Stickman's Weekly Column May 22nd, 2005

The Man Under The Hat, Mekhong Kurt


StickmanBangk ok .com


Whenever I think of Washington Square, I think of Mekhong Kurt. But just who is Mekong Kurt? And some might even ask what Washington Square is. In an effort to find out a little more about one of Bangkok's less renowned bar areas and also about one of Bangkok's nightlife columnists, I met up with the man himself this past week and Mekong Kurt and I shared a few laughs. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Do you remember the very first time we met?

I think it was in Pam's Bar but I'm not sure.

Wow, your memory is good! It was in the rainy season of 1998. I was sitting in Pam's Bar, the only customer there, practicing my Thai with a young lass from Chanthaburi, as I recall it. As I was the only customer in the bar I had her undivided attention. And then you entered the bar and it may as well have been Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise or whoever she found super attractive for she ran over to you, and forgot that I even existed! We had a bit of a chat about this and that but exactly what, I can't remember.

What was her name? I kinda remember her. Yeah, not well, but I remember…

You're perhaps best known as someone who hangs around Washington Square and who knows what is going on down here. This is perhaps the least known bar / expat hang out area of Bangkok. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the place?

Let me tell you about it. Cowboy, from which Soi Cowboy takes its name, moved over here in the '80s and opened Square One. Square One was a bar near the back gate, still there now called New Square Bar. After that Bourbon Street came in and some of the other bars came along here too. This one had the same name <we're sitting in Texas Lone StaarStick>, Silver Dollar was always the same. Next door, had two or three other names before it became Wild Country. There are many other businesses now but they are newer, including the other bars.

Washington Theatre was already here, what is now known as Mambo Cabaret. That was what got the square going.

At its peak how many bars were there?

Frankly, now is the peak. Western, that is farang style, there are ten bars and two restaurants you could consider bars, because people can go there just to drink. There are also several Japanese places, I don't know them well enough to do a count. Call it roughly a dozen and a half, excluding the massage parlours.

How many massage parlours are there?

Four.

So what's the attraction of Washington Square? I mean, is the area anything more than a bunch of ramshackle old shophouses surrounding a cabaret show with a handful of dead bars, dying customers and bargirls well beyond their prime?

People here know each other and they tend to be old Thai hands. My first 6 months here in Bangkok I didn't even know that Washington Square existed. One day, my boss at a language school called and wanted to meet up with me at Silver Dollar. I asked him where that was. He said Washington Square. I asked him where that was. He said I changed buses every day right out front. Walk in, turn to your left and you will see it there, he said!

So you were an English teacher? I didn't know that.

I taught in universities for a number of years, and then in a language school. I taught in China for three years, married a Chinese woman, went to the States with her, divorced her, moved to Macau where I taught at the university, then in '94 I moved here. I taught at a fair few places.

So how long have you been in Thailand?

June 12 it will be 11 years. In Asia, 18 of the last 20. I retired a few years ago, 8 years ago, when I was 46.

Is Washington Square strictly an area for older Americans? I mean, that's what most people think of this place.

No, that is not a fair comment. I don't think it's fair. It is true that the most represented nationality would be Americans but we have British friends, German friends, Scottish friends, Irish friends, Australians who are regulars. And the Japanese have their own community here too. In the sense that a lot of the bars are American themed, yes that is true, but a number of nationalities are represented.

I always think of Thaniya for the Japanese.

I used to go into one of the Japanese karaokes when I discovered I could go in. I got plugged in with the Japanese, just outside the Square, in a bar where non-Japanese can go in. They are a different subset of people from those who go the Japanese only clubs. They are more international in their outlook. I asked one of them if they ever went to the Japanese only clubs and he said that if he ever wanted to see all Japanese he would go back to Japan.

I used to see you floating around Soi Cowboy often but I haven't seen you down there for a long time. Do you still frequent Cowboy?

I don't go there nearly as much as I used to. I don't go to soi 33 as much as I used to. I have been in Patpong once in 9 or 10 years. I haven't been to Nana in 3 years. Frankly, I don't care for Nana.

Why don't go you go to the other places so often?

Patpong I just don't care for in the same way I don't care for Nana. It is too much hassle and too expensive. In these post 9-11 days Nana is a death trap. I have never been in the military but I did study certain things at university and it would not take much of a car bomb to really do some serious damage. Perhaps this is especially a factor to me in that I am American.

Cowboy I still like Pam's, Suzy Wong's, Cowboy One and what used to be Shadow Bar and is now Cocktail Bar. I still go occasionally, actually I went just last week. Between Washington Sure and Queen's Park Plaza I have enough places to go to although I have friends over in soi 33, both girls and bar owners.

If you go down some of the back sois and count all of the bars in this area, Cowboy to 33 on one side and Washington Square, soi 20 to 24 on the other, I would estimate there are at least 200 bars, maybe even 250 bars. There are over 40 bars on soi 33 alone. There are about 20 in Queens Park. Even in soi 24 which I have not been down in a while there are a heap of bars, and again I am excluding the Japanese or Korean places. There is no need for me to go anywhere else. It is all here. I have many friends in this area, guys in the bars as well as the girls and the bar managers and owners.

No-one can deny that the bar industry has changed a lot in the past few years. What are your thoughts on the changes? Is it still a lot of fun to hit the bars or is it now more about money and less about fun?

It's less fun for me personally but that is not necessarily reflecting on any given bar. It is more because I go to places where I know people. I know everybody sitting here, even you, although I don't know you so well. We've only met a few times over the years. I know all the girls. My friends, like me, are creatures of habit and they do not want to go and explore other places and so I do not want to go alone and stare at the wall drinking.

I used to go to Patpong when I first got here. It was the only place I knew. At the time I lived on soi 33. Once I discovered Cowboy, it was easier to go there.

And what about Bangkok as a city? We've got high-tech trains both above ground and below, mammoth shopping centres everywhere, 7 Eleven on every corner and broadband internet at giveaway prices. Has Bangkok lost some of its charm?

It has changed enormously. Well all of the above, the infrastructure projects. I imagine the changes in lifestyle brought about by the mobile phone are the biggest and maybe Thai sociologists could comment on that. The economy has changed a lot of course.

Another change is that people have become a lot more commercial and money-minded and I do not mean just the bargirls. When I first started getting to know individual bargirls, they would come and sit and have a drink with you and not ask for anything. Now, there are very few girls I will sit with because most of them will ask for something.

Outside of the bars, taxi drivers, especially at the airport, wanting not to use the meters are just one example of people being more money minded.

You're perhaps best known for your column. Just how popular is it? I often feel that your column doesn't get the recognition that it deserves. Most people know Trink, Bonk and me, but yours is less known. Just why do you think that is?

I stopped doing things for about 6 months last year and my numbers fell down from about 6,000 to about 2,500 and it has built back up to about 4,000 – 4,400 a month. I have reason to suspect that my counter was not recording every hit. I suspect I am getting between 12,000 – 18,000 readers a month, that is unique visitors.

Who are your readers?

Thailand and the US are the two largest. That accounts for about 2/3 the readership. The US is larger. Probably because I am American and people I know there read it. Europe and Australia make up the great majority of the rest. There aren't many from Latin America, Africa, places like that. A few from New Zealand, but not a lot.

If sheep could read, we would be your biggest readers, believe me. So what about the rumours of the future of Washington Square, or perhaps more succinctly, the lack of it? As "Mr. Washington Square", what's your take on it?

My best information is that there are 4 years left. The rumours vary from 1 to 7 years, that is the rumours that I have heard at least. Just a couple of days ago someone I trust spoke to someone at Nana Land and said he was sick of the rumours – what is going on. 4 years left they said.

Nana who?

Nana Land owned at one point maybe 60% of the property from Nana down to Thonglor on this side of Sukumvit. An old Thai Indian family, they came here about a century ago and did a lot of good deeds for the monarchy and were given this land. That is the story I have always heard. And not just on Sukumvit itself, but well into the sois too, and buildings also. Apparently Central was negotiating to put in a high rise commercial and residential building, something like Emporium. I gather that there were reports that Central pulled out of negotiations. I do not know if any of this is true. This is what we hear, often repeated.

It'll be a sad day for some if it goes.

It will happen eventually. It's too valuable a piece of land. Even if it weren't, there's more and more competition for this area now. Soi 7/1 is blossoming. Soi 11 is developing. Soi 33 has more than tripled the number of bars since I first got here. Soi 4 of course has a lot of bars. And then of course there are Rachadapisek and RCA but they are more a Thai crowd, but not exclusively.

What's your daily or weekly routine? Are you down here as soon as the bars open?

I'm here when the bar opens so I keep my computer here and use it here. Normally I do not drink here until much later. I work on email, my column and stuff like that. Ill knock off at night, go around the bars, chat with friends. I'll knock around some during the day, after working a few hours. That's pretty much seven days a week.

Now I have to ask you this, it's the question all of the readers have been hanging on the edge of their seats for. What's the deal with your hat? You ALWAYS wear it. One girl once told me you sleep in it. Is it true that it is stuck on?

6 years ago I had a skin cancer removed and the oncologist told me to use super sunscreen and to wear a hat. I do not use sunscreen because I feel too greasy and uncomfortable but I do wear a hat. I grew up on a ranch in Texas. No, I didn't wear a hat to school, but I did wear one if I was on a horse or out in the fields. Texas summers can be brutal. Record high is about 47 or 48 degrees where I grew up.

Well that's a dull answer! I was hoping for something spicier than that!

You can find Mekhong Kurt's column here

WHERE IS THIS PICTURE Competition?

It was Sanam Luang.

Somewhere in Bangkok.

Last week's pic was taken on the footpath adjacent to Sanam Luang, you know the big park opposite the Grand Palace. Each week the first reader to correctly state where the picture is by email to me wins a 500 baht credit from Tony's Bar in Soi Cowboy. Please note that the credit MUST be claimed within two weeks and you MUST state in the email that you are Bangkok based. So, to claim that prize, you must be in Bangkok at some time in the next two weeks. Author Steve Leather has agreed to provide copies of his outstanding novel "Private Dancer" as a prize so for now we have two prizes, again. (With a bit of luck, next week we might have three!)

FROM STICKMAN'S EMAIL INBOX

Shoddy service.

My experience of Thai service is that is usually pretty shoddy. Most Thais have absolutely no concept of repeat business, and are more concerned with getting 100 baht off you today, than worrying about the 1,000 – 2,000 you might spend there over a period of time (not to mention the friends you might recommend the place to). Complaining to management would be a waste of time for this reason. Although it hasn't happened, any toe rag who called me "Ki neaw" in earshot would cop a few well chosen words in Thai, and wouldn't see me in their establishment again. After all, it's not exactly difficult to find somewhere to eat or drink in Thailand.

Service charges.

I doubt you received the correct information from the Hard Rock or The Huntsman. All personnel (except expats) in a large hotel receive an equal share from the service charges including the room revenue service charges. This is from the maids to the engineers to the gardeners, doormen, front desk and all food and beverage outlet personnel including cooks and secretaries in the hotel. The service charge is calculated monthly and paid to staff in addition to their salary. JW Marriott 12,000 – 16,000 per month depending on customer flow. Small hotels 2-3 stars about 3,000 – 5,000 per month.

This is Thailand – or this is Australia?

In January this year the Australian Embassy outsourced the visa application service to a company called the VFS Australian Visa Application Centre. My wife and I have a well documented relationship going back over 4 years now. She has been to Australia twice now on tourist visas for a period totalling 9 months in the past year and we are now legally married. When we went to apply for her spouse visa we were told it would take up to 9 months for approval! I was quite shocked as I would have to return to Australia alone leaving my wife here for a long period of time. I asked if we could apply for another tourist visa so that she could return with me for at least 6 months while her spouse application was being decided and was told yes of course and given every indication that because of her past good history the tourist visa would be approved. Yesterday we received a letter from the embassy stating that the tourist visa has been refused. The reason given was that because she has a migration visa being processed they doubted that her intention to only visit Australia was genuine. So, 1. VFS told us to part with almost 2,600 baht for a visa that had no chance of being approved. 2. The embassy believes that my wife would throw away her only chance at permanent residence in Australia by overstaying a tourist visa before even finding out whether her spousal visa has been approved or not. Truly, this is Thailand.

Goodbye Farangs, hello Flips!

One long-term consequence of Steve Prowler's high-profile arrest may be an increased hiring of Filipinos as English teachers in Bangkok. Thanks to the disproportionate number of white male perverts working here, schools may take another look at all those Filipino resumes posted on teaching websites. Filipino workers have a worldwide reputation for high integrity, a strong work ethic and they will work for peanuts. Schools may start choosing the dark skin and strange accents of morally upstanding Filipinos over the white skin and cleaner accents of farangs who may molest their children. After spending 5 minutes with the now infamous Mr. Prowler, I realized that he would be utterly unemployable by even the most desperate company back home. What a shame that loose hiring practices with no concern for one's character or background are ruining it for decent and mentally stable farang teachers.

Will Phuket recover?

After the equivalent of the Bali bombs ripping through Patong's foreshore it's in a sad sorry state. The beach road has still well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it. It's as if the whole promenade of buildings and hotels are under re-construction, and at night it has all the atmosphere of a ghost town. The summer low season has already been written off, but the question now is whether or not the high season trade will return? Jung Ceylon has had its plug pulled, rumour has it they are thinking of re-naming it the Mary Celeste. Pedestrianised Soi Bangla's been turned into a long giant bowling alley for Pee. Patong's gogos have for a long time been a dieing breed, a reflection of their popularity that the best one offers you all the convenience of a swat toilet. The bars are full of girls that even the rice fields have rejected, "buy one drink includes free lady," is the current clarion call.

Asia, home of xenophobia?

Now living in California, among many Asians, including Thais, Asians are all mostly xenophobic. Asians are living here to make money and not socialize outside of their race. I rarely see an Asian (and I mean very rarely) with anyone who is not of their own race. They have absolutely no time for anyone who is not from their country. I have taken my children to a few Thai restaurants (my children are half Thai) and the Thai staff really do not treat them as if they were Thai at all. I speak, read, and write Thai, as do my children, but the Thais we have met are aloof. My children now feel as if they have no connection to being Thai, and my wife is also a bit baffled with the way Asians want to live here but not embrace other cultures. It really pisses me off, as it does the Mexican population…they were here first.

Petrol prices up, taxi speeds down.

The latest increase in gas prices has had a hidden benefit in that the last few taxis I have been in have been going slow. No more kamikaze runs, even on the expressway the speed was down from the normal 120 – 130 kph to an astounding 80 kph. I was in a hurry and asked the driver why he was going so slow and he said it's company policy to keep at 80kph to save gas.

The farang author of a handful of books that give insight into Pattaya's naughty nightlife has come under fire from the Thai authorities. A lengthy report appeared in one of the major Thai newspapers this week about his books and rumour has it that this triggered quite an interest by the authorities. Conspicuously, his books have suddenly become hard to find. I wonder if they will now become collectors items and soar in value?! Said author would be well advised to lay low for a while.

Diamond a Gogo in Pattaya is having a summer sale and a 40% discount is offered on the barfine for showgirls making the barfine for showgirls 600 baht. The summer sale ends 16/6/05. The showgirls are easily recognisable by their pink wrist bands. For all other staff the barfine remains at 500 baht, although I believe those wanting to barfine Ricky might be charged a premium…

Playskool in Nana Plaza will host a dance contest on Monday 23rd, that is tomorrow night. Girls from Sheba's, Suzy Wong and Playskool will be competing for 40,000 baht in prizes.

Dave, until recently the manager of Hollywood Carousel and Hollywood 2, has moved on to new things. Fired by Johnny, the owner of Hollywood, just a few days after his wife, the mamasan, was also fired from the very same venue, Dave can now be found in charge of Angelwitch. Said Dave, "I feel it is like I was told I was bankrupt one week, and then I won the jackpot the next."

Johnny, the English owner of the two Hollywood bars in Nana, has wasted no time in replacing Dave the Rave at Hollywood, and the bar is jumping already. Busiest Friday night there for a long time. He's hired an American called Bill who has big plans for the bar, and who isn't put off by the fact that it's pretty much the hardest bar to get to from the main entrance, what with the stairs and the touts blocking your way. Bill plans to shut down the bar for remodelling and wants to give it a club-feel, with more tables. He's back off to the States to finalise his move here, and will be hitting the ground running in September.

Deja Vu is the newest bar to open in Soi Cowboy. The wall between what was once two gogo bars has been knocked down and a new bar put together. Drinks go for over 100 baht a shot as seems to be the case in Cowboy these days.

Wi-fi has arrived in Washington Square. Bourbon Street now offer wi-fi access to guests of the Bourbon Street hotel and folks dining in the restaurant. There is a one time, one off, charge of 100 baht which gets you a username and password and after that you can use it as often as you like. It is great to see wi-fi spreading to many of the spots farangs like to drink or hang out in Bangkok. Misty's A Gogo in Pattaya was to my knowledge the country's first gogo bar to install wi-fi – who will be the first such establishment in Bangkok?

Want a late night drink? One can be had at certain establishments either end of a certain soi resembling the Wild West. That's all I'm saying, but if you hang around and follow the noise, you'll get there. Alternatively ask any girl in the vicinity and she'll know where to go.

Chris Byrd is the new manager at Larry's Dive on Sukhumvit Soi 22. Larry's has been around for 8 years, but frankly, it has been going downhill for the past few years. The new manager has accepted the position of manager to try to change all that and bring back some life back into the place. If you have never been there, it could perhaps best be described as a relaxed atmosphere pub with beach-like decor, American & Tex-Mex food, and a dive shop attached to it, hence the name. Chris has only been there a few weeks but has already initiated a heap of happy hour specials, too many to list, and has also implemented my favourite feature, FREE WI-FI, that is wireless internet. Chris has been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years on and off.

They really should rename Soi On-nut, that is Sukhumvit Soi 77, to Soi Bargirl. I mean, is there any other place in Bangkok where the bargirls live?

That sly old dog Gordon Sharpless, webmaster of TalesOfAsia.com, wins the prize yet again for quote of the week. "Pattaya is the place where all the wannabe Mafia go, the place where everyone whose surname doesn't end an "i" can go and pretend to be Mafia."

Following on from last week's column and the issue of just what happens to the service charge in certain establishments, the management at the Hard Rock Cafe in Bangkok confirm that the service charge they collect *is* distributed amongst the staff. I can therefore only assume that the waitress who said that this was not the case was bullshitting in order to get a tip.

Sukumvit Plaza on Soi 1 continues to develop. Revolution, the newest bar in the complex, is a small cosy affair offering salsa music, Cuban cocktails and Mexican snacks. The dimly lit room has comfy sofas for you and your teeruk to cuddle up on. It's aimed at the more romantic customers, or those who don't like loud music and loud girls. 10% of the bar's profit will be given to a charity which provides a nursery for children of women at Bangkok women's prison. The bar owner has supported this charity before and feels that it is a worthy cause. That's 10% for every day of business, not a 'limited offer'.

Also within Sukumvit Soi 1 Plaza, a guesthouse is now open. Each room has a double bed, colour TV, fridge, wardrobe etc, with separate shower room. The rate for 2 hours is 300 baht, but weekly / monthly stays are also available.

Have you ever noticed that with Thai food, the more you spend does not necessarily equate to better food? Better surroundings, yes. Better service, probably. But better food? Quite possibly not. In the last several months the Mrs. and I have tried out a number of the supposedly better Thai restaurants, the sort of places you would expect to provide outstanding Thai food. But truth be told, the more you spend does not mean better food at all. The most conspicuous thing about these establishments, these purportedly better dining houses, is that they are often full of farangs! And let's qualify that, most are tourists. And as such, the food is often made to the farang taste, read short term visitor farang taste. It seems to me that, seafood and imported meat dishes aside, most Thai restaurants that price dishes in the 100 – 150 baht range will serve food that is as good as most other places in that price range. The bottom line is that if you want really good Thai food, you do not have to visit this big name establishments and pay higher prices.

There are a heap of Filipinos living in Thailand and many of them apply for jobs as English teachers. Eventually they get lucky but generally speaking, most employers want to see a white face in the classroom. As harsh as it sounds, most employers consider Filipinos a last resort. With hungry relatives and no doubt an ill buffalo or two in the back of their mind, some of these young Filipino lasses have found a new way of marketing themselves. When applying for the position of English teacher, they send a covering letter, their CV and often they send a photo. Nothing unusual in that, except that the photo sent is the type that, shall we say, may sway a male employer to at the very least call them for an interview and consider them. I've been given the responsibility of screening the CVs that come in to my place of work and so far there have been a few Filipino lasses who have sent in a CV with a photo of themselves in a bikini! My goodness, they look tasty! Full marks for marketing if nothing else.

Sukhumvit now has 3 Subway sandwich shops, the newest being situated right next to the farang grocery store Villa Market. I used to get annoyed the way Thais would look and laugh at the way farangs eat Thai food, but now it is our turn to laugh. Watching the average Thai tackle a large sandwich can be highly amusing!

Not far from the building site at the old Clinton Plaza, the Shell station next to Asia Books Sukhumvit has been torn down and pilings for a large building are being installed. Sukhumvit really is changing, especially in that immediate area. Makes you wonder if anything will happen to the building where the Thermae is housed?

The handful of security guards I know are decent enough fellows, friendly, but really, they don't provide the level of security that perhaps one would expect of a security guard. Venturing off to see Star Wars this week, I had a large bag with me and just before entering the auditorium, a security guard waved his magic wand over my bag. He was of course looking for concealed video cameras. His magic wand went apeshit and I simply said to him that the bag contained a laptop. He never checked. You have to laugh at Thai security who are easily bypassed. It is my experience that situations such like this are the norm. It always seems to me that security employed directly by an establishment is infinitely better than these hired security firms. Witness the security in some bars or the better hotels where the security staff are part of the organisation itself, compared with the average condo building which typically uses outsourced security. There's a huge difference.

"Private Dancer" by Steve Leather is available again. After phenomenal sales that saw the entire first print run sell out in record time including it top the charts at Bangkok Airport, you can find it in the shops again. Overseas readers can order it, and many other Thailand related books, at Dcothai.com.

Robert Howard at the University of New South Wales in Australia is doing a major academic study of Westerners now living in Thailand or who have lived for at least a year in Thailand and then eventually left. The study will look at reasons for moving to and leaving Thailand, characteristics and well-being of the local Westerner population, and their experiences in Thailand. If you are a Westerner who has lived in or who currently lives in Thailand for at least a year, you are invited to complete an anonymous online survey form. It will take only about 10 minutes to fill out. A summary and analysis of the findings will be posted here and on the link below when the study is complete. The survey will yield a picture of the local Westerner population and perhaps some tips on how to successfully live in Thailand. If you would like to fill out the on-line survey form, follow this link: Farang Survey

Ask the Sticks

Mrs. Stick is here to answer questions surrounding anything that confuses you in Thailand, particularly issues of the heart. Please note that for general bargirl related questions, Mr. Stick might answer them. It has to be said that Mrs. Stick is not your stereotypical Thai woman. She is not Buddhist and she is not shy to criticise things about her own country and culture, although having said that, she remains proud to be Thai. Mr. Stick will try and answer the questions which Mrs. Stick is not so sure about. This week there was just one question and there was no need for Mrs. Stick to answer it so I covered it myself.

Question 1: I know this is not your normal type of question but I hope you can answer it anyway. My husband and I (both English) are planning on living in Thailand in the next two years, I am currently trying to find my way through the maze of Thai red tape i.e. buy or rent, visa types ,bank accounts etc. one thing that has me really confused is where are the lines drawn on farangs "working". On another site it states that you cannot do ANYTHING to your property such as gardening, painting etc. Is this so? And if so where does it stop? Can I cook, drive a car, walk / own a dog? All these are banned occupations. We enjoy gardening and would like to be able to change our own decor but do not wish to get into trouble.

Mr. Stick says: I don't know where you got your information from but quite clearly it is wrong and you can do all of the things mentioned. However, if you were doing them vocationally, as opposed to for yourself, i.e. cooking in a restaurant, then you would need a work permit.

I worry that the weekly column is getting too long. In the early days it was quite a lot shorter than it is now. What do you think? Is it too long? Should I trim it back a bit, or keep it as it is?

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Thanks go out to Dave The Rave, Claymore and Bkk Grasshopper.