Welcome Back, Bangkok
I was so excited to be visiting Thailand that I’d been counting down the days to departure. When the number of days to go fell below 14, I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it. The 5-hour drive to Auckland Airport, the frustration of waiting around at the airport and even the 12-hour flight were all quite bearable in the knowledge that I would soon be back in Bangkok. I hadn’t felt this way about a trip to Thailand for a long time and I guess being away for almost a year caused me to really miss the place. So how did Bangkok live up to expectations?
Why even visit Bangkok in the first place? Why not venture elsewhere? I have already spent a big chunk of my adult life in Bangkok so why not visit somewhere else? I might have soured on the idea of Bangkok as an expat, but as a visitor it still appeals.
First order of business is to catch up on exercise and where better than my old hangout, Benjakit Park. I like to think of it as the smaller cousin of Lumpini. The track is a 1.9 km circuit instead of Lumpini’s 2.5 km so it’s 4 laps instead of 3. And staying on Sukhumvit, it’s much more convenient to get to.
Perhaps what I miss most about Bangkok is the food or to be more precise, the range of dining options. For me personally, I don’t miss the nightlife. I still like to stop by and see what’s happening, and catch up with old friends, but that’s it. Bangkok is so much more than the bars and one area it excels is dining options. In terms of food and eating out, Bangkok just gets better and better. And unlike the bar scene of today, there are new eateries opening all the time, new places to try and for those who get off on it, new places to be seen.
I had been craving a meal at May Kaidee, the extraordinary vegetarian restaurant just off Khao San Road – and I say that as someone who is not vegetarian.
What has happened to Khao San Road? The once thriving 400-metre strip was a shadow of its former self, the quietest I have ever seen it! And I don’t think saying it’s the time of year explains it. Khao San Road was dead and felt nothing like the Khao San Road of old. Like it or lump it – and admittedly many who gravitate to Sukhumvit don’t care for Khao San Road – it always had a vibe. Khao San has always been a great place to linger, to hang out, a place where budget travellers planned the next stage of their trip, or reflected on where they’d been. Restaurants were empty. Massage shop staff looked bored. Tuktuk drives were particularly pesky.
And if Khao San Road does not look that quiet in the photo above, consider that during the day it is not a walking street, yet I had no problem walking down the middle of the road, standing there, composing photos, snapping away etc. There was so little traffic – and hardly any tuktuks or taxis – because there were so few people around.
Khao San Road is the hub of backpacking in South-East Asia and more significant financially than many give it credit for. Khao San was traditionally a magnet for backpackers, they often loved the experience and return to Thailand over and over. Subsequent trips were probably more upmarket affairs as they moved on from travellers on a budget to professionals earning a good salary. Ruining Khao San – as some would argue has happened with the crackdown on street vendors and street life that has killed the Khao San Road area – will have consequences for the Thai tourism industry as a whole.
But it’s not just the authorities doing their bit to destroy Khao San Road. Some vendors appear to have lost touch with what the average backpacker is looking for. Take the board outside a restaurant on Khao San Road promoting Australia striploin priced at 1,500 baht. That’s more than you will pay in many fine-dining restaurants on Sukhumvit or Silom. Who is their target market at that price point? Of course, places evolve but I am not sure if a 1,500 baht steak is a good fit for the backpacker area.
Increased prices were a theme on this trip and Bangkok is getting pricey, especially at the top end, but even many cheaper places are charging much more than ever. Take for example the pad Thai with shrimp at the Took Lae Dee diner at Foodland branches. On my last visit, that set you back a reasonable 95 baht. This year exactly the same dish is 139 baht. More than a few times I did calculations and thought hell, this is dearer than home!
OK, so you don’t want to worry over a few dollars and in the big picture it’s nothing, but wasn’t the reason many of us visited Thailand in the first place because it was so cheap? And what if more places put their prices up? At some point you’re going to ask yourself if it’s worthwhile. If you’re paying top dollar, would Bangkok be your first choice?
For barflies, prices in many bars have reached levels that make you think twice about how much you drink. 180 baht seems to be about a typical price for a standard drink in many of the chrome pole bars in Bangers these days. Cheap in terms of international comparisons (unless you’re comparing with neighbours like Cambodia and Vietnam which make Thailand look positively pricey), but it feels like prices have jumped around 20 baht a drink in many bars since I was last in town. And with Westerners getting fewer baht for their buck than they used to, prices for some have shot up as much as 25% in home currency terms in the last year. No wonder some bars are so quiet!
The bar industry is hurting. The reasons have been repeated ad nauseam and things have not turned around. Some bars do well at the weekend. Some bars do well when they have a party or a special event. But not that many bars do really well night after night after night like they used to.
But that’s not to say the economy isn’t doing well. Rather a few foreign residents claim that Thailand’s economy is in the toilet. My eyes suggest the complete opposite. I suspect that declining visitor numbers in the bars and the streets clear of vendors makes some think there’s not a lot going on. Think again!
Developments are going up all over Bangkok from new shopping malls, condos and office buildings to larger projects like the huge development near the Wireless / Rama 4 Road intersection. Hospitals are being expanded, new skytrain and & underground lines are being built with existing lines being extended. Unemployment is low, jobs are unfilled, employers are crying out for staff and salaries are rising rapidly. Hardly sounds like a city struggling economically, does it?!
While Bangkok is booming, the mix of visitors and expats is changing. Older long-timers leaving are being replaced by younger arrivals. I imagine the total number of foreigners resident in Bangkok is higher than ever and much more diverse. As I mentioned last week, the stereotype of the Thailand expat being a middle-aged white guy is no longer valid. Today, he / she is just as likely to be young, female and not necessarily white. Chinese especially are pouring in – and not just as visitors. Could Chinese expats be the next big thing in Bangkok?
The first time I saw the guy in the photo above was outside Chuwit Park between Sukhumvit sois 8 and 10 where he sat with a truly pathetic look on his face. An older, very respectable-looking Thai woman stood by and saw me reading the sign. She approached me and said, “Don’t give him any money – he’s not genuine.”
A few days later I saw the same guy begging with the very same sign on the walkway above Silom Road, between the Silom MRT station and the Sala Daeng BTS station. He said he was from Moscow, had run out of money and he wanted to go home. When I asked him if I could post something on a Bangkok Facebook group to get people to help him, he became very defensive…
The hand-written sign he is holding features the Thai script, but the message doesn’t make proper sense and strikes me as something Google Translate would come up with.
Sukhumvit felt different, perhaps due to the change in the mix of visitors with many Chinese, Indians and Middle Easterners, the latter the most ubiquitous when I was in town.
What I couldn’t work out was why Sukhumvit seemed busy some days and quiet the next. There was no rhyme nor reason to it – one night it felt almost like high season and the next it felt dead. It took legendary expat, Father T, the perverted clergyman who MCs Nanapong dance contests and provides the most wonderful commentary to explain. So Father T told me, Chinese and especially Indians are flying to Bangkok for a long weekend. Many fly in on Thursday night and fly home late on Sunday, enjoying a frisky weekend. That would explain why Fridays and weekends on Sukhumvit seemed so much busier than early or mid-week. I’ll take the good father’s word for it.
Patpong has gone off the boil and on Patpong soi 2 it felt like the clock had been rewound several years. Until around 2008, Patpong soi 2 was anywhere between quiet and dead and it wasn’t until a handful of farang bars opened up at the Silom Road end that things livened up. In Patpong soi 2, Bada Bing, The Strip and Club Electric Blue have drawn crowds in recent years, but the latter has closed the while The Strip has changed owners and is a shadow of what it was. Patpong soi 1 may be steeped in history but none of the gogos were doing much trade when I was in town and on the whole, Patpong felt kind of grim.
Back on Sukhumvit, the roof over Nana Plaza looks the part – and so it should with a mooted cost of half a million US dollars.
A night out in Nana Plaza is no bargain these days, save for the short-time hotels which are a very reasonable 350 baht – just make sure you’re in and out in an hour. High rents in Nana mean the bars have to charge high prices. That’s ok if the bars are fun and offer a good vibe, but not everywhere is fun and I’d recommend taking a moment to get a feel for the vibe in a bar before ordering a drink.
The owners of Nana have got serious about security and there must be a dozen or more security guards in the plaza at any one time. I don’t think it’s a good look. The security check entering the plaza feels a little like passing through airport security. And if you think you can get in to the plaza by going out the back door of one of the bars that back on to the plaza like Stumble Inn then think again. Access via those bars has been cut off and the back doors of the bars out the front of Nana Plaza like Stumble Inn are locked – and you need a key code to open them. And while photography has not been prohibited within Nana Plaza, I was challenged in the plaza by security when taking shots – just regular shots, hand-held without a tripod or any special gear. The word that comes to mind is overkill.
The atmosphere is much better at Soi Cowboy where it feels like a street party. There’s a great vibe on the soi with patrons filling the outdoor seating areas, and with all of the neon turned on Soi Cowboy really looks the part. But step inside the bars and it’s a different story. Many Cowboy bars weren’t that busy – even on Friday nights. It’s the same old story with visitors coming for a look, milling around, walking up and down the soi, taking photos and turning what was once a quiet bar area popular with expats in to a mainstream tourist attraction.
Soi Cowboy is a popular spot for people watching and Country Road was especially popular with female Westerners enjoying a few drinks while watching white guys chase brown girls.
In other nightlife areas in the capital, soi 33’s descent in to mediocrity is complete. The soi was dead. No other words for it. DEAD! CheckInn99 has settled in to a new permanent home in what was Christie’s.
I never did make it to Soi 22 at night but the overall impression I got of the soi by day was that it should be renamed Soi Massage.
In Sukhumvit Soi 7/1 the girls mistook me for some guy called Beau Jop. I guess he and I must look similar because walking up and down the soi, ladies from a few different bars called out to me and addressed me as Beau Jop. I guess that guy must have made quite an impression on the soi because the ladies in, I think, 4 different bars all called out to me, “Beau Jop, Beau Jop!” If anyone knows this fellow Beau Jop, you might want to mention to him that the girls of soi 7/1 are looking for him.
Bangkok is growing up. The expat populace is more diverse. The city is evolving and feels a little more developed, a little more international and with that, perhaps a teeny-weeny little less Thai. Prices are rising and there is less sleaze. There are far more interesting places to eat out – Bangkok is absolutely fantastic these days for dining options – and service, if my experiences were anything to go by, seems to have improved somewhat.
Bangkok continues to change and time between visits helps see those changes more clearly. Bangkok isn’t the bargain it used to be but at the same time there’s still heaps of fun to be had. Be willing to dig a little deeper in to your wallet and a trip to Thailand can still recapture the old magic. It’s easy to see why Bangkok is one of the most visited cities on the planet. It’s growing up and moving in a new direction. All of which forced me to ask myself the question, at some stage would I ever consider moving back to Bangkok?
Last week’s photo was taken from within the area of housing / the small community at the north-eastern corner of Benjakit Park, about a 5-minute walk from the Asoke intersection. The building in the background is The Lakes, a condo building I always thought would be a great place to live (excellent location and good views over the park and towards Wireless / Silom / Sathorn).
Stick’s Inbox – some of the more interesting emails received this week.
The best of both worlds.
When I first went to Thailand in 2006 I fell in love and thought Thailand was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life….but I came back to Ireland and pushed my life forward here. I qualified as an accountant and now have a good life in Ireland where I can enjoy the best of the both worlds. When I go to Thailand I enjoy it for what it is but I also like my life in Ireland where I’m always focused on improving and trying to be the best version of myself. I don’t want to be someone who wishes my life away. Sometimes people who go to Thailand think the only answer for happiness is to get back to Thailand but there is another way – focus on making your life better at home (which is always under your control) and you can have the best of both worlds. I sometimes think there is an inverse relationship between how much you like Thailand and how much you hate your home country – so if you can’t move to Thailand the best thing is to focus on improving your life in your home country!
Quiet in the plaza.
I visited Nana Plaza twice and it was empty. We moved from Spanky’s to Mandarin and saw the same couple and one other guy. I don’t know how they make money to be honest. I had a beer in the bar next to DC 10 and there was just a small group inside, 8 people drinking and 2 fat farang women up on stage dancing, which shows the state of things now. It could be a small bar anywhere in the world but this is the famous Nana Plaza. It’s nothing like it was 20 years ago when I first arrived. I don’t know how they still make a profit when most bars open at 8:00 and many bars close by 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM with few customers.
A new breed of visitor.
You are absolutely correct about the inundation of Chinese tourists. I am seeing smaller groups of 4 Chinese who actually get out to the bars. If only they would stop scrunching up 20 baht bills and throwing them at the ladies. It’s almost as demeaning as throwing ping pong balls and watching them dive for them.
I agree with your comment about tragic grid lock in Pattaya. I was travelling from Rayong to Bang Saen and I thought I would get off the expressway and go through Pattaya. Not a good idea! Hit Sukhumvit Road and came to a complete standstill for 20 minutes. That is until I put on my Thai driver’s hat and made a quick U-turn and made my way back to the expressway. The boring expressway was a much better choice.
Cheers from Udon.
What’s changed up Udon way? Massive and non-stop development with hotels (higher scale), condos, apartments and more housing estates being built all over town. There are more older Farang looking to be in their 60’s with their older Thai wives. Looks like a large retirement influx as folks turn mid-60’s. American, Brits and Germans from the accents. The wife and I talked with a few of them. Came to live their retirement. For the Americans, mostly guys who were GIs back in the 60’s early 70’s (last U.S. forces were “kicked out” in June 76) and the decades long Thai wives. Kids grown, financially comfortable.
Who nose best?
Soda, who you profiled in the past, posted online that she had just got a nose job. I find it odd that Thais with their superior attitude find their noses inferior. I have only seen a few good nose jobs and IMO most look like abortions as it not only affects the nose but in many cases distorts the shape of their beautiful almond eyes. And once a girl gets a nose job all the pics from that time forward on their Facebook page are from the angle showing the nose. I had a little cutie in Kiss bar that with all her suitors still felt the need to do that. I don’t understand it. I would never take her again and it’s not the only time I have crossed girls off the list because of that. Curious what your readers think.
What do Nanapong dance contests and Stickman have in common? Each has been known to say goodbye, get a change of heart and make a comeback. On that note, planning is underway for the next Nanapong dance contest to be held in Soi Cowboy. No date has been set yet but next month looks likely. More details when a location is confirmed.
Billboard on the top floor of Nana Plaza is on a roll. It considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best bar in Nana when I gave up on the column last year. And it was right up there with Bacarra and Crazy House as one of the top 3 bars of its type in all of Bangkok. And when I was in town recently Billboard was the most talked about gogo bar amongst expats I know – and easily the best bar I stuck my head inside this past trip. Billboard 2018 was even better than Billboard 2017. On a mid-week night there were well in excess of 100 dancing-girls – most of whom were slim and sexy. And not much after 9:00 PM the bar was close to full, quite some achievement given how large Billboard is. A professional photographer who has been shooting in farang gogo bars longer than anyone pronounced the current Billboard lineup to be the best he had seen in his 22 years in Thailand. What shines through at Billboard is not just that the bar is so busy and has such a great lineup of ladies, many of the staff actually seem happy in their work. That is not something you see so much these days; in fact Billboard was so good that it reminded me a little of Rainbow 1 in the late ‘90s – and that is saying something.
But it’s not all good news in the bar biz. You’d think that with fewer customers about generally that the most basic of economic principles would kick in and prices would drop. Stupid boy, Stick, you need to remind yourself that Bangkok is exempt from basic economic principles. In one popular Bangkok gogo bar which shall remain nameless, the mamasans have instructed the girls to insist on standardised rates – 3,000 baht short-time and 6,000 baht long-time. Add in the barfine and a room along with drinks and the whole package ain’t cheap. The cost of a naughty night out on Sukhumvit these days is a topic that ought to be looked at more closely.
Which makes me wonder how well the bars are doing when the prices are at those levels. Billboard was doing very well. Ditto Spanky’s which is a machine that just keeps on going, but in Nana and Cowboy, the impression was that most bars were doing fairly average trade. What I find interesting is that it was the same bars doing well this year as last year – Billboard, Spanky’s, Bacarra, Crazy House. (Maybe I could just rehash what I wrote in the column last year and reprint it…?!) But plenty of bars aren’t doing that well and while not many venues are listed for sale as such, word was that plenty of owners would like to get out. It is those bar owners who are reliant on income from the bar for their day-to-day living who are feeling the punch. For bosses for whom the bar is a hobby, or who have other businesses or income streams, it’s not such a big deal.
One bar which is booming in Bangkok is the new Shenanigans in Patpong, on the corner of the main Patpong soi and Suriwong Road. Shenanigans opened a couple of months back and is a great addition to the area, a beautifully decked out bar with an elevated outdoor area ideal for people watching. You can kick back and watch the world go by. Each time I strolled through Patpong, Shenanigans was packed and was the hotspot in the area. Shenanigans’ location in a prime tourist area bodes well and that location could make it a goldmine for years to come.
And on the subject of Patpong, whatever happened to popular bar boss Randy who operated Supergirls and later Goldfinger? Randy left Patpong a few years ago but he didn’t leave the bar industry altogether. Randy now looks after Craft on Sukhumvit Soi 23 – best-known for its craft beers. Goldfinger had quite a following and many regulars followed Randy across town to soi 23 where he regularly holds court. Some nights, there can be 20 people gathered around a cluster of tables pulled together talking about life in Bangkok and reminiscing about the good old days.
One thing I forgot to mention in last week’s column about my recent trip to Pattaya was another aspect of Walking Street which makes it feel more like Patpong to me. Walking Street has pesky touts, barking “Sex show, sex show” and waving laminated menus in your face featuring the same depraved shows a la the touts in Patpong soi 1.
Long-running Mexican bar and restaurant Charley Brown’s moved from soi 11 to soi 19. They have a new chef from Mexico City with 16 years experience in 5-star hotels, and many special offers from Sunday through to Thursday nights as well as lunch-time specials worth checking out if you find yourself in the Asoke area. On Monday nights they hold a Bachata dance class and party which has exploded. What started with about 30 people 10 months ago now has around 120 every week and is the busiest weekly Latin event in Bangkok. Best of all, Charley Brown’s has a real upbeat party vibe.
But if you prefer Italian to Mexican, you might like to try Vesuvio, a pizza joint on the first sub soi on the right off Sukhumvit soi 8. I’m not usually one to rave about pizza but this place really is the bollocks! The pizza is truly fantastic – so good that in 3 weeks in Thailand I ate there 3 times.
The Fab Five at BarSu in the Sheraton Grande (main Sukhumvit Road, opposite Sukhumvit soi 19) is now 555 baht (all in price without the pesky ++ you usually find in fancy hotels). For that you get 5 properly mixed cocktails made with quality spirits served in the comfort of a lounge bar in a five-star hotel with a decent live band. It’s not often I am happy to say a bar put prices up but in this case I am – because hopefully putting the price up means there are no plans to replace this great deal with something else. It’s worth noting that each time Lecherous Lee and I dropped by there have been a few real hotties in BarSu.
Speaking of Lecherous Lee, that nickname no longer seems appropriate. His barfining days are long over and if his lifestyle these days is anything to go by, perhaps Gourmand Lee would be more fitting.
This coming Saturday, September 15th, Bourbon Street will celebrate its 32nd anniversary. As has become customary with Bourbon Street’s anniversary celebrations, a huge buffet of all the Bourbon Street favourite dishes will be on offer at a bargain price, just 332++ baht.
Another Thailand- / Pattaya-centric forum was launched this week. Normally I would be cynical because over time most forums turn in to a den of poison, but this one sounds promising with the goal being to create a forum with no baiting, rudeness, bullying and nastiness. It started with invitations by word of mouth and the number of sign-ups has taken off which I guess goes to show that many Pattaya expats / regular visitors have been crying out for a well-moderated forum free of the nastiness that has marred so many forums. If you’re looking for a welcoming forum that promotes friendship and the exchange of ideas without the general nastiness that has become pervasive elsewhere, check out Thailand-247.com.
I have yet to pick up a copy, but have heard very good things about the book by long-time Bangkok Post resident / expat, Roger Crutchley, The Long Winding Road to Nakhon Nowhere. Great title and from all accounts, a great read.
The trip out to the main Bangkok Immigration office is something I, like so many foreigners in Thailand, always dreaded. The Immigration office in Bangkok is a long way from downtown and the distance to get there, along with the daily crowds that descend on the place mean that a visit to Immigration can take half a day. I can remember getting there a couple of times before opening time to join a snaking queue of literally hundreds of people. So when is the best time to get there? I am told that if you arrive before 3:00 PM you will be served, even if it means waiting around well after the doors have closed. Get there before 3:00 PM, get a queue ticket and I am told that your inquiry / application will be seen that day. One friend tells me he was there until almost 7:00 PM. Sounds like a long wait but spare a thought for the poor Immigration officers. Foreigners go out to Immigration once every few months or maybe once a year, while it sounds like some officers may be working late every day.
When I am in Bangkok I usually set the air-conditioning to run at 22 degrees. Here in New Zealand I don’t tend to use the air-conditioning much but during the coldest days of Winter I set the temperature on the air-conditioning / heat pump to the same temperature, 22 degrees. In theory, these units moderate the temperature to maintain a steady temperature, right? So why is it than when I am in Thailand in a room that is at a constant 22 degrees wearing anything more than shorts and a loose-fitting shirt, would feel too hot, whereas in New Zealand on a cold Winter night with the room at a constant 22 degrees I am still in jeans and at least a shirt and a heavyish pullover if not something more. Why does the same temperature feel so different at the same temperature?
Reader’s story of the week comes from Mega, “Off The Beaten Track In Phuket“.
The influx of Thai sex workers in Taiwan has the Taiwanese authorities mulling over visa restrictions for Thai passport holders.
It is reported that two ladyboys arrested for pickpocketing the wallet of a young Brit in Pattaya had previously been arrested on 15 (!!!) different occasions for the same type of crime.
The authorities are looking at culling the number of monitor lizards in Lumpini Park but do they realise what a popular tourist attraction these magnificent creatures are?
Bill Heinecke talks about why he renounced his US citizenship and how he went on to become a self-made billionaire and quite possibly Thailand’s wealthiest farang.
From The Guardian, a number of foreign tourists accuse the Romanian operator of a yoga school on Ko Phangan of sexual assault.
I read the Big Chilli online this week and what struck me was how much of the content was about places to eat. Browsing a Pattaya forum this week I got the same impression – food was the number one topic. And in Bangkok expat circles the impression I had was that discussions about the latest hotspots was not about the bars, but about new dining options. And reading back through this week’s column there’s as much about eating as there is about drinking, and the bars. It’s not so much my intention to cover food, more that this week it just ended up that way.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Are you seeing something I am not? Have I got it all wrong?
Stick can be contacted at : email@example.com