The coldest part of the year is already behind us and that which we refer to as the cool season won't be with us for much longer. Keen for a break away from Bangkok and a few days quiet time, I headed for a place I knew would be ideal for what I was looking for, a city I have seen change greatly over the years, the Lao capital of Vientiane. The plan was to spend a few days chilling out, doing as little as possible.
They say that the elephant is the symbol of Laos, and the country is sometimes called the Land of a Million Elephants. But if the country is known for elephants, then surely the capital is known for its distinctive tuktuks, the same style as you find across the border in Thailand's northeast. These distinctive tuktuks, essentially a carriage attached to the back of a motorbike, are known as skylab.
The Laotians are a laid-back lot and the some of the tuktuk drivers parked up downtown obviously want you to be relaxed too, many offering ganja to passerby. It's alarming at first when you consider the punishments across the border for any drug crime, but it is reasonably open in Vientiane. Whereas single males in Bangkok are often asked by cabbies and tuktuk drivers if they want a girl, in Vientiane it's ganja. What I found most perturbing (factor in that I have never done any drugs in my life) is that those making the offer will often rub their jeans pocket intimating that they have it on their person. It seems to be a reflection of the type of people who visit Vientiane where drugs are more in demand than girls.
The number of tuktuks hanging around the most popular tourist attractions is dwarfed by the number lingering by the riverside, which in turn is dwarfed by the number at the market. There are a few private taxis in operation but the most common means of getting around for visitors is by tuktuk.
Sleepy Vientiane may be, but there is evidence of change and of progress.
In a country with the worst roads I have ever seen, the many flash cars on the roads are very much a status symbol for you simply cannot enjoy them in the way they were designed to be enjoyed. Modified rice rockets are common. I also spotted late-model Rolls Royces, a new Mercedes AMG SLS Gullwing, various Porsches and a gorgeous blue Shelby Mustang GT 500.
Amazingly Vientiane now has a peak hour with streams of traffic a sign of increased prosperity and at times it can be a challenge crossing some downtown roads. With few sets of traffic lights to break the slow but steady flow of traffic, it may not be Bangkok or Saigon yet, but perhaps one day it will.
Pha That Luang, the most important temple in Laos.
Vientiane isn't big and the population is around a million – but it doesn't really feel it because the area popular with tourists is small, just a few small blocks. Most of the tourist hotspots can be seen in one day.
Pha That Luang can be walked around in a few minutes and most visitors likely wouldn't stay more than half an hour or so. The huge outdoor reclining Buddha next-door is a photo opp and Wat Saket, the large temple back down near the river is, again, a short stroll and that's it.
There is a Buddha Park outside the city but if you've been to Sala Googaew in Nongkhai then it's hard to justify the lengthy journey out of town to get there.
Vientiane has a few museums but as is often the case in this part of the world – the War Museum in Saigon the one exception – they aren't that well done and don't hold your interest unless the material on show is something you have a particular interest in.
Downtown Vientiane is littered with temples and you're never far from the spectacle of Lao-style Buddhist temples and monks in saffron robes.
With the sights done and dusted, the appeal of Vientiane is the vibe, the relaxed and laid-back atmosphere which combined with the charming cafes, bakeries and restaurants makes it a pleasant spot to spend a few days.
Some foreign restaurants are well established and Vientiane has something of a developed dining out scene. One French restaurant near the fountain boasts on its sign that it has been in business since 1975.
The days of $5 dinners at French restaurants including a glass of wine are long gone, but sumptuous $10 3-course lunches abound in French and Italian eateries.
There really is not much to see and a visit to Vientiane is more about the food, the drink and the vibe than anything else. Many of the best restaurants feature foreign food and are run by foreigners.
Coffee in Laos is good – of a similar quality to what you get in the better coffee houses in Thailand – but as good as it is, Vietnamese coffee it is not.
If you hunt around you can find Vietnamese coffee at supermarkets in Vientiane. M Supermarket – more of a large minimart than a supermarket – is located between the Patuxay Monument and the Dalat Sao Mall and has a good selection of local Lao coffee as well as the popular Vietnamese brand, Trung Nguyen.
One of the things I really like about Laos is the lack of public anti-social behaviour that has become a blight in parts of Thailand.
With that said, you see similar practices in workplaces that make you cringe with regards to health and safety.
A Vietnamese nail lady near the riverfront.
The ladies strike me as being more comfortable in their own skin than their sisters across the border. There's less make up, little in the way of brand names and they haven't strayed so far from their roots.
Many still wear traditional garments to work although rather like Vietnam, on each visit you see fewer and fewer wearing traditional garb.
Speaking of work clothes and uniforms, not one Laotian I spoke to had a single bad word about the local men in green, the colour of the police uniform in Laos. Police are seen as their friends, people told me. They don't need to carry guns like the Thai police, one proudly pointed out.
A vendor gets some kip in the local market.
The locals speak softly, politely and slowly but when it comes to service, they could do with a few pointers. The Laotians are a little standoffish, seldom engaging and service vendors often say nothing. In a bar or restaurant you could order food, multiple rounds of drinks and call for the bill – and never hear the server say a single word unless you asked them a question that required an answer. It's a little perturbing, especially as when they do speak their English is generally decent! I can only guess that's just the way things are there in the local places and they don't make any special effort with foreigners.
Vientiane's riverfront may not be as developed as Phnom Penh's, but it provides a fabulous view of the sun setting over Thailand's Nongkhai province on the riverbank opposite.
Likely due to economic reasons as much as anything – just witness the change in physique of the average Thai over the last 2 decades which has coincided with great economic progress – Vientiane has few fatties and there really aren't that many people
overweight at all.
A lady offers to do people's nails near the waterfront. Many of these ladies are not actually Laotian.
The locals aren't prone to inane smiles and when their lips do form an arch it seems genuine.
The personality of the average Laotian is rather different from the Thais. First of all they are less showy and in some ways seem more real. Everyone I spoke to was interested in my thoughts and were respectful of the opinions of others, even if they conflict with their own. They seem to be generally calmer, less prone to excitement and have a cool heart. They may not be overly friendly although they do respond positively to being approached. Politeness and manners are right up there. I saw none of the unmerited pride found umm, err, elsewhere.
The country is clearly much poorer and much less developed than Thailand but the people seem generally content. Still with a rather rural feel, Laos is a long way behind Thailand economically.
Mobiles are as ubiquitous in Vientiane as the other side of the Mehkong. Many have iPhones and high-end Samsungs although whether they are the real deal or counterfeit copies from China, I am not sure. Laos is poor and teachers, for example, start at the equivalent of around 4,000 baht a month. In Thailand teachers start at 15,000 baht per month.
Laos is easy to get to with direct flights between Bangkok and Vientiane on Bangkok Airways cheap and convenient. If you want to save a few $$, you can take the Thai Airways to Udon and take a minivan directly to the border, an hour away. If times are tough, there is always the bus or the train.
Vientiane is walkable and the best restaurants and bars are mostly in a small area of a few small blocks by the riverfront.
Vientiane is a great place to relax, soak up the vibe and recharge the batteries. It is quiet though and it's hard to imagine a sleepier capital city so if you're looking for a party vibe, look elsewhere.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of one of the two branches of Starbucks in the lobby of Exchange Tower, at the Asoke intersection. What and where is the magnificent building featured this 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 – Bar customers taken for granted.
The lady drink crap started in 2009 and is just another example of businesses taking customers for granted. I have a low tolerance for alcohol and I have never felt any kind of buzz from a mixed drink in a Thailand gogo bar. You can add that to another way these bars provide low value for money. No-one wants to be treated so poorly; it's mind-boggling how bar owners act as if there is an infinite supply of customers that will show up to be bashed. It's just bad business. People have alternatives. With blaring music, poorly controlled air-conditioning, coyotes, mediocre barfineable ladies with mercenary attitudes & service, thug security, all the ladyboys in bars now – think of getting fooled on that…yikes, and now this ever more pervasive scam, why be a patron? High seasons are exhibiting lower peak earning periods every year. Is it any wonder? Low seasons resemble Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. This treatment ensures customers will seek different pastures. Why? Why not! What do they have to lose?
Lady drink shenanigans.
You hit the nail right on the head – lady drinks really have become a scam and that is the main reason that I seldom patronise gogo bars anymore, although it is much the same in many beer bars these days. The Tequila thing especially annoys me – toss the drink in 10 seconds and then bugger off to dance, or wait 5 minutes and ask me for another when I am not even half way through my beer or mixed drink. Sometimes I'll just tell them upfront that I will buy them a drink as long as it is NOT Tequila. To me, the real lady drink whores are the ones who will bum a drink from you when they already have one or more going with different customers – this I will not put up with!
A statement, not a question.
Saying a bargirl's opening gambit has changed from "What you name?" to "You buy me drink?" is almost correct. The line "You buy me drink" should be written without a question mark, and as a statement, because for sure that is the way the bargirl intends it to be taken.
Making the nightlife sound interesting.
I just read your column, and realised that you manage to make the nightlife sound much more interesting than it actually is. I returned home on Tuesday after a month in Thailand with the last 3 days in Bangkok. The last few nights were actually very boring, but just now reading your column I miss the place again. Strange. No real point really to this email, just wanted you to know. You’ll be missed when you stop. You are really leaving Thailand this year?
Lady drinks, Cambodia-style.
I think one of the best options for lady drinks is what is practiced in Cambodia where one dollar is added to the price of the drink. The lady gets the dollar and it is up to her whether she wants alcohol or not.
It isn't tea!
You're spot on with your comments about how the lady drinks scene has changed. Too often now it's all about making money rather than giving any form of service, but isn't that the case most of the time in Thailand? My current tilac in Tilac likes to be taken out somewhere different, but only after she's had a few lady drinks for her commission. As for the Tequila scam, one girl in a Pattaya bar that you used to speak positively about but has long since closed once returned to the table with bubbles in her 'Tequila'. The girl was too stupid to realise I'd see it was in fact 7-Up. I tend to avoid girls who want Tequila, but on the odd occasion I sit with one I'll smell the drink to check. If she doesn't like it, tough. But usually the girls I entertain have whisky. No faking that (and no, it isn't tea!)
Where the expensive drinks are.
I took a friend to Soi Cowboy in mid-December, walking over from Nana; it was his first visit in years and I did not realise that he had problems with his feet so when we reached Soi Cowboy we sat down at an outside bar to relax a bit; a serving girl came over with a menu listing most beers for 200 baht and I thought, yikes – I looked up at the sign and we were sitting at Déjà Vu, one of the Arab's bars. After seeing the prices, I asked her how much for a lady drink and she told me 230 baht! Absolutely shocking. I went in to the bar for a piss and there wasn't one customer in the whole bar, and this around midnight on Friday, December 19th no less. We downed our beers quickly and went across the road to Dundee where we had a good time for considerably less – 140 for a Heineken and 200 for lady drinks, still steep but probably typical for the soi.
I believe that north side of the Shangri-La has an illuminated sign in English, while the south side (i.e., the side visible from Saphan Thaksin) has a sign in Thai. Similarly, the Mandarin Oriental has a sign in English on one side of the River Wing (either the east or west side), and Thai on the other.
Taking the bus and Imperial overreach.
There are many fine bus routes in Bangkok. The frequent and air-conditioned 511 that takes you from Khao San to Sukhumvit. At much the same speed as a cab; it's a bad route for traffic. There's the redoubtable number 13 that goes from Sathorn to Chitlom. The 29 takes you from Mo Chit to Don Meuang Airport. Thailand is cheap, but it's not that cheap. I'm on a 2,000 baht a day budget and that gets spent easily. It's pretty much what I spend in Southern Europe a day. If you have the money to spend on cabs, good for you, but don't label people as tragic because they choose cheaper options. A bit of Imperial overreach.
If only Bangkok were bike-friendly.
Last trip to Bangkok I was gobsmacked to see a farang girl riding a bike at night, down the middle of a soi between cars going in opposing directions. She was in that alley by Q Bar that connects to Sukhumvit Soi 3. I truly thought she must be on drugs as that alley is notoriously narrow and busy. How wonderful it would be if Bangkok was really a bike-friendly environment, but honestly it seems just the opposite. A death-wish on par with motor scooters, which at least are exhilarating. Perhaps it is the style with which many cyclists ride that seems so….foolhardy? Or, out of sync with Thailand somehow, I dunno, a mug's game as you say. Japan, on the other hand, where I just finished a 3-year stint is entirely a bike place. The sidewalks in the city are very wide and support both bike and foot traffic, but no motor scooters. And traffic, while intense, is orderly. Everybody has a bike.
Girl of the week
Ying, coyote dancer, Strikers Sports Bar, Soi Nana
21 years old, Bangkok-born and bred, Ying likes singing and shopping.
Her favorite food is pàt-gà~prao gai (fried chicken with basil and chillies)
If you want to party late, Patpong would seem to be the best choice at this time with some bars open through until 3 AM most nights. At Nana, most bars turn the house lights on around 2 AM, a few bars manage to sneak it a little bit later. At Cowboy the party was curtailed a couple of times this week with bars closed around 1 AM on each of Wednesday and Friday nights. Bed-time on Soi Cowboy is a bit of a lottery at the moment.
Some late-night venues are operating late again with Climax open until 5:00 AM most nights and Hillary 2 on Soi Nana rocking until at least 3:00 AM.
The boss has gone bonkers at Club Electric Blue in Patpong soi 1 with the Spring Fling promotion starting next week. Throughout February, March and April ice-cold draft beer will be just 45 baht a glass. Club Electric Blue already had the cheapest beer in a Bangkok gogo bar but this is taking it to a whole new level.
The Strip in Patpong is expanding, sort of. Removing one of the infamous booths will create space for more customer seating. The booths are a feature unique to The Strip. The tall weird structures allow a couple to squeeze inside and for 400 baht you get to close the curtain. I don't know how you could do much of anything in there, but then maybe I am not as nimble as some.
There's going to be a break in the schedule and the next Nanapong dance contest won't be held until some time around the middle of the year.
Raids were carried out this week on a number of bars in Pattaya's Soi Diamond over the course of a couple of nights. Some venues were shut for the rest of the evening only to reopen the following night. What was that all about?
Heaven Above will celebrate Australia Day tomorrow, Monday, January 26th. The free Aussie barbie will commence around 9 PM with banger sangers, rissoles, steak sangers and home-made Thai food. Put on your best Aussie clobber and join the party at Heaven Above in Soi Diamond – the boss promises hot sheilas and cold piss!
For Aussies in Bangkok keen to celebrate Australia Day, Bundaberg will be just 69 baht at the Aussie-owned The Office in Sukhumvit soi 33 and buckets of 4 bottles of beer a very reasonable 280 baht. Heineken and Tiger pints will be 99 baht all day long.
Why is it that while most of the gogo dancers in expat bar areas come from Isaan while many of the coyote dancers – the genuine coyote dancers who really can dance and who are not available – come from Bangkok?
When I first came to Bangkok, Patpong was the most expensive of the major bar areas and a night out in the city's oldest and most infamous bar district would, all things being equal, set you back more than a night out in Nana or Cowboy. Patpong prices were, however, significantly lower than Sukhumvit soi 33 – which at that time had widespread appeal and was as popular with Caucasians as it was with Japanese and Thais. As Sukhumvit became more popular, prices on Nana and Cowboy moved up and up until several years ago Patpong was the least pricey of the 3 major bar areas, for drinks at least. Until recently, drinking in Soi Cowboy and Nana was a lot more expensive than the bars in Patpong soi 1, many of which are part of the King's Group. That famous group recently hiked prices and a standard drink will now set you back around 150 baht, which puts it in the ball park price-wise as most bars on Sukhumvit.
While I didn't make it out in Bangkok this week, last week I commented that trade seemed to have dropped off from the post New Year high, something which has been confirmed by the boss of a popular Pattaya gogo bar. No bar names mentioned but these words come from the boss of a big name, very successful, long-running Pattaya gogo bar. "We started off the New Year with a bang but it is slowly going downhill. We have never seen the drop off in sales this early after New Year. Really a shame as we have good staff right now with no agency girls. We talk with other owners who feel they are in the same boat. It is hard to figure out how so many new bars are still opening in this environment."
The main beer bar complex in Udon Thani, Day & Night.
Away from Bangkok this week, I did not make my rounds in any of the expat bar areas. I did however spend a few hours cruising Udon Thani's expat soi of sin, Soi Samphan Thamit.
It's 7 years since I was in Udon and while I am sure things have changed markedly in that time, from the point of view of an outsider it seemed much the same as last time. The main bar complex, Day & Night, is a short, roofed lane of beer bars very much in the Pattaya beer bar mould. It had the same vibe as I remember several years back and looking at notes from that last visit I made exactly the same observations : bars had few staff and appeared to be competing with each other to see which venue had the loudest sound system.
Day & Night is not the only lane of bars, with another short soi around the corner known as Nutty Park. That was even quieter with fewer ladies, fewer customers and thankfully, not the same blaring music as in Day & Night.
What was surprising about the music in Day & Night was not just that it was loud, but that it was modern and I wondered if it would appeal to much of the Udon Thani-based expats. Udon being a popular region to retire to, the average age of expats appears to be rather higher than in Bangkok.
But in another respect the Udon bar scene for foreigners seems to be geared for the old-timers with bars opening early and closing early. The bar bosses I spoke to all said that they close at midnight.
Drinks in the Udon bars are cheap, a pleasant surprise if you're used to Bangkok prices. Beers ran 60 – 80 baht and ladies are not pushy at all.
Long gone from Bangkok's bar areas, you still see elephants being taken around areas of the city where the crowds congregate at night by handlers selling sugar cane at 20 baht a bag.
Udon's small expat bar area is the largest expat bar area in the Isaan region and seemed to be moderately popular. It's laid-back, inexpensive and most people are friendly, reminding me of Pattaya in years gone by.
The confusing law surrounding the sale of alcohol has been changed with the hours in which alcohol can be sold revised. It used to be that you could buy alcohol from stores, minimarts and supermarkets from 11 AM until 2 PM and 5 PM until midnight. Outside of those hours you could buy it in bulk. But that provision has been removed and now alcohol can only be sold from 11 AM – 2 PM and from 5 PM until midnight, irrespective of quantity. The law change affects sales from minimarts, supermarkets etc and does not affect bars.
Why do some expats leave such large amounts of cash in their condo? Some have the equivalent in baht and other currencies of thousands of dollars in cash, often unsecured i.e. not in a safe. This is taking a real risk! Such amounts of money may represent years' earnings to some Thais and could make you a target unnecessarily. If you have to keep this sort of amount in your condo, at the very least make sure it is secure in a safe and don't let anyone know about it!
To say the traffic is bad in Bangkok is like saying it's cold in the Arctic – but it really does seem that in the last few months traffic has become worse downtown. Why that is I have no idea, but peak hour seems to be worse these days as does traffic at the weekend.
It's not that long ago that mobile signal was spotty in many bars in Soi Cowboy and you could find yourself out of reach. In some bars the girls would point to the sections of the bar where you had a chance of getting a signal, depending on which provider you used. That has all changed as the mobile companies upgrade their networks and it seems that irrespective of mobile phone you get a full strength signal inside Soi Cowboy bars these days and 4G, no less.
Is this the most misleadingly named bar in Bangkok? When I see the sign Topless Pool Bar and it being in Patpong, well, I kind of expect to see topless ladies playing pool. But there's not a topless lady to be seen and I am not sure that there ever was or have been topless ladies in the bar.
In what I think might well be a first – it's certainly the first time I have heard about it – a Thai bargirl has lodged an official complaint with police after a guy who had been sending her money found out that he was not her primary love interest at all and started badmouthing her to others. Said fellow who is a Stickman reader found out the identity of a European guy who happened to also be in contact with the lady he was supporting. He contacted the other and explained that he was also supporting the lady. But he did more than that…he said that she was a bad woman, was not to be trusted and goodness knows what else. The other fellow who also thought that she was exclusive to him and contacted the lady and confronted her, telling her what other guy had told him and said about her. It would seem he also forwarded the guy's email to the lady. Said lady has lost two incomes and is baying for revenge. She has visited the police and made an official complaint against the first guy, lodging a complaint for criminal slander! Thailand has onerous slander and defamation laws and you have to be careful what you say, even if what you say is absolutely true as that is not necessarily a defence! The fellow who the complaint has been made about has vowed not to return to Thailand as he does not wish to face charges.
It looks like it's going to get a little more expensive to stay in Thailand with rumours that the fee for visa extensions is to jump from 1,900 to 3,000 baht. Let me reiterate that this rumoured increase is a rumour at this stage but having heard it from two unconnected sources I think it unlikely to be mere coincidence. The visa extension fee has not increased in years so such a jump should be no surprise. Those who would be most affected are those gaming the system and making multiple extensions each year, such as those using back to back tourist visas and those with an ED visa.
A warning to all who might consider applying for a visa with a dodgy letter or documents after I received a plea for help from a reader whose bogus visa application went dastardly wrong. Not only was his non-immigrant B (business) visa application declined, he would be blacklisted from Thailand! Said fellow has been doing business in Thailand for years, buying handicrafts in the north and selling them in his own country. He had previously had dealings with a company in Thailand and had used a letter from them explaining that they had a commercial relationship to support his visa applications. He no longer deals with that company but when he submitted an application for a business visa for his latest buying trip he included supporting documents from this company and affirmed that he still dealt with them – which in fact he doesn't. The Thai embassy followed up with the business in Thailand which was surprised to receive the call and explained that they no longer dealt with this fellow. The visa application was declined. Said fellow got on a plane and went to Thailand anyway, expecting to get a visa waiver stamp on arrival and 30 days permission to stay – as those holding a passport of his nationality typically do. However, after a transcontinental flight he was declined entry at the border. To make matters much worse, he was informed that not only was he being declined entry, he had been blacklisted from entering Thailand! The moral of the story is simple: Don't submit a bogus visa application!
Quote of the week comes from Bruce, "In the old days you paid a girl to leave; now you must pay them to go home with you."
Hitler laments the way the Sukhumvit strip is changing and how the area is becoming gentrified.
A truly damning article appeared in Time this week about the hassles tourists face in Thailand.
In Pattaya a farang going to the ATM to get money to pay his bar bill is set upon and beaten unconscious by a pack of Thais.
Foreign film-makers are exploiting legal loopholes to make Pattaya a hub for the transgender porn industry.
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.
There were no legal questions for Sunbelt this week.
This week I put together the column from Laos and am grateful for the help of a few people who provided me bits and pieces of news and gossip from Bangkok in a week I did not get out and make my rounds. A few hours cruising Udon's bar district might make for a paragraph or two on an area seldom mentioned in this column, but that isn't much help when it comes to Bangkok. Thank you to those who helped out as well as those bar managers and bar bosses who sent news of promotions and events that will take place this coming week.
Your Bangkok commentator,