Return To The Land Of Grimaces Part 1
RIIIINNNGGGGG! The alarm went off and finally after nearly 3 years I’m off to the airport for my return to LOS. A week in Bangkok and a week in Pattaya.
The early morning drive down to London Heathrow was pretty easy. Even for very early in the morning there was less holiday traffic than I expected and airport arrival was ahead of schedule. The airport had advised me to be 4 hours early as there were staff shortages and the final hurdle was one I didn’t want to stumble at.
I had already applied for my Thailand Pass shortly before it was scrapped and so I was pretty sure I had all the documents but there is always the nagging feeling that you’re going to be short of that vital piece of paperwork the bureaucracy in Thailand loves. There’s nothing more inflexible than a Thai jobsworth. In the event Heathrow was virtually empty, I’ve never been there at any time before and seen fewer passengers. Bearing in mind this was high season, I was quite shocked at how fast I was processed and at the boarding gate. I had elected to take hand luggage only for my two-week trip. I’ve come to realise by washing a few shirts and underwear I can actually survive on a basic holiday wardrobe based around swimming trunks and flip flops (sandals if you’re in Thailand), evening dress and a choice of t-shirts in every pantone colour are not worth dragging to the other side of the world, especially when Ratchada Market can sell you a nice linen shirt for the price of a triangle cheese sandwich in the UK.I boarded my flight without incident and at no point did anybody check my vaccine certificates. I was briefly asked if I had any. What a pointless waste of time!
Thai Airways usually run a good flight. I’d purchased my ticket last summer when the future was uncertain, for the princely sum of 390 GBP direct. A quick poll of my neighbours revealed they had both paid over 1000 GBP – so plan ahead and get a head-start is the moral of this story. When a bandwagon starts to roll it’s too late.
The slightly longer flight was due I’m sure to skirting around the Ukraine air defences where, like Russia, we have now added to the ever enlarging number of countries we cannot fly over. Just a few more disputes may mean we struggle to find a route heading east from Europe at all.
Landing at Suvarnabhumi was all very familiar, one sight of note was all the Thai Airways Airbus 380’s parked up in mothballs on the edge of the airport. Looked like a good proportion of the airline’s capacity was immobile on the tarmac and that should keep direct flight prices high for a while if most of their planes are out of service.
Immigration was a doddle as the airport was virtually empty, a quick fingerprint and it was the sprint to the taxi. Yes! I’ve busted back in, even as a seasoned traveller I was still nervous till the woman from Immigration gave me the nod.
So…Bangkok. Has it changed in 3 years and several lock downs. Is the home of 7-day billionaires still the chrome pole capital of a million day-dreaming men stuck in a life of drudgery and icy winters.
The first place I went to check out was my old haunt and home of the haunted, The Biergarten on Soi 7 Sukhumvit. While I don’t go there to pick up a date I do still love it because it’s never changed. The old bartendee who works my bar has been there for 42 years! I reckon some of the freelancers who are nicknamed “Dracula’s sisters” and gave me the first grins in the land of Smiles have probably worked there for longer. It’s not known as the graveyard of dreams for nothing. My bartendee saw me walk in and by the time I got to my seat there was a Beer Lao waiting for me. Bearing in my I haven’t set foot in the place for 3 years and she was busy doing another job at the same time, this is either an amazing emotional return to Bangkok or a little tragic! Genuinely, I feel a great warmth for this bar and a huge relief it’s still there. It has lived through the changes and word on the streets is it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Once it’s been established I’m not going to grab a granny the girls go back to their phones and leave the crotch rubbing antics for the next fresh meat.
Speaking of age, now I’m a man in his mid 50’s and frankly walking down a street holding hands with a 22-year old in shag me boots makes me feel a little uncomfortable but the average age of the ladies of Sukhumvit is getting higher. A lot higher. Gogo bars and beer bars seem to be full of 40+year old ladies who admittedly are on the whole attractive. I’d bet however there are a few chrome pole dancers who have been through the change in life. I’m not joking actually, one told me she wasn’t worried about getting pregnant any more. My rough estimate is that under 30’s are now less than 40% of the pool of available talent across all types of venue. Soi 4, Sukhumvit and Cowboy. The youngest girls know their value and are much fussier than they used to be. Good teeth, flat stomach, real Rolex and drinks for their friend may be needed now to get a stunner as much as the actual price of a personal training session.
Soi Cowboy was actually buzzing on Sunday night when I went down for a drink. There were plenty of girls, friendly and lots of party atmosphere. Having read reports of its dire state I can only say on the two occasions I visited the place it was a real laugh. There are currently no Chinese, Russians and few expat Japanese so it was mainly Australians, myself and a lot of Indians. More of that later.
I love the band in “Corner Bar” which has now moved to the opposite corner, a name change perhaps! It was great to catch up with old faces and I soon had two young stunners fresh off the village conveyor drinking at my table and grinning like they wanted me to inspect their teeth for quality and finish. There are only so many times you can keep a good conversation going when the opponents know exactly 12 words of English and I know 6 of Thai. There were however many more girls than customers and I had soon managed to buy the cook, the baker, candlestick maker, her husband and the toilet cleaner at least two drinks each making my Vodkas approximately as expensive as the Ritz in Paris. Yeah, I’m happy to be back ladies but I’m not prepared to offset Covid on my own. I took my battered wallet elsewhere to lick its wounds. A good mama-san should keep the check bill realistic. I noticed the old girls who ran it had gone and new ones weren’t the same calibre. The lack of customers aside, Soi Cowboy was a damned good night out and if by ratio of men to girls, even more fun. I visited a few bars and had a great night. If I had wanted female company there was an unlimited choice with the caveat that the young stunners are now in the minority and not the default any more. Back in 2008 I remember a girl over 40 was a novelty.
Nana Plaza was, on the midweek night I went’, much quieter overall. It was though, busier on the Friday night. I got there for early bar and found a good perch in Big Dogs near the Nana entrance to watch the night crank up. I very soon had a number of sharks circling my liquidity and looking to crowd fund. Managing to look as comedy gay as possible and putting a ring pull off a can on my wedding finger I kept solo status whilst I counted the punter to girl ratio until 10 PM. It was roughly 2 to 1 in favour of the punter. So based on that I can say it’s definitely still a sweet zone for travelling there, ‘Ivan the vodka king’ and ‘Satoru the infeasibly wealthy’ are currently on the subs bench. Regular men are back in the race. The majority of beer girls seemed to be very keen to chat where previously they had more choice than an old left back like me. Indeed I was asked out on a date a couple of times by waitresses. Not too shabby for a man well past his prime.
This brings me back to the Indian factor. Indian men are now a much bigger proportion of guys in a bar, travelling from India is now easy and relatively cheap. We are know the girls are generally not keen on Indian men, they are labelled as Cheap Charlies or drink sharers and often exhibit manners the Thai’s find rude. Now my own experience tells me in many cases the touchy feely nature of some Indians and their cultural habits really doesn’t play well with the girls I know. This isn’t surprising as many of the Indian men in these bars are working class without a lot of world experience. Money isn’t easy to earn in India and when you get old there’s no free handouts. The 100 baht beer the English guy thinks is “cheap as chips”, an Indian might consider a treat. Spending money like you’re minted is easy when you live in a country with a good welfare safety net. You can’t judge a chap who’s come to live the dream on 5,000 baht just because you might spend that in a night. Many Indians I work with are well spoken, well-educated and have impeccable manners. They wouldn’t however be drinking red label in Big Dogs with me.
All in all my view is Bangkok is coming back to life. No real changes. Two of the new Soi 7 bars were trading while I was there and work is ongoing, I’ve heard retrospective permission has been given after the landlord made changes but this was still rumour. They certainly were working on the place, not demolishing it. I was also happy to see the landlord who shut Check Inn 99 with his rent demands has got the derelict shell up for rent again, serves him right, greed took a beating from Covid as well as the misery it causes the poorest. The ladyboys at the massage parlour at the bottom of soi 7 haven’t got any slimmer or stopped pinching cute guys’ bottoms. Some things never change. Lek’s Last Stand is a welcome addition to the final drink of the night and was a great place to get chatting to Sukhumvit’s finest storytellers. I can also confirm the Ruamchit Hotel’s basement of delights is still in full swing and just as marvellous as ever. One drink in there left me thinking that the greatest works of art you can afford are in a faux cafe that probably doesn’t even have a coffee machine.
And in case you’re wondering, prices didn’t seem to have gone up, in fact I think in many cases food has come down in price. 90 baht beers are still 90 baht beers. You can still get good Pad Thai for 45 baht.
In Part 2, I will give my impressions of Pattaya and what I found there, if some were to be believed I was heading for a wasteland.
The author of this article cannot be contacted.