Stickman's Weekly Column July 12th, 2020

A Price War?



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Bangkok has tens of thousands of expats. There are plenty of wealthy expats, but there a whole lot more expats who don’t have a lot of money. With tourists gone and unlikely to return any time soon, bars need to fight for expat custom. Isn’t it about time that bars in Bangkok actually started competing on price?

It used to be that most everything was cheap. When you were in a bar you seldom took even a sneaky glance at the price list. Everything was reasonably priced. That’s no longer the case and if you’re watching your pennies it pays to check the prices these days because there can be a wide range in prices, even between neighbouring bars.

 

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Shark price list, July 2020.

 

Shark bar on Soi Cowboy is a good example of a bar with prices that are fair – local beers are 140 baht, as is Jack Daniel’s. In Shark bar, customers feel like they’re getting a fair deal and the bar turns a profit. It’s a win : win.

But Shark is an outlier, an above average gogo bar with below average prices (amongst foreign-owned gogo bars).

Plenty of Bangkok gogo bars charge 170 or 180 baht for a standard drink which is about the average price these days. In some bars you’ll pay more.

One bar where the next price rise will see drinks hit the psychological barrier of 200 baht is Tilac. Standard drinks in Tilac run 190 baht. That’s 50 baht more than Shark which I think it is fair to say is generally regarded as a better bar.

Tilac is an interesting case study. Over the past 10 or so years, drinks prices in Tilac have almost doubled.

Around 10 years ago, a local beer in Tilac was 100 baht. At that time, many similar-sized bars charged around 130 baht and the odd venue like Baccara was 140 baht or more. Tilac was significantly cheaper and at the time was one of the most popular gogo bars in Bangkok.

Tilac isn’t nearly as popular these days. While the popularity of bars ebbs and flows, is there a correlation between pricing and popularity? Tilac was super popular when standard drinks were 100 baht. Now it is one of the more expensive gogo bars and it isn’t nearly as popular. Coincidence?!

 

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Tilac price list, July 2020.

 

No doubt some will say that 190 baht is cheap for a drink in a titty bar. If you compare it with prices in Farangland then yes, it is. But in Thailand, 190 baht isn’t necessarily cheap for a drink in a gogo bar. In the Thai gogo bars drinks cost much less.

Of course part of the reason drinks have shot up over the past several years is due to the soaring rents in Bangkok, which is totally out of the average bar owner’s control. Bar owners can hardly be blamed for increasing prices.

The best bars like Baccara or Billboard have 100+ dancing girls. The sound system is professionally set up and tuned. The vibe is good and the experience fun. These bars can easily justify 200 baht standard drinks. But can other bars?

Are you getting value at 190 baht in Tilac? I hate to single out Tilac, as the owners are great people and run a good bar. At the same time I cannot get my head around their prices (and other bars with similar prices).

It makes me wonder why bars in Bangkok don’t compete on price.

I am not sure I remember bars in Bangkok ever genuinely competing on price. Has there ever been a price war? Introducing happy hours is one thing, but how many bars actually try to compete on price? In Pattaya it’s common. But not in Bangkok.

Could aggressive drinks prices at the recently opened Red Lion Pub on Sukhumvit soi 13 start a price war? The Red Lion is what Sukhumvit has been crying out for – a bar with genuinely sharp pricing that forces other bars  to adjust their prices to compete.

 

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The Red Lion price list, July 2020.

 

At The Red Lion, a bottle of most local beers runs 65 – 80 baht. Pints are just 79 – 89 baht. That’s less than half of the asking price at many other bars on Sukhumvit – and those prices are all day, all night.

Granted, The Red Lion is not a titty bar. It’s more a sports bar / pub & eatery. It’s located on soi 13, so it’s not prime Sukhumvit and doesn’t have the high rent of gogo bars.

The Red Lion’s pricing is keen. Buying kegs wholesale, Singha works out at around 58 baht / pint. Chang is around 50 baht / pint. Tiger is 52 baht / pint. That makes the margins at The Red Lion awfully tight! Will it be able to maintain such keen prices?

The Red Lion will appeal to expats looking for a good deal. It might not have the same entertainment as a gogo bar, but that won’t bother many expats who meet friends in gogo bars out of habit as much as anything. The entertainment is often nothing more than a pleasant background.

It’s only been a few weeks since the bars reopened and already some are fighting not just for customers but for survival. With The Red Lion offering such sharp drinks prices, could a price war follow?

 


Billboard Bangkok
 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken outside the entrance to the Sukhumvit MRT station right next to the Asoke end of Soi Cowboy. OK, for those of you who love to comment that the mystery photo has been too easy recently, where is this?


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

Idiosyncrasies add to the charm.

A couple of weeks ago you raised the question about why wealthy travellers visit Thailand and this week some of your readers responded. Although not notably wealthy myself, I do have a few friends that would probably qualify, and I have spent some time in Thailand with them over the past decade. I’m sure some folks expect nothing less than a seamless experience but this is not true for all (or even most) upmarket travellers. Rather, I’ve found that most people know what to expect when selecting a destination to visit, and that their expectations are usually reasonable going in. Regarding Bangkok specifically, much of what makes it attractive to the mass market – its energy, weather, and uniqueness as a destination – are what makes it attractive to wealthier visitors as well. This isn’t to suggest that a plan targeting this demographic as the vanguard of a tourism restart is correct (it probably isn’t), but rather that, in my experience, many of Thailand’s idiosyncrasies are what add to its charm. The traffic jams can certainly be extremely annoying though.

Expat wants to pay a pittance.

I was really surprised that online girls want 2K baht, and those at Artbox want 3K baht. I hope no expat gives in to this. I have lived in Bangkok over 15 years, and I rarely show interest in the street girls. I have better options. But last week I took a stroll around Sukhumvit and found stunners who said 1K baht was enough. I chose the best stunner (and she is) and now see her frequently. She said her and her friends used to work a beer bar popular with Japanese and asked 3K short time, but now they are getting rejected on the street for wanting 1,500 baht.

Prefer Bali.

The bars were on their arse before this crisis. Let’s not lose sight of that. Barring Spanky’s and a couple of others the gogo bars were shockingly quiet. I bet gogo bars on Cowboy make more money from people sitting outside than inside these days. At 190 baht for a 330 ml beer in Tilac, I am not going to call it a “joke” because this is economics. The business model is now unworkable, in my view. £5 for a bottle of Chang? Who the hell wants to pay that to see mostly awful women dancing on a pole and some arsehole mamasan? With regards to ladies…if I wanted “action”, the amount of attractive available women here in Bali last night was truly amazing. Far better than anything you see in Thailand. Short-time rates are around 1,000,000 IDR (2,100 baht). This place has totally scooped up the under 40s market, expats and digital nomads. Thailand could have had this crowd to themselves and should have offered a visa to these types, perhaps done a criminal check on them and let them in. They are spending money in nice bars and restaurants. Thailand really feels like somewhere that’s had its day now and if I am honest, it has felt like that for about 5 years. Higher prices for the same crap quality – on everything.

Lunch-time activities in the 1980s.

Back in the early 1980s, the Rose Bar was called the Bunny House. Right next to it, also on the 2nd floor was Kangaroo Bar. Both were famous at the time for oral relief. Back then each had a policy that you only paid if you came. The standard rate was 300 baht. As we were young and virile we used to go to one, get the job done, wait 30 minutes and then go to the other where the poor girl would have a real job to get her payment. The Bunny House especially was something different. When you went there at lunch time you would find 7 or 8 guys sitting on the long bench stretching along the wall. Each one of them would be in a suit and tie. Their briefcase would be on the floor, their pants would be on their ankles and girls would be sitting on their knees in front of them giving them the works. This was a regular lunch hour activity for many guys working in banks and insurance companies around the corner on Silom.

 

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Soi Cowboy, looking quiet this week. Photo courtesy of Dirty Doctor.

 

More bars opened this week. More than half the bars in each of Bangkok’s 3 main bar areas are open. Expect more bars to open this coming week.

From Soi Cowboy, things were described as subdued earlier in the week but then picked up closer to the weekend. Friends on the ground tell me that since the bars reopened, Baccara and Crazy House (only the ground floor is open) appear to be doing the best of the bars on Cowboy. In other words, it would seem not a lot has changed. Corner Bar is also said to be doing good trade, as is Country Road.

On Friday night bars on Cowboy stayed open an extra hour, through until 1 AM. Whether it will be this way going forward or not is not known. Most likely it will be the usual cat and mouse games.

Amongst the big-name farang-owned bars on Soi Cowboy yet to reopen include the gogo bar / inside of Tilac (the outside area is open) and Dollhouse.

Five Star reopened on Thursday night after a refit. Rumours abound of a change of format and on Friday night I am told it resembled a hostess bar, but whether this is temporary or the new format, I have not been able to confirm anything.

One of the many rules imposed on bars at this time is the requirement of staff to wear face shields. In Soi Cowboy on Friday night, girls madly rushed to put on their face shields – including girls dancing on stage – when cops came in to the soi.

None of the Arab’s bars on Soi Cowboy have reopened which means the soi is not as well-lit nor as pretty as it was pre-Covid-19.

 

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Sahara, one of the Arab’s bars in Soi Cowboy, in darkness. Photo kindly provided by reader PB.

 

On the other side of the soi, Suzie Wong has gone one better than Shark and has turned back the clock years and lowered the price of local beers to 130 baht.

Lighthouse is another bar in Cowboy with great drinks deals. They have their usual 90 baht happy hour for most drinks before 9 PM and then it’s 140 baht for most drinks for the rest of the night. Their daily 100 baht drinks deals are on hold for the moment but they will bring them back soon once they get a feel for where business is at. The dirty doctor gave Lighthouse the thumbs up when he visited this week.

Readers have commented on the price of lady drinks at Soi Cowboy. This has been an ongoing issue but warrants repeating. In some Soi Cowboy bars a lady drink will set you back between 220 and 250 baht. At Crazy House it is a ridiculous 340 baht (which, to be clear, is $US11 / £9.50 / $AUD 16 / 10 Euros). For that, she gets a Tequila and a tumbler of flat Coke, and you get a few minutes of her time. Could the price of lady drinks be part of the reason Cowboy was described this week as subdued?

The small bars scattered around Sukhumvit soi 22 have been struggling since bars were given permission to reopen. With Queen’s Park Plaza closed there’s less going on and observations from readers this week is that many of the massage shops along soi 22 were like the small bars, dead. I thought soi 22 might have held up ok – it’s an expat enclave and drinks prices are lower than other areas but no, it’s dead.

It’s not all bad news on Sukhumvit. One bar which is doing well is the enclosed beer bar at the start of Sukhumvit Soi 8 in the space that was previously the India Today restaurant. Said beer bar has 20 odd girls, a counter to sit and watch the world go by and 80 baht beers at happy hour. That’s a few good reasons to stop by.

In Nana Plaza, trade was ticking over. The Nana bars which have reopened seem to have more ladies than bars in other areas. A friend who stopped by on Thursday night commented that while bars were quiet, in some bars there were around 8 dancers to every customer.

Still in the plaza, Billboard and Butterflies will reopen this coming Wednesday, July 15th. Both bars have undergone renovations.

 

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Nana Plaza this week. Photo courtesy of Dirty Doctor.

 

Will the pressures of high expenses and low customer numbers cause prices to fall on Sukhumvit? The massage shop next to Bully’s between Sukhumvit sois 2 and 5 used to charge 500 baht for an hour’s oil massage. It’s down to 300 baht.

Down in Pattaya, long-time bar operator Big Andy will try and get the party rocking again on soi 15 off Walking Street, after throwing the doors open at Dollhouse and XXX on Friday. Both bars have revised opening hours, from 6:30 PM until midnight. If you’re in Sin City, do stop by. Big Andy’s bars are always worth a visit.

In last week’s column I commented that Elite visa holders outside of Thailand cannot return to the country at this time. What I didn’t know is that Elite visa members have been granted a 6-month extension on the validity of their visa due to the disruption of Covid-19. That seems fair.

There is increasing anxiety amongst those still in Thailand whose visa was extended automatically as part of the visa amnesty. They are good through until the end of July – but are anxious about what happens next. Will another automatic extension be granted? If there isn’t, what are their options? Leaving Thailand at this time is difficult. There are few flights out and the land borders are all closed.

Most expats in Bangkok hate visiting Immigration. If you live downtown it’s quite a hike out to the Immigration office at Chaeng Wattana. And when you get there you are one of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in the queue system anxious to get their visa extended. Information isn’t clear and communication can be poor. One officer will tell you one thing, another officer will tell you something else. Ask for someone in authority to clarify and you’ll be berated for doing so – and then that person will tell you something different again! This is not an Immigration department thing. It’s a Thai government department thing. The other half and I were talking about this the other day and she told me stories of some of her dealings with various Thai departments – and they were exactly the same! Misinformation, wrong information, poor communication, conflicting information on the official website and feeling very much like you’re being given the run-around. I’d summarise this by saying that much of what foreigners complain about in Thailand, the Thais feel the same way about – but they are too proud and / or too patriotic to complain aloud.

 

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All quiet down at Pattaya Beach. Photo kindly provided by a reader.

 

It’s interesting comparing what a Thai in New Zealand wishing to fly to Thailand must do compared with what a non-Thai who wishes to make the same journey is required to do. The Thai embassy in Wellington advises that Thai nationals who wish to fly to Thailand need a fit to fly certificate issued within 72 hours of the flight’s departure and a confirmation letter from the embassy. Kiwis and all other non-Thais who wish to fly to Thailand need a fit to fly certificate, a confirmation letter from the embassy and TWO negative tests for Covid-19. The first test must be submitted when you first submit your application to the embassy for a letter, and the second must be issued shortly before you fly. Given that both Thais and non-Thais must go through a 14-day quarantine on arrival in Thailand, this makes no sense.

And for any Thais in New Zealand who wish to join the next embassy-organised repatriation flight, it is scheduled for July 18th. It will be a Singapore Airlines flight and not Thai Airways. And the folks organising this repatriation flight have a special bonus for you with a very generous 18 hours allocated for you to enjoy Changi Airport as you wait for your connecting flight to Bangkok. The fare is $NZ1,642, about half of what Thai Airways charged for the previous embassy-organised repatriation flight.

Dinner cruises have resumed on the Chao Praya River. Without the tourist hordes, now would be as good a time as any to take your teeruk for a romantic dinner on the river.

Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

I hear the odd retail outlet in Thailand is going cashless and will only accept payment by card / electronic means. It’s not widespread at all, but it has started. What a pain it will be for foreign visitors if cashless payment becomes widespread in Thailand (which frankly, I cannot see happening for quite some time). I don’t mind using a card here in New Zealand where everything is in Kiwi dollars (so there are no dodgy exchange rates to contend with) and where you almost never hear about cards being skimmed, copied or other such tomfoolery. I imagine many businesses in Thailand will be reluctant to go cashless because they are not in the tax system or they only declare a very small amount of their income. In time, I imagine the Thailand tax folks will push for things to go cashless as seems to be happening elsewhere. For various reasons (bad exchange rates, card fees, perceived higher risk of fraud than in one’s home country) I prefer to use cash in Thailand. If I came across a vendor in Thailand which insisted on payment by card I’d probably give it a pass and go to the next vendor.

Sunrise Tacos has a special promotion with Grab Food. Only 105 baht net per burrito, two tacos or quesadilla set and 10 baht for delivery. You must order two sets from the selection to get the 105 baht price otherwise it’s a different 140.- promo. Download the Grab Food App and click on American Fries and then Sunrise. Put in FRIES for the 70 baht voucher at checkout. (They import American fries who are sponsoring this promotion.)

 

vitamin-iv-booster

Quote of the week comes from a reader, “Mandatory CCTV in bars will make Chinese visitors feel like home.”

Reader’s story of the week is “All Men Stray“, by Kloth.

A young German outlines his ordeal returning to Thailand.

An Aussie in Pattaya found with a plastic bag over his head which was fastened with a cable tie wrapped around his neck is deemed to have been a case of suicide.

The Nation featured some nice images of Scala cinema shortly before it closed.

AP captures the spirt of the Scala cinema in a goodbye feature.

Thailand’s economic forecast is the gloomiest in Asia.

In a blow to those keen to visit, Thailand has delayed plans for travel bubbles.

A Facebook group names and shames venues and attractions in Thailand with dual-pricing.

 

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Soi Cowboy, this week. Photo credits: Dirty Doctor.

It’s coming up to two weeks since the bars were given the green light to open. Not all bars have reopened. It’s still not clear where things are going and I’d say to give it until the end of the month to get a better idea of where things are at. But for sure, some bars are struggling. For those of you who enjoy the bars, the industry needs your support more than ever. If you fancy a night out, the bars would love to see you.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]