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Life In Bangkok 30 Years Ago

  • Written by Dabe Dabe
  • November 18th, 2004
  • 6 min read


Appropo some other recent postings, a snapshot of life in and around Bangkok 30 years ago: Arrived at Don Muang airport in April 1972 along with other American servicemen, some having to wait at the airport for collection by "Depchief" — the word used for the inter agency US effort based in Udorn for the war in Laos under former Thai General Vitoon Yasawat.

Stayed for a few days at the old Chao Phya Hotel on Sri Ayuddaya Road (razed, replaced by the Siam City Hotel), the officers' club residence and restaurant in Bangkok. The US military post exchange was in Klong Toey just past Dept of Customs. Lots of ceramic elephants (“BUFEs” – big, ugly, f-ing elephants) sold from that installation back then.

First night, drinks at the Florida Hotel rooftop bar. Police showed up for shakedown of some sort. Customers and bar girls alerted beforehand and spent 15 minutes or so up on the real roof.

New Petchburi Road out past Soi Asoke was full of GI bars, short time hotels, the Morakot inter alia, and massage parlors, catering almost entirely to R&R visitors from Vietnam. Many of those GIs never saw any other part of Bangkok during their R&R.

Traffic always a nightmare. Traffic circles at most major intersections: Silom / Rama IV at Dusit Thani; Rama IV / Sathorn / Wireless; Rama I / Ploenchit / Rajdamri; and all four major intersections along Phyathai from Rama IV to Sri Ayuddaya. Joke among farangs having to apply for Thai driver's license: if asked, “Who has the right of way in a traffic circle?” Answer, "The other guy!"

No such thing as an air conditioned taxi, or city bus. Taxi drivers were required by law to have meters installed in their ubiquitous Datsun Bluebirds, but no law required their use. Ergo, every ride was bargained. Five baht the usual for the length of Silom Road, ten to twelve baht from Soi Asoke on Sukhumvit to Silom near Patpong.

Sathorn Road was two lanes each way on either side of the Sathorn Canal, treelined from Rama IV to New Road, with only a few bridges across the klong at Convent and further down near Soi Pramuan. The two best restaurants along Sathorn back then were of course the wonderful haunted house facade, Nick’s Number One, and a later entrant, Chaley’s run by the gregarious Swiss restaurateur, on North Sathorn just past Soi Pipat. Nick’s had the best steaks in town (rivaled by Swiss Inn and Neil’s Tavern, both then located in Siam Square; the pepper steak at La Cave in the old Erawan Hotel, and the very tender kobe steak at Tradewinds on Sukhumvit); Chaley’s had the town’s best prepared-at-the-table Caesar salad.

Front parking lot of Hualampong train station still had one of the huge bomb shelters built during World War II to protect Japanese occupation forces from Allied bombing raids.

Patpong Road was quite an enjoyable “more refined” haven compared to the rawness of New Petchburi Road. Napoleon's with its great piano bar, "toothsome" roast pork and roast beef sandwiches, and ice cubes in the men's urinals! The Barrel a few doors down with the world's best club sandwich, and brownie and ice cream dessert. Gogo bars like The Butterfly, The Grand Prix, The Horny Toad, and The Flying Machine (on Patpong 2 where the Foodland now abuts the parking garage entrance). Quieter bars like The Executive, Madrid, Crystal Palace, and the Sandpiper (across Suriwong); of course mainstay restaurants like Sarika's, Tip Top, Derby King, and the Thai Room, also on Patpong 2, now reduced to half its original size. Three massage parlors on Patpong 2 — La Costa plus two others across the street.

These three were mainstays, long before the Alaska Hotel on Sukhumvit switched to become a massage parlor — now the Darling. Also the Sakura on New Petchburi Road, which pioneered the "B-course" or "because" massage with air mattress and full body massage.

And of course the marvelous original Club 99 on Silom Road, where expats including diplomats, spooks, and businessmen from Europe and the US traded gossip, or danced with many young and not so young girls to the live combo music.

After-hours hangouts, including the coffeeshops in both the Grace Hotel and Nana Hotel, also other meat markets like Thai Yonok coffee shop (where SOGO Dept Store is now on Ploenchit); the Scene nightclub above the Madrid and Executive on Patpong 1, the nightclub in the First Hotel on Petchburi Road, and the Jug & Jigger on Soi Lang Suan (two lanes, also Soi Sarasin was a two lane dirt soi next to the klong behind Lumpini Park).

No real bar areas on Sukhumvit, no Nana, no Soi Cowboy, no Clinton Plaza, but great restaurants like Gypsy Caravan (where Pomodoro's is now); Tradewinds out by Rex Hotel; Bharni's (still active near Soi Cowboy, but not the ambiance like before with concrete floors, cheap tables and chairs, and menus in styrofoam on the walls). And the owner himself happy to share with regular customers his recipe secrets for his special mayonnaise or steak tartare; also his small plot of marijuana in his front yard directly behind the restaurant!

New Road environs somewhat patronized by expats, with the Fuji Hotel and Trocadero downscale alternatives to the original eight story Oriental Hotel, without any other riverside competitors. The old Bamboo Bar there was the best place to trawl for visiting "round eye" women tourists who hadn't a clue to the city's nightlife. Dinners at the La Rotonde revolving restaurant on top of the Narai Hotel on Silom Road were memorable, of course.

Two tallest buildings in Bangkok were the Dusit Thani Hotel and the Chokchai Building on Sukhumvit. Few others were above six stories or so until additions allowed to the hotels in the late 1970s, including the President on Ploenchit, the Montien, the Oriental new addition, and the Hilton / Hyatt / Ramada (now Holiday Inn) on Silom. The Narai and the Sheraton on Suriwong had more than six stories from inception, waivers apparently allowed back then. Even the old Amarin Hotel next to SOGO Department store was ten or eleven floors, with a penthouse apartment rented by a longtime British businessman back then.

Trip to Pattaya was 2 hours flat from central Bangkok, out Sukhumvit, over the Phra Kanong canal, past Soi 101 and Soi 101 / 1 to Bang Na, then left on the new four-lane divided Sukhumvit Highway, kilometers of rice paddies all the way to Chonburi then, or the older route, running past the Navy base, through Pak Nam and the idyllic landscape near Bang Phla and Bang Pu, the latter known for its great open air restaurant built out over the Gulf of Thailand, with lively Sunday afternoon dances.

Best hotels in Pattaya were the Nipa Lodge and the Orchid Lodge, and also the recently-opened six-story Pattaya Palace Hotel. It was the only above-the-treeline landmark to identify central Pattaya coming back from boat excursions to Ko Lan, either for sunbathing on the back side, or for lunch at the restaurants in three or four beach locations around the island, or for SCUBA diving or snorkeling. Hardly any nightlife then, save another great piano bar restaurant across from the original BJ Bar on Walking Street. Barbos and Dolf Riks (at corner of Beach Road / Walking Street and South Pattaya Road) were considered the two best restaurants in Pattaya. Virtually no bar girl atmosphere either; it was best to have someone from Bangkok along for the weekend.

Stickman's thoughts:

The good old days.