It is the height of the season in Pattaya, one of the biggest moneymakers in Thailand’s tourism boom. The Gulf of Thailand is an obliging ultramarine, the sun sparkles brilliantly and the coconut palms along the beach even manage to seem sultry.
But no one is frolicking in the water. The beach is almost deserted. Although there is not a single warning sign along the one-mile strip of Pattaya’s beach, word of mouth has effectively spread the word: Pattaya’s water is dangerously polluted.
“It’s difficult for me to speak in behalf of Pattaya,” said Suraphon Svetsreni, head of the Pattaya office in the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “I can’t lie about it--they tell me it’s OK to swim, but everyone knows the water is polluted. All you have to do is look at it.”
Twenty years ago, Pattaya was a sleepy fishing village 100 miles south of Bangkok with a single hotel and a few bungalows dotted along the beach. Now, it has 266 hotels with 20,500 rooms, hundreds of bars and nightclubs and countless fast-food restaurants.
Although official studies as early as 1972 warned of an incipient crisis because of the lack of sewage treatment and fresh water, the central Thai government and the city fathers of Pattaya imposed no limits on growth and took no meaningful measures to control pollution.
The result has been that Pattaya, once internationally acclaimed as a resort, has become an ecological disaster area. In the next few months, more than 1,000 hotel rooms and 11,000 condominium apartments are slated to open, further taxing the city’s overloaded resources.
The environmental and developmental concerns raised are, of course, not exclusive to Pattaya--Bangkok is choking on air pollution and some of the world’s worst traffic. Even the remote island resort of Phuket is suffering blackouts because hotel construction has outpaced electricity supplies, and oil slicks wash up with embarrassing regularity on the island’s fabled beaches.
But in Pattaya, the problems have now reached what many consider crisis proportions, finally stirring the government to action and serving as a cautionary tale to other Asian and Third World countries that allow unrestrained growth in the headlong rush to develop without planning adequate infrastructure.
Pattaya’s case is particularly poignant because the destruction of the environment has been accompanied by a tendency to pander to down-market tastes in the search for an ever-expanding base of tourists. Pattaya has come to symbolize the sleaze of Southeast Asia, as a steady stream of mainly single men from Europe arrive looking for a debauched vacation.
“There is nothing you can do in Pattaya that you can’t do in Las Vegas or London,” said bar owner Peter O’Shea. “It’s just a lot easier and a lot cheaper.”
The number of bar girls and prostitutes in Pattaya, which has an official population of only 50,000 people, is generally estimated between 15,000 and 20,000. That number is augmented by another 15,000 prostitutes when U.S. naval ships sail into Pattaya, as they did nine times last year.
“This is Sodom and Gomorrah by the sea,” said one longtime foreign resident, referring to the Biblical cities that were destroyed by fire, according to the book of Genesis, because of the sinfulness of the people.
“Pattaya all happened so fast,” said Father Ray Brennan, a Chicago-born Roman Catholic priest who has lived in Pattaya for 17 years. “What made Pattaya was the Vietnam War. It just boomed, with all the soldiers in need of rest and recreation, and it has never looked back.”
Even the sleaze factor has suffered lately, however, sending room occupancy down between 15% and 20%, according to hoteliers. An obvious damper is the threat of AIDS, well documented since 1981 in the West but only now being talked about in Pattaya, where drug addiction is a serious new concern and about 10% of the town’s prostitutes are homosexual men.
Also hurting business is a worldwide spate of bad publicity--undeserved, according to many Pattaya businessmen--that has portrayed the town as dangerous to foreigners. At least 129 tourists have died under questionable circumstances in the last two years, although the police have prosaically attributed most of the deaths to “heart failure.”
A scandal broke in October after relatives of a Pakistani physician raised an outcry when his credit cards turned up in Singapore weeks after his death from what the police had described as a heart attack. It later turned out that the doctor had been beaten and smothered with a pillow in his hotel room.
“In Pattaya, people are selling drugs along the streets, openly and in daytime, and no one is interested in stopping them or arresting them,” Kukrit Pramoj, a former Thai prime minister, complained recently.
Now the chief of police has been replaced and a special squad of 30 officers brought in to investigate whether there were any irregularities in the deaths of foreign tourists.
The tide of bad publicity has led the Royal Cliff Resort, a luxury hotel a few miles down the coast, to drop the name “Pattaya City” from its advertising and letterheads. From now on, its brochures will locate it simply on Royal Cliff Beach.
The most immediate crisis facing Pattaya is a shortage of fresh water, which has led recently to a crude form of rationing: one day the south side of town has water, the next day the north.
Hotels have been forced to truck in water for swimming pools, bathtubs and toilets, with some hotel parking lots filled with tanker trucks each morning.
Surakarn Kitchakarn, general manager of the Dusit Resort, one of the town’s largest hotels, said in an interview that the shortage has raised his costs for water by 40%.
“I don’t think the government can let Pattaya stay in this position any longer,” Surakarn said.
The problem has been simply one of increasing demand--4,000 new hotel rooms this year alone--that has caused the level in the local reservoir to plummet. Some officials worry that the water supply could be exhausted by March.
Chided by the hotel community, the Thai government at the end of December belatedly announced an emergency plan to help ease the city’s water shortage by spending 700 million baht, about $23 million, to build a pipeline from another reservoir about 12 miles away and to increase water treatment facilities.
“No one plans in Thailand; the country goes from one crisis to the next,” said a foreign businessman with a long association in Pattaya. “Things will happen in Pattaya now that it has reached crisis proportions.”
Still, no one is proposing limiting growth until infrastructure can catch up with the already mushrooming construction around the city.
Mayor Suchai Ruayrin talks like a booster, saying continuing development is “a very good thing for Pattaya.” He confidently predicted that the city will grow 50% in the next three years.
“We don’t have enough budget to maintain public services,” said Suchai, a Pattaya bar owner (his predecessor owned a transvestite club) who is not bashful about his own wealth, wearing gold ropes under a jogging suit and a large diamond ring. “The central government will have to send help to Pattaya now that they know about our problems.”
Although Pattaya has swollen in recent years, its annual budget of just over $1 million is based on its past population of 50,000. Ruayrin put the current population at 250,000 and said that, although Pattaya’s 1.5 million visitors contribute more than $500 million annually to the national economy, the city gets little back from Bangkok.
Although the fresh-water problem may be fixed within the next two years, the pollution of the Gulf of Thailand will take much longer to correct.
A foreign engineer who has studied the problem said that Pattaya, like the rest of Thailand, has little in the way of building regulations and that even the few rules that exist are rarely enforced.
Sewers and sewage-treatment facilities have lagged behind the construction boom, meaning that most sewage now flows into storm drains that empty directly into the sea. Behind the Siam Bayshore Hotel, for example, the water in the storm drains has the look of used engine oil.
Estimates of the extent of the pollution vary, but one study showed about 10,000 cubic meters of raw sewage flowing into the water along Pattaya beach each day.
A study by the National Environmental Board said fecal matter in the water is seven times higher than the safety limit. “The seawater in South Pattaya and Jomtien Beach is no longer safe for swimming,” Tawee Pienchorb, an engineer with the board, said in a local newspaper interview last August. “The Ministry of Health should warn the public about the severely polluted water in this area by placing signs along the seashore.”
Instead, officials mostly refuse to discuss the problem. A recent advertisement for a new hotel in Pattaya read, “Its once quiet sandy beach now is filled with bikini-clad bodies as swimmers and sunbathers flock to enjoy the carefree seaside ambience.”
The pollution crisis has also spurred the government to draw up a $25-million sewage-treatment plan scheduled for implementation sometime in 1991. But even that hasty correction will barely handle today’s population, much less the expected growth in the market.
“It could take years to get the crud out of the water,” said a European engineer.
For example, Jomtien Beach, which lies south of Pattaya and is already heavily polluted, is currently a forest of construction cranes raising thousands of new condominium buildings, some as high as 48 stories. Unlike hotels, which can be pressured to process their sewage, the condo developers are much more likely to evade compliance and dump their sewage into the sea.
“Pattaya just developed too fast,” said the Tourism Authority’s Suraphon. “Infrastructure and everything is just way behind.”
The Thais have proven themselves flexible in adjusting to new markets and conditions, leading to predictions that Pattaya, too, may change again. The area around Pattaya is being heavily industrialized, and some entrepreneurs think the city may simply forfeit its position as a tourist attraction to service the coming industries.