When I was in Auckland this week a friend asked how the bar scene was in Bangkok. I thought about it for a moment and said that things had become concentrated. Everyone was talking about just two bars, Billboard and Butterflies.
A month or two back I wrote that we decided to move away from bar photo shoots. It’s a lot of hassle shooting in bars these days with little or no support from the bar owners / managers, too many unattractive ladies and, to be frank, photo shoots with average-looking ladies generally aren’t that well received.
But when two bars with a heap of pretty staff stand out from the crowd they warrant a photo shoot, even if I have shot in and featured both bars before.
The original plan was to shoot Butterflies one night and Billboard the next but in the end I shot the ladies from both bars in one kind of hurried photo shoot.
My plan had been to do something a little different and photograph the ladies and include a mini profile / bio of each – nickname, where they’re from and a few anecdotes. It started off ok, but when you’ve got 15 girls to shoot and less than an hour and a half to do it, there just isn’t the time to make notes. After the first two ladies I abandoned the idea and concentrated on taking photographs.
Some of the ladies here I have shot before. Some were new. Some have been around for a while. And to my eyes, all were attractive.
But it wasn’t so much the girls that I noticed, rather what stood out was that in the 5 or so months since I last visited Billboard had been spruced up. While the changes may be subtle, serious money had been spent.
A whole new sound system has been installed. The mixer (I think I have the terminology right) alone runs around a quarter of a million baht. And the power supply has been seriously uprated.
Many bars scrimp on the sound system. Not Billboard. The sound system is far beyond your average gogo bar and is more like what you find in a high-end club.
The air-conditioning system has been overhauled at a huge cost, as has the lighting.
These upgrades may not be visible but the bar is noticeably more comfortable.
The average punter might not be aware of all of these changes, especially after a few drinks, but I bet they are going to be in less of a hurry to leave.
You know how sometimes you find yourself in a bar and it just feels right and you’re in no hurry to go anywhere – and not because you’re lusting after Nubile Noi or Luscious Lek – that’s how Billboard feels now.
Outside the bars, each of Billboard and Butterflies has a large, 2-metre wide, 1-metre high screen outside that shines so bright it illuminates chunks of the plaza. These screens can be used to promote the bar and provide information about parties and upcoming events. The hugely impressive ultra-expensive screens are the first sign that these two bars set themselves apart from the rest.
Billboard has been in the top 3 bars in Bangkok for the last 3+ years, along with Bacarra and Crazy House. Many locals say it’s the best gogo bar in Bangkok. But there is an argument that Butterflies has caught up….and some even feel that Butterflies may be better.
If you were after sheer beauties, Billboard had the edge with more attractive ladies. The two ladies above both dance in Billboard.
But Butterflies is bigger (6 shophouses as opposed to 5, with a much higher ceiling) and can have over 140 girls at the weekend. The night I took these photos, over 100 girls turned up for work – pretty good for a weeknight.
In this respect Billboard and Butterflies remind me of the old days with so many girls on stage at the same time that they’re almost falling off the stage.
One difference between Butterflies and Billboard is the style of music played. Billboard’s playlist is similar to what you hear in some other bars whereas Butterflies has some older hits and is a little bit more “loungey“.
The owners of Billboard and Butterflies are the nicest people in the industry, genuinely friendly, very likeable people who run the bar as a proper business, putting quality at the forefront and refusing to accept much of the nonsense that so many bar bosses accept.
I wish I could tell you which ladies featured were from Butterflies and which were from Billboard, but I can’t. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying all of those in red dance in one bar while those in white can be found in the other. If you see a lady in this photo essay who grabs your fancy, I am afraid to say that finding her might be a case of trial and error – if she’s not in Billboard, try Butterflies. And vice versa.
One can cite all manner of reasons for Billboard and Butterflies’ wild success but in my opinion it all comes back to the owners. They are choosey about who they hire, they treat their staff well and they have invested heavily on the premises. Billboard has been hot for more than 3 years. And Butterflies is really taking off now too. Billboard and Butterflies are two of the very best gogo bars in Bangkok and you can’t go wrong in either. Long may their success continue.
Last week’s photo was taken from the walkway between Benjasiri and Lumpini parks and the distinctive looking building featured in it is Crystal Garden which is located a long way down Soi Nana. At first glance this week’s might seem tricky but there are a few clues and it is downtown Bangkok and not somewhere obscure out in the ‘burbs.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Regret not investing in Thailand?
One consistent theme of recent columns is the strength of the Thai baht. Are we all fools for not investing in a currency that we have seen gaining strength for years now?
Memories of Patpong.
I am looking forward to visiting the Patpong museum during my next visit to Bangkok. I spent much of the ’80s and ’90s drinking in Patpong 1 and Patpong 2. My mates and I usually started in the old Bahn Beer Bar which was only about 8 feet wide and 20 feet long but had a heap of atmosphere. The Blue Jean was next door, and these two bars were on the same side of the soi as Madrid, but closer to Silom Road. The first bar I ever drank at was the Key Note Bar, on the Suriwong side of King’s Castle 1. That was the only King’s bar at that time. The Grand Prix, Thigh Bar and Safari were very popular as was Goldfinger. Rififi in Patpong 2 was a favourite. I still have a beer coaster from Rififi that reads “A little pussy never hurt anyone“. The Superstar Beer Garden at the side of Superstar was a great spot to watch the passing parade, and had Amarit draught beer for 35 baht. We used to watch all the CIA and embassy types walk past en route from the Madrid to the Crowne Royale. The rot started to set in when the market started.
Thank God for museums.
Interesting stuff on the Patpong museum. It got me thinking about how a visionary, percentage-wise probably never sees his vision through to fruition. Case in point, Betsy Ross and the American flag never got to see the flag bikinis 555. And then there are those who see some of that vision in the gaps of our lives and are left wondering, were those earlier times that great or did we actually have the better times? Life isn’t fair that way. Thank God for museums.
I use Hotels.com. For every 10 nights I get one bonus night for free. And since I am a gold member (or a silver member in slow years) they tease me with multiple special offers at different hotels. Sure, the likes of Accor and Hilton have loyalty programs but with Hotels.com I can choose to stay wherever I want. The different hotels make less money on guests who use Agoda and Hotels.com. That’s why they often claim that making a reservation on the hotel’s own website is the cheapest option. This is not always correct!
Interesting to read your comments on the hotel booking sites. Hotel TrIvago are under investigation here in Australia for false advertising.
Sukhumvit soi 8 thumbs up.
Sukhumvit soi 8 has long been my choice of area to stay in Bangkok. Everything you need is there. I’ve seen it grow over the years from nothing when there was a small beer garden type of place where Adelphi Suites now stands, to what it is today. I worry that soi 8 is becoming too well-known. You mentioned that Stable Lodge was taken over by an Indian consortium but there are no plans to change. I have no doubt it will change eventually. Once it’s advertised in India and they start moving in I’m sure the Scandinavians will start to disappear. Maybe it’s not nice to say that but I know what it’s like staying in a hotel with Indians on the same floor. Something I give a lot of consideration to now is staying somewhere where they aren’t. Sadly, I speak from experience.
UK visa applications handled in India.
You talk about Thai people applying for visas. Those who apply for a UK visa in Bangkok have their passports sent to India and their application is dealt with there. I don’t know why that would be but that is why it probably takes longer to process these days.
Don’t give a hoot about Hooters.
Don’t beat yourself up over the Hooters closures error. I suspect most Americans like me really don’t give a hoot over Hooters and don’t give a sh*t if it closes or not. We have Hooters here in the States and I have never been in one here and will probably never patronize one in Thailand. I passed by Hooters in Soi Nana plenty of times as well as the Beach Road branch and never stepped inside. As far as I’m concerned, Hooters is simply another eatery / bar combo restaurant, albeit the waitresses have big tits. So what? Big deal!
Down Phuket way.
This time of year in Phuket is generally quieter than May / June but I have to say that this is the quietest I have seen it for farangs. The occupancy rate of the hotel I am staying in is around 30%. While at the same time the numbers of Indians is up, as is the number of Africans. So while the establishments that would normally be patronised by farangs are suffering, others like Indian restaurants are doing a brisk trade with Indian families. Koreans on the other hand are still in numbers and mainly hang out inside the bricks & mortar chrome pole bars a la Soy Cowboy.
Nana Plaza is going to looking better than ever with all of the awnings that extend out over the ground floor bars removed. In what looks like a masterstroke for Thailand’s premier gogo bar area, the plaza looks and feels bigger and I am told that you can see every single bar from any vantage point in the plaza. With the roof installed on the plaza a couple of years back, the awnings were redundant. If my time in Bangkok last month was anything to go by Patpong and Soi Cowboy are standing still while Nana just gets better.
With that said, there is one thing I still really don’t like about Nana Plaza. I get it that the owners are keen to protect their investment and that they also wish to provide a safe environment, but I find the grimaces, the hard-man looks and the generally threatening attitude of the security team to be a big negative. The way they look at some punters gives the impression that not only do they not like them, they’re ready for a rumble. These guys are nothing like the docile security guards you see on the skytrain, the underground or outside most condo buildings. That said, perhaps I should be grateful that the team in Nana Plaza do not seem to have most Thai security guards’ favourite accessory, a whistle!
The plaza was buzzing on Friday night with the usual bars busy and even some not so busy these days without a seat free. I guess that a no alcohol day a couple of days later was part of the reason it was so busy.
The new bar near the start of Sukhumvit soi 8 mentioned in last week’s column in the space that was previously an Indian restaurant is called Today @Soi8 Bar. It’s a nicely decked out beer bar and it appears that the ladies are barfineable. It might be new but it’s doing very little trade and the operators need to make more of an effort to get people inside. 125 baht for a beer is a reasonable price and they haven’t priced themselves out of the market, but there’s a lot of choice on Sukhumvit and one hopes they don’t experience what previous business owners in that spot have – that location is not everything.
As more Indian men visit Thailand and more Indian men venture in to the bar areas, can we expect to see more chubby women working in the bars? Perhaps that is already happening. Indian men seem to like a fuller figure and with Thais getting bigger it could be a good match. I don’t imagine the traditional customer base will be thrilled at more chubby girls being around…..but bar owners need to serve the market and meet demand – and Indian men look like being the next big growth area in the bar industry. As Dave The Rave said to me when we had our weekly phone chat this week, be glad you’re not paying by the kilo!
As far as Indians go, the impression I get from those in business is that the Indians are a bandage for a tourism industry facing serious challenges. The truth is that many Thais still aren’t that fond of Indians – they will gladly take their money, but I am not sure they treat them as well as they should be treated.
Angelwitch could once lay claim to being the best gogo bar in Nana Plaza and probably the most successful bar of its type in the country…but that’s really turning back the clock. Today Angelwitch is just another Nana Plaza gogo bar fighting for those who can’t get a seat in Billboard, Butterflies and Spanky’s. But there is one night of the year when Angelwitch can claim to be the best bar in Nana Plaza, Halloween. No bar does Halloween like Angelwitch. A huge effort is made as the bar is dressed up and decorated with all sorts of fancy props. Many of the staff really go to town with outrageous costumes and even more outrageous, realistic and scary makeup. If you haven’t visited Angelwitch at Halloween, you really must – it can feel like the set of a horror movie! And if you fancy getting in the mood, all customers in Halloween dress get a free drink. Halloween at Angelwitch is one of those boxes you have to tick if you’re a fan of the naughty nightlife.
We did the buffet at Atrium in the Landmark the weekend before I flew out. 5-star food, 1-star service would be my summation. The food was excellent – no complaints there, but the service was a joke. Still, it was a buffet so one cannot complain too much. But more than anything, the buffet at the Landmark was a snapshot of where things are at in Bangkok. I used to be a member of the Sheraton Grande club some 10 years ago and would eat there regularly. Back then, at least half of the customers were Westerners. The rest were a mix of Thais and other Asians. As I recall, it was much the same at restaurants in other 5-star hotels along Sukhumvit Road. Back to my time in Bangkok last month and my visit to the Landmark, there were around 70 tables at the buffet with an average of around 4+ diners per table, so let’s say a total of around 300 customers. My best guess would be that 80%+ of the diners were Thai. The rest were a mix of north Asians, with plenty of Chinese and a few Koreans. There were two outliers – two white guys – me and one other guy. There was hardly a Westerner in sight whereas the hotel buffets used to be about half Western customers. A sign of the times.
In another sign that some long-term expats are leaving Thailand, an expat car dealer in northern Thailand has more cars on consignment to sell on behalf of expats who are leaving than ever before. Feedback from those expats in Chiang Mai who are leaving is that prices have got high in baht terms, they get less baht for their dollar / Euro / pound and they want to escape the polluted air.
Reader Bruce captured the snap above on Rachadapisek Road just south of the Asoke intersection / opposite Exchange Tower. I wonder the what reason for the stop was, and what the outcome was.
Illeism is the act of referring to oneself in the third person instead of the first person, for example, Stick wants to go to Vesuvio for a pizza where I am the person speaking and use Stick instead of I. It’s not something you hear in English but it is common in Thai. Don’t think it is unusual if you hear Thais referring to themselves like this or think that anyone is taking the piss when you hear them say “Nok go 7 Eleven buy water” where Nok is the person speaking. Don’t make the mistake of literally translating what they have said word for word. It might not work in English but still be perfectly normal in Thai!
Just when you wondered when the next bulletin of visa confusion was coming, the Thai government obliged this week with its latest announcement. Some expats are again scratching their head with the announcement this week that medical insurance is required for what the government termed long-stay tourists. This ambiguous term has some expats confused and concerned because it’s not at all clear whether this includes those on a certain type of visa, or whether it includes all long-stay foreigners – retirees, those on a marriage visa etc. It was announced that those who do not have acceptable medical insurance could find their next visa extension declined. Apparently, this only applies to those on a non-immigrant OA visa but the latest announcement was pure confusion. Only when the new law comes in to effect will things become clear. Honestly, I don’t think I could live like that, forever wondering whether the next visa policy change could see me effectively shown the door.
Some expats are more Thais than the Thais themselves, and some really bite when you point out certain things that they don’t happen to like you raising. One thing I said that got two expats I know really upset was commenting on the new underground station at Wat Mangkon. The Thais have gone goo-goo-ga-ga over the interior of the station that is filled with Nescafe-emblazoned advertising with a Chinese theme. The station was probably the most photographed spot in Bangkok last month with Thais flocking to the station to take photos and selfies to post to their social media. I called it as I saw it – all very cheesy and the walls of the station look like the back of a cornflakes box. I said this to two expats and their reaction was more akin to me asking if their mother took it up the pooh chute. Some expats are so incredibly sensitive to any comment about Thailand that is not overwhelmingly positive. It’s cringeworthy!
Another thing I really noticed this past trip is how many retirees (of retirement age, not early retirees) behave like Millennials. They take selfies of themselves, they place great importance on their own and their friends’ Facebook profiles, they spend seemingly all day long posting on Facebook and / or ThaiVisa and they are VERY concerned about their online profile. What’s that all about?
In January of 1998 one New Zealand dollar bought 32 baht which was a great rate – and has not been seen since. Just two and a half years later, in mid-2000, one New Zealand dollar got just 16 baht. Currencies can swing massively. Just what that means for your currency against the baht, I have no idea. All I will say is that over the years I have seen some currency movements and swings that can be huge.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Snowbird Calling, “Parallels“.
Quote of the week comes from the forums, “It’s pretty difficult to sell cheap sex in a country that is no longer cheap to visit.”
The strong baht is being blamed for what looks like it will be low occupancy rates in Chiang Mai hotels.
Is Thailand serious about reining in the strong baht?
I know photo essays aren’t the hit they once were so I hope you enjoyed this week’s opener all the same. I know I’ve featured Billboard a few times already to which the obvious question is why feature it again? Why not shoot somewhere new? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, the owners of Billboard and Butterflies are always very organised and the effort they make setting up the shoot means it’s inevitably a success. Sidenote: it’s the complete opposite almost everywhere else where the owners do little or even nothing to help. Besides, these are two of the very best bars at the moment – which means they are the bars you want to feature. If Crazy House or Bacarra invited us along for a shoot and had things similarly well-organised I’d be there in a flash. But they haven’t. The cynics will ask how much I billed Billboard for the advertorial but it’s not like that at all. It was my pleasure to shoot there and I didn’t receive a single baht. I do seem to recall drinking two bottles of water on the house though (my choice, something stronger was offered). If Billboard and Butterflies are still humming next year, I hope I get to do another shoot and feature there again.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]