When Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opened in Pattaya, in 1995, there was one question on everyone’s lips: why bother when the immediate surrounds are so much more incredible?
A couple of decades on, the seaside-city resort is Thailand’s premier adventure playground, pulling in close to a million visitors a month and serving up a phantasmagorical entertainment cocktail containing rather more than sun, sand, sea and the other thing.
Just as Monopoly players end up on Go, at one time or another all travel articles about Pattaya land on Walking Street, known to those of a philosophical bent as the Old Kant Road. At the southern end of Beach Road, Walking Street’s agglomeration of go-go bars, clubs and all-you-can-guzzle eateries are prowled by a random sampling of humankind, encompassing poet Emma Lazarus’ wretched refuse of a teeming shore, marauders from Mad Max 2 and the remnants of that notorious 1960s pop group The Losers. It’s adults only, and only those of a hardened disposition.
Rather more family-friendly, and vying with Ripley’s in the tried-and-tested stakes, is Tiffany’s, a theatre at the other end of Beach Road that has been wowing cabaret fans for the past four decades. Its one-hour, thrice-nightly programme canters the gamut from the Folies Bergère to Korean and Chinese folk songs with an eerie Tina Turner impersonation adding a little grist to the mill. The choreography may be a tad stilted, the lips not altogether synced, but the show is undeniably entertaining, all the more so when “Les Girls” – teeth bared in a rictus of delight and palms firmly outstretched – pose with posses of bemused punters outside at the end of the performance.
Slightly ironically, much of the best of Pattaya lies away from the centre of town, especially for the mum, dad and 2.4 demographic. Ripley’s is but one of a cohort of themed arenas that includes a Cartoon Network waterpark, Mini Siam’s bonsai version of Thailand, the 4,500 fishy inhabitants of Underwater World, Art in Paradise – which claims to be the biggest illusion-art museum on Earth – and, sticking with the superlative leitmotif, the largest botanical garden in Southeast Asia, Nong Nooch Garden.
“There’s really no shortage of activities for families,” says Apichart Amonkul, chief concierge at the Avani Resort & Spa, which has just been rebranded from a Marriott, in a move that reflects the view that Pattaya is increasingly appealing to “millennial-minded travellers”.
“And it’s not just paid attractions – night markets like the one at Klong Thom are as much about entertainment as they are about actually buying stuff. You’ll find some good bargains, of course, but you’ll also rub shoulders with Thai people out enjoying themselves, grabbing a snack, chatting to each other.”
Crucially, the appeal is not so much in the variety of Pattaya entertainment as its sheer randomness. Half-an-hour’s drive outside the city leads to the Silverlake Vineyard – an oddity in itself given the tropical milieu – but the approach leads past Ramayana, an Indian-accented water park, and Khao Chi Chan, a 100-metre-high Buddha image sculpted onto the side of a mountain. There’s also Upside Down Pattaya, the construction of which must have involved some tense site meetings between architects and engineers, and – just in case anyone should think the line-up’s not quite bizarre enough – a Swiss Sheep Farm. Pattaya’s 18th golf course is under construction a short distance away, not far from Kun Ying Hydroponic Farm, which besides the obvious serves a good smoked salmon salad roll and artisanal ice cream at its on-site café. Every winter, the Siam Country Club, to the east of Pattaya City, hosts the increasingly popular music, arts and wellness festival Wonderfruit (the 2016 event has been moved to February 16-19, 2017, out of respect for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej).
But Silverlake – which puts the “it” in vanity project – trumps the bunch when it comes to the backstory. Owned by super-tycoon Surachai Tangjaitrong and his wife, former film star Supansa Nuangpirom – described (in terms of era and celebrity) as Thailand’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor – it’s the closest thing to a Tuscan vineyard east of Florence. Complete with signature red tiles and ochre walls, it’s spread over 64 hectares planted with shiraz grapes and produces about 10,000 bottles of red, white and rosé every year, as well as a fairly large volume of non-alcoholic juice.
“We don’t export at the moment, so pretty much all Silverlake wine is drunk in and around Pattaya,” says the winery’s manager, Kannika Patchanee.
“The vineyard was set up in 2002, and went into full production five years ago. We employ experts from the United States and Australia, but the day-to-day running is under local supervision.
“Yet while Silverlake’s a vineyard, it’s also a lifestyle destination. A residential Tuscan-style residential village is being built now, and we stage a music festival every summer, with Thai and international artists playing jazz, classical, country, swing – you name it.”
Silverlake was built on a greenfield site and it would have to be a fairly myopic visitor to Pattaya who didn’t notice the plethora of construction projects, usually hosting embryo condominiums that sell especially well in Russia – Cyrillic signage around town vies with English in popularity – and China. Today’s rustic locale is tomorrow’s sea-view apartment block, and so the boom continues to echo in and around Pattaya.
A notable exception to the build-it-and-they-will-come mantra lies on Jomtien Beach, well south of the city centre. This is a more chilled Pattaya, devoid of gaggles of tourists being dispatched on parasailing missions and less visited by hawkers and touts. And the destination of choice is The Glass House, a standalone restaurant owned by property developer Auttapol “Art” Ittiratanakomol.
“My family’s owned this land for some time, and we were going to build a condominium here, but then one day I took another look – plenty of mature growth trees, nice views over the sea, no other big buildings nearby, and thought a restaurant would make more sense,” says Khun Art.
While the restaurant can seat a couple of hundred, with tiered seating rising from the beach up past the deck to the first floor, there’s no sense of it being out of scale. The menu trumpets Thai-style seafood but features equally good Western dishes.
Ease into a seat here, kick off your shoes, and get set to browse and sluice. Lunches run well into the afternoon, dinners edge towards midnight.
Given the tranquil ambience, Walking Street might as well be on Mars.