Doug Harrison is the man behind what is perhaps Bangkok's best known farang restaurant and hang out, Bourbon Street. I have long intended to sit down with Doug and talk about life in the city, and what it's like to run a restaurant. This week I finally got the chance.
I heard a funny story as to how you made it to Thailand in the first place. And it wasn't the girls that attracted you! Do you want to run me by your version of events?
I first started coming here in '82 when I was working for an oil field construction and engineering company in Indonesia. I came up for a holiday and then I just started coming back. I went to work in '84 in the Middle East and I would come through every year. I finished up in the Middle East and didn't want to go back to the US. Americans working abroad and away for more than 330 days a year get an exemption from tax on a certain amount of income and back then it was about $70,000 per year. I didn't want to return to the US because if I did I would have to pay taxes on the money I had earned in the Middle East. I fell into the restaurant business.
Can you talk me through the history of Bourbon Street? When did you first open? Has it always been called Bourbon Street? How were things different back then?
We first took over what was called Expats Retreat, an English pub with a small kitchen and a home stove. When I was in the States my two former partners changed the name to The Texxan. One partner's name was George Pipas, who now has the Texas around
the corner, and was supposed to be a silent partner but he moved over from Patpong. A year later I bought them out and changed the name to Bourbon Street.
Half the shophouses in the area back then were vacant. A lot of the CP area was vacant. The Garden Spa massage was a carpet warehouse. The Royal Sari traditional massage place across the way was a sewing factory. There were only three or four other bars here. There was no skytrain. There was no Imperial Park Hotel. And back then, real estate prices were very reasonable!
After about two years here I took on some other investors and bought a 20 year lease and built the hotel. And I added two more shophouses to what was the existing framework then. So now we have five shophouses with the restaurant on the ground floor and the hotel above.
How was Washington Square back then?
It was kind of quiet, to the point of being dark at night. I put up neon lights around here so there was some lighting at night, just so it wouldn't be so dark in the Square.
Have there been many changes over the years?
In the beginning it was the military coming in for the Cobra Gold exercises, the special ops air-force from the Philippines, before Clarke Air force fell to the volcano. There were a lot of special forces guys from Okinawa, Hawaii and Washington. We still get a lot of visitors from the US military, both active, and retired. But now the customer base is more like the United Nations, and we get customers from everywhere.
Is it true that you have your own shrimp farm here in Thailand?
It's crawfish. We have a crawfish farm up in Kanchanaburi where we grow our own crawfish and we have had that for 6 years. Everybody would ask me if I had any crawfish, me being from Louisiana, so a friend and I decided to start out own farm. That provides crawfish just for Bourbon Street. We do not have enough to sell outside.
What ever happened to the Courtyard? The breakfast buffet was a great deal.
We wanted to concentrate our efforts on Bourbon Street. All of the problems there went to my wife and I wanted my wife to spend more uninterrupted time with our children.
When you eat out, where do you go? Any favourite spots? For someone who only had a week or so in Bangkok, where would you recommend they dine?
For Indian, Ram Mahal in the Rembrandt. Gianni's for Italian on Soi Tonson. T-house for Vietnamese on the soi just across the street from The Lakes Condo. Somboon is good for poo patpong curry. Any clean noodle shop that serves buh-me nam moo daeng. I guess we could throw the New York Steakhouse in there, for special occasions.
Just see your bank manager first!
It is hard to mention all of my favourite places because you have so many great places to eat in Bangkok. In the different Italian restaurants you may have Italian chefs representing three different regions of Italy. You have Greeks in the kitchens of
Greek restaurants. You have Lebanese chefs in Lebanese restaurants. This really is the eating capital of the world.
And Pizza Mania delivers, when it is just me and the kids.
There are heaps of English and Irish pubs / restaurants in Bangkok but less American themed places, like Bourbon Street. Why do you think that is?
<Scratches his head and rocks back in his chair! There is a long pause.> So many of the Americans who come over here come from a large distance away and seem to be hooked up with multinational companies, trading companies, where a lot of the Irish and English who come here look for a reason to stay. Maybe that's the reason, but I really don't know.
What venues are your direct competition?
TGIF when it was here but they did not give value for money. Outback which is actually out of Atlanta. It is a misconception that it is out of Australia. Hard Rock, of course. I wouldn't say that they were my competition though, they are all my compliments. Like the Irish pub, it was a compliment to the square – it made the square look better. It is good to have good operators in the area to bring more customers to the area. No customer stays at one location all night long. More operators offering good value gives more people a reason to visit an area. Why fight with your neighbours? Work together! Nobody wins when you are bad mouthing somebody.
Your Mexican buffet night always goes down well. Tell me the truth, can you possibly make a profit on that? I mean, it's seriously inexpensive!
We make a small amount on it. It's a loss leader, to get people in the door, to get people talking and to get people to come back in the door at other times. We have recently added more items and more desserts.
Another restaurateur said that his Mexican buffet was all you could eat by the plate and "it was not a tired, dried out buffet". I had to laugh because if you are doing 70 – 80 buffets a night, in just a couple of hours, it is hard for the food to get dried out! The proof is right there with the return customers. It is comments like that that make me work harder to do better. That might explain 19 and a half years in the same location.
What percentage of your customers are Thai, and what do you make of the way that few Thais really dig good Western food? I seldom see Thais in here – would that be a fair comment?
We get about 35% Thai guests. The popular misconception of Bourbon St. being mainly a American bar is just that, wrong. We get a lot of Brits, Irish, Aussies, Kiwis, Thais, Indians, everyone. Everyone likes good food for good value. Cajun food is a unique cuisine, plus there is also our Mexican.
Who are the Thais who dine here?
The educated who have travelled. Typically, they love good food which being Thai, they all do! The Thais usually love new types of food, once they have been exposed to it.
You have a hotel upstairs here.
The hotel is an integral part of the business. We've got 20 rooms and not so long ago we renovated. We have also installed wi-fi internet access. We have a small business centre for both our guests and outside people, a travel centre so people can buy tickets here. I like to make a nickel off a lot of different things. Those nickels can add up to be a dollar!
Who are your hotel customers?
All nationalities and mostly from word of mouth and repeats. We get both small business travelers and leisure visitors who like a home away from home instead of a big hotel. A discreet home away from home!
You're quite active in the expat community. What do you make of the expat community. A number of people feel that there is a lot of petty jealousy and what not amongst Westerners in Bangkok, do you agree?
I'm the vice president of the food and beverage association of Thailand of which I have been a member of for 5 years. I am a member of the American Chamber of Commerce. One of the things I am most proud of and feel good about is that I just put together the 11th Annual Fr. Joe Maier's (mercycentre.org) Human Development Foundation Charity Golf Classic. Father Joe is a redemptress priest who has been here for over 30 years looking after homeless and abused children. He gets them into education and good healthcare and provides a home for them.
You have always stuck me as an astute businessman. As I am sure you know, the very biggest gogo bars in the city can turn over up to 250,000 baht a night – and in some cases, even exceed that. Have you ever been tempted to knock out the kitchen, fit it with a bunch of girls' lockers and fill Bourbon street with chrome poles?
It's a viable question because that is initially what I thought we would do! That was the original idea. But after about a month of just being in the bar business, before we could get a gogo business up and going, I decided that the flesh trade was
just not my cup of tea so I went into the food business. There's nothing wrong with the flesh trade, but there are a whole lot of people doing that.
20 years ago there weren't so many people doing quality restaurants like I wanted to do. Why compete with the kind of business which was everywhere when what I really wanted to do was spread good quality Cajun food. Back then there was none of that around here.
I bought into this on September 15th and two months later I went to the States selling jewellery. When I came back in February, upon my arrival I read a USA Today and in the Lifeline column, the yuppies were saying what was in and what was out. BMWs were out and anything that was Cajun and especially anything blackened was out too. At that moment, I threw the newspaper up in the air and called my mother and asked her to send me some cast iron skillets, blackened red fish seasoning and a River Road cook book all before the newspaper hit the floor. 19 and a half years and the rest is history! I don't regret going into the food business at all.
What are your thoughts on Bangkok's naughty nightlife? I mean, just a stone's throw from here we have one of Bangkok's lesser known, and lesser visited naughty areas, Washington Square, and Soi 22, which is essentially just around the corner, has a heap of bars too.
I think it's fabulous! It gives everyone a chance to work. I believe in free enterprise. Everyone should have a chance to work and feed their children.
As the government doesn't put enough emphasis into education then it is getting back what it gives with something like that. So many of the women are there because of irresponsible Thai men who knock them up and then look the other way. It wasn't me they say and refuse to take responsibility! It is so easy to blame Americans or Europeans for this industry but people need to look at the irresponsible young Thai men who effectively put the girls there in the first place.
For people of legal age, I think it is fabulous. But don't let me hear about underage stuff – and whoever doesn't like that, I don't give a fuck, I despise the underage stuff. I see the damage it does to the children over at Father Joe's. The abused and neglected who end up at Father Joe's, people I try to help by raising money.
Do you really think the city has enough to attract people away from all of the naughty nonsense?
Oh yeah, you've got good bars, discos, top quality bands. Reasonably priced drinks. You got some top clubs bringing in some top DJs, like Q Bar and Bed. You've got Spasso's, mini venues with live music like Tokyo Joes's. And Bangkok is the world capital for quality dining at fair prices.
Rumour has it that this is the number one hang out for Bangkok's spooks and the many American law enforcement agents who work out of the embassy. Any comment?!
Everybody has got to eat. I will neither deny nor confirm my client base except that we get all nationalities, and they all want to eat good food.
What is the future of Bourbon Street? A dark cloud hangs over Washington Square and no-one really knows for sure how much longer things will remain as they are. Do you have any insight you'd like to share?
Everything changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Having talked to the daughters of the owner here, at the present time there is no plan to tear anything down, but instead to continue doing as they have for years and re-lease all the properties here. I will be in negotiations in December 2008 when the lease here is up. I get asked this darned question 5 times a week! Everybody I have talked to knows of no big projects going up here. Every company which has been mentioned as coming here, can not substantiate anything. The rumour mill is alive and well in Bangkok as usual, spinning out its yarns. As far as I know, there are no plans for anything to happen here except for everything to be re-leased out.
Do you have any plans to go back to the States?
My children are 9 and 5. Maybe for high school I will take them back to the States, which is a while away. With international schools improving here every year, they may get a better education here.
Bourbon Street can be found in the Washington Square neighbourhood. To get to Washington Square, you can either enter the square itself, beside the Dubliner Pub on Sukhumvit Road, a little bit along from the Emporium, or you can enter on Sukhumvit Soi 22, just a bit further up from Larry's Dive, on the other side of the soi.
Where WAS THIS PICTURE taken?
It was Pink Panther in Patpong in 1980.
Not as difficult as you think…
Hopeless! That is all I can say. Not one person could tell me when last week's picture was taken. The photo was taken in 1980. The closest answers were 1981, and 1983, with most others going for some time in the 1990s. Last week's pic was the Pink Panther bar in Patpong in 1980. The first prize is a 500 baht credit at Tony's Bar and prizes 2 and 3 are a 600 baht dinner voucher for 2 at Sin in Sukhumvit Soi 4. The prizes are only available to people in Thailand now – either residents or tourists, and must be redeemed within 2 weeks. You MUST say that you are in Bangkok and able to claim the prize or I will consider you ineligible. If you do not explicitly mention you are local or will be in town in the next two weeks, you cannot claim a prize.
FROM STICKMAN'S EMAIL INBOX
Would you hit a child?
I've been in Bangkok long enough not to get caught up in most of the problems that can beset a westerner in Bangkok but those kids! Last Wednesday night I was walking past the Dynasty when a boy aged maybe six years old tried to sell me flowers which I politely declined in Thai. Next thing I know this boy was wrapped around my legs as I tried to continue walking along the street. What are you supposed to do in this situation? I told him firmly twice that I wasn't interested but he wasn't about to let go. The closest I've been to hitting a child in my life, he was worse than the kids who used to harass those doing border runs at Poipet. I must have dragged him along the street for 30 metres as he simply refused to let go of me, yelling and screaming at me. I'm sure if I had hit him I would have been the worst person in the world and the only thing that prevented me was a well dressed Thai man who walked up behind me and told this kid where to go. As I walked off I saw a young Thai girl attach herself limpet like to the arm of a twenty something western girl who only got rid of her by crossing the street. It's times like this that you wonder if Thailand is still a third world country or not. It's certainly the last time I will be walking that side of Soi 4. I feel sorry for anyone staying at the hotel there.
More on the price hikes.
I first came here on holiday in 2002. I just recently moved here and wow, look at the prices! Even since last September things have got worse. I was in the Long Gun last Sunday night with a friend of mine. We bought 2 beers and just sat there totally ignored by the girls. There were about 4 Westerners and 6 Japanese and guess who got all the attention. It was like we didn't exist. I was in Suzy Wong's a couple of weeks ago, full of Japanese and 130 baht beers. Just got back from a weekend in Pattaya. It's fine down there as long as you keep out of the Walking Street gogos.
The expat experience, Japan vs. Thailand.
I never ever came across this much level of dis-satisfaction with daily interaction between the Japanese and the Westerners when living in Tokyo and I had a lot of friends and friends of friends. Though the level of English is far lower in Japan, the level of interaction, and enjoyable interaction, was far higher. Whereas I always had a great time going out with the male Japanese to pubs and restaurants and was well looked after, I'm sure that would be a rare thing in Thailand.
Election night = party night!
Just for info I walked down soi 4 at around midnight on the election night. Sure, all the bars were closed but the pavements were full of farang and girls getting very drunk on beer supplied by lots of locals with carrier bags full of beer and ice being refilled from a couple of pickups around the corner. It really did look like a drunken mess and I question the wisdom of shutting all the tourist watering holes in and outside hotels for the Thai election. The police took absolutely no interest whatsoever except checking the licensed premises were shut!
Please add me to your list of those who agree with the concept of barfines for staff who leave during bar operations, but among those who strongly feel that any control after hours is plain and simply pimping – and nothing else. And the reprehensible tactic of using informers is an even newer low, what I would call Mafioso pimping! Despite increasing barfines, please relate to your bar owner friends that I and many others say 'adios' to such bars.
The "w" word.
"Whore" is a word that I have never used, and have criticised others for using, in reference to Thai sex workers – until now. The new "Wham Bam, No Thank You Sam" attitude that is starting to replace the girlfriend experience has become a huge turn off in the former Land Of Smiles.
Verifying an old Stickman maxim – take notice of what they do, not what they say.
Yes, language is used fundamentally differently here in SE Asia. Instead of to convey what actually is, as if there is a real external world worth talking about and real inner worlds worth disclosing, it is mostly used to emotionally manipulate and to create advantage. People say either what they think you want to hear, or deliberately try to throw you off balance to gain an emotional advantage over you, or invent some lie, to see how you will react, in order to try to find out your "real" motives. Many Thais don't and can't understand this: that westerners do not lie. The can not grasp the abstract concept of "truth". It is totally without meaning to them. They do not and will never trust you. Every word is always said for effect.
Following on from the delight of being able to open through until 2:00 AM on a nightly basis, Nana Plaza bar owners are scratching their heads and wondering just what was going on when the boys in brown raided and closed everywhere down just after 1 AM on Wednesday night. Bar staff were very nervous and despite the fact that they had just sold drinks to customers only minutes beforehand, they hurriedly shut down the bars at frantic speed, almost as if they were expecting something really bad to happen. Maybe it was all about Chakri Day?
There's been no change to closing times down at Cowboy where most places close at 1:00 AM, and two or three spots run through until 2.
Pretty Lady in Nana has been closed for a reason that has yet to become clear. This bar has from time to time, been closed for a day or two, so who knows how long this particular closure will last.
Erotica in Nana has lost some dancers, a bunch from Udon, who from all accounts were very popular indeed.
The Biergarten in Sukhumvit Soi 7 is undergoing renovations. Work is proceeding rather slowly on raising the roof. In addition to that, there are a heap of TVs in there now. I wonder if someone will have the smarts to figure out a way to blow the hot air out of the bar, rather than using ceiling fans to blow the both hot air and the smoke straight back down on to the customers! And the mystery in there is what is being created behind the third bar at the back. Last week a couple of staircases were seen, the first leading to a platform and the second leading out of sight upwards. All was shrouded a few days later. I hope there are no more un-seasonal rains as the water poured in through the roof the other day where the new steel beams had been punched through.
Rumours coming out of Pattaya suggest that a very large, recently opened gogo bar is losing 25,000 baht a day, and is up for sale. The place simply isn't pulling in the numbers of customers needed to break even, let alone actually make a profit. Customers report that it was very quiet during the prime time of 10:30 – midnight, this week.
The Dollhouse on Walking Street has reportedly been sold for 10 million baht. The sale is not final yet, but the transaction was said to have been completed late last month. This might explain the steep pricing that has ensued.
Pattaya was slower this week than many have seen it in a long time. Remember, this is on the heels of a brief and less than robust high season. One bar owner complained that "the last four years have been disappointing but this is the worst"
and pointed to a variety of negative factors such as "Avian Flu, terrorism, early closing hours, the tsunami and maybe even political demonstrations and turmoil. We are hopeful that with Taksin's departure, we may have a new government
that is more sympathetic to tourism in general and Pattaya's nightlife in particular." Time will tell…
She and other dispensers of spirits had looked forward to one last spirit of business next week as revelers descended on Fun City for its traditional 8-day Songkran craziness, non-stop from April 11 to 19. "But now we hear there will be an election April 19," says the bar owner, "which means no alcohol can be sold Tuesday or Wednesday – usually our most profitable days. Politics get in the way again." As is the norm in Pattaya at this time of year, locally based Westerners are leaving in droves, many heading for their annual pilgrimage to Angeles City in the Philippines.
If bar profits are hurting, city street contractors seem to be doing just fine in Pattaya, thank you. And if they run out of work, they can always do Beach Road again. Pattaya's Beach Road has been torn up and repaved several times over the last four years, always making it hazardous for pedestrians trying to avoid deep, open pits and elevated slabs of concrete – both in the road and on the walk path. The latest construction project, launched in 2004, was for the purpose of relocating unsightly cables underground and was to be completed in a matter of months. Beach Road is now passable for both pedestrians and motor vehicles – just watch out for the ditches and slabs of concrete.
I have long felt that the naughty bars should offer a graduated barfine system where the later into the night it gets, the cheaper the barfine gets. Ok, start them off at 500 or 600 baht (assuming we are talking about a gogo bar here) and maybe drop the barfine to 350 baht at midnight, and drop it again to say 200 or 250 baht for the last hour from 1:00 AM – 2:00 AM. I really do think this would be a win : win situation. And any bar bosses who moan that guys might wait until later on to pay the barfine, remember that they will be sitting in your bar, buying drinks for themselves, their lady, and perhaps others too.
Many Western men in Thailand, both tourists and locals, get upset at the Japanese men who venture into the farang dominated nightlife areas, especially Nana Plaza. It would seem that the average Japanese gent pays the ladies 4,000 baht a time, and there are very real odds that he might not even engage in sex with her. 4,000 baht, for a short time, without sex. That is why these guys are, and will continue to be, so popular.
You've got to laugh….the bible thumpers have made it to Sukhumvit Soi 3! I was in hysterics when I heard that. Can you imagine it, there they were, screaming at the top of their lungs to all and sundry on Soi Middle East, praising the good Lord,
all the while being passed by folks who are obviously rather fond of a different lord. Word has got back to them that they have been talked about in this column and the said missionaries have contacted me and offered me an interview….coming
Following on from the piece in last week's column about Thai Airways International offering cheaper airfares, it has been confirmed that they are not just for Thai nationals, but their legally married spouses too. I got confirmation this week from New Zealand, Denmark, Japan and Australia that this discount applies, and that the discount is about $100 per person. The only proviso was that in the case of the spouse, he would have to be travelling with his Thai teeruk on the same flight. However, the Danes might not have this perk for much longer as someone has targeted Thai Airways in an anti-racist action for selling cheaper tickets to Thai nationals based on their nationality.
What is it with the phone system here? Last weekend a friend sent an SMS message to me on Saturday at 11:58 AM asking me if I would like to go to the motor show with him. My phone was on at that time. In fact I didn't turn my phone off all weekend. The SMS finally arrived at 4:00 PM on Sunday. I would not like to suggest it is the system in Thailand that is at fault, but I never did have these sorts of problems back in NZ…
In last week's column one of the emails from a reader concerned a tactic to avoid keystroke loggers. It suggested that people send an email to themselves with all of their passwords and that they just copy and paste these passwords into their accounts. A number of readers wrote in and said that this was not only ineffective, but also highlighted the passwords, or at least whatever was copied and pasted – so don't do it! Sigh!
For internet junkies, tests by both myself, and a few friends, clearly show CS Loxinfo to be far superior to True in pretty much every way.
For rugby fans, I notice that the Office Bar in Sukhumvit Soi 33 seems to have most of the Super 14 matches live. It is sad that UBC doesn't show this great rugby competition live, though they'll probably have the final live, as they have in previous years.
No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Reasonable interest rates are being offered on term deposits at Thai banks now. Where in the past we struggled to get anything higher than .75% (i.e. less than one percentage point), now you can find accounts offering a rate of interest in excess 5%. It's hardly an earth shattering amount, but it is much better than what was offered in the past. Oh yeah, and these interest rates ARE available to us pale-skinned, long nosed creatures – and are not exclusively for Thai nationals only.
The re-design of this site is not far away. It was due to go live at the end of March, but as is often the case, it has been delayed. Figure the end of April now.
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 simply offers the perspective of one 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. Please do try and limit the length of questions to Mrs. Stick to about 100 words. We get many questions that are entire stories of several hundred words which I'm afraid are just too long to run here.
Question 1: I have a fairly new girlfriend and she recently went away for a few days… Generally she is well-dressed and quite tasteful… However, she brought back a hideous tacky souvenir for me to put in my room. I really hate it. Can I tell her honestly that I hate it? If not, how can I avoid putting it in my room and seeing it every day?
Mrs. Stick says: I don't see this as a big deal. Just put it away in a cupboard or a drawer. If she asks about it, just be subtle and tell her it doesn't suit the room, or something like that. Don't tell her exactly what you think but rather make a subtle excuse. If you reject the good intentions of your girlfriend strongly, nothing good can come of it.
Question 2: I have had a few Thai girlfriends who at first were very hot lovers and seemed to enjoy sex on a regular basis, many times for hours at a time. Each changed after a few months, becoming less sexually active, and being more and more unreceptive to love making advances by me. When I tried to discuss this with each girl, both complained that all I want is sex? I did not change on how much sex I liked to have and how often, they seemed to lose interest. Is this a cultural thing? Are Thai women not that interested in sex with a boyfriend or husband? To mention, I went with these woman at different times, not at the same time. Now I'm with a third Thai woman and the same thing is starting to happen again.
Mrs. Stick says: This has nothing to do with culture and the fact that these women are Thai, but more to do with the individual relationships. You did not provide enough information to answer the question. Remember that things in a relationship are usually at their hottest near the start. My guess is that in each of these relationships, there was something wrong, and it was that which was responsible for the change in "mood".
We're just about at that time of year that I dislike the most, Songkran. It's the biggest Thai holiday, the Thai new year, the time when we are supposed to be happy, but I just can't get in the mood. Being a prisoner in my own castle due to the out of control water fights that take place all over the city is never fun. To me, that is the first thing that comes into my head. I am stuck at home. I can't go out. If I go out, I'll get drenched. I'm getting old, I guess. Songkran is a love it or hate it thing. If you've never experienced it before, put on a pair of shorts, an old T-Shirt, buy a pair of flip flops and go out and enjoy it. But if the idea of the world's greatest water fight doesn't interest you then be prepared to have the air-con turned up full ball and fill your castle with lots of things to do. You'll need it all – the internet, books, newspapers, DVDs and cable TV. You're a prisoner in your own castle for about three days!
Your Bangkok commentator,