The birth of modern Pattaya began in the mid-1960s, when the U.S. opened a nearby air base and an influx of battle-weary and pleasure-hungry troops turned a quiet fishing village on Thailand's eastern seaboard into an R. and R. playground. Though the soldiers went home in the 1970s, Pattaya remained a preserve of anything-goes hedonism—and an object of either love or loathing, depending on whom you asked. Now the city, already Thailand's second biggest tourist draw with more than 5 million visitors annually, is poised for another reinvention, and once again it's the result of its proximity to a landing strip—in this case, the new Bangkok airport.
After much delay, Suvarnabhumi International Airport will go into operation this summer as a long-overdue replacement for the aging Don Muang airport. The new facility's express train will reduce journey times to the center of Bangkok to 15 minutes, but the biggest winner may be Pattaya, which is less than an hour away from Suvarnabhumi, compared to over two hours from Don Muang.
Land prices in some of Pattaya's beachfront areas have jumped 50% in the past two years, largely in anticipation of a visitor boom. "The airport is going to bring Pattaya more tourism and investment," says Soamaphat Traisorat, deputy CEO of Bangkok-based developer TCC Capital Land, which is building luxury villas and condos by Jomtien Beach, 5 km from downtown. "If someone wants to hold a conference or a business meeting in Thailand, they'll be able to do it in Pattaya just as easily as in Bangkok, and they'll get to be on the beach as a bonus," he says.
Other names are looking to cash in: Sheraton and Marriott have opened high-end Pattaya resorts, and Le Meridien has a project under construction. Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, international p.r. director for Thailand's Tourism Authority, also predicts that the new growth will "divert, if not negate" attention generated by the city's racier side. And while he cautions that any transformation "will have to happen over a number of years," it nonetheless seems that the dubious legacy of the old U.S. airstrip may one day be eclipsed by Suvarnabhumi's economic blessings.