In Defence Of Bangkok (And The Biergarten Too)
Recently there has been a good few submissions about how Bangkok (and Thailand in general) is no longer what it was. The "golden age" is long gone, prices have risen, quality is down and things are generally ain't what they used to be. I would agree that the "golden age" is probably gone but never having experienced it I don't know how true it is. Golden ages have a habit of appearing (?) when they are past. For example how many of us ever thought that the years pre the UK 2008 crash was a golden age but it was, especially now looking back after 6 years. You can't revisit the past but you may be living in a new golden age now, you just will never know what the future will bring. However, on to Bangkok, due to a unexpected international assignment I have been able to fulfill a long term ambition to visit and have managed it 3 times over the last 18 months and golden age or not it has lived up to expectations.
I can understand that from a long term resident's view point, as I know from experience, that living in a country with corrupt institutions, mind-numbing bureaucracy, inflation and general lack of infrastructure can be soul destroying to deal with but that is well documented in other submissions and generally does not affect the short term visitor.
For me the experience has been good. Thailand is developing fast and it shows not just in the prices, expectations and infrastructure but in the atmosphere. It starts at the modern Bangkok airport, which is a straight out the box standard design you see all over the world but it runs efficiently. I am neither a first class nor budget traveller, but I always travel light and so was able to use the Airport Express and Skytrain to get into the centre thereby avoiding the scrums for taxis. Both are excellent and at 90 and 21 baht respectively, great value for money compared to other modes of transport. On two of my visits I was sitting in my hotel about an hour after landing which compares with any country. The third time I was caught behind a jumbo load of Russians at Immigration so it took a little longer to get through. Exiting the country has always been easy, minimal queues and flights running on schedule.
I always stayed in the guest friendly Grand President on Soi 11. A lot has been said about hotels not discounting in times of scarce travellers but last trip I only paid £33 a night including breakfast, wi-fi in the room and even a couple of free drinks in the bar. The rooms were always clean and had the benefit of a small kitchenette with fridge to keep that essential beer cool.
As Murray Head sang in One night in Bangkok, "I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine." It may not be true but it does pay to engage the brain occasionally. It's hot, the food is salty, alcohol is going to be consumed so give your body a chance. There is a 7 – 11 on every street corner, bottles of water are only 7 baht to help hydration, there are fruit sellers everywhere as well. Even though I have just turned 50, I consider myself pretty fit (on all three occasions I was either training for or had just run a marathon) but I was drained, both literally and figuratively, after each 3-day visit. Twice, three at a push, a day was enough for me, believe me. The tales of 5 or more a day, I suspect are just that, tales.
Again, if you use your brain, I find it hard to understand the "falling in love with a bar girl" mentality. Certainly for those of us that are older, or maybe not in the best shape there is only one reason 20-year olds are friendly and it's not our wit and looks! That said, it pays to be friendly and treat all like you want to be treated but keep it real, have a good time but keep things in perspective. I only had one of the girls start the conversation about getting a gift as her mobile phone was old etc. When I pointed out to her that she had a better model than I had the subject was dropped and never mentioned again.
Prices are definitely on the rise even across the timeframe of my three visits. I don't know about quality but from my standpoint there were plenty of stunning girls all keen for your company. Not as good as the past? Who knows but you will not be short of choice despite what some say. There are still stunning girls to be had still, it just may be a little harder than in the past. People complain that the prices are approaching London levels and this may be true in certain cases so why bother with Bangkok? One reason is the atmosphere, certainly around Soi Nana. Just sit at the end of one of the sois nearby and watch the girls go by. If you see a girl you like then the odds are that she is available. You only have to ask, not like in the UK.
I think the bar scene is definitely in decline. I did a crawl with another guy who was on his own and had a tour round the gogo bars in Nana complex and Soi Cowboy (if you can walk reasonably fast they are only a 15-minute walk apart). Most were pretty busy with loads of girls but as has been mentioned, no-one seemed to be buying at the prices they were asking. It's getting a bit like Ryanair (used?) to be. The basic product is cheapish, it's the add-ons that soon increase the total. Drinks, lady drinks, mamasan drinks, barfine, short-term hotel etc etc it all gets pretty ridiculous. The economic model mentioned in several columns where they are charging less customers more will never work long term but that seems to be the short term view taken. I found it much better to stick with some of the freelancers around the bars. Much better value, 1,000 short time, 3,000 for overnight is about what I usually paid. I like the bars around the entrance of Nana where you have a good view and if you saw a stunner you fancied it was easy to approach them. I would also come to the defence of the Biergarten on soi 7. I know Stick mentioned it in a column as the soi is under reconstruction and he says it's in decline but I always found it fine, near the hotel and always someone there to have a chat to. It can be a fairly lively place but the beer is cold and reasonable (80 -120 baht). There are a lot of freelancers there of all types and ages but the good thing is that they do not pester you (probably management policy as is no ladyboys) unless you speak to them, it's very low key. They may not be the best looking but I am no Brad Pitt anyway. I always have a thing for mature Thai women and the Biergarten offers a good choice but there is all sorts to suit all tastes. I even found a stunning girl there who had the biggest and nicest natural rack I have ever seen on a Thai. The service is quick and unlike some other bars I could mention I have never had to question a bill in the Biergarten.
In comparison the organised places were a mixed bag. I would definitely recommend Annie's and Eden Club. The first time I went to Annie's was mid afternoon but there was still a selection of about 20 lovelies to choose from behind the glass. Initially it's a bit off putting but eventually I picked one of the girls. The only issue was that because she was sitting down I realised when she stood up that she was only 5ft tall (I am 6ft 1) however the mamasan assured me that it would not be a problem and it wasn't. I was recommended Eden's and would definitely pass that on. They have it really sorted (see Stick's column of 24 November), girls were fantastic, they did everything including things they suggested that I had never even thought off. On one occasion the girls (dressed in lovely nurse uniforms) had an unhealthy fascination for my nose for some reason, it's not that big but they seemed to think it great fun to prod and kiss it. Seems Thais like sticky out western noses! I have been back a couple of times to Eden Club and each experience has been great, highly recommended, despite the grumpy manager.
Also tried the BJ parlours and some of the massage parlours – all were fine if not really hitting the spot for me. I even ventured up to Huay Kwang district to sample more of the local scene. I went to Nataree for a soapy massage, the gold fish bowl was huge and together with the girls outside it there was a big selection. The guy at the desk recommended a girl and so I got her to stand up to check height and then off we went. To be fair the place could do with a bit of decoration, it's looking a bit tired but probably not that different from the soapies in near Sukhumvit to be worth the journey.
On the subject of ladyboys, I always laugh at the submissions when the guy is "surprised" when he finds the additional meat and two veg on his date for the night. In my limited experience they were not that hard to spot. I am sure the top 5% are hard to tell but I don't think that 5% hang around Nana. I have played rugby with more feminine prop forwards (and with smaller thighs) than some of them. If it's your thing then go with it and don't hide behind the "surprise".
As for some of the other hassles mentioned recently, despite loads of walking up Sukhumvit Road I had no contact with the police, never even really saw them. As an experienced traveller I tend to dress conservatively, try and stay reasonably sober and generally keep a low profile. Like Stick I cringe when I see some of the bare-chested behaviour of some of the western visitors. Likewise with the protests, it had largely died down on my last visit so did not see any issues. At no time did I feel unsafe (although I only experienced a very small part of the city) walking about and there was a lot less hassle from beggars that you get in some South-East Asian countries. Shopping is good, with western style malls and even Boots and Tesco if you miss them.
So the big question did it live up to expectations? You bet it did, and then some. Would I go back again? In an instant. I know that many of the serious players are moving on to Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines but Thailand still has a lot to offer. Roll on the next visit!