Pattaya, Gulf of Thailand. 27 Jan.

Pattaya, one of the worlds havens for sex and licence has now all but demolished its once lurid reputation as a mecca for foreign boy-obsessed paedophiles.

Two hours by bus to the south-east of Bangkok and arranged around a spectacular huge curving bay, Pattaya nonetheless remains one of Asias most flourishing and expanding catchment area for males seeking heterosexual fun, a gigantic open-air pick-up mart.

But as a honey-pot for mainly older European gays in search of male children it is, at least to the casual observers, no more. Bars and nightclubs that only five years ago blatantly put the tender victims on mass-display have vanished and the once familiar sight of paunch-parading old men dragging their pre-pubescent prey by the hand through the streets is today a nightmare of the past.

"It still exists but it's gone very, very underground" explained Brendan Roberts from the Pattaya Mail the local English-language weekly. He said that Pattaya had been struggling for some time to stamp out "child sex tourism" but that it was the current prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had given the drive "the real push".

A powerful deterrent had been the application of stiff penalties for paedophaelia, with six foreigners recently ending up in jail - two Britons, two Germans, one Dutchman and an American.

Shinawatra, fighting next month for re-election after four years in office, was, reported Roberts, the promoter of a current so-called social order campaign, begun in earnest last November which has imposed a 01.00 closing-time on all bars and night-spots, the aims of which, according to Roberts, an Australian by origin with ten years in Thailand, had been "to get people home at a decent hour and cut down the crime-rate."

The legitimate gay community in Pattaya still thrives, its fulcrum being a short L-shaped street heralded by neon-lit triumphal arch announcing: Boyz Town its jammed bars packed with allegedly over-18 rent-boys.

Sources close to the community said they had been the first to welcome the crackdown on paedophaelia, but it was understood on the grapevine that a few secret bars persisted, usually in the hands of Thais and, it was said, with police protection for the racket.

But Boyz Town was minute compared with the overwhelming presence of available girls, mingling everywhere by their thousands with the visitors, swollen by a season invasion of mountainous, vodka-swigging Russians.

A brash and garish concrete jungle, Pattaya is set out on a grid-system, with suicide concrete main roads intersected by narrow, concrete alleys, with the girl-bars often occupying their whole length. Every street-corner features an open-air quadrilateral bar with the girls corralled within, as in a pen.

The bars are apparently the chief source of many of the small, smiling, accommodating and apparently affectionate girls seen in the company of old and young European males on Thailand's main islands.

The name of one of the bars of Pattaya told it all: Business Bar Friendly Girls.