Bar And Bargirl Economics
Stick, your weekly articles about there being fewer tourists in Bangkok and more bars being refurbished started to make me think about the economics underpinning the bar business in Bangkok and the girls who work in them. My job requires me to travel between Australia and Europe 3 to 4 times a year and normally I stop off for a few days in Bangkok both on my way to Europe and when coming back home. I have been doing this for almost 10 years now so have seen many changes.
From my very first trip I was taken in by Bangkok, such a mix of experiences both day and night. On my first few trips the nightlife was like taking a kid in to the sweet shop – so many real cute girls wanting to give me a good time and who was I to turn
them away. Over the years either because I have got older, (I hit 45 this year), or the novelty has worn off, I no longer overdo the bar scene. However, there are still exceptions, especially if she is exceptionally cute or catches my eye for
I have visited all the tourist nightlife areas but have to admit that Patpong has never much appealed to me. It always comes over to me as rather seedy with far too many people trying to invite you into small dark doorways. Unless I am with a large group of friends I do not feel totally safe in Patpong and can not really relax. As a result I have not been there for about 5 years.
Nana, as many comment, over the years has slowly gone down hill and the growing number of sometimes very pushy ladyboys puts me off. If that is what you fancy fine by me but it is certainly not my cup of tea and contrary to your recent article I find many ladyboys somewhat intimidating in the way they try to attract customers. I for one am not evenly slightly curious and no amount of Viagra would trigger a response. Their often aggressive approach really puts me off and I think they are driving customers away from the girlie bars. I still pay Nana a visit as some of the girls in the Rainbow bars are a treat, they certainly know how to pick them.
From my very first trips to Bangkok I have always enjoyed Cowboy and it remains my favourite nightlife spot that I visit on every trip to Bangkok.
Cowboy has seen some of the biggest changes with a lot of investment going into some of the bars. Many of the Cowboy bars are now much smarter and flashier with a lot more neon than in the past. However, leaving aside a small number of the bars in general they do not seem to have as many customers as in the past, and I do not just mean over the previous few months. It could be that the bars are now larger and better laid out so they just appear emptier. I feel these refurbished bars have lost something in the process as they have become more impersonal and the atmosphere as changed. The bars have always been about bringing the sellers and the potential buyers together but now the marketing has become increasingly direct with the girls just looking for the quick sale. It might be my rose tinted glasses looking back to the past but once only after a few drinks and some flirting did the girl politely suggest “you want pay bar”. The girls knew how to tease and were very skilful flirts so even if you thought you were just going to have a beer they soon had you thinking about other ways to spend the evening. On my last trip (early May this year) I had not even drunk half of my first beer when I was being almost instructed by the girl to “pay bar now” as her hand rubbed on my crotch. She was above average but no real cutie so I left after the first beer and one lady drink for her. Actually somebody should remind the girls that men tend to go for what they can not have rather than what is freely on offer – the forbidden fruit and all that.
The other big change is the prices. Drinks both for you and the girls have gone up considerably. I used to work on the basis, and it was a good rule of thumb, that a beer in a Bangkok bar was half the price of a beer in an Aussie pub. Of course this does not allow for the difference in quality between the two but you only get what you pay for. In recent years this has changed, outside of happy hour. In the larger bars the beer is now almost the same price as in Oz (140B is about A$5.30) with even the smaller bars are wanting 110B. Lady drinks appear to go up every time I visit and the girls are pressing more and more. I can recall the time when the girl might sit with you for 5 minutes before the topic of a lady drink was raised but now it is as they sit down. Bar fines have also gone up of late and only what the girls charge for their services has not seen the same percentage price increase.
After that short digression, back to the main theme. What do bars and bar girls actually earn and can both make a living. You can read a great deal on the internet about what the girls earn but not so much about the bars. Some girls can earn a great deal but I am not so sure they do this all the time, the girls remember the generous customer or the good month and forget the other times. Rather like the fishermen who always talks about the big catch. This suits the bars as they want to attract the girls with the prospect of earning large amounts of money. It also suits the girls to overstate what they earn as they want to impress their peer group. Large income implies many customers so you must be more attractive. I am now not so big on bar fining the girls and am happy to spend a few hours flirting with a girl having a beer or two in exchange for buying her a few lady drinks. As always there are exceptions! I also enjoy watching some of the shows the girls put on and of course the other customers.
In March 2008 I got talking to a girl from one of the small bars in Cowboy. While it is known for being a bit of a hands on place where the girls are normally not so young or pretty if you do not mind fending the girls off the beer is cheap and the place
still has a bit of atmosphere so I do not mind starting the evening there before moving on to one of the bigger bars with a show. The bar was quiet when I walked in at about 8.30pm (it was a Thursday) and there were only 4 or 5 other customers.
There were a couple of guys on their own and some guys in a back corner being give some special “attention”. (The thought of a girl getting your tackle out in the corner of a bar for a hand job does not excite me but it appears to
be a popular option for many. I do not know how they handle the fallout but even if you do not mind the onlookers spending the rest of the night with a damp and sticky patch on your shirt or trousers is not appealing.) Before I even made the bar
I had two girls in tow, both well below average, trying to move me to a seat at the back of the bar. On the stage there were 3 girls doing the “pole shuffle”. One stood out, a real cutie with a pretty face and lovely body. She looked
very out of place not only because of her looks but she was also dancing. I smiled at her and she smiled back but I was certain she was already with one of the guys sitting on their own. I got a beer and sat at the bar close to the stage. I think
the girls were getting the message I was not looking for a dark corner with them. Luckily for me another customer then came in and both girls turned their attentions to him. He was escorted to the back of the bar with them where he stayed for
much of the evening. Soon after one of the guys sitting on his own went to the bar and paid his bill as he walked out he slipped some money into the skirt of the pretty dancer. They exchanged a few words and he was on his way. At the end of her
dancing session as she got off the stage and walked past me I offered her a drink. To my surprise she spoke very good English and suggested we go sit at a table as she did not like sitting at the bar. She took me to where the guy that had just
left was sitting which was not in one of the darker corners; she had left a top at the table which she quickly put on. We exchanged the normal questions – her name sounded like was Song and she was happy if I called her this as she did not try
to correct me. She told me that she was 26 and had only worked in the bar for 11 weeks. (It always surprises me how forthcoming the girls are with these details.) <They ALL say they have only worked 3 months! – Stick>
Based on her looks, if she said she was 20 I would have believed her. I know girls who work in a bar for 11 weeks are unlikely to know much English so I asked her where she learnt to speak English. She said that she worked as a receptionist in
a big hotel (I will not say which one) for 3 years and they taught her to speak English but now had no job and no money so had to work in a bar. Soon she would go back to her family but wanted to have some money to take home. She certainly knew
a lot about the hotels western business people stay at and suggested to me where I might like to stay in the future. This was not the type of thing you could just pick up from talking to people so her story sounded plausible.
Over the next hours in between dancing she told me her story. She comes from Issan and moved to Bangkok when she was 19 to work in a hotel as a chambermaid a job she did not like. She then worked in a hotel restaurant as a waitress and then in the hotel coffee shop as a waitress. Given her looks I can see why she would get a front of house job as she was very easy on the eye. A manager at the hotel then gave her a job in reception where she was given English lessons. While she did not say it I suspect the manager was getting something in return from her for these promotions. This went on until the manager’s wife found out he was seeing girls that worked at the hotel. By the way she spoke she knew other girls were involved. As a result she and 2 other girls lost their jobs and had nowhere to live. I think they must have had a room at the hotel. All I can say if the other two girls looked like her the manager was a very lucky man. She was now living with a friend and she stressed it was a girl friend.
She was not one of the direct hands on type that normally work in this bar but she did enough to ensure your interest was maintained. She also made sure you did not go too far with her again enough to keep you thinking greater things might follow. Actually, going back to my earlier remark about wanting what you can not have as the night went on she was becoming every more desirable. She was very much a people person with a really good personality and the way she talked and acted suggested she was use to working with westerners. She might have come from Issan with a limited education but I would say she was a very intelligent person. If I am honest it was the first time I had had a real conversation with a Thai person. She was very happy to openly talk about herself and told me she was paid 300B a night, she was a dancer so got more than the service girls who got 200B a night. She would not “do showing” (she wore a top plus a skirt with underwear) so was not paid as much as the dancers in the larger bars who got 400B a night. She also told me she shared with the bar the cost of lady drinks, so she was getting about 50B a drink. I have to admit she was a very smooth operator extracting the lady drinks and encouraging me to drink beer but I was enjoying her company so did not mind. She certainly fell into the very cute category but when I asked her about bar fines she told she did not do bar fines. I thought all the girls had to do a number of bar fines a month or they lost pay but she told me it was up to her if she did bar fines, the bar did not worry as long as she sold drinks to the customers. She said that girls doing bar fines are not good business for the bar as the bar looses money on the drinks. Given that she was also not into offering any of the dark corner services I think she was new to the bar scene. I do not know how accurate this is but she had no obvious reason not to be honest with me as if I was looking to bar fine a girl she had already declined.
So what did Song earn that evening? She was drinking at least 2 lady drinks per beer and in the 5 plus hours I was in the bar I had 8 or 9 beers. So Song earned about 800B from the lady drinks plus the tip I left her of 200B. If her previous customer had bought her 2 drinks (100B) plus a tip (it was at least 100B he put in her skirt) this comes to about 1500B for the night with what the bars pays her for dancing. Thinking about it if she did go for a bar fine early in the evening she might only earn a couple of hundred Baht from lady drinks so overall she might not be that much better off. If she earned 1500B every night in a month that comes to 45000B, without doing bar fines. If you say this was an above average night and worked on 1000B a night that is still 30000B a month. Song was the prettiest girl in the place so was never going to be short of customer even on the quiet nights. So I could see why she did not see the need bar fines to earn a living. I think 30000B a month is more than many professional workers earn in Bangkok and I would guess much more than she was paid as a receptionist in a hotel.
That night from Song the bar made 800B from the lady drinks I bought her, 100B from the earlier customer plus the profit on the beer which must be at least 90B a bottle say 800B. They had to pay Song 300B so were left with about 1400B which is very similar to her earnings. This is much more than the bar fine so Song was correct it is better for the bar if the girls do not bar fine. The bar never had more than about 8 customers at any one time and apart from me and the guy who followed me (he stayed in the corner wit the two girls until about midnight) most customers stayed for a couple of drinks. Often spending some time in one of the dark corners before they went on they way. A friend suggested a quick hand job was to ensured when you did pick you bar fine it all was not over in a few minutes. All the girls had customers that so I would guess most picked up several hundred Baht in drinks and tip money. The tips for the dark corner services I would guess are somewhat more. Interestingly I did not notice any customer leave with a girl and I was sitting in sight of the door and the number of girls did not appear to reduce as the night when on. To me this suggests bar fines were not a big thing and the girls were happy to make money from the lady drinks and the tips they got from the services given to customers. There were about 6 or 7 dancers and 4 or 5 service girls working in the bar so if all entertained customers that night. If you say on average the 12 girls made for the bar 1000B per girl per night. The bar is making 12000B in an evening. Out of this they had to pay the two girls who worked behind the bar and I would guess somebody to do cleaning say 1000B a day. There was electricity, which can not be that expensive for a small bar, say 200B a night and for me the big unknown rent and what ever licences they have to pay. If rent and licences were 5000B and day that still leave a profit of 5000B at day or 1.8MB a year. The bar does not appear to have any significant work done on it for years so no capital costs to repay making it not a bad living owner in Thai terms.
Applying the same logic to the larger bars gives me a problem as I do not think for the numbers for the bar or the girls still hold. In the larger bars with I would guess 50 plus girls working the number that are sitting waiting for a customer are always much large, over 50% I would guess. In May I was with a friend who enjoys Bacarra so we spent a few hours there late one Saturday (I do not like the place at 140B a beer it is expensive as are the lady drinks but it is my friend’s favourite and some of the girls on the top floor are very cute). What hit me was the very large number of girls and the small number of customers there must have been 3 or 4 girls for every customer in the place. Even at the Bacarra drink prices I can not see the girls can average anything close to earning 1000B a night from the lady drinks and tips. I would think some may struggle to get more than a couple of lady drinks brought for them all evening. This could explain why they push for to be bar fined all the time and the bar presses them to get bar fines. The running costs of bars like Baccara and Tilac must be significantly more and they have to repay the large investments made in recent times. I do wonder why so many of the smaller bars in Cowboy have gone I would guess some very simple sums lead people to come up with the conclusion that more girls means greater profit but I fear these things do not always scale. Seeing the new neon palace that opened just a few months back which looked very empty I wonder how long some of the larger bars can survive.
As a footnote I did go back to see if Song was still working in the bar in early June 2008. I was hoping that after being in the business for a little while she might be more disposed to bar fines. However, I was told she had gone back to her family and no longer worked at the bar – maybe much of what she told me was true.
The bigger bars in the industry make a fortune – as do the most popular girls. Some of the big bars like Rainbow 4 can *average* in excess of 200,000 baht a night in takings. The best single night's verified take I have heard of in a Bangkok gogo bar was around 350,000 baht. That's for one night. Big bars make a killing and most bars in the major bar areas do just fine.