2011 was a challenging year for Bangkok's bar areas, but then the industry has become used to operating in a challenging environment so this really isn't anything new.
2012 poses as another challenging year, a year in which the foundations will be laid for some major changes next year. Industry-wide, the challenges remain recruiting and keeping girls, the uncertainty of visitor numbers and competition from other markets.
Here's a look ahead for each of Bangkok's 3 most popular Westerner-centric entertainment areas.
It sinks in how successful Soi Cowboy has become in recent years when you notice that when regular society Bangkok Thais refer to the farang bar areas, they often mention Soi Cowboy. Yep, amazingly Soi Cowboy has replaced Patpong as the most uttered bar district name amongst the 99%+ of Bangkok Thais who have no connection with the farang entertainment industry.
But many believe that Soi Cowboy's time in the spotlight is over and it's clear it has lost the bragging rights of being the most popular bar area.
Soi Cowboy's drop can be attributed to a number of factors. Just as Nana and Patpong before it, Cowboy has suffered from the domination of one large bar group, which it would be fair to say runs its bars in a way that punters have lost interest in them. To make matters worse, the group is trying to secure more property in the soi.
The slow decline of Tilac – still a good bar, for sure, but not what it once was – is one less reason to visit Cowboy. Tilac is to Soi Cowboy what Liverpool is to English football. Once in a class of its own and with a huge following, it has fallen from grace and now fluctuates between occasional brilliance and indifference. On a busy Friday night when the expats are out en masse and a full complement of girls turn up for work, Tilac can still be magical. But it seems today you're more likely to find yourself concerned whether the small table in front of you on which two overweight girls are shuffling is reinforced for fear that it might collapse. Tilac's lineup features various shapes and sizes. In gogo bars, such variety isn't necessary.
But Soi Cowboy still has arguably the best, and certainly the most successful gogo bar in the country. At the soi 23 end, Baccarra has one of the best lineups, possibly the best sound system, a good playlist, and is equally popular with Westerners and those from the wealthier parts of Asia. Good luck getting a seat in what has been the busiest bar in Bangkok for years.
But is one bar reason to visit Cowboy? Baccarra, Shark and Tilac are always worth a visit and Dollhouse when it has a full complement of dancers is worth at least one drink. But there's no denying that with attitudes no different to anywhere else – it used to be much more laid back and relaxed – Cowboy has faded. Unless there are some ownership changes, or there is a management overhaul in a number of bars – 7 in particular – it's hard to see much change.
What is a first-time visitor to make of schizophrenic Patpong? Is it really a sleazy bar area, or is it actually a mainstream tourist attraction? The question could be legitimately asked of any of the three major foreigner-centric Bangkok bar areas today which all have the Walking Street disease – mainstream tourists gawking and taking photos – but it is Patpong, Bangkok's original farang gogo bar area, which is today most associated with, and promoted to mainstream tourists.
The main two Patpong sois each have their own personality. The soi with the market is home to most of the bigger gogo bars which are predominately Thai-owned, while the smaller soi, Patpong soi 2, is home to a cluster of foreign-owned bars at the Silom end. Bar Bar, The Strip, Black Pagoda, Club Electric Blue and Bada Bing are like transplants from the other bar areas and feature a distinctly different vibe to what is found on the main Patpong soi.
18 months ago I was quietly optimistic about Patpong. Soi Cowboy had peaked, Nana was going nowhere and there were whispers that significant investment was coming to Patpong. Some long-time Patpong bar owners confidently announced that the area would regain its former glory.
Since then the second Patpong soi has been decimated with beer bars along with hostess and gogo bars wiped off the map. They have been replaced by a hotel and other mainstream businesses as Patpong feels even less like a nightlife area than ever.
When a bar owner with 3 decades experience in Bangkok and interests in other bar areas explained to me that the rent in Patpong has reached levels not viable for bars it suggests that Patpong will forever struggle to make a serious comeback.
And some Patpong owners want out. Rumour has it that 15 million will get you one of the farang-owned gogos and 8 million will secure another. They seem like awfully big numbers.
Patpong has history – but is that enough of a reason to entice bar hounds in droves? There is fun to be had in Patpong and a few of the smaller bars have an old world atmosphere, the likes of which is harder and harder to find in Bangkok, especially with Washington Square's days numbered. Today Patpong is something of an acquired taste.
The revival of Nana Plaza is timely with the long-term lease on the property recently picked up by a group which has a number of farang nightlife properties.
Nana had been mediocre for years and been in a slow decline which I reckon started way back in 2001. Stricter enforcement of the law, premises in disrepair and souring attitudes took Nana off the radar for many.
But things have turned around. Investment is being made and money is pouring in, new bars have been built and the punters are back!
Unlike Cowboy which attracts a higher percentage of locals, Soi Nana has been sex tourist central in Bangkok for approaching 20 years and the tourist's favourite bar area giving it a high season vibrance that Cowboy can't compete with. Where Soi Nana's beer bars are overflowing with punters at this time of year, the outdoor drinking areas at Cowboy don't get going until early evening. And where Soi Nana and the surrounding area has many well-known guest-friendly hotels, Cowboy can't quite boast the same.
Why the future for Nana is so bright is largely because of two groups, each of which is investing in the plaza. From this time next year the plaza will have new landlords – and a farang managed group at that.
And then there's the Billboard Group – as I refer to them – which seems to be doing things right. Not content to just fill a bar with pretty girls, their nicely decorated venues have foreigners in charge, and they are paying the girls real money – which entices the prettier girls to work there. They haven't cut corners, not the sort of thing you usually hear in this industry. Billboard and Las Vegas have both been revelations although the latter hasn't kicked on as well as it should have, a curiosity I can't work out given the high quality shows.
That Nana's future as a nightlife complex is secure is no guarantee of success and the inevitable rent hikes could make bar owners buckle if they go too far. Still, significant investment in the plaza gives it a real chance to relive its glory days.
If you were looking to invest in a bar area or are booking a naughty boy's holiday in Bangkok, Nana's the place.
2012 should be Nana's year.
*Where* was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken outside the Intercontinental Hotel on Ploenchit Road. Not many people got it right.
Monsoon Books has donated copies of the rereleased edition of Jack Reynolds' classic "A Woman of Bangkok" along with Jon Cole's new "Bangkok Hard Time". I'm giving a copy each away along with the 2 usual prizes. That means there are 4 prizes this week. This is the last week in which these 2 books are being given away!
So where was this week's mystery photo taken?! All you have to do is tell me where the photo was taken. There are 4 prizes this week – a 500 baht credit at the Oh My Cod fish and chips restaurant, a 500 baht voucher from one of the best farang food venues and home of Bangkok's best burger, Duke's Express, plus a copy of A Woman Of Bangkok and a copy of Bangkok Hard Time.
Terms and conditions: 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. 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!
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 – Trapped in Farangland!
I've been one of your readers for years & years. I can't wait for the next Monday to come and read the new Stickman weekly column. I graduated and first traveled to Thailand in 1995. Met a girl, fell in love, 6 other trips followed until 2000. I'm now 42, married with 2 children. Good job. Happy. But every night before going to sleep, and every morning before waking up, I have her in my mind and I wonder what the f*** am I doing here. I miss her, I miss the bars, I miss Thailand. Something inside my head is broken and there's no way to fix it. Crazy stuff. I suppose THIS IS THAILAND. Never been in Thailand since 2000. Will never be back.
Living in no man's land!
Leaving Soi Bangla last night with my sister and nephew, I remarked to her that everything she had seen and witnessed in reality wasn't me. There is no way I can relate to these people, their customs and culture to the degree that I feel I'm not really here. "So why on earth are you living here, and if you're not mentally here then just where are you?" she exclaimed. "For the food, climate and cost of living, and as for where I am mentally somewhere between Heathrow and Don Meuang – The Twilight Zone", I replied. Too late to go back whilst at the same time compromising wholeheartedly on one's expectations. Living in Thailand is like trying to make something out of nothing.
Misperception with the new breed of teachers.
I agree with you that the state of foreigners living in Bangkok is getting better. I came here 4 years ago and see it changing. There are still some bad apples. I am a teacher at a pretty good school making 70k+ baht per month but every time I say I am teacher it is assumed I am some government school teacher making 28k a month and living on Mama noodles!
High season barfines and deductions.
Speaking of increased barfines during holidays / peak season, a girl I know well told me that her bar will charge a 1,000 baht barfine for Xmas Eve / Xmas and New Year's Eve / New Year's, and if it's slow in the bar or no-one is barfining, they will lower it back to 600 baht. However, dancers will have their salary cut 1,500 baht if they are no-shows!
"I'm a cop!"
In regards to people's experience with police searches, I experienced a search on my recent trip with an interesting twist. I was walking from Soi Cowboy to Nana and was stopped on the Nana side of the intersection after emerging from the subway. This is the area that in the past I have found occupied by light-fingered ladyboys so I was happy to see the police presence. However I was approached, stopped and was politely asked to submit to a search. I had nothing to hide, however my fear is something being planted on me (which you have ruled unlikely). As a result I asked to see their hands first, which they showed me. One officer began to look at my wallet while one started a frisk. Being a former prison officer I have kept a prison badge that looks very much like a police officer's badge. On seeing this, the officer asked me about it and I replied that I was a cop back home. The search immediately came to an end and it was polite laughs all around! I still carry this badge for this very reason. It has bailed me out of trouble in quite a few countries and now I can add Thailand to the list. While I wouldn't recommend people trying to get hold of fake badges and the like, if you have any type of badge that in a foreign country could pass as law enforcement it may be handy to carry should the boys in brown start asking questions.
The skytrain today.
I also see what you mean about the skytrain being crowded. We got caught in the peak hour and had to wait for 2 trains before we could get on because they were packed like sardines. We were out at 4:15 PM and I told my wife we should get going before the rush. It reminded me of the days before the skytrain when you had to check your watch regularly to make sure you grabbed a taxi back to where you were staying before the traffic became too heavy. What's with the skytrain ticket machines? The only time I see them all in service is in peak time but when it's quiet they put most of them out of service. It's like they want to make sure you wait in a queue!
Hard hit Hua Hin.
There are some photo opportunities of the damage at Hua Hin where I am now. Beach bars have disappeared, some are still present but reduced to rubble. Sea walls have been destroyed. At the recently opened, very upmarket Cape Nidra Hotel the sea wall has been demolished and access to the beach is an obstacle course. Palm trees have been uprooted out front of the Sofitel (now renamed Centara something or other). Most importantly, millions of cubic metres of beach have just disappeared – this sand will probably never return. All this coupled with a savage reduction in tourist levels makes the place look very sorry.
Another option to reach Pattaya.
Regarding how people bemoan the state of Ekamai bus station, I don't know why they don't use the minivans located at Victory Monument. If you are staying at / near the Nana area, Victory Monument is about the same distance from Nana as Ekamai. It's probably a bit closer if you go via BTS. The vans are only 100 baht and they drop you off anywhere in the vicinity of South Pattaya. Sometimes it's not that busy and VERY comfortable if you only have a few other passengers in that particular van. I imagine it's a bit quicker as well. Maybe the holidaymakers don't know about it.
Business was mixed in the farang traps and entertainment areas this week. Early in the week bar traffic was noticeably better in Soi Cowboy than it has been for months and I never thought I'd say it that it felt good to walk into a bar and see most seats full! But by the end of the week business at Cowboy had dropped away again. Up the road in Nana things have been very busy – consistently busy, unlike Cowboy. There's no doubt that Nana is benefiting much more from the high season arrivals than Cowboy.
Erotica in Nana currently has a promo on bottled Carlsberg at just 95 baht per bottle, all night long. Carlsberg seems to have been making quite a push in many farang-oriented bars the past few months.
I notice that the Robin Hood advertises an "early bird" breakfast – which is available from 9 AM. Hmm, some of us have woken up, showered, had breakfast, been through our daily exercise regime and started dealing with emails before the doors have even opened! I've heard their breakfast is good although admittedly I haven't tried it.
Brian, the ever so proud British publican of Crossbar, has added Fullers ESB beer to the London Pride and Fullers Porter that he also stocks. It comes in 500 ml bottles which go for 200 baht each.
If cute, Chinese-looking, fair-skinned girls are your thing – and they probably aren't if my observations are anything to go by because most Westerners in Thailand seem to prefer the complete opposite – but anyway, back to the point, you could try your luck with #37 in Tilac who is fair-skinned and as cute as a button. As lovely as she is, however, her shuffle on stage is amongst the least enthusiastic in the bar and may not bode well for her enthusiasm elsewhere.
It shouldn't need to be said, but clearly some need a reminder that while certain bars may be full of available women, some bars have a mix of women who are available as well as women who are unavailable. If you mix the two up things can become problematic – as a punter found out this week. Titanium in Suhkumvit soi 22 is one of those rare venues where there are women working who most definitely are available, while there are also women doing exactly the same job who are not available which would be confusing enough, but things are further complicated as the bar attracts some regular Thai women – that is women with regular day-time jobs who would never dream of being available! So there he was, a punter in Titanium, who obviously was not able to differentiate between all the different types of women in Titanium – which is never the easiest thing, especially after a few drinks. An attractive Thai lass walked past him who he found quite fetching and decided he would let her know by grabbing her backside and giving it a big squeeze! Big mistake! She happened to be of the unavailable variety and did not appreciate his actions one little bit! In fact she was so indignant that she picked up a bottle and smashed it over his head, glassing him and leaving blood everywhere. It should be noted that a similar incident in a devilish Walking Street venue known for freelancing prostitutes saw a Scandinavian end up seriously out of pocket for the same offence with a woman whose butt he pinched threatening to press charges unless he paid up what many considered an outrageous amount of money for a relatively minor infraction. It really is not a good idea to grope a girl in a bar unless you are absolutely sure she is up for it!
I can confirm that there is a chance you might see the industry's most famous Frenchman involved again in a bar in Bangkok in some capacity this year. And I can now confirm that a famous German bar owner who left not long ago might just re-enter the industry…if the rumours I am hearing are true.
Some smug guys mock Thais and those who avail themselves of the services of girls in the big soapy massage parlours. They aren't shy to joke about the high traffic that those girls get. Obviously they don't realise just how busy some of the girls in the farang gogo girls can be. In what I believe is a first – and this number has been verified and is absolutely 100% correct – a certain lass in Bangkok's Angelwitch was barfined 5 times in one night this past week. That's not a misprint. She was barfined five (5) times in one night by 5 different customers! Given that the bar gets going around 8 PM and closes at 2 AM, meaning it's just open for around 6 hours a night, that's an amazing achievement. Obviously some guys get it over and done with very quickly!
Dollhouse is planning on introducing a dentist's chair to the venue which I think will be for drinking, as opposed to the other use that some back Sukhumvit sub soi venues are known to use said chairs for…
Since the opening of the Terminal 21 shopping centre, the adjacent Asoke skytrain station has got busier and busier, especially at rush hour. It might even be that the Asoke skytrain station is even busier than Siam. It sure feels like it! It has got so bad at peak times now that it can take up to 20 minutes in 2 queues, first to change your money and then to join the queue at the ticket machine! Walking past at rush hour this past week, the queue to change money simply to get coins was in excess of 50 people in length, and the queues to get to the ticket vending machines were similar. To make things worse, there just isn't that much space and the queues snake around and block access to and from the station. It's a real debacle! There is not really an easy way around it – you could walk to the Nana station – the distance between Nana and Asoke stations is just a few hundred metres and get on the train there, but that seems like rather a hassle.
Many bars are really struggling for girls and some have been forced to take a close look at the way they do things and make a few changes in an attempt to keep those girls they have left. Some bars have become less strict, including one venue which forced girls to clock in with a fingerprint scanner. The girls hated this, although that was partially due to some mistakenly believing that it provided the police with their fingerprint. The requirement to clock in and the finger scanning was done away with and the girls became happier.
Foodland in soi 5, home of the branch of Took Lae Dee so popular with foreigners on Sukhumvit, reopened this past Thursday. The diner's lay out has been redesigned and now it is shaped like an island with seating all around the outside as opposed to the food prep and cooking section being up against the wall as it was. The number of seats has just about doubled. I still maintain that the branch at soi 16 is a much more pleasant experience with a much better standard of patron. Even my mate Dave The Rave who is quite the fan of Took Lae Dee won't eat there on the premises. He prefers to order his food, do his grocery shopping in the supermarket and then collect his food order on the way out which he takes back to his condo.
Just in case anyone asks in the local pub trivia, Soi Cowboy is 130 metres in length and Khao San Road runs a touch less than 400 metres – according to the ruler function on Google Earth.
Good news for rugby lovers with news the Setanta channel – which shows a smorgasbord of rugby – to become a regular channel on the major nationwide cable TV provider, True Visions, from January 1st. It will be channel 107 and will be available to all gold and platinum subscribers. Live matches on Setanta can be seen in many of the expat pubs but it will be great to have the option to watch at home. Needless to say, I don't think this will do pubs which show the rugby any good because now there will be the option of watching it at home, an option most of us haven't had until now.
It's the question that has been on my mind for a while and one which really needs to be asked. The New York Gardens, that is the garden area outside Sunrise Tacos and the other food venues in the complex right next to Sukhumvit soi 12, has a water trough running down one side of it. Looking at it kind of reminds of a urinal. Given that Insomnia, a late night venue is nearby, the question that needs to be asked is not just if, but how many people have, in a possibly inebriated state, come out, stood in the garden, seen the water trough, mistaken it for a urinal, dropped their trousers and taken a leak. PLEASE don't tell me that this has yet to happen. It must have, it really must!
I've always been a little harsh on the girls and their curious attitude to working as a bargirl, but when you actually take a close look at the way some bars treat their staff, you begin to understand why the ladies are not always smiling. I found out this week that one of my favourite bars has what a curious policy whereby any girl who leaves the bar (for whatever reason) and later wishes to return to the bar and resume employment must pay the bar 7,000 baht for that privilege. Just how this figure is arrived at and what the reasoning or justification behind it is, I have no idea.
One thing I have seen more of in the past year, although I haven't seen enough cases perhaps to call it a trend, is the number of down and out foreigners I see on the streets of Bangkok. Stroll around central Bangkok as frequently as I do and you are bound to see a few Westerners who have had too much to drink and are now embarrassing themselves, or who have failed to adequately plan for unforeseen contingencies and fallen on tough times. This fellow was captured the front lobby area of a cheap Sukhumvit soi 22 apartment building this week.
One of the arguments I hear from Western guys who married a Thai woman with a modest education or who perhaps is not their intellectual match is that they were not looking for mental stimulation from their wife. It's a common argument I hear all the time. But at the very same time, what I find – and I bet these guys don't even realise it – is that the guys in a marriage which appears to be a mismatch are often emotionally needy and while they say they are getting everything they want from their wife, their actions and their needs suggest otherwise. They are always on the phone or somehow craving conversation or contact with others. There's nothing worse than an emotionally needy guy – and almost all of those I know who I would describe like this married a woman with a very modest education…
I can't help but feel that this site is starting to resemble Chatuchak (AKA the weekend) Market. Chatuchak Market is huge, is full of lots of interesting products and many interesting characters, but it is so big that even with a map it can be quite difficult to navigate, and difficult to find what you're looking for, sometimes to the point that a visit can ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied. I need to think very seriously about the future of this site, and its architecture. I never ever dreamed it would grow this big.
Quote of the week comes from a mate, "No coin, no groin!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Korski, "Women to Avoid".
Are Aussies in Phuket badly behaved?
The UK's Guardian looks at future flood prevention plans in Thailand.
Thailand's tsunami alert system is slated and the Examiner suggests may be putting tourists at risk.
A young Kiwi dies after a sex romp in Phuket goes wrong.
This great photo essay shows photos of Honda scrapping hundreds of cars at one of their Thailand factories.
Channel 4 in the UK looks at the dangers of Thailand's roads.
Phuketwan looks at the dreadfully negative press Phuket is getting in its major source market, Sweden.
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: I used to be employed in Thailand with a work permit and paid my taxes here. Now my employment here has finished and my visa status has changed to marriage visa. I travel each month and my income is as a consultant working abroad in the Asian region in China, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. My core work takes place abroad only except for a few phone calls or email now and then when back in my residence. I have only a few clients, some of whom have hired me as an employee in Hong Kong and tax is paid here, some other places state that tax is already paid off the fees. I get my payment fully transparent wired to my home country in Europe. Do I need to pay tax in Thailand as well? Is the emailing and phone calls with clients (max 2 or 3 times per week) regarded as work in Thailand that requires a work permit / company?
Sunbelt Legal responds: There is a regulation that if you stay in Thailand over 6 months you are supposed to pay tax but we have had clients payments refused because they did not have a work permit. This kind of minimal work in Thailand is a grey area and the Labour Department has said it would be hard for them to make a case and even catch the individual "working".
Question 2: When I was in holidays in Thailand I rented a car and used my International or Swiss driver's licence, which never was a problem. Now I have bought a car and live here permanently on an official one year visa. I was told when I live here permanently, I must have an official Thai driver's licence. Do I really need a Thai driver's licence or can I continue with my International or Swiss driver's licence?
Sunbelt Legal responds:While an IDP (International Driver's Permit) is legal in Thailand for tourists, if you stay here for long periods you should get a Thai driver's license. Most insurance companies require you to have one and often won't cover you if you do not have one. Obtaining a Thai driver's license is a very simple procedure when you already have a license from your home country. Simply go to the Department of Transportation with a health certificate issued by a doctor, a letter of residence from Immigration (or yellow house book), your valid driver's license or IDP and passport. There you will need to take an eye test and reaction test but you will not be required to take either the written or practical exam. A car driver's license from your home country will only allow you to obtain a car driver's license in Thailand, same with a motorcycle license.
Wandering from the local 7 Eleven back to the condo well before midnight last night, the number of young foreigners who were wasted and making a spectacle in public was amazing. Yes, it was New Year's Eve and it's a time to party but this lot were out of control! They seemed to all fit the same profile – tourists in their 20s, they had mouths like sailors, the females were dressed like whores and they were shameless in their behaviour, swearing aloud, abusing all and sundry. The usually tolerant Thais looked at them not with amusement, but disdain. I admit I was hoping the motorbikes boys would take matters into their hands. The public rampage of young Westerners on the piss is something I sure don't miss!
Happy New Year!
Your Bangkok commentator,