The Former Chiang Mai Nightlife
I remember Chiang Mai nightlife from the mid-90's. The old Bar Beer Center was a mish-mash of gradually built up bars with initially independent rooves, overlapping each other and then a larger roof over the Muay Thai ring, overlapping most else. When it rained, water would splash in here, there and everywhere.
The place was rocking, and at least one bar – the first one in from the entrance – would be open 24 hours. There where girls and punters enough to fill the place. Bar Beer Centre could be a bit rough, fights where common, but mostly between farangs – hence more pathetic than lethal.
There where also a lot of beauty contests and such, courtesy of Sandy, who ran the Sandy ladyboy bar. He now runs a small cafeteria outside town on the Chiang Mi-Lamphun Road, quite a change.
There where some gogo bars along the moat near Loi Kroh Road, on both sides, and Loi Kroh itself was filled with action.
Before Spicy there was Nice Illusion, in the same spot, a place that for naming accuracy should have dropped the "Nice" in the title. It was infamous for drunk Thai guys getting into fights at later hours.
Under the original Night bazaar building were two narrow "corridors" with small bars less packed with people than the Loi Kroh ones.
Back then it was also said that a scary high percentage of "working girls" carried the virus of dread up north. Unfortunately, from what I gathered, this was true. This was before Khun Mechai's campaigns had started having real effect (Google that name, dear readers, as well as "Cabbages and Condoms". * A note on this at the end of this submission).
After 2000, although Chiang Mai nightlife may have been in some decline even before that, the police started cracking down. Earlier closing hours really hit Chiang Mai very hard, more so than other places like Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. I know this because I travelled a bit around in those days and had opportunity to see this first hand.
As to why Chiang Mai should be hit harder, I am not entirely sure. One part of it may have been the enhanced police presence, as there was a fair amount of drug use – opium and heroin actually – amongst some farangs.
Not my thing, but I used to know all sorts of creatures of the night back then, again first hand intel. Anyway, with earlier closing hours and very frequent controls, people started slipping away. There was hardly a night, any night, that the police would not do the rounds to check that places where closed at the appointed hour. They where everywhere, always. The boys in brown's somewhat intense presence did nothing for the mood in the bars, for some maybe even less than others.
The old Bar Beer Center tried to clean up, somebody got all the odd roofs down and made a big new one that covered the whole thing. Upside: No more rain inside. Downside: No more air circulation and the place became a sauna. Before, it had a sort of "Bladerunner" feel to it. After, it was a small cluster of bars under a factory-type roof (no decoration, just steel beams and the underside of cheap roofing plates).
At the same times as nightlife was in decline, some people invested in new entertainment areas – one was a bar area between Loi Kroh (near the old Star Six gogo) and the Imperial Mae Ping hotel. Effectively this served to spread less customers to more bars, not doing anyone any good.
The backpackers did not go away, then again that crowd were never the ones to keep the bar industry going. Some, I remember, would stray into the odd Loi Kroh bar, have some water most likely, ogle the punters more than the girls and depart, anticipated disgust satisfied by their looks.
I did from time to time attempt to get into conversation with the odd backpacker, rarely with much success. This in contrast to how easy I always found it to befriend most others – expats or travellers or locals. Maybe I have some "anti-backpacker" odour or something. Oh well.
It's hard to bring into words, but I will give it a try. The "old" Chiang Mai feeling went away. Now what was that feeling? Chiang Mai felt very free, unregulated. And a bit ancient. It felt Thai without being too alien. Lots of old shophouses, wood, the density of temples inside the city, the overall laid back attitude. It was special.
The temples remains, but there are now a 7/11 on every corner. Pedestrian crossings with lights (never trust them though), ATM machines, superhighways in every direction, Big C and the other superstores (several of each), Amway as well. More affluence overall, Chiang Mai became "modern" very, very fast.
I remember back in time being explained by a local about Lanna after I had asked what the name meant. "The land of a million rice fields", I was told, a former independent kingdom. He also added something about Lanna still being different from Krungthep to the tune that they might not always heed all authority from the powers in Bangkok. They come with law, we say yes yes but do no no, he said with a very big smile. Perhaps less so these days…
I'd have to agree with Stickman that for intensity and action, Bangers and Pattaya are the places to go. Maybe Phuket, but I never quite liked it there very much.
What I'd say is very nice is to stroll about in Chiang Mai, inside the moat, in the many small sois. You can be surprised to find some very nice little hang-outs, very laid back, in this labyrinth. Bring a camera, it's great for snaps of people, dogs, small old temples that are charming rather than spectacular, some old Chiang Mai wood houses.
Not much need to give advice on where to find farang food, McD's and such are well enough advertised. I'd rather suggest something Thai – the dish called Khao Soi. Often found sold from those small streetside trolleys, but if you want one without chicken smashed to bits with bones and beak included I hope the "Just Khao Soi" on Charoen Prathet Road is still going. A costly version, but so nice. Also try Gang Curry Gai if you find it – a coconut curry soup, thick, with bits of potato and chicken. Yummy.
I'd agree that public transportation is lacking in Chiang Mai. If you are to stay over time, you will most likely want your own wheels. Discounts for long-time rent of small motorbikes can be found. Same as elsewhere in Thailand, if you break it better get it fixed yourself – it will save you money. And get your own padlock for the chain to lock it up as some scammers will use a spare key and lift your rented bike, claiming you must replace the "stolen" old rickety one for the price of a brand new. Add about 1,000 baht to you budget here for a helmet that, while not great, is a universe better than what any rental shop will supply. And unless you feel that you are way too pretty or handsome, get one that covers your whole head and face.
* Note on HIV/AIDS.
HIV spread fast in the 70's – it also took some time before people knew about it, what it was. Even as condoms became something to use "at home", for family planning purposes, may Thai men would refuse to use them while engaged with prostitutes. Not giving a toss if the lass got pregnant (as with those farang who party hatless as well, I'm sure). It took a fair amount of deaths but the rise in HIV was dealt with. But. As we know, and contrary to how it has been depicted in some Thai TV soaps, one does not fall over and die badly some hours after having been infected. One lives on for quite a while, as did many a lass, to pass it on.
Not naming names, there was one (hell, could have been more) beauty in Chiang Mai that figured she'd gotten "it" from a farang customer, and went on to "do it" with as many farangs as possible, to pass it on as a revenge on Farangdom.
It's a bad way to go. I sat once at the bedside of one about 10 years back or so. Body ravaged by all the complimentary infections, she must have been under 20 kg, bone and a skin full of sores and pale from fever. She fought like HELL to live, dragging those last breaths of air, rasping like sandpaper on rusty steel from sheer willpower. Had I had a video of those few hours, it would have been something educational for any risk takers out there. Khun Mechai Viravaidya is a hero in my book. No need to write here what is written so many other places. You will easily find it online.
It's always nice to hear about the old days.