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A Night Out with the Foreign Tourist Police in Thailand's Seediest City

In 2002 Pattaya, Thailand invited foreigners to assist them, at first for translation and as an informal tourist information service, but its scope has since been widened to include real law enforcement.

Photos by Aaron Joel Santos

Thailand’s most sinful city, Pattaya is famous for getting men a little hot under the collar. And discontent is boiling over at the police mobile unit stationed at the entrance to the resort town’s infamous Walking Street. A giant Pakistani man is stating his case vociferously to the volunteer foreign cops who patrol the red-light district on a nightly basis. Beside him, a feminine Asian form on skyscraping stilettos chews gum and shoots him sour looks. “I am not a homosexual,” cries the man. “This thing deceived me,” he says, jabbing a finger at his companion, whose perceptibly manly features and guttural tones make it obvious she was born a he. 

“He refused to pay her,” says Andros Plocins, an English member of the Foreign Tourist Police Assistants (FTPA), as we watch the scene unfold. “So now we have to sort it out.” The situation is soon defused. The man, who it transpires, had got a degree of value for the transaction before he realized the reality of the situation, has to pay the agreed price. The ladyboy, meanwhile, is hit with a 200 baht ($6) fine for soliciting. “He should have just paid in the first place,” continues another policeman, laughing. “She was pretty hot.”

Taking care of such misunderstandings is among the many responsibilities of the FTPA. Foreign volunteer police have been pounding Walking Street since 2002, when Pattaya’s Tourist Police Division invited foreigners to assist them. At first, their primary role was to help Thai officers with translation and to provide an informal tourist information service. The FTPA still provides support to foreign visitors, but its scope has been widened to include duties such as stopping bar fights and apprehending thieves. Although volunteer officers don’t have powers of arrest (approval is needed from a supervising Thai officer), they carry handcuffs, batons and cans of pepper spray. Indeed, with their black SWAT-esque uniforms, they cut imposing figures. 

The FTPA numbers around 60 members from 20 different countries while its reach extends across the greater Pattaya area thanks to the recent introduction of motorbike patrols. Despite this diversification, however, Walking Street, which they patrol every evening from 9PM to 3AM, remains the primary beat for volunteer officers. 

To a legion of visiting men, the thoroughfare is something approaching paradise. Extending a little over a mile from the center of town to the ferry port, the pedestrianized strip is a neon-lit playground of wall-to-wall go-go bars. Teams of mini-skirted girls patrol the exterior of the larger venues hoping to lure in johns. Smaller operations rely on the age-old tactic of employing impressively vocal barmaids whose throaty cries of “welcome handsome man” can be clearly deciphered over the thumping techno that is the street’s constant mating call.

Pattaya is not just about sex tourism however. The city’s proximity to Bangkok’s Suvarnhabumi Airport (it is a short two hour hop away) makes it one of Thailand’s most popular destinations for package tourists. Russians in particular flock here, as do Chinese, Indians and Arabs. The town’s civic leaders have gone to great lengths to rid the city of its reputation for sleaze and many of these new visitors are families, couples or tour groups who seem blissfully unbothered by the trade in flesh that is as integral to Pattaya as its slightly shabby beach. 

It is an eclectic mix of people, and the various nationalities generally rub together peacefully. However, for all the efforts of the local authorities, it will take more than a few Siberian families to burnish Pattaya’s image.  Bar fights, drug crime and tensions between tourists and sex workers are regular currency on Walking Street. Elsewhere hundreds of freelance prostitutes ply their wares; drivers donate their lives to one of the worst road death tolls in Thailand and scores of methamphetamine pills fuel further craziness.

Keeping a lid on the mayhem would be a tough job for the most hardened police team. The fact that much of the grunt work is carried out by foreign volunteers is therefore even more remarkable.

“This place isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure,” laments Dave Eke, another British member of the FTPA. He should know. A one-time security manager at tough East London nightclubs during the era of mobsters like the Kray twins, Eke left the UK for Thailand over thirty years ago and has been living in Pattaya since 1979. For the last twelve of those years he has devoted most of his nights to pounding the streets of the city as a volunteer officer. 

A lugubrious character anyway, Eke’s hangdog features droop visibly as he reflects on the nightly parade of humanity on Walking Street. “I wouldn’t say that Pattaya is exactly a magnet for bad eggs,” he says, “but there’s definitely a good proportion of idiots that come here. They will get uncontrollably drunk and then refuse to pay a bar bill or something. The Thais used to be very friendly, but they have been worn down and now it is a lot more cynical. What a lot of visitors don’t realize is that it is very dangerous to anger Thais. And if you cause trouble in one of the go-go bars or you get into an argument with a girl or the management, you face the prospect of a beating from a bouncer, most of whom are trained in muay thai.”

If Eke seems weary, his FTPA colleague Plocins is clearly living the dream. He came to Pattaya on holiday following his retirement from a police career in Befordshire and fell in love with lifestyle. The novelty clearly has not worn off. “Pattaya has its moments of course, but it still feels like a dream to me,” he beams. “I could be back in England, retired and bored with a retired and bored wife. Yet here I am, the sun is shining and I’m surrounded by hundreds of beautiful women. It is a no-brainer.”  

Despite his downbeat disposition, Eke is clearly a well-known and well-liked figure in Pattaya. We join him and Plocins as they leave the mobile unit to patrol the length of Walking Street. Eke, resplendent in his military beret, leads the way, stopping frequently to exchange wais—the traditional Thai greeting—with mama sans, bar girls and ladyboys. “It is not enough to walk around in a police uniform to get people to respect you,” he says. “You have to build up a relationship with everyone over time. That means everything here.”

It is certainly not a good idea to cross the locals on Walking Street. Use of ya ba, a methamphetamine derivative which translates literally as “madness drug” is prevalent in Pattaya, especially among sex workers and other nightowls. Originally given to horses to give them energy to pull carts up steep hills, the drug, which comes in tablet form, typically engenders euphoria but it is highly addictive and its side-effects are unpredictable. “If there wasn’t so much ya ba doing the rounds, there wouldn’t be half as much trouble,” claims Plocins. “Booze can make people leery and aggressive but the drugs can really step things up a notch.”

Unsurprisingly, catching dealers is a top priority for the regular Thai police and there are stiff sentences for those busted. To avoid being nabbed in possession, pushers have devised a number of hiding spots for their product in the vicinity of Walking Street. 

Eke takes pride on being able to sniff out these nooks and crannies. “You’ll need to get away from there,” he instructs a group of confused-looking Russian teenagers who are drinking by a wall at the port end of Walking Street. Eke removes a loose stone from the lower part of the wall and lowers himself onto his haunches to perform closer investigation. “I find bags in here all the time,” he says as he stretches his arm into the space vacated by the rock. On this occasion, however, he comes away empty handed. 

Back at the mobile unit the atmosphere is relaxed. FTPA volunteers give directions to lost tourists and have their photos snapped by jovial vodka-fuelled Russians. To pass the time they share some of their Pattaya horror stories. Ladyboys brandishing stiletto heels as a weapon seems to be a common occurrence, while gruesome motorbike accidents and dead bodies washing up on the beach attest to the city’s darker underbelly. 

This particular evening, however, is something of a non-event. “It is one of the quiet evenings,” admits Eke. “Thankfully these are the most common nights but we always have to be ready and on our toes. It is Pattaya. You never know what might happen next.”

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