When I was a small child and lived in Chennai, there was a particular MGR film I fell in love with. It was called Ullagam Sutrum Vaalliban. I don’t remember much about the film except that MGR embarks on a world tour. In retrospect though all the locations seemed to be have been limited to South East Asia rather than the world.
But an eight year old child asks no such awkward questions and instead sat mesmerized by the plethora of images. Sometimes I think that was when I was bitten by the travel bug. To wander and see new sights, smell new scents, taste new foods, meet strangers…
One of the images from that film was of Bangkok and strangely enough while I had travelled to most obscure of places, I had left Thailand alone. I would rather go to Vietnam I told myself.
Then one October on a whim my husband and I boarded a flight to Bangkok. For many years most of my travel has been circumscribed by book events. My books took me to places and once I am there I explore and discover it. But this time there was no book event to plan my holiday around. So I told myself that all I would do is be a tourist. Except that tourists seemed to have only two reasons to visit Thailand – shopping and sex. Given this, my first thought on landing in Bangkok was what am I doing here?
Fortunately Thailand has one more thing that starts with a S to offer.. The sea. Our hotel in Pattaya was on the beachfront and was located on a quieter side of the beach. Once we had unpacked, I rushed into the waves with the same eagerness that most tourists show on seeing the shopping malls or a go-go bar.
Pattaya in the 1960s was just a little fishing village, until a few Bangkok residents began to take their weekends here and generated a modest local tourist industry. The Vietnam War saw the start of Pattaya’s international reputation, for the fledging resort was used an official R&R centre for the US forces. They were flown into U-Tapao Airport which was built for American use at the time, and shops, services, bars and hotel accommodation grew to meet the demand.
Our days fell into a routine. Wake up. Breakfast. Head to the beach. Read and swim alternatively. Lunch. Siesta. Beach and a long walk. Then dinner and bed. I would have been content with this but my husband was beginning to get restless. It was enough for me to stay on the beach all day. I was enchanted by the changing colours of the sea. My biggest adventure was to try out all the food the vendors brought my way as I lazed on a deck chair under a canopy – fried shrimp, green papaya salad, pineapple slices, ice creams…
By the third day, my husband had enough of this sea and sand routine. That’s the thing about travel. When we travel alone, we do not ever have to consider what the other person wants or doesn’t want. We are free to decide what to do, when to eat or sleep and when to do nothing.
Many travel destinations are perhaps best enjoyed alone but it seemed to me as we set out to discover Pattaya that this was one destination that needed a companion. For the flip side to travelling alone is you don’t have anyone to share anything with. Be it a meal, or the incredulity of something that caught your eye. There is no one to turn to and say: do you see that? Isn’t that unbelievable?
And in Pattaya, even if the shopping isn’t great, there is plenty to see. So much so I felt my eyes grow as big as saucers. Take the ladyboys for instance. The first time two ladyboys walked past me swinging their hips, tossing their hair this way and that, I didn’t pay much attention. What pretty women I thought. Then my husband nudged me and said: They are the famous ladyboys. That’s when I looked again. They were more prettier than many Thai women I had seen. And yet, there was something that didn’t seem entirely right. But unless one was looking so closely, one wouldn’t even know.
Then one evening we went to Walking Street. Rather like the red light district in Amsterdam which is a tourist attraction, the Walking Street in Pattaya too is a recommended tourist attraction despite its dubious reputation. The street runs from the south end of Beach Road to the Bali Hai Pier and the area includes seafood restaurants, live music venues, beer bars, discothèques, sports bars, go-go bars, and nightclubs.
They call it the most exciting street in the world if you want to have fun. The operative word here being ‘fun’ and not the fun you have at home. For it seemed to me that we were probably the only married couple there. Everyone else from Australians with gigantic beer bellies and tattoos on their biceps to clean cut Americans to a few shifty Indians all had a Thai girl hanging onto their arms. I cringed at this relegation of a woman to a mere plaything but we walked on looking this way and that. For what else does one do at Walking Street?
Eventually we found a restaurant on the pier and settled there for a meal. One of the key attractions of Thailand is its food. But everything else takes precedence and few people ever come back from Thailand raving about its food. Instead it is the cheap electronics or sex shows that linger in most minds.
As someone who is passionate about food, my main focus that night was the meal we were going to have. A gentle breeze blew over the waters and ruffled my hair. Some of the other restaurants in the waterfront had lights strewn across their decks and I felt a great wave of peace wash over me as I sipped my tall cold drink. Then I gazed at the next table where a group of very respectable looking Americans wearing pastel coloured shirts and ironed shorts sat. Each one had a Thai girl attached. They had come in much earlier than we had. So they were almost half way into their meal.
An elderly man who looked like he was either a bank manager or a college professor, someone who probably went to church every Sunday and was seen as a dutiful husband and father stood up and said: Let’s exchange places now….
The girls giggled as eight men who in their homes would treat their wives and daughters with utmost respect bodily shifted them. Almost as if they were bowls of short eats, each man was taking his pick…Something in me died then.
According to a 2001 report by the World Health Organisation: “there are between 150,000 and 200,000 sex workers in Thailand.” A recent government survey found that there were 76,000 to 77,000 adult prostitutes in registered entertainment establishments; however, NGOs believed there were between 200,000 and 300,000 prostitutes. Most of the sex workers see it just as another job. , I have been told again and again that there isn’t much of a stigma attached to it nor do they even feel exploited. Even if that was the truth, how could I condone seeing these pillars of society treat these women like they were a commodity. For that was the status of those girls that night. Pleasure toys to be used and discarded.
The food tasted like ashes in my mouth and I couldn’t wait to get out of that restaurant and the street. We walked back to our hotel in silence. In the morning when the sun rose and cast a golden light on the waters, I would feel differently, I knew. For I would see again the tranquility of the beach and there would come alive the Pattaya that I fell in love with.
Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel is Cut Like Wound. She is also the founder & editor of the online literary journal The Heavenly Bliss Salon for Men.