THERE'S something about the seedy Thai beachside town of Pattaya that keeps enticing Michael Dorn back - but it's not the sun, sea, sand or sex for which the resort is famous.
Dorn, 20, from Sydney, is part of a thriving amateur bodybuilding subculture that uses anabolic steroids and growth hormones as a fast-track to the ultimate ''ripped'' body.
While the drugs are heavily restricted in Australia by laws that are among the strictest in the world, Dorn - and hundreds like him - have discovered a novel way around the problem: they travel to Thailand on ''steroid vacations''.
A Fairfax Media investigation has found that rather than risk prosecution in Australia, everyday gym users are travelling to Asia and ''stacking'' a dangerous cocktail of steroids that include powerful veterinary drugs and fertility medicine.
While police in Australia warn of a growing trade in performance and image-enhancing drugs, health experts say the products can cause life-threatening heart and liver damage and other illnesses.
But in Thailand, price is part of the allure: during a two-week investigation, this reporter visited Bangkok and Pattaya pharmacies that sell some steroid brands for 10 times less than what they fetch on the Australian black market.
The rise of the steroid holiday was highlighted last year when Australia's number one amateur bodybuilding celebrity, Aziz ''Zyzz'' Shavershian, died of an ''undiagnosed'' heart condition in a Bangkok sauna while on holiday.
Numerous Australians in Thailand told of how they were buying and consuming their steroids overseas rather than end up with a criminal record at home.
In 2006, bodybuilder John Hurlock was arrested and charged at his Townsville home for smuggling steroids into Australia. But Hurlock fled the country before he could be prosecuted. Today he lives in exile in central Bangkok, where he buys the same drugs over the counter at the chemist.
''I ordered steroids online and the second time I did so, the Queensland cops came crashing through my door with sniffer dogs. I find that crazy,'' Hurlock told Fairfax Media. Each week, he ''cycles'', which involves using a combination of deca durabolin, testosterone cypionate and trenbolone, a powerful horse drug that is widely considered the best anabolic steroid on the black market, but also the worst for side effects.
''Why should I not be able to take it, as and when I want?'' Hurlock asks. ''I'm not hurting anybody and, as an older bloke, these drugs have particular benefits. The deca works wonders for my joints and shoulder injuries.''
Hurlock, however, is quick to criticise young users: ''They are arriving here en masse and you can spot them a mile off. They're like kids in candy stores. They get so dosed up, they leave here looking like giant water bombs with acne. Vanity is destroying them before they've even hit adulthood.''
Hurlock is referring to Australians like Dorn. When Fairfax Media met him in Pattaya, Dorn was bulking up on his latest ''roid vacation''.
''Anything I want, everything that could potentially land me in hot water back in Australia, is freely available over the counter here in chemists, no questions asked,'' says Dorn. ''I take the steroids, I train and party in paradise and then I go home.''
He believes Australians would be surprised to learn how many young people are flying to Thailand mainly to take steroids.
''I don't use in Australia, and wouldn't even know where to get it because I don't need the trouble. I'm happy doing it here where nobody bothers me,'' he says.
A hormone expert at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, Katherine Samaras, said in poor countries, ''anything can be bought for a song, whether it's people, sex, or anabolic steroids''.
She warns that, aside from triggering ''behavioural issues'', steroid abuse causes ''irreversible damage'' to the heart, liver and body, including ''long-term testicular wasting''.
''Stupid people do stupid things,'' she says. ''If people want to flout laws that are designed to protect them and head to poor lawless countries to destroy their bodies, there's only so much you can do.''
According to the latest Australian Crime Commission statistics, there were 5561 border detections of ''performance and image-enhancing drugs'' in the last financial year, a 106 per cent increase on the previous year. More than 90 per cent of the seizures were postal orders from internet sites in countries such as the US, Hong Kong, China and Thailand, where legislation is more relaxed.
In Australia, performance and image-enhancing drugs are only legally available through tightly monitored prescriptions on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Used to stimulate bone growth and appetite, they are occasionally prescribed to short children. They are also given to people suffering from chronic wasting conditions such as cancer and AIDS. But illegal importers face maximum penalties of $110,000 or five years' jail.
Michael Dorn says he has never suffered side effects. But one of Australia's leading endocrinologists, Ken Ho, warns that users are unknowingly inducing a ''profound state of testosterone deficiency''.
''The body regulates the production of testosterone to a level which optimises health,'' Professor Ho says. ''If those levels exceed what is ideal, there are internal biological mechanisms to control that. So when people load their bodies with huge amounts, the body senses there is too much and turns off its own factory.'' Once that happens, ''health goes down the gurgler''.
''It becomes a form of addiction,'' Professor Ho says. ''This is what's happening on these trips. This is what's happening in gyms across Australia … There is no smart way to take these drugs. It's a shady business.''