Covid-19 Trip To Bangkok
I went to Bangkok for one night to go to a business meeting on Friday morning, then return home to Hua Hin on Friday afternoon. This is a report of what I saw on that brief trip.
I was aware that most hotels were closed as I had tried to book at my regular hotels and received messages to say that they were closed. But the last one I tried accepted my reservation and sent a confirmation email. They sent a further email to warn me that if I did not arrive by my stated time (8 PM), they reserved the right to cancel my reservation and take funds from my credit card.
I had decided to arrive late as there was nothing to do in Bangkok if I arrived earlier. Travelling through Bangkok in my taxi I noticed that the streets were largely bereft of pedestrians and traffic was light. As we sped down Sukhumvit I glanced down Soi 4 and all I could see was a street bathed in darkness, save for an orange glow at Hooters.
I arrived at the hotel at 7:45 PM to be met by a surly security officer who told me in two words ‘hotel closed’. I protested that I had a confirmed reservation but to no avail. Hotel closed was all he would say. I asked where I could sleep that night (with curfew time looming). I just got a shrug. I was sent out in to the night. The soi was dark. I walk with a stick and had visions of tripping in the dark or worse, being unable to find a room and being picked up by police as a curfew breaker.
Opposite the hotel was a small massage place with a few bored looking girls sitting outside. They asked eagerly if I wanted a massage. I replied no, I need a hotel room. They pointed further up the dauntingly dark soi (7/1). As I walked slowly up the soi I came upon a street bar with several girls, looking equally bored. I said I was looking for a room for the night. ‘Have, have’ they declared and I began to feel very relieved. One of the girls took me inside to a small shabby room. Did I want it for short time or long time, I was asked. I just want to sleep, I said. The fee was 800 baht for the night. I paid up.
In the room there was a large double bed, very soft. No bedlinen. The room was very warm despite there being an air-conditioner which read 18 degrees. I pointed this out to the girl (who spoke very good English). She told me it wasn’t working, but there was a big fan over the bed which she switched on for me. That helped. I asked for my room key but was told that their rooms are for short-time, when you leave, the door locks and you can’t get back in. I wanted to walk around the streets to get a feel for lockdown Bangkok, but that was clearly out of the question.
But at least there was a huge flat screen TV. I asked for the remote controller. Oh, TV not work, I was told. So I resigned myself to an early night. When I went to switch off the light I discovered it was on a rheostat, so you could turn it down, I suppose to increase the mood. But the fan had been linked in to the lighting circuit, so when I turned down the light, I also turned down the fan. And when I switched off the light, I lost my fan. So a long, hot night ensued. I left at 9 AM.
My plan was to get breakfast somewhere because restaurants and cafes were open. But not, it appears, until 12 noon. Even McD’s was closed. I did find a small restaurant which was closed, but they agreed to make me a coffee. I sat there until 10 AM nursing my coffee. I took a taxi to my appointment location and was back within the hour. I had expected my appointment to last longer and had arranged for the taxi to pick me up at 7/1 at 2 PM for the return trip. I was now back at 7/1 with 3 hours to waste. So I decided to take a walk.
Even at that time of the morning there are usually a few freelancers lining the strip between soi 3 and soi 5. But that day there were none. Not one. It actually made the walk more pleasurable not to be feeling you need to avert your gaze as you walk. Very few street merchants too. I did notice, however, that a number of small shop units had posted To Rent stickers on their windows. A sign of the times, I think. The new bar area called Nana Plaza 7 was totally dead.
I crossed the road at soi 3, to soi 4. Again, it was completely devoid of freelancers, not even any desperate ladyboys hanging around. The bars were all firmly shuttered apart from those undergoing rebuilding work such as Morning Night and Hillary 4. The street had an apocalyptic look about it. Very unlike soi 4! Hanrahan’s bar (now Fitzgerald’s) was firmly closed and there were people sleeping on the floor outside the doors. I was disappointed to see that Bus Stop was also closed too, another favourite haunt of mine over many years. I had hoped I might get a breakfast there, but no. I walked down soi 4 for about 100 metres more but there really didn’t seem any point going further. I crossed over to the other side of the road and started walking back.
I came across signs of life at Chequers Bar. The shutter was at least up. But no sign of anyone. So I just stood and waited until the manager or owner appeared. I explained that I needed a breakfast and somewhere to sit until my 2 PM taxi. I was invited to sit inside, which was very welcome. The cook arrived at midday, so I had a late breakfast and a can of cider served in a coffee mug. At 205 baht I felt the can of cider was a tad dear, but maybe I am out of touch with Bangkok bar prices. I used to get a pint of Magners at Hanrahans for 199 baht!
I exchanged small talk with the bar owner for a while. Apparently the Nana Hotel (closed for 3 months) is up for sale. He told me that his rent at Chequers was 200,000 baht / month and that Hillary 4 had been 1,000,000 baht / month. He had been closed since March but opened on the 11th as a restaurant rather than a bar, which is acceptable(ish) to local police. On his first day he says he had 6 customers all day. But by 1 PM he had at least 10 on the day I was there. So having eaten and sat there for about 3 hours, I thought it was time for me to go and give space for another customer.
I walked to McD’s where I had agreed to meet my taxi. I had the idea of sitting outside where the freelancers usually sit. But the seats were gone. Fortunately, my taxi driver was early and picked me up and whisked me home by 5 PM.
Can Bangkok ever recover? Will the bar scene ever be the same again? Will the freelancers return which in turn attracts a certain type of tourist? The overwhelming mood is negative. I noticed that even the money exchange booth outside Nana Plaza is up for rent. I have decided to hang up my hat on the Bangkok night scene. The good times were very good. Lots of fun, nice people to meet, good food and drink. But methinks it’s over. In 5 years’ time I think soi 4 will be just another shopping street. Maybe the Nana Hotel will become high-end apartments and Nana Plaza will revert to being food shops and restaurants.
That’s not to say that the frenetic nightlife scene will die altogether, but I think it will shrink down to the Soi Cowboy district. Maybe just that strip. We have seen this change of scene over the past 20 years. Ambassador Beer Garden closed a long time ago, the infamous Chuwit bars too, and Clinton Plaza. And all those bars on the corner of Asoke next to Cowboy. Then Washington Square went, and finally soi 22 has moved to soi 7. None of the lost bar areas have been replaced unless you include Nana Plaza 7 in soi 7, which never really got off the ground.
Maybe Thailand will see its sex tourist image cleaned up at last, although not through intention. The sex tourists will go to Vietnam and Cambodia. In the long-term, that will be good for Thailand tourism industry. A lot of tourists come for the renowned Thai sex industry, but I think as many, potentially with more cash to splash, stay away from Thailand because of the sex tourist image that Thailand has.
Maybe Thailand will end up being Asia’s answer to the Caribbean in 10 years time. Amazing New Thailand! Behind every cloud is a silver lining!