I just finished reading Stick’s latest weekly and I am pleased to see that Stick is going to do several pieces on Patpong. I know it’s been off the radar for a lot of ex pats for a while, which is a shame, because Patpong contains a lot of Western/ex pat history. I thought I would share some of my reminiscing (and also some history that I gleaned through other sources, from before my time) and, towards the end, highlight some of my experiences and thoughts of my most recent trips through Patpong.
In Bangkok’s infant years, most activity revolved around the Grand Palace, and then towards China Town. The ex-pats of the time were concentrated around the river-front near the Oriental Hotel, along the river and up at Charoen Khrung Road, near what later becomes the intersection with Surawongse Road. Jim Thompson’s original silk shop was at this intersection. As Bangkok grew and sprawled out further, many of the ex-pats moved slightly further afield, further up Surawongse Road. After Jim Thompson’s disappearance, his silk shop relocated closer to the Rama IV end of Surawongse (they needed larger premises). The Anglican Church relocated to the nearby Soi Convent/Sathorn intersection. Other ex-pats opened up businesses in the vicinity, including a Western newsagent near the Surawongse/Charoen Khrung intersection, a furniture store at the Patpong 1/Surawongse intersection (Gerson’s), the British club on Surawongse Road, a Western library and various other amenities. Pretty soon, larger international businesses were moving into the area, with most major airline offices being located either on or around the Surawongse/Patpong 1 intersection.
Patpong 1 road remained a private road, owned by the Thai/Chinese businessman of the same name, but with all the development going on in the vicinity, it eventually sported various businesses when Patpong agreed to rent out the land for development, including the land that became the Air France building.
By the time the Vietnam war had started, Bangkok had an explosion of American personnel, both military, and civilian support personnel. In fact, the Vietnam war created such an influx of American expatriates, that the international school, ISB, had to build a second, duplicate campus to accommodate all the American ex-pat children. I know that a lot of the Bangkok based military personnel were in the then recently completed Chokchai building. In addition, the US embassy on Wireless Road, facilities on Sathorn Road and also facilities closer to the river near Charoen Khrung Road were all hubs of American activity. Other than for the Chokchai building (which at the time was near Bangkok’s outskirts), the Patpong area was central to the remaining operations.
It is of course useful to point out that Patpong 1 Road was not originally red-light oriented. From what I have heard and read, it was originally commercial offices, such as for airlines. The American GIs originally went to the massage places on New Phetburi road, as well as a few places near Khlong Saen Saeb in the Ratchprasong area. However, given Patpong was a central area, it slowly shifted from businesses, to eventually opening up a few bars, restaurants and lounges (actually a lot of the original establishments were more of an up-market lounge and restaurant). By the early 1970s, the demand for entertainment venues resulted in what was just a back alley becoming Patpong 2 road. This is about the same time that the A-Go-Go formula became popular in Patpong. The “upstairs” show-bars didn’t really eventuate until the early 1980s though, which is after the GI’s were long gone, but visitors were still flocking from the US and Europe due to what had then become Patpong’s international reputation.
When I arrived in Thailand in 1983, I found Patpong and the surrounding area to still be very much a central area for ex-pats and Westerners. Most of the airline offices were still in the area (and I think Air France was still on Patpong 1). Most of the banks were on Silom Road (the BKK Bank HQ is still there). Many embassies were nearby (the Aussie embassy, for instance, is still in the same place in the ugly orange building on Sathorn, near the Christ Church). Patpong 1 and 2 both had a lot of bars, a-go-gos as well as the naughtier shows in the upstairs venues. Pink Panther, King’s Castle, Hell Cat, Super Star, Mississippi Queen, Safari, Texan, and La Costa are names that spring to mind.
In addition to all the clubs, which to me as a 9 year old, seemed quite intriguing, there were plenty of other important ex-pat attractions in the area. Being such a central location for Westerners, the Patpong area was one of the best sources of Western food at the time. Bangkok’s first Pizza Hut had recently opened on Patpong 1, at the intersection with Surawongse Road. In addition, there were other Western owned or managed restaurants on the street, as well as the Foodland on Patpong 2 and some other fast food places. My favourite was actually a burger/hot dog place on the intersection of Patpong 1 and Silom Road. I can’t recall its name, but it had a great little seating area upstairs, that allowed a good view of the goings-on of Patpong 1 and Silom Roads (if any reader knows the name of this place, please email it to me). Also on Patpong 1, on the corner with the second alley leading to Patpong 2, there was a Western language book shop (I think it was simply called Booksellers), which was one of the few places to pick up English language books and periodicals back in Bangkok’s cowboy days.
Does anyone remember the Bat Boat? Believe it or not, in the middle of Patpong, between 1 and 2, there used to be a seafood restaurant that was in the shape of a large boat. It even had a moat around it and you went over a sort of bridge to go in. I think the restaurant even had two levels, with the lower level having glass windows looking into/under the moat?
I occasionally read submissions from people who comment that Patpong in the 1980s was a dangerous place to be. One fairly recent submission in particular made it sound like the wild west, and made me feel like it was a place where you could get gunned down just for looking at someone the wrong way. I have to totally disagree with that. I have been hanging around Patpong regularly from 9 until 13, and then back again when I was 14, 15, 16, 21 etc. It definitely changed over those years, but in 1983 I really would not have agreed that Patpong had a dangerous feel about it. For the earlier part of my initial 4 year stay in Thailand, I was in Patpong regularly, as in almost daily and nightly. We ate there all the time (we didn’t know where else to go in order to eat food that wouldn’t blow out our holes). I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the time. At night, there seemed to be a great party vibe, and people were very cheerful. Of course, being a blond haired 9 year old had its perks too, given the Thai were (and still are) quite crazy about Western children.
By the time I was 12, I was visiting Patpong on my own, that is, without any parents accompanying me. I used to go to a video store that was upstairs above Pink Panther. No, it wasn’t a naughty video place, although I am sure they had adult films too. It was purely a good place to rent videos and they had a very good selection (Bangkok had a bit of a shortage of decent English language video rental places in the mid-1980s). I also would drop by for lunch with school friends at the pizza hut, and sometimes we would just spend the weekend loitering around Patpong 1 and 2, being cheeky, chatting to the locals, and looking for a bit of harmless mischief.
1987 is the first year that I can remember, when there was a bit of a shift in the vibe in Patpong. That was the first time that myself and a friend ever had a tout try to get us to go to a massage place (we were 13 at the time), and he was being a bit pushy in terms of constantly asking us questions and trying to convince us to go and look. We were probably asking for it, because we didn’t disclose to him that we were locals either (oh, and no, we didn’t take him up on the offer… I actually wasn’t interested in Thai girls at the time, much preferring to chase the Western and Japanese girls at my school). 1987 is also when Bangkok had a real tourist boom, and it was at about this time that I first started noticing a lot more brown and blond heads bobbing around in the main downtown areas.
By 1987, the area around Patpong had also gone through a lot of change (compared to 1983). Patpong itself was largely unchanged though, other than an increase in annoying touts. Nearby, Robinson had made a large shopping centre on the corner of Silom and Rama IV. This had Thailand’s first Dairy Queen restaurant and also a coffee place with a great view of Lumphini Park (before the skytrain blocked it). Together with the nearby park, this became a popular ex-pat kid hangout. My friends and I would walk from Ploenchit Road, all the way down to Lumphini, hang out, have races in the paddle boats, and then go and grab a hot dog, ice cream or milk shake at the Dairy Queen. We would then normally wander further down Silom to Patpong, just to nosey past and see what was happening. Occasionally, we would bump into some of the high school kids from ISB… I think some of them were making use of the Turkish massage place on Patpong 1, although I didn’t ponder the question too much at the time.
Some of you may be wondering… did I ever see the inside of any of the a-go-gos during my early years in Patpong? The answer is yes, I did. I occasionally did get to go in, although to be honest, I kind of liked the music and flashing lights more than anything else. At 13, I actually preferred the Bangkok discos, such as the Palace (Vibhavadi-Rangsit) or NASA (somewhere around Ramkamhaeng, near the train line).
I did return to Patpong at various times through the years since 1987. After Patpong 1 became a night market (in the 1990s), the place really did change and the original vibe and fun seemed to have been sucked out of the place. Each time I returned and had a wander through, the clubs seemed to be old shadows of themselves and many of the upstairs places became scam bars, with old whales dancing (probably the same girls who were dancing in 1983 and before).
On my last three trips back to Bangkok in 2012 and 2013, I did stop by Patpong, originally just to show it off to a friend who wanted a bit of history. I have to admit I was quite surprised at what I saw. By 2008 I had stopped walking through Patpong at all (night markets selling tourist crap do not interest me). By 2012, a lot of things had changed. The Air France building and buildings that had overtaken the Bat Boat had all disappeared and been replaced with a new, large building. All of the red light places on the Surawongse end of Patpong 1 were gone completely. Most are now concentrated around either the middle or Silom end of Patpong 1. Where the book shop was is now a large beer bar. Some of the upstairs scam bars are still there. However, there were a few decent looking ground floor entertainment venues on Patpong 1. Patpong 2 was probably the more interesting change. Yes, Foodland is still there. However, there were a few venues there now that weren’t there previously, and some of the older venues were back up to old standards. Pink Panther looked pretty good, and Club Electric Blue and Black Pagodo (both of which Stick has mentioned quite a few times) were absolutely awesome. I only stayed for a couple of beers with a friend at Club Electric Blue, but I definitely need to come back, as I really did like the vibe, not just of the club, but in that vicinity of Patpong. Even sitting out on another evening, just having a few beers outdoors (this April, just before Songkran, on a particularly warm and humid night), everything was very pleasant. Everyone, including the locals working in the area, such as delivery people, touts etc, all seemed to be in pretty good spirits and quite happy to have a few laughs.
Although it is not quite the same as the Patpong of the 1980s and I would have to get into a time machine to experience the Patpong that I have fond memories of, I have to say that I am very pleased with the way that Patpong is currently shaping up. I look forward to seeing what the future may hold and am pleased that Patpong doesn’t appear to be going in the same direction as Washington Square (that was another one of my early hang-outs).
NB. For history buffs, please note that in the first part of my submission, I list a bunch of Western facilities opening up in the vicinity of Patpong. Please note these are not listed in any real chronological order. I just wrote them down as I thought of them. For instance, Christ Church on Soi Convent was established by Louis Leonowens (son of the famed Anna Leonowens – The King and I) around the early 1900s. Similarly, the British Club would have opened on Surawongse Road in the early 1900s. Gersons furniture must have opened a bit before World War 2, as the building was damaged by allied bombing during the war. I have no idea exactly when the Air France building was completed but I suspect it was in the early 1960s based on the architectural style.