John Sparks meets some of the growing population of UK pensioners who have headed to Thailand’s seedy seaside resort Pattaya to ‘get busy living’.
As cities go, it’s about as trashy-looking as it gets. In fact, it’s probably the seediest place that you have never heard of.
Pattaya is a seaside community on Thailand’s eastern shore – an urban extravert that works hard to impress.
Blazing neon signs offer cheap booze and oil massage and “rooms-by-the-hour”. Down below, bar-girls and parlour workers make their road-side pitch to thousands of prospective customers.
It is a raucous, unapologetic sort of place and not surprisingly, there are many people who try hard to avoid it.
At the country’s tourism ministry, bureaucrats see it as something of an embarrassment and there are plenty of Thais – and foreigner visitors – who give it a wide-berth.
It simply does not measure up to the palm-fringed ideal that many associate with this southeast Asian nation.
However, that does not mean we should look the other way because something really important is happening there. When you take a look at all those “prospective customers” plying the streets of neon, you soon realise that the majority of them are retired.
Over the last two years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of elderly European men turning up in Pattaya – and they are not passing through – they have come here to live.
According to the Thai authorities, people from the UK make up by far the largest group of over 65’s in the city and their number has increased by a massive 43 per cent during that period.
In terms of total numbers, there are 7,000 Britons in the city on retirement visas but they are joined by tens of thousands of other UK seniors who come on regular tourist visas and renew them periodically (the British Embassy estimates 870,000 people from the UK came to Thailand last year on tourist visas).
All this may seem rather contradictory – Pattaya in all its neon-lit glory and the presence of tens of thousands of elderly men from Europe. Some will surely ask whether this is a decent and appropriate way for older gentlemen to enjoy their retirement. But the reasons they come here are varied and complex.
When I asked older Britons why they had chosen Pattaya, many said that they simply wanted to enjoy themselves. “I’m not sitting indoors with my slippers on – no way – this is my time,” said Lester Goodland from London.
Would they consider returning to the UK at some point, I asked?
Jimmy Turner, from Glasgow, provided this earthy response: “No, dear hell. You have to be f****** joking. How can you miss a country that charges you treble the price for everything?”
On the topic of sex, most men we met had Thai “girlfriends” – but these were longer-term, paid-for relationships that did not seem to qualify as prostitution – at least in the conventional sense. The women perform a variety of roles – as carers, and companions and sexual partners.
I met a chirpy 86-year-old Yorkshireman called Stan in a roadside bar one afternoon. As he finished up his beer, I asked him about women and he said he was not really interested in sex anymore. Nonetheless, “a beautiful Burmese girl” comes to his flat for one month every year to provide him with “some company”.
Similar stories emanated from a busy hairdressers off the Buakhao Road. Thai women told us that older men were often incapable of fully intimate relationships. Instead, the women “do a little kissing” and “try to look after them”.
There are those who come here because they feel that they nowhere else to go. When I asked a seventy-something called Les what his family made of him being here, he said, “pass.” Taking a step back he continued, “basically they don’t give a monkey’s (about me). Nobody wants to know me, that why I am here.” He added, “more people care about me here than back in (the) UK.”
While everyone has their own reasons to be in Thailand, what seems certain is that more people will come as the population in the UK rapidly ages (experts predict a 50 per cent increase in the number of over 65s by 2030). It is against this inescapable backdrop that Pattaya becomes an important incubator of new and challenging ideas.
I offer up two as a starting point:
If the second point sounds far-fetched to you, a number of European MP’s and statutory insurers have already suggested it – and a group of Scandinavian retirees are trying to put the idea into practice.
They have bought themselves a retirement complex on the outskirts of Pattaya and together, they provide themselves with a range of services at a price that would be impossible in their home countries (you can see more of “Scandinavian Village” – including their gruelling gym workouts – in our special report on Channel 4 News).
The vast majority of foreign retirees are on their own however, and when cash-strapped seniors get sick, they run the risk of a quick and uncomfortable end. Britons who run out of money at Pattaya’s slick-looking private hospitals are quickly deposited at the city’s single, over-crowded public institution. The doctors there told us they struggle to provide adequate care.
There is no shortage of over 65s prepared to gamble with their health, and that fact tells us something important about how retirees – and retirement is changing.
There was a time when life over 65 was synonymous with illness and senility – but these days, senior citizens are more inclined to get busy living – even if some people do not happen to approve of the way they do it.