Not too far from Bangkok lies one of Thailand’s most popular seaside getaways, the entertaining town of Pattaya. Join Paula Tan as she and her family embark on a trip by bus from the Thai capital to this buzzing beachside destination.
The moon-faced baby squinted at me over his mother’s shoulder as she queued ahead of us to board the bus to Pattaya, one of Thailand’s most popular seaside towns. We were at Bangkok’s Ekkamai bus station, the place to go for eastbound buses to Pattaya, Chonburi, Trad, Rayong, and Ban Pae.
Arriving in the middle of monsoon season was not the most ideal travel period, but as we were to discover in the days ahead, it still allowed for extended bouts of breezy blue weather. The five of us waited for the larger pieces to be placed before putting our smaller luggage on top, and then once on board, city limits dissolved as the driver steered into the freedom of the open highway. Sunnies on and headset plugged in, it was ‘road trip mode on’ as our two-and-a-half hour drive began.
Located 147km southeast of Bangkok, Pattaya is easy to get to and makes a noteworthy diversion from the city grind. Connected via the motorway on Highway 7 and Highway 3 (Bangna-Chonburi route), it can be reached by several bus lines that depart Ekkamai– Bangkok’s eastern bus terminal, every half hour. All buses are air-conditioned 40-seaters, but should you prefer more sophisticated transport, you can even fly from Suvarnabhumi International to U-Tapao Airport in Sattahip then connect by road.
Thailand’s Good-Time Seaside Town
In a 1995 retrospective, when Ripley’s Believe It or Not opened in Pattaya, forecasts could not begin to define the future of what, a mere 20 years on, has become Thailand’s premier adventure playground. Today, this seaside resort pulls in close to a million visitors a month, serving up a mind-boggling smorgasbord of attractions comprising far more than sun, sand, and sea. Despite its reputation for being a place of worldly pleasures, the irony is that many of Pattaya’s best offerings lie away from the centre of town, especially for the parent and kid demographic.
Its repertoire of themed arenas includes a Cartoon Network waterpark, Mini Siam’s tiny take on Thailand, a fishy community of over 4,500 at Underwater World, Art in Paradise – apparently the planet’s biggest illusion art museum – and in line with its passion for superlatives, Nong Nooch, Southeast Asia’s largest botanical gardens. Considering the long list of Pattaya sights, the draw for me was not so much in the variety, but its utter randomness. Thirty minutes by car leads to the Silverlake Vineyard–remarkable in itself, considering its location slap bang in the middle of the tropics. A plus point is that the drive meanders past Khao Chi Chan, a 100-metre-high Buddha sculpted from the side of a mountain, and the Indian-inspired water park, Ramayana.
For the unimpressed, an hour at Upside Down Pattaya, the construction of which must have driven its architects to insomnia, should boost your perspective. All things being said and done, should the line-up still fall short of extraordinary for you, there’s also a Swiss Sheep Farm.
Not far away, Pattaya’s 18-hole golf course is currently under construction near Wat Yansangwararam, alongside the Kun Ying Hydroponic Farm which belongs to the Pattaya Marriott. Set amid a spread of rural splendour, Kun Ying produces fresh organic vegetables without a chemical in sight and also holds bespoke Thai and Western cooking classes. One visit could have you whipping up a gourmet phak kun ying salad in no time. To the east of Pattaya city, the Siam Country Club features the perfect year-end closer, annually hosting the popular music, arts, and wellness festival, Wonderfruit, so if your visit occurs late in the calendar year, do keep an eye out for this event.
Streets and Sunsets
At some point, every travel article about Pattaya seems to find its way to Walking Street, a warren of go-go bars, clubs, and all-you-can-guzzle restaurants at the south end of Beach Road. True to Thai flamboyance, somewhat family-friendly, and vying with Ripley’s in the endurance stakes, is Tiffany’s. Having been in operation for four decades, this Beach Road stage show remains a cabaret icon with its proudly Asian take on the Folies Bergère classic. With a liberal dash of Korean and Chinese folk songs, and the captivating addition of a Tina Turner impersonator, it still opens to a crowded house three times a night.
Still, to the masses seeking new routes of escape, the Walking Street vicinity remains largely adult, softened only by the sun-dappled beach nearby. Despite the diversion to all the other sights under the Pattaya sun, beaches are still the town’s foremost attraction. Its dazzling golden mile that sprawls past its mall-packed main street is where sunseekers flock for IG photos and watersports – but its more-reserved sibling, Jomtien Beach, lies far south of the city centre. Here, the original Pattaya still lives, devoid of tourist buses, holding a precious escape from the hawkers and touts.
If, after doing the city beach circuit, you still yearn for a more authentic experience, hop on a ferry to the nearby jungle island of Koh Larn, or Coral Island. Situated just 7.5km offshore from Pattaya and taking its place as one of the most beautiful islands off northern Thailand, Koh Larn is amazingly accessible. From Nabaan Pier where the ferries arrive, you can hop on a shared van, or charter your own for about 1000THB to spend an entire day beach-hopping.
There are five main beaches on the island, and some tend to be more popular than others. The least-visited beaches are gems, and accommodation near the island’s main beach is basic and reasonably priced. Tawaen Beach and Samae Beach are among the busiest on the island, and there are several resorts and international restaurants catering to day trippers choosing to extend their stay on the island. Nual Beach, or monkey beach, was a little quieter and more charming, with a bonus of friendly macaques, but my favourite was Tien Beach, the island’s smallest, which was practically deserted after 5.30pm. This lovely beach treated us to a sunset that could’ve been set to an angels’ chorus as it glittered across those clear turquoise waters and soft white sands.
On Ko Larn, coral reefs are hidden treasures to seek and snorkeling is de rigueur, but things get far more adventurous – so why stop at parasailing when you can kick it into a higher gear with an underwater sea walk? Bring your underwater camera too, for jaw-dropping shots of marine life to flash at your envious colleagues, post-holiday. For the more laid-back types, get yourselves a fishing rod, as fabulous catches in Koh Larn are all too common. If catching your own dinner is too much trouble, however, you can always enjoy the catch of the day at one of the island’s many restaurants.
At a glance, Pattaya may come across as another run-of-the-mill Thai town, but peel back the layers, and its heart emerges. Before we returned to Bangkok, where the city never sleeps and the party goes on throughout the night, we sat watching the waves in the moonlight on quiet Jomtien Beach. There, in the silence, came a reminder that when the theme parks close, and the beer runs out, this is what we all come back to – the things we know.