There is nothing like the buzz of a new bar area. New bar areas bring anticipation and excitement to the bar industry in a way that even the best existing bars do not. What the bar biz in Bangkok needs more than anything is a new bar area, not because there’s anything wrong with the existing ones, but because a new bar area creates a buzz and gets punters out and about.
It is no exaggeration to say that throughout the ‘00s a new bar area started up at least every other year. It was somewhere new to hang out, another playground so to speak.
For the best part of the last decade there has been little in the way of new bar areas opening up. Sadly things seem to have gone the other way with some bar areas closing.
Clinton Plaza is known to many who have been around since the late ’90s. Old-timers remember Soi Zero, known as Buckskin Joe’s and some other names. And let’s not forget Washington Square. They came, they delighted us, and then they disappeared.
In 1999 Clinton Plaza came to life, a real bar area with many genuinely good bars worth going out of your way for. Clinton Plaza was home to the original Dollhouse. “LA Larry” opened up a Bangkok branch of Rock Hard – at the time the best gogo bar in Phuket and well-known to Bangkok expats and travelling naughty boys. There was Flowers, Whitehouse and a couple of other large gogo bars, all of which had a full complement of dancers. At its peak, Clinton Plaza was home to more than 20 bars of one description or another. From the very first bar opening its doors until the forced closure of the last bar to hold out, Clinton Plaza lasted the best part of 4 years or so. Clinton Plaza wasn’t just a new bar area to check out, it became a destination in its own right.
Sukhumvit Square followed, the ramshackle village of bars and in huts on the plot that is now Chuwit Park. When that area was decimated late one night in early 2003, over 50 bars (that’s about as many as Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza combined) were destroyed.
Ok, so Sukhumvit Square was hardly a destination. It had, as I recall, many small bars with very average facilities. But it was another place to go, another choice for a night out.
And then there was Asoke Corner, yet another ramshackle bar area set up right on the prime real estate where Citibank stands today. It’s hard to imagine now that just a decade and a half ago that area was a gravel pit that felt more like a far-flung rural village than a downtown Bangkok bar area. A couple of dozen low-end bars operated out of basic huts. Asoke Corner was where the first branch of Lolita’s was located. From that derelict bar area the country’s most famous chain of blowjob bars was born.
Asoke Corner lasted a few years. My strongest memory of Asoke Corner is one night back in the second half of 2001 when I noticed that many punters had left one bar and were all perched in a bar that had a TV. When I later walked past I saw a tall building burning and wondered why it looked like they were all watching a modern-day remake of Towering Inferno…
There were other areas too, like the multi-storey bar area on the main Sukhumvit Road near soi 2 whose name escapes me, and the cluster of bars on soi 7 which were all torn down some years ago. It isn’t that long ago that New Wave and Biergarten were hopping.
While the odd new bar pops up here or there, it’s tough for a standalone bar off the beaten path to become a destination. A new bar area on the other hand means a choice of bars to checkout and a new bar almost immediately becomes a destination.
New bar areas means new bar operators, new players in the industry and what the industry needs – new ideas. Things can and do get stale. New blood brings new ideas.
The number of bar areas to venture out to has been whittled down over the years as has the number of bar owners and operators. In terms of the style of bars and the vibe, there’s less variety these days. The vibe may vary across each of the three major bar areas, but they’re not that different. Most are variants of the same model.
That real estate values have gone gangbusters in Bangkok means the odds of any new bar areas opening up on prime Sukhumvit aren’t great. And the reality is that a new bar area really needs to be on Sukhumvit – many punters act as if venturing away from Sukhumvit requires applying for a visa.
Nana has been upgraded and the premises much improved. Patpong is experiencing a renaissance. Soi Cowboy, I hate to say it, feels a little stale. There’s nothing like a new bar area to get punters excited and give the industry some spark, And new bars are competition which means existing bars have to stay on top of their game. Is there any chance we might see a new bar area open any time soon?
Last week’s photo was taken of the wall near the Tha Phra Chan ferry stop on the Chao Praya River, out by the main Thammasat University campus. Only a few readers got it right.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Land banking at Nana
In a former life I worked in corporate real estate so I suspect the reason Thai land owners are not developing those prime Sukhumvit plots is simply that they are land banking and waiting for the right buyer who will pay a silly price to come along. They might be trying to buy neighbouring plots to increase its value. Real estate has always been a long-term game so they may be willing to wait out another cycle to cash in. As more international hotels move in to Nana and it becomes increasingly gentrified, values will rise.
The changing naughty boy environment in Pattaya.
I wonder if we’re seeing a structural permanent change in tourist demographics. If Pattaya is configured around the western man / beer bar / gogo model and that is going down the toilet fast with the high baht then it’s going to have to change radically to survive. Those ladies on Tinder may be the future for the naughty boy as he sits by the hotel pool swiping left or right and saving himself thousands of baht in lady drinks, barfines and over-priced drinks. On the other hand, from what I’ve observed in Pattaya this is a market for guys who simply want the company of women irrespective of looks, to have a few laughs with and feel alive. It’s a pity that they may not be able to afford that experience any longer.
I had to laugh out loud when I saw the photo you posted of the Pussy Bar sign in Pattaya. I visited in 2016 and popped into the Pussy Bar for a beer. Ironically, there wasn’t one pussy in the place! Yep, at least at that time, it was all transgenders. I will say that the staff was very friendly and helpful and I actually enjoyed my time chatting with them there. Thanks for reminding me of that fun time.
Quite a few a gogos do / did decent business when they leave decency aside. Only way to make money when they lack everything else?
(Lack of) queues at Immigration a sign of the times.
The 3rd person I know this week has been for a 30-day tourist visa extension at Chaeng Wattana and there was zero queue. Each of them was in and out. I appreciate that’s not enough data to draw conclusions but I’d bet it’s the distinct lack of farangs here now.
Comparing Thailand with Guam and Osaka.
I just came back from a trip to Japan and Guam. Hotel rooms are cheaper In Thailand. Restaurants and food are cheaper in Osaka and Guam where, for example, a huge steak was only 1,200 baht. Starbucks was cheaper in Osaka and a 5-star hotel buffet including alcohol was 1,800 baht. Guam was cheaper for food and beverage too. Thailand is cheaper for 2 things – condos and taxis (or Grab).
Cop stop, soi 39
I was stopped and checked again this week by the police in almost the same place as where I was stopped last time, on Sukhumvit soi 39. It was 10 AM and I was walking to the gym when a group of cops asked if they could check my bag and my wallet. It was not an official checkpoint; they were just parked up there. They also asked for my passport, and they checked my visa (which was a first). The cops were polite, even if they were obviously hoping to find drugs on me. I am glad I did not forget my passport that day as I never usually have it with me when I go to the gym. Obviously, they stopped me because I was a foreigner. This time I did not feel unsafe, and the stop was quick. The cop even asked to take a selfie together.
Pattaya over Bangkok.
I spent Monday night at Cowboy and Nana, and Tuesday and Wednesday night at Pattaya, mostly on Soi 6. They are all slow nights, and this is low season, but I would have to give the good vibe to Pattaya. I have not been to Pattaya in 6 years but it sure has livened up and reminds me of Cowboy 10 years ago. Why? The prices. Beers at 69 baht all night, barfines at 300 baht and short-time at 1,000 baht which includes the room above the bar. The price of a hotel room is also much more budget-friendly. Most importantly, the girls are way more friendly with their phones tucked away and shouts of, ‘Handsome man, you buy me drink’ bringing back memories of the past. The weather is cooler, the pollution absent, and the mood ‘resort-like’. I may have to change my saying, ‘If you can’t have fun in Bangkok, there is something seriously wrong with you!‘ to, ‘If you can’t have fun in Pattaya …‘.
Rip-offs driving customers away.
For me, the bars have changed. I feel it’s only about drinks nowadays. I was at a small bar in Cowboy where a girl I have known for about 2 years had some drinks with me. She had vodka and juice. That way each drink is actually 2 lady drinks – 1 vodka and 1 juice. I had 2 beers while she racked up 12 lady drinks and I usually drink beer fast. I explained how stupid that was because it would be the last drinks she ever got from me. Some years back in a big Soi Nana beer bar I was playing pool at lunchtime with 2 or 3 ladies. Once I played with 4 and we all had a lot of drinks. No problem, I have had bills of more than 8,000 baht before. When I was about to leave, they tried to get one more round in, but I said no. I wanted to leave and get some food. I got the bill and I paid. Just before I was about to leave, all the girls got 1 more drink. I asked if that was on my bill, and they all went quiet. That was the last lady drink I bought in that bar, morning or night. I know it’s tough but if they keep cheating customers they should not be surprised when no-one comes. Before, there was always a new customer to cheat, but that’s not the case these days. I don’t see beer bars filled with the so-called “high-spending Chinese”, even though the government talks about Chinese tourists coming and spending more than Westerners. Another thing I experienced recently was that not only should I pay for a barfine, but also the “fee” for the girl upfront to the mamasan. This happened in a Nana Plaza gogo bar when trying to barfine a girl. “So please pay 3,800 now”, I was told. Not that I mind paying her 3,000 baht, that’s totally ok, but paying the mamasan upfront makes me worry whether the girl actually gets the full amount. And upfront is always a red flag. I don’t see younger people going to the gogo bars. Some friends book girls on apps like Tinder or Smooci. Things are changing.
The very smart-looking The Oasis opened this week on Soi Cowboy. It’s the pub run by the Stumble Inn Group that replaces one of the infamous Arab’s old bars. I have not stepped inside yet – obviously – but it does look nice, doesn’t it? And for what it’s worth, I think the idea of an open-fronted bar where you can watch the show on the soi is what Soi Cowboy was screaming out for. Apparently there was a decent crowd in last night who watched South Africa’s glorious victory over England in the Rugby World Cup final.
Many bars have had a lift from the Rugby World Cup with some bars packed to the rafters for the big games which it is hoped provided something of a springboard in to high season. On that note, Thanksgiving is just a couple of weeks away and you can pretty much guarantee good weather from then onwards, through the high season and all the way until late February. Bar owners are getting excited as high season isn’t far away.
From a friend who did the rounds at Patpong on Halloween night, it was a case of all or nothing. Some bars were doing good trade while others were completely dead.
At Nana Plaza, the Beer Garden has erected a frame around their courtyard area. What is it for? Fans, lights, something else?
The bar manager merry-go-round continues with the old boss of the Aussie Pub now at the helm of the newly-opened Oasis on Soi Cowboy and the former Mulli’s manager now in charge of duties at The Clubhouse on Soi 23.
I note that many of the new videos taken in Nana Plaza and uploaded to YouTube are by those who aren’t Caucasian. It’s a sign of the times.
Hillary 1 and Hillary 2 in Soi Nana will host a party to celebrate Loy Krathong next Monday, November 11th, with ladies decked out in traditional Thai dress. This is for my money the best night of the year in the bars so if you only go out once a year, make it Loy Krathong.
For quite some time Patpong had the reputation as a rip-off bar area and it was one reason why some avoided the area. Things were so bad that a Tourist Police van was parked up each night at the Silom Road end of Patpong soi 1 – and word is officers were kept busy. Most scam victims were ripped off in one of the upstairs bars that presented punters with a bill for the show of several thousand baht. That’s part of the reason Nana Plaza was the preferred bar area for naughty boys at that time. I’m hearing word that another bar area is getting a reputation amongst some expats for rip-offs. It’s only happening in a few bars but there’s enough of a pattern that it has people talking. An expat friend of mine was out this week and his group went to a bunch of bars in Soi Cowboy. There were rip-offs or attempted rip-offs in three different bars (all with different owners – two farang-owned, one Thai-owned). Let’s just say that you should keep an eye on your bill and look out for what a friend termed invisible drinks i.e. bills for drinks that were never ordered. Rip-offs and scamming become insidious when times are tough – so keep an eye on your bill.
Pattaya may be preferred by some to Bangkok due to lower prices, while Phuket is even more expensive again. Word is that barfines on Phuket’s bar strip, Bangla Road, run around 1,000 baht, pricey for a beer bar. If you’re on a budget, you might instead like to check out Hua Hin which might be cheaper than Pattaya. Apparently the standard barfine in some beer bars is more like 300 baht, which is much more wallet-friendly.
I had an enjoyable night out last month at BarSu on the ground floor bar at the Sheraton Grande, between Sukhumvit sois 12 and 14. They have various specials so despite it being a 5-star hotel, it needn’t be an expensive evening. What was once something of a freelancer venue was full of families and couples the night we were there with not one obvious working girl in sight. It’s a nice vibe when you want a degree of normality and decorum.
Popular app / website Smooci will launch in 3 new locations over the next 2 weeks – Angeles City and Cebu in the Philippines, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. There are also plans to launch in Vietnam and Indonesia in late November / early December. Smooci will introduce an exclusive discount for all premium member bookings made in Southeast Asia. The premium discounts should be in place this coming week. One of the great things about Smooci is that becoming a premium member won’t break the bank and you can sign up for a very short period i.e. the period of your holiday – and being a premium member allows you to take advantage of the discounts. For example, a 3-day membership package is just $9.99 (about 300 baht) and then all bookings get a discount meaning a member can save more in discounts than the negligible cost of the premium membership. Such a reasonable price for a premium membership gives you a chance to try before you buy, so to speak.
From an old friend who now calls Angeles City home comes a few titbits from the ground. Most gogo bars have advertisements posted looking for new girls, while at the same time a lot of bars are advertised for sale. Bars keen to get more girls while also being on the market makes it sound like business isn’t great. My correspondent made the point that any bar anywhere can be bought if the offer is high enough, but he hasn’t seen so many bars offered for sale before. Crystal Palace, which is – or is that was – one of the biggest bars in Angeles City, closed last month.
What’s worse than being in a smoky bar if you’re a non-smoker? Could it be being in a bar where the volume of the music is too loud or as I like to call it Bangkok loud? Music being played super loud used to be a big problem in Bangkok but is less of an issue these days. It might just be one area where bars have improved. Or maybe with age my hearing isn’t what it was and the music doesn’t seem that loud when it still is?!
Want a business idea that I think would work on Sukhumvit and could be a decent earner? This one is revolutionary…..brace yourself….open a Thai food restaurant! There is demand on prime Sukhumvit between Asoke and Nana for decent Thai food at reasonable prices. Yeah, I know, what a crazy idea, suggesting Thai food as a business idea in downtown Bangkok. The reality is that there are many very average Thai restaurants in the area charging way too much for food that is a great let-down and often no better – and sometimes worse – than what you get in shopping mall food halls. The area is crying out for decent Thai food restaurants with pleasant surroundings and fair prices.
Does the food truck concept work in Bangkok? I saw a number operating when I was in town and all seemed to be struggling. That’s not to say that there aren’t some doing a thriving business but those I saw were all quiet. I guess this shouldn’t be any great surprise given Bangkok’s street food scene and the fact that there isn’t the demand for food trucks as there might be in places where street food isn’t common.
The skytrain system used to be so easy to navigate with just two lines: the Silom line and the Sukhumvit line. Then the underground came along and it was still easy, with the two aforementioned lines and the underground. That has all changed and these days it’s hard to get your head around with different people using different terms when talking about Bangkok’s electric trains. Some people like me still use the old terminology. But there are new lines, and the original lines have been extended, some multiple times. Bangkok’s mass transit network map is starting to look more like that of a long-established European capital. It gets confusing with a new colour system used to identify each line. OK, so that’s a tried and tested system, but why oh why is there a dark green line and a light green line when there are so many other colours they could have used which would make things much less confusing?!
Quote of the week comes from Dave The Rave who was telling me this week about the decision to move away from Soi Nana, “After 21 years living on Soi Nana I am still treated like a naive newbie by Thais on the soi.”
Police arrested an Aussie gang member wanted for drugs charges back in Australia.
A team of gogo dancers from Pattaya bar Hidden A Gogo complain to police that they had not been paid by their foreign employer.
An inquest was held in the UK in to the death of a former army officer who was killed by a security guard in a Pattaya gogo bar.
The cave made famous after a young Thai football team was trapped before being rescued was opened up to tourists this week.
The big story in Thailand this week was of Mae-manee, a 28-year old Thai woman who made hundreds of millions of baht in a Ponzi scheme with a few thousand victims.
A drug-dealing fugitive from the UK was arrested in Pattaya this week.
A local man was arrested for the alleged axe attack on a German tourist in Ko Samui this week.
I’ve given Soi Cowboy a bit of a hard time these past couple of months. I have commented on how the vibe has changed, and also how some expats who used to prefer Cowboy now much prefer Nana and avoid Cowboy completely. I commented that some Cowboy bars have seen staff venture up the road as they chase the promise of more money and in this week’s column I wrote about the experience of a friend who hit 3 bars in Soi Cowboy and how in each of those bars there was an attempted rip-off. To be clear, I have no agenda when it comes to Cowboy and neither am I trying to talk up any other bar areas. The comments are simply a combination of what I saw and experienced when I was in town, along with what I am hearing now. Bar areas go through cycles and nowhere stays on top, or at the bottom, forever.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]