Bangkok bargoers are raving about Billboard. Recent reports have Billboard busy every night with lots of pretty girls with some going as far to say that it has recaptured the fun of the early days of Billboard, as well as the bar industry of old. How could a bar that was so dire for much of last year be turned around in to what many agree is currently the best bar in Nana Plaza?
Billboard was once the star bar of what was referred to for a while as the Billboard Group, and which later became known officially as the Nana Group – the bar group run by the late Glenn Bullard AKA "G".
Opened in late 2011, Billboard was the group's flagship bar and quickly developed a following as the formula of a Jacuzzi stocked with small-framed, big-chested girls had widespread appeal. For a time Billboard was right up there with Angelwitch, Spanky's and the best of the Rainbows as the most popular bars in Nana Plaza.
But what is popular today may not be tomorrow and the bar business can be cruel as fortunes change overnight. The owners of Billboard set about acquiring a number of properties and the group's rapid expansion that at one point in time saw their names on the leases of half the gogo bars in the plaza had them spread too thin. Managers looked after multiple venues when they weren't being ranted at by the boss. Morale slipped amongst the foreign managers, the Thai staff lost interest and this wasn't lost on punters who ventured elsewhere. Billboard quickly went from shining star with an average nightly take in the region of 200,000 baht to a bar which the boss had to put his hand in his pocket to cover expenses at the end of the month. A string of different managers tried and failed to turn it around, a number of whom were new to the business and whose only previous Bangkok work experience was in scorching hot confined spaces. Even Nana Plaza stalwart Dave The Rave couldn't get on top of Billboard and The Nana Group finally relented and sold the bar in September of last year.
Billboard is one of the largest bars in the plaza and big bars need lots of girls. Girl numbers was one of the many problems the new owners had to deal with. With so few girls, the bar felt quiet and lacked atmosphere. That has all changed. On Friday and Saturday nights around 90 girls dance in Billboard; Sunday through Thursday doesn't get quite the same numbers but still plenty to generate excitement.
I have a very tight window in which to take photos – less than an hour, which is not even close to ideal. I need to do light tests; I need to work out which lights in the bar should be on and which should be off. I need to introduce myself to the girls, tell them what I am doing and build a rapport with them. I need the DJ to put on music which gets the girls in the mood. I need to do so many things and I have so little time to do it. Before I even get inside, a girl I have never met before is posing and asking me to shoot her. The girls know someone was coming to take their photos and they see me and my camera and assume it's me. They seem excited about it, a nice surprise.
The Nana Group sold Billboard in September, 2015, and it was acquired by the American couple which runs it now, along with the Dutchman who came to Nana with grandiose ideas and was best known for Bangkok Bunnies. Said Dutchman sold his share of Billboard late last year and since then the American couple have had the freedom to run it their way.
The Jacuzzi was one of the highlights of Billboard and the owners identified that as one of the bar's strengths, and are making good use of it again.
There are three shifts of Jacuzzi girls and a total of 25 – 28 girls jump in, dance, splash around and generally enjoy themselves in the Jacuzzi each night.
Barfines in Billboard run 700 baht which seems to be about the industry average for Bangkok gogo bars these days. For showgirls the barfine rate is 1,000 baht from Sunday through to Wednesday while Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights it is 1,500 baht.
Billboard has two fire girls who perform shows simultaneously on the two dance floors, at either end of the bar.
Former Pretty Lady mamasan Tukata – one of the best in the business, in my humble opinion – will be a familiar sight to long-time Nana visitors and Ploy is also back, having also come from Pretty Lady, but via Crazy House.
Mamasans gets a lot of grief these days in this column and most are about as useful as a heater in Bangkok in May. But Tukata is an exception and nothing like most of the harridans hounding punters and the girls alike. Tukata was one of the reasons Pretty Lady Bar was so good for so long.
There is not a ladyboy to be seen in Billboard – not one, and the owners tell me that ain't ever gonna change. Unlike much of Nana Plaza today – about half the bars in the plaza to be precise – Billboard is ladyboy-free.
The plan is to replace everything and anything, and completely overhaul the bar. From the sound system to the seats to the lighting to the bar counter to the exterior, everything is being replaced. It is hoped that the entire project will be completed by August at which point Billboard will probably be the most modern gogo bar in all of Thailand.
The owners are not skimping on anything and are doing everything as well as they can. An expert audio company is coming up from Singapore to ensure that the sound system is as good as it can be.
There are all sorts of elaborate plans for the bar including some which cannot be divulged at this stage as the owners want them to be a surprise. If everything goes to plan, punters are really going to be wowed!
Beers run 140 – 200 baht with most standard beers around 160. Billboard's drinks list is more extensive than competing venues with around a dozen cocktails, priced at 200 baht each. For those watching their pennies, Leo and Chang are 140 baht and non-alcoholic drinks are 130 baht.
The girls in Billboard are a fun-loving bunch. A fun vibe is not something easily created so management and mamasans must be doing things right. The vibe at Billboard reminds me of Pretty Lady circa 2013 which at the time I thought was the best bar of its type in Bangkok. A bar with happy girls and a good vibe beats a bar with hot, unsmiling girls any day. Billboard has both – hot girls and a fun vibe.
A music video was filmed in Billboard last night, the final version of which will feature 40-odd Billboard girls. The artist recording the music video has one video on YouTube which has attracted 70 million views and it is hoped that the video will have a positive spin-off for the bar. The Hangover effect continues to draw punters to Soi Cowboy – could the YouTube effect do similar for Nana Plaza?
20-year old Milk, of Buriram, has striking eyes and a piercing gaze and a confidence that you seldom find in industry girls, a genuine confidence and not the sort of fragile personality hidden behind a tough exterior so common amongst Thai working girls. Milk was a delight to photograph, eager to pose and always had a ready smile. If I was a naughty boy…..
The resurrection of Billboard and the way it has returned to being one of the hot spots on Sukhumvit is largely due to the way the young American couple actually run it like a business and operate as professionals – and that sets them apart from many bar operators these days.
There was a time when most Nana gogo bars had pretty dancers and there was just one ladyboy bar in the whole plaza; a time when bar owners were almost always on the premises and the mamasans really felt like they were there to help you; a time when the girls smiled and everyone – guys and girls alike – had a great time. By design or by luck, I do not know, Billboard has recaptured the vibe of a bygone era. And what is all the more amazing is that the owners are only just getting going. Billboard has big plans and is a long way from the finished product. It's already very good, but give it a few months and Billboard could be something special.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken inside the very nice Bangkok Betty bar on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn at the start of Sukhumvit soi 22. The camera was pointed at the ceiling.
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 – Reinforcing the obvious.
Thai Immigration's attempt to persuade foreigners to divulge personal information upon arrival (their bank accounts, favourite bars, hotels, social media sites, etc.) might be better served by providing foreigners with an educational handout consisting of the following information intended to reduce the likelihood of getting attacked, maimed or killed by following their stupid farang instincts:
* Do NOT believe that Thais have the same values you may harbour.
* Do NOT act on any impulse to come to the aid of another person being attacked – for any reason.
* DO understand that your presence is tolerated ONLY because of the currency that accompanies you.
* DO acknowledge that your well-being depends upon your strict adherence to the above.
You've been warned, farang. Otherwise, enjoy your stay! Although all of this should, by now, be common knowledge to regular visitors and expats, it never hurts to reinforce the obvious. This was made even more obvious by the recent beating and knife attack on a Belgian male who came to the aid of a Thai woman being attacked in Satun by her husband. And no-one should be shocked that the husband first went to secure a knife and the help of his brother before launching his assault.
A story like that about Gary Salmon makes me very angry. There you have a young, good-looking guy who has all the possibilities in life to meet fantastic girls, fall in love, have a family and good friends and he throws it all away! Other people try hard to be nice and are prepared to go to any length to find someone to love and be loved by, but because they do not have the right clothes, speech, hair, idea of humour, age, car, condo, work, knowledge of music or film or whatever superficial values, they don't do so well. It is guys like Gary who poison the mind of normally nice girls who are interested in "normal" guys. Thai girls want to meet a good guy, but are charmed and fall in love with bastards like him. I don't get angry easily but this story made me very angry!
Bargirls need to change with the market.
With regard to individual or small groups of Chinese going to the bars, I would counsel any bargirl not hooked in to the Japanese scene to learn a few words of Chinese. Any bar boss who misses this trend will go out of business. The individual Chinese traveller has money. Are the men looking for ladies? Well, remember the gender imbalance in China due to the one child policy means there are way more men than women in China. Have these men been isolated and somewhat repressed? Are their parents nagging them to find a good Chinese girl? Yes, but a holiday in Thailand is a time to cut loose a little before going back home to the grind of fighting the millions of other guys competing to find the right Chinese girl. Bargirls who turn their noses up at the Chinese will lose out. Can you say ni hao ma?
Swapping Pattaya for Phuket.
I met a young lady who said she had been in Phuket for 5 months after 7 months in Pattaya. I asked why she moved. In Pattaya, she said, men only want to drink and boom boom. Very boring. In Phuket we go the beach, we go dancing, we visit temples. Not boring.
Thais and homesickness.
None of us really wants to come back home from vacation. But you have to, we know that. The end of a big trip can be bittersweet. You know you have to go home, but boy would it be nice to stay just a little longer. A Thai gal who visited me in California (she also had other friends in Arizona) was the opposite. By the time she got to me at about day 7 of a 10-day trip, she was already homesick. Every meal we had to find Thai food. I teased her a little saying “Thais think it's strange when a farang in Thailand wants farang food, but you're here and refuse to eat any local food.” The joke went way over her head. “You think that place have som tam?” was all she could say. By the time I dropped her off at LAX, she was totally ready to be home. And her trip in total was only 10 days.
I realise you have received a lot of mail regarding the Hua Hin incident, but I wanted to chime in too. I agree that it is not the frequency of these cowardly acts that is increasing, but thanks to social media etc they are now just more out there for all to see. Honestly, one of my biggest objections with Thailand is the national obsession with lakorns (soap operas), many of which include plot lines that have males hitting females. I can't accept that children are regularly watching these TV programs and see this as completely "normal", but if they show affection e.g. Western type kissing, that is completely horrifying! Maybe this lakorn obsession and the popularity (a while ago now) of Hong Kong fighting movies which popularised dog-pack style fighting may have contributed to the problem?
Thais and smartphones.
I travel to work in the morning on the MRT and it surprises me how most young Thais on the train are not looking at news stories but are on Facebook and Line. The first thing I want to look at is the BBC news to see what is happening in the world but the Thais just look at their friends to see what they ate last night or chat on Line and send childish stickers. It makes you wonder about the future of Thailand and the sort of people who will be running the country in years to come. And please don't get me started on Thai TV which is even more childish and pointless!
Real estate agents in Bangkok.
I guess you know this but, man, Bangkok real estate agents are an exercise in complete *frustration*. I think they just lie when they say they understand English. There can be no other explanation. They give you a whole lot of questions about your requirements which you respond to in detail. But I think they understand all that detail to mean "some condo somewhere in Bangkok" because based on what you get back it meets only that requirement. What is more, you get nice pictures – but no price for the condo – and one example that had a tenant – but no detail on what the tenant was paying, what the length of the tenancy was, or anything! Just pictures of the inside of a condo that I could have easily pulled off the internet myself. The specific follow-up requests are ignored, and more useless photos of completely unrelated and totally unsuitable condos continue to flow in to the inbox. At least I have not got any of places in Pattaya or Hua Hin yet. But would not be surprised.
Another Bangkok bar and restaurant neighbourhood has an appointment with the grim reaper and looks set to be consigned to Bangkok bar history. A chunk of Sukhumvit soi 11 which includes a few long-running / character venues has been sold to developers who plan to turn it in to – yes, you guessed it – another condominium building. The stretch of Sukhumvit soi 11 that runs from Cheap Charlie's up to the Soi 11 guesthouse and restaurant, encompassing all of the properties on soi 11 itself as well all of the properties in the sub soi behind which features such popular restaurants as Charley Brown's – Bangkok's longest running Mexican restaurant – and Snapper (which some say has the best fish and chips in all of Bangkok), have received letters by registered post informing them that their lease will not be renewed beyond March, 2017. Some venues have already begun their search for a new location.
On the ground floor of Nana Plaza, the pool bar at Bangkok Bunnies, which is in the space that was previously Voodoo, is now open. It is hoped that it will contribute to an increase in business with Bangkok Bunnies, the largest bar in Nana Plaza and in a prime ground floor position doing absolutely miserably since it changed hands a few months ago. I dunno…I've never thought Nana Plaza was a great place for a pool bar.
Jail Birdz on the top floor of Nana remains closed and any hopes of it reopening are fading. This is not the first time Jail Birdz has closed its doors – the bar closed for a short period a few months back. It's 12 days and counting since the music was playing and there were girls dancing in Jail Birdz. Word is that Jail Birdz fell behind on its rent. As a multi-storey bar area, Nana Plaza bar operators know the importance of location and the position of Jail Birdz on the right-hand side of the top floor has long been a dead zone (whereas, strangely, the other side of the plaza seems to get much more foot traffic). There's a reason rents on the ground floor are so much higher than on the top floor.
Bubbles, on the other side of the plaza and also on the top floor, closed ages ago and was run by the very same fellow who had Jail Birdz. Since that space was vacated there has been little interest in it. It's the same issue – the top floor just doesn't get the foot traffic. Having said that, with Billboard right next door booming, what more proof do you need that if you work hard and create a fun vibe you can make money on the top floor of the plaza. With Jail Birdz and Bubbles both in darkness, that's half the bars on the top floor of Nana Plaza empty.
If you have a midget on your bucket list, drop by Mercury in Nana Plaza and look for #3. Management tell me she is popular. And don't go joking with her about her pint-size and taking her for a short-time – that one wore thin with her long ago.
There has been a flurry of bar name changes in Nana Plaza causing much confusion especially when old-timers refer to bars by their old name. New bars / investment in the industry can only be a good thing, but changing the name of a bar while keeping it exactly the same confuses everyone. Compare Nana with Cowboy and Patpong – especially Patpong soi 1 – where few bars change hands and there have been very few bar name changes.
All the ladyboy bars in Nana Plaza are of the gogo variety, which is to say there are no ladyboy lounges – the sort of bars where there are usually couches and chairs and pool tables instead of chrome poles. Lounges dominate the Pattaya ladyboy scene, yet number only two in Bangkok – the old Guess (now called Chaos 9) in the Rajah Hotel parking lot and the Check-In Bar off Soi 7. The differences are numerous but suffice to say customers don't spend a lot of time in gogo bars whereas many tend to regard the lounges as private clubs, remaining sometimes for the entire evening, where they socialise together as well as with the ladyboys, who tend to be less aggressive. I am told that the music is generally more tolerable in the lounges too.
What is it with all the goons at the entranceways to most Nana Plaza bars? Almost every bar now has heavies at the door – and some of these guys look like they're spoiling for a fight. Door security in Thailand is often made up of off-duty police / army or young punks who fancy themselves as hired muscle – and Nana Plaza seems to have more of the latter. Security is a good thing, of course, but the only uniformed security guards in Nana appear to be at the main entrance; inside are some nasty-looking types. These goons do nothing for the vibe of the place.
One Pattaya gogo bar is taking the idea of only having only slim dancers seriously. The recently appointed manager brought in a set of scales and all dancers were weighed. It was decided that the maximum weight a dancer can be is 48 kg and all dancers over 48 kg were given their marching orders, including one sexy lady who was being barfined every night. They really are serious about keeping the fatties out and making sure the venue resembles a house of dolls.
Service staff in bars asking for a tip when one isn't given (and may not be deserved) is one of the more odious practices in the bar biz. Tips are divided up amongst service staff at the end of the night and 300 – 400 baht per person is not unusual – not bad given that is on top of the 10,000 odd baht service staff are typically paid as a monthly salary. The shared tips are on top of any tips that are given directly to the girl i.e. placed in her hand and theirs to keep. One bar in Nana Plaza currently has a sign outside looking for staff. It says that service staff can expect to earn 400 baht per night on average over and above their salary. In other words, service staff are well compensated so if the service is lousy and you choose not to tip, don't feel bad about it. No-one is going to go hungry if you don't tip!
The Nana Hotel doubles as a retirement home with several older foreigners resident, living there year round. Apparently there was a time when their number was much greater but some have moved on to the afterlife.
Speaking of the famous sex tourist hotel, the Nana Hotel is renovating its restrooms. There are restrooms across from the elevators and there are also some hidden restrooms down the long corridor past the travel agent's desk. Apparently they date back to the days when the swimming pool was located there and still have showers in them.
Business fell off a cliff this week. One Patpong bar owner told me they had their worst night ever one night earlier this week. Many Bangkok bar owners said trade was very bad this week.
This coming Friday, May 20, is Visakha Bucha Day, a significant Buddhist holiday and it is expected that most bars nationwide will be closed. In the old days some bar areas played a game of cat and mouse with the authorities on public holidays, opening and selling non-alcoholic drinks, or serving alcohol in coffee cups. With a military government in place that sort of carry on seems unlikely. If you are dying for a drink, probably Patpong will be open – it tends to get a special dispensation as it is considered a mainstream tourist area.
The expansion of the Hooters chain continues across the region. Bangkok's two Hooters branches have only been going a few months with word that Phnom Penh will soon have its very own Hooters. But Hooters is already in Phnom Penh, I hear you say. No, that was a Khmer copy and basically a hostess bar with girls decked out in replica Hooters T-shirts. I imagine it shouldn't be difficult to hire ladies of the Hooters archetype over the border where the local lasses have figures that very much fit the Hooters mould.
And still in Phnom Penh, long-time partner in Sharky Bar, Mike Hsu passed away last Sunday and was found dead in the bar. Mike was 67 years old and from all accounts led life in the fast lane and it was something of a minor miracle that he lasted as long as he did. But then again, perhaps 67 is not such a bad innings for an expat in Cambodia.
A long-term reader tells me about a new massage shop on the second floor of the S33 complex in Sukhumvit soi 33. It's not the shop itself that is generating interest, but the website which doesn't skirt around what goes on inside, but very much embraces it with descriptions of exactly what services are umm, errr, on hand. Visit the website MituBangkok, click on English at the top, then on the no hand picture and scroll down the page. * Note, best you don't look at this site at work!
The saddest thing about The Dubliner closing is that it had arguably the best cooked breakfast on Sukhumvit. There's still no word on what will happen to The Dubliner.
And some time in the last few weeks the small Forge Pub which replaced The Black Swan near the Asoke intersection and next to the Asoke skytrain station also closed.
Speaking with a friend over there in Bangkok this week, he put it to me that he feels Thai women will do what they're going to do in a relationship irrespective of what you do and how you are in the relationship and there's really not much you can do to influence their behaviour. He feels that if a Thai woman is going to stray / cheat in a relationship then it really does not matter how well you treat her or even whether you cheat on her yourself. If she is going to cheat, she is going to cheat. I value this friend's thoughts about life in Thailand and relationships with Thais so I gave it a bit of thought. I am not convinced, but he may have a point. What do you think?
And speaking with another friend in Bangkok, he's struggling to cope with the heat in more ways than one. Not only is it hot and sticky, his power bill has gone through the roof. 5,300 baht – or around $US150 – might not sound like a high monthly power bill for those of us in the west, but given that he lives in a small condo and his rent is less than 9,000 baht a month, last month's power bill came as a shock.
If you are fascinated by Bangkok and wonder what it was like before mass tourism arrived, you might like to check out a book published in English way back in 1927 by Major Erik Seidenfaden titled A Guide To Bangkok With Notes on Siam. The entire book has been scanned and is available to download free as a PDF file.
A popular Sukhumvit restaurant is looking for an experienced chef who can cook western food. Interested parties should drop an email to : Bkkhospitality@gmail.com The position comes with a work permit and a visa. Starting salary is 45K baht / month and rises to 60K baht / month after probation.
Quote of the week comes from Ranb, "An expertly performed oil massage is superior to a boring one with a happy ending."
Reader's story of the week comes from Mr. Anonymous, "Medical Debacle in Chiang Mai".
Thai students are caught using 'Mission Impossible-style' exam spy glasses.
Proving it's not just Pattaya where tourists are targeted, a German is robbed in the grounds of an historical park in Ayutthaya.
Yet more reports from tourists in Pattaya of being robbed by ladyboys on Beach Road.
The Bangkok Post profiled some of the city's more interesting night markets.
The latest nonsense from Pattaya has it that repressed Middle Eastern men are helping to prop up the sex industry there.
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: If someone is facing criminal charges in Thailand and leaves the country, legally changes their name in their own country, applies for a new set of documents in their new name, including a new passport and then used that passport to return to Thailand, would the Thai authorities be able to determine that person's previous identity and link them to the pending charges?
Sunbelt Legal responds: Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors would not recommend this course of action. Not only is it entirely illegal, but even if the person somehow managed to get past Immigration they would get caught sooner or later. The expat community is a small one.
Question 2: My 16-year old son was born in the USA, and has lived in Thailand (American father / Thai mother) for the last 10 years. He has his US birth certificate, social security number, US passport, Thai ID card, house registration, Thai passport. Just wondering what will happen when he turns 20 and has to do the Thai military draft lottery. I'm sure like most folks, he doesn't want to end up in the military, so what are the other options? I've heard you can pay (50k baht?) to avoid it. What if he was living in the US, and either going to college or working, how would that work? Is his name in the system, and if he doesn't show up, since he's in the USA, would he get in trouble?
Sunbelt Legal responds: Since your son is listed in a Thai house registration or Tabien Ban, then his name will automatically be submitted to authorities for inclusion in the military draft lottery draw.
It is a lottery system where he may or may not be chosen for military service but at the age of 17 i.e. in one year, he must enrol in the Registrant List with the Military Registrar [known as Sassadee] at the District Office where the House Registration is located. Once enrolled he would be given a Sor Dor 9 Form. If he is not in the country, he could have a representative (usually his parent or another relative) enrol on his behalf.
At the age of 20 he would have to revisit the District office to see the Military Registrar to collect an appointment slip for the lottery (Form is known as Sor Dor 35). However, living and studying overseas does provide a temporary exemption from the conscription lottery.
He or you will need to present a letter of confirmation issued by the educational institute he attends, a letter of confirmation issued by the Thai Embassy or Consulate in the country that education institute is located, the Sor Dor 9 (previously obtained at the age of 17), a Sor Dor 35 (if any), and house registration.
This exemption is only available to him until he reaches the age of 29. If he stayed in the US after the end of his schooling he could still move back to Thailand later and, at the age of 30, apply for an exemption based on age. If he moves back to Thailand immediately after university it is important to note that if he has a degree and volunteers on conscription day, he'll only have to serve 6 months. If he doesn't volunteer and is chosen in the lottery then he will have to serve two years, even with a university degree.
Question 3: I am in the process of changing employer. I've had the same employer for the last 4 years and they are happy to work with my new employer to transfer my work permit and non-B visa over (if possible). I read somewhere before that it was, but can't remember the steps involved. Something along the lines of having to cancel your non-b on a certain day, extend it for 7 etc. Could you explain how I should go about doing this? My new employer is based in Phuket and the old one in Bangkok. I don't know if this will make any difference. I'm in possession of my work permit from my old employer in Bangkok, and they haven't cancelled my non-B visa, which expires on the 18th of August, until I ask them to.
Sunbelt Legal responds: Since your work permit has yet to be cancelled, then it is advisable to add the new company to the work permit. Then cancel the old visa and reapply for the new visa in Phuket. Only then do you cancel the old work permit. This method allows for the whole process to be completed without leaving the country.
Please however note that this all depends on the previous employer being supportive and able to provide the termination letter at the appropriate time and date.
If the work permit is cancelled then you will have to cancel the visa and start the process from the beginning with the new employer.
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors has an in-house team that can guide you through this whole process. Please feel free to contact us to schedule an appointment to review the work permit and visa and go over it in more detail.
Thanks for all of the emails and kind comments and feedback in response to last week's column. My email inbox went crazy for a couple of days following the article about the antics in Bangkok of Gary Salmon. Following that article there have been reported sightings of Gary in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Saigon and even a photo of someone thought to be him (but it wasn't) in Bangkok. I always enjoy your feedback so don't be shy to let me know what you think about the column, be it good, bad or ugly.