I was in the lobby of the South Seas Resort in Phuket when I first came across Night Owl, a nightlife column in The Bangkok Post. It was early 1997 and I was visiting Thailand for the first time. I didn’t know anything about expat Thailand or the nightlife and the name Bernard Trink meant nothing to me. I had no idea that these weekly musings were eagerly followed by expats all over Thailand.
Several months later I would rediscover the column in the Bangkok Post online. I would learn that Bernard Trink had been writing the Night Owl column for more than 30 years and would write it for a good few more until the Post decided it wasn’t a good fit in a family newspaper and pulled the plug. That wasn’t the very end. The column reappeared online but that model didn’t work and just a few months later it was over. Some 40 odd years after he first started writing, Bernard Trink’s Night Owl column ended.
The very definition of an old Asia hand, Bernard Trink spent most of his adult life in Asia with the majority of that time in Thailand. He served in the Korean War. He worked briefly in India before moving to Hong Kong. He had a few years in Japan and followed his pregnant Thai wife to Bangkok. I’m not going to write a biography of the man as that has been done numerous times over the years. In brief, Bernard Trink is a New Yorker who found himself in Bangkok in the ‘60s. He took over the Night Owl column for Bangkok World which was then taken over by the Bangkok Post. He chronicled the city’s expat nightlife for 4 decades in a column featuring nightlife news and photos along with observations and anecdotes of expat life. Before the Internet, Trink was the only game in town and the Night Owl column was a must-read for expats.
Bernard Trink’s column was enjoyed by generations of Bangkok expats and the Bangkok Post’s circulation increased every Saturday (and towards the end, every Friday), the day the Night Owl column appeared.
The first time I saw Trink in person was in the Scala cinema in Siam Square. It was 2003 and we had to make space as he and his Thai Mrs. came in just after the auditorium lights had dimmed, squeezed past us and sat a couple of seats along from us. Even in the dark I recognised the unmistakable figure of Bernard Trink.
Trink was his own man. He was never seen without his Night Owl medallion which he wore outside his shirt. It was one of many eccentricities he was known for.
I first met Trink in 2004. I had requested an interview and to my surprise and delight he granted it. I was told to turn up at the lobby of the Bangkok Post at 1:00 AM! A little sheepishly, I asked if we could meet earlier. He grumbled that we could meet at midnight. He came in an hour early especially to meet me, which was something he almost never did. The name Night Owl was fitting.
We didn’t chat a lot before the 2-hour interview. He gave me a quick tour of the Bangkok Post offices and we got stuck in to things. I ran that interview over two parts in the column and even now, 16 years later, it’s a real insight in to the man and his time as Bangkok’s legendary nightlife columnist.
Bernard Trink interview part 1, published August 8, 2004.
Bernard Trink interview part 2, published August 15, 2004.
We didn’t keep in touch after that interview but we did bump in to each other frequently at the cinema and would always have a chat.
For someone who had such a high profile for so long, not a lot is known about his lifestyle after he stopped writing his column. I don’t know anyone who saw Trink on Sukhumvit after he stopped writing, and I never once saw him or even heard of any sightings of him in any of the favourite haunts for old-timers like Madrid or Bourbon Street. He was a teetotaler so I wouldn’t have expected to see him in the bars.
Trink was a lifelong movie buff and most Saturdays could be found catching the matinee at Scala in Siam Square. It was the one place you were pretty much guaranteed to see Bernard with his wife of almost 60 years faithfully by his side.
The last time I spoke with Bernard was September 21st, 2019. He seemed to be doing ok given he was 88 years old. He moved slowly but without assistance. I didn’t think he had changed all that much since the first time I met him in the offices of the Bangkok Post some 15 years earlier.
His mind remained sharp. We had a brief chat about nothing much in particular, basically just sharing pleasantries. He asked if I was still writing the column – he didn’t keep up with what is going on – and he had a good laugh when I said that I had stopped, but then resumed a year later.
Trink had his eccentricities. After almost 60 years in Thailand he never picked up the language. He retained a distinctive New York accent. He never went out without his Night Owl medallion. He thought nothing of undoing his belt buckle and unzipping his trousers when he sat down, finding it much more comfortable. He commented for years on some of the quirkier things of expat life, like the ever-increasing price of a can of Dinty Moore stew. Some of these eccentricities attracted the usual unkind comments online from those who didn’t know him.
I don’t claim to have known Bernard Trink well, but what I can say is that every time I bumped in to him we would share a few words and he was always friendly, gracious and interested in what I was up to. He would always make a point of saying hello to the other half and asking her how she was. The other half described him as sweet. I always thought he was the very definition of a gentleman.
Bernard had been unwell recently, and was in and out of hospital. He passed away earlier this week. He was 89. His funeral will be held today at Wat That Tong, Prakanong, at 2:00 PM.
Bernard Trink is an icon of expat Bangkok. And I always found him to be a true gentleman.
Last week’s photo was taken of the hardware shop on the corner of Sukhumvit soi 17, opposite Robinson’s. It along with its neighbouring shops will be moving deeper in to soi 19.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Didn’t pay a sin sod.
My Thai wife and I live in the UK. I must have at least 25 mates who are also married to Thai women. As far as I know, most of them did not pay a dowry. At least, that is what they tell me. I do know a few who went through the village ceremony and the official paper signing. Some just had the village do. We just did the official signing at the amphur. No village party. I have not paid a sin sod in any shape or form. It is not that I didn’t want to, rather I can’t afford it. I don’t know what her family think about this because they don’t talk to me. They more than likely call me kee-neow! Oh, well…
The dire state of Soi Cowboy.
I concur 100% on the awful state of Soi Cowboy. I had not been there in some time but this past week I had a friend in tow from Nana and we decided to head to Country Road for some live music. It was drizzling and the taxi dropped us off at the entrance at soi 23 so we walked the length of Soi Cowboy before reaching Country Road. Wow, it was so depressing, even compared with my last visit a month ago. Nana girl was in a state of disbelief. She had been told that Soi Cowboy was Bangkok’s premier gogo area and as such she could not believe what she was seeing. The next hour or so was spent texting all of her gogo friends at Nana about what a dilapidated and sorry state Soi Cowboy was in – and to not even think about taking a job there! I concur, and if this keeps up in a few months I would not be surprised to wake up and find that Soi Cowboy has been bulldozed. I don’t think Soi Cowboy can survive at this rate for much longer. Nana on the other hand is doing better. At least when you go to Nana you can have a pretty good time without the feeling you’re in a ghost town. I might return to Soi Cowboy in a few months…..to see if it is still there!
Postcard from Patong.
A friend went to Phuket this weekend, raving beforehand about how cheap everything was. When he arrived he said the experience was surreal. Things were much quieter in Patong than they are in Pattaya. He had problems finding an open restaurant. He then went to Phuket Town which was much livelier. 3 different bars were completely packed, but it was locals and not farangs who were the customers.
Thai hotels and refunds.
This week the flights I booked back in January from the UK to Bangkok were cancelled. Etihad is refunding the airfare. I emailed the hotels I’d booked – Salil Hotel in Bangkok, Montha Hotel in Chiang Mai and Sabai Wing in Pattaya. When I booked each of those hotels, I chose the cheapest option – the one that says if you cancel you’re screwed with no chance of getting any money back. I have stayed in all these hotels before, so maybe that helped, but imagine my surprise when first Sabai Wing, then Montha and finally Salil all sent emails confirming they would refund my money. I was so impressed! I didn’t really have a leg to stand on, but without any quibbling each hotel refunded my money. My friends and I will be back in Thailand as soon as we can travel and we will definitely stay in the same hotels. Even amongst adversity, it’s great to see how nice Thai people can be.
Bad hotel experience.
Regarding the hotel-bashing American who wrote reviews on TripAdvisor about the hotel in Ko Chang, in 2016 I wrote a harsh review of a hotel in Pattaya. The entire hotel smelled like shit and I ended up at Bangkok Pattaya Hospital with Salmonella (I had only eaten at the hotel). I wrote a critical review and got an angry reply from the GM. The one tantrum I have had in Thailand was when I wanted to leave Bangkok Pattaya Hospital. After 3 days they had not cleared things with my insurance company and were reluctant to let me leave. It’s a no-no to explode in Thailand but I calculated that nobody would jump on me in a hospital corridor!
Opening up Thailand.
Thailand needs to become more open to the idea of re-opening the borders. They have shot themselves in the foot (as usual) by sealing off the whole country. The impact on the economy is massive, considering 15 – 20% of GDP is made up of tourism. What about taxi drivers in Pattaya, Phuket, Samui and also Bangkok? Are they seen as working in the tourism industry, or are they classified as the transport sector? I think the latter. And bargirls? In which category are they? None, I think. And what about companies that produce food for restaurants mainly catering for tourists? And so on. In my city, Amsterdam, for example, 80% of taxi drivers can’t make a decent living now without tourists and foreign business people so most rely on government support. It’s like that for many tourism-related businesses, but even the government’s support scheme (extended well in to 2021) is not enough to survive. You really need your own reserves to get by. The damage done to the Thai economy is massive. But what difference will the current efforts to slowly open the country for tourists make? Two weeks in quarantine to start with isn’t very inviting!
Girl Of The Week
Sai, Butterflies, Nana Plaza
Sai has worked at Butterflies for a few years.
24 years old, she has matured from shy girl to woman, both in looks and attitude.
Sai is from Phichit and likes to cook Thai food in her spare time.
Heavy rains have done nothing for trade in the bars. It’s the peak of the rainy season and as it does every year, heavy rains keeps many expats at home. Figure it to be this way for another month or so until the clouds part.
It’s the same old story in Nana where the twin bars of Billboard and Butterflies are creaming it and other bars fight for the scraps. Two other bars in the Nana neighbourhood I hear good things about are Twister in the plaza which is said to be doing well, and a little bit down the road, Hillary 2 is also doing ok.
Away from Nana but still in the Sukhumvit zone, venues which are popular later at night like Sugar, Insanity and Levels are apparently doing well. Not every venue is open every night so if you’re heading out you might like to check on the bars’ respective Facebook pages to see which venues are open which nights.
Still on Sukhumvit soi 11, it’s the same old story with Hemingway and Oskar doing well while other regular-hours venues are in the doldrums. Much of Sukhumvit soi 11 including many of the smaller bars and most of the restaurants remain closed. Apoteka up at the top of soi 11 reopened a few weeks back and is doing well. The band has changed and plays a mix of old and modern popular tracks. Customers are a mix of Thais and expats.
Burger King in Soi Thonglor is decked out in Christmas decorations already. Christmas decorations go up early in Thailand and by this time next month Christmas carols will probably be playing in some downtown shopping malls. Early October does seem rather early, even for Thailand.
Has a lady of the night you once knew been in touch with you? If she has, no doubt she has (rightly) told you that times are tough, she has no money and that she’d like to come around and see you (assuming you’re in Bangkok or Pattaya). Friends and readers tell me that ladies they have not heard from in a long time – and in some cases they cannot even remember (!) – have been in contact, asking to go around and see them as they looking for ways to make money. It’s a sign of the times.
It may be quiet, but some friends in Bangkok and Pattaya are enjoying their favourite haunts with few customers about. One fellow made the point this week that while the footfall around Sukhumvit is much lower than it used to be, there are still things happening and there is still an atmosphere inside the bars. So some customers might be enjoying it but obviously business owners aren’t exactly thrilled. The good news is that no-one – business owners and customers alike – want to see the Bangkok we all know and love to die.
One observation from people on the ground is that you see far fewer farangs on the skytrain these days. It’s just another indicator how many of the foreigners in Bangkok you used to see were actually tourists and not expats.
The Mad Scientist is still up to his old tricks, single-handedly decorating the pavements of downtown Bangkok. The snap above was taken by a reader near the Ekamai BTS station yesterday.
Popular expat fiction writer Jake Needham’s latest novel “Mongkok Station” is available now at Amazon.com.
The Thailand Elite card is a solution for those who may not qualify for a one-year visa but who wish to stay in Thailand legally, long-term. It is not cheap and the most affordable option, a 5-year visa costs 500,000 baht. Thailand Elite will increase prices from the start of 2021. The 5-year Elite visa will increase from 500,000 baht to 600,000 baht.
There are fewer white guys out and about these days and many of the Japanese salarymen aren’t getting out at night either. From a friend who knows some of Bangkok’s many Japanese housewives, word is that many of these guys have had their entertainment allowance cut or even stopped altogether.
Rumblings in the mainstream media suggest that a vaccine for Covid-19 will become available some time next year. Thinking about Thailand, a vaccine for Covid19 comes with all sorts of questions. I guess the one on many people’s minds is whether Thailand will require visitors to show proof of immunisation against Covid-19. One imagines that probably will be a requirement – and if it is, it is going to upset plenty with a not insignificant number indicating they would prefer not to be jabbed. Next, what happens to all of the expats in Thailand? We assume that the vaccine will be free for Thais – but what about expats and other foreigners living in Thailand? Will it be available to them? Will they have to pay? And will they be required to show proof of immunisation when they go to Immigration for their next visa extension?
This Week’s News-Feed / Thailand-Related News Articles
Quote of the week comes from a friend, “The vibe in the bars is what I create when I plug in my cellphone and play tunes from the player.”
This video shows just how quiet things are in Phuket right now.
The head of a panel steering the country’s economic recovery insists Thailand needs to reopen.
Why did a Thai Airways Boeing 777 fly to an obscure airport in the USA this week?
Thailand is doing a great job of confusing and quite possibly even alienating those who wish to visit the country.
The majority of Thais are still not in favour of the country opening up to foreign tourists.
The American who wrote malicious reviews and made spurious claims about a resort on Ko Chang reaches an agreement with the resort to avoid being prosecuted.
The BBC look at the death of the Full Moon Party.
It’s been a funny old week with the column. First off it looked like I would be writing a follow-up to my car tale of woe, but finally that all got sorted, I got a new car and all is well. So that column didn’t happen. I then went on to write three different column openers. The first was about the challenges of making friends with a Thai wife who doesn’t really get on with or click with your friends’ wives. What I came up with was flat so I have put that on hold as it needs more work. The next column was about Farang+Thai couples whose relationships had been detrimentally affected by Covid-19. That column came together nicely and was ready to be published until I heard yesterday that Bernard Trink had passed away. Bernard Trink is a big part of the nightlife history and I wanted to write a tribute to him which meant writing my third opening piece in a week. If you have any Bernard Trink stories to share, please do email me and hopefully there will be some fun stories to run in the emails section of next week’s column. RIP, Bernard.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]