It is home to Bangkok's biggest fetish club, but it's not Patpong. Beer can be had for as little as 40 baht, but I am not talking about Soi Cowboy. Bars popular with Japanese sit alongside bars popular with Westerners, but this is not Nana Plaza. Hostess bars feature ladies in evening gowns, but Rachada Road it isn't. It's surprising what you can find these days on Sukhumvit soi 33.
Sukhumvit soi 33 has a reputation, and until several years ago, had a concept. Go back far enough and soi 33 bars were all named after famous dead painters – Monet, Renoir, Dali etc. The soi pretended to be high end and its reputation, entirely justified, was that it was expensive.
When soi 33 first got going – almost 3 decades ago – all the bars were the same format. The concept was simple. Pack the bars with attractive women, for the most part natives of Isaan often taller and fairer-skinned than found elsewhere. Dollied up in evening gowns and in tasteful surroundings, soi 33's bars had a different feel, and more class, than the city's gogo bars.
A number of the women working on soi 33 were university graduates and some could actually hold a conversation in English away from the usual bar talk nonsense. With few exceptions, the women in soi 33 wouldn't fit in the gogo bar environment, and vice versa. The bars' target market was well-heeled foreigners willing to spend it for a better experience.
A stroll along soi 33 today reveals that the original concept has been abandoned, and currently there is more variety than other bar areas, with perhaps the exception of Patpong.
Some classic soi 33 hostess bars remain and still follow the original concept, including old favourites Christies, Renoir and Monet.
Many of the newer venues on soi 33 which claim to be hostess bars aren't really. They don't follow the original concept of softer music, women dressed elegantly and the atmosphere laid back. The more modern hostess bars feature friendlier girls more likely to be kitted out in streetwear or slutwear, and they can often be seen standing outside the bar hollering the sort of nonsense you hear in Pattaya's beer bar sois.
In Soi 33, farang-friendly bars sit alongside venues where the white man is prohibited from entry!
Perhaps the biggest change to soi 33 has been the growth of Japanese venues. With conspicuous signs in English stating that they are "Japanese hostess bars", a not so subtle hint that whitey isn't welcome, the Japanese get the most attractive women.
So today soi 33 features "classic" hostess bars, modern hostess bars, Japanese bars as well as a few oddities, like The Office, which miraculously straddles format and succeeds as both a sports bar and a hostess bar. There are a bunch of massage outlets, but with names like Teen Massage you just know that being a skilled masseuse is not a requirement for employment. There's Mojo's, where live music meets coyotes, and Demonia, the fetish bar. There's almost something for everyone.
The sois reputation for sizeable checkbins precedes it, but today soi 33 is not that expensive, at least not in terms of drinking. A throwback to the early days, most venues have a happy happy before 9 PM with drinks priced around 80 baht. And if there's not much in your wallet or the ATM machine isn't working, there's always the Tuktuk Cafe where draft Leo is just 40 baht before 9 PM, Pattaya beer bar prices in what is supposedly Bangkok's most expensive farang bar area. And for the drinkers, Moulin Rouge has a sign advertising unlimited drinks for one hour for 399 baht, with no restriction on the time of night.
The perception of soi 33 is high prices, but you can drink on the cheap, if you so wish.
Sukhumvit soi 33 is also home to many eateries, from The Londoner – a favourite of mine for years – which sits at the start of the soi, to Pan Pan, the inexpensive Italian popular with the Thai middle class, to Basilico, the glass-fronted pizzeria that foreigners seem to have a love / hate relationship with to Tenderloins, the popular Aussie bar and grill that sits right next to the tree.
There are also a number of places to stay with Livingstone's, an oasis in the middle of the city where you feel like you are a million miles from the centre of this big, crazy city, to the more short-term type of accommodation offered at the Peep Inn.
Soi 33 is no longer exclusively hostess bars. That's not so bad, but it has no clear focus. Today it is a mishmash of venues, where customers from some venues are prohibited from entering others, where pricing is confusing – your first drink could cost you anything from 40 baht to 900 baht, depending where you go. The perception that drinks will cost you twice what they do elsewhere remains. It's not that long ago when drinks in the soi really did run twice that at Nana and Cowboy.
A night out in soi 33 – assuming you choose not to indulge – will set you back no more than a night out in Nana or Cowboy. You might even find the laid back nature of most bars to your liking, but the perception of premium prices remains and seems to keep people away.
Soi 33 is paying a high price for the perception that it's still home to high-end bars. Even in its heyday it was never really high-end, merely pretending to be. The primary reason why soi 33 is struggling today is not due to high prices, or ugly girls or boring venues, but the perception that the soi doesn't offer value for money. Even on a Friday or Saturday night, it's quiet. It needn't be. If you're looking for a change of pace, soi 33 might be just what you're looking for.
With business so bad, how many venues in soi 33 are in the black? Certainly the Aussie stronghold, The Office, which some say is the best sports bar in Bangkok, does well. Their take might not be quite what it was in the halcyon days of several years ago when it really was one of the busiest bars in all of Bangkok, but Bob does a sterling job running it and unlike the soi itself, his venue has a focus – live sports, with an emphasis on sports popular Down Under – rugby, rugby league and cricket. And if my last couple of visits are anything to go by, soi 33's sports bar has more attractive women than most of the hostess bars.
Another venue which consistently does well is Demonia. Its location deeper in the soi does it no harm. As a fetish bar, Demonia has a niche market and would probably do well even if it was the only bar located down a back soi. Its appeal is rather different to other venues in the soi.
A temptress in Sukhumvit soi 33's Demonia.
Soi 33 should do better than it does. It's more laid back and the attitudes found at Cowboy and Nana are largely absent.
The widespread perception is that soi 33 is expensive, a pricey area with girls not indifferent from what is found elsewhere. In fairness this is only partially true. It won't cost you any more to drink in soi 33 than it will in Nana or Cowboy. If you ask a lady to join you outside the bar, note that barfines from 1,200 – 1,500+ baht are still the norm. Questioning managers and owners why barfines are so high has yet to get a reply that makes any sense.
As new venues open, Soi 33 moves further away from the original concept. A number of bars have added an outdoor seating area and the casual attire of girls in many venues kills any notion of a high-end bar area.
There is little in the way of co-operation between venues, no concerted effort to reposition the soi nor a collective effort to market it.
Soi 33 may have moved away from its original concept and lost its focus, but it's somehow still worth visiting. Less visitors means less attitude. The perception of high prices has kept the Singha singlet-wearing rabble away which can only be a good thing. There are easily enough drinking spots to make for a good night's exploring, including many tucked down side sois off the main drag. Despite struggling to stay on the city's bar map, soi 33 somehow manages to survive.
From the new Tenderloins, looking across at Degas and the alley down to The Office.
Last week's photo
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken in Silom soi 4, a popular gay soi which is also popular with couples. A number of readers thought it was Soi Cowboy. The first person to email me with the correct location of the photo wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British fish and chips restaurant. The second person to get it correct wins a 500 baht voucher from one of the 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.
Terms and conditions: The Duke's Express voucher MUST be redeemed by June 2012. The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. Prizes are only available to readers in Thailand at the time of entering and are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per week! If you wish to claim a prize, you must state a preference for the prize you prefer, or list the prizes you would like in order of preference – failure to do so results in the prize going to the next person to get the photo right.
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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 – Distractions of expat life.
I remember living in Hong Kong and heading out most weekends into Wanchai. I look back now with amazement at some seriously high-powered and desirable guys who were genuinely looking for a decent girl, being led around by the nose by working girls. Certainly it was a case of supply and demand because the local Cantonese girls are pretty dreadful and Filipina maids are, let's just say, not too mentally challenging. I had a great job at Merrill Lynch and it took me well over a year to pin down my wife. Her bag was full of cards from MDs, VPs, guys who were making big dollar decisions, alpha males saying "So sorry", "Yes please see me again". I'm sure that looking back, none of us would ever put up with that ever again! Hong Kong is a serious pressure cooker and you have to get out to blow off steam, but so many guys became addicted to the scene. It's worse than Thailand in that regard. At least in Thailand you can have an actual lifestyle. I'd say out of about 30 good friends I had there, 3 or 4 weren't ruined by that place, with some jailed even. I never saved a cent in 8 years, spent it all on holidays getting out of there 2 times a month!
The danger of having an ATM card with a local bank account.
I was the victim of an ATM scam in Thailand orchestrated by an Algerian crime gang that managed to rob me with consummate ease, of 276,000 baht. I would love to take the bank to court, the charge being that they failed to protect my money as well as they could and should have. They seem to be the only bank in Pattaya, and I have been in all the rest to check, that doesn't have a simple service in place that costs about 10 baht a month, whereby every ATM transaction you, or in my case someone else made, sees a message sent to your mobile phone alerting you of the transaction. They were able to make 3 withdrawals in less than 1 minute of 20,000 baht, then another 20,000, and 10,000 baht out of my account. They did this at various ATMs for 5 consecutive days, cleaning out my account and leaving 200 baht. The worst part of this is the absolute lack of interest that the bank has shown. I am a member of the Pattaya Expats Club and when I warned the members at our weekly meeting, one of the organisers told me to contact a senior bank executive who works in a head office in Bangkok who had given a promotional talk. All I got was the corporate line telling me to read the warning sign on the ATM machine. I replied saying I could talk a little Thai but don't read Thai and needless to say all the signs were in Thai. I make it a rule to only use the same machine at the branch I joined. The bank manager purports to speak no English and it was only when I went to the main branch that I was even told about a smartcard that is supposedly swipe proof. I admit that I let someone advise me how to retrieve my card after it would not come out of the machine. It was a Saturday morning and the bank was closed, so I was standing there thinking about what to do, but as the CCTV footage shows no-one was hovering behind me. But this bloke managed to retrieve the card, pass it to an accomplice who swiped it and then put it back in the machine. At the time I thought nothing of it apart from feeling grateful for his help. I contacted the police and also several lawyers. We even gave the police a little sweetener to get the CCTV footage but the more I got embroiled in the Thai machinations, and many fruitless emails between this bank lady, I decided I could do without the stress. Everyone advised me that I was wasting my time and money. In one quote from a lawyer, seemingly plucked out of the air, I was quoted 90,000 baht to proceed. I admitted defeat.
The silent treatment.
I met my wife working as the night cashier in a guesthouse in Pattaya 4 years ago. We have been married and living in Australia for the past 2 years and what a gal she is. She is 32 years old and attends English school 2 days a week and the other 3 days she does volunteer work with the elderly and they all adore her to bits, as do I. Everything is fine with us until I do something to upset her and then she gives me the silent treatment for 2 – 3 days. I can talk and get no reply. Do other guys married to a Thai experience this over trivial matters, like one too many drinks on a night out? Nothing major as I would never be unfaithful to her as I love her very much. I just wish she would get over the little stuff in a more swift fashion.
Working their way up to trailer trash.
I really enjoy your travels and honest info about what you encounter. Your interviewee was a bit off in his description of Thailand visitors as "Trailer Trash". The majority of farangs that I meet aspire to one day work their way up to trailer trash, but for most, this is just an impossible dream. Unfortunately, many of these idiots are breeding with Thailand's lower classes forming a new, super ignorant underclass.
3G, but only if…
This week DTAC / Happy introduced 3G to Bangkok. All you have to do is go along and register and the upgraded service is free. But this is Thailand, so of course it isn't that easy. They will only allow you to register if you bought your phone from them. There is no such nonsense when I use Vodafone in Australia or T-Mobile in Europe. I use the service provider and they don't give a rat's fart where I bought the phone. My wife is not a normal Thai who will just say, 'Okay, sorry to trouble you'. She argued with them and told them that both she and I will look at AIS / 1-2-Call instead. Which we will.
Can ladyboys relate?
There is no more reliable indicator of the craptacularness of a bar than having a ladyboy mamasan. Lollipop gets by because it has THE prime position of any bar in Bangkok, but Voodoo, Hollywood Rock, Fantasia, Mercury and Carousel are uniformly dismal. My personal theory is that ladyboys can not relate to either the girls or the punters.
It appears that Soi Cowboy is becoming Begger Central. On Saturday night there were at least seven or eight kids running around making a nuisance of themselves, and I spotted three or four women holding babies who couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. If Bangkok wants to show it is still very much a third world country, that's certainly the way to do it.
So you're in the market for a 30-year lease in a prime part of Sukhumvit? Have you considered Washington Square? Rumour has it that the Indian Muslims who own it – the Nana family no less – have dropped the asking price from 2 billion baht to 1.3 billion baht. In real money? That's $US 43 million for the right to manage the land for 30 years, quite some drop from the previous asking price of $65 million.
Still in Washington Square, but not for much longer, iconic American bar and grill, Bourbon Street, will celebrate their 25th anniversary with their usual 2-day buffet extravaganza, the last before they move to their new location on Ekamai. The 25th anniversary party will take place on the weekend of September 17 and 18 and the buffet will feature 50+ items from their regular menu. On Saturday 17th it runs from 5 PM until late and on Sunday 18th from 12:00 noon – 10 PM. At 325++ baht per person, which includes bottled water, it's a good deal. They'll be happy hour prices on all local bottled beers, draft beers, house wines, cocktails and selected liquor, offered at 100 baht each.
The Rainbow Group is doing their best confuse punters with the girls from Rainbow 3 being transferred downstairs to other bars within the group, and vice versa, basically meaning that they have reverted to the former set-up. The dancers and staff from Rainbow 3, who temporarily switched with Rainbow 1, have switched back. As someone said to me, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. If so, then someone in the Rainbow Group is certifiable.
Pretty Lady Bar on the ground floor of Nana Plaza is having a fancy party on Friday, August 26. Shows, special drink offers and party food, it's not to be missed! You can win drinks and barfines while having fun with the fancy ladies. All are welcome!
Bottled Carlsberg is now widely available in a number of Bangkok gogo bars!
Chang Beer is now available in Angelwitch, Billboard and Las Vegas in Nana Plaza at the special price of 120 baht. That's a good price for Bangkok gogo bars, especially when you consider the Arab-owned bars in Soi Cowboy charge an extortionate 180 baht per beer!
In the mid to late '90s there was a good argument for Voodoo being the best bar in Nana Plaza. Filled with the Isaan beauties, it was a magnet for those who enjoyed Bangkok's nightlife in its heyday. But oh, how the great have fallen! Voodoo is doing its bit to reinforce the notion that Nana Plaza is the place for ladyboy lovers and today Voodoo appears to be stocked 100% with ladyboys! The bar has been in decline for some time and the days when it was packed with beauties and empty seats were hard to come by are a distant memory. Trying to recapture the halcyon days of the past, management installed that mini-pool which was used for those peculiar shows where girls and dwarves battled and the loser ended up in the drink. It was all, quite frankly, a dismal failure. It's one thing to try something new – and for that they need to be congratulated – but what was left was a tiny dance stage in a very large bar. Bar owners need not venture from the tried and tested formula – stock a bar with lots of pretty women and guys will flock there. It looks like Voodoo is off the radar for most of us.
If the idea of sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned bar and watching girls dance in bikinis while enjoying music for free appeals, then the place to go is Tilac Bar in Soi Cowboy. Just don't sit in the left-hand side and you can have a night of free entertainment! The service staff that look after the left hand side of the bar are efficient and perform their duties as you would expect, but those who service the back, front and right-hand walls seem completely disinterested in customers. Whereas in many bars the staff are pesky and all over customers, asking them if they want a drink well before their current one is even close to being finished, in Tilac you have the opposite problem. It can be difficult to get the service girl's attention – and not necessarily because they are busy, but because they seem to be in their own little world. Anyway, like I say, if you want to get a free show all-night long, Tilac is the place to go.
The Strip in Patpong soi 2 will host a pole dance contest on August 24th, that's Wednesday of next week. It kicks off at 11 PM. Nothing gets these girls more excited than shaking or doing things to a pole, and with the promise of money for those who perform best on the pole, you can expect quite a performance. These events are much more exciting than a regular night in a bar, so if you're at Patpong on Wednesday night, check it out!
The antics and behaviour of the Japanese in Thailand never cease to amaze me. A young, good-looking and well-dressed Japanese guy was sitting next to me in Tilac, doing his best to communicate with one of the prettier girls. His English was poor and hers wasn't a lot better so communication was a problem. He bought her a drink but after about 15 or so minutes it was such a struggle that he decided to go elsewhere. As he was leaving, he gave her a 1,000 baht tip. I later chatted with the girl and inquired whether it was money for a barfine for her to leave later, or money he owed her, or something to that effect. She confirmed it was the first time she had met him and even she was surprised at the size of the tip. No wonder the girls love the Japanese guys!
I swear that everywhere I go in Bangkok, I hear people speaking 'strine than all other languages, or should that be accents, put together. There are Aussies everywhere at the moment and I guess they're taking the chance to escape the Aussie winter.
Comments that a night out in Bangkok costs much more than it used to are well-founded, but in fairness, if you know where to go, you can still get a good deal – and that doesn't mean going to out of the way places. The Golden Beer Bar, that's the beer bar attached to the outside of the Nana Hotel, has 70 baht beers all day, all night, as well as still having the cheapest lady drinks I know of in Bangkok at just 60 baht. No wonder it continues to do a roaring trade.
Signs are popping up around town advertising the sports event of the year, the Rugby World Cup which will be held in, and hopefully won by, New Zealand! The good news is that ESPN STAR Sports has announced it will screen ALL 48 matches live in Thailand if you have cable TV! As far as venues showing the matches, I imagine every expat pub that has ever screened rugby will show the matches. After all, this is the 3rd largest sporting event on the planet and the biggest sporting event this calendar year. As a keen rugby fan, I'll include more about venues to watch the matches and promotions in the column of September 5th, just before the tournament kicks off. (Note to bar owners: Get this info to me ASAP!)
And where can you buy the shirt of your favourite rugby team? Well, my advice is that you DON'T buy a rugby shirt on the streets of Bangkok. Fake sports shirts are amongst the top selling items in Bangkok's street markets. The quality varies from mediocre to pretty close to the original. It's a little different with the rugby shirts on sale in Bangkok which seem to be of a very poor standard. Rather than actually copy the original shirt – which is different in design for each country – what the shirt makers appear to have been done is simply use a generic rugby style shirt and produce it in the colours of each team with their logo added along with a "Rugby World Cup 2011" emblem. So this means that the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks shirts available on the streets of Bangkok are all exactly the same in design, and it is just the colours and badge that distinguishes them.
You have to laugh at the nicknames some guys give the girls they have a relationship with in the bars. One of my mates has a stable of regulars across Cowboy and Nana, each of whom he has given a nickname: Shorts, The Energizer, The Shrieker, The Mouse, Lights Out, Baby Doll and Princess Pla!
The branch of Foodland in Sukhumvit 5 which closed a few months back was disappointing to many, probably not so much the closure of the supermarket itself but of the branch of Took Lae Dee, the popular and inexpensive diner out the front which was always good for a late night meal. Word has it that it will reopen in December.
As is the norm at this time of year, bar and restaurant trade is detrimentally affected by the rain. We've had rain pretty much every day, often heavy, and some nights it has continued to fall for hours. Bangkok might be good for a fun night out, but when it rains the combination of bad traffic, slippery streets and the idea of getting to a bar drenched and then sitting in ice-cold air-conditioning makes it an easy decision to just to stay home.
I guess it's a year or so since they marked out a cycle way through Lumphini Park, which has encouraged cyclists to whizz through the park. The cycle lane is clearly marked to be used only between 10 AM and 3 PM. More and more cyclists use it, and not only do they not stick to the cycle lane, they use it throughout the day. The many security guards stationed throughout the park do absolutely nothing, preferring to catch some zzz under the shade of the nearest tree and avert their eyes to anything that might interrupt their sloth. Lumphini Park is one of my favourite places in Bangkok, and absolutely my favourite place to exercise, but since the cycle lane was added it just hasn't been the same.
If you happen to find yourself down towards the bottom of Sukhumvit, don't be shy to use the skytrain extension where travel between the 5 new stations is absolutely free until January. There is a 0 baht button on the new BTS ticket machines at all the new stations for the free section of the line.
A few old friends have updated their websites. The DC10 gogo bar in Nana Plaza has a bunch of new photos and a new look. Town Lodge, the Swiss-owned and very reasonably priced, comfortable budget hotel on Sukhumvit has a jazzed up new site. And FindLoveAsia.com, the 100% free Asian dating site has a new interface.
Quote of the week is nicked from the Khmer440 forum. "Why is it that expats living in Cambodia constantly talk shit about Thailand but expats in Thailand never talk shit about Cambodia and often like it?"
Reader's story of the week comes from Sawadee2000, the sorry tale of losing one's job in Thailand, "And Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out! "
A report is finally released on the cause of the Chiang Mai hotel deaths.
CNNGo looks at Bangkok's best high-end restaurants.
The Bangkok Post looks at changing sexuality in Thailand.
Ask Sunbelt Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
Question 1: In the case where we open a standard company with 49 / 51 shares, what rights or say do I have in big decisions like sale of the company? Legally, if the Thai 51% owner wanted to exclude me is there anything I can do to retain some connection or say in how the company is run?
Sunbelt Legal responds: In Thailand, it is possible to have two tiers of shares: Preferred shares and Ordinary shares. When setting up the company, the promoters decide who gets what kind of shares and how many votes per share that person holds and hence votes in shareholder meetings. If this is a concern for you, then you want to ensure that you hold a class of shares with more voting rights then at any shareholder meetings you would have more voting rights and a stronger say in any decisions that are made.
In a recent column I explained why I don't partake with the ladies of the night. Some readers disputed what I said to be true, unable to comprehend that a guy would choose not to pay over the odds to have what would probably be crap sex with a woman he finds ugly! One theme which ran through a few emails was how I could write about the industry when I don't participate. Just as a war reporter needn't have been a solider, participation is not a requirement. If anything, I think the fact that I am impartial and observe from the sidelines may actually be an advantage. Of course, if what you really want is someone to perpetuate the common myths and tell you how wonderful everything is and what a great guy you are for giving a woman money which ends up where it is supposedly most needed in Thailand…then I'm not the best guy for the task! But hey, in the absence of anyone else doing anything even remotely close to my weekly roundup, it looks like you're stuck with me!
Your Bangkok commentator,