Opening A Bar In Chiang Mai – Dream Or Nightmare?
Many people think that owning a bar in Thailand is a highly enjoyable way to make a living and have a permanent vacation too! Well, a few of the financially strong might succeed but the majority of the newly opened bars are not protected by the law quickly disappear again, often within less than a year.
For about three years, I owned a music pub in Chiang Mai and I still remember all those holidaying customers saying: “Cool man, you live our dream”. Many people believe that running a bar in Thailand is the most comfortable life you can live, and as a bonus, that you make some easy money too! I’ve heard so much ‘bar talk’ from young people coming from the US, Australia, Canada, Israel, the UK and almost every Western European country. The more beers they washed away, the wilder became their plans about saving money at home and then returning to Thailand to open a bar. More on Chiang Mai bars.
Well, let me tell you, it isn’t that easy! Leaving your family and friends and trying to start a business in a far away, culturally different country is a big and risky step that most folks only talk about. Five years have gone by since I decided to close my pub and until this day, not one person has returned to realise one of their ‘brilliant’ business plans they so loudly bragged about.
However, the enthralling three years that The Doors Music Pub existed was probably the best time of my life. It is really enriching to meet so many different types of customers, coming from so many different countries. It was also most pleasant working with my team of three young, pretty and helpful girls. It really was a great feeling to see these former Akha hill tribe bar girls, who I did not allow to go with men during working hours, change into motivated staff with huge self-esteem. They really did their best in establishing a good reputation for my alternative-style music pub and after a while, they even started to like my music!
It was the only pub in the area attracting (alternative) music fans, instead of all the other bars who’s customers were mostly single, horny men pulled inside by one of the many bar girls hanging around ‘their’ bar. It was a great and unforgettable experience sharing my passion for music with other true fans. Sure! It was also great fun to get loaded almost every night in the company of newly made friends, and to play the customer’s song requests all night.
However, there were also many issues that were not so pleasant. Once in a while I had to deal with drunken customers who started to behave annoyingly and thought that it was okay to touch staff anywhere they wanted. Somehow, I fortunately always managed to verbally convince these troublemakers that they were making a complete fool out of themselves and that they would never find a girl who wanted to hang out with such a brainless moron.
Then there was the monthly visit by a scary, after-dark, sunglasses-wearing civilian dressed cop, who came to collect a certain amount of money. When I asked him politely what the money was for, he answered that is was for the improvement of the their ‘sporting facilities’ and for the beer bar area’s crime-preventing surveillance (I never saw any surveillance).
For a few months one of the neighbouring bars was experiencing financial problems and for the last three police visits was not able to pay. One day, three Thais pretending to be customers started playing cards in that bar. Only a short time later, three policemen suddenly popped into that bar and ‘arrested’ the card players while the two female owners were told to immediately close their bar and get into the police car. After that I knew what to expect if I didn’t pay for their ‘protection’.
Another member of the tourist police came two or three times a month to chat with one of my staff while drinking a few Thai whiskies. When he left, he never paid for his drinks because apparently he always ‘kept an eye’ on my place. Than there was another kind. Twice per year a five-man strong team popped in unannounced. They were always very rude and checked every drawer, the liquor and cigarettes licence, the bar’s ownership documents and the IDs of the girls, and had a long telephone conversation with my Thai wife, who officially owned the bar. They always told me that if I ever served one customer, I would be persecuted by law as I did not have a work permit. I always answered that I was just a visitor of my pub and the only purpose of my daily visits was to drink some beers and talk with the customers. I also know they never believed me.
Then there were the increasing problems with my Thai wife. Officially, she was the owner of the bar, as a ‘farang’ can not own a bar and always needs a reliable and trustworthy Thai partner who is willing to have the ownership papers arranged in their name. My Thai Isaarn wife, who sold refrigerators in Thailand and formerly worked at a laundry in Holland, suddenly transformed into an expert with regards to successfully running The Doors Music Pub.
Heavily pressured by her almighty family’s instructions, she first of all demanded that I should fire all of the staff. Her reason; they were uncivilised Akha people who I could never trust. She insisted our son had to go to Ubon Ratchthani (more than 430 miles from Chiang Mai) where he could live and grow up with her infertile oldest sister, who finally and eagerly could raise the child she would never have. This way my wife could fully dedicate herself to running the bar. Of course, I refused to agree with these idiotic, family ordered plans, and after an exhausting and long-lasting conflict, she finally gave up. Her only reason for backing off was that she knew that our son was in fact Dutch and that he only could stay in the country as long as it was together with his father. Her choice to back up her family, instead of me, was the beginning of the end of our marriage.
I bought my average-sized and fully-equipped bar for 350,000 baht and had to pay 9,000 baht rent every month. The monthly electricity and water bill was about 1,200 baht. I paid the three girls who worked there (from 17:00 to 02:00) 1,000 baht per week, including two monthly paid holidays, and a 4,000 baht annual Christmas bonus. I estimate that the average monthly profit was about 12,000 baht, which is not that bad. Most money was earned during high season and I remember a crazy, New Year’s night, when the bar was visited by mainly Aussies, that we made a profit of 11,000 baht. However, there were also some extremely boring nights with only one or two customers, and only 300 baht in the cash register at closing time.
Another issue future bar owners should bare in mind is the incredible competition you will have to face from the other bars in your area. No matter how nice, unique and attractive your promotional actions are, they will be copied by the often jealous nearby owners. I realised some ideas like movie nights on Thursdays, three small Chang beers for only 100 baht, pop quizzes where you could win a CD, a music book library and darts tournaments. Each of these successful actions was soon copied by others. All of the four bars located in my direct area expanded their poor disco CD collection with a: ‘Best of the Doors’ CD!
With mixed emotions, I decided to close The Doors Music Pub. The owner of the Chiang Inn Hotel, who owned the land and had three months earlier offered a new contract for another year, suddenly did not own the hotel and land anymore. The new and powerful owners had big plans. The Chiang Inn Hotel was drastically renovated and the new owners did not want noisy beer bars nearby their superior establishment. Each beer bar was compensated with three months ‘free’ rent and assistance in finding a new (and much more expensive) location. The contract I signed three months earlier with the previous owner became totally useless.
Despite all the negative events, I had the best time of my life running the bar and when I look back, I have no regrets at all. If you dare, try yourself to open that unique Chiang Mai bar.
Stick is about to die from exhaustion so no comments today – sorry.