Stickman's Weekly Column September 29th, 2019

Thoughts From The Frontlines, Part 3



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

This is the third and final part in my trip report series with thoughts and observations from 3 weeks in Bangkok.

I left Bangkok this week with mixed feelings. I caught up with some friends but a combination of the rain and a full schedule meant there were plenty of people I didn’t get to see. The seasonal rain was to be expected but the terrible pollution was not. I enjoyed some good food, but often it felt like 5-star food and 1-star service. That was the story of my time in Bangkok, some things were good….but it so often seemed that they should have been better. When it came time to leave I was ready to get on the plane.

Roaming Sukhumvit doesn’t have the appeal it once did. For me, the best of Bangkok is well away from downtown. There’s more to Bangkok than the golden mile of Nana to Asoke.

So what’s my issue with Sukhumvit or to be precise, lower Sukhumvit? It’s not the decline of the bars which is neither here nor there for me. Sukhumvit has become so heavily touristed – much more so than it was just a few years ago – that it almost doesn’t feel like Thailand any more. Mass tourism on Sukhumvit has attracted all the usual ills and miscreants it attracts the world over.

I don’t want to say much about the bars as I only really visit to gather news for the column. But what I will say is that I just don’t think the bar industry lives up to the hype and saw plenty of customers disappointed, perhaps even disillusioned.

Some bars – including some big name bars – feel tired, and very much in need of an overhaul. I get it that there’s little willingness to spend on the premises when trade is down, but if a business owner isn’t careful it can become a vicious circle.

Today there are more than a few chubby, older and generally less attractive ladies in some gogo bars. Some bars have really lowered their standards.

And in some bars the girls don’t dance, nor do they even shuffle. They just stand there, like statues (more on that in the news section).

It gets awkward when a bar owner asks what you think. What are you supposed to say? Some owners are incredibly sensitive and shouldn’t ask such a question when they really don’t want to hear what you have to say. You hope that giving honest feedback might help them reconsider things but that is probably wishful thinking.

I get the impression that in many foreign-owned businesses in Bangkok – not just bars, but restaurants, hotels and other businesses – the owner is concerned only with the numbers and the bottom line. Not making enough money? Put prices up. How many have any passion for what they’re doing? It often seems that all they are worried about is making money. I’m all for making money, but how about putting some emphasis on satisfying customers too?

The issues of high prices and bad exchange rates have been discussed ad nauseum so there’s no need to revisit that other than to say Bangkok is no longer a bargain.

Do business owners in Thailand get it that across the Western world, consumers have become very price-sensitive and many are ultra resistant to price increases? The ability of businesses to raise prices is not what it was. Consumers have much greater choice these days and will venture elsewhere, be it to another bar or restaurant – or perhaps even choose to visit a different country. Price sensitivity in 2019 is very real. There is almost zero inflation in the West and very low wage / salary growth. In the current business environment, raising prices is cutting your own throat – but those in business in Thailand just don’t seem to get it.

When I raised the issue of prices and poor service business owners were seldom interested.The world has changed and we have so many more choices these days – but few Bangkok business owners get that. As I wrote last week, some businesses in Bangkok may simply not be viable due to high costs (wages / rent / special payments etc).

The state of the baht / weak Kiwi dollar doesn’t help and increased prices in baht terms means this trip cost about $1,000 more than a trip of the same length cost a couple of years ago. It’s not a huge number, but it’s not trivial either. Again, as I wrote recently, when you are considering Tokyo as an alternative to Bangkok, prices have gone crazy.

I noticed this trip that friendships – in some cases, long friendships – aren’t what they were. There weren’t any arguments or issues, but the dynamic and the warmth of some friendships changed. It’s 4.5 years since I left Bangkok and time has weakened some friendships. Sometimes I wonder if I have really have that much in common with some of my old friends in Bangkok beside Bangkok itself.

There is plenty I still like about visiting Bangkok. I like not having to think about what to wear. Hot or cold season, Levis and a polo shirt works year-round in Thailand. I already miss my morning red dragon fruit, the delicious fresh mangos I scoffed daily, the fresh coconut water widely available and the durian (yeah, some foreigners do like it!).

For me, the best of Bangkok these days is away from Sukhumvit. Hunting out old restaurants with menus and recipes that haven’t changed in generations. Visiting old markets, chatting with the vendors about ingredients and cooking techniques, wandering and discovering new places. I’ve had my fill of Sukhumvit and enjoy myself elsewhere. Whenever I am next in town I won’t be staying on Sukhumvit. Somewhere further out will work just fine.

Bangkok still has a place in my heart but with a proviso: away from downtown and the bar areas. Hanging out in the old part of town, seeking out old-style eateries and generally getting away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. That’s my happy place.

 


Billboard Bangkok

 

Mystery Photo

myserty-photo50

Last week’s photo was taken at the Wat Mangkon underground train station, one of the new stations on the underground train network and the station closet to Chinatown.


Nana Plaza

 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.

Why read about it when you can do it?

In response to your question about Bangkok and South-East Asia expat fiction, I was an avid reader in the past. I think nowadays with the advent of cheap mass tourism, many people who read this genre and whom I suspect are those who have decent jobs can now afford to travel. We can satisfy our wanderlust in reality instead of having to read about it.

Those were the days.

I miss the old days. 2001 was the first time I went to Thailand. My first time outside the United States. The USD was the world champion and the girls were so much kinder than today. Three or four thousand baht would cover the hotel, food, drinks and girl for the night if you played the night right. Those sure were the good old days.

Big Mango? No thanks!

We were down in the Big Mango from Udon Thani this past weekend. My thoughts are the same as yours. Many Indians who do seem to be a fair bit better off than the mobs we used to see 5 years ago in Pattaya. A lot of Arabs but not as many Iranians as there used to be. A fair sprinkling of Koreans and people from countries in South-East Asia. Not many white faces to be seen. The strength of the baht is probably the main cause but we will need to wait until the 2-week millionaire season to see if this is the real cause. The cost of eating out is getting stupid in Bangkok, especially these ++ establishments which compared to up here in Issan where it’s still relatively affordable. We left dull, polluted Bangkok yesterday and arrived to clear blue skys and virtually no pollution. Happy chappie today!

Not impressed with ++.

The 10% service charge and the 7% sales tax NOT included in the price up front is not an optional extra so not to include it in the price displays slipperiness and dishonesty, in my view. In future I am going to try and make a point of avoiding restaurants that do this as it is a strong indicator the owner does not take customer service and value seriously.

Pricier than the UK.

You wrote, “At the end of the day, if it’s more expensive than home and not as good, why bother? Some might have to face the reality that in their current location and with a predominately foreigner customer base, the business may not be viable.” This is exactly the problem with foreigner oriented restaurants and bars in Bangkok. I have just eaten a meal in an Italian restaurant in the Sukhumvit area and the bill for a very indifferent pizza and 250 ml of basic red wine came to over 750 baht. That is over $35 Australian dollars! Almost £20! I could get the same meal better and cheaper in Australia or the UK these days. I have just returned from a holiday in the UK and that country is far better value for many things at the moment. It is cheaper than Thailand for a lot of things and the quality of the restaurants is generally superior to the farang food places in Thailand. The two key problems seem to me to be that the absurd tax the Thais put on anything imported raises costs but I think the biggest problem is that these places tend to be owned and run by expats desperate to maintain the lifestyle they have become accustomed to in Thailand. That means raising prices to levels beyond the quality of the product they offer can justify. Generally I now avoid these places and stick to Thai food which is usually cheap and delicious. I would say the writing is on the wall for many of these expat businesses unless they offer superlative quality or can achieve sensible pricing. With the strong baht and no real wage growth amongst foreign clientele I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

Another way to look at TM30.

The whole TM30 keeping track system seems like the same system the USA uses for registered sex offenders. Has anyone else mentioned this?

The long journey home.

We recently returned from Thailand. We have booked QANTAS for the last 7 – 8 years or so because of the good prices. Departing from Wellington there are no direct flights so going through Sydney is a better option than Auckland where you have to transfer your heavy luggage from domestic to international and vice versa on the way home if travelling with Thai Airways. So QANTAS is a no-brainer. Anyway, at the end of our trip we arrive at Swampy and peruse the departure board, and lo and behold QF 24 to Sydney is cancelled. So we report to check-in and are handed a leaflet telling us we will be staying the night at Novotel Bangkok. Transfers to and from the airport, dinner, drinks, breakfast, lunch all included and then back for the same departure the next day. As he processes our passports he declares, Oh, you’re travelling to Wellington? You have been transferred to the Thai Airways flight. I thought that’s nice, I’ve never been on a 787 Dreamliner before. So off we toddle to Thai Airways check-in and realize we are on a 777. Inside, the plane felt like the oldest in the fleet. Back in Auckland, we make the 20-minute walk across from the international terminal to domestic check-in and we have problem with our 30 kg suitcases. After rearranging our hand luggage, Air New Zealand felt sorry for us and let us through. We finally arrive in Wellington 5 minutes before the QANTAS flight from Sydney we were originally booked on.

Sukhumvit bar recommendation.

Rex Club on Sukhumvit soi 13 is my new favourite bar. 80 baht beer and cool disco / house music all night. The owner, of Korean descent, came over and said hello to us. It’s crazy that something so easy as that has me wanting to tell you about it. As humans, do we like to feel special? What is it about the bar owner being friendly meaning so much? Is it because a business owner may be seen as someone who wouldn’t be seen talking to the “man on the street”? There is something about community and inclusion that grabs us, I think. Bars need to have a face. I think we don’t mind handing over our money when we can see a man is trying to make a living.


Demonia Bangkok

 

xxx-lounge-patpong

 

Just a few months ago things were looking decidedly grim on Patpong soi 2 with the Silom Road end of the soi all doom and gloom. Club Electric Blue had closed a year earlier and the steakhouse that took its place was doing lousy trade. The Strip closed and Bada Bing followed. And there were rumours (which turned out to be false) that the future of Glamour was uncertain. The Strip has since reopened as has Bada Bing. Big Andy has announced his new bar, XXX Lounge, will open on November 1st in the space that was the steakhouse. With all of the activity taking place in Patpong – not just in Patpong soi 2, but across the area – Patpong is making a real comeback and there’s a real confidence in the air.

The opening of the Museum of Patpong has been pushed back further, until October 25th…and even then, that date is not set in stone. But believe me when I say it that it will be worth the wait. I was given a tour this week of a museum still being worked on and was hugely impressed. A full article on the Museum of Patpong will open next week’s column.

I am told that Stable Lodge Hotel, Restaurant and Bar in Sukhumvit soi 8, which has been going for nearly 30 years and is popular with the Danish / Scandinavian communities, has been sold to an Indian consortium. That might sound ominous, but there are no plans to change it, at least not as this stage.

There are unconfirmed reports of some small bars in Cowboy not paying their coyote dancers. This is unconfirmed but the source is as good as it gets and I believe it to be true. This is the sort of rumour that is very hard to verify. Bar owners get most upset when you tell the world they’re paying staff late or not paying them at all. Given what I saw with my own eyes in Soi Cowboy over the past few weeks, I’m hardly surprised. The bigger bars are doing ok while some of the smaller bars are really struggling.

What is it with some of the girls on stage in Tilac not dancing, in fact some don’t even move? Early in the evening when the bar isn’t busy (but there are perhaps a couple of dozen customers), the dancers just stand there, and chat amongst themselves. You can’t even call it the Bangkok shuffle because some aren’t moving at all! Maybe they should rename Tilac to Statue? The current lineup of dancers would be perfect for a bar with that name.

Speaking of Tilac, it’s a bar myself and the dirty doctor were big fans of in the past and we knew a lot of the staff. We visited last weekend for old times sake and almost the entire service staff from 10+ years ago are still there. Amazing that so many staff have stayed in one bar for so long. We did not recognise a single dancer.

Dancer #326 at Shark in Soi Cowboy is interesting. She comes from the south of Thailand and has a look quite different to most of the ladies in the bars. She has a cheeky smile and an intriguing personality keeps you coming back for more.

 

biergarten-soi7

Biergarten or Beer Garden? I favour the former.

 

I stopped by the Biergarten on Sukhumvit soi 7 last Sunday for the first time in a very long time. My last visit must have been several years ago. It was quiet, looked tired and while there wasn’t a single diamond in the rough, it was actually kind of pleasant. I was there to meet a mate and for that it was perfect. What I like about the Biergarten is that unlike gogo bars, the girls are polite. We chatted with a few and they were all pleasant, well-mannered and in no way pushy or offensive as gogo girls can be. For years I didn’t get why some would venture to the Biergarten. Now I get it. You don’t get the pushy, obnoxious nonsense in the Biergarten so common these days from many my-shit-doesn’t-stink gogo / coyote dancers.

And speaking of the Biergarten, when did the name change to English i.e. Beer Garden? I notice signs outside with the English spelling while the old signs and slogans inside use the original German spelling.

In the next soi over, Sukhumvit soi 7/1, there are more bars and venues these days and it feels like a bit more is going on. It’s not a destination yet, but for those who like to escape the crowds, it feels a little more alive than, say, Sukhumvit soi 22.

Angelwitch in Nana Plaza has taken a leaf out of the popular Spanky’s next door and has installed a shower box. Shower shows started at Angelwitch last night.

In last week’s column I asked about Peter, the watch seller with a cancerous growth inside his mouth who has long been a fixture on Soi Nana. Peter was the hot topic in my email inbox this week with more emails about him than anything else. There have been numerous sightings of Peter from Soi Nana to Sukhumvit soi 11. It’s good to know all is well.

 

snapper-new-zealand-bangkok

Snapper New Zealand, a bit before 7:00 PM and not a customer in sight.

 

Snapper New Zealand, the fish and chips restaurant on the same sub-soi off Sukhumvit soi 8 as the Kiwi Pub, will open its doors for the last time on Saturday, October 12th. Snapper New Zealand has only been in that sub soi a couple of years after relocating from Sukhumvit soi 11. But it won’t be moving again and this is the end. Word is that it is being absorbed in to the group’s other New Zealand-themed restaurant, Kai (means food in Maori), in the Sathorn area. Kai is nice, but expat bars and restaurants in Sathorn and Silom seldom do the sort of trade they would if they were on Sukhumvit. Given the prices charged for fish and chips – and the fact that when I was in town and walked past and saw hardly anyone there – I’m not surprised the plug is being pulled.

I know I have been banging on about how bad things are for a while now but things really have been very, very bad this low season – and I am talking about what I saw with my very own eyes. It is grim. It’s one thing that there aren’t many customers about but what’s worse for bar owners is that many customers just aren’t spending. They’re buying a drink or two and nursing them. They are not barfining; in fact barfining might not enter their mind. Many are not buying lady drinks. The yield per customer must be quite low these days. We’re in the depths of the low season, I know, but regulars are saying that on Soi Cowboy it’s the worst low season since the ‘90s. A couple of old friends who have long been regulars on Soi Cowboy have given up on the soi. The big farang-owned bars like Bacarra, Dollhouse, Shark, Lighthouse and Tilac will do ok, as will Crazy House and Kazy Kozy. And the live music bars at the Asoke end of Cowboy are booming….but some of those smaller bars aren’t doing as well as they’d like.

 

scruffy-murphys-bangkok

 

Does booking through websites and apps potentially get you a worse deal than if you were to book with the business direct? The experiences of myself and a friend have me wondering… The whole idea of hotel booking websites is that you get a better deal than if you booked with the hotel direct. Did you know that these websites have conditions in their contract that prohibit the hotel from offering rooms at a lower price than the price on the booking site. So consumers know that if they book with the likes of Agoda or Bookings.com they will get a better deal than by contacting the hotel direct. That’s supposed to be how it works….but I am cynical. A friend recently stayed at the Nana Hotel, which is like a second home to him. Usually he books direct with the hotel but this time he booked with Agoda. He got a crap room that he said felt like a dungeon and had no view whatsoever – and he paid a rate higher than had he booked with the hotel directly! When I went to book the hotel I stayed at this past trip, I checked all the rates online and then emailed the reservations department of the hotel. I did not mention that I had looked at the likes of Agoda or Bookings.com. The hotel came back with a substantially lower rate than any of the booking sites. We had something similar happen at the Landmark Hotel. We booked the buffet dinner one night with the hotel and got a prime table. We booked a week later on the Eatigo app where the price was the same but we got what I think was probably the very worst table. Coincidence? I suspect not.

On the subject of 5-star hotels, BarSu on the ground floor of the Sheraton Grande, on Sukhumvit between sois 12 and 14, still has the Fab5 deal going. 5 cocktails for 555 baht all in. Perfectly mixed cocktails, fun atmosphere, good value – give it a go if you haven’t already.

 

fab5

The Fab5 deal is still going at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit.

 

There’s a dress code at the Immigration Department in Bangkok. One reader told me he was explicitly told to wear long trousers next time he visits the Immigration office at Chaeng Wattana.

The Thai baht’s strength against western currencies has been a talking point for a while. Retirees on smaller fixed incomes are hurting while visitors notice prices are higher than before and may even be higher than they would pay at home for the same thing. But there is one group which is not getting a lot of mention when it comes to the strong baht – and that is those who had planned to retire in Thailand soon. Are they rethinking their position? For those planning to retire in Thailand soon, do you have some fat in your budget? The strong baht is a headache for all foreigners visiting / living in Thailand and who knows if it has settled at current levels – or if it could get stronger. In 2013 the USD bought just 28 baht and if that level is seen again, we could all be getting about 7% less baht for our currency than we are currently. I did have a think about how much money I would need if I were to retire to Thailand now. I’d need about 6 million baht to buy a medium-sized house in the suburbs and another 500,000 baht to fit the house out and buy some furniture and what not. A decent car is about bout a million baht. And I reckon I’d need about a million baht a year to live on (for everything from general living / travel / hobbies etc.). Given my life expectancy I’d need around 50 million baht or so to be safe. I don’t have 50 million baht, so retirement in Thailand is out of reach for me at this stage (not that I am considering it, mind you). I get the impression that for those who had planned / are planning on retiring to Thailand soon, it might be getting further out of reach for you.

My last couple of days in Bangkok saw the air pollution get really nasty. The air quality index AQI really should be included in the weather forecast like it is in some other places in the region, such as Hong Kong.

 

he-clinic-new2

 

Quote of the week comes from a genius, “For some expats in Bangkok and Pattaya, if they’re not talking about the bars, bargirls or drinking then they have almost nothing to say.”

Reader’s story of the week comes from Jimmy, “Return To / From Farangland Part 7“.

Will later closing hours really come to Bangkok (Hard to see it happening, in my opinion).

 

bangkok-tuktuk

Bangkok is still Bangkok.

It was easy writing the column when I was in Bangkok. Was because now I am back home in New Zealand. When I am in Bangkok I can hunt for and gather news myself. I can more easily verify tip-offs and rumours that you kindly send through to me. But more than anything, it is only when you’re there on the ground that you get the mood of the city and a real feel for what’s going on.

OK, so now that I am back home, what have I got lined up for the column going forward? Quite a bit, actually. I have a photo essay of the best cinema in Thailand taken with my iPhone (a real camera was not allowed but a phone camera was). I shot a selection of ladies from the two best gogo bars who will feature in a combined bar photo essay. I was given a private tour of the soon to open Museum of Patpong by the curator and plan to run an article all about it next week. I have plenty of thoughts on bargirl relationships – something I am hearing more about again – as well as no shortage of stuff to rant about. I might have left Bangkok but don’t think that means I am short of things to say!

 

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]