The Changing Face of Walking Street, Pattaya
Whisper the words “Walking Street” and most people instantly know where you are talking about… the vibrant strip in South Pattaya has become world famous, or is that infamous, thanks to all the bars, a-gogos and dance clubs. However, in the past few years, Walking Street has been going through some serious transformation and the Walking Street of today is suffering from a real identity crisis. Is it a red light district, site seeing spot for tour groups, dance club circuit, sea food zone, Indian entertainment district, or something else? Today’s blog goes through the history of Walking Street and provides some commentary on the more recent changes.
History of Walking Street
Walking Street wasn’t always called “Walking Street”. In the 1960s when GIs were visiting for their R&R, Walking Street was initially just a regular street (one of the main streets forming the South Pattaya fishing village), and the buildings on the ocean side were used for sorting and drying fish. The fishing fleets would dock their boats at the small piers behind these buildings, and there was also a main fishing boat pier situated at what is these days considered the start of Walking Street.
As the area became popular with GIs, the fishing sheds became converted into beer bars and live music lounges, where GIs could meet and acquaint themselves with the local girls. Contrary to popular belief, there actually weren’t any a-gogos until after the GIs went home and the Vietnam War ended. Instead, most of the dancing was in a music lounge, which was essentially just a shop house (or two shop-houses) with lots of fold-out dining tables and stools, playing music (or having a live band – often Filipino) and offering girls to consort with.
In 1973, the US officially pulled out of Vietnam, and began winding down its presence in Thailand. As a result, Pattaya suddenly lost its cash-cow and went through a massive crisis. Fortunately, word of Pattaya as a resort full of “easy” girls had spread, particularly to Europe, and by the late 1970s, Pattaya become a popular destination for West European males, especially those from Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. Pattaya was also a popular spot for Western seafarers (once again, mostly Western European, especially the Scandinavians), as their ships often docked in the Gulf of Thailand near Si Rachaa.
This new wave of visitor led to a massive development in Pattaya, and many of those structures are still around today. Examples include some of the hotels from the late 1970s such as the Pattaya Regent (now the Imperial), the Merlin (now the Hard Rock), and the Tropicana. In South Pattaya, there is the Siam Bayshore (still same name), and the Diamond Beach Resort.
The main street in South Pattaya would eventually become known as “The Strip”, especially by 1980 when Soi Diamond opened up, with a heavily concentrated area of bars and a-gogos. In those days, the Strip was not a walking street at all, and instead, motorbikes and cars would zoom past at all hours of the day. Given the footpaths were small and usually crammed with chairs, tables and seller’s carts, pedestrians had to resort to walking out onto the road.
The Strip in those days wasn’t purely bars and a-gogos though. Nang Nual seafood restaurant was one of the early restaurants (it opened in 1965) and there were plenty of other seafood restaurants along the Strip. In addition, there were plenty of small guest houses and even a scattering of foreign restaurants, concentrating primarily on German, Swiss, American and Scandinavian clientele. The other popular entertainment in the late 1970s and into the 1980s were the discos, such as Marine (which still exists) and Disco Duck (long gone). There was also a really funny ladyboy cabaret show (near Nang Nual) called “Simon’s”. Finally, there were plenty of small shops, tailors, currency exchange, and international telephone centres.
By the 1990s, due to pedestrian casualties, Pattaya City decided to close off the Strip to vehicles from 6pm until early morning. As part of this, a sign was set up at the start of the Strip, designating the area as “Walking Street”. This sign has since been replaced with the overbearing Samsung TV screen, but you can still see the original sign, as it has been moved to the other end of Walking Street, just near the intersection with the Bali Hai pier.
During the 1990s and into the 2000s, Walking Street really didn’t go through too much change. Most of the main restaurants remain (eg Nang Nual, Marine Seafood, King Seafood). Most of the a-gogos also remained largely in the same place, although many went through various new owners and/or name changes. In addition, many of the small shops, currency exchange, tailors etc, disappeared to be replaced with either bars or a-gogos.
Into the 2000s, and Walking Street started getting a new customer demographic, from Eastern Europe, starting with the Russians, but it wasn’t long before the Ukrainians joined in (given that Pattaya is actually one of the closer beach resorts to the Ukraine). The Russians had been slowly trickling in since the 1990s, but they really hit en-masse in the 2000s. In addition, the Japanese and Koreans started to increase their presence at around this time. The Eastern European invasion would have to have been one of the most notable, because suddenly Pattaya wasn’t just the domain of single men, but whole families were seen strolling along Walking Street and the Coconut Bar.
To cater for the more diverse tourist demographic, some of the bar areas were cleared away and replaced with shopping centres. The first was Mike (which in 1990 was just a small mall near Walking Street). The second was Modern Plaza (which is now largely gone) which was a small two/three storey department store. The third, and bigger presence was in 1994 when Mike opened up its own department store next to Modern Plaza, consisting of a ten storey building with swimming pool on top, food hall, multiple different shops in the front, and supermarket plus food hall. A more luxury shopping centre followed in 1995, with Royal Garden Plaza, featuring three floors with brand name outlets, two screen cinema, and an outlet of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
However, Walking Street was largely unscathed by the above developments. There were no shopping centres built in or near Walking Street, the a-gogos largely stayed the same other than the odd owner or name change and some of the other facilities such as currency exchange, souvenir stalls and struggling restaurants were turned into bars or a-gogos. Although the location of agogos didn’t change much, some of the themes did change a bit. For example, the Japanese became a fairly popular target market, and a lot of agogos started catering more to them. In addition, a-gogos offering Russian or Ukrainian girls started popping up (interestingly, these are of more interest to Japanese and Koreans) and in the 2010s, more Russian oriented bars started to appear, especially closer to the intersection with Soi 16.
Also in about 2010, Pattaya started going through a bit of a dance club explosion. Prevoiusly, there were only a small handful of discos/dance clubs, such as Marine, Tony’s and Lucifer. However, by 2010, there were about ten dance clubs, including the most popular, Insomnia, and others such as Lima Lima, Mixx and 808. In addition, there was a music festival each April that, by 2010 and especially for the 2011 event, was bringing in some reasonably big name international DJs. Unfortunately, this scene never really took off, and most of the dance clubs retained a strong free-lancer element about them, rather than being serious dance clubs to show off your moves, or listen to big international DJs. Even the music festival eventually returned to mainly Thai pop or rock music.
Even with the Russian families visiting, Pattaya in 2010 still had a very strong red light element to it. However, since then there have been some further changes that have seriously changed this demographic. From the 2010s onwards, Pattaya has received significant numbers of both Indian and Chinese tourists (ie tourists from the two most populated nations). Tourists from both countries have been visiting primarily as a family holiday, rather than as a red light tour (although there are a number of Indian males that come on a boys’ trip). Therefore the combination of East European, Indian and Chinese family tourists has made the Western male visitor a minority.
Walking Street has in recent times been strongly impacted by this changing demographic. From 2014 to 2018, the number of a-gogos in Walking Street has declined by about 30%. This is possibly the first time in Walking Street’s history that there has been such a decline, given that in the past (other than 1997) there has only been a continuing growth in agogos. Instead, there has been a growth in alternative entertainment, such as live music bars, restaurants, fast food, convenience stores, virtual reality rides, shops, massage venues, Indian dance clubs, and guest houses. Also, of note, Walking Street also recently opened its first Chinese owned a-gogo, Panda.
One of the bigger impacts of the changing demographics is that the tourists (especially the Chinese) dominate the foot traffic on Walking Street in the evenings. Chinese tour groups are seen marching up and down, snapping photos at anything that piques their interest. These tour groups do not spend any money at the bars or agogos, and their significant presence with full family can make things a little uncomfortable for single males (or perhaps those who have a wife waiting at home for them) wishing to have a drink at one of the open bars on Walking Street. This has resulted in a lot of the bars and agogos seeing a recent decline in customers.
Walking Street Today
Western visitors (whether male or female) are the minority demographic today, even though they once were the main visitor and responsible for shaping Walking Street into what it is today. When you first enter Walking Street in the evenings, you will now notice that most of the neon at the start is actually for restaurants and live music venues rather than for bars or agogos.
The best agogos are still on Walking Street. However, the more mediocre ones (and some that were once great) are disappearing or have become a shell of their former glory. Instead, it seems the Western red light areas have been shifting, away from Walking Street, towards other areas. Beach Road Soi 6 (Soi Yodsak), and Sois 7 and 8 still have a very strong Western male orientation, but they concentrate more on beer bars (or other types of bars) rather than agogos. Instead, an area with a strong a-gogo concentration is Soi LK Metro, off Soi Buakhao, and that whole surrounding neighbourhood seems to be rapidly developing to be the new red light area for single males. For example, Soi Honey (next to Soi LK Metro) is predominantly naughty massage venues, and Soi Chaiyaphum is a real mix of bars and naughty massage.
The question that no single Western male traveller wants to really answer is whether Walking Street will ever cease to be a red light area. Much of the rest of Beach Road has already been cleaned up and other than Tahitian Queen, none of the other Beach Road agogos remain, and most of those on side streets off Beach Road have also disappeared. Similarly, Beach Road and even Second Road beer bar complexes are disappearing in favour of large luxury shopping malls, or new upscale hotels, catering to families. As I mentioned earlier, Walking Street itself has seen a 30% decline in the number of agogos from 2014 to 2018, with many of those building being replaced with more family friendly venues such as virtual reality games, restaurants, or stores.
To answer that question, I don’t believe such a drastic change will occur. Walking Street will continue to attract Western male visitors and will continue to have gogo bars. However, 2014 may have been a bit of a peak in Western male visitor numbers, and what we are now seeing is just a natural reaction to supply and demand as there are fewer male visitors targeting Walking Street. I also believe there is a bit of a shift in demographics with younger Western guys visiting, who may prefer to pick up in a dance club or via an app rather than in an agogo. Keep in mind, the agogo format is a thing of the 1970s and early 80s. Millenials are more familiar with dance clubs and on-line dating.
I do believe that there will be a growth in alternative venues within Walking Street, targeting the predominant tourists of the time, which at the moment is Indian and Chinese. Therefore expect more buffet restaurants, souvenir shops, and Indian dancing shows. Possibly also more activities for the kids (and young at heart), such as a Mario Land or similar amusement style facility. I do also believe that over the long term, the red light bars and agogos will slowly drift further inland, to areas closer to Third Road, such as Soi Chaiyaphum and Soi Buakhao, and even Soi Arunothai. This isn’t because of any planning by Pattaya City, but purely economics. Rents in Walking Street, Beach Road and their side sois continue to increase dramatically, to the point where it becomes more feasible for multi storey hotels or shopping malls. The bars and gogos end up moving further inland to areas where rent is much lower. However, I still think the better performing bars and gogos will continue to remain in Walking Street for a long time. As I mentioned, the best venues in Pattaya are still located along Walking Street or down one of its side sois.
As much as some of us try to resist it, change is the only constant. Walking Street has, over the years, already gone through a significant transformation, from fishing village, to American R&R destination, to European red light area, to an Asian mass tourism beach resort. Even though there is a lot that has changed, Walking Street still has a lot of appeal and never ceases to bore. I hope you enjoyed my little walk down memory lane on one of the most interesting streets in the world, and feel free to pop me an email with your own thoughts about where Walking Street is headed. firstname.lastname@example.org
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