Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
First published 29th September, 2009
Located along Thailand's east coast, the differences between the sands of Pattaya and Ko Samet are intriguing. Both are tourist destinations in their own right, packed with guesthouses and late-night bars, but it seems the clientele of each is reflected by the very beach itself. Oddly enough, to some capacity these two places of excess -- only 100km apart -- are virtually opposites.
Our first stop, following a miraculous 80km lift in a truck, was Pattaya, a place we weren't even planning on visiting. But a free ride's a free ride. An older Western gentleman on a scooter pointed us to the cheapest guesthouse street, Soi Baucau, though little did we know that his presence was a sign of things to come.
Sticking out like only five white people on bicycles can -- helmets gleaming in the sun, faces like rivers, bikes loaded down with panniers and dry-sacks -- we rode through town, eliciting the usual smiles and waves. We quite quickly noticed the inordinate number of youthful, scantily-clad women hanging out in bars, playing pool, or sitting at tables. Besides the songthaew drivers rolling by us Pattaya seemed like a town that had lost its men. Was there a recent battle we hadn't heard about, maybe some horrible loss of menfolk from plague, or were all these women prostitutes?
An answer would have to wait as we had a low-priced guesthouse to seek out. Radiating out from a randomly chosen street corner, as per usual, the first hotel we checked out proved the best, despite multiple other inquiries. Strangely, the vast majority of places only offered weekly or monthly rates, having no interest in short-term visitors. At 400 baht a night, with air-con and other indulgent amenities like warm water and fresh sheets daily, it was a great deal despite the shrill early-morning gecko cries.
The usual perusal of the nearby streets only resulted in more Thai women, often yelling their affection, or even grabbing onto us in attempts to create arousal. Whether out of anger or lust was debatable, but the realisation of where we were had already set in: Pattaya is, quite possibly, the sex capital of Thailand -- 'quite possibly' because I have zero intentions of inspecting the competition.
That said, all of the women were quite friendly to us, realising that the 30-plus year age difference between us and the vast majority of the European men in the streets meant our carnal desires might be a touch different than the average customer. Maybe we're simply not desperate enough to pay for sex, or maybe we just don't know what we're missing.
Next day internet research proved that our go-go bar of choice, World Wide, wasn't part of the main walking street's kilometre of sheer debauchery, but was closer to our hotel and lacked a cover charge. With beers priced at only 70 baht, including the often-overpriced Heineken, the only question on our minds was 'what was the catch?' The free show, which rivaled Bangkok's infamous ping-pong show in freakishness, was clearly superior in both the performer's enthusiasm and appearance. Bangkok's old disinterested women were clearly inferior to Pattaya's young virile girls.
Not content to gawk -- we're adventurers not voyeurs after all -- the inquiry began into how exactly things work at the club. The waitresses were happy to explain that a mere 95 baht would literally rent a girl for conversation and a drink. Sex upstairs cost a cool 1,600 baht; later we found out that the house takes 600, leaving her 1,000 for spreading her legs and enduring whatever it is exactly that happens in an anything-goes Asian brothel. That part of the experience we decided to skip, leaving it to the sleazy, silent, and apparently experienced Europeans sitting all around us. Talking was indeed intriguing, though Blaise at least feigned surprise when a lap dance occurred mid-inquiry.
Our next stop was the beach, a great place to pass out for a few early morning hours. The sand in my hair was actually the only indicator regarding the beach nap, which proved more entertaining than the beach during the daytime. Between the small amount of usable sand, the abundant glass and garbage, the tiny designated swimming area, plus the utter lack of waves, we were essentially at only a natural tanning salon, and not so much a functioning beach.
After a cancer-inducing afternoon, it was delightful to discover that Pattaya's drug economy is just as well-honed as its sex business, as a friendly Burmese man was able to assist. Fifteen hundred baht got three packets of pot, pre-cleaned and well-presented; delivery was included, by motorbike of course. Patiently waiting, the 30-minute turnaround time was impressive. Amid the streets of sex, cheap suits, pool tables, seafood buffets, and overly vocal hookers, it was refreshing to find a completely normal person who just wanted to talk with us. Our two hours of intimate conversation with Johnny, with topics varying from international relations to pot to tourism economics, was a stark contrast to the endless parade of mixed age and race "couples" walking past.
After our time in Bangkok, the occasional catcalling lady-boy hardly even elicited a glance, since Pattaya is almost exclusively about straight sex. Truly, how could anyone compete with the pick-up line we received in Nana, one of Bangkok's go-go bar districts: "You want to suck my cock?" to which Christine calmly and politely responded: "No thank you." On the other end of the homosexual spectrum, Luke's quest for "Happy Land" became almost mythical, ending with more questions than answers about the town's main gay bar (or maybe club, we never found out).
Forty-eight hours of this mayhem and debauchery definitely proved sufficient, and we departed in the early morning of a mercifully cloudy day in search of a more fulfilling environment: a gleaming beach with waves to body-surf. Based on our minimalist research approach, Ko Samet's Ao Hin Khok was our top choice, and two days and about 90km later, we arrived at Ban Phe pier, awaiting a public ferry to paradise. The ferry ride was intense; the rocking ocean making bike-loading difficult, so we had to unload all of our packs before passing our possessions over the open and frothing sea to the relative safety of the boat's top deck. Liz's water bottle magically transformed into a barf bag, and everyone's stomach seemed churned by the 45-minute ride. All the Thais on board kept their heads down, our curiosity regrettably kept us staring at the approaching gorgeous scenery.
The green island of Ko Samet holds expansive white beaches within its Laem Ya National Park. The entrance fee was surprisingly negotiable -- we almost instantly transformed into children with half-price admission costs (100 baht). Initially wandering about on the recently-changed-to-upmarket Haad Sai Kaew, we found our intended destination, only the next beach down, to be much more backpacker-friendly. That's code for low-prices and shoddy accommodation, perfect for encouraging maximum time on the beach, or at the bars.
Tok's Guesthouse, with its Little Hut Bar beachside directly across the dirt road, fit the bill brilliantly; at only 300 baht a night the bed made exclusively of springs, the bizarre acid-induced childish wall-paintings, the roaches in the bathroom, and the surrounding demolition zone hardly matter. Tok's is apparently also rapidly moving upscale, as a herd of 2,000 baht a night resort-style condos are currently replacing the dilapidated shanty-town that we had sought out. Five bungalows back, a visible shred of blue managed to verify that we were actually living near the water, as did the nightly barrage of mosquitoes and other biting insects.
The sand itself was bright and soft, full of shells smoothed by water. No real litter, just plenty of interesting rock formations and an odd pair of statues: a topless mermaid and a Thai Pied Piper. Of course there's little to do beyond eat, sit, lay, and pet. The petting is mostly reserved for the healthy dogs and cats that are everywhere, and one we nicknamed 'Mama Dog' was our constant companion.
Though there's not much to do beyond laze, our luggage-less meander on bikes across the island's hilly dirt-tracks proved some of the most exhausting riding we've done yet. Ko Samet's atmosphere is perfectly relaxing; though the island is certainly a Western-tourism destination, it's equally popular with Thais from the city seeking solace on the sand only four hours away from Bangkok by bus. So everyone is laid-back, friendly, and eager to chill; the landscape and scenery is world-class; the bars have laundry lists of daily deals; ganja is openly smoked on the beach after dark; but what about the all-important late-night dancing?
Located down at the western end of Ao Hin Khok, the unexpectedly gay-friendly Silver Sands, paradoxically popular with European families during the day, transforms into a popular club at night. As much as a concrete slab beneath tin roofing can count as a dance-floor anyways, but buy-one-get-one drinks are available to assuage any lingering doubts. Ko Samet's DJs [like its fire-dancers] are numerous, talented, and creative -- weaving together different styles of music [dance] seamlessly. So if Silver Sands isn't quite to your style, there are a few other choices including Naga, Sunrise, and Tok's, or Ploy is just a short walk up the main beach. The mix of discount beers, happy hour cocktail specials, and beachside bamboo bongs can take quite a toll, but when the sun is rising within hours the bungalow's springs and roaches no longer seem quite so threatening.
My personal choice is obviously Ko Samet -- sorry Pattaya. But that's one of the benefits of travelling: ending up in places and situations you'd never dare put yourself in while within the safety and control of your own country. Didn't necessarily need to, but always glad I did. However, that having been said, I'll take body-surfing and an oscillating fan over working girls and air-con any day.
We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every Wednesday for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
Story by Anderson Muth
Related readingAn introduction
24 hours in Bangkok
Muay Thai night
A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
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