Pattaya is the closest major beach resort to Bangkok, but many people avoid the place due to its reputation as a red light area. However, it is possible to enjoy a relaxing weekend escape or beach holiday there without being exposed to its seedier side.
A Bit of History
In the 1950s, before Pattaya’s fate as a sex and sin destination was sealed, it was emerging as a boutique beach resort for well-healed Thais and a few Westerners looking for something a bit different from Hua Hin. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War turned Pattaya into an R&R destination for GIs, and by the mid 70s, after the war had ended, the GIs were replaced by single male tourists who had heard all the rumours brought back by the soldiers. It’s fate was sealed and Pattaya emerged to become the biggest red light beach resort in the world.
Over the years, there have been many attempts by Pattaya City Council to change its image and attract more regular visitors including families. However, in 2012, with the opening of Central Festival shopping centre on Beach Road, the demographics of Pattaya started to change dramatically. The new luxury shopping centre, together with the opening of the Centara Grand Mirage Hotel in Naklua (the bay just North of Pattaya bay) brought back a lot of Bangkok Thais looking for a weekend escape. In addition, due to its massive range of accommodation, Pattaya started becoming attractive to mainland Chinese tour groups. Fast forward to December 2014, where Walking Street is having a fairly slow high season, and it looks like regular tourists are taking over the beach resort from the single male visitors.
That being said, there are still considerable red light activities happening around Pattaya that may cause embarrassment for holidaying families. So how can you enjoy Pattaya without being exposed to this seedier side?
Step 1 – Avoid Staying Near Red Light Areas
This should be a no-brainer, but I often see Russian tourists (travelling as a family with kids) staying right in the middle of it all in South Pattaya. The areas you will want to avoid are any hotels near Walking Street in South Pattaya, or Sunnee Plaza (on the other side of Second Road from Walking Street). Basically, avoid staying anywhere in South Pattaya entirely. Also, avoid: Beach Road Sois 6, 6/1, 7, 8, 13/3 and 13/4; Soi Honey and Soi Diana Inn (off Second Road), and Soi Buakhao, especially the area around Soi LK Metro and Soi Lengkee. Even staying close to these streets can be uncomfortable.
Instead, the best places for families to stay for a more pure holiday experience would be at one of the larger resorts in Naklua, or else head South of Pattaya to either Phratamnak Hill or Jomtien (however, in Jomtien, avoid Jomtien Complex or Sois 3 to 5). You can also stay in North Pattaya in places like the Dusit Thani, Amari, Holiday Inn, Hard Rock Resort or Montien. There are also great places in Central Pattaya such as the Hilton (attached to Central Festival) or the Marriott (attached to Royal Garden Plaza shopping centre).
The best places to stay if you are travelling with kids are: Centara Grand Mirage (Naklua) – as it has a large water park for kids and has its own private beach; Hard Rock Hotel (North/Central Pattaya) – constant pool-side activities for kids (and adults); Royal Cliff Beach Resort (Phratamnak Hill) – beautiful hotel with large gorgeous facilities and private beach; and the Dusit Thani (Northern tip of Pattaya bay) – great swimming pools for kids and its own (semi) private beach.
If you are travelling with kids but on a budget, then my suggestion is to stay at the Pattaya Park resort (located in Phratamnak Hill, just South of Pattaya). This resort has its own amusement park and a water park with large slides. There is even a revolving restaurant up in the Pattaya Park tower. The other option (although a bit more pricey than Pattaya Park) is Birds and Bees resort, also in Phratamnak Hill.
Step 2 – Family Friendly Dining Options
Pattaya has an incredible array of dining options these days, making it easy to get a decent meal without having to set foot in a red light area. The easiest option is to head into Central Festival and pick what you want to eat there. This has become the single biggest collection of eateries in Pattaya, so you will have no problem finding desirable food options in every budget category. If you want something a bit more special, then head into the adjoining Hilton Hotel. Also note that you can get good deals on the Hilton buffet lunches and dinners.
If you want a bit of entertainment, then head down to Royal Garden Plaza. On the third floor is Benihana’s, which is an American based chain of Teppanyaki restaurants where the chefs cook the food in front of you, providing you with a bit of acrobatic amusement at the same time.
The Sizzlers at either Central Festival or Royal Garden Plaza are also always safe bets.
If you want to get away from the shopping centres and enjoy a bit of beach side dining, then head to one of the major beach side resorts that I mentioned above. Centara Grand Mirage, Dusit Thani and Royal Cliff all offer fantastic restaurants overlooking the ocean.
Pattaya does have some great seafood restaurants. Unfortunately, the more famous ones are located on the ocean side of Walking Street, such as Nang Nual (the oldest) and King Seafood. These restaurants are perfectly fine to take your kids to as they do get a lot of families eating there in the evenings. However, you will have to walk through Walking Street to get there, although early enough in the evening it isn’t too bad.
If you want to avoid seeing evidence of the red light scene entirely, then go to one of the seafood restaurants up in Naklua. Two of the best there (outside of the big resorts) is Rim Talay, located next to Centara Grand Mirage; and Mum Aroy (or Moom Aroi), located in the Northern end of Naklua on the beach just before Naklua Road turns into Sukhumvit Road.
Step 3 – Fun Attractions
Pattaya offers a surprisingly large number of activities, ranging from golf to sailing to go karts to paintball. For tourists or families, there are plenty of open zoos, cultural exhibits and museums. You can also catch a ferry (or hire a speed boat) and head out to Ko Laan island. In short, it has now become very easy for families to enjoy a vast number of activities in Pattaya without being exposed to its red light scene.
Here are some of my suggestions:
- Underwater World – a large aquarium located on Sukhumvit Highway, between South Pattaya and Jomtien.
- Dinghy sailing at the Royal Varuna Yacht Club (Phratamnak Hill).
- Ripley’s World of Entertainment – offers a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, a couple of ghost houses, a laser and mirror maze, a balloon ride, and a Louis Taussaud’s wax museum. Located in Royal Garden Plaza.
- XZyte Paintball – Pattaya’s best tournament paintball field. This place rents out good hire gear including electronic speedball markers and good quality face masks with thermal lenses. Located in XZyte Sports Club, Chalerm Phrakiat Road North Pattaya (not far off the intersection with Pattaya Nua Road).
- Mario Land – Arcade machines, laser shooting and air hockey. Top floor of Central Festival. There is also a bowling alley, karaoke and heaps of cinemas there as well.
- Splashdown Water Park – This is kind of like Takeshi’s Castle, where you can compete through a bunch of water based obstacle courses. Its location is a bit of a hike from Pattaya though as it is at the halfway point between Rayong and Pattaya on Highway 36.
As mentioned above, Pattaya’s popularity as a general tourism location is growing. A big part of this relates to Pattaya’s close proximity to Bangkok and the main airports. Notwithstanding its naughty-boy reputation, there is still plenty to do in Pattaya for everyone and it is actually quite easy to avoid the red light areas entirely.
If you want to know more about Pattaya as a tourism destination, I am co-author of “Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide” which is available as both a paperback and ebook from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P7XAZSC