Stickman's Weekly Column January 17th, 2021

Not Your Ordinary Restaurant Manager



We first met close to 20 years ago and over the years we would bump in to each other around the traps. Each time I came across him it seemed like he had moved on to something more interesting. As time passed by, he gained a bit of a profile as the manager of some well-known venues. Today he is the manager and a partner in one of the city’s longest-running and most-loved farang food eateries, Charley Brown’s. David is an interesting character who has experienced much of what Bangkok has to offer – the good and the bad. Best of all, he’s open, honest and willing to talk about it all. Let me introduce you to David.

 

You first emailed me a real long time ago – it must have been around 2001 or so. Can you remember when and where we first met?

It was and I do. Stickman is the reason I’m in Thailand. I was 32, had a miserable office job in the UK and I felt I was rotting away. I could envisage myself retiring from that same job having seen nothing of the world and wasted my life.

I was studying karate and was close to getting my black belt. And I thought it would be cool to earn it in Okinawa, Japan. So, I started researching living in Asia.

Japan seemed very expensive so I looked for a cheaper alternative to experience living and working in Asia before moving to Japan.

The most information I could find was about Thailand and was on your website (thanks for that).

I moved out here in June 2002 planning to stay for a year and then go to Japan.

I messaged you in July wanting to thank you and buy you a beer. At that time, there was a burger and pool bar in Nana Plaza called Woodstock. It was in the current Rainbow 5 location. You had a weekly Friday gathering and invited me along.

I met you and a bunch of other locals. Had some beers and burgers and a good chat. I’d been in Thailand about 3 weeks and you spoke fluent Thai. To me, that seemed like a superpower. I was such a newbie.

After that, I got a job in Hat Yai and we didn’t meet again for another 3 years.

Even getting that particular job was because I was so green and stupid. “A job? In Hat Yai? Doesn’t that mean ‘Big Beach’? Well, if there’s a big beach and it’s in the South of Thailand, count me in!” (Anyone who has been to Hat Yai knows there’s no beach for 30 km.)

I recall you got your Bangkok stripes as an English teacher, as many of us did. You’ve come a long way since then. What are some of the things you’ve done in Bangkok before you ended up at Charley Browns?

That’s right. I was using Thailand as a sounding board – could I teach? Could I make money? Did I enjoy Asia? If I could do it for a year, I’d be set up to move on to Okinawa.

But even living in Hat Yai was eye-opening and exciting for me. I was many Thai people’s first sight of a farang. I spent my first Songkran at Kanchanaburi. I saw a large family pointing at me and whispering. Eventually, they pushed a chubby daughter over to ask in broken English if they could take a photo with me and I agreed.

I’d assumed it would be a group picture. But it wasn’t. I had to sit on a fallen tree while 15 Thais shuffled up individually for a single unsmiling photo standing next to me, who was grinning like a madman. I remember I had a big, red spot on my forehead. It’s crazy to imagine what they think when they found all those photos years later.

I stayed. Taught in Chiang Mai for a year – I was in a movie with Tom Berenger and Joe Cummings (Joe still stops in for tamales, but Tom has forgotten me). Then I moved to Bang Na for a teaching gig.

Eventually, I switched professions. I went to work for the Ball in Hand group on Soi 4, running Metro Bar, which was a pool bar with quality spirits and bourbons, located in the car park of the Rajah Hotel – we had a great-looking female staff, they could all play pool to a high standard. One of the owners was an amicable Norwegian guy called Henning. He’d been a champion pool player and taught the girls how to control the white ball for positional play. There were a lot of red-faced guys getting 7-balled there. I think Celebrity Ink Tattoo shop is now sitting on the old location.

After that, I was a pimp for 3 days, working for Andy at the old Electric Blue gogo bar in Patpong… If I’m not wrong, I think you may have had a hand in introducing me to Andy for that job.

But it wasn’t for me. I remember the first day sitting down with Andy. I had 3 pages of A4 paper with 75 ideas. I figured, if I was going to manage a gogo bar, I was going to make it the best gogo bar in the city. It would be a ‘must-see’ attraction.

I went through each page and Andy patiently shot down every idea, finishing with, “Look, all I want is a guy to sit at the bar, drinking and talking bullshit.” I knew I wasn’t the right guy, so I quit two days later.

I had a spell working for Bed Supperclub with the beautiful and wealthy. They opened a new club in Patong, Phuket and I oversaw the building and managing of it. I worked 16-hour days for a year, but couldn’t fill it. Eventually, they sacked me (I would have done the same in their shoes) and tried several other managers and formats, but none of them worked – I had a look about 13 months ago and it’s a derelict building now.

And that’s when I became partner / manager at Charley Brown’s when it was still on Soi 11.

Charley Brown’s is one of the longest-running farang restaurants in Bangkok, right? If restaurants spoke Thai and used honorifics, even Bourbon Street would refer to Charley Brown as pee. Can you give us a brief history of the venue?

A BRIEF history? Have you ever listened to one of my stories?!

I’ll give it a go… In 1974, a guy called Dan Loveland wrote the song, ‘Billy, Don’t Be A Hero’ and opened a restaurant called Charley Brown’s in Kansas (See? If you were in the restaurant, I’d have sung you the chorus).

In the early 90s, Dan visited Bangkok and there was no Mexican food to speak of, so he went home, packed up his restaurant into shipping containers and set it up in Town-in-Town. It was difficult to get ingredients, so he built a factory and made his own corn chips and tortillas – the same ones we use today.

In 2002, he was closing the restaurant side of things and my business partner (whom I hadn’t met then) asked to buy it. His name is Gordon Ellard, a Brit who was born in Thailand and holds dual nationality.

He searched for a new location and eventually settled on a little sub-soi on Soi 11 which at that time was home to a couple of sleazy bars, massage parlours and an outside bar called Cheap Charlies. But Gordon foresaw the nightlife potential of the soi.

Cheap Charlies brought people to the soi for cheap drinks. We offered the comfort food. Q Bar had just opened. Bed Supperclub opened shortly after that. And then Soi 11 became nightlife Mecca for expats and well-to-do Thais.

A rising tide carries all ships and we all did well during that decade.

After 13 years, the landlord of our little sub-soi decided to sell the land to developers and we had to relocate. We found a similar soi just off Soi 19, a stone’s throw from the BTS behind the Westin Hotel.

Chef Primo Rivera joined our team – and raised the bar for Mexican food in Bangkok. He’s cooked for Beyonce, Pink, Madonna, Taylor Swift, presidents and kings while working in Cabo San Lucas. We’re very lucky to have him.

How have things worked out since you moved from the old – some would say iconic – location of Charley Brown’s in that sub-soi off Sukhumvit soi 11 to the new location just off soi 19?

It’s a 3 chapter story.

The first year was difficult. People thought we’d closed down forever. It took 12 months for us to get numbers back up to Soi 11 levels.

The second year was fantastic. We held big parties for Cinco de Mayo, Dia de Los Muertos, Mexican Independence Day and we built connections with the Mexican Embassy and Latin community.

And we’re in Chapter 3 – The Plague Years – right now… Which is, let’s say, an emotional roller coaster.

Let’s get on to that a little later. Do you think of yourselves as a foreign restaurant i.e. more popular with foreigners than Thais? I ask because whenever I stop by you seem to have plenty of Thai customers.

We never set out to target any nationality. We were a casual restaurant that had good, cheap, strong drinks and efficient staff.

But Thai and Mexican food share a lot of characteristics; bold flavours, hot spices, communal dining and sharing dishes.

I think it was about 4 years ago, I looked across the restaurant one night and realised I was the only westerner in the place.

I checked the spend per head of different guests. Thais and Japanese spend a lot more on dinner than other nationalities. They like to spend a long time eating, trying new dishes and will often order 3 or 4 times in an evening. And they really like a drink or two.

Quite a few restaurant operators tell me that Thai customers are, in many ways, preferable to Western customers – be they expats or visitors. I frequently hear that Thais spend more per head, are less picky and are, generally, less likely to complain. What percentage of your customers are Thai – and would you agree with these sentiments?

I wouldn’t say ‘preferable’. Every nationality has its pros and cons.

I’d estimate about 30% of our guests are Thais. We get quite a few celebrities eating here (although my staff have to tell me who is famous).

If I was asked to choose my favourite type of guest, I’d say, ‘Hungry, thirsty and rich.’

Haha! I have always wondered what it was like running a restaurant, or any business in the hospitality industry in Thailand. While Thais can be very sweet and obliging, in terms of staffing I have often felt many Thais don’t “get” the service side of hospitality. The classic example that comes to mind is the waiter or waitress who walks to the table, looks at the diners expectantly, waiting for them to make an order, all while never so much as opening their mouth. Not a word is said – no greeting, no recommendation, no mention of the specials, no nothing! There might be a barely perceptible nod as customers make their order and when everyone has ordered, the waiter / waitress walks away, not so much as a single word uttered! So what’s it really like working with Thais in this industry?

There are definitely huge differences between Western and Thai service styles and standards.

I always give credit to the staff for the restaurant’s longevity and popularity. I often say, I have no talent – I can’t cook, I’m useless at taking orders, I’m terrible at social media stuff. But if I have one talent, it’s finding good people – experience isn’t as important as personality. Right now, almost all my staff have been here between 5 and 16 years.

That staff retention is vital… Nobody is a newbie. Everyone knows the expectations. They don’t need constant supervision.

The front of house staff knows how to answer questions about the food. They’ve tasted every dish. They learned how to recommend dishes for vegetarians, vegans and people trying Mexican food for the first time. They know how to meet, greet and seat guests. They all repeat orders to cut down on mistakes. And they know that the kitchen has to prepare the whole order at once. Nothing annoys me more than sitting with my meal in front of me, waiting for everyone else’s food to arrive.

 

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Tell me about it – that is one of my pet peeves dining out in Thailand. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Thai, Western, Indian, Italian, whatever – there is little concept of all of the orders being served at the same time.

One thing that’s different at Charley Brown’s is that we don’t have a service charge. The price on the menu is the price you pay. If staff get tips, it’s because they earned them. They learned a new cuisine, they’re working in a second or third language and, when we’re busy, they’re running their asses off.

I’m always disappointed when big groups have separate bills and then ‘forget’ to tip.

I expect you don’t have many issues given you’re more a place to eat than to drink – but you must have had a few incidents in the bar given alcohol is available and, well, it’s Bangkok! Care to share any amusing or crazy incidents that spring to mind?

Lots of funny stories, but not that many alcohol-based ones.

My favourite was an Irish guy who visited with his Thai wife. I only mentioned he was Irish so you can hear the cursing in an Irish accent. I’m not sure how much of the profanity you’ll have to censor.

It was a busy night and the couple had no reservation. Nevertheless, I found them a table, but explained that it was booked in 90 minutes’ time and I’d need it back. I could tell he wasn’t happy, but that was the only available table.

45 minutes later they were eating their food, when the 4 guests in front of them, paid the bill and left. Immediately, he picked up his plate and glass and moved to that table, just as I was arriving with a Reserved sign.

I apologised and explained that this table was also booked (sometimes we turn tables 3 or 4 times on a busy night)

He started to get belligerent. “I want that fucking table.” “I’m sorry it’s booked. But you still have 45 minutes before your table is booked.”

“You said I could have that fucking table!”

“No. I said, I’d try to find you a table if you still needed one when the other group arrives.”

“You’re a fucking cunt!” This was getting pretty loud and every table was watching the scene.

“Look. Just sit back at your table. Finish your meal. And if you still need a seat in 45 minutes, you can sit at the bar.”

“I don’t want to sit at the fucking bar. I want to sit at this fucking table.”

By this time, I was getting weary of the guy, so I said, “Sit down. Finish your food. And mind your language. Be VERY careful about the next words out of your mouth.”

And he WAS! He thought about it for 10 or 15 seconds and then said, “Fuck you!”

So I put him outside the restaurant. He stood outside shouting, “I haven’t finished my dinner! What kind of fucking manager are you? I want to speak to the owner!” (I love that one)

I came back outside and said, ” I AM the owner… So fuck off.”

That should have been the end of the story, but 90 minutes later, he came back with two cops from Lumpini saying that I’d assaulted him, smashed his phone and his laptop.

The cops asked the staff what happened and they told the truth. The broken phone and laptop? He’d got two black and white pictures of a broken laptop and phone printed at home on A4 paper.

The cops were laughing by now… “Where are the real phone and laptop?”

“I forgot them.”

“Where did he assault you?”

“He grabbed my shirt. That’s assault.”

“Not in Bangkok… You should leave and stop wasting everyone’s time.”

His parting words shouted over his shoulder were, “You haven’t seen the last of me!”

But of course, I never saw him again.

Or last Halloween, the girl who asked me why I was dressed up.

I told her it was for Halloween.

“Yes… But what’s your costume supposed to be?”

“Oh… Well, have you seen The Tiger King?” (I was dressed as Joe Exotic.)

“Of course… Everybody has seen that…. But it’s called the LION King!”

I couldn’t be bothered trying to explain.

OK, let’s get back to the topic at hand. Covid has hammered the hospitality industry. What has it been like as a restaurateur and business owner stuck in the middle of this? What is some of the real-life stuff going on behind the scenes that the average customer might not have seen / be aware of?

Right… This is Charley Brown’s, Location Number 3, Chapter 3 – The Plague Years

We didn’t expect Covid-19… Nobody did. And at first, I was dismissive – “Don’t worry. I’ve lived through the AIDS epidemic, Y2K, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, Zika and countless doomsday scenarios… It always works out in the end.”

Yeah… I was eating my words soon after that!

When the government closed restaurants for dine-in guests in April last year, I had to furlough some of the staff. For many, I’m the only employer they’ve ever known. I’ve helped them get married, buy cars and houses. I’ve paid hospital bills and lent them money. And they’ve repaid me a thousand times over with their efforts and attitude.

I had tears in my eyes when I told them we had to close. I couldn’t guarantee we’d ever be able to reopen. I couldn’t guarantee the restaurant would survive. I’ve always felt that I could find a solution to every problem… But Covid-19 was a shocking realisation that everything is so fragile – look how fast the banking and airline industries collapsed. How governments all over the world were powerless. That was a scary time.

By the end of 2020, I thought we’d won – I thought by luck or Thai adherence to the rules, we’d beaten Covid.

And then last week, I had to do it all over again – sat the whole team down and cut their hours and salaries.

We’re still open. We haven’t lost any staff (yet). And everyone is still terrific – they’ve all been so understanding, it’s humbling. They continue pumping out consistently delicious food and drinks without complaint.

By now, pretty much all of my close mates work in this industry – restaurateurs, bar owners and managers, DJs, club owners and managers.

And the mood amongst them all is one of quiet resignation and frustration… We don’t know how long this will continue. We don’t know what the infection rates will be. We don’t know whether restrictions will tighten or loosen.

It’s impossible to plan for the future. Currently, I’m paying staff weekly so that if the rules change again, we’re up-to-date with the hours they’ve worked.

One of the most frustrating things about this Covid-19 period is that everyone still wants to go out on Friday and Saturday evenings… But the rest of the week is so quiet. Top tip, if you want better service, a guaranteed table, a more relaxed ambience, go for dinner during the week instead of waiting for Friday or Saturday.

It’s heart-breaking to see so many Bangkok institutions closing. And business owners failing through no fault of their own.

Predictions of when the border will reopen and unrestricted international travel will resume are being pushed out further and further. The first half of 2022 seems to be the best bet presently for when we will *hopefully* be able to travel freely across international borders again. I feel like a bit of an egg previously saying Q3 or Q4 of this year. There’s no chance that is going to happen. Given the reliance on visitors, that’s a long time for many in the hospitality industry in Bangkok to get through and it could mean missing another high season. Can venues survive on Thai and expat trade alone for what could be another 12+ months?

There are two groups… Those that rely on the tourists and those that don’t. The tourist reliant businesses have either got to adapt quickly or close. And even those that don’t rely on tourists are finding there are fewer and fewer customers willing to go out.

Travelling around town and counting the number of boarded up businesses is depressing.

And that number is only going to increase the longer this pandemic remains.

I hate trying to make predictions… But I think the ‘last men standing’ will be those venues with a long pedigree and a big following of loyal locals and expats.

Of course, I hope Charley Brown’s is one of them. Having said that, this year is worse than last year in some ways. Many venues keep a slush fund in the bank for emergencies. 2020 eroded a lot of those safety nets. Now it’s 2021 and we’re facing the same problems but without the same level of security.

OK, so you know I am a big fan of Sunrise Tacos and that I am good friends with the owner. I like your food and I like his too, but I tend to dine more at his place than yours. Here’s the money question – what are the dishes you do really well that might convince me to split my time between Charley Brown and Sunrise more evenly?

I DO know you’re a fan of Sunrise Tacos… And why not? They have some great dishes and they’re extremely convenient. And Greg is the hardest working man in Bangkok – I’ve always admired grafters, and he’s one of them.

The best thing about the Mexican restaurant community is that we all support each other, even before Covid-19. We lend each other ingredients. And we don’t bad-mouth each other on Facebook polls.

Charley Brown’s isn’t competing with Sunrise. We’re a casual, relaxed restaurant for a date, drinks with friends, work outings and even Bachata dancing (outside Covid restrictions) it’s a totally different vibe.

One difference is that we have some of the more unusual dishes – Cochinita Pibil (pork marinated in achiote paste), Huachinango a la Talla (red snapper with a blackened chili sauce), Pozole (a thick broth dating back to Aztec times that was made with human flesh – but now uses pork), Pollo Mole (a thick, savoury dark chocolate sauce), Empanadas Huitlacoche (made with an unusual Mexican truffle), Tamales Oaxaquenos (Handmade with imported Masa Corn and steamed overnight in banana leaves).

And of course, when Stickman comes to CB’s, I’m always up for a chat and a drink or two.

 

charley-browns-take-away

 

Getting away from Charley Brown’s, a few years back the mainstream media reported that Thonglor Police had invited you in to help them gather more info about the issue of foreigners who were being stopped and hassled by police. They asked you because you’re the administrator of a private group online where members can post about being stopped. That happened some 6 odd years ago. Did anything ever come of it? How are things today?

Oh wow… Yeah, that was fun(!) It was a chance to see fake news at work first-hand.

OK… So what happened was Thong Lor cops were up to their usual behaviour. I got stopped and searched and nothing was found.

One of the cops got aggressive and tried to search me again, this time trying to put his hands INSIDE my underwear and have a rummage around my cock and balls.

I was pretty fucking angry… He hadn’t bought me a drink or anything!

There were some raised voices and a stand-off. They wanted a urine test in the street and I refused, saying that we could do it at the station, not in a dark alley.

Finally, a group of curious Thais approached and started to ask questions of the cops – Why won’t you go to the station? Why are you always stopping farang guys? Let’s see your ID badges.

The cops jumped on their bike and disappeared. I chatted with the Thais and they said they were embarrassed by these cops and someone should do something.

In fact, I’m NOT admin of that private Facebook group. Nor the one on Line. I’m just some guy who got dragged into this mess by accident.

I spoke to a lawyer and found out the ‘random’ stop-and-searches were illegal. I discovered that the public have rights and the police have to follow certain procedures.

So I added this information to the Facebook group and started getting lots of questions from people and lots of anecdotes about illegal searches and shakedowns. The stories spread. I think it was Sydney Morning Herald which first wrote a piece. Swiftly followed by Bangkok Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera and a whole host of online sources.

Eventually, I was interviewed ‘anonymously’ on TNN by a journalist called Woody. He convinced me to meet with the chief of police of Thailand who was staunchly anti-corruption… I was assured my identity would be concealed. The meeting turned into a media ambush, I met the Head of Interpol and a dozen other top brass and my name was released to the media

That was when I got to see the Thai Visa gossip machine at work.
I was a narc.
I worked for the DEA (not withstanding that I’m not American)
I was a drug dealer.
It was a publicity stunt for the restaurant! (Who would do that?!)

I tuned in every day to see what new stories they’d come up with. It was fascinating, but scary. Imagine being on the receiving end of that speculation and bullshit all your life.

The chief of police for Thong Lor paid me a visit and made a half-hearted attempt to identify ‘the two rogue cops who were working without his knowledge and probably weren’t real cops anyway’. Eventually, he got moved to an inactive position. Thong Lor cops had to publish a flyer explaining the rules about searches. And for about 2 or 3 years there was a drop in the number of searches.

 

thong-lor-brochure-clear

 

But they’re back with a vengeance now… Possibly worse than before.

I still get requests for help and advice, but I’m keeping my head down now. I’ve got more than enough on my plate without taking on Thong Lor cops again.

I used to see you whizzing around Sukhumvit on that motorbike (Vespa?) with the Union Jack emblazoned across it. Are you still riding that contraption around?

I’ve still got it… But it’s gathering dust in my apartment car park.

I dated a สก๊อย and she convinced me to level up my motorbike. <สก๊อย is a Thai word that has no English equivalent and the best I can come up with is a female groupie who hangs out with young guys who ride around fast at night on souped up motorbikes and tend to be “anti-social”Stick>

So after a few upgrades, I’m now up to a 650cc which I love.

You’ve now lived in Bangkok for longer than I did. Still enjoying it? Planning to stick about or is perhaps Blighty calling when Covid is behind us?

Yeah, it’s weird. I didn’t like Bangkok much when I arrived. I liked the people, but not the noise or the traffic.

But it grew on me over the years and now I love living here. I travelled to lots of other Asian cities and although I like all of them, I always feel like Bangkok is home.

Covid might decide if I stay in Bangkok or not. If it continues and restrictions are tightened, I may have to leave – raise some funds and start a new business.

My feeling is that Charley Brown’s will make it through and there are good years ahead of us (assuming the virus doesn’t mutate and the vaccine doesn’t cause side effects leaving only zombies and cannibals to fight it out).

I’ll stay here as long as I can. My Dad also lives in Thailand. He visited me a couple of times and then moved out here himself. He’s a real character. Always getting into situations. I’ve got to be here to help him out.

Actually, he’s written a couple of books about Thailand available on Amazon. I’ll give you the links… It’d be funny if a bunch of your readers bought his books and he had no idea why he was suddenly a hit author… I’d probably never tell him.

Amusing Thailand: Short Stories by Mike Bell

Thai Tales by Mike Bell

Charley Brown’s is currently open from noon until 9 PM for dine-in guests, takeaway or deliveries. Last orders by 8:30. The restaurant is following all of the hygiene requirements – temperature checks, hand sanitizer, table spacing and hourly disinfecting of the room. You can find out more here:

Charley Brown’s Facebook Page

Charley Brown’s website


 

Mystery Photo

mystery-photo-jan2020

Last week’s photo was taken in the new bar complex in Sukhumvit soi 7. I was most impressed that quite a number of you got it right. Can you impress me again with this week’s photo? Of course, it’s somewhere on Sukhumvit.


 

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

Disappearing time capsules.

It is sad to see that a lot of Bangkok bloggers and history of the scene have gone missing over the years. As I read your old columns, I notice links to other blogs that no longer exist. When you do find one that is still online, it looks like the website hasn’t been updated in a decade which I think is cool. Sort of like a time capsule.

A sign of the times.

At my usual restaurant, I’ve paid with a 1,000 baht note and been given change for 900 baht (i.e. 100 baht was missing) on more than one occasion over these past few weeks. It really is getting tough out there.

The least changed part of Sukhumvit?

3 weeks ago a friend and I walked down Sukhumvit soi 22, where he used to live. To our surprise, we noted that all of the hole-in-wall bars along the paak-soi with Sukhumvit are still pretty much there, mostly unchanged and exactly as they were back in the day. Their predicted demise amid the rise of the Holiday Inn across the road didn’t happen. My friend observed that the corner is perhaps the least changed part of Sukhumvit – if not all of expat Bangkok – since our heyday.

Covid more a problem for expats than locals.

Many venues are now owned by investor groups which have deep pockets. They will simply wait things out. Thais are survivors and will return home when life in the big city goes south. I think it is a bigger problem for many expats, particularly those with families to ride out the glut.

Covid in the bars.

We have had a year of Covid-19 expanding through super-spreader events, such as sports events, religion-based gatherings, food markets, and others. My question is, has a bar or massage parlour (always the first targets for a shutdown) ever been pointed out as the epicentre of such an event? <Yes, there have been a number of Thai bars which have been the centre of clusters of Covid cases. There was also an outbreak in one of the Hillary bars in Soi Nana in March last year when there were somewhere between 20 and 30 confirmed casesStick>

Lockdown in Thailand better than lockdown in Canada.

I have a trip to Thailand booked for mid-February meaning I will complete ASQ as we approach March. It’s a huge dilemma on what to do with the recent outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand and whether I should cancel. There’s a chance I could arrive once things are back under control and the bars are open again. There is also a chance I could be flying from one lockdown into another. After a lot of deliberation, I find myself still of the mind that a lockdown in Bangkok is better than a lockdown in Canada. So unless things get much worse, I will go as planned. I can leave home for 6 weeks so quarantine is manageable. I only like visiting Thailand when it’s winter in Canada, so after March I would have little interest in returning until October / November. If all I can do while in Bangkok is mask up and explore the city, eat Thai food, and make some online connections with the girls, that still sounds pretty good to me. No bars would certainly be a shame, but I have always found there is so much more to Bangkok than the bars. So here I am deciding to roll the dice. Last year I flew out of Bangkok on that fateful day in March when all the bars closed. Here’s hoping my lack is similar.

The prevalence of ladyboy lovers.

Interesting note about the estimated 2% of readers who visit ladyboy bars. I would wonder if the number is higher, but only 2% admit to it. It’s still a tough thing for most guys to be honest about. I’ve noticed when I’ve met others out in bars, if you asked them what they thought about ladyboy bars, they would reply it’s not for them. When I tell them I find my way into them occasionally, I either get a lot of questions, or an admission that they visit ladyboy bars too.


 

If you crave a drink in a Bangkok bar, it is possible to enjoy one despite the fact that only restaurants are allowed to open and alcohol strictly cannot be served. So where is open and serving alcohol? Reports from readers this week confirm a drink can be had in the odd venue in Soi Nana, Soi 8, Soi 11, Soi Cowboy, Soi 22, Soi 23 – and no doubt many other places too. Just remember to be discreet! Bangkok is still Bangkok….you know what that means!

Popular expat pub Robin Hood, at the mouth of Sukhumvit soi 33/1, reopened on Thursday. It’s officially food and soft-drinks only for the time being.

A couple of the venues still serving alcohol are doing so to use up what is left in the kegs before it spoils. Draft beer served in a mug is the one and only drink option in at least a couple of the farang restaurant & bars that are open and serving alcohol on the sly.

When bars reopened after being ordered closed in April, May and June last year, business at the Biergarten in Sukhumvit soi 7 was, for want of a better word, dire. It fuelled the usual speculation about how it cannot possibly survive. But these are funny times and the current shut-down has been a revelation for the Biergarten which remains open. The Biergarten is allowed to open because it has a kitchen and serves food. Some days there can be 20+ damsels and a couple of dozen punters enjoying all that the venue has to offer. Last night was genuinely busy with an estimated 100 or so people there at 8 PM.

I have the greatest respect for Sam, the lady behind the likes of Tilac, Sam’s 2000 and Crazy Cats. She’s been around forever and is a shrewd operator – and I mean that in the most complimentary way. If Sam talks about a particular bar or the industry in general, you should stop and listen. Sam is letting go of the single shophouse gogo bar on Soi Cowboy, Crazy Cats (previously known as Cocktail Club) and is open to offers. Sam has a few holdings on Soi Cowboy so it’s not like she is leaving the industry altogether. The day Sam puts Tilac on the market then you really know things have gone tits up. Still, Sam putting any bar up for sale is an ominous sign.

 

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Police on a motorbike stop a farang on a motorbike on Sukhumvit soi 31 this week.

 

Comments in today’s opener about how the issue of police in the Thonglor district stopping and hassling Westerners is getting worse has been reiterated by two readers. One reader’s pal lives in the area and he is stopped all the time. He estimates he has been stopped 8 times since the start of the year or in other words, 8 times in a little over 2 weeks! Another long-term reader has seen an increase in these stops too, and snapped the photo above on Sukhumvit soi 31 this week. He also lives in the area and had this to say, “They don’t let you go in a minute, they search you, check the copy of your passport and work permit. Check your motorbike.” Most of these stops happen in the sois between the Asoke intersection and Emporium with sois 16, 20, 22 and 23. They stop foreigners on foot. They stop foreigners riding a motorbike. It is the same old story – they are fishing for foreigners up to no good in the hope of either a big pay day or a feather in their cap.

A number of massage shops in the farang zone may appear closed, but many have staff on the premises ready to attend to your every need. Closed doors and lights out doesn’t necessarily mean they are closed. Walk past slowly, stop outside, look inside make eye contact with smiling ladies and you’ll be invited inside. Prices have been slashed in some shops where a massage will set you back just 200 baht. All sorts of options are available for 500 baht. “Special Covid price”, some girls say. Cold beer may be available too.

There are plenty of massage shops in the sois around Emporium which are popular with Western and Japanese expats. These venues tend to be a lot nicer than what you find on the likes of soi 22 and soi 23, both in terms of the standard of the premises and the general attractiveness of the maidens. Trade is down as the Japanese avoid these places due to Covid concerns. It’s all very discreet and most places don’t look like they’re open….but many actually are.

 

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Soi Cowboy, late afternoon, last Sunday. Maybe everyone was at home reading Stickman Weekly?

 

As the only English pub in the Thonglor area, The Old English remains open and busy despite Covid restrictions. The pub is open from 11 AM – 9 PM weekdays and 9 AM to 9 PM on weekends. It’s 25% off every item on the menu for dine-in and take-away (excluding delivery, which is available exclusively through the ZippBike app). They have brought back their 50% off deal on Full English and American breakfasts at 149 baht until 1 PM daily. Officially, alcohol is off the dine-in menu – although it’s interesting how many people are drinking from coffee mugs – so The Old English’s official booze promotions are all for takeaway. 1-litre “growler” bottles of draught beer are being sold at cost, starting at just 170 baht, with a 30-baht refund on refills if you bring back the growler. Among the offerings are Guinness, Hoegaarden, Vedett IAP and several craft beers. All bottles of domestic beers are just 50 baht each. More than 2 dozen varieties of imported wines from Australia, Italy, France, California and South Africa are on sale, while quantities last, starting at just 550 baht and discounted up to 45%.

Pattaya bars might be closed to walk-in customers but some are still doing live streaming – from behind closed doors – so the girls have a chance to make some money. And I hear that some of the more technically-minded girls are now streaming from the privacy of their own loom. The possibilities with that boggle the mind.

With many parts of the economy out of action, are there any real estate bargains to be found in Thailand? The odd person might be desperate for cash and willing to let a property go cheap, but I personally have not heard of anyone picking up a bargain. Do consider that Thais often own property outright and are not leveraged up like so many are in the West. And with no property taxes and little desire to spend on maintenance over and above what is absolutely necessary, the costs of holding property in Thailand are minimal – meaning often the owner will hold it indefinitely.

 

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Terrible air quality in Bangkok recently.

 

If you’re like me you might be missing Bangkok – but there is some consolation in not being there at present: the air quality in Bangkok at this time – and for much of Thailand for that matter – is terrible. This time of year is not the worst time to be away from Bangkok.

When the Tom Yum Goong Crisis really bit in the late ’90s, many expats left Thailand. Some had no choice but to leave when they lost their job. While there may be some expats forced to leave over the coming months, friends tell me that there has not been a mass departure of expats this time around. Going back to the Tom Yum Goong Crisis, when you saw another foreign resident in your local neighbourhood, more often than not you recognised them – you might not know them but they were someone you had seen around. New faces tended to be a lost tourist. I am told that it feels this way in some Bangkok neighbourhoods today – seeing a foreigner in your soi who you haven’t seen before is a novelty.

If you’re looking for something to read to wile away the days, check out Bangkok Psycho. It’s the story of a scared, bullied and ostracised, young, skinny and poor Catholic-raised rural Australian boy who after a failed marriage to his first girlfriend becomes South-East Asia’s greatest Pickup Artist

 

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Quote of the week comes from a reader, “Singapore is Asia for beginners.”

The South China Morning Post talks with some long-term expats and how they have seen Bangkok change markedly over the years.

Golf quarantine has been proposed for those willing to quarantine to visit Thailand.

Bangkok Pat looks at the fall of soi 22 in this 17-minute video.

The price of a new condo in Bangkok is expected to fall.

What happens when ASQ goes wrong?

Former British Honorary Consul for Pattaya looks at what has become of once-thriving Soi Yamato. (For a step back in time, this interview with said Honorary Consul from back in 2006 still makes interesting reading today.

A motorist drives on to the runway at Suvarnabhumi Airport and into the path of a Boeing 777 that had just landed after taking a wrong turn!

From Bloomberg, Thailand sold itself as a Covid retreat…..but no-one came!

A pub in Sukhumvit soi 3 popular with Middle Easterners was raided yesterday.

An Austrian plunges to his death from a Pattaya condo after quarrelling with his lover.

Have you ever wondered just what area is covered by the Lumpini Police?

This video features footage of Patpong gogo bars way back in 1991.

 

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Nana Plaza, late December. Everyone’s hoping the nightlife is allowed to reopen real soon.

You may have noticed that this week’s and last week’s columns were missing the Girl Of The Week section. With a bit of luck it should resume next week. I didn’t have any photos to feature and at the same time I wondered if it is was worth featuring a lady while the bars remain closed – it’s not like you can go out and meet her at this point in time. With that in mind, here’s hoping the bars reopen real soon.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]