The heart of Bangkok's most popular naughty bar district has question marks hanging over its future. In several months time the leases on the bars in Nana Plaza come up for renewal and bar owners have a big decision to make – whether to stay in business or hand back the keys to the landlord. A number of bars in the plaza are running at a loss month after month and some frustrated bar owners have revealed to me that they just don't know what they are going to do come renewal time.
When Nana Plaza was sold more than 2 years ago – that is the land on which the structure sits, including the beer bars out front – the new owners set about transforming it from the dirty, run-down bar area it had become in to a modern, clean and safe bar complex.
The entire electrical system was overhauled, as were the water and sewage systems. Fire hydrants and hoses were installed. The entranceway was widened. Walkways, stairways, walls, ceilings, the roofing, the lifts and the escalator were replaced as the decaying plaza underwent major and much-needed repairs. With a new sign out front and everything painted yellow, I dubbed it Banana Plaza. While that made it sound like a bit of a joke, the owners did a great job in doing what had to be done.
The overhaul cost plenty – some say in excess of 60 million baht, but that was nothing compared to what they paid for the property, a cool 750 million baht. The new owners were obviously keen to see a return on their investment and there was only one way that was going to happen – rents had to go up.
In the bar industry, rent has never been the biggest expense for bar owners. Salaries and alcohol supplies make up the lion's share of the outgoings. Rent has traditionally been the third largest expense, often a distant third. That all changed when Nana changed hands.
Just how much each bar pays in rent is a closely guarded secret. Bar bosses will happily tell you how much money the bar made the night before, or even the age of their youngest staff member. What they pay in rent they are often tight-lipped about. But bar owners do talk amongst themselves…and while they may not disclose how much rent they pay to you, they will often tell you what others are paying, so by talking to Peter about Paul and Paul about Peter you soon get the picture.
Soi Nana, clearly the naughty boys' favourite Bangkok bar area.
And the fact of the matter is that the rents in Nana Plaza are astronomical.
The beer bars out front pay the most, the highest is more than a million baht a month, that's more than $US30,000 per month!
Within the plaza, ground floor bars pay about twice what bars of a similar size on the top floor pay, and those on the middle floor pay somewhere in between. A couple of ground floor gogo bars pay over 700,000 baht per month in rent.
So how does that compare with similar properties around town?
There are big name farang-run bars in Patpong and Soi Cowboy paying less than 100,000 baht per month. I only know of one bar in Patpong and Soi Cowboy paying over 200K baht in rent per month.
What about bars outside of the naughty bar industry? Is it simply that there is a premium placed on bars with chrome poles and barfines?
Like I say, bar bosses seldom reveal what they pay in rent so we have to wind the clock back a little to get some verified numbers. A few years back, Molly Malone's on Soi Convent was paying over 500,000 baht per month, and what was then O'Reilly's (now Flann O'Brien's), in the same neighbourhood but a better specific location on Silom Road, paid 600,000 baht.
When you compare what Nana Plaza bars pay compared with pubs around town, the numbers are in the ballpark.
What ought to be considered is that the English and Irish pubs open from morning until late, are right on the main road and they sell food and drinks.
Soi Nana is a dead-end soi, a neighbourhood which has largely been taken over by sex tourists. The beer bars may be open all day, but the gogo bars are open for just 6 hours a night and have much less on the menu.
Some shrewd bar operators manage to secure favourable deals. In its original location opposite Sukhumvit sois 31 and 33, The Dubliner paid its rent several years in advance, a figure approaching 10 million baht. That sounds like a lot, but it worked out at less than 100,000 baht per month, a bargain for prime Sukhumvit.
Spellbound may be the most fun gogo bar in the plaza, but is it profitable?
Comparing the rent for a bar in Nana Plaza with a shophouse around the corner on Sukhumvit in the Nana area, rents are about the same. A double-shophouse on Sukhumvit between Asoke and Nana can run around 400,000 baht per month rent, about the same as a medium-sized bar within the plaza goes for.
The rent becomes an issue because a number of bars in Nana Plaza aren't profitable. The best run bars like Rainbow 4 and Spanky's do very well. All of the ladyboy bars are highly profitable. But some bars are losing money and some flirt between breaking even and otherwise each month. Some bar groups have profitable bars offsetting the losses of other bars in the group. My best guess is that about a third of the bars in Nana Plaza lose money each month.
In fairness to Nana Plaza bar operators, there was no knee-jerk reaction ratcheting up drinks prices to cover the rent increase. But did they have a choice? If drinks prices had shot up to 250 baht and barfines to 1,000, Cowboy and Patpong bar bosses would have welcomed a stampede of disgruntled former Nana customers. Drinks and barfines in the plaza cost no more than anywhere else and the dubious honour of the bar area with the highest prices actually goes to Soi Cowboy.
The concern for Nana Plaza, and Soi Nana in general, is that with bars losing money, some owners are thinking about walking away. They are hanging on for the high season, desperately hoping that things turn around.
It's not just high rent that is hurting bars; the industry is facing various challenges, all of which have been documented in this column.
So far there have been few fatalities. Strikers Sports Bar moved from its position outside the plaza (where Hillary 4 is now) down to the car park of the Raja Hotel due to the rent increase.
Which begs the question: why don't all the Nana Plaza bar owners get together and put up the money to build a new Nana Plaza a few hundred metres down the soi where the rent would be much lower?
They can't. The law surrounding the issuance of gogo bar licenses doesn't allow it.
It's not easy for Nana Plaza bar owners to make a profit with rents so high and fewer customers about.
More than a decade ago, three parts of Bangkok were designated as entertainment zones – Patpong, RCA and Rachadapisek Road, and entertainment zones are the ONLY areas where new gogo bar licenses can be issued. Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy are not in entertainment zones. The gogo bar licenses of bars outside the designated entertainment areas are grandfathered through and can continue to be renewed, but new licenses can't be issued in those areas.
The only realistic option for Nana Plaza bar owners wishing to relocate is to head over to Patpong, but there's no sign of that happening.
One Patpong bar owner who shall remain nameless always says the same thing when the plaza comes up in conversation, "I couldn't sleep at night knowing I had to pay that amount to the landlord every month."
Crunch time for Nana Plaza is the middle of next year when the lease renewals come up. Many bar / business lease contracts work on a 3+3+3 contract where every 3 years there is a rent increase built in to the contract (often 10%). On top of that, key money is due – and that can run to many millions.
Bar owners wait impatiently for the high season to come around every year. The upcoming high season is critical for the future of Nana Plaza.
Soi Nana is the only one of the 3 major bar areas with an infrastructure in place for naughty boys and Nana Plaza remains Bangkok's premier naughty bar area. The plaza may be golden in colour, but it's not a case of all that Nana bar owners touch turning to gold. From the land owners to the bar owners, the customers to the girls, everyone wants the plaza to thrive in its current format. I do think, however, it's going to be a nervous run up to the middle of next year for everyone involved with Nana Plaza.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the small restaurant at the front of the New York Gardens beside Sukhumvit soi 12 called Pantaree, named after the owner. There is the soi 12 location and three others in Nonthaburi as well.
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 – The challenges of women.
Thai women can be weird. I had a blowout with my wife of 9 years yesterday. Her birthday is coming up and I had planned a surprise 5 nights in New York City, my hometown. We were going to do it all, the whole tourist trip. She was very enthused. Then I mentioned I had booked us in to the (legendary) Algonquin Hotel. She informed me she won't stay at the Algonquin because I mentioned once that I had been there many years ago with a former girlfriend. We got in to a big argument I knew I wasn't going to win so I switched hotels with a loss of baht. All women are nuts, but Thais can be extra challenging.
The Ko Tao murders.
I was surprised you did not refer more directly to the Ko Tao murders. Here in the UK it has been on the TV virtually every day and the papers are relating any piece of information they can get and conflating the dangers. It has not been helped by the lurid details (how many times do we need to hear "semen"?) about the attacks coming from Thai media and the videos like the one of the bodies being dragged and bumped in and out of trucks. But mostly it is the boys in brown who look completely incompetent. You are not normally shy of being critical as shown by the final part of this week's report (my favourite such event was a colleague who got stopped near Viphavadi on his way to school – "bikes not allowed on a Tuesday" he was told as hundreds sailed past but he handed over 200 anyway). All the normal ways of policing like closing down the crime scene / closing the island have been debated in the UK media. Even the fact that the rooms of the deceased were not looked at for 2 days seems bizarre. Then there's the DNA evidence or lack of evidence alongside the often contradictory statements from the police. I was amazed, not so much by the chaos of the investigation, but that no one was scapegoat and charged – case closed. Here in the UK I have already been asked – is it safe? is backpacking unsafe? are there any islands as bad as Ko Tao? why are the police so bad? Of course the media interest is heightened by the photogenic nature of the couple and that will go with the funerals (although the return of the girl's body to the UK was reported extensively yesterday) – longer term this will have further impact on tourism. For some time to come when people in the UK think of Thailand they will visualise the murdered couple and think not the land of smiles but of rape and murder.
A positive influence.
Following on from your story about strolling along Sukhumvit, it seems your influence spreads far and wide. The "fxxk corruption" graffiti that had been attached to the bus shelter for more than 6 months has gone. A work of art is no more because you took a photo of it!
I was out in Soi Cowboy and noticed rather high prices at Déjà Vu. 200 baht for a drink and 230 baht for a lady drink. Being curious, I asked about the barfine and was told 5,000 baht for the girl I was talking to! I asked her why. It was obvious something wasn't working and the bar had just a couple customers. She said she didn't know and pointed out the owner sitting in back, and that he owned a number of bars on the same street, all with the same high prices. She also said he didn't want the girls going out and that's why the barfine was so high. Do you know what's going on? It doesn't seem to make sense unless you like empty bars.
The gogo grandma.
You refer to the 50-year-old dancer from DC10. I don't know if she's the same one, but a long time friend who preferred older girls always bragged about the gogo Grandma at DC10 and said she not only had a good body, but was hotter in bed by multiple degrees than anyone he'd ever been with. I'd watch her dancing and the only thing preventing me from barfining her was having to traverse the walk of shame at the mouth of Nana Plaza. I could have used the old short time room in the 3rd floor corner, but I've never been a fan of grotty sheets and fixtures.
I was glad to read a few lines in your column about Camillian Home, who do extremely valuable work with AIDS orphans. If you ever want to make an article about them, or just learn more about their work, you should contact Father Giovanni, an Italian priest who has been running this organisation for the last 20+ years. He's a great character with a heart of gold. Not at all a typical priest.
The rains came to Bangkok this week and trade on Sukhumvit suffered. It felt like the middle of the low season….and that's just what it is.
The iconic sign out front of CheckInn99 might not be around for much longer as City Hall prepares to tear it down. The reason for its removal is bizarre even by Bangkok standards, with the footpath outside Checkinn99 between Sukhumvit sois 5 and 7 designated to be part of the Bangkok cycle path. The footpath is to be made wider by removing any part of the shop fronts that protrude out further than they are supposed to. The removal of such signage, it is claimed, will open up the pavement and make it more accessible to tourists passing by on bicycles. Like I say, it's just plain bizarre.
Bar4 on Soi Nana reopened this past week having received a 10-day closure order related to the death of the American at the Nana Hotel 2 weeks ago. No-one is quite sure exactly what the closure order was issued for.
Underground, the newest gogo bar in Nana Plaza, was set to reopen last night with a mix of regular gogo dancers and coyote dancers. Here's wishing the troubled bar well.
Add Erotica in Nana Plaza to your list of bars worth visiting. The girls seem happy, are smiling – and there were plenty of cuties present this past Friday night.
A few girls in Dollhouse in Soi Cowboy have gone under the knife to aesthetically improve themselves and the bar itself will soon go under hammer with the owners keen to spruce it up before the high season comes around.
There is a change of venue for the next Nanapong dance contest. The last contest was such a huge success at Club Electric Blue in Patpong soi 2 that the next event will be held there too. There's no change to the date – October 12th, 2 weeks from today.
Japanese beer Kirin is now available in Thailand. It is being brewed in-country which keeps the price down. Fans of Kirin beer can find it at the Robin Hood, on the corner of Sukhumvit soi 33/1, where a bottle will set you back 130 baht. If you're on a budget and don't mind drinking before the sun goes down, Kirin is available during happy hour, between 4 and 7 PM, along with other local beers, for a very reasonable 75 baht. And if you're in the Robin Hood and feeling peckish, the roast chicken is excellent, the portion is large and it's just 350 baht (without any of the BS ++).
Speaking of English pubs, The Bull and Bush on Sukhumvit soi 33 is finished, that is finished as in abandoned and not finished as in complete. The long-running project which promised so much has come to a grinding halt with word that the money pot is empty. Estimates have it that somewhere between 14 and 18 million has been sunk in to the project which, from the outside at least, still looks like MUCH more work is needed to complete it. Apparently the cold room, lift and electrical wiring are all done but with no money left and some people claiming not to be paid, there's little hope that the project will be completed.
The top floor of Nana Plaza is going down like the Titanic and Cascade ladyboy bar aside, business is appalling on the 3rd floor. Billboard was the second most popular bar in the plaza for some time – only Rainbow 4 served more customers – but it has been on a rapid downward slide since key figures left not so long ago. Next door, Wild Thing has never done well and that leaves just one other bar on the top floor, Cascade, a ladyboy venue which, like all the ladyboy bars in the plaza, does consistently well.
Directly opposite Billboard, on the top floor of the plaza, work is slow on the plaza's newest bar. No name is known and no timetable has been announced for when it will open.
One Bangkok gogo bar manager tells me that more customers walk in to a bar with a beer in hand which they plonk down in front of them and when approached by service staff protest that they don't need to order a drink because they already have one (notwithstanding it has a 7 Eleven price tag on it)! It's not that common but that it even happens at all shows the amazing cheek of some people.
Many expats love that bar on Sukhumvit soi 23 that is not technically part of Soi Cowboy, even if it is just a few steps around the corner. I seldom mention it which baffles the hardcore. I just don't like the vibe in there and the two times I have stepped inside there was a level of tension unseen in any other gogo bar in the city, save for the old upstairs rip-off bars in Patpong. No, you won't get ripped off there, but it just doesn't have that sabai sabai / sanuk feel that most chrome pole bars do. What is almost as off-putting are the reports from (white) customers with a prime seat who are physically moved when a bunch of Japanese customers walk in. Their drinks are picked up and moved by staff as security stand over them, ushering them in to the cheap seats. Forget it, it's not my type of bar.
In which Pattaya bar does the mamasan get, on average, 400+ lady drinks a month? She really works guys to buy drinks for her and the owners of the bar must be thrilled at the numbers she clocks up. To some customers she might be a bit of a witch but to the bar's owners she's definitely an angel.
I notice that what I call the salesman phenomenon is alive and well in the bar industry. That's when someone talks up big the bar / company they are working for, but as soon as they leave and move on to a new bar / company they talk up the new company while at the same time absolutely trashtalking the old one and saying how much they always hated it! It makes them look rather foolish. It's not something specific to the bar industry, but the extent to which some in the bar industry really trashtalk their previous boss, place of work, colleagues etc can be brutal.
One of the amusing, yet awfully sad comments that you hear from some sexpats and sex tourists – and yes, it is predominantly these two groups – is the disbelief when something breaks their personal stereotype of Thai women. Some only know Thai women involved in the bar industry and their whole idea about Thai women is formed on what they see in the bars. Outside of the bar industry they find it hard to believe that many Thai women are, for example, not motivated by money. I raise this because this ugly phenomenon reared its head when a Thai woman submitted articles to the readers' submissions section of this site in English that was every bit as good as most native English speakers. Seriously, if you find yourself thinking that all Thai women have certain traits, try and spend some time away from the bar industry.
What is the collective noun for freelancers, you know, the word used to describe a group of something, like a pride of lions. How about a phalanx of freelancers, perhaps? And for those of you who have ventured to the dark side, what would the collective noun be for a group of ladyboys?
Talk about a conundrum for Brits and those following coverage of the ongoing investigation in to the murder of two English backpackers on the island of Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. There we have BBC's man on the ground in Thailand, Jonathan Head, reporting about how two young Brits have been killed and how the perpetrators have yet to be caught, with images of the good-looking youngsters being shown and the grisly details of how she was raped and they were bashed to death. At the same time, behind Jonathan you see this beautiful white sand beach, with crystal clear water and palm trees, the very definition of paradise.
There seems to be even more reports in the local press about ATM skimmers being installed on ATM machines and the number of ATM fraudsters operating in Thailand. As a reminder, the safest ATM machines to use are those which are located INSIDE shopping malls. These malls have security and are locked at night which makes it difficult for the skimming device to be installed.
I wonder if the day will come when satang coins are discontinued? Supermarkets seem to be the only retailers pricing items in units of 25 or 50 satang – and even then it's only a relatively small number of products. With 25 satang worth less than 1 US cent and 50 satang worth less than 2, the cost of first minting the small denomination coins and keeping them in circulation has to be greater than their face value. I remember when red buses were 3 baht 50 satang. Today they are 8 baht and the conductresses spurn gold coins.
If you are not planning to have kids with your Thai girlfriend, I strongly suggest that it is YOU who takes responsibility for ensuring that she does not get pregnant. So many Thais have a remarkably lackadaisical attitude to safe sex, even if the one they're with is nothing more than a casual partner. And while many Thai women are relaxed about the idea of unprotected sex, most are strongly against the idea of getting an abortion – which just happens to be illegal in Thailand (but like so many things, illegal, yet available). Many local women would love to have a luuk-kreung child and many will attempt to fall pregnant to trap the farang. With this in mind, condoms or even a vasectomy is the way to go – although I think condoms are preferable for the protection they offer against STDs. OK, so this is nothing specific to Thailand and a woman getting pregnant to trap a guy happens the world over, but there is one trick I keep hearing that Thai women use which I never heard of elsewhere. With guys who otherwise use condoms, she goes in to the shower and bonks him there, knowing full well that there are no condoms at hand. I keep hearing about this approach.
Quote of the week is about relationships with large age gaps, "Money is a key factor, but money alone will not create a lasting relationship."
Reader's story of the week comes from a half-Thai / half-foreigner, "Do We Really Need More ‘Thainess'?"
A terrified Briton flees Ko Tao after death threats.
Is there a lesson for Thailand after the Indonesians drive those who worked at the infamous Dolly bar district underground.
The last photo of the two British backpackers murdered on Ko Tao is published by the Telegraph.
A van with 10 British tourists travelling at high speed crashed into an SUV near the border with Cambodia.
A young German who begs in Pattaya by day and drinks and chases girls by night may be deported.
The Bangkok Post coins an amusing phrase about the boys in brown, to protect and self-serve!
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 am concerned about what may happen in the case of being involved in a motor vehicle accident in Thailand. I have a Thai driver's licence and I drive my girlfriend's car from time to time. I consider myself a careful driver, I never drink when driving and have never had an accident. My girlfriend has 1st class insurance for her vehicle. She tells me that in the case of an accident, drivers can be fined, have to pay (a large amount of) compensation to an injured party or in an extreme case where, for example, someone is killed, the driver of a vehicle involved may even be sent to prison – even if it is clear that they are not at fault! We keep going back to a scenario where I am driving along a main highway and a motorbike pulls out from a side lane right in front of me. I would be unable to avoid it and there would be a terrible accident. Odds are that the motorcyclist would be killed. My girlfriend says that in such a situation I would go to jail, even though the accident was unavoidable and the other party entirely at fault! Is what she says true? If one is involved in an accident here, where you have a driver's licence, full insurance and are not at fault in any way, can you really be punished like this? Please do let me know because if that is the case I will never get behind the wheel of a vehicle here ever again!
Should there be a motor vehicle accident which results in death you should immediately contact both the police and your insurance company. The representative from your insurance company will collect evidence to defend your case alongside police who will also collect evidence. The prosecutor will decide whether to proceed with charges based on evidence police collect.
If the police do decide to proceed with the case then you will be considered a suspect unless the prosecutor drops the charges or you prove your innocence. Depending on your insurance policy, your insurance company may provide bail so that you could appoint a legal representative to defend your case.
If the police charge you then you should also consider providing reasonable compensation to the family of the deceased. This would also help to smooth your case, so that they may decide to not proceed with the case. If you could show that it is from negligence; that you were not drunk and it was not a hit and run, that you have shown reasonable support to the family, and you do not have any criminal record, usually the judge may sentence you to 1 year, or 2 years or 3 years imprisonment or even issue a suspension of the sentencing and probation.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors always recommends that if you are in a fatal accident to ensure you have legal representation to negotiate with the family and police.
Question 2: I have a child born and raised in Thailand who holds both a Thai and a foreign passport. As his mother is terminally ill and we are planning on leaving Thailand for permanent relocation to the West, I am inquiring as to what must be done with registering his name on a housing certificate with no remaining relatives or property left in Thailand. I am also seeking information regarding his future requirements of military service in order to maintain his Thai citizenship and, most importantly, his passport.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: Assuming your son was born in Thailand, he would have been listed in the hospital's "house registration" at birth. This is standard procedure for every Thai citizen born in a hospital. The hospital would have provided the birth certificate and the paperwork to move the child's registration to a house address at the District Office.
Registration for military service is compulsory for every Thai male. At the age of 18 he would enroll himself in the military reserves and at the age of 21 he would attend the selection process if he were in Thailand. If he is out of the country for instance, and unable to attend the selection process he would need to ask family matters to help him postpone it. Alternatively, he could contact his nearest Thai Embassy or Consulate to help him in this matter. He can renew his passport overseas at the nearest Thai Embassy. Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors recommends that you don't allow it to expire as this makes it easier to manage Thai matters when he gets older.
Nothing really crazy has happened in the bar areas recently, nothing quite like, say, the overnight demolition of Sukhumvit Square, the catacombs of bars where Chuwit Park sits today. One Sunday morning 12 years ago we woke up to news that it had been leveled overnight. Bangkok is a place where just about anything can happen, but I wonder if it's quite as crazy as it used to be. Sure, you can't discount just about anything happening here, but these days things do seem just a little more restrained….and I can't make up my mind whether that's a good thing or bad.
Your Bangkok commentator,