PATTAYA: Tim ”Sharky” Ward boasts he pays to have sex with many Thai women.>/h3> The muscle-bound and tattooed former Australian loan shark and nightclub owner says his life is ”there for all see” and he is not ashamed of it.
”I am a single man. There’s no one in my life who can say I am an embarrassment to them,” he said.
Mr Ward, a social media celebrity and long-time resident of Thailand, mocks his many critics.
”Life aint [sic] so bad for a pimp,” he wrote next to a photograph of a near-naked woman looking out to sea from the balcony of his apartment in Pattaya, a resort city 130 kilometres south-east of Bangkok.
But Mr Ward’s philandering ways and those of thousands of other foreign men like him are set to come under scrutiny as Thailand’s military rulers embark on a morality drive to transform the country’s image from being a sex-trade destination to one offering culture and natural resources.
Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul has announced a one-year plan to reform the tourism industry that accounts for 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
She said there is a need to change tourists’ perceptions of Thailand as a cheap destination to one of being a quality destination, singling out Pattaya, where there are more than 1000 bars and massage parlors that help draw in an estimated $3 billion a year in tourist income, according to the local tourism authority.
”Pattaya is a good place for a pilot project for change,” Ms Kobkarn said.
”It could be turned into a world class sports city. I would love to see more world water sports and other events in the city, as well as it being home for athletes’ training during low seasons,” she said.
Under the plan, tourists would be enticed away from Thailand’s popular destinations of Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Samui, Phuket and Hua Hin, all of which have thriving sex industries, to other provinces.
But 48-year-old Mr Ward, who has 132,000 Facebook followers on two sites, scoffs at the idea of scrubbing up Pattaya’s reputation.
”Look out there . . . it’s [polluted with] sewage. Who is going to sit on the beach all day and swim in that?” he says, pointing to Pattaya’s waterfront. ”Without the sex industry, what else would people do here?”
A huge sign that reads ”Good Guys Go to Heaven. Bad Guys Go to Pattaya” hangs above a bar in the city’s famous Walking Street, which becomes packed with tourists after dark as neon casts a pale glow over the thickly made-up faces of female and male sex workers who sit at bars waiting for customers.
Attempts to rebrand Pattaya, which attracted more than nine million visitors last year, into a more family-friendly destination with higher-spending tourists have been under way for years.
South-east Asia’s largest water theme park has opened 15 kilometres south of the city, a waterfront Hard Rock Hotel is popular with family groups as is a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, among other family attractions.
There has been talk of a monorail to relieve traffic-clogged streets and the waterfront his been spruced up with a boardwalk and palm trees.
Regional deputy police commander Suppatee Boonkrong admitted last month that Pattaya has a thriving sex industry but asked ”show me anywhere in the world without a dark side and I will be amazed”.
He said the city is no longer a paedophile’s paradise as it was a few years ago, black water no longer comes up from the sea and ”I can count the number of rats I’ve encountered in the city on one hand”.
”Yes, Pattaya has many problems but I honestly think serious efforts are now being made to cure them,” he said.
Colonel Suppatee told the Bangkok Post he wants to ”change the image of Pattaya from being sin city to a friendly town that everyone can enjoy,” adding the first targets in a police crackdown are transgender street sex workers.
Prostitution is technically illegal in conservative Buddhist Thailand, where for decades authorities have largely turned a blind eye to an industry that has boomed since the days that US soldiers from the Vietnam War flooded in for rest and recreation.
Mr Ward, who describes himself as an entrepreneur, has lashed out at Thai police for failing to take action over what he said was an attempt to set him up with drugs in late September.
”I don’t take drugs and I don’t drink,” he said.
A fearsome-looking character with ”SELF MADE” tattooed on his knuckles, Mr Ward is quietly spoken and spends much of his time caring for stray street animals and bailing sex workers out of trouble with the police.
But he admits he becomes involved in fights and has paid police in the past to avoid jail.
On his Facebook site, New Zealand-born Mr Ward mocks and abuses Thai authorities for alleged corruption and incompetence but insists the country will remain his home, in between trips back to the Gold Coast where he lived for 20 years.
”I am not going anywhere,” he said.
Original credit: Phuket Wan; by Lindsay Murdoch, South East Asia Correspondent, Fairfax Media