‘Culture, what culture?’, you may ask when in Pattaya. The city is probably Thailand’s most watered down and decadent of cities, catering to a large expat and tourist crowd who are more interested in girlie bars than Buddhism. Despite this, there is still the traditional Thai side to Pattaya, evident in many off-the-beaten-track local communities, especially on the eastern side of town. As with any Thai city, cultural sites, such as temples and mosques, are everywhere.
The tourist culture in Pattaya is generally one of self gratification, in which it’s difficult to ignore the hundreds of girlie bars, glitzy neon lights, and plenty of single men ambling the streets. This is what makes Pattaya attractive to many and ensures it prospers; however, it should not be taken as a reflection of Thailand as a whole. It’s not too difficult to find serene temples, traditional streets full of old shop houses, or regular Thai people displaying their famously innocent smile and warm hospitality, although this is away from the centre of Pattaya in communities such as Naklua and Banglamung.
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Thailand has a rich legacy of cultural influence that has benefited from several very civilised and organised kingdoms dating back more than a thousand years. The strength and advanced development of Sukhothai until the 14th century, and Ayutthaya until the middle of the 18th century, resulted in a flourishing of artistic expression and was mostly inspired by Buddhism. Even during the current Rattanakosin era the country dominated this region of Southeast Asia until the arrival of the French and British from the mid-19th century. Until recently, however, Pattaya was no more than an insignificant fishing village that saw little cultural development.
Traditional Thai culture is hard to locate in the tourist areas, although some hotels and restaurants put on cultural shows, others dress their staff appropriately and the impressive artistic expression in Thai architecture and finishing is ever present in lobbies, temple grounds, and city landmarks.
Thai etiquette is also very important to all Thais and although an Isaan girl in hot pants might conveniently forget her manners while serving you iced beer, almost all Thais keenly observe a strict protocol of behaviour based on status and respect for those older or more important than them. The best-known display of this is their gracious wai greeting, which is the bringing together of both hands to the chest and bending the head to the tips of the fingers. Thais wai to show respect to elders as the way to say hello, good bye, thank you and sorry. Every Thai person is taught to wai from a young age; even before they can utter their first word. There are many more cultural manners to be observed and visitors will do well to familiarise themselves with the main ones (in our section on etiquette), to avoid creating offence. That said, Pattaya is not the place to look for traditional Thai cultural norms.
Buddhism is Thailand’s official religion and it is deeply ingrained in about 90 per cent of the populace. Even though modern Thailand tends to be distracted by contemporary and commercial influences, Buddhism continues to have a profound effect on the country, including beliefs, making merit, decision making, festivals, and community support. There are numerous temples scattered around Pattaya, with some quite impressive and offering a fascinating Eastern religious attraction to foreigners. These also serve an important purpose in the lives of most Pattaya residents.
Festivals are also popular in Thailand and are all part of the sanuk (fun) element of Thai life, with the water festival of Songkran (April) and the light festival of Loi Kratong (November) being two highlights. Visitors year-round are often delighted to discover some sort of event taking place during their stay. In addition, contemporary Thai culture is equally entertaining, none more so than the famous ladyboy cabarets at places such as Alcazar and Tiffany’s, which the Thais execute with brilliance.