about prostitutes? They have been around for a very long time, " Niti said. "We can't close down the go-go bars. It's a free country. Besides, it makes money. "
For decades, officials have wrestled with the question of what to do about the seedy side of the city, Niti said. "Now we just ignore them and try to promote other activities. " For visitors who have no intention of partaking in it, the sex industry has become a sort of spectacle, a redlight district that makes its counterparts in other cities seem almost Victorian.
Olga Bidenko, 28, a tourist from Ukraine who came to Pattaya with a colleague from the marketing company she works for, said she was entertained by Walking Street, a thoroughfare stretching a kilometer and a half, or about a mile, blocked to motor traffic and packed with bars. Typical of the bars is Sexy Airline, where women dressed in old-fashioned air hostess outfits call out to prospective patrons passing by. "We thought Amsterdam was the sex capital of the world, " said Bidenko, 28. "But now that I've been here, I think Amsterdam is a perfectly respectable city. "
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