Sunday, March 20, 2005


An elephant trainer prepares to pick up passengers at the Pattaya Elephant Village.


Thai resort city offers many
activities for tourists

PATTAYA, Thailand » Combine Keeaumoku Street and Kalakaua Avenue and multiply the number of bars, restaurants and shops by 100, and you get a rough idea of what it's like around Walking Street, tourist central in the Thai coastal resort of Pattaya.

Think of it as a slightly less crowded Bangkok, with a beach.

Formerly a fishing village, Pattaya, about a two-hour drive south of Bangkok, developed as a tourist resort during the Vietnam War when it was a destination for soldiers seeking R&R.

There are numerous beer bars, massage parlors and strip joints, and it's not uncommon to see older men with young Thai women or, in the gay district, with young men.

But families also vacation here and take advantage of opportunities for activities other than sex tourism, such as discount shopping malls, golf, elephant rides, cultural shows, fishing, diving or just hanging out on the beach.

Because it's so close to Bangkok, city dwellers head to Pattaya and its beaches for weekend getaways. There's also a sizable retirement community of foreigners taking advantage of its low cost of living.

If you are traveling with family, it's much quieter to stay outside of Pattaya, perhaps at nearby Jomtiem Beach or any of a number of resorts along the coast.

The massive Ambassador City Jomtiem Resort, where I stayed, was hosting a convention of Christian missionaries who had gathered from all over Asia, as well as military personnel participating in tsunami recovery efforts.

"Our hotel is for those who like quiet and relaxation," said Supasinee Imanan, the guest relations officer for the 4,210-room resort, which features five pools and also caters to the convention crowd.

This time of year, most of the tourists here are Russians or Europeans seeking to escape winter. There are also Chinese, Japanese and a fair amount of Thais on vacation.

Tourists crowd Walking Street in Pattaya.

The beaches just outside Pattaya are known for wind-surfing and kite-surfing. Many of the resorts have private beaches where you can rent banana boats, jet skis or go parasailing. Fishing boats are also available for rent.

It's easy to wander the miles of shoreline and collect seashells, eat at a beachside restaurant or just lie out in the sun.

Thai massages are available on the beach for 200 bhat, about $5 an hour, not including tip.

Just offshore is Koh Larn (Coral Island), and tours are available for a day trip. Also nearby is Koh Samet, another island offering overnight accommodations.

Those seeking entertainment and fine dining might want to stay in the city. However, for about $2 or whatever you can negotiate, a "bhat bus" will take you into Pattaya to experience the city's night life and shopping.

The usual T-shirts, tourist trinkets, purses, jewelry shops, pirated DVDs and CDs common in Thailand are for sale here. But for shoppers who prefer bargains on better merchandise, there are also modern shopping malls with brand-name merchandise and even an outlet mall featuring Reebok, Warner Bros. goods and electronics.

As for the night life, there are numerous bars and restaurants besides those that cater to the sex trade. Some of the beer bars offer live music -- I heard some decent blues and pop cover bands. Others feature karaoke and Thai kick-boxing to attract customers. At a bar area near the entrance to Walking Street, the kick-boxers battled until one was knocked down. The winner then collected tips from the audience.

Restaurants range from street vendors selling fruits and barbecued meats on a stick, to fine dining on the waterfront and -- for the daring -- fried insects. Some restaurants feature huge tanks where you can pick out your seafood and select how they will prepare it. Any type of food -- Indian, Japanese, steakhouses, Middle Eastern, Russian, even Texas barbecue -- is available in the tourist area. But I prefer eating where the Thais eat, at street vendor stands.

It's generally safe to eat street food in Thailand. They cook it right in front of you, and you can judge for yourself how sanitary it is. In my experience the food on the street or in street cafes is generally better and cheaper than at restaurants that cater to tourists.

Thai kickboxing can be seen in bars in Pattaya.

$24 covers a ride on an elephant

Riding an elephant in Thailand sounds like it would be touristy, and it is.

But how can you resist an elephant ride in a country shaped like a pachyderm's head?

I'm not really a big fan of packaged tours and shows, so I skipped the crocodile farm and the tiger zoo. But I had to ride an elephant. Besides, you can't feed bananas to the crocodiles or tigers.

Vans pick up passengers at their hotels, making it easy to get to the Pattaya Elephant Village, which is actually in the nearby region of Chonburi.

The village is a privately run elephant sanctuary, and according to brochures and its Web site, the money from the elephant rides and tours pays for the animals' upkeep.

Several different tours are available. The combination trek features a one-hour elephant ride, a guided half-hour hike, rafting on a lake, an encounter with gibbons, an ox-cart ride and dinner or lunch. The cost is about $45, not including tips.

I just wanted to ride an elephant. The one-hour ride was about $24.

The elephant ride at the Pattaya Elephant Village goes through a man-made lake.

The tours are offered several times during the day. I went out on the last ride of the day at about 4:30 p.m.

It starts with the elephants coming up to meet you at a raised wooden platform. A metal chair, where you sit, is strapped to the animal's back, and the trainer rides on its neck. Climb into the chair and off you go.

It's not like riding a horse. There's a lot of motion on the back of an elephant -- back and forth and side to side. But eventually you get used to it.

The elephant ride began with a dip in a man-made lake, then into a farming community, past rural homes and tapioca fields.

Along the way, you pass areas where the elephants and other animals are housed, fed and tended, to watch other elephants being fed and washed.

It's a leisurely ride. The elephants will sometimes stop and take a drink of water or reach out with their trunks to grab plants or tree leaves to eat.

Too soon, the late-afternoon sun cast shadows, and the sky began turning orange.

At the end of the ride, you're served fresh fruit and shown a photo of you on the elephant and a video of your ride, which you can purchase. I passed on both.

The memory of riding into the setting sun on the back of an elephant is good enough for me.

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