Looking Back At 2020, The Year Of Covid
It goes without saying that this has been a really tough year. When I left Bangkok 16 months ago I thought I’d be back 4 or 5 months later. But Covid put paid to that and I haven’t been back to Thailand since. But I can’t use that as a excuse and week after week I have to produce a few thousand words about what’s going on in Bangkok. This week I take a look back at a year writing about the comings and goings in a place I haven’t stepped foot in this calendar year.
It would be clichéd to say this has been a terrible year for me when, honestly, it probably hasn’t. All things considered, life isn’t bad in New Zealand at the moment. That’s not to say it has been a great year, it’s more the case that it hasn’t been that bad.
Life here in New Zealand really is largely back to normal. It’s summer and the weather is great. Crowds line the foreshore in Auckland to watch the America’s Cup with no social distancing and nary a face-mask to be seen. You can party all night long in a crowded pub if you so wish and concerts and music festivals will take place over summer as planned. Shops are full of berries, cherries and other summer fruit. And if you want to take a holiday over the next month, you’re too late – all the hotspots are already booked out. Covid in New Zealand is under control and we have freedom to live our lives largely as we please.
Be that as it may, I live this unusual life where part of my focus is always several thousand kilometres away. This column is never far from my mind and my weekly routine cycles through gathering news and gossip from expat society and trying to put together something worth tuning in for every Sunday. For the first time in the almost 20-year history of this column I started to wonder if I could continue to put something worthwhile together week after week. Could I manage it when I can’t visit Thailand?
I have long become used to working remotely and writing from afar but I have never been away for this long. But that wasn’t such a problem. What really made it difficult was when the bar industry shut down for a few months. Not only wasn’t I there, much of what I wrote about had shut down!
Somehow I managed to fumble my way through those months when the bars were closed. I still scratch my head and wonder how I managed it.
My weekly ramblings would not be possible without the help of a number of people who kindly provide me with news from the ground, photos and gossip, week after week. Some of these people I know, and some are old friends. There are a few I have never met. I am grateful to you all. Without your help, this column would be awfully thin.
I am lucky to have such a loyal and understanding readership. Most of you have are very reasonable in your expectations. Everyone knows it would be better if I was there in Bangkok on the ground, reporting from the frontlines, while at the same time there is an acceptance that it is what it is – and producing a column from outside the country is better than no column at all.
It has been a challenge to put a positive spin on things. Take the LINE message from a trusted friend sent last night, “Fairly busy on Cowboy tonight but still less people than a quiet night in low season“. I’d love nothing more than to be upbeat, but I’m no spin doctor and I’m not going to say things are rocking when clearly they aren’t. Still, some of the better bars have done ok and hopefully that message has got through.
I wish bar operators were as helpful as some readers are. Few bar owners let me know what is happening in their venue. Some I only hear from if they’re not happy about something – and oftentimes it is not what you said, but what you didn’t! I.e. Why didn’t you mention the party we had last night with free food?! Err, how difficult is it to drop me an email about it before the event?!
One of the best sources of bar news and intel this year is the girls themselves. One old friend who goes out most Fridays and has long been a source of info has got in to the habit of asking the girls if they have had a staff meeting recently – and if they have, what was said. The girls are always happy to talk to regulars about what the mamasans have announced at the meeting.
It’s been a funny old year and not a lot has happened. I guess international travel is such a big part of our lives these days that when it’s taken away you feel a big hole in your life. The highlight of this year? A 2-week jaunt around the South Island.
I’ll save my predictions for 2021 for my usual look ahead to the next year which will open next week’s column. But before I sign off, I’ll try to answer the question so many of you are asking – when will we be able to travel to Thailand quarantine-free? My best guess – and it is nothing more than that, a guess – is late Q3 or early Q4 of next year. That means it’s probably going to be another 9 months or so before most of us can get back to Thailand. For me, that would mean writing the column having been away for a couple of years. You don’t have to be there on the ground to know that Bangkok is not the same Bangkok we have come to know, love and at times, loathe. I’ll keep writing this column for as long as I can. I will give it my best every week, and I hope you continue to tune in.
Last week’s photo was taken of the Marriott on Sukhumvit soi 22 which when it first opened as the Queen’s Park was the largest hotel in Bangkok (but not the largest in all of Thailand). This week’s photo was taken very recently in a soi popular with farangs. Probably the best clues as to the exact spot are the buildings in the background.
Stick’s Inbox – The best emails from the past week.
Pining for the past.
It is true that many hungry punters eagerly awaiting a return to Thailand may well be sitting on a tonne of cash. However, in my situation and no doubt for others too, this is not the case. In February I left a job in South-East Asia to return to the UK to process the paperwork in preparation for a job in Saudi Arabia, supposedly commencing mid-April. Since returning to the UK, I’ve had zero income. Luckily, I have a roof over my head and food on my plate, but my outgoings each week are significant. The days when I had a lot of disposable income during my many years in the Gulf are long gone. Those were the days when I frequently stayed in Bangkok’s 5-star hotels and thoroughly enjoyed myself day and night. Now, though, if I do manage to get back to Bangkok some day, I could well be holidaying on a budget. For people like me, the good old days are unlikely to repeat themselves.
Bargains abound for drinkers.
At Red Lion English Pub it’s impossible to spend money. After a couple of beers you soon don’t care about the bright lights. 80 baht for a large Asahi is insanely good value. This bar has changed the dynamic. There are bars I used to go to that I don’t stop by anymore. Most of it is price led. The cheap bars now have many competitors. I used to frequent a pub on Soi 4 but I’m in no hurry to get back there to pay 150 baht / pint when I can drink in Monsoon for 100 baht / pint. There is a local watering hole down soi 8 with cheap beer but we barely go there anymore as Monsoon is cool, modern and the Aussie bar manager is friendly as. The winners in all this I believe will be the group that keeps knocking up the English and Irish bars – Shenanigans, Red Lion, O’Shea’s etc.
Two magic words.
I heard the two best words: “No mamasan”. “Free drinks” would be even better, but I’ll spring for a drink at Whiskey A Gogo next time I’m in town. With a little more freedom to dress as they like, listen to music they like, and to choose their honey for the night, the ladies will be more fun and I’m sure the experience there will be much better than the average bar.
Even with quarantine, Thailand is tempting.
I just read that more than 120 hotels in Bangkok can be used for quarantine. From an initial peek at the list and prices, I’m tempted to stick swabs up my nose and make a run for it. 80K baht for 15 days holed up in a decent hotel whilst working and getting half-decent room service and seeing the sun is tempting when you consider I am in my 11th month stuck in my home office, with cold rain and no sun for weeks to come.
What will 2021 bring?
They hope to roll out the vaccine in Thailand from May so I think it looks like they will likely drop quarantine requirements around September or October once most of the population is vaccinated, and in time for the next high season <I reckon your timetable is about spot on – Stick>. As has been mentioned by others, I’m slightly worried that once the floodgates open the Thais may hike prices to silly levels. If they do that, they might be in for a rude awakening. Ok, lots of people have been sitting pretty with no loss of earnings and saving far more than usual during the pandemic. However, many people have either lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in earnings. If we take the UK as an example, I don’t actually think the full loss of jobs will be felt until the middle of 2021. I also think that some people’s addiction to Thailand trips has weakened. Some will not bother to return if they hear reports of big price increases.
Looking for a lifeLINE in Patpong.
I passed through Patpong last night on my way home. I imagine it’s very much like it was in the early ’70s before the market, except there were fewer venues open. The adjacent King’s Group bars have merged as you said they would and the line-up is indeed quite good. I counted around a dozen customers, mostly Asians. A beer was 170 baht. I only stayed for one. Nothing notable, except the lady who was sitting next to me (not with me) asked me if I wanted to connect with her on LINE. I’ve never had a request like that before. Connecting on LINE is quite common but only once you’ve established a rapport, and it’s usually a but ‘under the table’ as bar owners don’t like the girls moonlighting. This was much more open and forward.
Girl Of The Week
Nikki, Spanky’s, Nana Plaza
Described by the boss as super sexy and loyal to a fault.
The frontage of the newest bar in Nana Plaza – said to be a joint venture between Rainbow and Spankys – was unveiled this week. Like other recently opened / renovated bars, it will feature a large video screen which can show videos of the bar’s choosing. I believe it will open within a month.
On Soi Cowboy, Lighthouse has a fantastic deal on local beers and house pour spirits which are now 90 baht every night of the week, all night long.
And Lighthouse’s sister bar Shark is offering the same special – 90 baht beers and 90 baht house pour spirits all night, every night. With great deals like these, Bangkok expats have no excuses not to head out to the old traps.
Business was said to be much improved on Friday and Saturday night on Soi Cowboy. More neon was turned on with only the frontages for Crazy Cat and the (many) Arab bars in darkness. Despite the still relatively low – but much improved – customer numbers, many bars have still made an effort with Christmas trees and other festive decorations erected along the soi.
Crazy House had a good crowd in, with many Japanese. A few girls were seen shrieking and then running across the bar and jumping on top of the odd farang customer. One assumes a regular customer who had not been seen in some time had finally made it back.
Dollhouse on Cowboy has a bunch of new dancers. It’s not known if they are merely new faces in the bar, or new recruits to the industry.
Moonshine Joint, one of those smaller Soi Cowboy bars hardly ever mentioned in this column, was rammed on Friday night. The small bar had a group of farangs who took over the music-video machine and kept up a steady stream of death-metal dirge. Some customers fled to Jungle Jim’s next door – another bar you seldom mentioned here – to escape the awful music.
Hillary Group’s expansion continues with word that they are considering a location on Sukhumvit soi 12 for the return of Climax.
In Nana Plaza, Sexy Night has joined a number of other bars which don’t open on Monday nights. This isn’t such a bad thing as it means the girls get a whole night off each week without penalty. (Plenty of bars only allow the girls to take off just two nights per month – any more and their salary is cut.)
Billboard and Butterflies – on the top floor of Nana Plaza – would love you to stop by to celebrate Christmas. There won’t be a big party Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year, but they promise a festive atmosphere all the same. There WILL be a party, big one actually for New Year’s – more details next week.
There’s not a party, per se, but the Erotica Playskool pupils have stripped down to the sexiest Santa-style bikinis with the aim of giving every visitor a Happy Christmas. They’ll be in their G-ingle G-strings from December 23rd – 26th. Everyone is invited to pop down their chimneys on what will certainly not be a silent night.
A downtown Bangkok bar (NOT a gogo bar) appeared to go to great lengths to convince the world that it’s a happening venue and that punters should stop by. The bar posted photos on their Facebook page of the venue full of punters watching a live sports match. One particularly clever Stickman reader happened to be watching that very match between two big-name football teams live and noticed something odd – the score on the TV in the background was not the same as on his TV at home in Farangland. It turns out that the bar was using legacy photos of a match between those two teams in what appears to be an effort to hype the venue and make out it was busy when in all likelihood it wasn’t. I won’t tell you what the gamebeing shown on TV was because that might give away which bar it was – and that just wouldn’t be nice with bars struggling at this time, would it?!
I have got almost no news for you from Pattaya this week, save for one spicy titbit. Rumour has reached me that RJ, AKA Captain Hornbag, long known as Big Andy’s sidekick and loyal lieutenant, is going back to where it all started and will take up a position in a Nana Plaza gogo bar. Exactly which bar I don’t know. Captain Hornbag is a fantastic bar manager and whoever manages to secure his services has made a great choice.
The huge holes in the road that felt like they had become a feature along Soi Nana back in 2018 and 2019 are still a feature today! The laying of pipes or whatever it is they have been doing along the soi for what feels like years is still a thing.
Popular Sukhumvit soi 8 restaurant and bar Monsoon reopened last night, having undergone renovations. There was a sizeable turnout. Full marks to the venue for seizing the moment to upgrade the venue. I wonder how many other bars and restaurants will use this quiet time to do the same? Billboard in Nana Plaza is one of few venues which spring to mind which spruced up the venue during the lockdown period.
For those lucky enough to find themselves in Bangkok at this time, drinks specials are being offered all over town as even the best bars which have never discounted do everything they can to get punters in the door. 2 for the price of 1 seems to be the most popular offer while plenty of bars have dropped prices to around half the standard price. These drinks promotions are changing people’s habits. More than a few readers have told me that they are much more inclined to head to bars where drinks are attractively priced. Amongst some there is a growing reluctance to pay higher prices (that were the norm pre-Covid). Will more bars be forced to drop prices to compete? What will happen to these drinks specials post-Covid? Will they remain?
I see more friction in Thailand’s YouTube community where a fellow who posts videos under the name Thailand Red made some outrageously offensive comments about Buddhist monks. Some took exception and retribution has been swift as the young Brit known as Thailand Red has been outed online. While I find the idea of revenge distasteful, what on earth was this clown thinking making such horrible and terribly disrespectful comments about monks while at the same time he lives in a Buddhist country?
How long do expats have Bangkok to themselves before tourists start to return (in large numbers)? 6 months? 9 months? A year? My best guess at this point in time – and it can never be anything more than a guess – is that the border will open without the need for quarantine for those who can show proof they have been vaccinated around late Q3 or early Q4 of 2021. It will take time for airlines to ramp up flight schedules and there will no doubt be other issues and a few hiccups along the way (just look at Thailand now where Covid has made a return to the capital). So for expats, I reckon you’ve probably got Bangkok to yourself for at least another several more months.
The bus to Pattaya has shrunk! A friend who shot down to Sin City last weekend – which was a holiday / long weekend and as such you’d expect would be busy – was surprised to see the bus making the run to Pattaya was closer in size to a minivan than a full-sized bus. Gone are the days when you arrived at the Ekamai Bus Station, bought a ticket to Pattaya and had to wait an hour because the next few buses were already full. It’s a sign of the times.
A lot of time and effort has gone in to this 36-minute video outlining the history of nightlife on Nana & Sukhumvit Road. If you have any interest in the history of the area, this is well worth spending 36 minutes watching.
When it comes to dealing with or doing deals with Thais, I cringe when they use the word “will”. Thais using this word in the context that they will do something you want / need them to do as part of a deal or as a promise doesn’t fill me with confidence, irrespective of whether it has been discussed in Thai or English, if I am ever in negotiation with a Thai who promises to do something, I insist on them doing it there and then. The idea of commitments to do something in Thailand can be very loose.
For much of 2019 and some of 2020 – including during the early days of the Covid19 pandemic – Chuwit Park adjacent to Sukhumvit soi 12 was home to Artbox, an eating / drinking / entertainment area that became particularly popular when pretty much everywhere else was closed. ArtBox was one of few places that continued to have a vibe and something approaching a party atmosphere. ArtBox is no longer and Chuwit Park reverted back to a private park, closed to the general public. Some time back it was announced that yet another Bangkok high-rise would go up there. Enjoy (the view of) this rare green space in downtown Bangkok while it lasts.
I note that the Thai baht has quietly appreciated in value. Hand over a crisp, new $USD 100 banknote and you’ll get less than 3,000 baht for it. The current rate on USD at even the money changers with the best rates is 29.xx.
Terrible news broke in Thailand last night with a whopping 548 new cases of Covid reported, a huge increase after there had been a dozen or so cases of Covid each of the couple of previous days. This new outbreak is centred in Samut Sakhon province which is just south-west of Bangkok and on the way to Hua Hin. It has been attributed to migrant labour crossing the border from Myanmar. That such large numbers were found is going to cause all sorts of worry. Already there have been widespread cancellations of events planned to celebrate New Year. Here’s hoping things are brought under control fast.
This Week’s News-Feed / Thailand-Related News Articles
Quote of the week comes from a prominent figure in the bar industry in Sin City who I daren’t attribute these few words to, “Pattaya’s fucked!”
A Bangkok Post editorial looks at what needs to be done to improve the tourism industry.
How have Thailand and Cambodia managed to keep Covid numbers so low?
British Airways has halted all flights to Bangkok until the end of October, 2021.
The Thailand Tourism Authority and Tinder are working together on matchmaking tours.
Covid returns to Thailand with a vengeance – over 500 people test positive in one day.
Thank you for tuning in to this column over the past year, and thank you for all your encouragement and support over this most difficult of years. Never have I been so reliant on readers to produce this column and be my eyes on the ground. Without your help, the content of this column would have become very thin indeed. To everyone who has tuned in this year, be it a solitary visit or as a regular reader, thank you for stopping by. Despite the challenges of geography, I’ll continue to strive to put together a column that is relevant and engaging. All the best for a very Merry Christmas!
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org