“Siam O Siam, how well we knew ye? How unknowable the mysteries of her soul…” The gentleman beside me laments in his Midlands lilt and gazes into the russet-tinged depths of his glass. We are sat in a bar in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 departures lounge. This, for UK-based travellers, is the gateway to Thailand. An oasis of sorts within this sprawling transport city. This gentleman looks all the more wistful, for his final destination today is a place far more mundane – a dust-blown gulf state where his business demands his presence. Earlier in our conversation, he intimated the many visits he made to Thailand over the last two decades and now quietly muses the lack of opportunity, due to other commitments, for a trip to the Kingdom. My friend Don returns from the bathroom to his stool, and takes an ardent swig of beer. He’s off duty, as of now, for the next fortnight. ‘Don’s a newbie’, I offer to the gentleman. He eyes us with a bitter grin. ‘Lucky Devils’. The gent drains his glass and bids us a safe trip, and we return the gesture. ‘I wouldn’t swap tickets’, ventures Don, watching him thread his way towards the gates. ‘Muscat for Bangkok? Shit, no’. We survey gaudily-dressed countrymen in the busy bar, headed for God-knows-where, with the words ‘Lucky Devils’ still ringing in our ears. This will be my eleventh trip to Thailand since 2006. I’ve witnessed lots of change, novelty has since passed. I’m travelling this time with a best-friend and first timer. Do I feel lucky?
Absolutely. I have a buzz of anticipation in my stomach. What should feel like a ‘commute’ still feels like an adventure. I know what to expect. I know to expect the unexpected. How did I remain un-jaded? What follows is just a loose mixture – part trip report, part ‘observations and thoughts’…
Not being a huge drinker, my main vice is always the women. Despite my fervour for Oriental ladies, if there’s one rule I’ve stuck to visiting the LOS over the years, it's enjoy P4P in moderation. I’m not suggesting you do this if it might be your one and only trip to Thailand – in that case, fill your boots, my amigo. I’m thinking more as regular visitor – if you’re spending consecutive (read ‘every’) night in the P4P venues, you’re opening yourself up to cynicism, addiction and becoming jaded. Not to mention all the money it costs. I always work in and rotate other types of evening activities to counter these effects and attempt to maintain perspective and balance. You never know, on those evenings you’re not in the P4P venues, you might even meet nice local girls in mainstream society! I’ve tried the relationship thing with a good Thai girl, but it’s impossible to sustain if it’s over a long distance. It’s just not fair to either of you. Anyway, that’s another story…
Ten hours of slow torture via Vince Vaughan and Seth Rogen later, we land in Bangkok. Usually on arrival, I will spend a few days in Bangkok. (I’m incredulous at those who pass through it without stopping or say they ‘can’t wait to leave after two days’ – yes, it’s just another city, but to someone with any semblance of an enquiring mind it’s a fabulous one). This time, it being Don’s first trip, and wanting him to have the full experience and to hit the ground running, we’ll be going to Pattayaland first. A taxi is pre-arranged via email. I get a forthright and comical email in reply from the proprietor insisting the taxi will be ‘extremely early’ and warning us of all sorts of heinous schemes that might befall us in the yards between exiting customs and seeing the driver’s sign bearing my name in the Arrivals waiting area. The email ends with the words ‘…or big problem for you!!’. Certainly more fun than booking a cab in the West, and I don’t bat an eyelid when we don’t see the driver for the best part of an hour. Just moments before we head for the public taxi stand, Don sniggers and nudges me, pointing at a squat, nervous Thai holding a sign that reads ‘Mr Hitler A’. ‘That’s Us…’
Appearance-wise, Pattaya is not so different in 2013 than it was when I first came in 2006. The large new malls are complete and beach front development continues apace. Of course, visitor profiles have changed markedly, and I must say I actually prefer being lost amongst families and couples from Eurasia than conspicuous amongst Westerners of questionable profile. As soon as we dump suitcases at our hotel we head out, starving, to Second Road and have three dishes each with drinks for about 400 baht. We’re at a touristy people-watching spot, the quality is good and service is fast – should we complain? Over the next three days we eat lunches in mall food courts. Quality is always great and large lunches – even a BBQ sea-bass – and drinks are never more than 500 baht a head. One late morning, a large cooked breakfast is 150 baht all-in (with Irish sausages). We avail ourselves of happy hours for some very moderate afternoon drinking at various beer bars. We meet a few characters, some friendly, some hilariously truculent and menacing low-lives that we duly try to humour. But in our out-for-fun mind-set, this is simply free entertainment. Don is impressed…and we haven’t even got on to the girls yet.
With big, healthy lunches, there’s no need for large dinners – either a slice or two of pizza (good quality widely available) or a few excellent dishes enjoyed on the deck of the Pattaya beer garden for an absolute steal of a price. As we eat, Don eyes a few of the single ladies perched at the bar and thus learns to recognise the genus P4P and species ‘freelancer’.
We head down Walking Street, Don is wide-eyed. Having not gone far, I stop in my tracks. Something tells me to try the gogo we’ve just passed. I don’t usually frequent bars on Walking Street itself, but I’ve just got a sense about this place. We enter Silver Star. My hunch proves correct and we find a fun atmosphere and we get plenty ‘girl attention’. Attitudes seem friendly – hell, it could be 2006! Don is in his first gogo and his eyes are on stalks. Rules seem relaxed, there’s jacuzzi shows, on stage nudity, etc. We watch for a while and I pick out a girl with a fun attitude for Don. I ignore this golden rule and allow myself to be smitten by a strumpet with good looks alone. We check-bin. The bar wants both short-time fees up front. It’s an agreeable price, so no need to get bent up over this. It takes me a while to drunkenly check the bill, the server holds a torch while I do this. (I’m doing this for Don’s benefit, showing him the ropes. No need to always check, but when they include the short-time fees, I will always check). The bill is ok, so we tip OK. I’d heard of this trend of paying the girls fee up front. It’s happening so I accept it. I’m not going to spoil my night complaining about what equates to what I would have paid after anyway. There’ll be other nights of freelance fun where discretionary payment is accepted – so it will all balance out.
We meet up a while later to have a post-barfine drink and debrief. I find Don hand-in-hand with his beau in hotel reception. His grin looks like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. No need to ask if he enjoyed himself. He tries to kiss his girl on the cheek in front of the reception staff and she pulls away – shucks, man, don’t you just love newbies?!!
We head to Angelwitch the next night. The showgirls are hot and all a novelty for Don. The gogo line-up is poor by their historic standards, but I spot a real beauty and call her down for Don. I observe while Don conducts what I impressed on him earlier – the all-important ‘interview stage’. She passes, and Don plays Jack again when we meet for debriefing later. Another thing I stress to Don, like not committing early to a girl, is also not to commit early to a bar. When entering a gogo – don’t feel obliged to sit down and order a drink immediately. Scope the line-up, gauge the atmosphere and either stay or spin-heel. We do this on night number 3 in LK Metro. The first few places entered have no vibe, so we settle on Office A Gogo. A great night of fun is had. Bars tend to have their ‘sweet-spot’ time periods – enter a bar too early or late and it can be dead, or all the best girls are already bar-fined. Office seems to be a 9 to midnight bar. Pattaya proved to be a fun outing, great value and 3 days highbrow culture is about enough. Don can’t wait to get to Bangkok.
In the past, if you earned a decent living in the West, you didn’t really need to budget much for a trip to the Land of Smiles, whether or not that included P4P. Today it’s different, and prices and exchange rates have moved. I’m not going to bemoan this fact here or elsewhere; it’s a reality of life. As Stick recently said in a weekly column, he’s amazed that Western visitors still arrive expecting US imported steaks for 200 baht and Seafood BBQs for 400 baht – those days are gone, that was ten years ago. So, for the likes of Don and myself, who earn a moderate income and might want to enjoy P4P during a fortnight-long visit, compromises have to be made. I think people forget how lucky they are to be able to take a direct scheduled flight from Europe, Australia and the US to this wonderful land. We might be one of the only generations able to do so. That is something I still appreciate and marvel a little at by itself and extrapolate – ‘How long would it take to sail here?…travel overland?…cycle?…walk!’. I count my blessings. Going back to compromises – I do this according to what’s important. Drinking – in hotels or beer-bars? Eating in high-end places, hotel buffets or strip-lit shacks and malls? P4P – G Clubs and nightclubs, Coyote bars, gogos or beer bars? Accommodation – 5 star, 3 star or guesthouse hotels?
Don and I both agree to spend more money on accommodation and economise elsewhere. It boils down to what's important to you – and we like creature comforts. On this trip we would stay in 4 star hotels or serviced apartments with spacious rooms, nice pools and gyms for about $75 a night, breakfast included. Pattaya and Krabi were a bit cheaper, and Bangkok stays were always in central locations. As we’re keen on offsetting our hangovers with daily exercise and making use of the pools and gyms, we got full value for our money. A great pleasure for me is reading a book by a large pool. Hotel pools are often sparsely populated and peaceful in Bangkok. Another pleasure to sit on a nice balcony with some mid-70s Who on the CD player, downing a large bottle of Leo in the early evening before heading out. It takes a bit of shopping about to find places with all these facilities on budget but worth it. Another strategy (perhaps the most important) is visiting outside high season. This visit with Don was just after the dreaded Songkran when bargains are much easier to come by.
Next on the priority list, perhaps surprisingly for two singleton males, is food. Thailand in this sense, and in particular Bangkok, might as well be called Heaven on Earth. Before we even mention Thai food, where else can you eat excellent quality cuisines of the world in central city at reasonable prices? Italian, French, Indian, and Modern Western restaurant / food outlets abound and the quality is usually above average. Two grub-hounds just couldn’t go wrong. It helps that over the years I’ve built up a wealth of knowledge of hotel buffets, mall food courts, open-air Thai venues outside the tourist areas, etc. But also newly developed areas such as Rain Hill and K-Village in Bangkok offer wide choices of reasonably priced venues. We had some memorable lunches and dinners for rarely more than 600 baht a head and often much cheaper. Another treat was the Terminal 21 food court on the 5th floor. Change up money for tokens. Get 3 – 4 Thai dishes plus a fresh fruit smoothie and still have change out of 200 baht. One evening, we took two female friends to the 2-for-1 evening buffet at the Landmark hotel. Everyone ate like royals and for a little extra, we had unlimited wine, beer and spirits. All-in, it amounted to around US$160 for an alcohol-fuelled banquet for 4 people in a 5 star hotel – a great deal.
A brief word on getting around in Bangkok. I use the BTS and MRT quite happily, especially during the day. I get a pre-paid card so I don’t have to queue up for single rides. I also use the river boats as much as possible – both the San Saeb and Chao Phraya routes. It’s a novel, cheap, interesting, a fast way to get about and avoids arguing with taxis that won’t use the meter. Also, horror of horrors – sometimes I walk. Crazy, I know. But you get to experience the city on another level on foot – read ‘up-close’. There’s lots I would never have discovered were it not for my on-foot forays – Hole-in-the-wall eateries, Polo Fried Chicken, the Chinese antique shop near Chidlom that (strangely) does slightly above market-rate currency exchange – the lady within insisting you write your name and hotel name in an exercise book! One day, wandering through Chinatown, I came across shop-house after shop-house of coffin makers. Passing one shop, the proprietor called out to me. He invited me in, made coffee and gave an impromptu tour / talk on the (thankfully empty) caskets and Chinatown history. Fascinating, if somewhat morbidly so!
P4P – I acted as Don’s guide as we toured the various types of P4P venues in Bangkok. We did a few gogo bars in Soi Cowboy, the ones that are still there for the traditional punter rather than the goggle-eyed tourist hoarde or Japanese consumer. In these quieter bars I saw some cuties on the stages in these venues and the ambience was relaxed and reminiscent of my early Thailand visits. Don seemed to enjoy the beer bars more however, such as Country Road and the one opposite. He took girls from these bars and had enjoyable experiences. He goes for 5’s and 6’s so these places fit the bill. Don has had no luck with women for years back home, so he’s more than happy with the plainer, friendlier female company. I wanted to take him around the Nana Plaza gogos (which I prefer to Cowboy) and also around some Patpong venues (which I never discount, and have been trying to recommend to deaf ears and scoffs for years!) but we never made it to either place due to fixture congestion! No matter, they’re going nowhere and I get the feeling Don will be back within the year.
We do, however, manage an afternoon trip to Soi 4 for some happy hour beers and to watch the ‘breakfast of champions’ spectacle. After establishing and confirming that we are the only two westerners in a square mile who are not former Special Forces, I suggest an entry-level soapie visit. Don sounds game, so we wander round to an infamous venue near the Rajah Hotel. Again, the line up isn’t too spectacular – mostly 5’s and chubbies. Don is slightly overwhelmed by the format and novelty factor. We sip beers and take our time choosing – I’m not going to stay – just making sure he’s set up ok before I leave him to it. Then, a girl appears in the ‘bowl’ that stands out from the crowd – she’s an eight out of ten – a diamond in the rough. Annie’s is nothing if not conveniently located, and you only need one hottie in the line-up – it saves you the agony of choice. The mamasan seems dismayed that I’m not partaking, but I’ve got a prior engagement with my on-off Thai girlfriend, who is finishing her afternoon hotel shift. When I meet Don later, he’s in a slack-jawed, rubber-limbed heaven – he can scarcely take in the sensory pleasure he has just experienced. I tell him Annie’s is just the tip – wait till you go to Huay Kwang. He shakes his head.
Although we don’t tour the Nana gogos we have a couple of nights in the Soi 4 beer bars. Plenty of pretty, cute girl-next-door types to be seen amongst the numerous fatties and old boilers. Don has no trouble hooking up with friendly girls that take his fancy on these nights and enjoys long-time fun for very reasonable rates. One place I have to show him is the soi 7 Biergarten and of course this proves another ‘eye-swimmer’ of a place. As we order a second beer and some food, I realise that I myself have never sat in here and just enjoyed the show for a while. I won’t deny there’s a dearth of ‘homely’ gals and a veritable banquet of old trouts, but slowly we start having fun exchanging glances, care-bear-stares, and smirks with the different tables of tarts. We’re sat along the wall, adjacent to the ‘northern corridor’ through the bar. I’m noticing that a few younger women pass between the soi 5 – 7 alleyway along this ‘corridor’ through the bar to soi 7. Some of them are pretty, and some seem to hover in the corridor or keep passing to-and-fro, in the pretence that they are not really ‘in the Biergarten’. But I’ve got their number! Maybe its just tonight, Maybe I’m mistaken about this. Maybe don’t believe everything you read about places that should be ‘off the map’. All I can say is that on two separate nights, I saw some attractive girls in the Biergarten.
Like I said earlier, when briefly mentioning Patpong, some places are written off via conventional wisdom, i.e. the ‘prevailing blog opinions’, but I like to explore, take things as I find them. I don’t have to maintain an inflated ego and nor does Don. We don’t have to have the trophy bar-fines or hi-so types hanging off our arms. It’s quite liberating…and makes our fun more sustainable. I don’t give a hoot if people think I’m boring – almost the worst accusation you can level at someone in these daft days of ‘everyone’s always doing something interesting and social-media-worthy’ hype. No thanks – I’d rather be ‘boring but enquiring’ than cool and vacant. The question of ‘ego’ poses another question for my on-off Thai girlfriend – how does she get the upper hand when her most valuable weapon, i.e. attacking my ego, seems to have such little effect? It’s certainly a poser for her…and maybe a post for another time…
Oh, and Krabi in low season was delightful!
Peace out, all.
Very nice report. I like the way you mix things up to keep the holiday interesting.
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