Stickman's Weekly Column May 3rd, 2020

Being Swallowed Up By The Big Boys



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Pretty Lady, Nana Plaza, early 1998. Pam’s, Soi Cowboy, 1998. Catz, Pattaya, 2005 – 2008. Three bars, three locations, three eras. But there’s something each of these three bars had in common. What is it? Each was my favourite for a period of time. And there’s something else they each have in common. They were independent bars i.e. they were not part of a big bar group.

I prefer independent bars to those bars owned and operated by a big group.

But with Covid-19, what is the future of small, independent bars? Will they survive?

It’s been several weeks since the bars were ordered closed. That’s several weeks without any income…but several weeks with expenses like rent which still have to be paid.

It didn’t take long for the sharks to circle. Less than a week after bars were ordered closed, at least one major player was sounding out some of the independents to see if they were interested in selling. And with everything so uncertain, why wouldn’t you give it serious thought? A pay-out now might just beat a slow death later.

The best chrome pole bars in Bangkok at this time are all independents. Billboard and Butterflies (same owners but no-one thinks of them as a group) and Spanky’s come to mind, independently owned bars which have been consistently good over a period of time.

At the other end of the scale, the worst bars are often part of a big bar group. The Arab’s bars in Soi Cowboy are the most obvious example. They’re so unpopular because they’re so badly run that for many lovers of the bar scene it’s like they don’t exist.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day the Crown Group in Nana Plaza had almost half the bars in the plaza – and some were as good as any bar in Bangkok.

Over the years many bars have been acquired by one of the large groups – and in most cases the bar has gone downhill soon after the ownership change.

Perhaps the best example is Angelwitch. Fantastic – and arguably the best gogo bar in Bangkok for a period – until it was acquired by Nana Group. It hasn’t been the same since.

For big bar groups it seems like it’s all about the bottom line. There is no passion. It’s all about the numbers. Bars run this way have no soul.

Bars don’t need to be flash but try telling that to big bar groups whose first step is always to jazz up the premises. That is good but may not be necessary. Next, they put all sorts of rules in place and try to micromanage everything. This never works well with Thais, especially with working girls. The atmosphere suffers, customers lose interest and the beautifully decked out bar goes downhill…..and the owners can’t figure out why!

The big bar groups need look no further than the roaring success story that is Spanky’s. Hardly a flash venue – and hardly a great lineup either – but the bar rocks because the vibe is great. And it’s been this way for 10 years!

Spanky’s is a great example of what to do, but also what not to do.

The owner of Spanky’s tried his luck with a Spanky’s branded bar in Patpong soi 2 in the space that is The Strip. It failed. He tried the same in Soi Diamond, Pattaya. It worked for a while but it wasn’t long before he pulled the plug on that too.

One bar is good, two can work…but any more….nah! The owners of Billboard and Butterflies have proven that you can run two fantastic bars at the same time and maintain standards. They are an exception, and exceptionally good operators.

It seems not to matter if the bars are of a different format, or even if each bar has its own on-site manager – the more bars in a group, the less fun they tend to be.

The worry is that Covid-19 could cause some of the small independent owners to sell out to the big groups. More independents being gobbled up and turned in to yet another mediocre bar is the very last thing the industry needs.

The bar industry is not in great shape and independent operators are vulnerable. Will some cash out? It won’t be a great payday, but they might think that something is better than nothing.

The small independent bars with the owner on the premises most nights are a throwback to the past. There was a time when most bars were run with real passion by an owner who was there overseeing the show. And that is what is missing from so many bars these days. Bars run by big groups are often sterile and soulless. The small guy is not in it just for the money, he runs the bar because he genuinely enjoys it – and that rubs off on his staff and customers and everyone has a great time. Here’s hoping Covid-19 doesn’t cause any more of the independents to sell.

 


Billboard Bangkok
 

 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken in Sukhumvit soi 8. What about this week’s?


Nana Plaza
 

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

Social distancing, killer of fun.

Social distancing makes many businesses and their staff redundant. How does a dancer, bargirl or any other member of staff earn money and tips if they cannot be near a potential customer? What if accommodation providers applied the social distancing ethos and only permitted registered guests on their premises? At a radius of 1.5 metres, how many dancers can be on stage at once? And if social distancing is applied, then drinks prices will need to increase to make up for the shortfall of customers. If you are bored, get a tape measure, sit in a chair, apply the distance and then envisage the bars and venues you have sat in. Bonkers! The bars will be in a world of hurt.

The good old days on Soi Nana.

Reading about Nana Disco brought fond memories of how it was teeming with freelancers back in the day. It filled to the rafters! The so-called office girls came from different occupations and you could easily recognise them from the “professionals”, both by their dress and attitude towards farang. They hung in tight groups who looked after each other. All you had to do was sit at a table and wait for someone to approach saying, “My fren lie yooouu“, and point to someone in her group. Many were too shy to come up to you themselves. These ladies were mainly available short time as they had to rock up for work next day.

Moving online.

I think ThaiFriendly and the like will be big winners because that is where you go to arrange hook-ups in advance without lady drinks or barfines involved. Yes, there is a bit more risk but it’s also a lot of fun engaging with girls before you meet them. Swap photos and engage in naughty video calls beforehand. Meet on ThaiFriendly, get them on to Line quickly and then the fun can really begin…

Thai baht not going anywhere.

Your column this week mirrors my thoughts on the property market and general economy in Thailand. I suspect people waiting on a crushing depreciation of the Thai baht are going to be in for a long wait. Thailand doesn’t have the USD exposure like it did during the Tom Yum Goong Crisis.

Vaccines to be mandatory?

I’m against vaccines. It’s not that I don’t believe the science, it’s that I don’t trust drug companies. Injecting aluminium or mercury (thimerosal) sounds like a bad idea, not to mention the drug companies have an incentive to make people sick so they buy more drugs in the future. Oh, they wouldn’t do that, would they? I hope vaccinations don’t become mandatory to get on a plane or enter Thailand in the future!

When you get caught up in the good times.

It sure sounds like many visitors to Thailand are ignoring or never learned the most important rule of living or visiting in Thailand, NEVER RUN OUT OF MONEY! Several factors can contribute to reducing to beggars, people who are otherwise pretty good folks. I guess it is so easy to get caught up in the good times, pretty women and euphoria of bells ringing in the bars that distract so many. Most financial experts here in the US say you should have, at a minimum, 3 months wages saved at all times. In Thailand, I would recommend a full year’s worth of wages as a minimum. If your savings are not growing while in Thailand then you are spending too much. It is difficult to tell people who to love or how to spend their money.

Bar managers’ personal finances.

I’m baffled about farang bar managers running out of money. Not for nothing do financial experts tell individuals to build a nest-egg of between 3 to 6 months living expenses to draw on if the worst were to happen in employment terms. And I’m guessing a bar manager role is even more fragile than my own.


Demonia Bangkok
 

The bars have only been closed for 6 weeks as rumours swirl of some bars turning in the keys to the landlord and walking away. Nana Plaza has been subject to more rumours than most – but these rumours have been just that, rumours. It’s time to put the record straight. When asked about bars which are supposedly closing, Nana Partners, the operators of Nana Plaza, had the following to say, “We only have one vacancy at Nana Plaza which is where London Calling used to be. Everything else is occupied. No one has returned their keys and we look forward to opening again soon.” This means the Rainbow bars, Mandarin, PlaySkool and Erotica which have all been the subject of speculation, will return when the entertainment world resumes.

Sukhumvit Soi 4 and the lower Sukhumvit area in general is dead with few people around and very few ladies on the street or out front of the Nana Hotel touting for business.

Down the road in Soi Cowboy, something is going on at Cactus. Whether it’s a renovation, remodel, change of format or what, I don’t know.

The Silom branch of Hooters looks like it won’t reopen with the sign removed and the interior gutted.

Some Patpong bars continue to flout the law by opening and selling alcohol. One wonders how this is possible.

And still at Patpong, a knock-off watch stall at the intersection of soi 1 and Suriwong is open most days. I guess there is still the odd tourist in Thailand, as well as the odd dreamer who thinks he can impress his ThaiFriendly date with a knock-off watch on his wrist.

Many hotels in Bangkok have closed so I should not be surprised that the Nana Hotel is amongst them. But I am surprised. Why? The Nana Hotel was – and I believe still is – home to a small number of expats, some of whom have lived in the Nana Hotel for years. With the hotel closed, what happened to the farang residents?

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this past week, 1,000 care packages were handed out to people who work in Nana Plaza – both in the bars as well as staff employed by the operators of the plaza. Over 3 days, 5,000 kg of rice, 30,000 eggs, Mama noodles, canned foods, fish sauce plus a range of other groceries and supplies essential for day to day living were handed out. Word is that it was an impressive operation, very well-organised with security checking everyone’s temperature and ensuring social distancing was followed. A schedule was set up to stagger visitor numbers to prevent crowding with time slots allocated to each bar. Many walked away not just with a bag of bag of supplies, but a smile on their face – and no doubt the Farangs Love Thai slogan (see the sticker on the bag in the second photo below) went down well.

 

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Just a small fraction of the many care packages distributed to staff of the many businesses in Nana Plaza.

 

 

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Farangs Love Thai, a charming slogan.

 

Down in Pattaya, Walking Street will look a little different when it reopens with the gutting of the Siren Bar area. If that name doesn’t ring a siren bell, it’s the large, long-running beer bar just before the start of Walking Street.

While there is much worry about what the future holds for the bar industry in Bangkok, that worry is at another level in Pattaya. Many are of the opinion that a lot of Pattaya bar bosses just don’t have the financial wherewithal to get through this, even those who have been given a rent holiday by their landlord. As much as anything, the worry is that after the expected initial spike in trade from pent up demand, things will revert back to levels best described as a terrible low season.

And further afield in Angeles City, rumour has it that 5 bars will not reopen when this is all over. Just which bars I do not know. What I do know is that there really aren’t that many decent bars in Angeles City these days so 5 fewer bars would be a huge blow.

The alcohol ban is over and from today, alcohol can be sold in convenience stores, supermarkets and the like. It cannot, however, be sold in restaurants or bars (the latter of which remain closed).

Eateries are allowed to open from today. There are various rules that must be followed with tables spaced apart, the restaurant aired out frequently, hand sanitiser bottles placed throughout etc. I am aware of at least a couple of restaurants in Bangkok popular with expats which will not be opening for dine-in service at this stage. Why not? The simple reason is that drinks make up a significant portion of their turnover – and it’s simply not worth their while to open if they can’t sell alcohol. That said, for expats eager to see life return to some semblance of normalcy, eateries being allowed to reopen is a step in the right direction.

Small shops can also reopen, ditto barbers and parks. Again, in each case there are various rules that must be followed depending on the type of establishment.

While the bars may be dead, activity is picking up in Bangkok. Traffic isn’t as bad as it was but tailbacks are a thing again, as is gridlock at rush hour.

Also noticeable is the number of people out and about after the 10 PM curfew. Come 10 PM, the city streets were deserted with the exception of trucks and the odd car or bike. Now, it’s a different story with cars and bikes whizzing around at all hours.


 

One positive effect of the lock-down some expat friends have told me about is that it has broken their routine and forced them to try new things. That includes finding new places to eat and with many restaurants offering delivery. And with traffic lighter than usual, the wait for food to be delivered is not as bad as it was.

And speaking of food delivery companies, there’s a weird scam / ruse (?) going on where the end game isn’t entirely clear. Restaurants are called by someone from the photography department of a major food delivery service to set up a meeting to take photos of their food to go on the delivery company’s website and app. The thing is, there is no such photography department. So what is the person behind these shenanigans after? Are they turning up, taking some photos, eating the food (as is customary in food photos shoots) and never to be seen again?

O’Shea’s Irish Pub, The Royal Oak and Golden Bowl are doing home delivery on selected menu items with 100% of the profits going to help support staff and their families. Orders can be placed via their Facebook pages.

O’Shea’s Irish Pub on Facebook
The Royal Oak on Facebook
Golden Bowl Western Style Chinese on Facebook

Greg Lange (aka “Big Greg”) owns and operates Sunrise Tacos. Since Covid-19, Big Greg has helped organise relief efforts in some of the city’s poorer areas. He and his crew go out 3 – 4 times weekly delivering milk powder, canned fish, and 1,500 kg of rice on each visit. As a long-time Bangkok resident and businessman, he makes sure the goods are delivered where they’re needed. If you’d like to help, this website has information.

 

big-greg

Full points for style, Big Greg doing his very best wai.

 

One of the things I have noticed during the lock-down here in New Zealand is that I am spending hardly anything. I’m not going out so I haven’t put petrol in the car in well over a month. We’re not eating out as everywhere is closed. I can’t even go out to buy a book or, say, a new pair of shoes or a jersey. I’ll have a little bit more money in my pocket when this is all over. Will I go on a spending spree when everything reopens? Probably not…..but I get the impression that that is exactly what is going to happen amongst expats in Bangkok where many tell me they can’t wait for a good night out or two.

Meet new friends and chat using Tahug.com – there are thousands of lovely ladies home alone looking to chat.

If you’re looking for something to wile away the time, you might like to take a look at The Wingman Tale: Being The Jafster – which I am told is not your typical Thai sex novel.

The impression from the Thai tourism industry is that they can’t wait to open the borders up so the Chinese can come flocking back. If there is a lag between when the Chinese are allowed back and when Westerners can return, could the industry change shape to accommodate the Chinese? Will some attractions and business in the tourism / hospitality industry “retool” in such a way that they are more attractive to the Chinese? Could businesses which once were the darlings of Western visitors change their focus? Is it plausible, for example, that the Nana Hotel, might look at ways of attracting Chinese visitors? That is perhaps not such a good example, but will there be more restaurants with menus in Chinese – or could some change format altogether? Could Bourbon Street become Beijing Street, the Robin Hood become the Chairman Mao? Of course you could argue that this has been happening to some extent already, but if there is much lag between when the Chinese return compared to when Westerners return, I expect some things will change.

 

vitamin-iv-booster

 

Quote of the week comes from a friend, “It’s not a trip to a Thai wet market unless another customer or a vendor gossips about you in your presence.

Reader’s story of the week is the latest from Mega with many beautiful photos, “Around The Traps in South East Asia: Part 20“.

A Brit throws his wife from the balcony of their Rayong apartment.

Another Brit is charged with the brutal killing of a lady in Pattaya.

A broke Russian stranded in Thailand is earning his keep at a temple.

An American and his young half-Thai son who reside in Pattaya are stuck in India and cannot get back to Thailand.

Mass unemployment is looming for the tourism industry in Thailand.

Two white Australians are awarded $7,500 in compensation each for being refused entry to a venue popular with Thais in Sydney.

Here’s a video taken inside a Patpong gogo bar way back in 1990.

chinatown-bangkok-tuktuk

Chinatown by night.

Lock-down is getting boring here in New Zealand and it didn’t help that we had a preview of Winter today. It wasn’t cold per se, but it was grey and wet, a day better spent indoors than out. Winter isn’t so bad when you know you have an escape to Bangkok planned – but it doesn’t look like I will miss the worst of the Kiwi winter in Bangkok this year. All indications are that it will be some time before the border opens here in New Zealand. Sigh. I hope things get back to normal in your part of the world faster than they are here.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]