I’ve spent the past couple of weeks doing my thing in a steamy, and very polluted Bangkok. What follows are some thoughts from this trip, and observations about the places and things I tend to write about.
This was my first hot season visit to Bangkok in a few years and visiting at this time of year is something I need to rethink. I may come from one of the warmer parts of Kiwiland where daily highs above 30 are hardly unusual, but Bangkok is another level. Locals took umbrellas with them everywhere, not to protect from the rain but from the sun.
The pollution in Bangkok has had a lot of bad press. It got so bad at one point that it even made the news in New Zealand.
For the first few days it was ok but then BANG, everything changed. Visibility dropped as buildings less than a kilometre away became hazy. Out about you could taste something in the air and checking online proved it – Bangkok had the ignominy of being in the top 10 most polluted cities on the planet.
My eyes went red, sinuses started going crazy and everyone was complaining about it. The air was terrible but you have to tolerate it because, at the end of the day as a tourist, what choice do you have? That said, it has me rethinking again about when is best to visit Bangkok. July and August would seem to be best….less pollution and some rain, but not too much.
Wandering about taking photos, Bangkok is as filthy as ever. So this is nothing new but it’s still worth mentioning because it’s entirely self-inflicted. Waterways are black and clogged up with shit that has been thoughtlessly discarded. I guess hardly anyone visits Thailand for the national parks.
Normally in Bangkok I walk almost everywhere. I stay in Sukhumvit, hang out on Sukhumvit, meet friends on Sukhumvit and dine on Sukhumvit. My legs can take me everywhere. And even if I am off to Silom I walk the back way, along the green path and through Lumpini Park. But an accident that messed my leg up on my third day in town (which I’ll write about in a couple of weeks) meant walking distances was not an option.
The skytrain is horribly congested and I can’t imagine using it everyday. Returning to Sukhumvit from Siam Square one night well after 10:00 PM the skytrain was still packed. That is the new normal, I guess, and as the skytrain extends further and further, more and more people fall in to its catchment area so to speak and passengers numbers go up and up. It’s still cheap and fast, but it ain’t comfortable!
Shops and shopping malls were over-run with people. I struggle when some try to say that the Thai economy is doing poorly. The economic data is generally positive and everywhere you go people are spending up large. Restaurants are packed – and often there are queues outside. And many of these new condo developments going up all over town with eye-watering prices are selling out. Sure, much of it might be bought on credit, or by Chinese buyers, but business is booming in Bangkok and a lot of people must be making a lot of money.
I know Siam Paragon is not representative of greater Thailand, while at the same time it is one of the hot spots for Thais of means. Paragon gets busy, but I wasn’t prepared for just how busy. The number of eateries has increased and many are pricey – and when I stopped by most were packed. I continue to be amazed at how much Thais are willing to spend on eating out these days.
It felt like many aspects of life in Thailand are moving online, something which is going to have a profound effect on the Thai lifestyle. No matter what you’re talking about, people are doing it online. Thais love shopping on Lazada and Shoppee. They order their food from any of a number of food delivery companies / apps. BTS cards can be topped up via the LINE app linked to your bank account with no need to ever queue to add money to your skytrain card again. Of course, many people seek companionship online. And in a sign of the times, a farang former bar owner / manager left the industry altogether and now has a business selling men’s soap online.
Restaurants not working with food delivery companies are missing out on a big market. One friend who owns a chain of popular restaurants says online sales are increasing at 10% per month and now comprise a big part of his business. I imagine that this is how things will go – most brick and mortar businesses will also have an online sales facility.
Thailand really is embracing tech. Let’s not forget that it won’t be long before all Thai visas will have be able to be applied for online. That’s the way things are going – not just an online option but moving online entirely.
But this is no different to what is happening in the West, right? True, but where perhaps it’s a little different is that Thailand has always been such a social place, where people go out and do stuff together, rather than stay at home. That seems to be changing a little. OK, so people still go out, but there is a massive – and even that word doesn’t feel like a strong enough word – movement towards Thais much preferring to do stuff online when there is the option to do so.
Turning to the bar industry, I had a few good nights out in the bars, and did photo shoots in 6 different bars. I got the feeling that the industry is going through a period of change – but without any clarity of just where they may be going…..if that makes any sense!
One of the things I noticed at Soi Cowboy this time was how it feels almost like two sois in one, or at least a soi with two very different identities.
At the eastern / Terminal 21 end of Soi Cowboy, you have Country Road on one side, and opposite is Corner Bar and the Penny Black. All three bars have outdoor seating popular with
gawkers mainstream visitors who sit at the railings and watch the show on the soi.
Contrast that with the other end of Soi Cowboy where, amongst others, you have Bacarra and Crazy House, the two most popular bars on the soi with naughty boys. The difference in the vibe and atmosphere between the two respective ends of Soi Cowboy is noticeable. The Terminal 21 end of Soi Cowboy where the mainstream visitors hang out is bustling while the other end with the bars popular with naughty boys isn’t nearly as busy and feels flat.
A kilometre up Sukhumvit Road, Nana Plaza struck me as the only, for-want-of-a-better-word pure naughty bar area. There were some mainstream visitors around but generally it was sex tourist / sexpat / naughty boy crowd. To my eyes, the bars in the plaza seemed to be doing better than the other two major bar areas.
While business is ticking over inside the plaza, beer bar managers on Soi Nana were not at all shy to say how things really are – and they are hurting. By day, they tell me, it’s especially bad. There just isn’t the trade during the day-time that there used to be – and one bar manager insisted that this was not just his bar – one of the biggest and most popular beer bars on Soi Nana – but pretty much all beer bars up and down the soi. Apparently trade does pick up late, but overall things aren’t great.
I have to say that I am just not that impressed with Soi Nana itself these days. OK, it’s still fun to sit out the front of Stumble Inn and watch the world go by, but at the same time I avoided those who wished to have a chat. Soi Nana ought to be renamed Soi Bogan. The beer bars have cornered the bogan market and there’s a very definite breed who gravitate to the beer bars of Soi Nana but who don’t make it inside the plaza.
Over in Patpong, reasonable rents help keep the bars viable which is just as well because if the rents were higher some Patpong bars wouldn’t be viable. A friend who operates a popular Bangkok nightlife site said that he doesn’t even think of Patpong as a major bar area any more, and I think that’s fair comment.
Some interested parties claim Patpong 2 is undergoing a revamp and that the future is bright. I call nonsense on that claim. By this time next week the Silom Road end of Patpong soi 2 will have lost 3 of its 5 farang-operated gogo bars and with just two left will no longer be a destination as such. Punters will be less inclined to go to Patpong for one or two good bars. What happened at soi 33 – a long and slow death – is happening at Patpong.
Inside the gogo bars, it seems like more girls have more tattoos these days i.e. they have tattoos on more parts of their body including places that would make it almost impossible for them to be concealed. #22 in Billboard who I mentioned last week is one such lady.
Tattoos are more accepted in some circles in the West these days, but Thailand is not the West, and a lady from a certain background with a certain type of tattoo will find herself forever branded a sex worker. And that’s sad because in ultra class-conscious Thailand it can drastically limit one’s options.
These girls getting all tatted up are making a statement, but at the same time I wonder if some of the younger ones have really thought through the ramifications of it.
There’s still a lot of fun to be had in the bars of Bangkok – just factor in that it costs considerably more than it did in the past. As one friend said, when he goes out for a night in Bangkok he leaves home with at least 10,000 baht in his pocket.
Speaking of money and the cost of a night out, I got sticker shock a number of times this trip. So rather than scream like a gogo girl whose lady drink request has been turned down, let me comment on one venue that reminds me of the old days. I had a cheeseburger, fries and a San Miguel Light one evening for a quick bite on the run before a photo shoot. Tasty burger, more fries (and better quality) than many places that charge 3 times as much. The total cost for a cheeseburger, fries and a beer? 215 baht. Where? At Bus Stop on Soi Nana. Friendly service, decent burger and none of the ++ nonsense.
It felt like there was more aggro in general. A few times I thought things were going to kick off. And I really don’t remember it being like that in Bangkok in the past.
One incident sticks in my mind. I was crossing Sukhumvit at the Nana intersection from soi 3 to soi 4 when a white van waiting at the intersection inched forward towards the zebra crossing, despite the green man signalling that pedestrians could cross. An older foreigner was passing the van as it was inching forward and I guess he must have thought the van might bump in to him (which was never going to happen) so he stops and slaps the van hard with an open palm. It was a good whack and the sound was like a loud crack. A stocky, rough-looking Thai guy leaps out of the van and the old white guy shuffles off towards soi 4 with the stocky Thai in pursuit. The Thai shows a clean pair of heels and catches the old dude right next to the police traffic control box. From the old dude’s accent, it turns out he is a Brit and they have an all mighty yelling match right there. The old Brit can’t run but he is shaping for a fight. And the Thai is ready to knock the Brit out. Both are ready to rock and roll while the men in brown in the police booth are as interested in what is happening right outside as they are in yet another taxi driver refusing to turn on the meter. I didn’t stick around to see how it ended.
This incident sticks in my mind, and the feeling I often had was that things were never far away from kicking off. Thais come across as relaxed – and that might be mistaken for calmness – but many have a very short fuse. They are jai yen…..until they are not, and then all hell can break loose. Factor in that many foreigners in Thailand are partying, drinking large and their judgment is impaired and you have a recipe for trouble. I really thought it felt like there was more aggro in the air.
As I reflect on this trip I will summarise by saying that Bangkok continues to move in the same direction it has been moving in for a while now – and you can make of that what you will.
Last week’s mystery photograph is the backyard of a restaurant called the House on Sathorn and was taken from the Chong Nonsi BTS walkway. This building used to once be the Russian Embassy in Bangkok. This week’s mystery photo might look like rural Thailand but it’s not and is in fact somewhere in central Bangkok – but where?
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Don’t miss your flight!
I don’t know how many flights I’ve taken from Bangkok over the years, but I missed my first one today. I thought I had plenty of time, until SVB’s “security theater” ate a huge chunk. Still thought I had enough time despite a snaking line of exiteers facing the as-ever-half-staffed Immigration counters. Minutes dropped off in chunks as the Immigration officer manning my line admired the pretty pictures on others’ passports, but the nail in the coffin was a rampaging group of Chinese tourists who barged their way through the entire line, citing imminent departure of their flight. Even then I thought I would make it but the gate was half-a-kilometer away and closed when I reached it. I was on a major Asian carrier and able to get a flight two hours later, but had to pay an admin fee. Despite being at the service counter of said airline, they refused to take my credit card and insisted I pay in local currency. I had the baht and they re-routed my checked-in bag (and fast-tracked me through security theater / Immigration, thus taking five minutes rather than an hour-plus), so it all worked out, but I learned two things: 1) allow more time than you can possibly deem necessary for the SVB Exit Circus, and 2) carry cash, preferably Thai baht exchanged at a decent rate, just in case.
The air quality in Bangkok is abominable, but people’s complacent attitude towards it is even worse. This morning as I was waking from the market a pickup spewing a large trail of noxious black exhaust barreled down Silom Road. Any cop with half-decent eyesight could see the exhaust, and ought to impound the offending vehicle.
Thai banks and foreign customers.
Why don’t Thai banks offer simple foreigner bank accounts? Two reasons. First, the Bank of Thailand stipulates rules around paperwork checks before opening an account for foreigners. After the Asian financial crisis the BoT sensibly tightened on foreign exchange controls. Secondly, foreigners are not a great profit pool for Thai banks. They have a habit of absconding the country, leaving no easy options for the bank to recover debts. Transaction fees on retirees spending a few thousand baht a month is not worth their while versus the much larger revenues available from locals. All not to be confused with SME owners though – if you’re a foreigner running a business in Thailand, certain Thai banks will accommodate and if you’re large enough they provide a relationship manager for personalised service.
Avoiding the hassle and hustle, where the lone-wolves go.
I agree that Billboard and sister establishment Butterflies are the best Bangkok gogos at the moment. And looks wise the upper tier talent is still concentrated at the top-notch Bangkok gogos. Same as it ever was. But the gogo bar scene is slowly wilting. While still quite good for a stag party or a boys night out they can be overly loud and frenetic, have layers of process to navigate, and have increased prices markedly. In short: expect some level of hassle and hustle. That is why hobbyist lone wolf punters are concentrating on the naughty massage shops and Smooci as they offer a lower profile, a straightforward process, and a better value for money proposition.
Billboard thumbs down.
My problem with Billboard is that they allow and support smoking inside the bar. This makes them very popular with those fond of cigarettes. I have asthma. One of the things that I have learned, very much to my sorrow, is that second-hand smoke is not my friend.
Smoking at the airport is possible.
Nicotine addicts still have options in Suvarnabhumi Airport. The Miracle Lounge in concourse D (after Immigration) has a “Bamboo Garden” which is an outdoor space within the lounge. As of late February, I saw smokers making use that area, and Miracle Lounge contracts with Priority Pass.
Third World, explained.
You have opened a can of worms mentioning “Third World” and a country’s development. When many people use a term incorrectly does that mean the meaning changes? Is right and wrong democratic? I understand that the English language is always evolving and words are added to reflect usage. I’m not sure we change meanings with usage. I think in the PC world they would or could see the term “Third World” as derogatory only because they do not know the true meaning of “Third World”. First, second and third world was a term coined just after World War II. First world referred to America and its allies. Second world referred to Russia and its allies (Eastern bloc countries). Third world was all the non aligned countries made up of mainly African and Asian countries. Because the African and Asian countries were generally poorer economically this is where the term Third World got a bit messed up and the majority of people use the term incorrectly. I would say it is correct to label Thailand as Third World, but I would also label Switzerland as Third World as well. In your meaning “emerging economy” might be suitable for Thailand and the PC world might not get too upset. I would not use developing economy because wouldn’t that mean every country whose economy is developing. Has New Zealand developed over the last 50 years. If so, it’s a developing economy, right?
For years there has been talk of a Patpong Museum from the group which runs The Strip, Bar Bar and Black Pagoda. These guys are passionate about Patpong but like many in business in Bangkok they have other business interests that keep them busy, and have not had time to get the Patpong Museum project rolling. Things are moving and this week I met one of the guys behind it. The Patpong Museum will be located in the same building as Black Pagoda, on the floor below. It will be set over 300 square metres and feature models showing Patpong at various times over the years. The idea is to showcase Patpong from 1920 to the present day. If all goes to plan, the Patpong Museum will open in a few months. There will be augmented reality (no idea what that means), iPads with information, models, photos from over the years, memorabilia from bars etc. More info when the doors open.
The same sign on the door of Kangaroo Bar in Patpong soi 1 still says that the house of oral relief is under renovation (while at the same time there is no evidence that any work is being done). Just when – or is that if – Kangaroo will reopen is anyone’s guess.
In Patpong soi 2, Black Pagoda, the unique “is it a gogo, is it a club” will celebrate its 10-year anniversary next Saturday, March 30th. Wow, how time flies. It doesn’t seem that long since the opening piece of this column was a profile of Black Pagoda a few months after it opened. If recent events on Patpong soi 2 are anything to go by, I’d seize the chance to drop by Black Pagoda and celebrate because the way things are going who knows how long some bars have got left.
The new gogo bar in the space that was previously Radio City is coming along. Speaking with the builders this past week, they say it should be ready to open by next weekend. It is not known what the name will be of the first brand-new gogo bar to open on Patpong soi 1 in many years.
Which begs the question of just which bar was the last brand-new gogo bar to open in Patpong soi 1, and when was that? I put the question to the owner of BangkokEyes.com and neither of us could figure it out. Any smart reader care to answer this question?
It’s only fair to give a new bar a few weeks before commenting on how things are going – but in the case of the newest gogo bar on Soi Cowboy, Kazy Kozy, feedback remains lukewarm, and even that might be being kind. There were high hopes for the second bar from the Crazy House Group but expectations have not been met. The complaints are numerous. The design of the bar has not utilised the space well and it is smaller than it could be. The double lady drink scam where a lady offered a drink comes back with a Coke AND a Tequila and the customer is charged for two drinks is practiced. And for those of us who don’t like smoky bars, Kazy Kozi is one of an increasing number of bars on Soi Cowboy that allows smoking. Crazy House has a strong following and many were looking forward to the new bar but so far it has failed to meet expectations. Maybe things will improve when the upstairs section opens.
In last week’s column I wrote that The Strip in Patpong soi 2 will close at the end of this month. The manager mentioned the closing party is actually this coming Friday. I have not been able to clarify whether the final day is Friday, Saturday or Sunday. I suspect it will be Sunday but I don’t know for sure. The manager fellow mentioned that some years ago he had worked hard building The Strip up and while he is once again at the helm, he just doesn’t have the time or energy to put in the work needed to bring it back up to where it was. Wise man. Any efforts to revive The Strip would be like flogging a dead horse.
Nana Plaza appears to be doing the best business of the 3 major bar areas – and I have no doubt that the roof and the beer garden are a part of that. But Nana Plaza is not without its problems and some bars are struggling, amongst them Twister BKK, Enter and Geisha. In the case of Twister BKK with its eye-watering monthly rent given its size and prime location on the ground floor, its very viability must be questioned. And then there’s the plaza’s newest bar, Geisha, which clearly has issues after it was revealed that liquor delivered had not been paid for. And with the owner about as popular as The Arab was back in the ’00s, it’s hard to feel confident about where it’s going. The weakest of the 3 major bar areas, Patpong, has already seen a bunch of big name bars close down so don’t be surprised if some bars in the plaza disappear. More than ever, it would make sense for the 3 bar areas to be consolidated in to 2. As visitor numbers hit the skids in the traditionally quiet months of April and May, some bar owners are going to feel the pressure.
And speaking of Geisha and the one who has become known as the crazy Korean, there’s no love lost between Spanky’s and Geisha after the latter poached a bunch of girls from Spanky’s with salary offers said to be silly money. How long will it be before those girls soon head back to Spanky’s which has been packing the punters in for years while Geisha’s future looks uncertain.
After a couple of weeks in town, 3 bars really stood out for me. In Nana Plaza, Billboard is not just the best in the plaza, but probably the best venue in town. Over in Patpong, Glamour was surprisingly good. And in Soi Cowboy, Dollhouse was doing a roaring trade and had the best lineup it has had in years. And whaddya know, Stick did a photo shoot in each of these three bars. The Billboard photo shoot has already run / the others are coming soon.
Why has the sign out front of Dollhouse not been turned on in recent weeks? Did someone forget to pay the electric bill? Or more likely, did Somchai mess around with the wiring?
Some of the naughty massage shops present punters with a photo album with photos of the girls they can choose for a massage. These albums may also outline the various service options available. Using a photo album is so 20th century and these
knocking shops massage houses ought to join the 21st century and use an iPad instead. It would give a better impression, the photos would in all likelihood look better, and it would be easy to edit and keep up-to-date.
On Sukhumvit Road, sex toy vendors were nowhere to be seen the past couple of weeks. Good job. How long they have been gone, I have no idea. What a dreadful look it was to have all manner of plastic phalluses for sale right there on the street in a major tourist area. Here’s hoping they’re gone for good….but I’m not holding my breath.
Down in Pattaya, Scooters Bar With Secrets – what used to be known as Secrets Bar – will open next Saturday, March 30th. The bar has been renovated and will feature a new theme and retro decor. Will it manage to recapture the magic that once made Secrets something special?
Do white women resident in Bangkok get stopped by police, questioned, searched and generally hassled the same way some males have been? I ask this question because A) there are more female expat residents in Bangkok than ever and B) I cannot remember a single report from a female expat who has been stopped randomly by police. The other half reckons the odds of Thai coppers harassing female expats without reason is low.
Is hair dye a requirement for expats aged over 40? It sure seemed that way on the skytrain.
Is Air India now flying direct between Bangkok and Auckland? And have they leased a plane from Thai Airways and forgotten to repaint it and add their own colour scheme / logos? It sure feels that way. The last few times I have flown between Auckland and Bangkok on Thai Airways there have been more Indians on the flight than either Kiwis or Thais. I guess Thai Airways offers the lowest airfares between Kiwiland and India and that is why there are so many Indians on the flight. And while I like Indians, they are painful to be on a long-distance flight with, they really are.
Quote of the week comes from a friend, “Going to the Thai polls drunk would deaden the pain of having to choose from among such a depressing array of candidates.”
Reader’s story of the week comes from Kloth, “Books, Bookstores And A Mystery“.
Red buses will be gone from the streets of Bangkok by 2022 as the entire bus fleet in the capital will become air-conditioned.
An American falls from his Chiang Mai condo to his death.
The body of a Thai woman found 15 years ago in England is finally identified while her English husband is working as teacher in Thailand.
Time in country is a chance for me to press the flesh, to catch up on what’s been happening since my last visit and to build up material for upcoming columns. I managed to fit in a few bar photo shoots including some bars I’d never shot in before. And I got a few ideas for upcoming opening pieces. I know this column will never be the same as it was when the bar industry was at its peak, and when I was still living in Bangkok, but I still do my best to put together something worth tuning in for each week.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]