Stickman's Weekly Column October 20th, 2019

Bangkok’s Best Movie House, Scala by iPhone



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

I bet we all have something unique we each look forward to on that next trip to Bangkok. Maybe it’s a favourite bar, a particular dish in an out-of-the-way eatery, or your favourite bargirl. Perhaps it’s something simple, like the vibe of Soi Nana after dark. This last trip I found myself looking forward to something a little different – catching a movie at my favourite cinema in Bangkok, Scala.

 

 

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One of the few touches of technology at Scala.

It almost didn’t happen. Scala gets a variety of flicks and amongst them movies I think they call “art house” or “alternative”. I’m more your mainstream Schwarzenegger, Stallone type of moviegoer and arty farty just isn’t my thing. The stars would line up and whaddya know, Rambo V was showing at Scala.

Going to Scala this trip wasn’t just about catching a movie. I had long planned to snap some shots and do a write-up about the classic cinema. I’d hoped that I could use my camera but the staff wouldn’t let me. Mobile phone camera was ok, hence this is Scala by iPhone.

 

 

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In between the lobby, and the auditorium.

I stumbled upon Scala in my early days in Bangkok. It just so happened to be the closest cinema to my first apartment in Bangkok. I didn’t go to the bars that often back then – a teacher’s salary hardly allowed it – but I did go to the movies almost every week. And as luck would have it, I could walk from my apartment to Scala in less than 10 minutes.

Scala is one of the oldest cinemas in Bangkok. It was built in the 1960s and while it mightn’t have the history of some of the more famous cinemas around the world, the combination of a traditional movie house and Thai decor make Scala a hit with Bangkok movie buffs.

 

 

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Has the ticket office / cashier’s booth changed since it first opened?

Exactly when Scala opened, I cannot be sure. I asked staff who told me 1964. Various sources online say it opened in 1966. Another says 1969. The best we can do is say that Scala opened some time in the mid or late 1960s. Thais have never been fixated on details like that!

 

 

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The foyer of the Siam Cinema at Siam Square, raized by the Red Shirts in May, 2010.

Scala was part of the Apex Group, along with two other cinemas just a few hundred metres away.

There was the Siam Cinema which was torched by the red shirts in 2010 and Lido, a multiplex which closed recently and was redeveloped in to a shared workspace.

The destruction of the Siam Cinema and the closure of Lido were genuine losses. But it is Scala that has always been the grandest of the three properties and it has managed to avoid the wrecking ball…..for now.

 

 

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The cinema foyer up the stairs, and the Scala Restaurant downstairs.

The grandeur of Scala can’t be seen until you enter the building. Outside, the classic neon cinema sign making up the frontage is a throwback to the Siam Square of old. Inside, two grand staircases lead up to an open lobby proudly clinging on to its heritage and which looks much how it probably did in the 1960s.

 

 

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The magnificent lobby of Scala, looking back towards the staircases and Soi Siam Square 1.

In the foyer of Scala you feel like you have stepped back in time. The magnificent chandeliers, the neon lighting of cinemas of old, the traditional popcorn machine, the huge Thai murals and the yellow jackets of the ushers all compete for your attention. To those of us who love to reminisce about a gentler Bangkok of the past, Scala is a treasure trove.

 

 

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From the lobby, the doorway leading in to the aurditorium.

That the lobby isn’t air-conditioned sounds dreadful but the giant fans blasting air across the lobby do a decent enough job.

 

 

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The old-style signage for the men’s room.

The average Thai teenager today likes everything shiny and brand spanking new – and Bangkok teenagers just love Siam Square. But Scala isn’t a hit with the usual Siam Square crowd. With its hidden alleys, Siam Square appeals to teenagers who love to mingle out of sight of their parents, teachers and anyone a bit older, but Scala isn’t their preferred place to see a movie. Scala’s appeal is with those who have been around a while and unlike the cinema in, say, Terminal 21, the crowd at Scala tends to be older and have a higher percentage of Thai patrons / fewer foreigners.

 

 

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Ushers in their iconic yellow jackets.

The single auditorium has several hundred seats and is staffed by ushers in the same white shirts, black trousers, bow ties and the distinctive and iconic yellow jackets that they wore the first time I caught a movie at Scala, some 21 years ago.

 

 

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Choose your seat!

The olde world charm extends to the ticketing system and the tickets themselves. The digital age hasn’t made it to Scala and you choose your seat from a map of the cinema with each seat crossed off as it is chosen.

Going to the movies isn’t expensive in Thailand, and tickets at Scala may be the cheapest in Bangkok. In comparison, Terminal 21 movie tickets run around 200 baht, whereas at Scala they are priced from 120 – 160 baht.

 

 

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Have the tickets ever changed at Scala (apart from the price)

The seat number is scribbled on the ticket itself. Are mistakes ever made, I asked the cashier, such as the same seat being sold to more than one person. Why would a mistake be made, she asked me, a little indignant, as if that was the dumbest question imaginable!

 

 

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Care for some popcorn?

The ushers’ uniforms may be cheesy and the popcorn is far from the best you’ve had. The last few times I have been the lamp in the projector was dim and obviously needed replacing, and from March to June you don’t want to linger in the lobby too long without air-conditioning….but there’s still a certain romance to going to Scala.

 

 

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A huge Thai mural is one of the features of the lobby.

It might not be popular with Thai youth, but Scala is the cinema of choice for many film festivals, premieres of major Thai productions and even some award ceremonies.

 

 

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What’s screening this week?

The land on which Scala sits is managed by Chulalongkorn University. A few years back news broke that they were looking at redeveloping the land. That would mean the end of the historic cinema. Scala is in the hearts of many Thais, especially those who enjoyed Siam Square as youngsters and still insist on going to Scala today. A public outcry followed and the Internet and the Bangkok Post were flooded with comments about such a historic venue should not be lost. Redevelopment plans have been shelved for the time being.

 

 

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East meets West, with traditional cinema neon lights below a Thai-style mural.

Going to the cinema used to be something special. Going to see a movie at Scala is still special.

 

 

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Looking up the stairs to the grand entrance.

For me, going to Scala is an outing. Here in New Zealand I prefer to watch movies at home on my big-screen TV. The local cinemas may be modern and comfortable, but they are totally lacking in character. In Bangkok I’d never watch a movie in my condo / hotel room when you can go to Scala – and I know I’m not alone. A small number of expats make the trek across town to Scala because it’s special.

 

 

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Relaxing in the foyer is pleasant despite the lack of air-conditioning.

Sitting in the foyer and enjoying the decor and the ambience is all part of the Scala experience. Go at the same time each week and you will recognise some of the same moviegoers who return each week, particularly at weekend matinees. Like I say, going to Scala is not just about seeing the movie, it’s an experience.

Rambo 5 wasn’t great but it doesn’t matter. I got to visit Scala again. That alone is worth the price of admission.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken from the Silom MRT station looking up Rajadamri Road with the Thai-Japan Bridge Flyover blurred in the background. A grand total of 5 people got it right which was a good effort as it was trickier than usual. This week’s shouldn’t be too difficult…


Nana Plaza
 

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

Recapturing the magic of old.

Thank you for the Billboard and Butterflies photo essay. It was the first time in a long time that I felt the old days of Bangkok were back (except for all the tattoos, which are a shame). If I were younger and in good financial fettle I’d grab three or four of them and negotiate to keep them out of the bar for as long as possible. I’m afraid I wouldn’t see much of Bangkok on that trip. Wowza!

No need to visit the bars.

Despite the naysayers, keep on with the bar photos. As someone who has literally stepped foot inside a gogo bar just 5 times since 2006, it saves me the hassle of paying for expensive drinks just to look at bored women pretending to dance.

Ongoing visa worries.

The latest announcement about health insurance being needed was, as you stated and as we have come to expect, as clear as mud. If insurance becomes compulsory for long-termers then that will mark the end for me as I am over 70 and therefore pretty much uninsurable, and I’ve told my wife to prepare for me having to leave. The government move is supposedly because foreigners have been leaving huge hospital bills unpaid, but that doesn’t really make sense. Because what is blindingly obvious is that there is something called the law, which if it involves Thais being shafted by foreigners might work very efficiently indeed. If someone leaves hospital without paying the bill then that is fraud. If it is a resident then the hospital can take legal action and the authorities can deny or revoke their visa. If it is a tourist they can be arrested at the airport / border as they try to leave. Immigration is a department of the police so it shouldn’t be beyond them to issue an alert. It’s really not that difficult, if they want to make an effort instead of punishing everyone for the wrong-doings of a few. That’s the usual Thai way though, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

A retirement Eden.

Suppose that there had never been a Brexit referendum, and suppose you are a Brit with a modest pension and little savings. Suppose further that you love espresso, wine, pastries, bread, plums, cherries, pears, cheese, meat, olives, olive oil, pasta, pizza, seafood, beaches and sunny weather, and that you want as high a standard of living as possible along with little bureaucratic hassle and no undo trouble from the police. Should Thailand be at the top of your list? No, and neither should Spain or Portugal. For while the latter two countries tick many of the boxes noted above, Southern Italy (including Sicily) ticks them all. And if you happen to enjoy smoking marijuana, Italy has that covered too: there are marijuana vending machines and boutiques. It should go without saying that history buffs and lovers of affordable performances of opera and serious music would choose Italy in a heartbeat. And given Italy’s relative proximity to the UK and low airfares between the two, Thailand’s appeal lessens all the more. Why then would any Brit choose to retire in Thailand rather than Italy? Is it the ready availability of paid female companionship for ugly, uncouth males? Or a love of the exotic East? Does fondness for Thai food play a major role? It certainly can’t be because it is easier for the typical Brit to speak, read, and write Thai than Italian. Whatever the reason, it seems to this non-Brit that limited finances and avoidance of red tape do not drive Brits (or other EU citizens) to choose retirement in Thailand over retirement in Italy. But maybe a love of whining about the high cost in Thailand of the goods noted above does. When will Westerners stop drinking the Thailand Kool-Aid?

The Colombia option.

Years ago retirement in Thailand was a lot more attractive than it is these days. The way Thailand is going, if I were younger I would definitely look at other places for cheap nightlife, company and living. I have a personal connection to Thailand but if my life circumstances were different Colombia would be at the top of my list. Colombia is a viable option particularly for guys from North America. There is not much of a bar or naughty boys infrastructure and you also need some knowledge of Spanish. 20 – 30 years ago the entire country was a no-go area but that has changed dramatically. There are pros and cons and I get that. The attitudes and seemingly excess nonsense of Thai officialdom is getting tiresome. Perhaps it’s old age or perhaps things are getting old.

Pattaya picking up.

Pattaya is slightly busier than it was at the end of September. My hotel has more guests, mostly middle-aged Europeans who lounge around the pool rather than head out to soi 6. If this carries on then some of these bars may not be here next year. I can’t tell if there has been a surge in Indian or Chinese visitors as I have no baseline to compare but I do note that the massage shops near Indian restaurants tend to have chubbier girls.

You can’t eat love.

You can’t eat love” was a quote in the pub from an Asian lady to a pal of mine. I think what people forget here is that we are dealing with ghetto people. That is not in any way meant to be derogatory. You don’t make money here, you don’t eat. The way this is almost hidden with the way these ladies dress and carry themselves (in some cases) is actually quite extraordinary compared to broke people in other countries. Our Mills and Boon version of love isn’t really appropriate here!


Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

 

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Golden Club opened this week on Walking Street. Photo provided by a friend.

 

Months and months ago, the Walking Street bars between sois 14 and 15 – Sugar Baby, Miami nightclub and Annabelle – were either sold or closed, with only the Panda go-go bar opening in their place. Many wondered why such prime real estate would be left vacant, but it turns out Panda’s Chinese owners (who also operate a disco near Bali Hai Pier), had wanted to buy the entire block and corner the market on Beijing bad boys. Standing in their way was a tiny, one-shophouse ice cream parlor.

The gelato and coffee shop owner has steadfastly refused to sell, no matter how much cash the Chinese imports flashed. Finally, it seems, the Chinese domination plan has gone to Plan B.

The former Sugar Baby is now Golden Club and sports some of the most-impressive signage on the street of sin, but is clearly not for farangs. As the photo shows, you’ll find no nubile doorgirls outside enticing customers in and signs & a TV screen emblazoned with Chinese lettering. A handful of clad-in-black door men stand outside regulating entrance through a firmly closed door.

The name of Sin City’s newest gogo bar, Golden Bar, is fitting given that Chinese are the largest group of visitors to Pattaya. Can we expect to see more new gogo bars with names featuring words like “golden”, “jade”, “dragon”, “lucky”, “fortune” or other words the Chinese find auspicious. How long until Walking Street is full of bars that make it sound like a row of Chinese takeaways?

With other Walking Street go-gos such as the newly reborn Super Model employing doorgirls to wave signs in Chinese, Korean and Japanese – not English – it’s clear what the business plan has become.

Super Model, by the way, joins a growing list of tiny Walking Street gogo bars. Why do bar owners continue to open bars in narrow, single shop houses? All follow the same layout, probably by necessity. A bank of narrow padded benches on each side with customers squeezed in behind tables so close to the bench, you can only sit next to them. The dancers don’t move positions for each song, so punters are left sucking in their gut and staring at the same four girls for 20 minutes. It’s the perfect definition of a “one beer and out, never to return” bar.

At the opposite end of the scale is a bar mentioned previously here: Pin-Up a-Go-Go. Hands down, Pin-Up is the undisputed best go-go in Pattaya at the moment. Dave the Rave already gave his blessing, but another friend who has made three trips to Sin City over the past three months is calling Pin-Up the Billboard of Pattaya, which is high praise indeed.

Pin-Up – which sits opposite Baccara and took over the double shophouse that previously housed a virtual reality gaming center (so much for the gentrification of Walking Street), is smaller than Billboard, but has 50% more women, a whopping 150+ on the floor on prime nights. The sound system and lighting , like Billboard, are top-notch and the place is always packed with a mix of Asian and western customers, leading to a great club vibe.

Of course, the attraction is the talent on stage and, at the moment, it’s second to none. Asked by a service lady which dancer he’d like to have join him, my mate threw up his hands and said he couldn’t decide. There were too many beautiful options.

 

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With so many women working, Pin-Up splits teams into three squads: fully-clothed coyotes and two teams (in black and white see through outfits) of “models” who lose their tops after one song. With three squads in 15-minute rotation, that gives you 30 minutes to sit and drink with your dolly of desire, which can be both a good or bad thing, depending on your budget.

Pin-Up is owned by a former partner of the Frenchman behind the “Shark Group” which runs six Walking Street bars and also employs a very pro-active French manager.

If you think the models working in packed-out Pin-Up are rolling in cash – not an unreasonable assumption given the many, many expensive boob jobs on display – you’d be wrong. In fact, while the hottest agency girls are queueing up to work in one of the few bars actually making (lots of) money in Pattaya, they have to do so under a brutal pay system.

The topless models work on 10-day contracts with a salary of 1,500 baht a day, which in a perfect world, could see them taking in 45,000 baht in a month before lady drinks and barfines. But the Pin-Up world is anything but perfect. A long conversation with one of the buxom beauties left my friend gaping at the vicious cuts the girls take to their pay for even the slightest infraction.

First, each model must sell 55 drinks during their 10-day tour of duty, which for starlets is not a high bar, but for some of the less well-endowed or slim girls is a daunting barrier indeed. Each also must be barfined 3 times in each 10 days. Miss your drink quota and you’re cut 200 baht for each drink. Miss the barfine quota and face a 2,000-baht cut.

But the real cuts happen in the bar. One Pin-Up Girl who this week got so drunk she couldn’t stand had to go home early. She was cut 5,000 baht. If you’re sick and miss a day, you’re out 2,000 baht. Show up late? Cut 2,000 baht. And the cuts continue.

Another Pin-Up model was at work with a bloody bandage on her knee and a painful bump on her forehead from a motorbike-taxi crash on the way to work. She stayed at work so as not to be cut. The same dancing maiden, sporting a pair of 38D bolt-ons, also said she struggles to get barfines and enough drinks. Asked why, given her assets, she said there are simply so many girls, the competition is fierce, and with her curves, she’s not the “Japanese look”.

Too much competition is actually a common reason many dancers leave popular bars, including Billboard and Butterflies in Nana Plaza. Several former Billboard dancers working now in Kazy Kozy on Soi Cowboy, said they like it better being a big fish in a smaller pond, rather than being eaten by sharks at Billboard. At the end of 10 days, some Pin-Up girls actually go home with nothing.

 

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It was only recently that The Office A Gogo in Soi LK Metro changed hands and was spruced up. Word on the soi is that it is closing at the end of this month and will be converted in to a nightclub…which I think we can take to mean that as a gogo bar The Office just didn’t work.

Paradise A Gogo has been bought by Destiny A Gogo – they sound like gogo bar names straight out of the bible – for 7 million baht. Word is that the asking price had been 9 million baht. These two gogo bars will have the same operator and are pretty much on the same soi opposite each other.

There is talk amongst expats in Sin City about a new 5-year visa for those aged over 60 years old, supposedly to help arrest the dwindling numbers in the expat community and stop more expats leaving. I mention this not to say that such a visa is coming – I have not heard a whisper about such a visa from any other source – more to report what expats are talking about and what I imagine is wishful thinking.

Many Sin City expat bar owners were left fuming last weekend when they were forced to abide by the booze ban while the Arab quarter was exempt and it was business as usual…

Crystal Club on Pattaya’s Soi LK Metro will host a Halloween Party on Thursday October 31st. Drop by if you’re in town.

 

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No awnings in Nana Plaza means more to see but remember that those who can see can also be seen. The gawkers and lookyloo visitors who make it to Nana Plaza tend to congregate at the beer bars at the front of the plaza and the Nana Beer Garden in the middle of the ground floor. The middle and top floor tend to get fewer mainstream visitors. What that means is that for customers at the likes of Spanky’s and Angelwitch on the middle floor, you can now be seen from the ground floor. And since there is a lot of photography going on from the ground floor beer garden, more people lingering on the middle floor are going to appear on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the like. Just sayin’!

I heard this week about a place on Sukhumvit soi 11 for those on a budget, not usually a soi you think of when keen to save a few pennies. Above Hemmingway is Market Rooftop which describes itself as bringing reasonably priced eats and beats back to soi 11. Pints of beer are just 49 baht before 8 PM and 89 baht after. In downtown Bangkok that’s a bargain.

If you find yourself in Phuket and hire a motorbike, be aware that there is an almost permanent police checkpoint presence on Rat-U-Dit Road, in front of Tai Pan nightclub. It must be a lucrative earner for the boys in brown because it’s an almost full-time fixture. They check for the usual – helmets and licences – and many are fined for not carrying their original licence. It should be noted that they do not accept a photo of your licence on your mobile phone.

What promises to be Bangkok’s biggest Halloween bash will take place on the top floor of Nana Plaza as Billboard and Butterflies prepare for a monster bash so big that one bar can’t hold it all. More than 240 sexy showghouls will be dressed in their sexiest, scariest best on October 31, with the ladies in the best costumes vying for cash and prizes in Billboard and Butterflies’ annual costume contest. You can enjoy specially concocted Spooktails and scary shots at a special price. The fun starts at 8 PM at Billboard and Butterflies on the top floor of Nana Plaza.

 

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It was announced this week that the first weekend of November will be a long weekend in Bangkok with Monday 4th and Tuesday 5th November declared public holidays. This is due to Bangkok hosting the 35th ASEAN Summit. There are two things to consider if you find yourself in Bangkok that weekend. A) When there is a large international contingent and the accompanying foreign press in town, bar closing hours tend to be strictly enforced and showing might not be allowed. B) The Immigration office at Chaeng Wattana will be closed so if your visa needs to be extended then plan accordingly – and consider that the day before and the day after that weekend will be bedlam at Immigration.

I notice an intriguing trend in Bangkok when it comes to eating out – or is that eating in? As more and more restaurants offer food delivery with the likes of LineMan, Food Panda etc., now there are new eateries opening up where there is no restaurant at all i.e. you cannot dine in and food can only be ordered for delivery. I’m all for this because it means you’re not paying for a cheesy dining room or crappy service. You pay for the food only – and of course the cost of delivery. The new vendors operating this way tend to offer larger portions with more of the good stuff i.e. more crab if it’s a seafood dish, for example. There has been huge growth in food delivery in Bangkok and I’d expect to see more of this. Ask your Thai other half about this and I’ll bet she knows vendors offering their fare this way via Facebook and other online channels.

 

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Rainy season, October 2019, on Soi Nana. Photo supplied by reader Bruce.

 

The rainy season shouldn’t have too long to go in Bangkok and usually peters out in the capital around early November. It feels like Bangkok doesn’t flood as much nor as badly as it used to. I distinctly remember really bad flooding at least a couple of times a year during the rainy season….but not so much these days. From what I gather, Pattaya remains as prone to flooding as ever – and it might even be worse with Sin City more built up than it was a decade or two ago.

One thing that struck me this past trip was how many expat retirees don’t do their annual visa extension themselves. Instead, they pay 20,000 – 30,000 baht to an agent who leads them by the hand to the Immigration office, helps them complete the form and also manages to jump the queue. Amongst those who don’t do their visa themselves are a couple of big names of Bangkok, people I think could reasonably be described as movers and shakers of expat society, expats who present themselves as people in the know. Yet they cannot even manage to do their annual visa extension themselves? Hopeless! Of course there are some people who use agents because they don’t meet the financial requirements – but that’s not the group I am talking about. Many Western retirees easily meet the financial requirements but choose to use an agent because they’re too lazy to do it themselves or they just cannot get their head around the visa process. It’s not difficult and there is no need to use an agent. Save the money and spend it on something more enjoyable. The cost of doing the visa yourself is 1,900 baht and let me say it again, it is NOT DIFFICULT!

 

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Reader’s story of the week is an amusing tale of Pattaya in the future, “The Statue“.

Was a Norwegian man found hanged in Hua Hin murdered, or was it suicide?

Dual pricing is now in effect at government hospitals in Thailand and foreigners pay more than locals, which is rather a curiosity in a country which has heavily promoted medical tourism.

A foreigner is wanted for stealing $US30,000 from an exchange booth in Phuket.

A 4-metre long king cobra is wrestled from a sewer in southern Thailand by rescue workers.

Two Nigerians in Pattaya are arrested and face charges for overstaying and romance scams.

The number of Indians visiting Thailand is growing at 15% annually.

 

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Soi Cowboy is quiet by day….how much busier is it at night?

Many in the nightlife industry are struggling – and I don’t mean just the owners of the bars. Some bar owners are scratching their heads – with so much uncertainty around find some are wondering if it’s all worth it. But like I say, they’re not the only ones doing it tough. The girls are doing it tough as the piece in the news section of today’s column shows with some girls working at the most popular bar in Pattaya, Pin Up, not making nearly as much as you may think. And then there are the bloggers, vloggers, columnists, nightlife commentators – call them what you will – who chronicle the industry. Many are feeling the pinch. This is not something new, but the impression I get is that it’s coming to a head for some. Some blogs and vlogs have gone by the wayside and others who once did it for the money are now doing it for the love of it, and I suspect in the hope that one day there will be decent money it in again. This week I heard of a blogger so far behind on his bills that his landlord has threatened to evict him. Bar spending on promotion isn’t necessarily down, but spending on traditional website advertising is. For those running websites and who rely on the income there are going to be some tough decisions to make. There just isn’t the number of eyeballs on nightlife and dodgy expat-centric websites these days. And fewer customers in the bars means fewer people are reading about what’s going on. Forums are dying, blogs are ending and as a tangible example, the traffic on this site is way off its highs. But high season is just around the corner and with that comes home, right? Over the coming months I believe there will be more casualties. The days when it was easy to make good money writing about expat Bangkok and the bar scene are over.

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Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]