The debate about how the bar industry has changed rages on. Old-timers lament what the industry has turned in to while newbies refute any complaints or negative words as they feel they have arrived at the gates of paradise.
We can't measure the vibe, the fun factor or the general attitudes of those in the industry, but we can look at how the aesthetics have changed.
The oldest decent photos I have of Soi Cowboy are from January 2005. I selected 10 photos and set out to take photos from the same spot on the soi to compare, and see how Soi Cowboy has changed. The first of the pair of photos was taken in late January, 2005; the second taken this past week, late January, 2015.
Perhaps the most photographed street in Bangkok after dark, Soi Cowboy was not always emblazoned in neon. Once dark and dirty, the then mid-Sukhumvit soi didn't become bright and beautiful until the first half of the last decade.
The transformation started in February, 2001, when the second outlet of Dollhouse was built to replace the original Dollhouse at the short-lived Clinton Plaza. Dollhouse was the first modern bar on Cowboy, and the catalyst that saw the sleepy soi go through a period of development taking it from sleepy expat backwater to placing it firmly on the sex tourist map.
With the 2005 and 2015 snaps each featuring pretty neon and sexy ladies, to the casual visitor it might not look like the soi has changed much. But take a closer look and many of the old names have gone, replaced with new bars with new names.
Above, Black And White is long gone, replaced by the waste of space, Kiss. Sheba's made way for Lighthouse, one farang-owned bar replaced by another.
10 years ago we said the frontages of Cowboy One and Cowboy Two were beautiful, but looking at them now they remind me of tenement housing blocks, ugly square lines dressed up with pretty neon.
The soi is more attractive today with more elaborate bar frontages and more imaginative neon.
If you're a spot the difference expert, how has the iconic Dollhouse sign changed? * Answer below
What is it with the sign that says Sunshine? No-one ever uses that name; everyone knows the bar as After Skool which is famous for….ooh, I can't say, Soi Cowboy is now a family destination after all! Probably the name variation has to do with the registered name of the bar.
One big change is the expansion of seating outside the bars. It used to be that there was a counter top outside some bars where some ladies would perch, but today most bars have tables and chairs outside, the Arab-owned bars the exception. Why is that? Does he not want to make money?! For visitors who want to check it all out but who won't be paying a barfine, the chance to gawk at the zoo that the soi can at times be may be preferable to watching the unenthusiastic shuffling inside the bars.
* There are 5 lines of text in the 2005 Dollhouse sign whereas there are 4 lines on the 2015 version. The difference is the removal of the word "Pattaya" after the Walking Street branch of Dollhouse closed a few years back.
For my money Sheba's had the best bar frontage not just in Soi Cowboy, but in the industry, better than any of the Arab's bars (a couple of which are actually direct copies from casinos in Las Vegas (Rio and Sahara)). The closing of Sheba's a couple of years ago was a loss.
The first photo features 4 bars which are long gone – the classic Our Place (which I believe was one of the original bars on Soi Cowboy), Joy Ngwen Bar, Joe's Bar and Tony's have all been consigned to Bangkok bar history.
In 2005 many girls lived upstairs. They would rise around lunch time, come outside and graze on food sold by the vendors who had set up. There was a real community feel and the vibe was much like an Isaan village transplanted in to the capital.
Today few girls working in Soi Cowboy live on Soi Cowboy. It was a point of distinction between Cowboy and the other bar areas and today Cowboy feels much like other bar areas.
In 2005 the adjacent Asoke intersection wasn't nearly as busy as it is today.
Not much more than 10 years ago there was a complex of beer bars right where Citibank is today that looked out on to the main Sukhumvit Road. Exchange Tower had few tenants and Interchange was still 3 years away from opening. Hotels in the area like the Grand Millennium and Continent Hotel were years away from completion. Where Terminal 21 now stands was a Volvo dealership. Off Sukhumvit it was relatively quiet dark and Soi Cowboy stood out as a hive of activity.
Once a common sight on Soi Cowboy and in other tourist hot spots, elephants can no longer enter the capital and are banned from Bangkok.
How long will it be until you don't see gogo bars in downtown Bangkok any more? 5 years? 10? 20? Nothing is forever. Elephants in Bangkok are long gone. Soon this website will be gone. When will Soi Cowboy and the gogo bars no longer grace the city?
Long Gun was Soi Cowboy's most popular gogo bar for more than 10 years, the one and only bar you mightn't be able to find an empty seat, and for a long time one of only two bars where shows were performed. The exterior of Long Gun has changed more than the interior and some of the shows performed in the '90s are still performed today.
When I was new to the city I loved hearing the many tales of the industry, some of which were old wives tales and some of which weren't. One of those tales concerned Long Gun and the source of the girls. You see, back in the day Long Gun stood out from all of the other bars in Soi Cowboy with a lineup of more attractive ladies than all of the bars in the rest of the soi put together. It's easy to romanticize the past and think everything was better back then, but the truth is that Cowboy often had older, less attractive ladies. Soi Cowboy was the place for laid-back attitudes and no hassles. For beauties you went to Nana and Patpong. Anyway, so the story went, many of the girls dancing in Long Gun were said to be jailbirds – convicts who had been released early who lived on the premises and worked their debt off. I have no doubt it was a complete nonsense, but it was repeated so often and perpetuated by many who should know better, some of whom would look you in the eye and swear it was true! Perhaps once there was a girl who had done jail time who danced in Long Gun, the story got distorted, exaggerated and the legend was born.
Soi Cowboy didn't use to be wider per se, but the gap between the venues on either side was greater before the outside seating areas were built, effectively narrowing the soi. And with far more visitors these days – Soi Cowboy used to be very quiet – it feels much narrower. Fortunately the soi was ruled a no go zone for vehicles and motorbikes after 8 PM a few years back which provided some relief against the crazed motorbike taxi riders who would roar past inebriated punters and girls.
There's something about the phrase same same but different that irks me and I never use it. Those who use it often say it with a smarmy look on their face as if what they have just said trumps any response you could come up with. But when we look at how things have changed at Soi Cowboy over the years – or is it how they have stayed the same – the horrible phrase same same but different does seem rather fitting.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the beautiful building which houses the Blue Elephant Restaurant & Cooking School on Sathorn Road.
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.
Low season in high season.
I just arrived in Thailand this week and have been in Pattaya for the last few days. I am currently here with my girlfriend and am shocked at how slow it is! It seems like low season in high season! Me and my girlfriend walked into a few beer bars just to look around and I have to say the party days of old are long gone! It's just another beachside city now with some tourists on the beach! Isn't there a song titled "Memories" because for the pay for play guys and Pattaya party hard guys, memories are all that remain!
Full marks for effort.
At the grocery store today a farang was confusing the hell out of the cashier repeating the word song and holding up one finger. So he turns to me and asks how to say one in Thai. At least he was trying, though in this case it would have been better to just stick with English.
Anyone for hemp?
About Vientiane, everyone has their own experience travelling, and this is what I found when I was there recently. It's hard to call the stuff on offer by tuktuk drivers "ganja". It is more like hemp, with low THC, very smelly, really harsh on the throat and lungs, and the buzz is like a bad hangover. I tried it once and then refused to buy any more when the tuktuk guys offered it to me, saying to them that compared to real "weed", buying this crap was like lighting a twenty-dollar bill on fire then throwing it into the toilet for the high.
Beware bandit alley!
At 7:30 PM, on Saturday 24 January 2014, my Australian friend was in Bangkok and we were walking to the JW Marriott Hotel on Sukhumvit. Coincidentally, only a few days before, we had been warned that the area around the JW Marriott Hotel was 'Bandit Alley' where ladyboys stalk tourists who are easy targets to be pickpocketed. My friend is a large fellow and maybe that had something to do with what followed as me, not being large, was unaffected. It was fast, 4 ladyboys appearing from what seemed like nowhere and along with a lot of body action and screams of 'handsome man', 4 pairs of hands smothered my Australian friend. Five seconds later it was over. Check for your wallet! It was there secure in his front pocket. His expensive IPhone from his shirt pocket – gone! Off my friend ran after the 4 rapidly disappearing ladyboys. He's completely unfit but did he shift himself – Usain Bolt wouldn't have got near him – I certainly couldn't keep up and I run to keep fit! Three ladyboys made for the Nana area and one peeled off to try to get into an obliging taxi cruising slowly along – that ladyboy was selected as the best to get hold of – partly due to the fact that my friend's remarkable turn of speed had a limited life span. Luckily it was the right one – and the phone was recovered. Plenty of ladyboy screaming and he let go of him / her. And once released could (s)he run fast – last we saw of him / her was heading towards Nana Plaza. At 10 PM as we left the restaurant there were 2 boys in brown standing on Sukhumvit Road directly outside the JW Marriott. A few metres farther on another of the boys in brown seemingly guarding that stretch of pavement. Before we got to the motorcycles and well-lit shops which was only a few metres further, another 2 boys in brown standing on the pavement. A bit late for the earlier incident but nonetheless 5 boys in brown within a 50 metre stretch of pavement. Might be a good idea to put your readers on alert for 'bandit alley'.
Thai lady saves boyfriend from cancer!
I have to get this off my chest as it has been bugging me for sometime now. I live with a girl and we are very happy. She is great, we get on well together, despite only living together for a few months. The only thing we have an issue about, and believe me this is the only thing, is when it comes to cooking. When grilling chicken or making meat patties for a burger or cooking a pork steak, I like my meat well done, to the point of being charred. She says that the 'burnt' pieces cause cancer. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But they way I have been brought up and the way I like it is to have it well done. If that means a little charred, so be it. I do not particularly want my meat pink in the middle. We have this discussion every time I cook meat and I'm getting a bit fed up with it now. Do any other readers have the same issue?
Bar scene, take it or leave it.
We arrived on the 4th of January and had 16 days in Bangkok. We also went to Pattaya for the first time. Gee, the bars were quiet. This is our 5th trip to Bangers at this time of the year and it was the quietest we have ever seen it. Most of the tourist strips were very busy but the bars were another thing. I know tourism is up but the bar tourists are most definitely down! There are more families and couples coming to Bangers now than us barflies. In some bars I wish I could have taken a photo because no customer would have been in it, and that's no joke. Even my favourite bar in soi 4 was quiet and I really think they need to rethink what they're offering customers because high beer prices, even higher lady drinks and some of the worst attitudes we have come across with girls have all the signs of fewer customers. As I said, we visited Pattaya for the first time so I can't say if it was up or down but it's wasn't as busy as I expected. Stick, one thing that has made us mad and talking with others in the bars we drank at was the girls seem to be working to con as many drinks out of you as they can. Now I know people are going to say that's their job but it's starting to wear very thin! I don't mind buying a drink but it's getting out of control, mate. You buy a lady a drink and there next minute there's four of them making you feel like a low-life if you don't buy them all one! And it seems to be like this in so many bars so now most of the time we just sit by ourselves. Take it….or leave it?
Soi Cowboy value.
I would like to add another slant on pricing in Soi Cowboy. A little research and one knows of the expensive Arab-owned bars. Now to the point – the punter is paying extra for a show, be it naked or semi-naked girls, and the choice to move on after one beer. Compare this to a strip joint in Soho where one would maybe pay £20 – £30 (1,000 – 1,500 baht) admission and once in the bar, if you didn't like it, tough shit, your money is lost. I think it is damned good value, so to all you cheap Charlies stop moaning and get real!
Girl of the week
Toey, coyote dancer, Strikers Sports Bar, Soi Nana
Bangkok-born and bred, Toey loves to swim.
On a night out she likes dancing the night away and singing.
Her favourite sport is badminton and when it comes to dining
it's a spicy plate of som tum (papaya salad) she enjoys most!
Things are being done according to the letter of the law at Soi Cowboy which was plunged in to darkness last night at 1:00 AM sharp as the boys in brown ordered the seedy soi closed. Early closing has taken place sporadically over the past 2 weeks in Cowboy and no-one is quite sure why. Conspiracy theorists have it that it's retribution against Farangdom for pointing the finger at the certain folks over the stop and searches in the Asoke area.
Speaking of which, has there been a resurgence in the stopping and searching of foreigners? A long-time reader, himself a former law enforcement officer, witnessed a uniformed cop searching a white guy in the dark spot between the Asoke intersection and soi 23 this past Monday night, at 8:50 PM. The guy's pockets were turned out and his belongings were examined. Of course the search may have been justified and in response to a reported crime with the person searched matching the description of the alleged perpetrator. but worryingly, it doesn't end there. From someone who has become something of a repository for police stop and search reports comes word that he has received more reports. I hope these are false alarms and we don't see a return of the nonsense.
Cowboy may be closing early but things aren't a lot better up the road with business in Nana Plaza dropping off again after the short peak of the high season spike. Soi Nana is more of a zoo than ever but inside the plaza bars are hurting. In contrast to quiet bars in Nana Plaza, one night this past week there was not a free seat to be found at popular expat bar Hanrahan's on the main soi. Seedy Soi Nana feels like it is going the way of Soi Cowboy with western couples young and old seen in ever greater numbers. Some have come to Soi Nana to see what all the fuss is about but many are staying in the soi. Once largely the domain of Caucasian sex tourists, Soi Nana has become more cosmopolitan and the crowd is much more diverse these days. There's also been a noticeable increase in Middle Easterners walking up and down Soi Nana which makes it feel a little like Pattaya's Walking Street. The Middle Easterners enter the plaza and do a loop of the ground floor. They're just there to look and most don't stay for a drink. Many pay a few baht to take a selfie with a ladyboy – which seems to be the highlight.
On Nana's ground floor, Playskool has shows at the weekend. Shows may also be performed on week nights if the bar is busy. There is no set time and they are performed sporadically between 11 PM and 1 AM.
Progress remains slow at Jailbirdz, the name of the as yet unopened gogo bar on the top floor of Nana. One contractor reports that he has been given the hurry up so perhaps opening isn't that far away? Sticking my head inside it looks like there's still a lot of work to be done.
Neon out front of popular Crazy House on Sukhumvit soi 23 says 'Live Music and Disco'. Has the second floor taken on a new flavour or is that just part of the disguise?
If you like to party late in to the night, Hillary 2 was open most nights this week until 4:00 AM and while there are no guarantees about opening times, I'd expect that to remain the unofficial closing time for the time being.
I am informed by a reader that the Topless Pool Bar in Patpong soi 2 mentioned in last week's column as not having anything close to topless was in fact a popular gogo bar back in the '80s. Word is they could have called it Bottomless had they so chosen. After switching format the new bar retained the old name, even though there hasn't been any topless for decades.
You can watch the Superbowl live early tomorrow morning at Bully's Pub (between Sukhumvit sois 2 and 4) which will have their 11th annual Super Bowl Party. Doors open at 6:00 AM, kick off is 6:30 and the 600 baht ticket includes the dreaded ++. Breakfast will be served until half-time and then it will be game favourites like wings, guacamole, chips and chili. The ticket price includes a beer or hard drink. Other hot spots to watch the Super Bowl are the Sukhumvit soi 12 and Silom Road branches of Sunrise Tacos. And of course there is Margarita Storm at the start of Sukhumvit soi 13 with its American breakfast menu including waffles and the best pancakes in Bangkok.
If you're a butt lover, you could do a lot worse than head to The Strip and look for Noi who has one of the sexiest butts in the bar business. Here's the view from behind.
There have been staff and ownership changes in a couple of popular Western-owned downtown eateries. Aussie-owned Bradman's Bistro in Sukhumvit soi 23 has a new Aussie owner. And the manager and head chef at American-owned Bully's between Sukhumvit sois 2 and 4 left without even having the decency to give notice and was replaced almost immediately with a Thai-born, Swiss grade school, and US college-educated fellow who worked in the culinary industry in the US for 10 years.
The Sunday brunch at Indus I mentioned a couple of weeks back is in fact a weekend brunch and is available on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. It's really excellent and might be just what is needed to convince your Thai other half that Indian food is not so bad after all.
Thai women can become indignant if you think they are a ladyboy. To some it can be really quite upsetting, especially if it happens often – and with some ladies it is a regular occurrence. The first and most obvious clues that she might be a he are her height and general size. But there's a trap that many of us fall in to when mistaking a genuine lady for a fake – and that is the ever increasing number of Thai ladies who have undergone cosmetic surgery. Ladyboys often don't limit their surgical enhancements to just a new set of knockers; many make significant investments in changing their look with a nose job, chin sculpting, eyelid surgery and regular Botox injections. This can give them a distinctive, plasticky look. With more and more Thai women going for cosmetic surgery, when you see a Thai lady taller than average who has had a nose job and / or other plastic surgery, her facial features may look not dis-similar to that of the ladyboys – and as such she may be mistaken for a ladyboy.
For guys resident in Thailand, do you tell your girlfriend / significant other when you are taking a trip to Pattaya? I guess in the case of a live-in partner you have to, but if your other half is not a live-in, do you tell her exactly where you're going? Pattaya may be more diverse these days and there is much more to it today than that which made it famous – but it retains an unenviable reputation and it's hard to convince your loved one that you're going there for other reasons. Every Thai knows of Pattaya's reputation and innocence and Pattaya just don't go together!
The homeless Caucasian living on Khao San Road for more than a year who has previously featured in this column is still in residence in the backpacker area. Often seen with a bottle in hand, he is lucid and appears to be of sound mind. He may be kind of dirty but he's not what you'd call filthy. Physically he is not in great shape with unhealed sores on his feet, but it's not like he's wasting away either. I'd expect many would look much worse after a year on the street. This week he had blood and bruising around one eye so I guess he'd been involved in some fisticuffs. Usually seen near Khao San Centre, typically with a large bottle of beer to his lips or discarded bottles by his side, he is friendly with some of the homeless Thais in the area. He might have survived more than a year on the streets of Bangkok but sooner or later something bad is going to happen. It can be confirmed that he is Hungarian so this is an appeal to any Hungarians or anyone at the Hungarian Embassy to get involved and help get him home.
Visa extensions can take longer than they used to with so many foreigners now living in Thailand, I receive more reports of lengthy waits at the Immigration office for the visa to be processed than in years gone by. In the old days you were usually in and out of the Immigration office in Bangkok within an hour or so – from completing the form to leaving with a new stamp in your passport. As more foreigners move to Thailand – and with everyone on long stay visas required to go to Immigration at least once a year (some may make 4 or more trips a year to Immigration, depending on their visa class) – visa extensions can take much longer than they used to. The queues at the Chiang Mai branch of Immigration are legendary with some people arriving at 6:00 AM to try and avoid a long wait. In Bangkok it's not too bad, especially since Immigration moved to the huge Government Building a few years ago which is an improvement over the old office at Suan Plu.
Christopher G. Moore's latest collection of Essays, "The Age of Dis-Consent", should be in bookstores now and can also be ordered from Amazon/Kindle as an ebook.
This is the fourth collection of Chris's essays which range from political conflict to violence and criminal investigations in the digital age, to cultural upheavals, cognitive science as well as essays about Orwell, Kafka, and Henry Miller.
Quote of the week comes from a friend, "The worst place to meet people in Thailand and make new friends is in bars."
Reader's story of the week comes from Simon, "Why I will Never Marry a Thai: Intellectual Curiosity."
An hilarious overloaded truck in Thailand video is doing the rounds.
There is much conjecture amongst expats in Buriram over the cause of death of an Irishman.
A Frenchman in Pattaya is lucky after a snatch and grab of his gold necklace was unsuccessful.
A Middle Eastern family steals $1,700 from a Russian late at night outside a convenience store in Pattaya.
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 : In 2006 I won a court order against a builder who ran away with my deposit. I think it might be best to address this situation before the 10-year time limit to recover these funds expires. It strikes me that I have two major obstacles to overcome. First, to physically locate him in Thailand without him knowing that I am looking for him. And secondly, to find out if he has assets in his own name that might be impounded until he settles the court order. Any help, advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: Once the court has issued its decision, both parties are expected to follow the court order. Should the losing party not follow the court order then the winning party needs to file a petition with the court to appoint a prosecutor to have the ruling enforced. The winning party has ten years from the date of the first award by the courts to file this petition. The prosecutor will then freeze assets of the losing party to obtain the required funds for the winner.
If you decide to personally approach the person you sued and attempt to confiscate any of his assets you run the risk of being charged with criminal offences such as trespassing and theft. The best option is to have your lawyer file with the courts. Sunbelt Asia has experience in this kind of filing and can assist you should you no longer be in contact with the original lawyer who filed the first case.
Question 2: One of the more annoying pieces of fall-out from the NCPO's law-and-order campaign has been increased shakedowns of Farang motorcyclists. I have been stopped several times for the alleged crime of riding in the right-hand lane. These stops have been while I was riding a Ducati at speeds that were not impeding traffic, and when I had good reasons to be in the right lane (passing slower traffic or approaching a right-turn). The BIB's position has always been that all motorcycles are required to stay to the far left at all times, regardless of overtaking or right turns. I've always gotten off without a ticket or a bribe, but the stops are getting annoying. Can you clarify the law and any policy statements by senior law enforcement officials?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors responds: According to Section 35 of the Land Traffic Act, slow or slower vehicles are required to drive on the left hand side. Trucks and motorcycles are designated to drive in the left lane unless it is a designated bus lane. Fines for failing to do this range from 200 – 500 baht. You are allowed to change lanes (except for certain areas / routes that are restricted), but you will need to keep in mind that you are expected to return to the usual permitted lane (the left lane).
Question 3: What is the compensation rate per km when using one's car for business travel? Our accountant in the office insists that it is 5 baht / km and if the company pays a higher rate, the higher rate will be subject to tax. A document from the internet dated 26 July, 2008, states the rate as 6.4 baht / km. Being that is over 6 years old, I would expect the rate to be much higher but there is no other information online.
I keep track and at 5 baht / km, 60% of that goes to fuel (3 baht / km), the other 40% covers insurance, license / registration fees and oil changes. Nothing is left for depreciation or some baht for future tyre replacement or maintenance / breakdowns.
The Tax Office must have an exact number for the amount of compensation that a business can reimburse their employees but I have not been able to find it. Can you help?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: Compensation rates for fuel and / or depreciation when using the employee's personal vehicle will solely depend on the company's policy and is not subject to Thai law; however the Thai government does have a rate for their own vehicles of 4 baht / km for cars and 2 baht / km for motorcycles. Some companies will have 2 different methods for compensation, i.e. one rate for using the company's vehicle, where they would handle the maintenance and pay only for the fuel, while another rate (higher than the first rate) is for the employee who uses his personal vehicle and it is the employee's responsibility to maintain his / her own vehicle.
All over the world restaurateurs hate it when customers who are unhappy or have had a bad experience don't say anything to them at the time, but complain later, either by email, telephone or with a post to Trip Advisor. It's much more difficult to deal with complaints after that which they are unhappy about happened. I get A LOT of complaints about crap in the bar industry with bars named and service failures or rip-offs outlined in great detail. I appreciate these emails – it's good to know what's going on. However, as much as I would like to help you, often there is little I can do but forward the email to the manager and / or the owner and in some cases, show them that it may be part of a pattern and there is a systematic problem that needs looking at. Just as restaurateurs want to know about service failures at the time, I'd encourage you to ask for the foreign manager or owner if you suffer a service failure in the bar industry. Explain what happened and give them a chance to fix it. It's easy for bar bosses to ignore emails forwarded to them by me which have come from strangers. When you tell a business owner to their face about a service failure they are much more likely to take it seriously and do something about it. Of course, this all assumes the bar has a foreign manager or owner and they are actually on the premises…
Your Bangkok commentator,