It started off as nothing more than a small fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand. Its long sweeping bay was dotted with a few boats and shacks where the villagers lived. Then a group of 500 American soldiers stationed at a military base in Nakhon Ratchasima were driven to Pattaya on June 29, 1959, for a week of rest and relaxation (R&R). They rented several houses at the southern end of the beach from a prominent local, Luang Sunthorn, thus opening a Pandora's box for this sleepy fishing village.
Word spread among American soldiers stationed in the region and Pattaya quickly become a hot alternative destination to the concrete sprawl of Bangkok. GIs had put Pattaya on the map as the best beach destination to unwind and indulge.
When large numbers of troops began to arrive at the neighbouring Baan Sattahip air base, now known as U-tapao airport, things really started to pick up in Pattaya. After almost half a century, Pattaya has transformed itself from a getaway destination for international soldiers during the Vietnam War to Thailand's best-known red light district among sex tourists from every corner of the world.
- The Big Issue: Those pesky tourists
While Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration has furiously vowed to crack down on prostitution and clean up the sleazy image of Pattaya, local NGOs see this as an opportunity for society to accept the truth and solve problems that have been ignored for decades.
KEEPING THE GI SPIRIT ALIVE
The Thai and the US governments signed an agreement to provide R&R facilities in Thailand during the Vietnam War. In 1964, GIs started to arrive in U-tapao, the first US army base not far from Pattaya's beach area.
GIRLS GALORE: Pattaya's Walking Street lures sex tourists from around the world. The authorities have implemented a Happy Zone in the infamous street in order to control all illegal activities. Photo: Tanaphon Ongarttrakul
From then on until 1976, about 700,000 international soldiers were sent for R&R each year, spending one week in Thailand to party.
Women selling sex for a living is nothing new to Thai society. In 1680 during the Ayutthaya period, prostitution was fully legal and there were even state-run brothels. The skin trade was largely confined to the Bangkok area. But as soon as international soldiers started to descend on Pattaya, it became the new destination for sex workers to expand their customer base.
Sex workers adapted to the new customers, learning about exchange rates, rock and roll and the various army ranks as well as picking up the slang. They were providing services to young soldiers, some traumatised by war, in a rush to enjoy their week off before going back to the war.
When the North Vietnamese won the war in 1975, the fortunes of Pattaya fell into a brief slump. With all the soldiers gone, many of the bars, clubs and sex workers were forced into early retirement, yet the town endured and was reinvigorated by a new wave of hedonistic visitors from near and far.
Pattaya was named a city in 1978 and began to market itself to a broader range of tourists. Although circumstances are different from those in the 1970s, many GIs still head right to the heart of the infamous destination, where things haven't changed that much. After the Vietnam War, many servicemen remained in Pattaya. They married Thai women, opened bars and restaurants and kept the GI spirit alive. Today thousands of American servicemen still come to Pattaya every year to participate in the joint Thai-US military exercise known as Cobra Gold.
PARADISE FOR AGEING LOTHARIOS
For a lonely old American like Matt, it's nearly impossible to find a nice young girl back home in California. But the sexagenarian still hasn't given up hope of finding the next Mrs Right.
After three failed marriages to Western women, Matt stopped looking at white girls because he thought they are not capable of love. He shifted his sights to a more exotic option -- Asian girls. When appearances alone can't win love, Matt realised there's one guaranteed way to catch the perfect lady: money.
WAKE-UP CALL: 'We can't close our eyes and pretend that there are no sex workers in Thailand,' says Surang Janyam, director of Service Workers IN Group Foundation. Photo: Somkid Chaijitvanit
Pattaya was the only place he could think of that would fulfil his Asian dream. He made his first trip 10 years ago in the quest to find his true love. But when he arrived, he was very surprised to find how easy it is to find love in Pattaya.
"Love happens every day here. I usually come here for three months a year. I stay in a cheap condo I bought and I can't tell you how many girls I've brought over to my love nest," Matt says proudly.
"I thought I would settle down with a nice Thai lady and have a warm loving family together, but the ladies here are not wife material. It's all about the money for them. I used to date a much younger lady and she always asked for money. She said I had to send her money every month, buy her a house and send her kid to school. If that's what love is here in Pattaya, I don't want it. Why bother when I can get someone new every day?"
DIALOGUE: Chantawipa Apisuk of the Empower Foundation suggests reaching out to sex workers. Photo: Pawat Laopaisarntaksin
"Good guys go to Heaven, bad guys go to Pattaya" -- the expression appears to be the slogan of Pattaya City. The motto may reek of sarcasm but it confirms the mindset of many tourists who come to Pattaya just for sexual shenanigans.
"I come here every year to relax and, of course, to meet young and beautiful ladies. When I first came here five years ago, I picked up a lot of girls from bars, but nowadays I can pick up girls anywhere and any time," boasts a 58-year-old Danish man who wished to remain anonymous.
RAKING IN THE BAHT
Supin, a 28-year-old sex worker from Surin province in the Northeast, came to Pattaya when she was 21 at the suggestion of a friend. Needing to raise money to send her children to school, Supin decided to leave home and earn some money.
She went to Bangkok a year prior to Pattaya to work in a restaurant as a waitress where she earned 280 baht a day plus tips. But the money was never enough to feed her whole family after her Thai husband left her with two children, making her the main breadwinner.
When her friend suggested she could earn more money in Pattaya, Supin didn't think of anything else but her family. She was fully aware of what that might involve, but she was willing to do anything to bring in much-needed cash.
LOVE FOR SALE: A tourist gets friendly with one of the girls plying her trade on Walking Street. Photo: Tanaphon Ongarttrakul
"I first came here to work in a beer bar. I only served drinks at that time until some customers offered me for money for sex. When I first earned 2,000 baht in one day instead of 280 baht, I realised I could actually do this for a living," Supin says.
Thanadda "Ning" Swangnetr, a 48-year-old activist and public figure who gained fame with an award-winning book exposing her life as a sex worker, told Spectrum that what forced her into prostitution when she was 18 was financial problems.
"I had a kid when I was very young from unprotected sex. I needed a lot of money to raise my child. But I only graduated high school and I had no skills. I ended up with a low-paid job earning 3,500 baht a month in Bangkok. Then a friend told me I could earn 5,000 baht a month working in a bar serving drinks in Pattaya. I decided to go since I could earn more money," Ning says.
"When I first arrived, they placed me in a room with a glass window in front. Girls were picked by customers and served them drinks. I didn't get picked for a week and thought this may not be the right job for me. Then a tour guide asked me to spend time with him in his hotel room for 4,000 baht, which was a lot of money in 1985, and I thought this is a lot of money for just one night. I then became hooked on the temptation of the large amount of money I could earn in one day."
Ning thought about quitting many times since selling herself was not something that she could tell everyone about proudly. But at the end of the day, it brought in money to feed her whole family. She occasionally did other jobs, but they never paid as much as being a sex worker.
"I was hooked on the money. I had enough to send back to my family and I even had enough to entertain myself, buy new clothes, go clubbing and actually live my life," Ning says.
PROSTITUTES, WHAT PROSTITUTES?
MONEY TALKS: Activist and former sex worker Thanadda 'Ning' Swangnetr says she was hooked on earning large sums of cash as a prostitute in the 1980s. Photo: Jiraporn Kuhakan
British newspapers The Sun and the Daily Mirror recently ran articles describing Pattaya as "the world's sex capital" and as a "modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah", sparking anger among government officials, especially PM Prayut. He has vowed to crack down on illegal businesses and prostitution in Pattaya, viewing them as a major embarrassment for Thailand.
On Tuesday, Pattaya City officials, local police units and administrative units of Chon Buri held a press conference on the new policy, Pattaya Happy Zone, which has been immediately implemented with the main purpose of keeping popular areas of Pattaya under control and crime-free.
The Happy Zone is being enforced in the infamous Walking Street in order to control all illegal activities to make sure that the holiday experience in Pattaya is hassle-free for everyone.
Pol Col Apichai Krobpetch, the Pattaya police superintendent, told Spectrum that Pattaya is not a hub for the sex trade. He was upset about the British media's stories, insisting they were fabricated.
"There is no such thing as prostitution in Pattaya," says Col Apichai. "Where did they get the figure of 27,000 sex workers in Pattaya? Anyone can make up this information.
"We are working very hard to keep these issues under control. We patrol every night to make sure that there are no sex workers on the streets. We make sure that all the bars follow the law and we keep our eyes on every entertainment venue and beer bar.
"Thai ladies having sex with foreigners is their personal issue. If they like each other, I don't see anything wrong with what they do behind closed doors.
"As the police chief in charge of this area, I can guarantee that Pattaya is still a safe and beautiful place to visit."
NICE LITTLE EARNER FOR THE COPS
While the police are defending Pattaya as a safe and clean place, social worker Surang Janyam, the director of Service Workers IN Group Foundation, suggests we should stop fooling ourselves that prostitution does not exist in Thailand and start thinking about ways to include sex workers as part of society and as human beings with dignity.
"We can't close our eyes and pretend that there are no sex workers in Thailand. The estimated number published in the Daily Mirror is totally inaccurate -- 27,000 sex workers in Pattaya is way too low. We have a lot more sex workers than that. However, the actual number is not the real issue," Ms Surang says.
"We have to think what we can do to improve their lives and well-being. Cracking down on prostitution and arresting sex workers won't solve the problem as they will end up having no job and no money. Meanwhile, the real issue is not them selling themselves for money. The real issue is that the government doesn't do anything to improve the dire economic situation that forces many people into this seedy business.
"Forget about legalising prostitution. How about decriminalising it altogether and bringing sex workers under the labour law? That way they can at least get some social welfare and get the same treatment each human deserves."
Chantawipa Apisuk, director of the Empower Foundation who has been working on the issue for more than 30 years, says there have been many attempts to solve the problem but none has been successful.
She suggests that instead of cracking down and banning the sex trade, the government should reach out to sex workers and ask them what they want. Then the two sides can meet halfway in order to keep everything under control.
While prostitution remains a never-ending issue, Ms Chantawipa worries that the legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution may not be happen in her lifetime because there is a bigger issue behind it.
"Prostitution in Thailand is all about bribery. Owners of each venue must bribe the police to keep their business going. If prostitution becomes legal, how else will the cops make money? Don't forget that a big part of our income also stems from this type of business," says Ms Chantawipa.
"The police only crack down when they have to compile human trafficking reports. With the way our country is run, I doubt this issue will ever be solved."
Ning fully agrees with the legalisation of prostitution but her main concern is that sex workers will be labelled and stigmatised further.
"Legally registering as a sex worker means they also accept their status selling sex for living. Thais have a negative attitude towards this type of work even though many people earn a living this way," says Ning.
"I have many friends still in the sex trade. They are abused, they get injured and some have died from getting beaten up. We are too afraid to file a report with the police since what we do is not legal. We should be protected under the same law no matter what we do."