Who would have ever believed that there would be gogo bars in Bangkok in which many dancers could not be barfined, bars where you would have to buy multiple lady drinks just for the privilege of being allowed to pay a barfine and where the only place a girl would go with you is the nearest short-time hotel. Not many years ago that would have been unthinkable. If recent years have reaffirmed anything about Thailand, it is its ability to surprise, a place where the profound can become reality.
As is the tradition at this time of year, I'm going to take a punt and make a few predictions for the bar industry in 2016. Rather than stick with the staid and the likely, I'll throw a few more chilies in the som tam and offer a few thoughts on the less likely. Just don't forget that history has shown us that in the bar industry almost anything is possible.
Gogo Bars To Charge Entry Fees
The bar industry is in the doldrums. Customer numbers aren't what they used to be and the average customer today spends less than in years gone by. And with more expenses than ever (increased rents, higher salaries to pay, hungrier authorities etc.), bar owners are bleeding money.
There are ways bars can increase income – putting up prices comes to mind. But with many customers so sensitive to price, there's a nervousness amongst bar owners to put prices up any further. Reducing expenses is tricky. Rent cannot be reduced and in a competitive market where bars want the prettiest girls, salaries cannot be reduced without losing staff. And the third largest expense bars face, electricity cannot be reduced without compromising the whole experience.
So bars are looking at new ways to make money. Some bars have tried offering the girls online – marketing them as escorts – at premium rates which has generated extra income, but proven difficult to manage as the girls make private arrangements to meet the customer for subsequent liaisons, the bar cut out of the equation.
How about Bangkok gogo bars charging an entry fee? It would increase bar revenue and every customer would have to pay to enter the bar which would offset those who buy a single draft beer or nurse a drink for an hour.
Door charges will never come to Bangkok gogo bars, right? Actually, they already have. Last week one of the big name gogo bars in Bangkok was asking for an entry fee (see today's news section for details). Whether it will catch on or not, time will tell.
Banning Photography & Video In The Bar Areas
Bangkok's red-light areas are a hive of illegal activity from drug use to drugs for sale to gambling to illegal money lending to money laundering to human trafficking. One thing most people in the bar areas have in common is that they don't want to be seen there – and they sure don't want to be photographed there. Worst of all, they hate the idea that that photograph is posted online and becomes a permanent part of history. Is it that much of a stretch that photography could be banned in a bar area?
Each of Nana Plaza, Patpong and Soi Cowboy is private property. None are public spaces and as such there is nothing preventing those who own / manage the area from banning photography outright. And with so many Thais ultra-sensitive in the current climate, many would no doubt welcome such a ban. It would be very tough – perhaps nigh on impossible to police – but it could be done, especially when you consider how many security staff are employed in the bar areas today (again, see today's bar news section on the massive increase in security personnel in Nana Plaza).
The big challenge with banning photography is how to manage the phenomenon of mobile phones, especially as to all intents and purposes the newest mobile phones capture images and video every bit as good as digital cameras just a few years old.
Granted it's unlikely that photography and video will ever be banned in any bar area, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
Short-Time Hotel Crackdown
If I were to invest in the bar industry, I would not put my money in a bar. And neither would I start an escort service – even though they are unbelievably profitable; unlike bars, it's all upside and they never make a monthly loss. No, if I were to invest in the industry, it would be in a short-time hotel. With the way the industry has moved away from an all night smorgasbord to a quick taste, short-time hotel rooms are in huge demand and are highly profitable.
Short-time hotels operate within a grey area. All hotels in Thailand are supposed to register all guests, and in the case of foreigners, they are supposed to send a report at the end of the day through to Immigration with a list of all the foreigners who have used the hotel. This is not something short-time hotels are known for doing.
Everyone knows short-time hotels within or adjacent to nightlife areas are facilitating commercial transactions. In the land of crackdowns, it is quite conceivable that the increasingly puritanical authorities might crack down on short-time hotels which, after all, they could claim are not operating within the law, and force them to operate within the law or face closure.
How would you feel if the authorities enforced the law that each time you used a short-time hotel you had to register in the same way you do in a regular hotel i.e. present your passport, the details of which are recorded and forwarded to Immigration i.e. the government. One imagines there would be a reluctance on the part of many to use said short-time establishments and the very dynamic of Bangkok gogo bars – currently heavily slanted towards short-time – would change again. It would be a blow for the girls and their current MO of going for the shortest of short-times in the nearest short-time hotel so they can quickly return to the bar, find a new customer and repeat the cycle. Such a crackdown might even have the unintended effect if tilting things back in the punters' favour and be an improvement for those who prefer long-time.
In increasingly puritanical and xenophobic Thailand, there'd be serious brownie points for an official with aspirations of climbing the ladder who was to be seen going after anything immoral, especially when there's a foreign connection.
The Thai government has been systematically cracking down on various aspects of the bar industry and short-time hotels have largely been ignored. Will short-time hotels will come under closer scrutiny?
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the City Complex Pratunam, looking toward the pedestrian bridge from Platinum, and end of overpass over Rachaprarop.
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 way to a long, happy life.
I gather you continue to do fine in New Zealand, living your life as you wish to. Well done and long may it continue. I don't feel a 9 – 5 job is necessary as long as you have the means to support yourself. I do feel that some form of intellectual stimulation is absolutely required to keep from going crazy. Teaching, writing, volunteering – whatever floats one's boat, there must be a reason to wake up every morning. You have achieved this but I suspect that many who are wasting their lives away in the bars haven't figured this out. Buddhists preach everything in moderation, which I agree with. Hitting a bar every once in a while is fine, getting drunk occasionally is ok, but keeping everything in perspective is the way to a long and happy life.
Changing Soi Nana.
I feel assured from your prediction that the newly opened Hooters won't cause much of a disruption in Soi Nana. But I believe it has already done harm by changing the geography of the iconic Nana Hotel parking lot. Life there won't be same again. I really miss the Golden Bar in the late evenings. Basically, I like almost everything on Soi Nana except for Nana Plaza itself. There is a distinct, not-so-positive vibe / atmosphere inside Nana Plaza that discourages me from passing through the "banana gate". So the Golden Bar, Big Dogs and their neighbours have been my points of interest instead. I've spent hours people-watching, overlooking the parking lot. I'll miss the sight of the parking lot girls relaxing on the porch of Golden Bar in between their shifts. This upscale Hooters is going to ruin the unique charm the parking lot has. There is a similarity between a heritage site and a nightlight venue – both have very passionate followers. So this simple rule applies in both the cases – you change, you lose.
Postcard from Nana.
I arrived at the airport around 1 PM and it took almost an hour to get through Immigration with passports and accents from all around the globe. I hit the lower sois of Bangkok almost immediately, including the new Hooters bar, but I would not say everywhere was buzzing. In fact, contrary to your reports, I thought most places on the sois and in Nana Plaza were rather quiet. This however gives an interesting take for those who question your ability to operate your website remotely. Mainly because certain venues could have been bust prior to or after my visit but not so whilst I was there. I did ask a few mamasans and bar staff and they all thought it was quiet – now a common mantra. I had no problem getting a seat in any establishment. Ergo, it stands to reason that even if you were based in Bangkok you cannot be everywhere at once. Barstool gossip has it that the army is not happy with Nana Plaza. Yesterday – Boxing Day, a few uniformed troops were standing next to the security guards at the Nana Plaza entrance for a few minutes.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
The bar owners seem desperate for income. A lady I have known for years who lives in Bangkok came to Phuket for a few weeks and attached herself to a bar. She was not taking a salary, but just hanging out there. She contacted me and we went out for dinner, and afterwards she said let's go to her bar for a drink. We had a couple of drinks and then I suggested we leave. The bar boss (a foreigner) demanded that I pay a 2,000-baht barfine to take a lady who was not working at the bar and who I brought in myself! Being a mellow sort of fellow (sometimes) I suggested he keep the lady and made to leave. The barfine quickly came down to 1,000 baht. I told the lady that I would happily give her 3,000 baht the next morning and pay the bar nothing, or give her 2,000 baht and pay the bar 1,000. You can imagine her decision.
Chiang Mai expat observations.
I've been back in Chiang Mai since mid September after travelling around USA, Mexico and Europe for about a year. I have a few observations on Chiang Mai. First, traffic has gotten very congested. Some areas are getting to be as bad as Bangkok, and there aren't mass transit options. But, I have attended several expat functions and holiday parties, and it seems that many folks, both retirees and younger, continue to relocate to Chiang Mai and love it. And while longer term expats may gripe about the traffic and increased crowds, most I spoke to are still quite happy and not planning to leave. The few expats I know who left have done so for family or work reasons. This seems to contrast with your observations about Bangkok and Pattaya long-term expats. One possible explanation is that expats that choose Chiang Mai do so because of the low cost of living, the scenery, the quality of life, and not the nightlife or bar scene. Most retirees I know are married and live in suburban areas, lead relatively quiet lives, and don't care whether lady drinks or barfines go up, or girls don't do long-time.
Cambodia is still a very poor country with the exceedingly rich getting richer and buying a Rolls Royce and the poor going nowhere. It is still a lawless place. That was the attraction when I first moved there, but in those times it seemed like whitey was immune and was untouchable. Unsuspecting tourists are now targets, and even local friends have been ripped off. One hotel worker friend was robbed at gun point on the riverfront in the evening on the way home. A long time ago getting your TV remote stolen by your company could still net them two dollars which was more than a day's wage.
Christmas in the bars.
Just about all gogos paint their mirrors with Christmas themes in the holiday period, just as they do with Songkran, Loy Kratong and any other festive occasions. Some are artfully done, some less so, but you'd expect a certain amount of basic knowhow regardless. Not so in a couple of bars. At the downstairs Mandarin Table Dance bar, they realised after writing Merry that there was not room to write Christmas, so they split the word in two, putting the Chris part of a lower level and tmas next to Merry, so it reads Merry Tmas Chris. Anyone called Chris can now feel satisfied that they have been wished a Merry Tmas. While that error is short-lived, there was a more difficult problem at Rawhide, where those who did the painting omitted to put down a drop sheet, so the seats directly under the signs on each side of the bar are now covered in drops of fluorescent paint. Staff member told me they couldn't get it off. Hopefully some high-powered turps and elbow grease will do the job, or there'll be a permanent reminder of Christmas '15.
In what may be a first for a gogo bar and in what I believe sets a dangerous precedent, popular Sukhumvit soi 23 gogo bar Crazy House levied a 100 baht cover charge to enter the bar over the Christmas period. A friend was astonished to find door staff asking for 100 baht at the door for the 'Christmas party'. Inside, there was no sign of a party. The 100 baht entry fee got you a 'free' can of spray string distributed by the goons at the door. Will this nonsense cover charge continue beyond the festive season and if it does, what chance is there that other bars may adopt a similar policy? With fewer customers and increasing expenses, bar owners are desperate to find new income streams.
Balcony Bar in Nana Plaza has long offered the cheapest drinks in the complex, and is a great people-watching spot. Drinks were once a uniform 59 baht before going up to 69 baht and now Balcony Bar has given itself a new year present and put prices up to 79 baht – still a bargain. Balcony Bar features flat-rate pricing on all drinks so whether you're a teetotaller or like decent top shelf drinks, everything is the same price. The price hike shouldn't hurt trade, even if the large signs with 79 written on them mightn't capture punters' imagination quite the same way 69 did.
If times are tough and you're on a budget, there are good deals to be had in the plaza. The beer bars out the front on the main Soi Nana have inexpensive drink options / happy hours and the beer bar in the prime position out front of Rainbow 1 on the ground floor of Nana Plaza has 100 baht beers and standard spirits all night long.
Nana Plaza management boasts it is the safest of Bangkok's 3 major farang gogo bar areas and according to the manager, full-time security guards in the plaza now number a whopping 16. Security guards in Thailand aren't always the most efficient so the CCTV system is about to be upgraded with high-quality HD cameras installed throughout the plaza – so don't think about legging it without paying your bill or getting up to any other mischief in the plaza.
Don't be alarmed if you see security guards and (real) soldiers in fatigues at the entrance to Nana Plaza with a tablet, calling over girls and asking to see their ID card. It's all part of an effort to verify that ladies in the plaza are of legal age to be working in an adult entertainment area.
On the top floor of Nana Plaza, the 3 units that house Bubbles are being subdivided. The single unit nearest the back stairway will become the new office for the management of the plaza while the 2 units between that office and Billboard will be put up for rent. Work on the office should start this week and the plaza will be busy with construction as that side of the complex will also get a new roof.
Management of Nana Plaza is conscious of the need to keep the plaza clean and from smelling bad with trash going rancid in the tropics fast so a cleaning lady has been hired to come in every night and empty the bins and keep common areas clean. And no, she is not barfineable!
The Klong Toey district chief and her team visited the plaza to check the fire emergency system, fire extinguishers, emergency lights and exit signs. These checks take place every year and bars not in compliance received a letter and will be rechecked. The plaza's fire alarm (did you know it had one?) was also tested.
From Cowboy to Nana, Phuket to Pattaya, the consensus is that the Christmas / New Year period hasn't hit the heights bar owners had hoped for and is not quite what we have traditionally come to expect for the busiest time of year in the bar areas. The many reasons frequently cited for a downturn in the industry are well-known and there is no need to go over them for the nth time.
2015 hasn't been a great year for bar trade as plenty of customers say things have changed and a naughty boy's holiday in Thailand just isn't what it used to be. Some turned their back on Thailand and ventured elsewhere with the Philippines and Cambodia both benefitting. There was at least one positive change in the industry in 2015 and that has been a drop in the number of ladies not of legal age working in the bars as bar owners are more nervous than ever about getting caught with underage girls on the premises. You can largely attribute this to the efforts of some farang busybodies who are roaming the bars in the hunt for underage girls and when they find some leading the authorities to raid the premises. There is fear amongst foreign bar managers and bar owners about the consequences of being caught with girls not of legal age in the bar. In the past, bar bosses were often tipped off that a raid was going to take place and they would send the underage girls home before the cops arrived. That seldom happens now and bars with underage girls are looking at a closure order of up to 5 years while the people involved face human trafficking charges. Put in place harsh penalties and crime drops. With that said, I do have something of a contrarian viewpoint about laying human trafficking charges against a bar owner who has employed a lady of 17 years old. The foreign busybodies going after bar bosses seem to miss the point that the girls who end up in the bars these days are not angels, are not there against their will, know exactly what it's all about and specifically chose to work in a bar so they can earn big money. There is no shortage of work in Thailand today, irrespective of one's skills, experience and education. Farang bar owners do not actively recruit young; they tend to take on girls they shouldn't when they're desperate for staff. Of course, they should never hire an underage girl – about that I am firm – but at the same time I question whether potentially ruining someone's life with a human trafficking charge is appropriate. It's scary for bar bosses which means the scourge of young girls working in the bars finally could become a thing of the past. Thailand has changed and no amount of tea money can save you today.
Some bar bosses are loved by the girls, some are anything but. One bar boss who is very popular with his staff is Electric Blue Andy. Club Electric Blue has perhaps the best staff retention of any chrome pole bar. Its Christmas Party was held last weekend for the girls and a great spread was put on for them. But the real highlight was not the food, but all of the prizes / Christmas presents for the girls including a motorcycle, 32-, 41- and 48-inch screen TVs, a microwave, a fan, a rice cooker etc. It's no wonder the girls love Andy.
But one bar manager was not a hit with his girls and not quite the popular figure I always thought he was. The New Year's Eve countdown at Dollhouse in Soi Cowboy would have been entertaining and scary at the same time after the owner was set upon by his own staff, attacked with bottles and pipes! Amazingly, Darel posted photos of the aftermath to Facebook showing his bloodied, beaten body. It just goes to show what these girls are capable of when they're seriously pissed off.
Why do so many Thai women today have a Western nickname? The trend is nothing new and 20 years ago many well-to-do Thais had adopted a distinctly un-Thai nickname. But why are more and more Thais coming up with nicknames that just scream prostitute?! When did it become popular to have a cheesy English nickname like Diamond or Tiffany or Candy or Angel, nicknames not uncommonly used by working girls?! Thai nicknames are just fine and I can only guess that it is lost on them that some of these Western nicknames may give the impression that someone is something they're not.
Clearly the bar scene is not that important to expats in Chiang Mai with venues still under strict instructions from the local constabulary to close at midnight with no let up for Christmas, New Year and the high season. You've got to feel for Chiang Mai bar owners given that it's a free for all elsewhere and even in downtown Bangkok where 2 AM has traditionally been the closing time, most bars can stay open until 3 AM, to say nothing of the late night venues which close when the sun comes up.
What happened to turkey for Christmas dinner in Bangkok this year?, some expats asked. In Bangkok this Christmas a whole turkey was rarer than hen's teeth. Back around Thanksgiving there was a ban on turkeys imported from the States after bird flu was discovered in the USA. Over 51 million birds died or were killed to prevent the H5N2 virus from spreading and around 8 million were turkeys. Forty countries placed bans on duck, chicken and turkey imports from the USA, Thailand amongst them. Turkey in Bangkok has been priced anywhere from 310 – 350 baht / kg from distributors – but you had to be a VIP client and get on your knees and beg to get one – and at 900 to 1,200 baht / kg in stores this year – significantly more expensive than 2014 when the price ranged from 145 – 300 baht / kg-. This compares to prices in the USA ranging from 30 – 45 baht / kg for turkey during the 2015 holidays.
I never tire of these links to photos from Thailand of the past and this page features some of the oldest images I have seen from Thailand, some dating back to the late 1800s.
Quote of the week comes from a reader, "Whenever I ask my wife how she got her Thai driving license, her ability to change the subject is breathtaking."
Is this the best article about the internet in Thailand written in all of 2015?
Ko Phangnan is one of many places in Thailand that could do with rubbish bins.
25 Russian gogo dancers were arrested this week after a raid on two gogo bars in Walking Street found heaps of white girls.
A video surreptitiously taken of a couple doing the deed in a cubicle in Pattaya has gone viral.
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 questions for Sunbelt Asia this week.
Where are things going in Thailand? Do you have any thoughts on what the future will bring? My predictions at the start of the column about things that may happen in the bar industry are admittedly not that likely, at least not in the short-term. Long-term, however, anything is possible. Where do you see things going in the bar business? Are the recent difficulties and lull a temporary thing? How relevant are the economic difficulties that persist in other parts of the world to what happens in Thailand? Will the fear of posting what you really think on Facebook persist through 2016 and beyond? I'm always interested in your thoughts!