It's a 4-hour operation that takes place at the same time every day, right in the heart of downtown Bangkok. It involves hundreds of young men and scores of young women and is carried out with military-like precision, if not quite military-like discipline. It's not the changing of the guard at the palace, and neither is it the opening of the doors of any shopping mall. From mid afternoon everyday of every week of the year, a huge team goes to work setting up one of the most popular attractions in Bangkok, the Patpong night market.
Watching a market being set up hardly sounds like the most exciting way to spend a couple of hours, but that's exactly what Pattaya Gary and I did this week.
By night, Patpong is a perplexing mix of restaurants, tourist market, sex tourism, Asian street life and colourful characters, yet by day it's just another city street. Well, not quite. The two main Patpong sois are technically private property which is why you never see a traffic jam in either soi. Ideal for cutting between Silom and Suriwong, the few vehicles you see in Patpong tend to be delivery vehicles.
At around 3 PM the gang gets to work on setting up the night market which has overshadowed the bars on Patpong's main soi for more than 20 years.
It's late afternoon and the stalls are being set up. A racket is coming from the Suriwong Road end of Patpong's main soi. From what appears to be a storage facility, teams move metal chests from huge stacks on to hand carts. The chests are rolled out of the dark storage facility in to daylight and loaded on to large trays which are collected by forklifts. With a system comprehensible only to those in the business, the forklifts then zoom off along the soi, delivering the numbered chests to the appropriate stall.
With chests too heavy for even the strongest man to life, everyone has to work as a team. There's a sense of urgency as everyone goes about their tasks with no time to stop for a breather. Young, fit men working hard – honest, physical work – none of this sitting at a desk which seems to be the de rigueur these days. Manual labour, real work, that which makes you sweat profusely and every muscle ache.
Forklifts zoom up and down the soi, drivers working the gears, gearboxes and engines screaming at full volume while a small army of staff scream at those foreigners taking in the spectacle. Some inadvertently venture in to the middle lane, risking life and limb in the direct path of speeding forklifts.
Patpong might not be open to general traffic, but pedestrian access is allowed and many use it as a short cut. Not a single Thai makes in to the middle lane where the forklifts are racing up between the storage facility and the stalls, dropping off heavy chests with merchandise to be unloaded. They have an ingrained sense that the middle lane is to be avoided, almost like every Thai has known it from birth. Foreigners on the other hand mindlessly meander, causing those on pedestrian patrol to scream out warnings in the most basic and broken English. Every 30 or 40 metres there seems to be someone whose job it is solely to warn outsiders of the dangers of the middle lane. In such an operation in the West outsiders could not possibly get so close to the action.
Most of the workers are decked out in a football shirt with only the glamour teams supported, Liverpool and Barcelona especially popular. When did you ever see a Thai wearing the shirt of a team that never wins anything? Is there any Thai who owns a West Ham shirt? Or Fulham? Or West Bromwich Albion? With that said, can anyone explain the strange phenomenon of women throughout rural Isaan wearing replica WBA small youth size shirts? What's that all about?
Forklifts zoom one way, hand trucks are pushed in the other.
The odd bar has a cleaner going through, getting the premises ready for the night ahead. Where the night market requires hundreds to prepare it for the evening ahead, most bars have but a solitary cleaner.
The tempo picks up as the light starts to fade.
With the tables set up and tarpaulins covering them, the stalls are ready for merchandise to be laid out.
The next task becomes getting the electricity connected and lights turned on.
It doesn't get dark until around 7 PM in July, whereas at Christmas and New Year the light has gone by 6. That's an extra hour to get things done. The concern at this time of year, however, is not the fading light. It is rain, and looking to the sky things ominous…
Contents of the chests are strewn all over the market, dozens of bags of merchandise to be emptied out at each stall – and there are hundreds of stalls. All manner of tourist junk and copied brand-name goods, from handbags to football shirts to pens and watches. Whatever the latest craze may be, odds are you can find it at Patpong.
The night market opens early evening and runs until well after midnight. But what Patpong is best known for amongst single men is available 24 hours. Even with all of the market setup commotion going on around them – and it's loud, really loud – touts pester those foreign men strolling in the area who don't have a woman in tow. I damn near have to curse one pesky tout to stop him bothering us.
13 long years ago I took several months off to study the Thai language full-time. Every week day morning I'd get off the skytrain at Sala Daeng, head down Silom Road and cut through Patpong around 7:30 AM. While most of us came to school by skytrain, I was one of the few who would walk through Patpong. The language school was part of the CCT – the Christian Church of Thailand – and many of my classmates were missionaries. With my disinterest in all things religious, hearing that I walked through evil Patpong every day confirmed me in the eyes of many as a heathen. Every morning without fail I would be accosted by the same touts, keen to get me to go upstairs so they could get a commission. They would see me twice every day, on the way to school early morning and on the way home around lunch time, and they never let up.
With so much physical work and heavy lifting, most of the Patpong Market setup team are males. Once the stalls are set up and the heavy lifting has been done, females start to appear.
The stalls seem sturdy with solid-looking pipes interlocked together to form the framework. Canvas covers the stalls and keeps the rain out. Fluorescent lights are brought in and the electricity supply is connected bringing the market to life. Even with a setup team which must number hundreds, it takes many hours to set it all up.
As sturdy as the stalls look, I wonder how the structure copes in the peak of the rainy season, on those occasions when the wind picks up and the gusts become fierce. Do parts of the market ever get blown away?
Has thought ever been given to developing the market in to some sort of permanent structure? A significant investment for sure, but it would create a more comfortable shopping experience, even if it would change the atmosphere forever.
The clouds are getting darker and workers scurry to erect sheets of plastic over the narrow walkways between the rows of stalls. More thought appears to have been given to keeping merchandise dry than visitors. The canvas covering the stalls is firmly attached whereas the plastic sheets over the walkways don't appear to be.
The Silom Road end is the busiest part of the market and is where most visitors enter from, making it the first part of the market to be set up, the first section to open. The last rays of daylight remain and visitors are already browsing the overpriced contraband. Much of the market is still a mess and hardly ready for visitors. Open chests are everywhere, tools are scattered around and it's a mission negotiating your way through all the crap strewn haphazardly around while last-minute repairs are carried out.
The rain that threatened has held off and the Patpong night market is just about ready for another night.
The setup team of hundreds has transformed the area in just a few hours from a quiet lane to one of the world's most famous tourist markets. Rain or shine the tourists come; rain or shine the show must go on.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of Napoleon Bar in Sukhumvit soi 33. Despite me thinking it was one of the easiest photos ever run in this column, only a few readers got it right.
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 – Few seem to care.
Could you imagine if a taxi driver in downtown Auckland or Sydney hacked to death a foreign tourist with a machete (for whatever reason). It would be on the front page for months. The public outrage would be enormous, and it wouldn't be because of fears that the tourist industry would be damaged, but simply because of the sheer criminality that this could happen in their city. This is the gross disparity that we so frequently see when incidents occur here in Thailand that would be condemned back home.
In your most recent column one thing that you kind of hit on, but kind of skimmed over, was that farang men are getting bigger – both heavier and just plain bigger. I've noticed it especially over the last year as generations that maybe couldn't afford the trip to Thailand now can. A lot of the guys coming here from Australia, the US, etc. are massive. Even with the larger size of Thais today because of better diet etc., some of the westerners coming now are double or even triple the weight of the girls.
Safer intercity buses.
Interesting to hear from my wife that the overnight VIP bus from Bangkok to her corner of Isaan now takes 90 minutes longer, arriving at 7:30 AM instead of 6:00 AM. She asked the driver why he was going so slowly (surely the first time that question has ever been posed to a bus driver in Thailand) and he said he was now tracked by GPS by the company. He and the other drivers don't like it. I do.
Rainy season report.
The good bars do OK in low season and the weaker bars struggle. Most gogo bars do not start filling up until after 9 PM. In low season it is closer to 10 or 11 PM. Gogo bars such as Angelwitch, Spanky's and Billboard often get very good late crowds that stay until closing. When you come so early you only see the beginning of the evening, which is not an accurate reflection. Spanky's rocks very late every night. I also think people forget that when it rains this can seriously affect the whole night. The new breed of visitors does not need much excuse to stay in and save their money. The old school such as me would go out all the time, rain or shine. I think the visitors nowadays are wimps, scared of the rain!
Englishmen to be the new Indians?
A couple of weeks ago I went to Soi 6 and was accosted – as many men are – by a cute young girl. I went and sat in her bar and started drinking with her. Not too long later, a group of 7 or 8 Northern Irish came in to the bar. They were noisy and obviously in good spirits. It didn't take long for them to start fooling around with the girls. They were grabbing them, touching them and trying to flirt with them. Some of the girls – who were perhaps drunk, or not particularly attractive – enjoyed the attention. But other girls – mainly the pretty ones – did not take kindly to these sleazy overtures. I didn't like it but I let slide. That was until one of them started sleazing on to the girl I was sitting with. What annoyed me was that as I was sitting next to them so they could obviously see that I was with her. Against what might appear to be better judgment, I told them to behave themselves. They calmed down a bit after that and we politely introduced ourselves. My girl gave me a bit of a scolding and told me she could handle herself and not to cause trouble. I looked at the owner and the mamasan and they didn't seem too bothered at what was going on or some of the girls' complaints. As an Englishman, I have to say the worst of the British Isles rock up over here – and Pattaya attracts the very worst. Reading your entry a fortnight ago on your chat with the English bar manager slating the Brits and championing the slender, polite, no-fuss, profligate Asian men left me nodding in agreement from my own experience of spending time in Phuket, Bangkok and Pattaya over many years. If our rabble carry on like that and the Asians gain in popularity, perhaps the Brits will be left like the Indians – the girls in bars and nightclubs running for cover when we're inside, but most likely, the doorman not even granting us entry!
Curious minds on Beach Road?
You touch on the most scathing criticism that can be leveled at any person or group – a lack of curiosity. Without curiosity, much of intellectual life cannot happen. I sat a bargirl down next to me one day to show her what I was doing on the Internet and to show her how we could look up anything that interested her. Nothing interested her. Brain dead and eyes dead. Just waiting for me to give her money. I used to try to communicate with the girls. You know, take an interest. Be a good guest in their country, blah, blah, blah. What a waste of time.
The joys of a Thai education.
Last year I was in Hat Yai having a few beers with some English teachers. One fellow was fired from his job because the students complained the course was very difficult and he was pushing them too hard. My wife said that when she was in school the teachers would cancel classes to go on holiday or they'd leave in the middle of the session to go shopping with other teachers. Her niece was smacked in the head repeatedly by her teacher and told she was dumb because she had a mole on her lip. The stories one hears are unbelievable. As they say in the Bronx, 'nobody knows nottin'!
Girl of the week
Ann, The Strip, Patpong, Bangkok.
Ann was made famous after starring in The Strip's hit YouTube video.
She has already made the odd appearance in the Stick archives.
If you have an inkling for an inking, you might want to try the new tattoo parlour on Nana Plaza's ground floor, Monster Ink. It boasts lovely lasses to hold your hand through the experience, and if the pain gets a little too much, you can fortify yourself by slugging down a few drinks to deaden the senses. Monster Ink is already more popular than the old Spirit House bar which it replaces ever was. Monster Ink has an appealing modern design, and a monster-sized sign out front!
Directly opposite Monster Ink and also on the ground floor of Nana, Pretty Lady Bar will hold a Monsoon Season Party this coming Friday, July 19th, offering free food, shows and a lucky draw. Parties at Pretty Lady Bar are heaps of fun so swing by if you find yourself in the plaza on Friday night.
Who is that selling gas-filled balloons at the bottom of the escalator in Nana Plaza? Parting with 120 baht gets you a balloon full of some sort of poisonous gas. Apparently the idea is that you inhale it and the effect is similar to being pissed. What's wrong with having a few drinks?
What's going on at Crazy House? What looked like the first new gogo bar to open in Bangkok in a long time had a temporary sign outside advertising for gogo dancers with a salary of 15,000 baht per month offered. That sign has been taken down and permanent signs have gone up on the building saying bar, pub and restaurant. That has caused confusion as to just what format the new venue will be.
Next Monday, July 22nd, is a public holiday. Being a Buddhist holiday increases the likelihood that bars will be closed because the sale of alcohol is prohibited. However, it's seldom clear as to whether bars will be closed or not with official word often not given until the day before. In Bangkok you never know with Nana and Cowboy, whereas you can safely say that Patpong almost always opens. Hopefully I'll get official word and be able to include something in next week's column. I guess this is simply advance warning to be mindful that a drink may be a little more difficult to come by on the 22nd.
I note there remains a certain reluctance from a lot of naughty boys to venture to Patpong. It's not hard to understand and even the most ardent Patpong fan will admit that the Patpong brand has been seriously damaged. First was the introduction of the night market which diluted the nightlife and brought masses of mainstream tourists to the nightlife area. This has since happened at the 2 other major Bangkok nightlife areas, as well as Pattaya's Walking Street. Any naughty boy concerned at being seen by his fellow countrymen should head to the bars popular with Thai men. The second issue at Patpong is the rip-off bars and the failure of the landlord and the authorities to put them out of business. Typically upstairs bars, touts lead unsuspecting tourists upstairs in to a bar where filthy shows are performed and visitors later presented with astronomical bills – and threats if they don't pay. The market and the rip-off bars are easily avoided. Avoid soi 1! The touts stay away from soi 2 which is largely trouble-free. Count me amongst the small number who actually prefer Patpong over Cowboy and Nana. Even with all that glorious neon and the surge in popularity from featuring in Hangover II, Soi Cowboy just doesn't do it for me these days. Nana is fine and is where the prettiest girls are, but there's something about Patpong that draws me back. If you are looking for better attitudes, give Patpong soi 2 another chance.
Signs have appeared on the median barrier below the skytrain tracks on parts of Sukhumvit Road stating that the fine for jaywalking is 200 baht. There are signs in both English and Thai. Unlike historic sites and national parks, the government has not imposed an amount of 10 times what Thais pay on to foreigners. Seriously though, crossing Sukhumvit Road or any busy road in Bangkok is such a nightmare that I try to use the overhead walkways. I've yet to hear of anyone – Thai or foreigner – being fined for jaywalking.
The Crossbar, a few hundred metres up soi 23 from Soi Cowboy, will show Sky Sports' coverage of The Ashes in HD, complete with full commentary from the usual suspects of Beefy, Bumble, Gower, Atherton and co. This is not the Star Cricket feed which infuriates cricket lovers with ads shown between balls. The second test from Lords commences on Thursday at 5 PM with coverage, including the crucial toss, starting at 4 PM.
The problem of underage girls working in Bangkok gogo bars is, I suspect, worse than ever. Never before have I received so many tip-offs from readers about bars with girls under the age of 18. It used to be said that the way to avoid underage girls, those with STDs and reduce the chance of theft by a bargirl was to take a girl from a bar, as opposed to from a freelancer venue, or worse still, off the street. There are no such guarantees! Seldom will the girl, the mamasan or any staff in a bar admit a girl is underage. I'm amazed that more guys aren't caught as there are heaps of girls underage at the moment and it could be quite a money spinner for the authorities. So how do you know if a girl is underage? I suggest using the ladyboy rule. With ladyboys in Thailand, if you suspect she is a ladyboy, she probably is a ladyboy. Applying that to girls in the bars, if she looks underage, she probably is.
The fellow I previously referred to as the mad scientist, the one whose inane scribblings in a distinctive blue marker pen could be seen all over Sukhumvit, seemed to disappear for a while. In all my wanderings I didn't see any of his markings on lampposts, advertising hoardings, public seats and signs around Sukhumvit as I used to. Perhaps he found a new 'hood to scribble in? So there I was strolling along Sukhumvit near Emporium when I came across him in the midst of his work, scribbling away. He had a school exercise book open beside him and was copying some of what was in the book, and adding to it. I managed to fire off a couple of shots at which point he became aware of my presence. He leapt up and erupted with absolute fury, surging towards me and hurling a tirade of abuse so loud and so coarse that caused everyone on the footpath to scurry away in different directions! Needless to say, I legged it!
Fares on the skytrain increased recently and no longer are fares denominated in units of 5 baht. Where once ticket vending machines accepted only 5 and 10 baht coins, now they also accept 1 baht coins (but not 2 baht coins). However, this is an issue and there seems to be calibration issues as 1 baht coins fall through the machine without registering and go straight in to the returned coin tray. Try again and inevitably the same thing happens…and again…and again! This is not an issue confined to one machine but appears to afflict them all. It becomes a test of your patience if you find yourself behind someone in the queue who insists on inserting and reinserting a 1 baht coin which the machine does not recognise. Needless to say, queues at BTS stations are getting longer, and I cannot imagine how bad they must be at peak times at the Asoke station. There's even more reason to have a prepaid card.
Recently I've mentioned the troubles I and friends have getting a cab in Bangkok. There often appears no reason for it. Traffic isn't bad, it isn't raining and it's not like I want to go a long way. It just seems that in some neighbourhoods it is easy, irrespective of time, traffic conditions and intended destination, and in other places or at other times it can be difficult. The one place I always have problems getting a cab is, surprisingly, in the Nana area when I want to go east – specifically on soi 3 and down around the corner on to the main Sukhumvit Road past sois 3/1, 5 and down to soi 7. Getting a cab heading east on Sukhumvit Road from that point can be a real mission at night, yet getting one on the other side of Sukhumvit going in the other direction is never a problem. What makes me scratch my head is that getting a cab on the even-numbered soi side of the road i.e. heading west, often means heading in to heavy traffic yet going the other way down Sukhumvit is not usually as bad.
Chatting with a friend who visits Angeles City in the Philippines where he enjoys all that it is best known for, he mentioned that in 70 odd visits he has never once used a condom – and he has never caught anything. Amazing.
The way some foreigners expect everything to be ultra cheap in Thailand seems to me to be a hangover from the days when the dollar bought 40+ baht and when many things in Thailand truly were a bargain. Prices have moved and sure, things mightn't be quite the bargain they used to be but it's amazing how some visitors have completely unrealistic expectations about prices in Thailand. There seem to be more who, for example, expect a seafood buffet for a few hundred baht or certified US Angus beef in their 200 baht steak sandwich.
Currently my favourite bar, The Strip in Patpong 2, will hold a lone ranger-themed party next weekend with an early happy hour and midnight specials. Details below:
Quote of the week comes from Shady, "I think all women are nasty, but that may be just because I'm a deviant!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Korski, "Angkor Wat: Some Wayward Notes (1)".
A Bangkok taxi driver kills an American expat with a long knife after the passenger refused to pay a 51-baht fare!
Overweight Thai police officers are being sent to boot camp to get back in shape!
Time magazine says that Thailand's full moon parties have become a trashy disgrace.
KFC may sue a restaurant in Thailand which replaced Colonel Sanders' face with Adolf Hitler's!
The Ministry of Public Health says younger Thai men use larger sized condoms than previous generations.
Video footages shows a Thai government official surviving an assassination attempt.
Two Thai women forced to become sex slaves in Hong Kong are rescued after escaping and contacting the Thai consulate.
Down in Phuket, a mother is arrested for the odious practice of encouraging her 14-year old daughter to work in karaoke.
Ask Sunbelt Asia 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 have recently split from my 'wife'. We have been together as a couple for about 4.5 years, of which we have been married for almost 2, and I've supported her totally during this period, and very comfortably. The marriage was purely a village ceremony, no paper was signed, the marriage was not registered, she didn't produce divorce papers from a previous marriage, neither did I, and there was no pre-nup.
I have agreed to what I consider a fair settlement, and to her credit she is not actually pushing for me (yet). I purchased a house, have 2 cars and 4 bikes plus the usual household possessions (of a high quality / price). Not all of the assets were acquired during the marriage, but most were. All the main assets are in her name. I also agree to forgo the return of money lent to the family, of which I got back over half but can't be bothered to fight for more now.
The settlement gives her a car, 2 bikes, gold accumulated over 4 years, a bit of land in her village and a million baht. She has agreed to give me the chanote to hold until I sell the house, which is worth 3.5 million and I will retain all the money from the sale of the house and the house contents.
I want to know if in the event she were to insist on more than I have offered (and to which she has agreed), would she actually have a legal basis to back her up considering the marital status being 'a village ceremony' with no paperwork? Do you also recommend I get this settlement in writing by a lawyer to prevent any repercussions?
It may be possible to obtain a written settlement but if she were to go to court they most likely would follow precedent over a written agreement that seemed unfair.
Question 2: I am close to signing a deal to take over a long-established guesthouse here in Chiang Mai. As the new owner I plan to make some major changes and one of those is to get my own new team in. No doubt there will be some staff I keep on but I think it best to start afresh with a new team. I understand that Thailand has draconian laws regarding severance for existing employees whereby they have to be paid many months salary depending on their length of service. My question is who is responsible for meeting the cost of severance pay for the existing staff. Is it the existing owner or the new owner, me?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: When taking over an existing business, you (as the buyer / new owner) would also need to discuss with the seller (as the current owner) about the responsibility and / or the liabilities of the business. This includes the existing staff who wish to remain with a new owner. You should inform the seller of this desire and a clear line of responsibility must be written out, that you decided to retain a few staff, and that those retained staff will then be your responsibility as this would be considered as continuous employment. However, for the staff that you did not wish to retain it would then be the seller's responsibility to terminate the non-retained staff and it would be the seller's responsibility to provide them with the severance pay due as stipulated by the Labour Protection Act.
The story of the Bangkok taxi driver stabbing to death an American passenger has been the talk of town this week and much discussed in the cyber world. The incident has been reported all around world and become a nasty stain on Thailand's image, potentially damaging the tourism industry notwithstanding, of course, that the victim was not a tourist. The question being asked by many is whether Bangkok is more dangerous today than it used to be. My thoughts? I just don't know. Perhaps it is a little more dangerous today, but then I wonder if it is simply that I know Bangkok a lot better now and am more aware of the dangers that exist. What about you? Do you think Bangkok is any more dangerous today than before?
Your Bangkok commentator,