The Decline Of Cowboy
It's midnight on a Saturday and I am home. Normally on the weekends I wouldn’t be even close to home until 3 am. The reason is something that perhaps your readers may appreciate or could make some suggestions. I have been away from Bangkok since last October and the first thing I noticed upon my return was how incredibly loud the volume of the music was in the go-go bars. At first I thought it was just me, but two days ago, a friend who had also been away for awhile, asked me if I thought the music was louder than usual, to which I gave a resounding YES! In the past I have avoided bars that played music at ear splitting levels, but I don’t seem to be able to find anyplace that does not play music at anything less than a deafening volume anymore. So my quandary now, is where to go to listen to music that I like. Yes, I know all about Saxophone, the Living Room, and places where there are live bands, the quality of which is spotty. In addition, the volume at these places can sometimes also be deafening.
While many of your readers are interested in the go-go bars just as a place to find women, for years I have found them to be one of the best drink values in the kingdom. Name another venue where you can get a good drink (with as much alcohol) for the price as you used to find in the bars (90 baht). The live band places and venues that cater to Thai were well over 100. Once I find a bar that plays the music I like it is possible to spend an entire evening there listening to the music, and in many cases, on some very good sound systems. (How many of your readers have noticed this?) I am not saying all bars have good music or sound systems, but there are a few that do it right. Now if the bar manager or owner is thinking much (perhaps not very common from my experience) they will see it is actually possible to make more money off some customers through drinks than through bar fines. The key is to keep the music good and at a reasonable volume. I seldom pay a bar fine, but I will sit in a bar and drink all night if the music is acceptable (10-20 drinks). It is far more difficult to find a good music venue in Bangkok than a shag, which is around just about every corner.
Unfortunately, I have now been to every bar in the three ‘entertainment areas’ and find that the music in all of them is TOO loud, and I can only tolerate the situation for a cumulative total of about 3 hours before my ears are hurting, where in the past it would be easy to sit and listen to the music from 8 pm until closing. Frankly I am amazed that the customers are actually able to communicate with dancers and servers given the level of noise.
My last ray of hope of finding a new bar with decent music and a reasonable volume was dashed when I visited Soi Cowboy, so perhaps this ranting could be titled the decline of Soi Cowboy. One thing I always liked about Cowboy is that is was a great alternative to the other bar areas. For a number of years the folks working in and around the Patpong bars have been getting meaner and more surley. In spite of Patpong’s reputation, until last year, Nana had been the center for the real sleaze, and whose dancers were the farang equivalent of Thai brothel workers. Over the years I came to recognize a number of gals who would commonly go with 3+ customers each night-including the days when their monthly friend was visiting. Nana bar owners turned this area into the Farang brothel of the country and made it a sex tourist haven. Soi Cowboy, on the other hand, was a nice respite from the sleaze and revolving door of Nana and the pushiness and hassles of Patpong. It WAS the perfect place to drop by to unwind, to have a reasonably priced drink, listen to some music at a reasonable volume, and to sit and chat with someone who could carry on a good conversation. There was no one asking for Cola as soon as you sat down, no one telling you to pay the bar fine. The owners understood that their customers knew something about Thailand and didn’t want to be hassled by pushy gals or pushy servers. While the music may not have consistently been the best, the liquor not always high quality, or the gals the most beautiful (although there were always some real stunners to be found), it was the best place to go to hang out, drink, and chat – with the gals or your friends.
My impression now is that this has all changed. I don’t know when it started, but the four new bars that opened up there in the past year have contributed to the demise with their higher priced drinks, the constant encouragement by the DJs to hustle drinks from customers, and in at least two cases, a policy that encourages the gals to only go short time, and with as many customers as possible each night (The Nana brothel all over again). I also preferred the smaller bars as they had a nice unkept smokey bar feel that created an intimacy that made you want to stick around and chat with the gals, not just run out for a bang. If I wanted to go to a strip club similar to the US or UK, I would go to the US or UK. I didn’t come to Thailand to recreate what I can find elsewhere.
Increasingly the bars in all locations are also hiring ‘wanna be’ DJs who don’t have a clue about music or volume and it is impossible to actually have a conversation. The DJs also seem utterly devoid of any sense of music (basically a bunch of trained monkeys who think that dance music is all there is and that adjusting the sound means turning up the base). The music is too loud, the sound systems are not adjusted properly (I used to run the sound system for a local band where I lived, and for a short time even worked with a major band that was touring the country), and the range of music is incredibly narrow. (Why is it that Thais who think they know Rock-n-Roll seem to consider Bon Jovi and/or Aerosmith essential listening?)
I suppose I can sum up my experiences of the past couple of weeks using two examples, from which I see the decline of Soi Cowboy as I have come to enjoy it. The first experience is in one of the big bars. Just about every 5 minutes the DJ was telling the gals to hussle drinks from the customers, and along with the volume of the music, in a vain attempt to make a point, I told both the dancer who came by and the server (both wanted drinks) that the music was too loud for conversation and there was no reason to buy anyone a drink if we had to yell over the music. The manager or mamasan was right there and heard my comments, but simply turned her back. In another bar that I used to frequent, apparently the owner or manager just lets things slide after 11 pm, as the music get turned up so loud you have the loudly yell at the server to order the drink.
The last set of experiences perhaps best highlights the attitudes of the gals. This happened in one of venerable, older, foreign owned bars. I walked in to sit down, and as I was sitting down and ordering my drink a gal was right next to me asking me to buy her one (images of the King’s Group bars in Patpong). I told her no, as she would probably just be up dancing soon anyway, but I would buy her one when she finished. She assured me that she wouldn’t be up dancing for many more songs. After about 1 minute her friend came over and the first words out of the hussy’s mouth were “You pay bar!”. Who the fuck does this bitch think she is?! I told her to go back to her customer and annoy him, and that if I was interested in the gal next to me I could handle the negotiations on my own. The very next song this gal got up to dance (it had now been a whole two songs since I had bought her drink, one since it arrived). When the gal finished dancing she came back down and talked for a few minutes (<5) before she told me that if I wanted to go with a gal down here (Soi Cowboy) I should not be using Thai, because the gals didn’t like farang who know Thai very well. (The irony here of course, is that for years Cowboy was THE place to come to chat with the gals in Thai, which was appreciated by both the farang and the gals). I then proceeded to tell the gal that her opinion was irrelevant and I planned on using Thai because if I bought a gal out, there would be no communication problems and we would be able to get to know each other better if we used Thai. Ultimately this would make for a much more pleasant evening for us both. (It is interesting to how quickly Thai language abilities have now become a handicap rather than a benefit when dealing with Thais)
I was apparently not the customer (lottery ticket) that this gal had hoped for and she soon lost interest. I did as well and left to try and find a simple, small bar that was playing music at a reasonable volume and where I wouldn’t be hassled. After about 5-10 minutes going to every other bar on the street, I dropped into one place where I think I was the only customer. There were only a couple of gals dancing but the music was at a pleasant volume. No sooner had my drink arrived than the music was turned up to the point that the seats were vibrating. I couldn’t stand it and told the server that I specifically came to this bar because the music was at a reasonable level. Now there was no reason to stay and I got up and left.
So, there is my plight. For years the go-go bars of Bangkok have been an unsung gem for some customers who wanted a place to sit and listen to music and have a good stiff drink. (Yes, the sights were also enjoyable, but not the most important feature). Bangkok’s go-go bars WERE a great drinking value, but no longer, and the venerable institution of Soi Cowboy (a great alternative to the other two areas) has now become a tiresome Nana rip-off. Enjoy your next trip to the new farang brothel of Bangkok. Wasn’t one enough?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and couldn't agree more. While largely disinterested in the bars these days, I find that when I try to think hard about my best times in Soi Cowboy, it was back in the old days, when i used to practice Thai with the girls in bars where you could ALWAYS get a seat, the only exception being Cowboy.