The Legend of Thermae
A wry look at Bangkok’s famous after-hours meeting place
IT WAS a Bangkok institution. I refer, of course, to the old Thermae Coffee House on the corner of Sukhumvit Road, soi 13. The venue was a very handy meeting spot, and not just if you were staying at the Miami Hotel a few metres down the soi. Thermae was one of the world’s weirdest singles bars, and the place just buzzed with atmosphere.
The action was downstairs, underneath the Thermae Turkish Massage Parlour, and after midnight, entrance was through the rather smelly unisex toilets at the back of the building. From there, it was a short walk through a small corridor and into the very smoky underground cavern of the world-famous Thermae itself. Things really got interesting from midnight till around 5 am, when a mass of bizarre humanity would gather to drink, eat and gossip away the wee hours. Here was the place for discerning world travellers to explore the seedy underbelly of Bangkok. The only people firmly denied entrance were gangs of katoeys (transvestites) who often prey on unsuspecting tourists – and that was fine with most people drinking and eating there.
Then in July 1996 the management moved the Thermae around the corner to soi 15 at Ruamchit Plaza and many believed that they killed the concept stone dead. Entrance was downstairs into a long room with a central, S-shaped bar. Beer prices soared from 45 to 95 baht, served by old crones who snarled with rage if they did not get a tip. Thermae, which was really something of a dive to begin with, sadly took another dive – this time for the worst; according to many long-time patrons.
A little history: the Thermae massage parlour first opened its doors in 1966, and the ‘coffee shop’ below it quickly became a money-spinner. Open for 24 hours year around (barring official holidays and military coups) it was what American journalist Bernard Trink (The ‘Nite Owl’ of the Bangkok Post) called a ‘constellation’: a meeting place selling alcohol that was not subject to official bar working hours. Women from many surrounding bars flocked there after the official closing time of 2 AM to enjoy a drink with friends before heading home, or perhaps meet a rich farang. Unlike the infamous Coffee Shop at the Grace Hotel (Sukhumvit soi 3), the Thermae was a friendly place, in spite of the grubby surroundings – newcomers entering the ‘Grace’ often sense a vaguely threatening atmosphere.
The rumour was that Thermae’s success and popularity was due to the protection of high ranking police officers, who owned the building. Among American servicemen on leave from the Vietnam conflict (1965-1975), the ‘bar’ became famous for low beer prices and a good place to meet members of the opposite sex. “The first time I dropped down to Thermae was in 1967, and most of the customers were GI’s”, recalls Norman Smith (64), a long-time American resident of Bangkok. “In those days there was a lot of rivalry between the services, mostly between the Marines and the Army, so there were sometimes fist fights.” Smith states that intense rivalry, even hatred, also existed between US servicemen on ‘R&R’ (‘Rest and Recreation’) visits from Vietnam, and more than 50,000 military staff based in Thailand itself, referred to derisively by the combat troops as ‘Bangkok Warriors’. After 2 AM, when the bars closed on New Petchburi Road and Patpong, the Thermae would fill up with GIs and civilians. Smith recalls: “The juke box played the same song ‘San Francisco, (Flowers in your hair)’ over and over again. The girls from the massage parlour upstairs drifted down in their pink hot pants. It was great.”
The official website states that Thermae became ‘an intriguing place, a place pervaded with magnetic attraction – underground, wild; where men and women were both hunters and prey, turning the venue into perhaps the biggest hang-out and pick-up location anywhere in the world.’
The name originated from an ancient Roman term for a bath house. At the Thermae, all classes of free male citizens of Rome would gather to bathe, lounge, play dice games and gossip. It was a very pleasant way to while away a few hours, gain and share information, and perhaps discuss and close business deals. Discretion was the name of the game also: citizens could engage in illicit assignations in private chambers close by.
The Bangkok Thermae survived by bending with the prevailing political and economic winds. In the curfew days of the 1960s, a mating frenzy would seize the coffee shop as midnight approached. Those who managed to ‘pair up’ in time with their favourite honey would have to deal with avaricious taxi drivers whose greed knew no bounds in the countdown to curfew. “Nana Hotel, soi 4? Two hundred baht!” they would shout over the noise of spluttering tuktuk engines.
After the American soldiers and sailors left when Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, the Thermae partied on. European and Asian tourists learned of the place and quickly stepped into the breech. Canadian novelist Christopher Moore found inspiration in the Thermae for a series of novels. In Killing Smile the thinly-disguised Thermae is called ‘Headquarters’. Like many old Bangkok hands, Moore mourned the closing of the old Thermae. “The place was the perfect crossroads where people of all nationalities dropped into the underworld, the night world,” says Moore. “No one was excluded: Old hands; new hands; people with no hands. The Thermae was the ultimate party; a celebration of conversation, local gossip, travellers swopping information, and of course, there were the girls who gathered there in droves.”
In one of his novels, Moore referred to the old Thermae as ‘The Star Wars Bar on Sukhumvit Road. You can’t miss it. Fake Greek columns in front of a sign that reads Turkish Bath, Barber, Massage, Espresso Coffee Shop. Fritters fried in big pots of palm oil outside the entrance. Beggars, bar girls, diplomats, spies, writers, bums, ex-Nazis, merchants, gangsters, tourists drifting in and out, eating at makeshift sidewalk cafes beside food carts and stalls. Like you, they are all looking for shamans and ghosts.’
Sadly those old fake Greek columns have gone, but inside the new Thermae some of the old atmosphere remains. Today the Thermae Coffee Shop is in the basement of Ruamchit Plaza at 199 Sukhumvit Road, about half way between the popular drinking dens of Soi Cowboy (off Asoke, soi 21) and Nana Plaza (soi 4). It is now open from 8.00 PM (2000hrs) to 2.00 AM (0200), but the place does not get really busy until after 10.30 pm (2230).
The world famous Thermae Coffee Shop is undeniably part of the Bangkok nightlife experience. Visit it at least once before you die.
Very nice indeed!
I used to really love the Thermae in the old days – but those were the old days for me – the late '90s – and not the real old days. I was a year too late to see the original Thermae.