The face of downtown Bangkok is changing. Decrepit old buildings are being torn down and flashy, modern structures built in their place. The piles of rubbish which littered the streets have long gone and the pungent stench that used to be so strong is but a fading memory. International brand names – from fashion to dining to chic & desirable – are ubiquitous. But one part of downtown Bangkok has not changed: the sex industry for foreigners. As Bangkok develops, can the city’s famed naughty nightlife industry for foreign men endure?
The Strong Thai Economy & The Changing Profile Of The Ladies
By most measures the Thai economy is rocking along. Growth is strong and as the middle class grows, consumption is increasing rapidly. With export receipts at record highs and Thailand one of the world’s tourism hot spots, there are more jobs and better jobs for all. Thai ladies have options.
OK, so a pretty lady from a difficult background mightn’t make the same money working in an office job as she would joining men in their hotel room, but unlike the past, a respectable job now pays enough to have a life with a few baht left over to send home to family / to take care of children.
The Thai economy has been humming for several years so this is nothing new, but the effect it has having on the bar industry is snowballing. The bars are struggling to recruit and those they do take on are more likely to be troubled individuals, have addiction issues or be really mercenary. The sweet girls of yesteryear who grew up in poor households and reluctantly joined the bar industry because they simply couldn’t see any other options are much less likely to end up in the bar industry these days.
The Stuttering Farangland Economy & The Changing Profile Of The Men
Many bar customers haven’t had a pay rise in recent years while the cost of living is increasing much faster than official inflation rates suggest. That leaves less discretionary spending money and many bar hounds just don’t have the sort of money to spend on holiday that they used to.
Price increases in Thailand have made the country more expensive in baht terms while the strengthening baht and weakening Western currencies – the greenback aside – have made Thailand more expensive in foreign currency terms.
Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and continental Europeans all get around 25% less baht for their currencies today than they did just a few years ago. It effectively means prices in Bangkok are up around 50% in foreign currency terms over the past 5 years for visitors from many Western countries.
Businesses in Thailand – be they Thai or foreign-run – don’t seem to get it that putting up prices will lead to customers going elsewhere. Businesses in Farangland know that even the smallest price increases can put customers – who have become particularly sensitive to any price increases – off. We want to enjoy ourselves on holiday and spending money is part of that – but there are limits. And when drinks in bars in Thailand cost as much or more than at home – as is the case in some Bangkok bars these days – one questions the value for money the Bangkok bar experiences offers and whether it’s worth it.
The Booming Bangkok Real Estate Market
The problem for bar operators is that they have to pass on price increases as the cost of running a bar is going up. Real estate prices in Bangkok have been going gangbusters for years – and commercial rents have shot up. All 3 of Bangkok’s major foreigner bar areas are located in prime real estate – and that means bar bosses pay silly money to the landlord. Bar owners are facing higher rents so they have to put prices up to cover the rent increase.
What if the bar areas were to move away from expensive downtown and out in to the suburbs where rents are much lower? Would customers go out to a new farang bar area at Onut, for example? Would they venture further afield?
I don’t think it would work, nor is it plausible. While keen expats would follow their favourite bars, many naughty boy tourists don’t venture far from Nana and Asoke.
Each of Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana – especially Nana – are surrounded by businesses that support the bar industry with hotels geared up for naughty boys, eateries with Western food, short-time hotels, businesses with English-speaking staff etc. Downtown is easy for foreigners. It’s not like that in the suburbs. And what would Thais living in the ‘burbs make of a sex shopping centre for foreigners being transplanted in to their neighbourhood? They would not stand for it just as you or I would not stand for it happening in our part of the world!
There is some good news as far as real estate goes. Nana Plaza have offered 12-year contracts to bar bosses, something previously unheard of – so bar operators know what their rent cost will be going forward and can plan for it. At the same time, Nana Plaza rents reflect the value of downtown land and are far and away the highest in the industry.
One solution would be the closure of a bar area with the bars to be consolidated in to the other two bar areas. If 1 or even 2 of the 3 major downtown bar areas were to close, the remaining bar area(s) would be viable. Fewer bars would have more staff and attract a higher number of customers yet maintain the same fixed costs. It might work but realistically, is it going to happen any time soon?
Generation GI Is Dying Off
Just as new recruits are hard to come by for the bars, they’re not attracting new customers either. For many years the industry was dominated by Americans and Germans. I’d say there are more Brits and Aussies today. What happened?
Generation GI is dying off. Many of the Americans fooling around the red-light areas in years gone by had first visited Bangkok while serving in Vietnam – and many other Americans heard about Bangkok from buddies or family members who were servicemen. The youngest men to have served in Vietnam are now in their 60s and while the stereotypical sex tourist is an old dude, how accurate is that? Testosterone levels decline. Your stereotypical naughty boy is more likely a middle-aged man in his 40s or 50s.
What about the Germans? I don’t know for sure but my best guess is that they don’t bother flying to Bangkok when they have a bevy of Eastern European babes right on their doorstep.
And then you have the new generation. Young people today want to remain young for as long they can – and some string out their youthful behaviour and indulgences to close to the half-century mark. Young guys don’t tend to do the paid sex thing. Just as there is not a new generation of working girls coming through, neither is there a new generation of naughty boys emerging. An observation I hear more from readers is that the average age of those drinking in Bangkok gogo bars is getting older. And note I said drinking….because odds are that’s all they’re doing – drinking and not barfining.
Technology companies like Smooci and the big international dating sites as well as mobile phone apps like Tinder are driving girls away from the bars as they realise they can make money operating online without having to put up with all of the bullshit in the bars, namely the mamabitches and some of the seriously troubled girls with their gambling, alcohol and drug problems.
New technologies are to the bar scene what Amazon is to retail. And many say the current gogo bar product just isn’t compelling. For someone who just wants a liaison, why bother with the appetiser when you can go straight to the main course?
As far as technology goes, no doubt more apps will come along. No matter what business you’re in, if you’re not using technology you can bet your competitors are.
A Changing World, A Changing Bar Industry
It’s a cliché to say that the world is changing faster than ever, but it’s true. There was a time when pubs didn’t have food. Or TVs. But it’s hard to imagine a pub these days without TVs on every wall and a diverse menu offering local and international fare. Things change.
But the basic gogo bar model hasn’t changed. Is it sustainable in its current form? As the customer base changes, the bars need to accommodate them. And the customer base is moving towards mainstream visitors. Are bars willing to make the necessary changes to accommodate them?
The future in gogo bars is not in the selling of sex. There will come a day when the idea of buying sex in a bar would be like buying sex at 7 Eleven. It just won’t be possible. The bar industry has to adapt to survive.
Many gogo bars are basic. If they want to accommodate the masses, they need to be spruced up. That part is easy. The masses of mainstream tourists are interested in checking out the bar scene but they aren’t interested in looking at bored women hugging a pole. They want to see pretty ladies dancing and performing classy shows in a sexy manner. Thais are great performers and plenty could provide sexy but tasteful entertainment. But it will cost the bars more than they currently pay. Figure a dancer’s day rate of 1,500 baht or more. And these customers don’t want a limited drinks menu or knock-off drinks – yeah, there is still the odd bar out there selling local rotgut masquerading as American whiskey.
What I believe the largest group of customers – mainstream holidaymakers – want to see is genuinely attractive ladies performing sexy (but clean) shows in a safe environment with a much better menu with proper cocktails and craft beers on offer. Moulin Rouge Bangkok? Not quite, but something more like that than what the bars offer now.
Going more upmarket would work in so many ways. It would be a product Thailand would be more comfortable with. The customer base would be huge as mainstream visitors would definitely be keen to check things out. Those bar owners able to adapt could charge much more – and potentially make much more.
In summary, the gogo bar industry has been in decline for a decade. It faces all sorts of threats, is stale and seriously needs an overhaul.
The death of Patpong as we know it and the transition to a night market along with the conversion of Soi Cowboy in to a destination for mainstream visitors with sexy entertainment and no barfining would benefit all. It would leave Nana Plaza to continue as an adult playground with a consolidation of bars and staff from other areas.
If someone has the balls to shake up the Bangkok bar industry and the backing to make it happen, they could do extremely well for themselves. Whatever happens, something needs to be done to arrest the descent towards utter mediocrity.
Last week’s photo was taken within the Wat Chanasongkhram Ratchaworamahawinan complex, close to Khao San Road. Many people got it right. I find this temple particularly peaceful and walking through from the riverside to Khao San Road offers some peace from the chaos on the other side of the temple walls. This week’s photo was taken in central Bangkok in a spot those in the know swear by… The first person in Asia to get the photo right wins a copy of Hardship Posting volume 5.
Stick’s Inbox – The best emails from the past week.
The only way to know it is to live it.
Your opening piece should be a warning to anyone thinking of moving to Thailand, no matter how much they think they know a place. Few could know New Zealand as well as you, but despite doing research and planning ahead you were still caught out by so many things. That is infinitely worse when someone is moving to a new culture, a new language. The only real way of knowing which side is up, as you have discovered, is by experiencing a place for a considerable length of time. Most do not have the luxury of doing that before making a move, and a few two-week holidays is nowhere near enough to really understand a place. But having said that, my advice to anyone thinking of moving to Thailand would be to spend a week, just a week, there, reading the English language papers, watching Thai TV and finding somewhere to watch the traffic and the standard of driving. That would tell you all you need to know about the locals, and if you still feel like making the move then good luck.
Think of moving home as starting over.
Regarding going home, I have lived in many places and on occasion made a return move. It is never the same and you may as well plan to start over. Old friends have new friends and you probably won’t fit in. Most of the houses I once owned, I could not afford today. In my opinion there is no going back and it is more like starting over. For the past 4 years I have been doing extensive research on different places around the world. I have concluded that there is no perfect place nor anywhere even approaching perfect. Each place is home to the people who live there and if you arrive as a newcomer you need to find a fit. The world at this time is simply not a fun place. Enjoyment is to be found in a few close relationships, and being in a place with a minimum of hassles. Air travel is hard and awful, hotels are not that great at any price and much of the world is dangerous for outsiders. I have concluded that enjoyment has to be created wherever you are. It takes some effort. Booze is not the answer, pay for play is almost always a disappointment. Skimming the surface as we did in the past just seems gone.
A stranger in a strange land.
I used to think I was a loner in feeling this way, so it was so nice to see you say the same. I came here in the last year of my marriage. I stayed on because going home was too painful. I lived in a hotel for 5 years while I travelled the region on business. Here I was a welcome guest. As long as I behaved myself and paid my bills, I was welcome and invisible. I had the option of leaving any time I wanted. What affected the locals mattered nought to me, as long as it didn’t affect the terms on which I stayed here. I liked that feeling. Stranger in a strange land sort of feeling, here but not belonging. Then I got married and it has changed. With a Thai wife I can’t just up sticks over a weekend like I could before. But it’s all pluses and minuses, so in the greater scheme of things, I’m happy to make that trade-off.
Thailand, the groove of living.
Completely agree with your ‘outside the system’ observation. Believe me, here in the U.S. we are smothered with political information – I can’t wait to be back in Thailand where I really don’t have that. I think it may even be the reason I’ve started listening to certain bands out of Southeast Asia (Tricot, Elephant Gym, Gesu No Kiwami Otome) – I have no idea what they are saying, so I can just enjoy the groove of the music. That’s how I feel in Thailand – no hang-up of life – just the groove of living.
UK same same.
There has rarely been a column where I have been in almost 100% agreement. I am British, but you could have been writing about my country rather than New Zealand. Do all western leaders / corporations / bankers get together and thrash out a single set of policies which then get applied in all countries? Either that or they are all copycats. The other thing I agree with is what you said at the end, about it being beneficial for farangs living in Thailand being outside of the system. I recognised this long ago, and yes it is probably the most important thing for me about the freedom I feel in Thailand. Friends of mine who have no link with Thais or Thailand have been rather scathing at times of my constant travelling to or love of the country, but their judgements have tended to be based on what they read in the media, and guess what, it’s nearly always about corruption, bargirls, drugs or people trafficking, or the deaths on Koh Tao! Imagine if foreigners wanting to come to our respective countries based their judgement on media stories only – well, maybe no-one would come!
I read your column yesterday with great interest and some wry amusement. I moved home (from the USA actually) to Ireland some years back and feel the very same about changes that had occurred in my home country while I was away. Honestly, you could pretty much replace “NZ” with “Ireland” and still make factual sense. This is uncanny. I think that you have hit on something that is much bigger than you originally thought.
Bangkok Bunnies, the largest bar in Nana Plaza, changed hands a couple of weeks ago and got its new name this past week, Twister BKK – hardly the most catchy name for a bar. And it’s hardly a stylish sign either, with BKK Twister painted in red on plain white wood. Now let’s see what the new owners can do to turn the bar around. Their first plan has been to bring in two pool tables which are outside the bar proper. They’ll have to deal with a rent bill said to be in excess of a million baht a month so I hope those pool tables are paying their way.
Short Time beer bar in Nana Plaza is no more and what’s happening in that bar might provide some insight in to the future direction of Nana Plaza. The old Short Time beer bar is getting a complete refit and will be renamed. Expect the finished version to be bigger, have better seating and in what might just be a sign of the times, a selection of craft beers will be on offer. Now just what will customers of the world’s largest adult playground make of craft beers (no doubt with prices to match)?!
Feedback from the Big Dogs refit is positive and the consensus is that they’ve done a nice job.
Shadow Bar on Soi Cowboy is to be taken over on November 1st in what will be a partnership with one of the Stumble Inn Group owners and another party. There are no immediate changes planned. Expect them to revisit the idea of a refresh or renovations after high season.
A bar I have long enjoyed, there are changes at The Strip in Patpong soi 2 where the French guys are out and a former Black Pagoda manager is in. The Strip has been up and down with frequent ownership changes and stability is what the bar needs.
The next Nanapong dance contest is mooted for December 1st with a popular Soi Cowboy bar the frontrunner to host it.
The word from Bangkok’s bar areas is that everyone is waiting for the high season to come around. Nothing unusual in that as the end of the rainy season approaches and with it comes hope that the next high season will be the one that breaks the rut and hordes of visitors descend on the bars. Optimism is good, right?
I know I am probably going to sound like a broken record but there have been yet more reports of the police stopping and searching foreigners in exactly the same areas and exactly the same manner as when I used to write about this 3, 4 even 5 years ago. Sukhumvit soi 23, Thonglor and Sukhumvit soi 22 were amongst locations mentioned this week where foreigners minding their own business were stopped, questioned and searched by a paid of cops patrolling their area on a motorbike. Interesting to hear reports from wealthy Soi Thonglor and Sukhumvit soi 23, neither of which have the slum communities you find on the other side of Sukhumvit, down the end of the likes of sois 16 and 22 which back on to the Klong Toey Market. Those areas have long had a reputation as places where illegal items can be procured.
Workers’ huts and machinery have arrived at the plot on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and soi 6 that I have mentioned in recent weeks and the latest rumor is that a 32-storey office building is going up.
In other vacant plots on prime Sukhumvit, they have finally started demolishing and cleaning up the alley / area behind where CheckInn 99 was between sois 5 and 7. How many years is it since CheckInn99 and the other shops were forced out? Someone has been slack in getting the show going. And what about the large area on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and soi 7 which has been vacant even longer. That spot is going to be a nightmare to build on because how on earth are they going to get all the machinery and materials there? Are they going to knock out the BTS elevator? Could huge trucks and cranes get up soi 5 and hook back around to soi 7 which is awfully tight in parts?
And on Sukhumvit soi 8 where V1 of the Kiwi Pub was located, they have started work on the new building….just a few months after demolishing the old one. Rumour has it that the new building will have space for the Kiwi Pub to move back in. Good news if true because the new Kiwi Pub doesn’t have the atmosphere or views of V1.
Following on from the ongoing worries of Brit retirees in Thailand with their embassy announcing that it will stop issuing income letters, I am sure that sooner or later there will be a tightening up of the financial requirements for those retiring in Thailand – and when that happens I think it will really change the expat landscape. Imagine if they increased the monthly income requirement to 100,000 baht / increased the amount of money you needed in the bank to, say, 3 million baht. That would really shake things up. If that happened then my best guess is perhaps 40 – 45% would need to find a new solution. In some ways I hope that it doesn’t happen for no other reason than the bleating from some quarters would be unbearable. But for those who are married, I do not predict that the financial requirements for marriage visas going up (which doesn’t make sense, I know – but then sometimes it seems what does in Thailand? It does rather seem to me that Thai Immigration policy favours those who are married over those who are single). It’s all moot, of course, but certainly at some point the financial requirements will be increased. When – and by how much – who knows?!
Complaints about the British Embassy are common, but is the issue really the embassy – or is it those who are complaining? I do wonder if perhaps those at the embassy are very establishment and a lot of the Brits complaining are, shall we say, not establishment? The few times I had reason to go to the Kiwi embassy in Bangkok, the staff – be they Thai or Kiwi – were great. Never a complaint, quite the opposite in fact. I guess that’s a benefit of coming from a relatively small country where we still like each other. Most of my American friends seem content with the service they receive from their embassy. The one complaint you often hear about embassies in Bangkok is the fees for services such as endorsing documents.
What’s going on with the paid Immigration / Airport assistance services that used to be available at Suvarnabhumi Airport? Passengers could make a booking with one of the companies providing a service to make passing through the airport a breeze. For a fee of around 1,000 baht or so – you would be met at the gate and driven through the terminal in a small electric buggy, taken to and through the priority Immigration lanes and led to the baggage carousel. I guess the main advantage of using such a service would be getting through Immigration quickly if there were queues. But it seems these services may no longer be available to those who wish to pay for them. Apparently the companies which operated said services are no longer able to provide them.
Where is Thailand going image-wise? The country has at times been very self-conscious and people in power have been known to get very upset when an image of Thailand not entirely positive is projected, even if what was said was factually correct. But what I notice these days – and this is largely my feeling and not based on any specific thing – is that everyday Thais appear to have a slightly more realistic outlook towards life – and particularly the way outsiders look at / perceive their country. I get the feeling that the younger generation are rather more open-minded and realistic, and seem more willing to approach issues front on rather than deny them or pretend they don’t exist. And that, in my mind, can only be a good thing for Thailand going forward.
You’ve gotta love Thailand and some of the products on the market. There’s a lady’s beauty product available on Lazada called Jim Me White. Jim is the Thai word for pussy and the “me” and “white” in the name are from English, so the product name is for a pussy – yes, specifically a pussy – whitening cream. And it is pronounced as it is written English – Jimmy White – exactly the same way you would pronounce that fine English snooker player’s name. Let me get this out of the way: the product has nothing to do with the snooker player! Not sure if a pussy whitening cream would be a hit in Farangland but who knows?
What happened to Chuwit on เรื่องเล่าเช้านี้ ? Chuwit Kamolvisit is a well-known Thai businessman / massage parlour tycoon / politician / journalist who until a few months ago had his own slot on the popular เรื่องเล่าเช้านี้ breakfast news show. He didn’t appear on the show for a month or so as he was serving a short prison sentence. After serving that sentence, he returned to the show for a few minutes – I guess this would have been a couple of months ago or more – and said he would take a week off and return. He never did return. That’s a great shame as his candor, perspective and particularly his knowledge of Thai law and his down-to-earth way of explaining the law and applying it to news items was something you don’t see on any other Thai news show. This is the one show on Thai TV worth watching if you speak the language and want to know what is going on in the country with a nice balance of being informative and entertaining at the same time. It is streamed live online from 6:00 AM – 8:00 AM Thai time, Monday to Friday.
If you’re looking for timely visa advice, with more than 25,000 members the Thai Visa Advice Facebook group is a genuine alternative to ThaiVisa.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Mega, “Around the Traps of South East-Asia Part 12”.
A Czech is arrested in Thailand having overstayed his visa by more than 6 years.
The Express looks at the classic Thai hotel, the Dusit Thani, which is due to close in a couple of months.
The number of Chinese visiting Thailand looks like it’s going to dip.
A Scouse scumbag sprays graffiti on the ancient walls in Chiang Mai.
The Bangkok Post profiles Ta Tien, a traditional market in the old part of the city.
Commonsense prevails and street vendors will be allowed to operate at Khao San Road by night.
A Bangkok Post editorial is scathing of the proposed cyber security law.
Where is the bar industry in Bangkok going? You’ve read my thoughts, now I’d love to hear yours. Bar bosses will hate me saying it’s been in a slow decline for years while deep down most know it’s true. I have no feelings about what happens and no skin in the game. There was a time when the industry was a lot of fun so in that respect I guess it would be sad to see it go or change….but then it’s so different to how it used to be that in many ways what we once knew really only exists in name. Anyway, enough of my opinion – why don’t you let me know what you think.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]