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Four Bars And The Nature Of Change

I recently found myself in Bangkok for a short visit at a time of year when I’m not usually there – February. I usually like to time my visits to Thailand to October – November which is shoulder season, the crowds are allegedly a little less, the weather a little less hot (but prone to showery downpours) and hotel rooms a little cheaper and easier to find. This visit was different in other ways too most notably that I had my Filipino ladyfriend / partner with me. I know, I know, it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle but there was a good reason for that, that I might elaborate on at some stage in a future submission.

I asked my ladyfriend to choose the accommodation as her needs and preferences would be somewhat different to my usual choice of low star / value accommodation. My basic requirements in a hotel are simply quietness, cleanliness and low cost – and near enough to be accessible to the naughty nightlife areas. She chose the Vince Hotel in Petchaburi, which is an area I had never stayed in before but the hotel turned out to be an absolute delight. Hidden away up a quiet sub soi / alley but with all the facilities you could wish for including a rooftop bar and pool – and a breakfast spread that had to be seen to be believed. Whereas I am usually a cheap Charlie about accommodation when travelling under my own steam I have stayed in some top end hotels when travelling on business and I have never seen a breakfast spread to beat this. And they serve until 11 AM so plenty of time for a lie-in for night owls. The suite was also spacious and roomy with lots of nice little extras included. They also offer a generous / late checkout up to 1 PM. The room service menu was also great value with different weekly specials and so we ‘dined in’ on both nights for convenience and to save time searching for a restaurant that might have been hit or miss. A 60 – 70 baht taxi ride takes you home from Soi Cowboy / Sukhumvit after the party and the excellent Pratunam Market is only a 10-minute stroll away. I mention these points as I was intrigued by Stick’s recent piece about the cost of a trip to Bangkok / Thailand and have to concur that where accommodation is concerned, comfort is beginning to trump price for me, as I get older. And this hotel was good value too. One interesting aspect was that the hotel seemed to be mainly populated by young / twenty-something Chinese travellers. Maybe the hotel target that market or maybe the canny Chinese know a bargain when they see one too.

Much has been made on these pages about the antics of the hordes of Chinese tourists that descend on Pattaya and I have to confess that I was bit put out by some of their antics in the breakfast restaurant at our hotel. They just don’t seem to get the concept of personal space or waiting in line or excusing themselves as they cut across you while you have both hands full with a plate / bowl / coffee cup or whatever. I witnessed several near misses and behaviour that would be considered extremely rude in most Western countries. When I got over my initial indignation I started to see things differently. To be fair to the Chinese I don’t think this behaviour is considered rude or even inappropriate in their homeland. Maybe it’s because they are so many and they have to fight so hard for space that the social norms are different and we should not judge them by our own / western norms and dare I say, prejudices. They probably find some of our antics equally confusing.

Anyway enough about the hotel / accommodation as I am sure Stickman readers are well able to Google hotels and accommodation options in Bangkok so let’s get on to the nightlife updates and philosophical musings.

For our first night, I wanted to bring my lady to somewhere decent to start with so we headed to Saxophone bar at nearby Victory Monument. For any jazz / blues aficionados this is a great option. There are two live bands every night and no cover charge. The beer is reasonably priced but wines or mixed drinks might put a dent in your budget. They have a decent bar menu if you want food but it’s ok to just have a drink and enjoy the music too. I had been there several times before and always found it to be a top class venue, if a bit touristy, but we enjoyed our first night in a relaxed ambience. I had thought we might hit one of the naughty nightlife areas after that but we were both a bit tired so we retired to the comfort of our hotel. As I mentioned earlier, coals to Newcastle : )

On the second night, after a day of bargain hunting at Pratunam Market and a relaxing foot massage for me (pedicure for her) and another delicious room service meal we decided to hit Soi Cowboy. Over the many years that I have been visiting Bangkok, Soi Cowboy was always my favourite nightlife area. Whereas I would always pay some visits to Nana Plaza and less so Patpong, both of which have their upsides and downsides I always preferred the vibe at Cowboy. I cant quite put my finger on why that should be but for this one final night in Bangkok it was a no-brainer that we should go there.

Our first port of call was Dollhouse. I had read somewhere recently that lady shows had become a feature there in recent months and thought that might get the night off to a good / lively start. However, what greeted us was a half full (or was it half empty?) bar and a dis-spirited and disinterested bunch of nondescript dancers that looked like they would rather be at home doing their knitting – or more likely playing with their mobile phones, than entertaining the few punters in the venue. There were one or two ‘lookers’ but they too seemed to have been affected by the malaise. The toilets in Dollhouse are upstairs and as I headed up I spotted a sign advertising ‘Nude Dancers Upstairs.’ In this regard they were true to their word but to be honest the whole scene had a sort of tawdry, pathetic element to it. The girls up there appeared to be operating more like lap dancers in the more conventional western establishments, gyrating astride tables with just a little more enthusiasm than their sisters downstairs could muster. I was reminded of a previous visit to Dollhouse some years ago when I bought a lady drink for a young lady from Chang Mai who had a fine set of large knockers. The ambience that night was not dissimilar either with the place half empty / early evening during happy hour. Just as we were settling down and chatting one of the service staff tapped the girl on the shoulder and told her it was her turn to dance upstairs. She shrugged and invited me to join her upstairs where she performed on a podium for me and several other guys. To me this was a classic example of Thai not-sense. There were plenty of girls sitting around in the downstairs bar and I was probably the only person buying a lady drink but they decided to move the lady upstairs as it was her turn, instead of simply adjusting the rota. Oh well, I’m sure there was some sort of logic in it but I never did figure it out. I do like that Dollhouse doesn’t take itself too seriously though as evidenced by the sign outside about a lot of pretty girls – and a few ugly ones. Plus their cheeky beer mats that are collectors’ items or nice souvenirs for your friends back home. The other plus point to Dollhouse was the reasonably priced draft beer at 120 baht but overall this was a disappointing and low-key start to our night on Cowboy. Things could only get better, right? Wrong!

Next stop was the recently renovated and reopened Five Star Bar (just beside Country Road). Long term Stickman readers and Cowboy aficionados will know that Five Star used to be an edgy, lower end place that had a very unique selling point – a live blues / rock band that played classic numbers from Clapton to Deep Purple and beyond all night. A few baht dropped in their tip basket as you headed upstairs to the toilet was always appreciated but other than that there was no cover charge. The girls there were never in the A league but they were usually friendly and welcoming, particularly if you bought them a drink, when they would often become touchy feely and / or smoochy and occasionally you might even find a diamond in the rough there. One night I saw two heavy blokes get up on stage and start dancing and stripping with the girls. The shrieks and squeals of laughter were genuine and nobody tried to remove the two guys until the song had finished and no harm was done. Drinks used to always be reasonably priced too and there was a very low-key, laid back, fun vibe to the place that I really liked. I was also reminded of a wet and rainy night some years ago when I finished my night out with a visit to Five Star for a last drink. As I got up to leave the two ladies that I had bought drinks for insisted on accompanying me outside with umbrellas and past the taxi touts to flag down a regular cab to take me to my Thong Lor hotel. The girls were in high heels and sexy outfits and we must have looked a sight but I appreciated their good-natured gesture. It was that kind of place and that always encouraged me to revisit it.

Thinking about it, I have rarely bar-fined girls in all of my years visiting Thailand, preferring the afternoon delights of the many massage options. The lateness of the hour and the effect of alcohol on the libido (a.k.a. brewer’s droop) were also deterrents but then I remembered that I had actually barfined two different ladies at Five Star with wildly contrasting results. On the first occasion, I made Five Star my last call (again) as I was heading back to my hotel and a little the worse for wear. As soon as I had a beer in front of me and the band were rocking it out a young lady alighted on me and before I knew it we were almost ‘at it’ in the bar. So I did the only decent thing a fella could do in the circumstances, told her ‘she’d pulled and to get her purse’, paid her barfine and whisked her back to my hotel. I headed straight for the shower to freshen up and try to get myself ready for the inevitable fireworks to follow, silently cursing that I hadn’t bought some Viagra. When I emerged somewhat refreshed and all set to give it my best shot (sic) I found the young lady passed out on the bed. No amount of shaking or splashing cold water on her face could wake her so I put her to bed, climbed in beside her and fell sound asleep. The next morning she was up with the lark and in far perkier mood as she told me ‘I kay-z gal. Dink too much whik-ee. Hee hee’ I had obviously failed to notice this in my own inebriated state the previous night but redemption was now at hand. And whereas she didn’t look quite like the sex goddess of the previous late night she was probably about a decent 6 / 10. ‘Let’s fxxk’ were the next words out of her mouth. And I didn’t need a second invitation, fearing she might collapse again, so we went at it like rabbits. Post coitus, she then declared herself to be hungry and suggested we go for breakfast. I suddenly had visions of an Isaan style feed of locusts and insects and immediately felt nauseous so I made an excuse about meeting a friend and sent her on her way.

My second barfine from Five Star bar was a far more conventional affair. In those days there used to be a rota of 5 or 6 dancers on stage and another 5 or 6 girls working the bar. After each song one girl would rotate off the stage and one of the girls in the bar would go on and take her place. And so the rota would go round and round all night. I often wondered how the girls knew when it was their turn to dance as they never missed a turn. And if you bought a girl a drink and it then came to her turn to dance then you had to let her go and wait for her to finish (five or six songs later) before she would return to you and her drink. It was a simple model but it seemed to work well. On this particular night, a thirty-something year-old. girl who looked so-so while up dancing, finished her rota, put on a sequined dress and came down to work the bar. Our eyes met (they’re good at that !) – and what a pair of eyes she had ! Eyes like a pair of spanners – as soon as I looked into them I could feel my nuts begin to tighten : ) Which also reminds me of the old joke about why men find it so difficult to make eye contact with women. Because breasts don’t have eyes!

I was immediately smitten and asked her to join me for a lady drink. Her English was poor but good enough to make some conversation. The rest she made up for in the typical way of Five Star bargirls so an enjoyable evening followed and the inevitable barfine as the night was now getting late. I had negotiated for short time only but after a satisfying late night performance we both fell asleep and she stayed the night. This time, I was the one to suggest breakfast (it was included anyway at my hotel) but she declined. Oh well. I was about to head off to Cambodia for a few days but I would meet her (and barfine her) again on my final night in Bangkok. She was a genuinely nice lady with beautiful eyes and a decent figure but didn’t really belong in the bar scene. On subsequent visits to Bangkok I called into Five Star for a drink and enquired about her. She was well-remembered and liked by the staff there. Apparently she had gone back home and left the bar business. In some ways I was glad to hear this but also a bit saddened that I never got the chance to see her again.

Anyway, Five Star bar has now undergone a complete transformation. And not for the better, in my opinion. On my previous visit to Bangkok the bar was closed and being completely gutted for renovations. Fair enough, it was never palatial but I kinda liked its rough edges. But nothing stays the same and any good business owner knows the importance of refurbishment. A girl working in Corner Bar told me that it was the same owner for both places which kinda figured, but I think I read recently that Five Star is now owned by the people behind Crazy House? Regardless, the old Five Star is now gone and has been replaced by a dark, narrow bar that plays horrendously loud techno music. The girls were still a fairly nondescript bunch with one or two lookers and the old format has changed with fully nude performances in two straight shifts now the model. After a few minutes, I couldn’t bear the (music?) noise any longer so we went outside to the bar stools to finish our drinks and do some people watching on Soi Cowboy. After a while one of the dancers came out and started messing about with us. She seemed to be half-stoned and started talking in Thai to my ladyfriend, obviously mistaking her for a fellow Thai. Then she switched her attention to me and started grinding against my lap. If I had been on my own I might have enjoyed it (in a previous life?) but under the circumstances it was inappropriate and mildly embarrassing. It got me wondering if it was simply a case of familiarity breeds contempt in me and does the excitement of what was novel on your first few visits to Thailand pale as the years pass. And as the sheen fades you see that was underneath was in fact not all that attractive in the first place? In any event I was not at all impressed with the new Five Star operating model. My ladyfriend was curious about it all but our night on Soi Cowboy was off to a very poor start. As we sat outside, I noticed an older guy in a Hawaii shirt and glazed over eyes approach the door / curtain and peer inside. (It might even have been Steve McGarrett himself from Hawaii Five-O gone bad !). He obviously liked the look of the nude shuffle going on and disappeared inside. Two more of the girls (or were they ladyboys?) intercepted two Asian guys strolling past and escorted them inside too. So obviously whatever they now offer there has its attractions for some punters. I’m just not one of them.

Drinks at Five Star bar were 170 baht / bottle. The days of cheap beer there are long gone too.

It was time for another change of venue so we headed to Suzy Wong where I fondly recall the spectacular lady shows they used to put on every night. I used to marvel at how well choreographed their shows were with the girls and floor staff all on point and knowing exactly their individual roles and responsibilities. A shower show on the stage could be over and cleaned up in a minute while the next shows participants were climbing the stairs to perform. And the lesbian show was as eye-opening and erotic as anything I have ever seen performed in (semi) public. Sadly, those days are now gone too at Suzy Wong but the vibe was livelier there than either of the other two bars and there was one show where a lone performer entertained the audience with a ping-pong show and also a display of deadly accuracy with paper darts that required incredible pelvic (and vaginal) control. It made me wonder what she could do with her equipment in the sack…

I have seen more than my fair share of pussy shows like this over the years so it was not really a novelty for me but my ladyfriend now had a takeaway tale to tell her friends all about.

One other subtle change in the show routine was that the performer came around to the audience with her ‘tips’ basket afterwards. Maybe not unreasonable given her efforts but different from the previous model. I had seen this tip basket thing at Angelwitch in Nana Plaza on a previous visit too.

Of more interest to me however, was an examination of the darts that she fired to burst the balloons. They turned out to be made from paper tightly wound to a point that could undoubtedly have caused some damage – blindness even – if they caught an unsuspecting punter in the eye. I kept my glasses firmly on my nose for the duration of the performance ! I didn’t fancy having to explain to a doctor the circumstances of an eye injury inflicted by a flying dart fired from a Thai pussy. Which also reminded me of a friend who had visited Amsterdam years ago and was regaling us with stories about banana shows in a sex club there. ‘And did you take a bite?’ I asked him. ‘No’ he answered ‘I just couldn’t face explaining to my mother that I’d caught AIDS from a banana!’

While we were at Suzy Wong there was another sideshow (for which we didn’t have to tip the performers). Two very drunk western girls were fooling around with some of the dancers. It looked like they bought some lady drinks that they assumed gave them licence to grope the dancers who in fairness didn’t seem to object too much – as long as the lady drinks kept flowing. Then a drunken white guy, presumably one of their boyfriends, appeared to get jealous and tried to drag his girl away. This led to a minor commotion as the Thai floor staff and the white guy’s friend tried to pull them apart and eject the troublemakers. It was an unsavoury little cameo that could have turned nasty but eventually things cooled down.

Drinks at Suzy Wong were a hefty 180 baht per bottle but at least the entertainment was decent and the energy levels were good.

For our final call we decided to pay a visit to Lighthouse. As it was now past the witching hour, 90 baht beers were a welcome treat as their second happy hour of the night kicked in (with a thank you nod to Stick for highlighting this fact recently). It really was a case of saving the best until last. There was an upbeat fun vibe to the place and the music while not classic rock was a huge improvement on what we had heard in any of the other bars and very listenable. The girls seemed to be more ‘into it’ too and looked like they were enjoying themselves. There were no shows and no nudity but sometimes I guess less is more and this was definitely the pick of the four bars we visited.

One final little drama played out while we were there. A lone wolf punter sitting near us that was flirting with one of the bargirls suddenly erupted and threw a hissy fit, accusing the girl of breaking his watch. I didn’t see what happened but he kept throwing his rattle out of the pram and the girl had a serious case of losing face publicly, which as we all know, means total mortification for a Thai. It got so bad that we upped and moved seats. Stick has often commented on the class of punter that frequent some of the bars. Regardless of whatever perceived wrong that the girl had done to him, this oddball’s over the top reaction was embarrassing and a bit of a buzzkill for everybody.

It’s not just the bar girls that are damaged, you know.

So that was our four bar crawl on Soi Cowboy. Why did we choose those four bars? We could just as easily have visited any other four bars. I suppose the bars that we visited held good memories for me from many previous visits. But of course it’s foolish to think that things stay the same. Change is inevitable and whereas many of the changes were not improvements in my eyes, maybe that’s progress and the bar owners are simply trying to move with the times.

I do wonder about the future for the bar industry and would reluctantly accept that Stick is correct in saying that the future is far from certain and the model in place today will probably be quite different in a few years time. The customer base is changing and that allied to the rampant price inflation and unfavourable exchange rates, make visiting Thailand a lot less attractive than before. And there is definitely a deterioration in the quality of the girls working the bars as the online options undoubtedly makes it easier for the real lookers to drum up their own business on their own terms. The coyote model is a curse with no material upside for punters but unfortunately seems to be here to stay – for the immediate future at least.

It could be my imagination but are the girls in Pattaya more friendly, fun and fitter than their Bangkok sisters? Answers on a postcard please to Mr. Stickman….

It finally feels like my love (lust?) affair with Thailand is dimming and maybe nearing its end. Maybe it’s time for me to move on too. I have no doubt that I would have the stamps of several more countries on my passport were it not for the ongoing lure of Thailand. In truth, the attraction has been fading for several years and Stick’s recent assessment of the cost of a trip was a real eye-opener. For a similar amount, my ladyfriend and I enjoyed the trip of a lifetime on the Orient Express from Bangkok to Singapore. In the future I can see myself looking for different types of adventure as the old Thailand holiday model that worked so well for so many years is no longer such an attractive option.

My experience from that one (final?) night on Soi Cowboy caused me to question the nature of change in the bars there. I wonder about newbies visiting Thailand for the first time. Is it a wonderland to them as it was to me and other readers many years ago? Would they find any of the bars that I visited to be exciting and fresh as I did years ago on my maiden (pun intended) voyages? Possibly, yes. The burgeoning tourist numbers and the thriving economy would seem to indicate that Thailand is firmly established as an attractive tourist destination with a unique appeal.

A wise man once said that the objective of life is growth. In which case change is inevitable and it’s best to embrace it as resistance is futile. But what if you don’t like the changes and decide not to embrace them? What if you simply ‘change the record’ and move your tourist dollars elsewhere / to new frontiers? Plenty more tourists will still flood into Thailand to take our places and maybe commence their own love affairs (or addictions) to the culture and go through a similar cycle until they too eventually tire of the offering. Variety is the spice of life so maybe its best to seek new pastures and travel adventures while we’re still able.

Good luck to all the bar operators and their staff as they adapt to the changing demands and challenges. And to the bar patrons and regulars as they continue to seek good times and good value, but its starting to feel like ‘game over’ for me. There are too many other places to be visited and experiences to be had and there is only so much budget to go around. Never say never but I have my doubts if I’ll be back to the naughty bar areas in Bangkok (or Pattaya) again any time soon. But I am truly grateful for the experiences that I have had there over the years – and for the memories. The good, the bad and the ugly (just like the girls : )

Dublin Duck

The author of this article cannot be contacted.