Tales from Thailand 4 – Return To Patpong
Back in Bangkok for a week. Two pals will be here with me for a couple of days on separate dates. They both want to sample the go-go bar nightlife. As their tour guide, where should I suggest we go? I’m thinking a spot for relaxing drinks with good company. Should be straightforward for cashed up Westerners.
From my last visit, I remember Soi Cowboy had become a weird mixture of an ATM cash lane due to aggressive girls draining you of lady drinks and a YouTube vlogger’s carnival with the whole scene on camera uploaded in near real-time. So, scratch that.
Likewise, Nana is an odd place now. No question the two top bars Billboard and Butterflies are king with a great ensemble of Bangkok’s finest ladies to showcase the Siamese princess dream. Worth a trip to see that. But the rest of the place is a muddle. You have to run the gauntlet out front of food carts, ladyboys and feral groups of male tourists looking for a group discount from the embattled free-lancers out front. I guess that adds to the charm. In the night-time it’s a bit like Blade Runner meets Mad Max.
Another option is to go Thai-style and head to the big entertainment clubs near Thonglor where they have the hostess clubs, but that’s a no-go as they understandably balk at the membership fees charged versus pay as you go drinks at go-gos.
So, last option is Patpong, the original entertainment district. I remember it was good fun from my last trip, so let’s go again! Patpong is simple as there are a few good options close by each other and it’s not too busy and is easy to get a seat, get a drink, etc.
First night. Me and my pal head to the Pink Panther, which has been in operation for years as far as I know. First thing I notice is the new gay bars set up at this end of Patpong soi 2. The old gay-bar soi across the road has closed and some of these bars have since decamped over here. They have a simple format, a big clear sign shouting about ‘boys’ with bright lights and a couple of shirtless fellows hanging out front. Speaking to a local, expect more to arrive as the other gay soi is closing soon too.
I’m in two minds about this. From one perspective, these new bars bring investment and new life into what’s a fairly dead-end of soi 2. New customers means more money for the regular bars and restaurants, so that’s good for Patpong. What I’m not sure about is the long-term, as usually bars cluster either gay or straight, so I’m not sure a mixed model will work. Perhaps the gay bars will cluster at the end of soi 2 and leave the other end for regular bars. Time will tell.
Back to Pink Panther. My pal beckons over two ladies for drinks and promptly starts a party. They are good fun, no question. The customers here are mostly Japanese, a spill over from the nearby Japanese soi. Pink Panther long ago figured this out so the girls are mostly their style – lighter skin, slim with few tattoos. All fine. However, I still have my habit of asking the girls about themselves. Usual hard luck stories but I noticed they had typically been working here for a while (2+ years) and seemed a bit worn out for it. A nightlife job takes its toll on smile lines and eye shadows. Certainly their feeling for life had been hollowed out.
Later on, jet-lagged, my pal heads home early and I decide to check into an old favourite, The Strip, on the way out.
A Japanese guy is now managing it. He’s not refurbished anything so it looks a bit tired, could do with a makeover, I think. I order a drink at the bar. The same cashier is here from years ago! Nice to see a familiar face. A small group of new ladies here, ok a bunch. The new owner said he likes Baccarra from Soi Cowboy which has the Japanese format of cute girls. Being Japanese he’s picked the same for his bar as well. I have a couple of drinks with company and in fact they are just like the old days – namely cheeky fun. If he can fill the place it has potential. But I’m not sure Patpong has the footfall to support a mini Baccarra. He’ll need to be a bit pushy with the marketing and get on to those Japanese blog sites about Patpong.
Next night we meet early in Glamour for the early bird drink specials. It’s my pal’s last night in Bangkok so he spends up large, much to the delight of the chosen ladies! The bar manager is here, a French guy. He used to manage Bada-Bing next door and now runs this place. He seems pretty organised, he’s watching everything. I admit the place is clean, tidy and seems well run. The music is ok and not too loud. This is one thing I see in badly run bars is some local guy on the DJ desk blasting weird hip-hop metal all night at high volume. So, no such problem here. The customers are a mix of Japanese and Westerners. It’s an easy place to relax and spend money, and we do!
After a day’s rest my second pal comes into town for the evening.
First stop, back to Glamour for the drinks special to begin with. They actually serve a decent Jack Coke in a normal glass unlike most other bars with those annoying 2/3 sized glasses they use. So I’m happy with that.
Then we try the other soi where they have the King’s Group bars. The main King’s Group bar is the next stop. This is a Thai-run bar targeting Asian customers. Basically, a large line-up of pretty girls on stage, loud music blasting away, dark, a bit gloomy, etc. The format seems to work as there are a lot of Japanese, Koreans and a few Chinese here. I see the Thai manager here, keeping a close eye on things. He has the waitresses patrolling the floor serving drinks quickly, ensuring you have a lady and pulling them off the stage quickly if asked for. Clearly everyone knows their role with a focus on cash generation. The girls seem happy with this process, it means the floor staff are doing a lot of the sales work for them. It’s a well-oiled machine with attention to the parts which generate earnings.
Then we pop into the King’s bar next door. This is a funny place, it seems like a spill-over from the first bar and somewhere to put the girls which don’t meet the high spec for Kings 1. It’s old and needs a refurb. Walking in I spot a gaggle of ladyboys up front. I ask the PR girl is this a girl bar or ladyboy bar? She is adamant ‘only ladies’. Hmmm I’m not blind ok, but we sit down. Seems this bar has both. Speaking to one of the biological ladies here, she tells me to not point at the ladyboys and be quiet about it. So, the ladyboys are a secret! Sure enough, a group young western guys come in, sit down, and before long one guy has picked a Siamese princess ladyboy to sit with him. I don’t think he knows, but he looks happy, beaming away in the company of a tall, statuesque beauty like the cat that got the cream. Funny!
Last bar I wanted to check out is Bada Bing. In we go and have a seat. It has a new manager, also French. Actually, the girls here are a very fun bunch and seem the happiest of all. They are all dancing on stage, not just shuffling around and they are easy to have a laugh with. Asking the girls about comp they get paid more than usual for the lady drinks which I wonder helps with the easy-going nature of the place.
Seems the two bars run by French managers have nailed the atmosphere aspect of their bars, while the Thai-run place has hit the cute girl format for the Asian customers.
In terms of where the bar industry is going, I do wonder. The Western customer base is clearly shrinking. I don’t see the next generation of younger guys replacing the older ones. I think in the past there was a core of working class lads who fancied a drinking holiday in Asia, but now can’t afford it. For those that can afford it, the Asian nightlife trip is not a socially acceptable event. It’s not a holiday they can go on and load up pictures on social media, tell their friends about or chat about at work, unlike say a cool trip to Vietnam or Bali.
The South East Asian population is set to grow by one billion. So their upmarket hostess party club format will grow and it does seems to be booming in Bangkok, no question. Rich Asians happily pay for discrete, large air-conditioned clubs with live music, security and good service. In a visit to such a place with a Thai friend, I was the only Westerner there. The rest were Thais, Singaporeans, Koreans and a few Chinese.
Inside there is a large stage with music, a live band and professional dancers running through routines. Customers sit around in sofas or stand at tables drinking with hostess girls. The girls are quite beautiful, mostly university students. Expensive, we paid 10,000 for two bottles of whiskey (minimum spend) plus 3,000 per lady for two hours time sitting with us. With mixers the bill came to 17,000 baht. The girls are not allowed to leave, there is no bar-fine concept. I asked the girl with me how much money she makes a month. She said she works there 20 nights a month and takes home 60,000 – 70,000 baht. I easily believed it given what we paid and seeing others partying and drinking like crazy.
However, where there’s demand, capitalism finds a way. So, I think the go-go bar format for the shrinking group of cashed up Westerners will live on, it’ll just be smaller and more focused on a few successful bars. The crush of ever-increasing rents will turn the rest into restaurants and shopping malls. Given it’s proximity to the Sala Daeng BTS station, Patpong is lucky it has not been bowled over and replaced by a 60 storied shopping mall and office complex.
Experience it while it’s still there. Nothing lasts for ever. The only thing constant is change!
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