Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A FEW POST-PATTAYA PARTING SHOTS (VERBAL AND VISUAL)

Pattaya has a bad reputation as the ultimate Thai tourist trap, so before I left Bangkok for my next destination last week, I asked a Thai woman for her honest opinion.

"Is Pattaya nice?"

She hesitated for a moment before answering. "If you're not from Thailand."

Immediately, I knew what to expect: side streets filled with overpriced (by Thailand standards) restaurants and bars, massage parlour after massage parlour with local women outside practically begging you to let them give you a helping, healing hand (er, hands?), and cabaret shows galore offering boyz boyz boyz and dudes who look like ladies.

It didn't disappoint. Pattaya was everything the woman insinuated it would be, a sort of Phuket on the Gulf of Thailand (or the Thai version of Argentina's Mar del Plata), two hours by car from Bangkok. The main difference is that while Phuket is boosted by its natural scenery. Pattaya's water is less impressive -- and according to everyone I spoke to, not nearly as clean -- and the mountains are too far on the horizon to dramatically affect the visual experience within city limits.

But damn, I sort of loved it anyway! So much so that my planned three days there turned into five, and I'm going back for next weekend. The best part is that despite the tourist-trap trappings, there are enough unexpected visual treats and exoticism to keep things interesting.

Some of my more memorable Pattaya moments:

Four days, four massages. A confession: I've always hated massages (there's something about being rubbed and squeezed by an absolute stranger, albiet in a non-sexual way, that makes me feel kind of violated), but every day I tried to overcome my aversion to them at $5 to $7 a pop. Did it work? Yes, and no. The head and neck massages on days 1 and 4 and the foot massage on day 2 hit all the spots, but the full-body Thai massage on day 3 may have hit them a bit too aggressively.

My Facebook status update afterwards pretty much summed it up for me: "I'm still not sure what to make of the traditional Thai full-body massage. There's something about a woman contorting my body into truly uncomfortable positions and walking on my back that reminds me of cruel and unusual punishment or S&M." Not that I've ever tried S&M, but to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s views on obscenity, I know it when I feel it.

Venice by the Gulf. I've never been to Venice, Italy, but now I think I have an idea of what it must be like. The Pattaya Floating Market is exactly what its name implies, complete with sections representing each region of Thailand and scenic boat rides around the complex.

Food for thought. It's like a cross between chicken and pork. Isn't that what they say about all exotic meat? But the tough, chewy consistency of the crocodile cubes on the skewer handed to me by one of the two Thais who'd come to the Market with me only reminded me that I was devouring part of a deadly reptile. Yes, I'll do anything twice, but once was more than enough for crocodile meat. As for the cooked cockroaches -- yes, the creepy-crawly pests are harvested, prepared and peddled as late-night snacks in Thailand -- I refused to even entertain the notion of going there.

Country music as a second musical language. Alan, the doorman at Copa who gets bonus points for wanting to card me to make sure I was really over 28, was flipping through a copy (ok, my copy) of Cosmopolitan magazine when he got to an article on a particular male country singer, and his eyes practically popped out of his head. "Blake Shelton!" he said with a level of excitement usually reserved by twentysomething gay men for Lady Gaga sightings. "I like his song 'Honey Bee.'" I wouldn't have believed my ears when he started singing it if I hadn't seen the video on TV a few days earlier.

Even more unexpected: the home-made CD that the driver who took me from Pattaya to the departure port for Koh Samet inserted into the taxi's disc player. The visually stimulating hour-and-a-half drive had a soundtrack to match the scenery, thanks to a playlist that included "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Islands in the Stream," "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Coal Miner's Daughter" (not Loretta Lynn's version but Sissy Spacek's cover from the 1980 film!).

Bathroom humor that transcends language. Why go with "M" and "F" or some innocent graphic to indicate gender on this-way-to-the-toilet signs when you can go shamelessly scatological. One at the Floating Market pictured a swimsuit-clad woman and man, the latter complete with an anatomically correct penis in high relief. Others showed what looked like two icons either urinating or getting it on, depending on how close to the gutter your mind was at the moment. "That's two people enjoying themselves too much at a glory hole," my friend Rob commented when I posted a photo of one on Facebook. Get the picture?
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