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Tides, they be a-turning

Pattaya is trying hard to gain a less-sleazy reputation, and the number of Indians shelling out to get hitched there may be a sign things are changing

By Liam Aran Barnes

Love is in the air: an Indian bride throws her bouquet to excited guests on a beach in Thailand. Photo: TAT

The recently roused sun leers overhead on Thailand’s eastern seaboard, exposing the bleak realities of Sunday morning in Southeast Asia’s original Sin City. Pattaya’s Walking Street – a garish one-kilometre stretch comprising weary ‘entertainment plazas’, aggressive sex-show-flogging touts and tourists in various states of bewilderment and inebriation – is waking up.
Scantily clad bar girls totter over to their first customers, serving staple liquid breakfasts, while sea birds scavenge through the previous night’s discarded beer bottles, cigarette butts and kebab wrappers in search of food morsels. Meanwhile, just a five-minute drive away, atop the cliffs, an altogether different scene is unfolding.
As midday approaches, a steady stream of minibuses and coaches makes its way through the breezy, manicured grounds of the Royal Cliff Hotel, drawn to the source of barely audible bhangra dance music. Bright-eyed Indian passengers, adorned in an array of spectacular outfits, disembark and join the sea of colour rapidly forming near the edge of the cliff, just in time for the mendhi ceremony – the traditional custom that kicks off an Indian wedding.
Pattaya, over the past few years, has become a hotspot for Indian wedding ceremonies. Buoyed by its existing popularity as a tourist destination, both the city’s hospitality sector and the kingdom’s tourism board have capitalised on the droves of Indian visitors, which last year alone surpassed one million, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
The TAT has understandably exerted great effort in luring Indians to share their vows in Thailand, including promotional campaigns and joint operations with travel agencies, media outlets and wedding planners. Moreover, the kingdom was voted The World’s Best Wedding Destination by Travel + Leisure India magazine and Hospitality India magazine in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
These major affairs, which can sometimes last five days, tend to be lavish celebrations where money is often no object, explains Runjuan Tongrut, the director of the TAT’s New Delhi office.
“The minimum cost per couple for wedding activities – including venue, catering, gifts and decorations – is approximately THB10 million ($303,100),” she said. An estimated 100 Indian weddings were celebrated throughout the country last year, boosting the coffers of the hotel industry, entertainment services, florists, wedding planners and more by about $9.7 million, added Tongrut.
Although such costs seem somewhat extravagant, it remains considerably cheaper than holding a similar ceremony back in India, or most major cities in the US and UK, according to Neha Mehrotra, founder of Foreign Wedding Planners – a New Delhi-based firm which works closely with the TAT.
“The past four years have seen Pattaya really emerge as a popular destination for Indian weddings. Indians have realised they can get value for money here and get far more for their money than back in India,” explains Mehrotra, who helps to organise about one Indian wedding per month in Thailand. “Also, most people were familiar with Pattaya, hence it didn’t make them feel very alien to the country when planning a wedding. Some people were initially apprehensive, but later loved their choice of Pattaya as a venue.”
Indeed, there appeared to be few signs of apprehension among the effervescent guests at the Royal Cliff Hotel wedding. Some of the 200 attendees were already well-acquainted with the city, including a handful of the groom’s family who had attended numerous gatherings in Pattaya, according the groom, a New York City-based investment professional originally from New Delhi.
“This marks our third family get-together in Thailand,” says the groom, who had arrived in Pattaya after a two-day bachelor party in Bangkok – an event his best man claimed had been “pretty wild”.
“The last time we were here was to attend my cousin’s wedding earlier in the year. That’s when we had the idea to hold our wedding here.” It’s not uncommon, especially when it comes to wedding planning, for Indians to attempt to outshine family and friends, he said, adding that it is a traditional, and healthy, element of Indian nuptial culture.
Mehrotra agrees, and believes this, in addition to the prestige, is another factor behind Thailand’s rising popularity as a wedding destination.
“There’s certainly a competition aspect, and getting married in Thailand is the next best thing after India,” she said.  “If Indians see something good, they say: ‘If they can do it, I can do it five times better. We’ll increase our scale and go higher.’ Indians like to show off, that’s a fact.”
Jumbo celebration: an elephant joins the festivities for
a memorable ceremony. Photo: TAT

After two lavish days of festivities, complemented by a seemingly endless flow of alcohol and food, various dance-floor shenanigans and traditional customs, the big moment finally arrives as darkness falls over Pattaya.
While most patrons at the foot of the hill on Walking Street are settling in for a boozy night under neon lights, the wedding guests, dressed in a multitude of outfits varying from colourful kurtas (collarless flowing shirts worn by men), to intricate lehengas (traditional embroidered skirts) and jodhpuri suits, make their way to the cliff-side spectacle.
“It is certainly a totally different ballgame to my wedding,” said the groom’s father – a regular visitor to Pattaya. “We have had Ukrainian girls dancing, Thai girls dancing; everything is available here, and it is an amazing experience.”
He isn’t the first and most certainly won’t be the last visitor to praise the notorious city for its anything-is-possible demeanour. It would, however, be unfair to ignore the gradual evolution that Pattaya is currently undergoing. Encouraged by the addition of luxury lifestyle facilities including upscale restaurants, five-star hotel brands and world-class golf courses, the TAT’s claims that the oceanfront city’s tide is turning are not too far-fetched.
Places such as Pattaya are geared towards handling visitors from all walks of life, whether they be sex tourists or a wedding party. Simply put, it is a unique destination that seems to genuinely satisfy the needs of most guests. And with the newfound demand from Indian couples looking for the ideal place to tie the knot, its popularity is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
“The vibrancy, the feel and the whole essence of Pattaya matches the Indian style. If you look at other places such as Phuket and Krabi, they are all beautiful places, but they’re maybe a little too serene, too quiet,” said Mehrotra. “Here in Pattaya, for example, you have the shopping and sightseeing. It’s the whole package.”
 
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