International passenger arrivals into Thailand are down 15%. Many hotels have occupancy rates as low as 25%. Bar and restaurant owners tell me that business is down by 30 – 35%. And I can confirm that investigations into bargirls is down by a whopping 80%. With everything that has been written online over the last dozen or so years about the dangers of entering into relationships with bargirls and the futility of sending them money, is the message finally getting through?
Investigating bargirls, finding out what they are up to for a guy supporting them, checking whether they're still working in the bar and determining their situation and just how many guys are supporting them has never been big business. That said, a number have supplemented their income this way but for a handful it was their business, their primary means of income and the way with which they sustained themselves in Thailand.
The bargirl investigation business is in massive decline and has been on a downward slope since early last year. The first signs that something was up were purely anecdotal. As someone who carried out such tasks, I found that I was receiving fewer and fewer inquiries from guys wondering about their teeruk and what she may be up to. It used to be that I would get an inquiry every other day, averaging about 15 or so a month. While there was always the odd tyre kicker, I don't doubt that the vast majority were genuine inquiries. These days I might get 3 inquiries a month. If that.
There was no obvious reason for the decline in inquiries. With website traffic hitting record levels and more and more bargirl related articles, the decline in inquiries could not be put down to a decline in the site's readership or a change in readership demographics. The web stats were good, moving in the right direction.
So I started talking with others who dabbled in bargirl investigations. They too had noticed a sharp decline in inquiries – and to make matters worse, their closure rate had also dropped. Less inquiries and less jobs as a percentage of total inquiries.
So I looked around to see if there were any new players in the industry. There weren't. Was there any one player who was advertising and getting all of the business? There didn't appear to be. Had something changed in Google so that only one or two players were getting all of the organic search traffic from Google? No, that didn't appear to be the case either.
I then heard that arguably the biggest player in the industry, a fellow who paid a reported $20,000 for an agency, appears to have just upped and disappeared. I had heard that business was not going well for him – as it hadn't been for anyone – and rumour has it that he just waked away. True or not I cannot be certain but emails to him have gone unanswered, suggesting that this is not just a rumour.
A fair few investigators used to advertise online but their ads don't appear anywhere these days. Dollars once spent with Google Adsense have been abandoned. Advertising within the industry has almost entirely dried up. Even that bold industry player who was notorious for putting up stickers advertising his services in locations all over Sukhumvit including toilets and above urinals and in just about every Starbucks branch within a few kilometres radius of Sukhumvit has been conspicuous by its absence. I used to love the quote he used in his marketing, "When you're away, does she play?" Clever!
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the decline in investigations is that it mimics a decline in guys supporting, or as is the popular word, sponsoring Thai bargirls. It seems to me that since early 2009 the girls are finding it more difficult to find guys who willingly send them money and when they do find a guy, the lofty numbers of a few years back – when 30,000 baht was probably the monthly average a guy would send to a month – but it could go as high as 80,000 – has been replaced by 5,000 or 10,000 baht – not nearly enough to convince any bargirl to keep her knickers on.
Of course there are still some girls who are doing very well, but it's not like it used to be and they are very much in the minority. What changed?
It would be easy to say that there over the past year or so there have been fewer visitors to Thailand meaning less customers in the bars and so it is not unreasonable to assume that there would be less money sent to the girls and less investigation inquiries made and investigations carried out.
One could also point to the worldwide economic problems. Many are concerned about job security, some haven't had a pay rise and no doubt plenty aren't confident of a significant promotion and pay rise any time soon. You could point to the H1N1 scare and all the other crazy things that have had a negative impact on the number of visitors to Thailand but I'm not convinced that you can blame these external factors such as the political situation and the bad economy alone. I can't help but feel that there's something else going on.
I do wonder about how many "new" visitors Thailand has been receiving recently, first time visitors, I mean. Those who visited previously and enjoyed themselves seem to return no matter what. These are guys who know the score and are less likely to fall into the bargirl trap. Those who have yet to visit and see goodness only knows what on TV might decide to put off visiting or simply cross Thailand off the list. It is this group who are more likely to fall for the charms of a bargirl – and they are most likely the group putting off travel to the country. There are less rose-tined glasses around these days.
Up until perhaps 3 years ago, the girls really didn't have a clue that there were shady characters sneaking around in the shadows checking up on them and reporting back to their boyfriends. That's all changed. While I would not say that the knowledge that there are guys doing this is widespread, there is a small percentage of girls, which I would estimate at perhaps 10% of those in the industry, who are aware that this sort of thing goes on.
This has manifested itself in a number of ways. That the girls know and are, frankly, downright scared of being caught out is one reason why it can be more difficult to take photos in the bar areas these days. On occasion I have been asked to refrain from taking a shot when I had someone lined up. I respect their wishes but will usually make a point of asking them why and quite often they will say that they are afraid the photo will be posted on the internet and their boyfriend will see it – and as such their allowance may be cut off.
One could speculate that as we stay near the bottom of the dip in what could be a prolonged period of no growth, the girls might even know that they are simply better off being straight with one guy and actually behaving in such a way that eliminates all doubt from the sponsor's mind. That said, do I really believe that? Get out of here, of course I don't!
There is of course a proliferation of websites about Thailand, some with much detail about the bar scene, this site as well as a few discussion forums. The idea of sponsoring a Thai bargirl is discussed ad nauseum and the conventional wisdom being that it is a bad idea, the exception being if you have a very definite plan in place to get her back to your country and you are in the waiting period while the visa is being processed.
With so much good information out there, guys who are honest with themselves often have the evidence in front of them and it is simply a case of looking at it with open eyes and a degree of objectivity. They don't need an investigator.
But perhaps it is the decline in the girlfriend experience which means guys just don't see these girls as long-term lovers any more. Meeting up with a mate this week, a major contributor to another section of this site, who is touring around the region, he told me that the girlfriend experience is still very much the norm in Cambodia and the Philippines. That ain't the case in Thailand! A less pleasant experience for customers means less chance of falling in love, less chance of going on to support a girl and less chance of ultimately checking up on her. I find it rather amusing that these girls may be reaping what they sow!
Relationships seem much less permanent these days and the transformation away from the traditional ways of marrying early and staying together for life seems to have happened in the space of not much more than one generation. It is not "This is my wife" these days but perhaps "This is my 3rd wife". People don't necessarily want lifetime commitments like they once did.
I don't know if the message has got through that for the most part, supporting Thai bargirls is really just throwing away good money. But for sure, fewer guys are sending money at the moment and far fewer guys are checking up on their girl.
Whether this is a due to a blip in the economy or is a long term trend, only time will tell.
Last week's photo
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken at the Nana skytrain station showing the sign for Vasu currency exchange outline on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 7/1. The first person to email with the correct location of the picture wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British fish and chips restaurant. The second person to correctly guess the photo wins a signed copy of Stephen Leather's superb Private Dancer, which many refer to as "the bible". It's widely regarded as the best novel set in Thailand's bar scene. The third person to get the photo correct wins a 500 baht voucher from one of the very best farang food venues in Bangkok, and the home of Bangkok's best burger, in my humble opinion, Duke's Express. Duke's is conveniently located in the Emporium shopping centre in central Bangkok. For the next 4 weeks I also have 5 Zanny calendars to give away, sponsored by TEFL International, making a total of 4 prizes! If you wish to win a prize, please specify which you would prefer!
Terms and conditions: The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. To claim the book prize and the calendar prizes you must provide a postal address within Thailand now. The Duke's Express prize must be redeemed before March 31st, 2010. Prizes are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per week!
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – An incentivised protest?
My wife informed me that she and her Mama and Papa had been offered 1,500 baht per day to come to Bangkok and protest with the rest of the Reds. Her Papa is a village honcho and he was approached by the local political big shot seeking people to come to Bangkok. He had no trouble whatsoever getting people to take him up on his offer. After all, Songkran was just around the corner and paying for all the festivities in the family home was going to cost money. How could they turn down 1,500 baht for wearing red in Bangkok? That would be the easiest money they would ever make. My wife told me that she knew of whole families that went – Mama, Papa, teenage children and each one of them would queue up every day for their 1,500 and in some cases 2,000 baht. Is it any wonder why this protest is going to last a long time? This is easy money for them despite what is happening. The next thing you know the bargirls who must be in dire need of customers will realise that they can make some money and avoid having to come to Nana, Soi Cowboy or Patpong and hope for a customer! In my wife's case her Mama, who is street smart, said no thanks and would not let my wife go. That was that, no Thai is going to defy their Mama and believe me I was grateful. I did not want to be sitting in our home in Surin worrying myself silly about her safety. I told my wife she could wear red in our home and when we go into Surin for shopping and such that I would give her 500 baht for showing her support for Thaksin. Of course that made her happy and peace in the home was kept.
Baffled by the red shirts.
I was interested to note that despite wandering the red shirt encampment and following the story in the news, you don't claim to fully understand all aspects of the dispute. I find myself in the same predicament. I am reasonably political astute, follow political issues worldwide and could probably offer some reasonably cogent analysis of politics in various parts of the world. But in the city where I live, Bangkok, I'm lost. The problem is that it doesn't follow the normal pattern of political protest or people power movements. In other cases, group A has an entirely different vision for their society, a completely separate idea of how it should be structured and run, as compared to group B. Think of the people power movements in Eastern Europe from Solidarity through to the collapse of the USSR. The protesters sought a country run more in line with individual rights and liberties, a free market economy etc, while the powers sought tight government control of all aspects of life. There is none of this in the Red Shirt vs. Yellow Shirt tango. It is merely a case of the group that is out of power stamping its feet and throwing its weight around until they can kick the other group out and take power. I get it that the current government was never democratically elected, so the Red Shirts feel they should still be running the show. I even sort of get the curious fetish about democracy, as inadequate as it is. But if the Red Shirts do attain power, what would they do? What is their plan, their vision? Have they even thought that far? Does anyone seriously think things would change at all, let alone for the better, if another Thaksin acolyte became PM? Beyond lip service to the rural constituency, would a ThaiRakThai-style government change things one iota? My advice to anyone trying to discern the strategy of the Red Shirt movement is to just look at it as a lot of frustrated, energetic people who are at least rejecting the lassitude and apathy that generally characterises Thai political engagement. I just shrug my shoulders and say, 'It's Thailand'.
Almost lost his shirt.
Whilst in Sukhumvit with the girlfriend, I contemplated collecting our laundry or leave it until the following day when I was due to return to Oz. I decided to go there from the Nana BTS and was much relieved because the owner was discussing not opening the next day due to the Red Shirts. I would have had to donate a large amount of my clothing to that business if I had not gone when I did.
Don't try to be John Wayne (or Clint Eastwood).
I wanted to tell you about a severe beating I witnessed last night right in front of my home. My neighbours are typically the kindest people, a large family with most of the in-laws living at home. Last night two of the 20-year olds had too much to drink and were making a huge scene in the soi. Another neighbour, a Japanese man, came over to try and sort things out. My God, did he get the beating of his life! It was like the entire family turned on him and beat the living crap out of him! I can't stress enough to foreigners that if the Thais have some domestic dispute going on that it's best to stay the hell out of it and let them sort it out. Trying to play John Wayne will only get you what this poor Japanese got last night.
Go for the yellow and green.
I've had a couple of taxis recently with dodgy meters, one from the airport where the meter finished at 420, when I know for sure it should be around 300, even in bad traffic. I mentioned this to my girlfriend, and she says the best way to avoid this is not to get in the taxis that are half green, half yellow. These vehicles are all privately owned, so if you have any problems, it's difficult to do anything about it. The pink ones, blue ones etc are all leased on a daily / monthly rate from a taxi company, so if you have any trouble you contact the taxi company, and if your complaint is verified the driver can have his license suspended for a period of time. Hence they are much more likely not to try to shaft you. So it's a bit like taking a girl from a bar, rather than picking one up off the street. Choose one where you can complain to the management! I haven't verified the facts myself, but I've been following her advice since about 9 months back and have not had one dodgy driver.
Left Thailand behind and happy #1.
Found your paragraph on the taxis both funny and not surprising for Thailand. Working in another corner of Asia, I recently took a cab and thought I might leave the note with the driver meaning a 10% tip. As I was getting out he told me to hang on and gave me the change. It happens all the time here, the concept of a tip being almost unheard of. I'm sure you're sick of me saying it, but I don't know how you can keep going in that country. The Qatari guy example and the taxi issue though really does nail it though in terms of how dangerous it is. I feel if I returned to Thailand again my heart would be in my mouth for the whole duration and I would only relax when I was going down the runway at 150 mph at lift-off point! Who would have said that 10 years ago?!
Left Thailand behind and happy #2.
I came to Thailand thinking I had found heaven on earth and I left in 2007 totally disillusioned, probably never to return. It was not just marriage failure and the danger I felt, it was the dislike of the constant need to be on the look out for the next scam. It was daily, everywhere. I saw how foreigners are treated. Little inconsequential things like the locals' penchant of deliberately altering their direction of travel to walk into your path just wore me down. As I read your articles you report one scam after another. I am glad you do as it warns the foreigners of what they face in Thailand. But after a while it takes its toll and I am wondering if it taking its toll on Stick.
It was quiet out and about this week, as was expected, it being Songkran as well as the aftermath of the bloodshed of the political rally last weekend. Not quite as I predicted, entering Nana Plaza wasn't the gauntlet it was in previous years when anyone walking by was considered a legitimate target. Nana Plaza saw much water fighting throughout the day, but at night not much was going on. The water fights were in full flow at Soi Cowboy which resembled a battlefield by day but once the sun went down the girls got retreated into the bars and it was business as usual. There was some serious partying going on outside Twins Bar and some of the other small bars on soi 23 making getting to Cowboy whilst staying dry something of a challenge.
If you have yet to check out Black Pagoda, located on what was once a walkway between two buildings up above Patpong soi 2 where sexy girls dance and put on a show for those below (see right), now is your chance. Black Pagoda has a new happy hour in place and from 7 until 9 PM it's just 100 baht for standard drinks, good value in what is a high end bar.
As with most bars, Tilac was running with no more than half the girls with only 2 sets of girls dancing on Thursday night. To make matters worse, many of the girls weren't running on all cylinders, desperately holding on to the pole just to make it through the night after a bit too much Songkran splashing and drinking during the day. Even on Friday night, some were horribly off colour. A bit too much Thai whisky mix during the last daylight, read water fighting hours of Songkran, tends to do that and many were giving serious thought to barfining themselves, even at the increased price charged over a holiday period, to sleep it off. With only a handful of girls working in some bars there was little time to rest between dance sets and some adopted a "please barfine me so I can sleep" plea.
Despite for the most part being vehement red shirt protestors – just don't try to engage them on why they support the reds for their answers range from weird to downright daft – some working girls have started complaining about the red shirts' protests and the effect it's having on them. It has cost them barfines and more.
Dollhouse is showing a bit more these days but there's a trade off. You'll need to shampoo your hair and toss all your clothes into the wash if you want to be respectable the next day. Dollhouse is trying to mimic Baccarra in allowing smokers an area to do their thing. However, because of the architecture of the bar and the fact that the mezzanine floor is open – different from Baccarra where the two floors are quite separate – it does not work so well and the stench of smoke finds its way throughout the bar. Times have changed and smokers probably don't make up even 20% of bar patrons these days. If some bar owners came out and told me that there is a correlation between smoking and high spending I might understand why they allow smokers to smoke in the bars, but not one owner has said that and I just don't see it.
Some of the horribly degrading shows seen in upstairs Patpong bars can now be found in Cowboy's Raw Hide. The pussy drink Coca Cola show and spit it out sounds quite disgusting. Fortunately I have not seen it with my own eyes but friends told me about it this week. Not recommended.
The annual bar girl shuffle is underway as the girls get frustrated at the lack of punters visiting their bar. If your favorite little darling failed to let you know where she has transplanted herself, you may have to hunt around for her. A few Cowboy girls have even decided to give Nana Plaza a try and will keep Dave The Rave's eyes occupied. Some of the Apache Coyote girls who moved on to other bars in the family have returned to the nest. The smiling, bubbly Miss M, otherwise known as #23, you know that bird with the big headlights, has returned and she can still help you put a head on your beer in the chambers above the bar.
It's not somewhere I venture to often, but there's a good deal on at Witch's Tavern in Soi Thonglor where it's 2 for 1 on Beer Lao from 3 – 8 PM.
During Songkran this past week, the little kids hovering around selling flowers and other knick knacks were selling flower necklaces at Cowboy. The poor things are made to put in serious hours.
Fires in bars in Thailand are nothing new. The latest bar to catch alight was TQ1 in Pattaya which went up in flames on Friday afternoon. Even with a bunch of volunteer firemen right there with water guns in hand, nothing could be done to save what is one of the oldest and longest running gogo bars in Thailand – having been in operation for more than 30 years! From all accounts the fire was so bad that the venue has been totally destroyed. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.
I try not to go over old ground too much in this column even though new readers are coming on board all the time and may not be aware of what I have previously ranted about. I have moaned about it before and I will moan about it again – and to qualify my moaning, given that I am not a participant this does not even affect me – but I still think it's just plain wrong. Many gogo bars hiked barfines over the Songkran period to 1,000 baht. 1,000 baht is real money. At today's exchange rates it equates to more than 20 pounds, about 30 dollars and close to 25 Euros. Yet the bar owners just go about it in their typically smug way and when asked about what the rationale was for hiking barfines they invariably come up with something quite ridiculous like "It's Songkran so the prices go up!" They may as well have said that the buffalo farted this morning so prices have been put up – no less logical! There is little in the way of party atmosphere at Songkran with those who do make it to the bars often having to run the gauntlet to get there. The real reason the owners do it is that so many girls piss off at this time of year to spend time with their family that the owners protect their business interests by making it so expensive to barfine the girls that no-one does. A bar with few girls is no-one's idea of a good time. And to make matters worse, few bars made an effort to decorate for Songkran this year, Queen's Castle here in Patpong being one of few to do something.
With the political protests raging in Bangkok, there's one term you might hear which is not immediately obvious in meaning – watermelons. It refers to conscripted soldiers or volunteers from the poorer parts of Thailand who happen to be red sympathisers in green uniforms.
As far as the current situation goes, the occupation of the Rajaprasong intersection has expanded and now goes all the way east to Wireless Road and all the way west to Henri Dunant Road. It's a mess.
If you're playing the online game, there seems to be almost as much BS there as there is in the bar industry and much of it would appear totally unnecessary. Setting the tone for a relationship built on nothing but lies and deceit is not a good way to start with a new partner. On this note, I can only assume that Thai women never learned how to measure their height or weight. A mate who is an active participant confirms that with many girls when they spot the scales in the bathroom in his apartment and he often ends up checking their height for a laugh as well. One lass thought she was 150 cm tall and weighed 43 kg when in reality she was 147 cm and 39 kg. That's rather a bit of a difference!
I have long thought that the upstairs area of the Starbucks branch on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and soi 5 would make an ideal studio apartment. Change the windows to two-way glass to preserve your privacy and you'd have a great condo with a ringside view of the Sukhumvit zoo! It's a great spot to have a coffee and wile away an hour or two – and I'm always surprised at just how quiet the upstairs area is.
The volcano eruption in Iceland and the unfortunate consequences of delayed and cancelled flights throughout much of Western Europe is not just causing havoc in Europe but has spread to these parts too. Some European visitors are stuck in Thailand and cannot return home while it must be a huge frustration for those in Europe who had booked their holiday to Thailand which they had no doubt been looking forward to for months and now cannot make it out! Of course for those stuck in Thailand it could be fast becoming a nightmare for they will have incurred unexpected expenses and in some cases may even be forced to do a visa run. No, I don't think the friendly Immigration official will accept the Iceland volcano eruption and flight delays as an excuse for overstaying. This is just another in a long line of events that will have an impact on the Thailand tourism industry. I chatted with PJ, the popular manager of Old Dutch, on Friday night, and he was spot on when he said that if you had written a script for all of the problems and damage that the Thailand tourism industry has suffered over the past several years no-one would believe you!
The Sportsman Bar in Washington Square has a free BBQ each Saturday night and they also have one of the most affordable roast dinners in Bangkok on Sundays. It's a nice spot to escape the mayhem.
Ace British author Steve leather, author of the hugely successful Private Dancer as well as a bunch of really great thrillers, has a video online promoting his newest book, Nightfall.
Following on from last week's column and the mention of dodgy taxi meters, a long-time reader and mate, who happens to be a taxi driver back in my homeland, advises that the easiest way to tell if a meter has been rigged is to check the seal certifying that the meter has been verified. Apparently all meters when verified have a small piece or wire around them and he has seen these in Bangkok taxis as well. If you're unsure, gently pull the seal to make sure it is fastened. If loose it has possibly has been tampered with. No dodgy meters for me this week.
I always piss the Mrs. off when I refuse to let the parking attendants at restaurants – some of whom resemble cowboys – park the car when we go to a venue with staff whose sole duty is to park your car and retrieve it for you when you leave. I insist on parking it myself. I am not talking the better hotels here, but riverside restaurants and the like where the car park may be tight and perhaps 100 – 200 metres from the restaurant, a distance that may as well be on the other side of the planet as far as some locals are concerned. Well, this week my decision was vindicated. We had eaten at my favourite riverside restaurant way down on Rama 3 Road and were driving out when I noticed one of the shirtless parking attendant cowboy's unsuccessful attempt to manoeuvre a customer's car out of a tight space. He made a meal of it and the bumper of the black Honda Civic left a long gash of about 2 feet down the side of a late model off-white BMW M3. And what's the bet that the shirtless punk didn't breathe a word of it to anyone, despite stopping to check out the damage, smirking, and jumping straight back in the driver's seat! Yes, I know this could just as easily happen anywhere else in the world but the propensity for it to happen here just seems that much higher. Really, don't let these cowboys park your car unless you like to gamble.
The motorbike taxi boys at the Asoke end of Soi Cowboy have erected a sign (pictured right) stating that they are the Soi Cowboy chapter of the red shirts!
Australia's ABC may have burned its bridges in these parts after the top rating Foreign Correspondent show ran a story on Australian TV on Tuesday night this week about things that one absolutely cannot talk about within Thailand. Apparently the ABC office has been abandoned and the reporters involved in the story are no longer on Thai soil – and almost certainly will never return. How long will it be before the Thai authorities pull the plug on YouTube, not for the first time, from where the video can be accessed?
Being Songkran, Bangkok was much quieter than usual and there seemed to be less water fighting, especially on the first day. On the final day things revved up and one had to either drive or take taxis to avoid being drenched, as per the photo below which could most definitely NOT be titled the traditional spirit of Songkran.
Quote of the week comes from the dirty doctor, "Songkran calls for Plan B – blogging, bonking and books!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Caveman, "The Black Widow".
CNN caught some great images of the Songkran water fights in Bangkok this week.
There's some funny business going on at Safari World.
The Economist commented on the violence in Thailand.
From the Bangkok Post, is Thailand on the fast track to becoming a failed state?
Despite the political situation, Songkran was still fun in Thailand this year.
From the Sydney Morning Herald come the tragic story of a young Aussie who died after being beaten up in Thailand.
The Washington Post commented on the Thailand crisis.
The FT covered the damage to Thailand's tourism industry with all the carry on going on in country this past week.
Yep, we're a bit light on news this week. I ventured out to Sukhumvit only briefly this week. That said, I don't think too much was going on, it being Songkran, one of the quietest weeks of the year. We're now officially into the low season and as always it's morbidly fascinating to see which businesses make it through and which don't. For sure, with all of the problems the Thailand tourism industry faces, there are going to be casualties…
Your Bangkok commentator,