The Bar Industry, Post Covid-19
Bangkok’s bar areas remain in darkness. The girls have scattered to all corners of the Kingdom, and loyal customers are now thousands of kilometres away, trapped in Farangland. As theories circulate about the future of the bar industry, I thought I’d throw a few thoughts out there on how things might look like when the lights come back on.
The customer base of the bars is loosely made up of Thailand-based expats and naughty boy visitors from abroad. Mainstream visitors add to the numbers but in terms of the big picture, they are insignificant. When visitor numbers to Thailand plummeted in early March shortly before travel restrictions were introduced, most customers in the bars were expats. Trade was so bad that some bars closed voluntarily before the official closure order came. Some bars learned the hard way that they cannot survive on expat trade alone. Bars need both expats and visitors to survive, let alone thrive.
When will foreign visitors be back? With millions being laid off and now out of work, many won’t have the money to travel. On the other hand, Thailand attracts many retired guys who have already made their money. Many of those who visit year after year have money.
If my email inbox is anything to go by, there is pent up desire amongst many to get back to Thailand. Visitor numbers will be down, but to what extent?
The Travel Industry & Border Controls / Travel Restrictions
I don’t expect to get on a plane this year. That’s not to say I don’t want to because I do. But I don’t think I will be able to. All over the world, border restrictions have made international travel anything from unpalatable to impossible. You have to consider the restrictions in your own country and in Thailand.
At present, no-one can fly in to Thailand – not even Thai nationals. No incoming passenger flights are allowed until the end of this month and prior to this, the only foreigners allowed to enter Thailand were those with a work permit. Thailand is closed to visitors.
No country is going to reopen its borders as long as there is a Covid-19 risk. Who knows when international flight schedules will return to some sort of normalcy. Until that happens, visitor numbers will be well down – and that’s a big problem for the bars.
To make matters worse, I imagine flights are going to be expensive when they resume. Will I see the $NZ1,000 (20,000 Thai baht) return fare I had become used to on Thai Airways? I’m not holding my breath.
My feeling is that travel restrictions pose the biggest risk to the bar industry. It could be quite some time before we can travel again. How long can bars survive on expat trade alone? Not long, I would suggest.
The Bars & The Bar Owners
I’m not exaggerating when I say some bar areas are going to look rather different when the lights come back on. It’s a month since bars were ordered closed and already some big name bars have called it quits, including some very big names this past week.
Before the bars were ordered closed, Mandarin in Nana Plaza announced it would close temporarily. London Calling in Nana Plaza had also closed.
Last week Titanium in Sukhumvit soi 22 announced that it would not reopen. Hardly industry-changing, but what happened next could be…
This week the rumour did the rounds that the Rainbow bars in Nana Plaza had called it a day on their time in the industry. First it was said all of the Rainbow bars, then just 1 and 3. Exactly what the story is, I have been unable to confirm but for sure, the future of some of the Rainbow bars is up in the air.
I am cynical about whether Mandarin will reopen. Including Mandarin, London Calling, and possibly some of the Rainbow bars, that’s a good few bars which won’t reopen.
No-one knows when bars will be allowed to open. With all of this uncertainty, bars are basically now worth zero. The halcyon days of 10 – 15 years ago when big Nana Plaza bars changed hands for well over $1 million are long gone.
There is so much uncertainty for bar owners. Walking away would be really easy…
Landlords understand the current situation. They have a decent understanding of the bar industry, and they know how uncertain the future is. How much leeway will they give leasees? Will they be willing to offer deferred rent payments? A rent holiday? Thai landlords aren’t known for being easy to work with.
Landlords are in the business of renting property and not in the bar business per se. If some bar owners walk away, landlords face a quandary. The only businesses willing to lease space in a bar area is a new bar – but if the industry is struggling will anyone be keen to start a new bar? If a new leasee cannot be found, the space could remain vacant for a long time. No landlord will be ok with that.
Bars have been keen to lock in long leases and secure their future. Some bars have leases valid for several years. If some bars remain open while other bars walk away leaving space vacant – and the landlord is unable to lease out that space, what then? Funny things happen in Thailand when landlords want to take back control of their property.
Where have all the bargirls gone?
Some girls have returned upcountry to the family home. No doubt some are trying their luck online on the likes of Smooci and ThaiFriendly.
Will the girls return to the bars when they reopen? While the bars need the girls, how much demand will there be with fewer customers about? Will the girls be willing to return to work if trade is poor? Would they be willing to accept much lower salaries?
What about the agencies which supplied girls to the bars? Most agencies are but a Thai lady with a list of names and phone numbers. An agency is viable when the country has full employment and bars cannot recruit, but that is no longer the case. This would be a great chance for the bars to cut out the agents altogether.
Some readers tell me they expect an influx of girls new to the industry, as millions of Thais have lost their jobs. There may be a few girls new to the industry, but I suspect it will be more like a slow trickle. The simple reason is that a Thai woman who is out of work, desperate for money and willing to sell her body will, in most cases, prefer to sell to Thai men. It’s easier and the format is preferable (no dancing in bikini necessary).
Naughty boys love to remind us that it’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason – no matter what is happening in the world, the industry prevails. That might be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean things will go back to the way they were.
Many bars have been struggling for a long time and a thinning out of bar numbers would not be a bad thing. It would, however, bring with it a whole new set of complications. Fewer bars may not be able to support 3 major bar areas.
The future of the bar industry in the short term is less about what happens in Bangkok, and more about when Westerners can resume traveling without restrictions and get back to Thailand. The bars cannot survive on expat trade alone.
When will Westerners return to Thailand? Will they return in the same numbers? Will landlords give the bars a break on rent long enough for them to keep their doors open until the masses return? So many questions, and so much uncertainty. This really is the bar industry’s darkest hour.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Tribute to Dave The Rave.
A few years ago a friend and I went to Angelwitch. We were only 30 years old, which meant we were much younger than the other customers. We really loved the place, the music etc. My friend got really drunk and kept buying lady drinks for one of the dancers. Dave came to us and said, “Barfine her or leave the bar because you are spending too much on her.” My friend could not barfine her so we left. It was nice of Dave to give us such frank advice. While other bars would have let us spend our money, Dave was actually talking care of customers. Dave was a nice guy.
Unknowingly spreading the virus.
I fear that the temperature-taking guards in the lobbies of buildings will themselves unknowingly spread the virus to the people they screen simply because the guards get close to hundreds of people per day. And the guards invariably utter “okay” after checking your temperature – thereby giving them a perfect chance to spit on you. They and I wear masks, but still…
Crap service from Thai Airways.
We bought 3 tickets return to Denmark on Thai Airways, but we had to cancel and request a refund due to Covid-19. They told us 45 days. Then we called a few days later as we hadn’t received any written confirmation. This time they told us 180 days before the money is returned. And now, 2 weeks later, we still don’t have any written confirmation and it’s impossible to get through by phone.
Pattaya gogo bars, 50 : 50?
People I’ve been talking to here in Pattaya and know the bar business are guessing 50% of the gogo bars will never reopen. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
I hope you continue to report on the shift from Thailand to Vietnam. I suspect many will opt not to move, primarily because there‘s really no mai pen rai in Vietnam. The expats who do make the move will probably be those with active business skills and mid-to-higher level teachers. My impression of Vietnam is that it’s a hard-working, entrepreneurial culture. The stereotypical Bangkok expat bogan who drinks away each afternoon and then looks for women to party with at night probably won‘t be all that welcome, and will surely be less successful with the ladies. And the Vietnamese women are unlikely to put up with a typical Thailand expat loafer. Thailand is home to a large non-Thai criminal element so if a good chunk of hard-working businessman and well-qualified teacher expats move from Thailand to Vietnam, what kind of expat does that leave in Thailand?
Not everyone has enough to eat.
It’s a furphy that no-one starves in Thailand. That is more true of the rural sector where the poor have easier access to communal food stocks or can rely on traditional community / family support networks (which are inherently designed to stretch scarce resources over long periods). It’s less true in urban centres where the unemployed have to buy food at the same places at the same high prices as everyone else and have fewer / looser ties to robust communal support networks. Many live alone, or perhaps in pairs, in relatively expensive accommodation (by rural standards). Others cannot go back to their provinces because of the tight travel bans. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few landlords are showing mercy. There are many thousands of informal workers now in serious trouble after several weeks without income. Few have any savings or have burned through what they had. There are no mango trees in the streets here and no fish in the klongs. Even fewer qualify for the 5,000 baht government handout because they are not registered as employees on any system, or were rejected by self-serving officials for the usual reasons. And remember, this is a national phenomenon that is affecting everyone – there is no safe haven for them to flee to simply because they blew too much money one night, or their street cart was stolen, or they had to bail an uncle out of jail. If they can’t get income in the next couple of weeks then my fear is the real situation will become clear for all to see.
Will increased unemployment mean more girls working in the bars?
Your theme that this is the “darkest hour” for the naughty boy industry is certainly backed by reality on the ground, but I can’t help thinking predictions that this will mark the end of the industry as we know it as very premature. This week the Thai Chamber of Commerce announced, “7 million jobs have been lost already, and the figure will hit 10 million if the outbreak drags on for 2 – 3 months.” That means one in six Thais have already lost their job and this will rise to one in four if this carries on much longer. An uncomfortable truth about the Thai sex industry is that it is based around wealth inequality and poverty. The main driver of its decline in recent years has been the soaring wealth in poorer parts of the country like Isaan making the last resort of sex work unnecessary. The new generation have been able make a decent living in ordinary lines of work. That will now change. As millions of Thais fall on hard times, families will look to their offspring to provide by any means necessary and the supply of girls will increase. The upcoming global recession will no doubt limit demand by punters but that will just skew the demand / supply dynamic further and there will always be enough to support a scaled back number of bars that is still substantial. Do you or any other readers have memories of the 1997 crash? Did it lead to a large influx of new girls?
The less leveraged will thrive.
Warren Buffett said that only when the tide goes out do you discover who‘s been swimming naked. Covid-19 has exposed lots of people and businesses swimming naked. It‘s too early to make too many sure predictions, but it‘s already a worldwide economic disaster. In the US, those who lived through the depression of the 1930s were scarred for life. Surely one result of the current situation is that once things get back to normal, whatever that will look like, people will save more and spend and borrow less. When most of the world does that, there won‘t be a V-shaped recovery. I see at least two years of pain for lots of people. For Bangkok nightlife, the key element will probably be who is leveraged the least. Those people will be able to snap up properties and leases cheap, consolidate businesses, and reopen to a dramatically reduced visitor base. I have to believe the 370 baht double lady drink and 195 baht normal drink price will come down, as will the price for fun. I feel bad for everyone who‘s hurting through no fault of their own. But I won’t feel bad if some of the rapacious bad actors feel some pain.
I was hugely impressed by the Museum Of Patpong and I am similarly impressed by the 3D Immersive Online Museum of Patpong, essentially the online version of the Museum of Patpong. These virtual tour things are often gimmicky, feel like they were a half-assed effort and ultimately disappointing. Not this. A fabulous – and I really mean that – *fabulous* job has been done recreating a 3D version of the Museum Of Patpong online. If you have any interest in Patpong you’ve just got to check it out – and if you haven’t been already, I am sure it will whet your appetite to visit the Patpong Museum for real. The team behind the Museum of Patpong have done a tremendous job on the museum proper and the online version.
For those looking for a naughty, Lollipop in Sukhumvit soi 10 is open, if it may seem to be in darkness.
A small number of available ladies can be found on Sukhumvit until around 9:30 PM or so when they disappear before curfew starts at 10 PM.
And for those of you desperate to get a rub down and more, a spattering of massage shops on soi 22 are open but are being very discreet. They’re the very definition of a knocking shop – you need to knock on the door.
Some escort agencies are operating as per usual – some never closed. The owner of one well-known site tells me, however, that business is lousy and down by more than 80%.
Tahug.com is a new dating and chat messenger app. It is 100% free to sign up with no restrictions on chats and messaging.
The number of staff from Soi Nana Bar Hillary 2 Bar who have tested positive for Covid-19 up to at least 21. A widely shared Facebook post from Thai national Thares Keeree provides a fascinating look at his experience in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19. While undergoing treatment, Thares met an employee from Hillary Bar in the same room as him and learned there were another 20 employees from Hillary 2 Bar in the same hospital being treated. That means the count of Covid-19 cases from Hillary Bar as he calls it (actually Hillary 2, in Soi Nana) is at least 21. Goodness knows how many customers contracted Covid-19, and how far it spread on both Soi Nana and beyond. The bars really are the most fertile of breeding grounds for the virus to spread.
Word is that O’Malley’s in Silom will not reopen when the restrictions are lifted.
Over at The Clubhouse on Sukhumvit soi 23, it appears the Australian manager has moved on.
Some bars operate a group in the LINE app for the girls to keep up with what is going on. The girls in a very popular Soi Cowboy gogo bar created their own LINE group and word amongst the girls is that bars in Pattaya will reopen for business on May 1st, well before bars in Bangkok. (They are misinformed.) Some of these girls are preparing to go down to Pattaya – they are hungry to get back to work and make money.
Down in Pattaya, the Beach Road lineup seems to be on hold. The relatively small number of ladies keen to join the parade at sun-down can now be found along Soi Buakhao. If you’re on the hunt, be quick – just like in Bangkok, 10 PM marks the start of curfew.
Another rumour from Pattaya – which may or may not have any truth in it – is that a Chinese criminal element is throwing around vast sums of money around on Walking Street in the hope of acquiring bars. The owners of at least one recently closed farang-owned gogo bar which was once extremely popular are making the claim. A case of sour grapes or is there some truth in it?
This first-hand Facebook report from Thares Keeree mentioned earlier raises the question about whether testing positive for Covid-19 in Thailand results in mandatory admission to hospital. That is a worry given the treatment regime – read: a very heavy dose of pharmaceuticals follows for the next 2 weeks. Compare this to New Zealand where around 1,400 have tested positive for Covid-19 and, I believe, less than 50 people in total have been hospitalised. Mandatory hospitalisation and the subsequent (universal?) chemical treatment in Thailand strikes me as a breach of human rights. If you enter a building and Somchai measures your temperature with his cheap, no doubt uncalibrated, temperature gun as being high, will men in white coats appear from the shadows and cart you off to hospital for treatment you don’t agree to? Is it a concern or am I being dramatic?
A reader’s submission published on the site this week titled “Here I Stand Head In Hand” included a charming anecdote showing how the girls and the industry have changed. The reader recounted a story from his first visit to Bangkok as a 20-something backpacker in the 1980s. He and his pal had enjoyed the company of a couple of ladies in an upstairs bar in Patpong. When they called for the bill they got a shock – the prices were outrageous and they didn’t have nearly enough money on them to cover it. They noticed some Thai heavies were watching them closely and guarding the exit. They explained this to the girls who jabbered away in Thai, and told the two guys to go and wait near the fire exit. The girls would create a diversion and at that point the two young guys should leg it out of there. The girls got a tray, put some glasses on it, dropped it, and presumably started screaming. The heavies went to see what all the kerfuffle was about and the two punters grabbed their chance and legged it. The girls arranged to meet them outside the bar later and they ended up at one of the girl’s rooms before they all spent a week together on Ko Samet. Great story and a nice example of how things used to be.
For hungry expats, here’s a pizza special for you – Buy 1 get 1 free from Trattoria Delina – full menu and home delivery via Facebook.
One farang business owner told me this week that he hopes that bars and restaurants do NOT get permission to open until June, at the very earliest. Why would a business owner say such a thing? May is usually the quietest month of the year for bars and restaurants popular with visitors and this May will be terrible, no doubt about that. In lieu of trading restrictions, some landlords are offering big discounts on rent. However, once the restrictions are lifted and restaurants and bars can reopen, full rent will be charged again, hence some business owners would prefer to wait a bit.
When the Covid-19 crisis passes in Thailand, will there still be a requirement to continue to wear face masks? Or could there be a strong expectation to do so? There have been numerous reports about Thais upset at foreigners out and about not wearing a mask (I don’t want to get in to the debate about whether face masks protect you from Covid-19 or not). If there is an ongoing requirement to wear a mask outside in Thailand, would you visit? Being required to wear a mask is an imposition that prevents you from relaxing as you normally would. It’s their country and their rules – but at the same time, if you’re required to wear a face mask I can’t see that as a way to relax and enjoy yourself. It would be enough to put me off visiting. What about you?
Stu Lloyd has published a number of books about expat misadventure in Asia. His latest, “BAMBOOZLED – the Lighter Side of expat Life in Asia” is something he had been sitting on for a while. Knowing that people could do with a laugh, he has rushed it out on e-book. You can find it on Amazon.
The way Thailand has prevented its own citizens from returning to the country is highly questionable and as a friend pointed out, it’s quite possibly in breach of international law. I get it that a country might not be that helpful to citizens of other countries but to refuse entry to your own citizens as Thailand has done is draconian.
And on a related note, I feel sorry for those foreigners who ordinarily reside in Thailand but who currently find themselves outside the country and cannot get back due to not meeting the current entry requirements. Who knows when they will be able to get back. Some have family they are separated from. Others have valuables in apartments which are not secure. It’s not a great situation.
Good news for the 2 Colins featured in the weekly column opener of March 29. They made it out of Pattaya, managed to get to the airport in Bangkok where they jumped on the big bird and headed back for 14 days quarantine at one of the New Zealand government’s holding pens. The one-way, 45-hour flight (not a misprint) included a 22-hour layover in Doha and cost them over $3,000 each – economy class, of course. At least they are home safe.
My friend Greg Lange, the owner of Sunrise Tacos, is looking to help raise money for those in the Klong Toey slums who may wish to get tested for Covid-19.
Several days ago when friends and I were handing out hot meals and masks to people in the Klong Toei Slum Community, I saw first hand how the need for testing on covid is critical in this community.
When people are very closely packed together as in Klong Toei. What happens when Covid-19 enters?
According to the news, 500 new covid cases in Singapore, the last two days have now been confirmed in several clusters of migrant workers living in the same community. The same potential powder keg exists in Bangkok and we the people have the power to make a change now. Not only for their sake but Bangkok’s sake. Don’t hesitate to help be sure anyone who needs a Covid test gets one.
The Thai government is brilliant in helping Thai citizens free if someone is tested positive for covid. However that initial testing fee is paid by the person getting tested. If they are positive then it will be reimbursed. If negative, then it’s the person who was tested expense. This is a HUGE issue.
I saw no symptoms of coughing or anybody ill when we were there. When I asked a community leader if someone did show signs, what would happen, she could not fathom any individual having the 3,000 baht necessary to be tested. She said she can’t imagine they would be able to be tested. This project is for people who should get tested but can’t afford it.
I’m feeling what I think a lot of people are experiencing right now: I wanted to make an impact during this terrible time – this will make a impact not on only on their lives but all of Thailand as well. Every baht donated up to 100,000, Sunrise Tacos will match. Any donation, no matter the size, can make a positive impact. Thank you – Greg.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Richard, “Living In The Past“.
Quote of the week comes from reader James, “I think chlamydia and gonorrhoea are far more of a threat in Pattaya than Covid-19.”
Thailand extended its ban on incoming passenger flights until the end of the month.
Thais and Chinese have been involved in a transnational geopolitical Twitter war.
Thais are exasperated at the barriers their own government has erected to make it difficult for them to return to their homeland.
18 foreigners are arrested at a private house party on Koh Phangnan.
The BMA will decide tomorrow whether to continue the booze ban.
Struggling taxi drivers have helped to pick up the slack for delivery firm Kerry Express.
The stats show this website is doing very well. The number of readers to this column is the highest they have been since I resumed writing in the second half of 2018. There are more readers’ stories being published than there have been in a long time with 10 in the past week, and reader engagement is high. Bangkok is essentially shut down, Thailand shut off and the future of the bars very much up in the air, yet the numbers visiting this site are really, really good. Thank you all for continuing to tune in! At the same time advertising revenue is dead, as is the case across most media at this time. I had the conversation this week with the owners of this site about the elephant in the room – the difficulty in generating income. I am pleased to report that there are no plans to stop publishing this column or to go off the air any time soon. I did actually make the suggestion to them that perhaps I write a monthly column rather than a weekly until this is all over, but that was dismissed. Stickman weekly will remain a weekly. All going well, the virus will pass and I’ll be rambling on for some time to come.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org