Stickman's Weekly Column March 15th, 2020

The Bar Industry’s Darkest Hour



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Bangkok’s bar industry has faced numerous challenges over the past 15 years, but nothing like Covid-19. Trips to Thailand are being cancelled or postponed as fear spreads. No-one wants to contract the virus, and no-one wants to get stuck somewhere, caught out by ever-changing rules and border closures. Soon, the only customers in the bars will be expats. Can the bars survive?

The problem the bars face is simple. Fewer visitors to Thailand means fewer punters in the bars. That means less money being taken by the bar and fewer customers for the girls. And that’s a big problem because these girls aren’t in it for fun. If they’re not making money, they won’t stick around. Already, many have seen the writing on the wall and have left the bar. Not for another bar. They have gone home. They’ll return when things improve. But when might that be?

A friend whose wife runs an agency supplying a big-name, foreigner-run gogo had this to say, “There is obviously a bit of a panic in the coyote agency world as girls don’t want to come to work (which is understandable) and bars can no longer afford to pay the ones that do want to work. Many girls, unable to make ends meet, are returning home.”

For bars using agency girls, all it takes is a phone call to the agency and their daily expenses are slashed. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

It’s not just about the money – or lack of it – for the girls. Many have chosen to stop working for now because they’re genuinely scared of contracting the virus.

First there were fewer customers. That resulted in fewer girls. And now with fewer girls those punters who do make it to the bars find it quiet and less fun. It’s a vicious circle.

Bars popular with Asians have been feeling it for a few weeks and over the past couple of weeks, bars popular with Caucasians have been suffering too.

This month is shaping up to be really bad. April will be worse. May is usually the worst month of the year for visitor numbers. Things are dire now, in March, one of the better months of the year. Just how bad will they be in May?

With visitor numbers plummeting, will expats keep the bars going? Unlikely.

I’d be surprised if there aren’t widespread bar closures come the end of this month. I just don’t think it will be worth it for many owners to stay open beyond the end of March.

But perhaps the bar owners won’t have to make that decision themselves. It might just be made for them. The Health Minister commented yesterday that the government should consider closing pubs and bars as they are a fertile ground for spreading the virus. The authorities could order the likes of Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong closed. After 11 Thais were infected with the virus after a night out at a Thonglor pub earlier in the week, it’s the sort of knee-jerk reaction Thai politicians are known for.

But it’s not all bad news, and there is an upside for those in Thailand now. Girls are hungry. Some of the younger, prettier dancers who weren’t previously available are now open to offers. Word is that rates are very much negotiable.

A friend of a friend making the rounds in Pattaya says that right now it is the best he has seen it in at least 15 years. Far fewer customers around, and the girls are hungry.

At the same time, some girls are more picky. From the owners of Smooci, I hear that in recent weeks escorts have become much more selective about who they choose to meet. They will cancel a booking if they see a Chinese name or merely if the customer is staying in a hotel that is popular with Chinese.

Back to the bars, much of the problem is that rents in Bangkok are crazy high. Would landlords consider discounting rent for a period? And in the unlikely event that a landlord agreed, would it even be enough?

Back to the idea that bars will rely on expats to see them through their darkest hour, I’ll leave you with a thought. A regular reader emailed yesterday saying his Thai Mrs had threatened to leave him if he went out to the bars as he often does, like many Thais she is terrified of contracting Covid-19.

It could be months before Covid-19 is brought under control. What sort of economic carnage will it cause? How much longer can the bars stay open with trade so bad? And if bars close and remain closed for a while, will they ever reopen? Are there many bars resilient enough to survive this? Could the bar industry be reshaped forever? The bar industry is facing its darkest hour.


Billboard Bangkok

Mystery Photo

mystery-photo84

Last week’s photo was taken inside many expat’s least favourite place, the Government Complex at Chaeng Wattana where residents of Bangkok go to extend their visa and do other Immigration related stuff.


Nana Plaza
 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week. (Please note that due to the rapidly changing situation with the coronavirus, some of these emails may refer to numbers or situations that have rapidly changed.)

Tipping an outdated industry over the abyss.

Just a ‘silly virus‘? 16 million in lockdown in Italy, the virus spreading at a rate of knots through the rest of Europe. Experts saying that there will be no spare hospital beds in the US by May due to the system being completely overwhelmed. I appreciate the column but you’ve been wrong from the start about this ‘silly virus’. That was quite some desperation from bar owners and managers in the opening piece, wishful thinking from them all, almost delusional to be frank. The virus is just getting started. Revenue will end up falling in the region of 80 – 90% in the gogo bars. What’s rent in some bars? 1 million baht per month? I suppose the lessors will show some mercy if times get tough for all bars, but the lessors are probably leveraged to the hilt as well. These bars will be bleeding cash. Even if the bar is just a front, how long are they going to put up with those kinds of losses? This will tip an outdated industry over the abyss.

Survival of the fittest.

You often complain about the lack of creativity in many Thai businesses. A disruptive situation can force businesses to rethink what they are doing. Those who survive could come out stronger.

Still planning to travel.

As of now I’m still going to Thailand in 12 days time. I am keeping my eye on the latest events, and restrictions. As at today, March 8th, Australia has 75 confirmed cases as opposed to Thailand’s 50. I know of nobody cancelling or postponing trips to Australia. The second death they had in Sydney a few days ago was a 95-year old woman. No disrespect to her, but at 95 a cold cup of tea or a decent fart could have killed her. On this issue, the mainstream media have a lot to answer to.

To ban Italy, you need to ban the entire EU.

Your column showed a clear division between business owners in Thailand and those of us who visit. I feel I’ve betrayed them by postponing my flight. But the recent quarantining of travellers into Vietnam after a passenger was found to have symptoms suggests postponing a trip may be the wise choice. One point which I do find hilarious (dark humour) is the banning of Italians in some countries. As part of the EU / Schengen arrangements, all and sundry could enter the EU and then go to Italy without any passport stamps or evidence of visiting Italy. So a potential ban casts a net over the entire EU and associated countries or those with Schengen visas.

A quiet Bangkok is great.

I have been in Bangkok for almost 3 weeks and it has been a delight due to fewer people being about. I don’t want to gloat as I would much rather have things back to “normal“ but it has been nice being out and about with less traffic, crowds etc. I know someone who works in a hotel catering to the Chinese. The hotel went from near 100% occupancy for months to about 10% in a matter of a couple of weeks. They are forcing unpaid leave on staff. I tend to agree with the guys you interviewed. The main fear is uncertainty. We will see how it all plays out but I know those guys have skin in the game so I don’t know if they are totally unbiased or if they might be whistling past the graveyard.

The 370 baht lady drink.

A recent visit to Nana Plaza introduced me to the 370 baht lady drink at more than a few bars. When you ok a lady drink, they bring out a shooter and a Coke and list them as two drinks, at a total price of 370 baht. The total was pointed out to me after they brought the drinks, not before. Why anyone flies 8,000 miles and accepts this is beyond me.


Demonia Bangkok
 

Dismal. Dire. Dead. The three “D” words all describe bar trade in Bangkok this week.

Everyone entering Nana Plaza has to succumb to the temperature gun. But is the measuring of a punter’s temperature for real or is it, like the security checks on the likes of the skytrain and underground, all for show? I ask because a regular reader was told his temperature was measured at 32 degrees.

Just after last week’s column was published, both Mandarin bars in Nana Plaza closed. Business was so bad it simply wasn’t worth their while to continue. Mandarin is run by guys who know what they’re doing so if they were hurting, others bars are too.

Along with London Calling which closed a couple of weeks ago, that makes 3 bars in Nana Plaza empty. Geisha has long looked like it’s on the brink. You know things are bad when 3 gogo bars in Bangkok’s premier gogo bar area are closed and others are hurting.

There were rumours this week that London Calling may reopen after this weekend. I have not been able to verify whether it really will reopen as I don’t have any contact details for the (former?) owners.

Crazy House has consistently been one of the most popular chrome pole bars in Bangkok over the last few years. But like so many venues, it too is suffering. Usually it is pumping even mid-week, but not this week. A friend who stopped by says it was emptier than he has seen it in years with few dancers and even fewer customers. It was so quiet the second floor was closed.

The dynamic in the Thermae has changed. A stronghold for Asian men for many years, some nights there are very few Asian customers. Fewer customers means fewer girls – and even then, word is that many girls struggle to find a customer.

A close friend tells me that he is getting the old “Where you go?” when he walks past streetwalkers on Sukhumvit. This hasn’t happened much in recent years. The girls are hungry.

It has been suggested that if you are a well-rounded gentleman you might not be able to squeeze through the revolving steel bars to enter the toilet at the new bar area on Sukhumvit soi 7.

Another long-running once uber-popular Pattaya gogo bar closed this week. Last week Heaven Above called time and this week Living Dolls Showcase closed its doors for the last time. Friday marked the end of 17 years of fun on Walking Street. Living Dolls Showcase, like Heaven Above, could once claim to have been the best bar in town. Another one bites the dust. I hate to say it…..expect more to follow.

On Monday, Lollipop in Nana Plaza will launch a buy-1-get-1-free promotion. From 6 – 10 PM every night, it applies to all drinks except lady drinks.

 

lollipop-nana

 

Staff in all stores and restaurants in Terminal 21 must undergo compulsory temperature checks every day as shopping mall operators take steps to keep the coronavirus out. But that seems almost superfluous with word that the mall is dead as Thais stay away from places with lots of people.

There are announcements on the skytrain asking passengers to wear masks. The other half tells me that some Thais are posting online, unhappy at the number of foreigners – in this case read: Caucasians – who don’t wear masks in public places, particularly on the skytrain.

Travel restrictions are causing real problems. A friend who is resident in Bangkok visited Hong Kong for a few days this past week, at least he thought it would be just for just a few days. Ready to return to Bangkok, at Hong Kong Airport he was asked for a certificate saying he was free of coronavirus. It’s not like you can just go to any old corner clinic and get the man in the white coat to sign off on it in the same way you can get a dodgy medical certificate at many clinics in Bangkok. He did eventually manage to get back to Bangkok but it was a right pain. Things are moving so fast with rules changing daily – sometimes more than once in the same day – as the Thai authorities flip-flop on rules that determine whether people can travel to the country or not. It’s impossible to plan for what might come.

Remember Dan, the British expat operating SaigonExpatServices who I did a Q&A with in in the column a few weeks ago? Dan sent me an email with important info for anyone planning to visit Vietnam:

The Vietnamese have cancelled all visas from the EU and Britain. The hysteria here has turned from China and is now focusing on EU. The Viets are savaging Westerners online. It all comes down to a Hanoi socialite who came back from London and infected people traveling from London to Hanoi. If Westerners want to travel to Vietnam then they should check before they come as most visas have been cancelled.

 

scruffy-murphy-st-patrick-day-bangkok

 

I note that just yesterday Cambodia announced it was banning entry to Westerners from 5 countries, including Americans. The ban will last for 30 days – but don’t be surprised if it’s extended and neither should you be surprised to see more countries added to the list. Funny that China with all its Covid-19 cases is not on the list….

It looks like Thailand could do to European countries what some Western countries have done to China – and prevent people from that part of the world from entering. As Covid-19 infection rates in Western Europe soar, Thailand has put in place rules where those from certain countries in Europe may have to self-isolate for 14 days. At this stage they’re not enforcing this rule, but every day they add more countries to the list. One imagines that at some point it will be enforced, at which point it will be chaos.

On the subject of travel restrictions, it’s not just the restrictions Thailand placed on people by their homeland. Take my country, New Zealand, for example. Yesterday our Prime Minister announced that ALL international arrivals (including New Zealanders) have to self-isolate for 14 days. It has essentially killed inbound tourism and will drastically reduce the number of Kiwis going overseas. It’s not quite as drastic as closing the border but the effect is very similar. I note that across the Tasman, our Aussie friends have been urged against all but essential international travel and I guess many other countries will have similar policies in place if they don’t already. If you’re still keen to visit Thailand, you have to consider not just what is happening in Thailand, but also any countries you may transit through as well as your own country. There’s so much to think about.

 

asoke-bts

The Asoke BTS at midday on Saturday is usually thronging with people. Not this week. Photo credits: reader Jo.

 

I thought there might be an exodus of expats from Thailand but at this stage I am aware of just one expat who has left Thailand specifically because of this virus. He has returned to Australia and plans to sit it out there for as long as it takes.

Leaving Thailand via an airport should be a breeze. Arriving might be a different story. Some say that those from certain countries need to go through a health check and have their temperature checked while others say that everyone does. Just what the situation is, I don’t know. Word from some who have been through put wait times for the health check at 15 minutes. Another friend who flew in from Singapore said it was a 2-hour wait. The bottleneck seems to be at the “thermoscan”.

And to really complicate things for anyone flying in to Thailand, mid-week it was announced that every arrival had to install the AOT app on their mobile phone which allows Thai Immigration to GPS track you while you’re in the country. What that means for people who don’t have a smartphone, I have no idea. But since that was announced there hasn’t been anything more said and there are no reports of anyone being told to install it. Everything is moving so fast and changing not just by the day but by the hour.

 

bangkok-arrival-march-2020

The queues at arrivals this week. Bangkok hardly looks quiet, does it?! Photo credits: a reader.

 

I don’t want to bash on about the coronavirus and why I personally won’t visit Thailand at this time but one concern would be showing a high temperature at the airport. If that happens, you are sent for testing and if necessary, treatment – and once treated you will be presented with a bill. We never used to bat an eye-lid at hospital bills in Thailand in the past – but that was the past. They are not the trivial amounts they once were. In a worst case scenario where you tested positive for Covid-19, it was serious and you required treatment in ICU, you could get a bill running in to hundreds of thousands of baht – a million baht is not out of the question. ICU treatment in Thailand is very expensive. It costs 2,500 baht up to get tested for Covid-19 with a wide range in prices from hospital to hospital. One major hospital advertises the test for 25,000 baht. After being on a plane for so long I often arrive in Thailand feeling knackered. Maybe you catch a cough or sniffle on the plane. Maybe you are a little run down and develop a fever, you get picked up at the thermoscan and off to hospital you go and your credit card is about to get a beating. I really don’t like the sound of that!

Speaking about having your temperature taken, what happens if you return to your condo and Somchai the security guard tests your temperature, says it’s high and you can’t enter the building? Security all over Bangkok are checking temperature before people are allowed to enter. And yes, people are being turned away in many cases. Probably Somchai the security guard doesn’t have the power to prevent you from entering a condo where you rent or own the unit, but who knows?!

 

fitzgeralds-st-paddy

 

Part of the appeal of visiting Thailand – and other places in South-East Asia – is the relatively low cost of (clean) massage. But with Covid-19, dare you get a massage at this time? There has to be a risk. Take massage out of the equation, and it’s another reason to hold off visiting Thailand for a while.

A friend resident in Bangkok told me that this week he had received a message from the Thai bank with which he has a credit card, and currently a not inconsiderable outstanding balance. The bank offered to suspend minimum payments until December meaning he only has to pay the interest and does not have to meet the minimum payment. Is the bank trying to get in front of what could be a real problem, as the consumer debt mountain starts to go bad?

A good example of how fast things are moving is an online advert from Thai Airways this week promoting the Full Moon Party. A full week earlier it had been announced that the Full Moon party was cancelled.

vitamin-iv-booster

 

It’s going to be a tough few months for the economy but someone forgot to tell the Thai baht. Have all thoughts of the Thai baht retreating been abandoned? Brits, Aussies and Kiwis saw their respective currencies go backwards fast against the baht this week. Brits are back to less than 40 to the pound and Aussies will struggle to find a bank that will give them 20 baht to the Aussie dollar.

While trade is down in a lot of businesses, there are some exceptions. A friend whose restaurants are tied in with a few food delivery companies says deliveries have skyrocketed, so much so that he said he feels like he is printing money. For eateries that have not signed up with food delivery companies, do it now! And it’s not just Covid-19 which has seen food delivery orders soar – it’s been like this since the start of the year when the pollution in Bangkok got really bad.

There’s all sorts of confusion about misinformation out there at the moment so it pays to get your news from multiple sources, compare them and wherever possible, try and talk to people on the ground. I have found the most reliable news source on what is happening in Thailand to be on TV and the morning news on Channel 3. News in the print media is out of date by the time the paper is printed and online there is just so much to sift through. Richard Barrow has been doing a great job outlining what is happening in Thailand, covering rule changes, travel restrictions and whatnot.


 

Quote of the week comes from Stickboy, “Covid-19 threatens to kill off more bars than people.”

Reader’s story of the week comes from Training Day, “Short Time, Long Time, Good Time“.

The Songkran water fight celebration at Khao San Road has been cancelled due to the virus.

February visitor arrivals in Thailand drop 44% compared with the same month last year.

Kassikornbank closes all foreign exchange booths in Thailand.

You have to pay for your own medical treatment if you suffer coronavirus issues in Thailand – neither the Thai government (nor, I expect, insurance) will bail you out.

A Thai Airways A330 crashed in to $60 million Gulfstream at Vientiane Airport.

At Victory Monument, a Thai man spraying commuters with some unknown chemical which he claimed would kill the virus has been told to cease immediately.

A mass monkey brawl highlights the coronavirus effect on tourism in Thailand.

An illegal street vendor is confronted after selling face masks at inflated prices.

Foreign nationals from 5 Western countries, including America, are banned from entering Cambodia for the next 30 days.

Some big name Bangkok bars are to close temporarily over Covid-19 concerns.

 

batman

With no plans to visit Thailand at the moment, this is the only pussy I’ll be seeing.

This week’s column was more difficult to write than usual. Not because of a lack of things going on or stuff to comment on, but because everything is moving so fast. At times it felt like my head was spinning. From the Covid-19 numbers in Europe soaring (which, yes, does relate to tourism in Thailand), to the Thai government’s horribly confusing flip-flopping on visa rules and restrictions, to trying to verify what people were telling me was happening on the ground, to the worries that New Zealand will soon be in lockdown, everything changes so fast. I’ll sign off this column with a few brief thoughts about the idea of visiting Thailand at this time. There’s probably a very small window to take a trip to Thailand – or to take a trip anywhere, for that matter. I have not changed my mind and I won’t be going anywhere any time soon. But if you fancy a trip to Thailand, you might want to make it quick because you get the impression that borders are going to close fast – and within a week or two flights are going to be cancelled all over. I admire those of you brave enough to travel internationally at this time. Your gonads are much bigger than mine.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]