Stickman's Weekly Column January 12th, 2020

Regrets Catching Up With Me?



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

A close friend flew in to Bangkok from the UK to hang out with me between Christmas and New Year. It was December, 2006. We each had a few days off from our respective jobs and would spend them in the bars of Bangkok and Pattaya. One day he asked me if I might look back on my time in Thailand and reflect on how much of it had been spent in / or writing about the bars. I don’t think he meant those words to have a profound effect on me, but they did.

I had to confront the truth. I was spending an inordinate amount of time in and around the bar industry. The people I was hanging out with were drinkers, bar owners and whoremongers. Many were in deep, and plenty were addicts.

I didn’t know it then, but that was roughly the half-way point of my stay as an expat in Thailand. I’d been living there a bit over 8½ years and wouldn’t leave for almost another 8½.

As I thought about what my friend had asked me, would I come to regret my time not just in the bars of Thailand, but my lengthy stay in the country?

In the end I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I have never thought regrets are particularly helpful. Own your actions and move on.

As I approach 5 years post Thailand, I still have plenty to do with the place. I still visit regularly and I am still doing Stickman.

This was never part of the plan and I found myself wondering, again, if I would come to regret it. Or maybe I already do regret it and am kidding myself about it?

I can’t deny that spending so long away from New Zealand came with opportunity costs, for the most part financial.

Not being on the real estate ladder meant missing out on potential financial gains that verged on life-changing.

After a little thought, I soon reached the conclusion that all that time spent in Thailand outweighed the cons. Asking “what if” questions is pointless because you can’t go back and change things.

Do the opportunity costs of such a long stay in Thailand continue to this day? Does one continue to be penalised for spending so long away, or more succinctly, staying in Thailand for so long? After all, it’s not the spending time away that is the problem – no-one would blink if you said you had spent 17 years in the United States, Australia, or England – it’s that it was Thailand.

If I was looking to work for someone, all that time in Thailand might raise eyebrows. I prefer to do my own thing rather than be in the employ of others so it’s not an issue. Just as well, because I think it could be a challenge to convince anyone in HR with half a brain that all that time in Thailand was beneficial.

Putting a positive spin on having chronicled Bangkok’s red-light areas and seedy underbelly for a decade and a half could be tough!

A few relatives passed away when I was in Thailand but we’re a bit of a funny family and don’t see that much of each other. So while it was sad to lose some family members, it wasn’t as hard as if I had spent a lot of time with them, or if it had been my parents who had passed away.

We got talking about this after the other half raised the troubled relationship of a Thai / farang couple we’re friendly with. We talked about how our respective lives would be if I had never gone to Thailand and she had never come to New Zealand.

And it’s impossible to say. There are just too many variables.

It caused me to think about where I find myself today, the path I have taken to get here, and just where I / we will be in the future.

Hindsight opens up the possibility for regret but it’s not like I regret my time in Thailand because I don’t. But dwelling on the past and hindsight does make you think.

I do wonder how my life would be different now if I hadn’t spent all that time in Thailand. And I have to admit that while I did things I could never have done at home, life today would be very different. Who knows, it might be better than it is now. And I just don’t know what to make of that.


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken of Artbox, the small night market in Chuwit Gardens next to Sukhumvit soi 10 that started out as a pop-up venue but then managed to gain a medium-term lease and has become a semi-permanent fixture on Sukhumvit.


Nana Plaza
 

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

Still enjoying Bangkok and Pattaya.

I just got back from two weeks in Pattaya and Bangkok. I had a great time: on the whole it was busy and things seemed to be going well, though of course we are all hurting with the exchange rate and it makes increasing sense to track down happy hours and cheaper bars (which I would never have thought about a few years ago). In terms of nightlife, it seems the good bars are really busy and the not so good bars fairly quiet. Bangkok has become increasingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated. It really is now a truly international city. Of course, this means that it has lost some of its old-world charm but that’s true of anywhere undergoing development. I’m sure most Thais want to see it become more developed. I think it would be a marvellous place to live or spend a few months a year, if you had a decent budget. It was a similar story in Pattaya where prices are lower, lots of people having a good time. I did enjoy Scooters on soi 6 – music, videos and girls all great and I had a couple of very good nights there. As for the alleged hordes of tourists from one country or another, I didn’t see a great deal of evidence of this (though the Japanese presence in Bangkok seems to be growing).

Impressions of the new bar area in soi 7.

I stopped in the new bar cluster at Sukhumvit Soi 7. It looks to be about 75% leased out and is gaining traction, probably more so once soi 22 shuts down. I talked to staff at three of the bars who told me the rents are astronomical and I doubt if businesses will be sustainable at current rents. The greedy developers have made a terrible mistake in my opinion. None of the bars have restrooms so you must use their 10-baht restroom which is guarded by a prison-style turnstile! That is such a turnoff I doubt I will spend much time there. Hopefully irritated customers will jam chewing gum or other foreign objects in the coin slot to make the restrooms inoperable. Maybe people pissing outside the restroom will give soi 7 the same ambience as soi 22, although I think cat pee smells much worse. Maybe the developers will replace the turnstiles with a little old lady collecting 3 baht per visit.

The taxi driver and the black woman.

I’ve never been abused by Thais, unless there was a genuine argument happening.  But I remember seeing a Thai taxi driver call a black woman over to his taxi – ‘Madam… Madam.’ His pronunciation was a bit weird. And as I got closer and saw his grin, I realised he was calling ‘หมาดำ… หมาดำ’ <Said as “maa-dum, maa-dum”, and translates as : “black dog, black dog”>. That was a bit of a shock. Fortunately, she didn’t understand Thai, but he was definitely aware of what he was doing.

When the mystery and excitement have gone.

The dropping numbers of Westerners is, in my opinion, because Thailand is no longer mysterious and exciting. It’s homogenised. McDonald’s and Starbucks are available everywhere. And whereas once, people went home amazed by what they’d seen and experienced, now the feeling is more, ‘Meh’. And certainly, the repeat visitors aren’t returning. Vietnam is more magical and interesting these days.

Chinese to Thailand like American package tour visitors to Mexico.

I had a thought about Chinese tourists in Thailand. I believe many countries have their own version of these types of people. In Canada (my homeland) and the US, bus-loads of tourists go on package trips to Mexico. They stay in resorts, get carted around the tourist traps, and learn nothing about the country. I could easily envision an Asian traveller in Mexico see the buses pull up and exclaim, “Ugh, the Americans are here.” Most of these people will never go to Thailand because there’s no way you would ever convince them to do 20 hours of air travel for a vacation. Not when all they want is the screensaver beach, a colourful drink, and to be waited on hand and foot. The package tourists from China in Thailand are very much the same. Thailand is their Mexico. If you brought a bus of Americans on their way to Cancun to the Kingdom, you could easily see them waddling behind a guy with a flag down Walking Street, terrified to go anywhere else.

An egalitarian approach needed.

You wrote, “As more young Thais – those aged below 40 – get in to positions of power in business and politics, I think we will see changes that will lay the foundations for a better Thailand.” To a great extent, I agree; but that’s only part of the story. As young, better educated and more worldly Thais come into power, I think that we’ll see an even greater bifurcation of Thailand than exists now. The government education system is inadequate. From teachers doting on more gifted students and ignoring those who are not as quick (in order to make their own teaching performance appear superior), to parents having to pay off principals to get their children into the better schools, to people teaching the world’s dominant language (English) who can’t speak it, to a culture that discourages students from asking questions in class because it implies that the teacher has done an inadequate job of explaining the material, the public (“government”) education system is terribly subpar. The young people you talk about, the ones who will lead Thailand into the future, will be those mostly urban Thais who have had the privilege of attending private schools, whose parents can afford it. The rest of the younger generation, i.e. nearly all of it, will remain mired in a societal, cultural and educational structure which prevents them from advancing. Thailand needs a more egalitarian approach to education, one which encourages and educates all students, gifted as well as average. This, in my opinion, is one of the keys to the country’s raising itself above third world status.


Demonia Bangkok
 

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Soi Cowboy 8:30 PM, one night this week. Photo kindly provided by reader Don.

 

Long-time reader Don sent the photo above of Soi Cowboy this week. An area can be busy one moment and quiet the next. Photos from the bar areas show plenty of customers about but the general consensus is that it’s not as busy as you’d expect for this time of year. There has been a lot of moaning and groaning that high season has been a flop so far for all but a small number of bars.

An advertiser on this site back in the day, I failed to mention that Crossbar, the British pub on Sukhumvit soi 23, closed some months ago. It was a funny old spot – perhaps the most authentic British pub on Sukhumvit, which you think would be a recipe for success – but it never really hit the big time. The guy who created Crossbar did a good job and for a time it had something of a following, a neighbourhood pub for those who worked and / or lived nearby. Food was decent, sports coverage was excellent and the chatty publican was actually there on the premises. Despite all of this, it struggled to gain traction. It changed hands a few years back but trade remained miserable and it never took off. The location, a few hundred metres past the action on soi 23, was almost certainly to blame. The space has been taken by a Lebanese restaurant. Let’s see if they can make things work in that spot.

The next Nanapong Dance Contest will coincide with the grand opening of a new gogo bar. Just what that new gogo bar is and where it is though, I am not 100% sure! I received a press release announcing that on February 1st a Nanapong Dance Contest will be held featuring girls from XXX Bangkok, XXX Pattaya, Dollhouse Bangkok and Beavers Pattaya. So I figure that XXX Pattaya must be the new bar…but exactly where it will be, I’m not sure. Somewhere on Walking Street, perhaps? More details as I have them.

From a bar owner in Patpong comes 5 words that are telling, “Patpong is tough right now.” High season has been flat on Sukhumvit and a total dud at Patpong. It’s more proof, as if it was needed, that Patpong has gone full circle and its appeal these days is largely with long-time expats.

 

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The Old English Pub in Thonglor has introduced a new buy 1 get 1 free deal on Wednesdays from 5 PM until closing. What stands out in their offer is that nothing is excluded, which makes it even more attractive. This is basically the same deal that my all-time favourite Bangkok pub, The Londoner, used to offer on Wednesday nights. And it was packed every Wednesday – absolutely packed – which is saying something because that bar was cavernous. If The Old English Pub can manage to recapture that old crowd, they’ll be on to a winner.

Down in Pattaya, Crystal Club on Soi LK Metro will throw a big staff party this coming Saturday, January 18th. There will be prizes for the girls including a motorbike and gold, with a total of 150,000 baht in prizes – and that will have the girls upbeat and ready to party. Free food and a pig will be roasted.

Things have definitely settled in to a pattern as far as nightlife goes in Pattaya. Soi LK Metro is the place for expats and Westerners in the know. Walking Street is where you find first-time visitors along with Chinese, Indians and Japanese.

And word from Pattaya is that high season is over already – that is if there even was a high season. One bar boss reckons the spike in trade lasted less than 2 weeks.


 

As the bar scene coughs and splutters like a car in serious need of a tune-up, could a large Pattaya bar group based in a certain infamous soi be the model for the future of the industry? The impression I get is that in the bars these days, the die-hards are there for the girls – and the sex. Few actually seem to care for the vibe in the bars these days and the bars aren’t seen as the place to hang out night after night as they used to be. But there are still guys who want to meet the girls in the bars because, for some strange reason, that’s the only place they know to find sex in Bangkok. So the business model would seem to be more about sex than drinking. With that in mind, it makes sense that what the punter wants is readily available and inexpensive. In Pattaya’s soi 6, that’s exactly what the Night Wish Group does. Gogo bars have their place but the impression I get is that bars with girls and rooms – which is not exactly legal – looks like it is the way of the future. Could Bangkok ever see something like the Night Wish Group set up? If anyone can replicate that in Bangkok they could really clean up. The Night Wish Group currently has 27 bars – does that make it the biggest bar group in Thailand?

Recent photos of former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra make him look rather similar to (an older) Jack Ma. You can really see the Chinese genes in Thaksin these days. Recent photo here.

Just a reminder that The Craic on Sukhumvit Soi 22, just down the alley from Titanium, has free hot dogs all weekend from 5:00 PM until late.

 

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For the Brits, a new Thailand-related docuseries starts tomorrow (Monday, January 13th) on Channel 5. Busted in Bangkok follows Thailand’s tourist police and the situations they face. More here.

Are Thais really xenophobic as some expats like to describe them, or is it more that they are more Thailand-centric?

The fellow I refer to as The Mad Professor has been featured in this column since 2013. A reader sent me an update of the fellow I have been fascinated by, and who continues to decorate the sidewalks, power poles and building walls of downtown Bangkok with unique scribblings, diagrams and equations only understood by himself. Under the trees near the Prakonong BTS and in front of the Starbucks is a favourite spot of his. A female security guard assigned to the area is very protective of him and tries to dissuade anyone from snapping shots of him. I guess my fascination with the guy is a throwback to the old days when Bangkok had a lot of more characters than today.

 

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The Mad Professor, near the Prakanong skytrain station. Photo kindly provided by reader Don.

 

Email after email has come in from friends and readers raving about ArtBox, the night market which has been set up in Chuwit Gardens for several months. One Bangkok resident says it’s the best place to hang out on Sukhumvit. Another has raved about the BBQ there. I have been through ArtBox a few times and to say it doesn’t appeal is something of an understatement. The concept certainly does appeal and I love the idea of being able to sit outside at night in the tropics and enjoy food and drink from a variety of vendors – and best of all it’s right in the heart of the farang zone. OK, so it probably didn’t help that when I was last in town it was the rainy season so ArtBox was often flooded and no fun at all. It would be MUCH better when the weather was good. It’s just not for me but hey, you might like it – so do check it out. I am definitely in a minority on this one.

While some things in Thailand have improved markedly over the years, some have not. One of those is labour conditions and the general conditions of employment. OK, so minimum pay rates and salaries have gone up across the board, but general work conditions still often aren’t great. Many still work a 6-day week and plenty work long hours each day, well beyond a standard 8-hour day with no compensation for the extra hours they put in. That said, despite the generally crummy conditions a lot of employees have to put up with, Thailand’s labour laws are very protective of the employee. I know, I probably sound like a hard-left-wing unionist with an accent from the northern UK – which I am anything but! It’s a shame to see so many in employment in Thailand treated so miserably.

 

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Quote of the week, “For Thais, there is no tomorrow.”

Reader’s story of the week comes from Tourist, “Statue (2)“.

Thailand has opened its first cannabis clinic.

A startled baby elephant gate-crashes a show in Thailand.

It looks like the truth is finally coming out over why the former head of the Thai Immigration Bureau was so abruptly relieved of his position last year.

A gunman robs a gold store in a Lopburi shopping mall, mowing down members of the public in cold blood, killing a few.

And a huge reward is being offered for information leading to the capture of the gold shop robber / murderer.

The air quality in Bangkok was dreadful this week, as is the norm at this time of year.

A drunk tourist is arrested for stealing a bottle of booze from 7 Eleven.

 

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Any regrets after leaving Thailand?

Following on from my opener, I’d love to hear from readers who spent a long time in Thailand, eventually left, and how you felt after you’d had a few years to reflect on it. Did you regret spending all that time in Thailand? One friend who left Thailand after 10 years as a naughty boy moved to the Philippines saying that he did regret spending so long in Thailand…and wished he had discovered the Philippines earlier. Another friend who spent 26 years in Thailand regretted taking so long to move back to Australia. He felt he had missed out on opportunities. If you left Thailand after living there for several years or more, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it all when you’ve had a few years to reflect on it with the benefit of hindsight.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]