Arriving in Thailand after a period of time away there is a short window when your senses are finely tuned to everything going on, as well as what has changed since your last visit. I try not to meet up with anyone on my first few days back in Bangkok and enjoy observing all that is going on around me.
After my most recent jaunt to Bangkok, these are some of my observations on life in the city – trends, changes and the direction I see the city moving in.
Bangkok’s transport infrastructure is struggling to cope and operating far beyond its capacity. Whether it’s the lengthy queues at skytrain / underground stations to buy a ticket to the melee on the platform to get on a train, it’s not just peak hour that is bedlam. It’s little different on the boats plying the Chao Praya and the Saen Saeb Canal which are packed throughout the day. Getting around Bangkok has become so unpleasant at times that I prefer to walk if at all possible – or just stay home.
In fairness to Thailand, transport issues are hardly a Bangkok thing and cities the world over are more congested than ever. We even complain about traffic here in Auckland these days.
I have long said that one of the tricks to being a contented Bangkok expat is knowing the city as a commuter and knowing which form of transportation to take at which time – and even the best route to take, and those to avoid. This is more true than ever in Bangkok today.
Expats & Visitors
I don’t take any pleasure in saying that it seemed there were more and more broken foreigners in Bangkok. Broke in terms of money, broken in terms of relationships.
You seldom met Russians in Bangkok in the past but there are many now. Take the diner in Foodland in Sukhumvit soi 16, for example – there were often Russians there, so many in fact that I wonder if that particular diner has appeared in a Russian language travel blog or a Russian language guide to Bangkok.
I don’t think I have seen so many people – that would be Westerners – with black eyes. They had clearly been in a fracas recently. I never see that in New Zealand.
While there are a lot of troubled foreigners living in and visiting Bangkok, I can’t help but shake the feeling that where Thailand once was best known as a destination for those on a budget that these days I prefer to give cheaper places a miss. The best of Thailand is at the other end of the spectrum. 5-star hotels are affordable by international standards and the restaurants in these hotels are often a great deal compared with elsewhere. Maybe it is me who has changed more than Thailand, but I try to avoid the low-end these days. Not that long ago I embraced it.
Bangkok strikes me as a city full of lonely expats, ironic given how many claim to have an amazing social life. It might sound contrarian, but you can have an active social life yet still be lonely. Rather a few expats struck me as unfulfilled and craving something that was missing in their life. Are they missing a genuine connection, be it male friends, girlfriend / wife / whomever. They don’t get it from the Thais because Thai society is exclusionary towards non-Thais. Inviting you to share a meal with them and some of the other social niceties of Thailand doesn’t actually mean that you’re included. My advice to lonely expats is simple: get a dog and you’ll have the best companion you could ever wish for. It will be loyal, won’t cost you the world and it won’t break your heart.
I have no training in medicine nor mental health but I am convinced that more than a few foreigners in Thailand are off. A lot of people are just plain not right.
Plenty are shooting themselves up with testosterone and other supplements – and are not shy to share this with strangers. I am not going to say someone should or should not do this, but when you see the volatility in some people you do wonder whether the use of pharmaceuticals might have something to do with it.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the expat community though. Expats employed full-time seem to be in a much better headspace than those who aren’t. I felt it was almost like there was a great divide between retired expats and employed expats – and it was the complete opposite of what you’d expect in that those who are employed in Thailand seemed for the most part to be happier than those who are retired.
The Ladies of Thailand
Local ladies are definitely more shapely!
It’s hard to imagine anywhere with more beautiful women than the heart of downtown Bangkok where office buildings are full of 20- and 30-something fair-skinned Thai university graduates. Go just a few kilometres in any direction, ideally in areas not reached by the electric train and it’s a rather different story. That’s not to say that there aren’t beauties around nor that Thai women are not attractive – they are – but it puts things rather in perspective. Be it downtown Auckland, downtown London, downtown Paris or downtown Bueonos Aires, in the business districts and where there is money you see a lot of beauties. Straying away from prosperous areas is a great leveller.
The Bar Scene
The bar scene is still a lot of fun, in fact I reckon the best way to enjoy it is just visit occasionally i.e. on holiday. I was so bored of it all in my last few years living in Thailand but when I go back now I actually quite liked it.
In some bars the average dancing lass is overweight to the extent that you could be forgiven for thinking that was the bar’s point of difference – employing a bunch of fatties. The average bargirl is a lot bigger than even just a few years ago which again is a worldwide trend – we’re all getting bigger.
More and more friends in Bangkok, for the most part guys who once enjoyed the bar scene, are turning their back on it. Some are even now going to the extent of distancing themselves from it and denying their past association with the bars. Is Bangkok getting more politically correct?
There is little eye contact in some gogo bars these days and it feels like you’re watching a YouTube video and that you’re not even in a bar, so detached are the girls from customers.
Many still refer to Thailand as the Land of Smiles, but the name seems less fitting these days, in Bangkok at least. Despite plans to spend a weekend in Hua Hin I never ventured beyond the outskirts of the capital so I am not sure how things are elsewhere. I can honestly say that I saw fewer smiles in 3 weeks in Bangkok than I do in Auckland in a week. Really. That is not to say that Bangkok is full of miserable people – it isn’t – but the joie de vivre seems absent.
Thais out and about on their own look plain miserable. Seriously, pay closer attention to Thais who are out and about on their own. When part of a group it’s a different story – they laugh and joke around together. Thais really are social creatures, but I am not sure I remember seeing people on their own look miserable like many do nowadays.
I get the feeling that where once Thailand largely stood on its own, today it seems to be more influenced by that is going on elsewhere. Many of the trends in Thailand mirror what is happening elsewhere, not just in other countries in the region but right around the world. Thailand to me feels more international – which has its positives and negatives, but it certainly feels a little less Thai – which again has its ups and downs.
I can sum up Thailand for me these days with just one word: entertaining. It’s fun enough for a break and I do enjoy visiting.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week’s photo was taken of a condo on the main Sukhumvit Road, near the intersection with soi 26. Not a single soul got it right. In response to many people saying in recent weeks that the photos have been too easy, I have ratcheted up the difficulty factor and this week’s photo, like last week’s, is not easy at all. To make matters worse, it was taken a few years ago. Still, anyone familiar with the bar scene might get it by looking at the detail in the background….
FROM STICK’S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.)
Hooters no longer a hoot.
Yesterday I did a round of the Soi 4 bars late afternoon and was struck by how few customers now frequent Hooters – a dozen at most at 6:30 PM. The beer bars across the soi were as packed as usual, so it would appear customers have not been persuaded to cross over. My Hooters card is no longer accepted and the hype at launch is missing. I doubt anybody rides the bull anymore and the bar is missing the original American manager who tried to whip up some enthusiasm on his mic. If they even have a manager now then he’s not obvious. They also have 2 western girls (I think Russian) serving at the counter, which is just weird.
This past week I traveled from Thailand to India and leaving the country Immigration was a disaster, the same as you described. My savior was someone pulling me out and taking me to the Priority Section. It was only 5 – 10 minutes there. On returning to Thailand, the Immigration queue did not look like fun. Fortunately I followed another American who took a line beside the left wall that lead to an area behind a partition where there were two immigration officers and only a few people in line. More frustration was the 24-hour return check-in at the local Immigration office in Nakhon Si Thammarat after arriving at the NST airport that morning. Another set of copies of every page of my passport (the 4th set in 5 months) and hassles all around for my Thai wife. Down here they sure want to make it tough for everyone and don’t care if you have to drive over an hour each way to get there from where we live. From what I read on a Hua Hin expat website, this does not apply to Immigration there. People report checking in and out in 5 minutes when reporting back after a trip.
South-East Asia visa hassles.
I thought I’d mention some visa problems I’ve run into (I’m an Australian, living in Australia). I’ve been in the habit of applying for tourist visas before travelling to avoid delays at Immigration. I recently applied for a short-term tourist visa to Malaysia, but was knocked back on the grounds that Australians don’t need a visa for short stays. They simply returned all my paperwork unprocessed. Fair enough, no problem, as I know that the arrival process in Malaysia is very quick. But it still surprised me, why not just issue me with a visa? Next, I intended to get some dental work done in Cambodia but it would require a longer stay as the work needs a long break to let gums settle down. So I rang the Cambodia Embassy in Canberra to find out about the new long-term tourist visa which has been mentioned in many news sources. The guy I spoke to had never heard of this new visa, and said that it wouldn’t apply to Australia anyway! So then I asked for the fee for a business visa and he was adamant that I was not entitled to one! So it seems that the promised three-year multiple-entry tourist visa didn’t eventuate, and also that they are clamping down on business visas. I guess I’ll try my luck with visa on arrival, and then extending it (if necessary) in country. I was hoping to avoid those hassles.
Favourite Bangkok bars.
I’ve been a frequent customer of the Bangkok a gogo scene for 20 years as both a visitor and an expat and I suppose many would consider me “hardcore” but I have never set foot inside Crazy House and have no immediate plans to do so. Nearly everything I have heard from multiple sources just makes it unappealing to me. And like you, I have also never really rated Suzy Wong. Soi Cowboy has always been my favourite Bangkok bar area. I have also spent a lot of time in Nana Plaza and a little time in Patpong. Both Tilac and Dollhouse have always been regular ports of call for me amongst quite a few other bars in the soi. My favourite bar is still Long Gun, much to the dismay of many I might add! But the fact that it is in such a time warp, like stepping back into the ’90s is why I still love it. Regarding Nana, I agree about Billboard, good but not the best. And Bangkok Bunnies is just too big and lacks atmosphere. I haven’t been to Mandarin for ages but sounds like it’s worth a visit. I have to say that I find Angelwitch and Spanky’s a complete turn off and that one of my favourites in Nana is actually Sexy Night. It’s a sort of mini Long Gun and again is in many ways like stepping back in to the ’90s.
Soi Cowboy thoughts.
I did a Soi Cowboy crawl. I tried Dollhouse first – not too many attractive girls so 1 drink and out. Suzy Wong’s was next – a poor lineup and we were gouged 360 baht for 2 glasses of soda water. I guess the new owner jacked up all the prices. We hit Rawhide and Long Gun which had a much better lineup and a better vibe.
Erecting a sacred shrine on Sukhumvit soi 7.
The Biergarten is historic, sacred ground you might say. It must not be sold, converted or tampered with in any way. I suggest the Biergarten should be turned in to “The Shrine of the Virgin Bar Girl” Amen!
For those who partake in this ‘paying people to like me’ stuff and do short time, I have no idea why they’d go anywhere else apart from Thermae. There were at least 5 – 10 really good-looking girls in this place, dressed well too (I was there last night for hours). 100 baht beers and exceptionally friendly Thai staff.
May Kaidee NYC.
This past Sunday after reading your article and since I live in NYC not too far from 28th street neighborhood I decided to give May Kaidee a try. It was delicious! I’m not strictly vegetarian, but as I get older and more health conscious I have a few days each week only of vegetarian (I call it flexitarian). The food was wonderful and the music and overall atmosphere of the place very tranquil and authentic. Thanks for the recommendation!
Girl of the week
Miss Thigh-Tattoo, dancer, Billboard, Nana Plaza
There’s been much doom and gloom in recent weeks with talk of many venues to close. In one or two cases such talk might have been premature. First, Flann O’Brien’s on Silom Road is looking forward to serving Guinness and other Irish favourites for the next 3 years with word that their lease has been renewed. Word is that a new lease was signed this past Monday. And over on Sukhumvit soi 7 the Biergarten refuses to die. The latest is that it will close but only for a period of time while construction of a new hotel & mall takes place. The Biergarten is expected to return to the new building but it will be much smaller and may just encompass what is currently the upstairs pool hall. So, good news, I guess, but the Biergarten without the main area won’t be quite the same, will it?
Enter on the top floor of Nana Plaza has a split personality. On the one hand it is a bright, modern-looking bar and you get the impression it might be a little classier than other venues. But looks can be deceiving and Enter embraces some of the grotty stuff that Bangkok gogo bars used to be known for. Enter has girls who blow the horn, write with a magic marker and shoot darts. Not my thing but it might be yours.
What’s the verdict on the new Strikers in Soi Nana? I never stopped by this past trip – and I regret it. I thought the second version of Strikers in the Raja Hotel Car Park was better than the original branch with a clever design making it sufficiently different to all other beer bars on Soi Nana, giving it character. If it had been closer to the main Sukhumvit Road it would have been a winner, I reckon. So what of the new outlet? Any thoughts?
With rents becoming more of an issue for business owners in downtown Bangkok, how can the largest gogo bar in Nana Plaza be profitable? I don’t know what the rent is but it must be well north of a million baht a month. Factor in the not inconsiderable cost of the initial build and all of the subsequent renovations, how can Bangkok Bunnies possibly be profitable? Why wouldn’t the owners cut the bar in half, or even in to three – and operate two or three different bars? The rent for three separate bars using the same space would, presumably, be the same – but as a proprietor you’d be able to try different themes and formats so if, for example, someone didn’t like your bar, they could try next door which is also one of yours so you wouldn’t lose them as a customer. I like the owner of Bunnies’ passion and the way he tries things and invests in the business, but the business model doesn’t make economic sense to me.
Is it a coincidence that all of the best bars are on one (the northern) side of Soi Cowboy? Tilac, Dollhouse, Lighthouse, Bacarra and Shark are all on the same side of the soi. Long Gun is the only bar on the other side of the soi that I think you’d say was one of the better bars in town. Is there a reason for this or is it pure chance?
From Patpong, word is that Dragon’s Head in Patpong soi 2 seems to be doing very well now under Joe Delany’s charge. And I see that The Strip is still doing lots of parties, despite the change in ownership and management. The parties were always popular so it’s good to see.
Songkran is the biggest holiday of the Thai calendar and a time of year which polarises foreigners and it is just a week away. As the mercury gets close to 40 degrees, many head outside and join in the world’s biggest water fight. For bar hounds in Bangkok, Soi Cowboy has traditionally been the bar area to head for if you want to have a water fight with the ladies of the bars. The soi has a fun vibe by day if you’re in to Songkran, and you can generally still have a night out at Soi Cowboy over Songkran too. Everyone goes wild during the day and come night-time the soi reverts to business as usual. Nana Plaza has seen the popularity of Songkran at Cowboy and the plaza will host water fights within its confines this year. There has been no word about Songkran activities from Patpong as yet.
Even the most dedicated barfly and student of Thailand’s nightlife might find a tour of the Empower museum a challenge. A Thai, pro-sex worker NGO whose first motto was “No More Sewing Machines!” when it was founded in 1985, today it fights for improved work and human rights and offers classes that range from literacy to self-confidence. Its museum opened last year but is little known. Situated on the third floor of a shophouse in Nonthaburi, not only is it well off the beaten path, its exhibits lack the bells and whistles of modern museums and thus nearly all of the excitement of the lifestyle they represent. Sharing its space with offices and classrooms that serve as the NGO’s offices, the history of Thai prostitution is well told, but a tour left a friend with the feeling of being in a rarely visited storage space inhabited by ghosts. Exhibits go back to 1880 Ayuthaya when a stop at a government-operated brothel cost 50 satang (which then bought 15 kg of rice) to four baht (125 eggs), prices not so far from today’s. Captions in Thai and grammatical English are detailed and meeting staff is easily arranged – and they have interesting tales to share. More information and a map can be found at Empowerfoundation.org.
There are priority lanes at Immigration control at the airport which are used by diplomats, air crew, those who pay the 1,500 odd baht fee for a pass and a number of others. Amongst the list of people who can use the priority lanes is those aged over 70. If you’re aged 70 or over, you do NOT need to queue with the masses and you can use the priority lane – just look for the sign and join the (short) queue.
A regular reader asked this week which branch of 7 Eleven I thought was the busiest. If I had been asked this question a few years ago I probably would have said the branch at the mouth of Sukhumvit soi 33 was the busiest of those I was familiar with. But somehow 7 Eleven messed up big time and lost the lease to that space and it has been replaced by a branch of Family Mart – so I have no idea which would be the busiest branch now. I thought this was a fun question so I thought I’d throw it out there – which branch of 7 Eleven do you think is the busiest in Bangkok?
And just along from the location of that particular convenience store at Sukhumvit soi 33, heading in the direction of Nana is the spot which was once Coyotes Mexican restaurant. Since that closed the space has changed hands a number of times with various restaurants trying their luck and failing from a steakhouse to a Latin music house to a Brazilian meat eaters joint and now it is a Japanese BBQ outlet with an open kitchen. At last it seems to be working and those behind it might have finally got it right because for the past week it has been packed. It’s like they hit the ball out of the park. A Japanese-themed venue sounds like a good fit because that location is just a stone’s throw from Emporium and is an area long popular with Japanese, many of whom live in the neighbourhood.
Taxi drivers in Bangkok get a hard time – and you can count me amongst those who have griped about Bangkok cabbies. But let me say that one thing Bangkok taxi drivers don’t do – and this has NEVER happened to me in what must be thousands of journeys in Bangkok cabs – is that I have never had one take the so-called long route. Sure, they might take a route that is a little longer in distance than another, but it will almost certainly be quicker in time. Taxis taking the long route to run a fare up? Not in Bangkok. They want to get you to your destination ASAP and get another fare.
Reuters says the Thai junta is displeased with Pattaya’s sex tourism image.
Aussies bikers are moving in on the local bikers’ patch in Thailand.
The so-called Red Bull killer is living life large in London and other international hotspots.
Khao Sod looks at the Red Bull killer case and how money and relationships can trump the law in Thailand.
An editorial in The Nation asks whether Pattaya really can drain the swamp.
The official responsible for the Bangkok Film Festival gets 50 years for corruption.
A young Caucasian fell to his death this week at Suwannaphum Airport.
Sunbelt Legal Advisors is here to answer any legal questions you have related to Thailand. Drop me an email and I will forward your questions to Sunbelt Legal and run their response in the next column.
Question 1: I intend to buy a nice condo in Jomtien. As I am 63 years old I am considering buying the condo in the name of my daughter to save the hassle with my will, inheritance tax etc.
1) Does it make a difference if she uses her Vietnamese passport – which I prefer – instead of the German one?
2) To get the Tor Tor 3 she must open account in her name or we can use money – of course legally transferred into Thailand – from my account in Bangkok? We have the same family name.
Sunbelt Legal Advisors responds: There is no difference in using a German passport or Vietnamese passport at this point. You can pay for the condo and yes you can use to the money from your account in Bangkok. The bank will issue a Tor Tor 3 certifying that the money will be used for purchasing the condo. However, please be aware that if your daughter is a minor you will not be able to sell the condo without a court order. Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors can assist you with the condo purchase agreement and ensure that the contract addresses your needs and those of your daughter.
Question 2: I bought a condominium in Pattaya with a square-meter price well above the normal. The condominium complex consists of over 1,000 condos and has several common facilities such as pool areas, gym, lounges etc.
Since the beginning of the high season I and many others have experienced major problems with short-term leases.
Huge numbers of tourists are check in / check out from different condos on a daily basis. They are sitting or even sleeping in the lobby while waiting for check in / check-out or transportation to the airport.
They disobey the rules and regulations of the condominium and do not care as much of the buildings and the common areas as we do who paid a lot to live here.
In addition, there is no record of the people renting short-term which is a security risk.
Bad behavior and even theft from the common areas are nothing unusual among short-term tenants. The place does not feel like a high-end condominium at all, rather like a cheap short-term hotel.
I and others have complained to the Building Manager and demanded action to stop the short-term rentals but nothing happens.
We have 24/7 security guards at the entrance to the complex but when people arrive and show a short-term booking via for example AirBnB they let them.
According to Thai law short-term rentals are illegal, and according to the rules of our condominium, condos can be used for residing purposes only.
This is the exact text of the condominium regulations: the joint owner is entitled to exploit the condominium for residing purpose only.
The Building Manager says that he cannot take action because “there is no existing inscription that the joint owner is not allowed to exploit the condominium for leasing service of daily residing.”
He says that an amendment needs to be done before action can be taken. An amendment stating “Do not use the condominium for commercial purposes and/or to lease it out with the term of the lease agreement less than 1 month.”
To put the amendment into place there will need a 50% approval from co-owners at the next annual general meeting, he says. Since a lots of people bought condos here only with the aim to rent out short-term, I am not sure whether there will be a 50% approval and besides, the next meeting is still far away.
My questions are: Can action be taken to stop the short-term rentals without the need of an amendment? Is the current statement of the condominium regulations together with the actual Thai law enough to take serious action to stop the short-term rentals?
What action can be taken? Is it legal to deny people entrance to the building when they arrive with a booking confirmation of less than a month?
What can I as a co-owner actually demand from the Building Manager in this regard?
Sunbelt Legal Advisors responds: The law is on your side. The building complex needs to have a hotel license in order to lease short-term to tourists. However, since it is a condo it will not have this license. This is illegal and it is possible to file a complaint with the local District Office. Sunbelt Asia will be happy to help. In order to determine if you can make a claim seek compensation we would have to have a look into the sales contract and the amendment itself. Please feel free to contact us for a free initial consultation on the best way to address this problem.
The run up to Songkran (April 13th – 15th) is a funny time in Thailand. April is the hottest month of the year and an odd time for tourism. Thais travel en masse – many venture to the provinces to spend time with family while many Bangkokians head to the beach or the islands. April is one of the quietest months in the bars and over the Songkran period girl numbers drop as many go home to spend time with their nearest and dearest. I’m surprised more bars don’t close down over this period and give the girls a break. Spanky’s in Nana Plaza is one of few bars which closes specifically so the girls get some time off and a chance to visit family. Typically not a lot happens this month in the bars and in the expat community so over the next few weeks I’d expect the news section to be on the light side.
Your Bangkok commentator.