This is not about Bangkok and yet strangely it is – or may yet come to be.
But then it could also be about every concentrated bar area where the liquor still flows and the good times roll before oft staggering away into a lingering, too bright dawn. Just as it could also be about the demise of those places in which they once did. Those delightfully dark zones with a hint of edge to them where tales are made, thrills are sought and the bragging rights echo from one weekend to the next. (Ad infinitum, or so we wishfully believe.) Those genuine bemusing places of pretence, folly and bullshit to which many of us gravitate and extol.
I like Bangkok, it still has a buzz about the place but then I still like my home town 6500 miles away from it in the North of England. It is the place I reside most of the year but the buzz left some time ago. But not that long ago.
Amazingly, a town still noted for a night time economy which is no more.
It may seem a large stretch of the imagination to compare the mega-city of Bangkok with its 12 million inhabitants with a town of circa 30,000 but then we are not, we are comparing the bar scene of both. Bangkok may have Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy but my town once had the High Street, the Promenade and the roads leading between them. And from a Thursday to a Sunday the streets were thronged with revellers both local and visiting from around the country. And as the popularity grew so did the queues to get into the bars and clubs. Bank Holiday Mondays became so popular that the authorities had but little choice but to cordon off the main drinking street from the usual traffic. And on such days it was not unusual for the bars to be drank dry by the early evening – quite literally. So why did so vibrant a scene fade to almost naught?
It is a question often asked by visitors from previous visits less than a decade ago and the answer differs according to the person being asked. But I know from my experience the only people who would ever say they were blameless regarding the current situation were the managers and owners of the venues.
I suppose at “peak-venues” we had 5 night clubs and at least 20 large bars on the circuit and a host of others nearby. And it was those at the furthest distance from the drinking epicentre which were the first to go. It was quite subtle but not unexpected as these were in the midst of residential areas of high value properties. Complaints of noise and disorder attracted restrictions on licensing conditions which often made the venue unfavourable for partygoers and once that rot set in these places eventually became unprofitable to run. Naturally it did not go amiss amongst the property owners the area of land on which these venues sat on or potential development opportunities waiting in the shadows. (Either for immediate use or kept for later use with added value in the “land bank.” The latter being the norm.)
Now many of these sites host apartments and homes far beyond the affordability of most within the town. And in a trend similar to that of Bangkok, they sit unsold and in darkness.
Initially, most did not miss these those bars and clubs but for some of us they were a home from home and a meeting point where you could always find familiar people or friends. The loss of these created a diaspora in a similar manner to the closing of The Pickled Liver, Check Inn 99, Cheap Charlies or even The Den – short lived as it was. All bars I had frequented and liked in Bangkok for a myriad of reasons. There are others and each will have their own favourite “lost bar” I can guarantee but these were mine.
In my local bar scene little else really happened for a couple of years. Bars did change hands but the venues didn’t change too much in spirit or form. And then a disrupter event occurred. A national discount bar chain bought a large building in the town centre and on opening became the cheapest place to buy booze in town. Naturally, this became the new meeting place all and sundry who had once met in differing locations around town began their drinking there and being cheap it kept them there longer to the detriment of other, more expensive, venues. Those bars nearest to this had little choice but to drop their prices as their customer base drifted to the new. And this price war, centred on the town centre bars, ensured that people who would have rambled all over town from bar to bar stayed amongst the cheap places until they felt the desire to hit the later night venues. Where already filled with booze they would buy little more within.
Many of the bars and clubs downstream from the town centre noticed this flow and began to open later to cater for it knowing it was a waste of money and resource opening before or after the wave had passed. And whilst the money was still coming in the profit margins were dropping and the maintenance of places was being ignored.
For many this would set alarm bells ringing but a change in clientele was masking a bigger problem. The bars and clubs could still make a mild profit by catering to the Stag and Hen parties who flooded the area at the weekend to the detriment of the local population who had now moved on to a town a mile or so away which specifically didn’t cater to groups of men and women from out of the area. (To link things to a Bangkok perspective, the owners had failed to account for tribalism and the off putting weekend influx which forced the locals out at weekends to seek fresher pastures amongst their own. Quite like those Japanese venues in the City?)
But the vicious circle grew a little more vicious. In an effort to squeeze more trade from the Stag and Hen parties the bars began to offer strip shows and lap dancers during Saturday afternoons. Now behind closed curtains and doors this may have been acceptable but these venues were on a main thoroughfare where families and couples would wander. And few of the nearly nude performers had any scruples about wandering beyond those doors and in to the street to entice customers within.
Naturally this drew complains and both the police and council mounted sting operations against the venues. Prostitution services and serving to underage customers seemed to claim many bars and indeed hit the headlines of the local press. Consequently, punitive restrictions were placed upon the bars and clubs caught and in a few places closure orders. In effect the authorities had made it impossible for these places to make a profit and soon the shutters went up on the first, sharply followed by others until almost the entire night time economy ceased to exist. And in a bit of a twist it was not the popular and busier places that lasted longest as you would expect but those who had an owner of a more positive mindset or were too dim to see what was happening.
Nowadays the two main thoroughfares linking the High Street to the Promenade are almost devoid of bars with the authorities attempting to drive these remaining ones away. Those buildings were left as they had been when they had closed and only recently after a few years has action been made to make these into more overpriced accommodation which no-one will buy.
And whilst the town has lost the buzz the impact on many other businesses has taken a toll. From the newsagent to the guesthouse / hotel owners to various eateries, all have suffered to various degrees including closure.
So what does this have to do with Bangkok you may ask?
Well once accommodation takes root few within want the buzz or even the hint of a smell of it near by. And as residents get to vote in most places, well at least if you are Thai, or a buyer to be has the influence over one – together with the sums of money which may be large – then who can predict certain phone calls being made and to whom? (And amidst this we have not even mentioned the Thai concept of face or how a good deal of the world views Thailand or the Thai people. Which, let’s face, it isn’t always too pleasant.)
So we all realise that nothing lasts forever and it would be foolish to ever assume that at some point Patpong, Nana or Cowboy will remain in the guise they are now or indeed at all. When I hear the Soi 4 bar room pundit express the firm foundations of these places my thoughts return to my home town and the decline I witnessed there. And to those Bangkok bars I mentioned earlier could be added the beer bars on soi 13, Washington Square and the vacant lot which was once the Clinton Entertainment Plaza and soon Queen’s Plaza? All those lost places had a price and when the time came or the profits dropped the bell was rang for the final time.
However, in another happier parallel, well as I envisage it, there is an emergence of new bars in both places but away from those streets and zones I’ve mentioned. Often small and bijoux and aimed at those wanting a premium experience together with a higher standard of food and drink. Places with a finger on the pulse and the senses to realise the changes in the market and the focus on a specific rather than random clientele.
Whilst also back in my home those town centre bars continue to continue snipping away at the cost of drinks to compete for customers and they continue to do good trade at all hours at the disregard of all others.