Bangkok’s Bar Areas, Beyond Covid
International travel is getting easier and the restrictions bars are operating under won’t last for too much longer. Blink and Covid will be behind us. For two long years the bars have done their best under terribly difficult circumstances. With the end of the pandemic in sight, how are the three major bar areas tracking?
Soi Cowboy looks painfully quiet and much of the soi’s signature neon has yet to be turned on this calendar year. A few tourists stumble on to the soi but the absence of most international visitors shouldn’t be a problem in a soi so popular with expats, right? Wrong. Where Soi Cowboy used to do well early evening with happy hours luring expats for an after-work drink or an early start to a long night out, those days are long gone. Early evening on Cowboy is quiet but things do pick up later in the evening.
Some bars on Cowboy have closed temporarily, some permanently. Rawhide is up for rent and something is happening at Déjà Vu.
Soi Cowboy might be the Instagrammer’s favourite bar area but with most of the neon turned off and only a few bars open, it’s far from its usual photogenic self. With few bars open, there aren’t enough destination bars i.e. a bar where you’d be happy to spend the entire night.
Soi Cowboy has long felt like it needed new blood. Bacarra and Crazy House consistently attract the crowds. Suzie Wong, Shark and Dollhouse had their moments. Lighthouse and Tilac had their time but in the months before Covid they felt like they were past their best.
But is the answer more gogo bars? Is there demand for existing gogo bars to be replaced by new gogo bars? I can’t shake the feeling that Soi Cowboy might work better if around half the soi was gogo bars and the other half bars serving food like Oasis. A bit more diversity might liven up the soi – something like Silom soi 4 for straight guys.
Cowboy needs a shake-up if it wants to wrestle customers away from Nana Plaza.
Patpong has become an area of two sois. One is striving to improve. The other is dying.
Patpong soi 1 is stale and tired. It’s been that way for years and it has only got worse with Covid the reason why some of Patpong’s historic bars have closed for good. Only a couple of the once popular Patpong soi 1 gogo bars remain and when the area’s office crowd goes home for the day and the sun drops below the horizon, Patpong soi 1 is in near darkness.
Amongst the things people have said to me about Patpong when I was researching this article:
“Don’t ask about Patpong, “dire” doesn’t even describe it.”
“Patpong looks finished to me.”
“Patpong was dead, I bailed to soi 7 area and it was heaving.”
I think they all refer to Patpong soi 1 – which many people still think of as Patpong, still seeing soi 2 as like an extension and hardly the main act.
For some time I have raised the idea that there may only be enough bar customers these days to sustain two major gogo bar areas in Bangkok.
Some say if gogo bars are to die in Bangkok then Patpong will be the last man standing. I am not so sure. Ok, so Patpong wouldn’t disappear altogether but there’d be so few bars remaining it would end up like a second tier area, think Washington Square.
The spread of the gay bars from what was Soi Twilight in to Patpong soi 2 has changed the vibe on Patpong soi 2. Many old-timers – the stalwarts of Patpong – retain their old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality and are put off visiting. And just like the number of bars at Patpong, the number of true Bangkok old-hands drops away every year.
If the bars were to close, what would become of the area? The general Patpong area could be gentrified, and become more of a wine and dine area.
Some Patpong bar operators dismiss criticism of the area but the fact remains that there isn’t enthusiasm from outside Patpong as there is within it. What Patpong does have is some truly passionate bar operators. It has more history than all the other bar areas combined, and it has the fantastic Patpong Museum. But a glorious past and a rich history doesn’t mean a bright future.
Pre-Covid, Nana Plaza had the best bars (Billboard, Butterflies and Spanky’s) and more destination bars than the other bar areas put together. It’s still warming up and Nana Plaza bars are operating under stricter regulations than elsewhere (all 3 major bar areas are in different police districts) which doesn’t help yet Nana Plaza has more than the combined footfall of Cowboy and Patpong with the number of visitors steadily increasing each week for the last several weeks. More bars are opening and while it’s not back to its old self – nowhere is – with more bars open and more variety, punters are returning.
Nana Plaza has a few things going for it. A single landlord with a vision for the plaza who has invested heavily in the premises. Bars have the option of long-term leases. And Nana Plaza is just one part of the greater Soi Nana area, with beer bars right out front and dozens more up and down the soi.
Nana Plaza has more bars. It has the best bars. The soi 4 bar complex is the most vibrant of Bangkok’s 3 major naughty nightlife areas. I expect it will stay this way.
When everything opens up I expect it to be much as it was pre-Covid. Nana will attract the crowds. Cowboy will retain a following amongst some expats and be popular with mainstream holidaymakers. I hope that Patpong is supported but it needs more than a cluster of bars at the Silom end of soi 2 trying new things to keep the area alive.
Will soi 7 emerge as a genuine contender? I don’t think so. The soi 7 bar complex did well when everywhere else was closed and it was the only place to go. There was also the reluctance of some to pay gogo bar drink prices in a gogo bar with no gogo-bar-style entertainment. But as Nana Plaza has opened up, the soi 7 crowd (and some of the girls) has moved to Nana.
Some say that things are moving online and the bar model is past its prime. Many of us have spent way too much time online these past two years and frankly we are sick of it. Real life in-person interaction is what we crave. That’s just one reason why I think the bars will experience a renaissance post-Covid.
When the borders reopen and the restrictions are removed, Nana and Cowboy should both do well. Patpong? I’m not so sure.
Last week’s photo was taken looking down from the top of the Silom MRT station. Only three of you got it right. Where is this week’s?
Stick’s Inbox – The Best Emails From The Past Week
Postcard from Pattaya.
I went out in Pattaya on Saturday night. On Walking Street I hit Fahrenheit first, 160 baht Jack+soda. Sign said 170 baht for lady drinks. I’d say they are running at about half the normal dancer staff, maybe one-third. However, because the dance floor was full of pillows and nobody was dancing, the place appears a lot busier with so many women loitering around on the, “Buy me a drink? Want someone to sit next to you?” circuit. There for one drink, 3 ladies requested to sit next to me to get a drink. I wanted to check out the landscape that night, not harvest a lady. There was a bit of eye candy there though. From there, I walked down to Soi 6 and did the walk of shame. I was tempted to go into one bar but that was all. By then, it was almost 9:30 and I wanted to check out Buakhao and LK Metro. The walk from Walking Street to Soi 6 was void of any great temptation, a number of past-expiration-date ladies at mostly empty bar-beers. Mostly empty, but a lot busier than it was. Buakhao was really busy, lots of bar beers and gogo bars were full of punters. I walked into 2 previously popular gogos, no place to sit and no girls on stages so I left. I probably could have found a spot but the music was extremely loud and I wanted to check out the rest of the area. I probably spent an hour walking around then called it a night. While it was busy in that area, I can’t say that I pulled any neck muscles looking around at stunners. I didn’t see any one resembling new recruits from up-country. It felt more like the old guard and reserves from previous Pattaya occupations.
More for the gogo bar wish-list.
You write about your wish list for gogo bars. If I may be so free to add a few things. A bar owner who tries to understand that his customers want to have a nice evening out, and tries to understand how to create this evening. Which might not be how it was two decades ago, when you could just put some girls on a stage and watch money walk in. Talk to the men visiting your bar, and see what they like! Service staff who are trained. I prefer females in service, but the men in Peppermint were always there when you needed them and not there when you did not need them. No mistakes, fast and friendly. A DJ who plays music customers like at a volume which is agreeable. I remember my drink arriving in a Pattaya gogo and wondering whether to drink it, or pay there and then to save my ears and stop the headache. Lady drinks which allow time to chat to the lady. Or just create a time-with-lady-fee (200 baht for 15 minutes or so, the hour glass on the table might give a nice touch). Why is it that in these table dance clubs you had to wait for the rotation, and could not pay 50 baht to choose which lady to dance on your table? Or make clear what a lady drink offers you: in an afternoon gogo the first drink allowed you to take off her top, the second drink her bottom. Girls on stage who dance, or do something worth looking at. Who still does shows with the 3-song-dance-routine (bikini, topless, nude)? These shows can keep part of the staff covered (if recruiting is a problem), while still having some excitement every half hour or so. Announce show times at signs outside. Prices were getting high pre-Covid. But for us, lonely travelers, it is not 10 baht. When you take the check out of the bin, you ask if it was worth it. And based on this you decide if you will come back. The high bills in Baccara were worth it whereas lower bills in some other bars were not. So, big bar or small bar, many ladies or few ladies, bikini / topless / nude /summer dress with no underwear, 60’s / 70’s / 80’s rock or Isan music, young ladies or MILFs, understand sanuk / value for your customer. Little mistakes do not matter, as long as you see that everyone employed is working towards creating the exotic, erotic evening for which we are willing to buy an expensive plane ticket.
Why Immigration is busy.
Pattaya Immigration is currently over-run with Russian and Ukrainian visa extension issues. Most Ukrainians have no access to money. Many Russians are in the same boat and / or have just half the money they used to have. Apparently, there are Russians helping and sympathetic to the Ukrainians, understanding their plight. Apparently the only aggression is between Russians who do not support Putin and Russians who do. I believe all Aeroflot flights are cancelled and with all the air space closed to sanctioning countries, apparently it’s pretty hard to get back to Russia and impossible to get back to Ukraine (possibly a good thing?).
This Week’s News & Views
For nearly two years – in between lockdowns – it’s been lights out at Nana Plaza’s most popular gogo bar on Sundays and Mondays, as the owners of Billboard determined there simply wasn’t enough business to cover the cost of air-conditioning and staff those nights. But starting tonight, March 13, Billboard is opening again on Sundays, reflecting the increasing numbers of punters visiting Nana Plaza. “Sexy Sunday” begins at 6:30 PM and runs (legally) until 11 PM but with the boys in brown looking the other way most nights, the party should run through until midnight.
Nana bar owners are not shy to remind the local coppers that Soi Cowboy (which is in a different police district) is open until 1 AM some nights.
Antics at Crazy House which lived up to the bar’s name have finally been reined in. Last Saturday, the girls were told to cover up but given Crazy House’s long history of pushing boundaries, can we really expect things to stay restrained for long? Owners and managers of other bars on Soi Cowboy have long been unhappy at the way Crazy House seems to have a get-out-of-jail-free card with no expiry date.
Why haven’t other bars on Soi Cowboy taken advantage of their upstairs area to turn the temperature up, out of sight of prying eyes? Dollhouse’s upstairs area has long been popular yet Dollhouse, while open, is only using the outdoor patio. Shark and Suzie Wong also have an upper level but neither has chosen to follow the Crazy House model. Lighthouse had an upstairs area too (not that I ever remember it being used) but has yet to reopen. I would have thought decent door security and dancing upstairs would be a recipe for success in these challenging times. Or do bar owners think it won’t be long until things return to normal and all of this is moot?
With this in mind, there’s a growing expectation that bars will be allowed to open as they did pre-Covid (meaning no need to test / show a recent negative Covid test on entry, music and dancing allowed, allowed to open until 1:00 AM) after Songkran. Of course, nothing is official but everything points to that. I remain confident that come May – and certainly no later than June – we will be able to fly in to Thailand with nothing more than proof of vaccination.
Friday has always been a good night in the bars. At this time it is far and away the busiest night of the week, especially the last Friday of the month. No surprise given that’s when expats get paid, remembering it’s mainly expats out and about with visitors still in relatively low numbers. With this in mind, the atmosphere in the bar areas is best on Friday and Saturday nights.
As was predicted in this column, the soi 7 beer bar complex seems to be, shall we say, “tapering off”. Not dying, but nothing like it was. Reports have been up and down with the odd person saying it’s jumping. Reports this week described it as quiet – and some bars in the complex were closed. Most likely, some bars are choosing to open 5 days per week rather than the full 7.
Will there be a change in the salary structure for dancers in gogo bars as a consequence of the pandemic? Many gogo bar owners have cited the current environment to stop paying the girls their usual salary. Instead, some Bangkok gogo bars are paying drink and barfine commissions only to the girls – and no base salary. That said, commissions are higher than they were. Instead of the standard 40 – 60 baht commission for each lady drink, in bars paying only commissions it’s now 100 baht per lady drink.
One Soi Cowboy bar has reverted back to paying salaries after they realised that 100 baht commission on every lady drink saw the bar actually pay more to staff than they would have under the traditional system. As a friend said, some of these girls are drink monsters!
Some landlords in the bar business are still asking for key money at this time. Until tourists are flowing back this really should be a non-topic.
A reader asks, “I am curious how it is if you wish to take a girl from a gogo bar to your hotel room to, say, “discuss politics”. Are there any complications like the girl being asked for proof of vaccination at the hotel?” It’s a good question. What’s the deal with short-time hotels these days? Are there any restrictions on entry? Does each person entering need to take a RAT test or show proof of a recent negative test result for Covid? (What a passion killer that would be – and wouldn’t you be pissed if you took a test in the short-time hotel lobby and it came back positive!). It also asks the icky question of those who are married / in a supposedly stable relationship who get a bit on the side. What might unwittingly be taken home?
Following on from the success of the Squid Game TV series, Demonia in Sukhumvit soi 33 will hold a special evening this coming Friday, March 18, with ladies dressed in Squid Game costumes. Games will be played and customers have a chance to win free drinks and other prizes described to me as enjoyment with the ladies.
Down in Pattaya, the bar industry is definitely coming back to life with Soi LK Metro gogo bar Kink reopening this past Friday.
Also in Soi LK Metro, Pandora’s – that is Ricky’s gogo bar – has perhaps the cheapest drinks in a Pattaya gogo bar with bottles of Leo, Chang, Singha and Tiger just 55 baht at happy hour. Draft beer and house spirits are 65 baht and even lady drinks are discounted at just 99 baht. These prices are available during happy hour which runs from 5:00 – 6:30 PM.
Popular Sapphire Club on soi 15, just off Walking Street, will reopen this coming Friday, March 18. The refurbished bar features a new VIP room with a Las Vegas theme.
There was a time when I was frequently asked how to get a job in the bar / entertainment industry. I guess I have probably posted ads for a dozen or so such positions over the years. A few Stickman readers got their lucky break in the bar industry after replying to an ad for a bar manager in this column. Amongst them are Mister Egg, Captain Hornbag and “Big Jim”. If you fancy a bar job in the heart of Sukhumvit, here’s your chance. The ad below might be written tongue-in-cheek but this is a genuine job advert and the position of manager at The Game (Sukhumvit Road, next to the Nana skytrain station) is currently vacant. Good luck!
Speaking of bar staff, even with trade still relatively quiet (but picking up), there is a shortage of girls in the bars. It’s not so much that the girls have found employment elsewhere – in most cases it is believed they have not – rather it is a case of girls waiting to hear from friends who have already returned to the bars to tell them that trade has picked up and it’s worth moving back to Bangkok or Pattaya. Many girls return to their family home when there’s no work and leaving the village to return to work means rent and other expenses need to be covered, to say nothing of the pressure to send money home to support family each month.
And it’s not just the nightlife industry which is struggling to find staff, so too is the hospitality industry. This has been an ongoing issue for some time but it is said to be worse than ever. Recruiting employees is a real challenge these days.
Over the past couple of years there has been gossip about bars which had clusters of Covid infections. This doesn’t seem to be an issue now with those bars which are carrying out regular testing getting hardly any positive cases. Has natural immunity taken effect?
So the pandemic is coming to an end, but now we have a madman waging war on Ukraine. What effect will this have on Thailand? First and most obvious, I think we’ll see few Ruskies in Thailand for some time. With fuel prices up, higher airfares look likely. With inflation on the move and the cost of living rising along with interest rates creeping up, could that be the difference for some people between being able to travel, and not? Hopefully that won’t be the case for many.
It’s St. Paddy’s Day this week. Assume most Irish bars in Thailand will celebrate in style.
Thailand-Related News Articles Links
Reader’s story of the week comes from Jimmy, “Returning To Canada Part 5“.
The CDC advises against travel to Thailand.
Tourists from Russia and Ukraine in Thailand can extend their visa with the usual 1,900 baht fee waived.
Are these the biggest coconuts in Thailand?
More on Shane Warne’s sad passing in Thailand and the masseuse who gave him his last rubdown.
From the ghastly Guardian, the return of backpackers brings hope for Thailand’s tourism revival.
I always appreciate your comments and feedback, in fact I rely on your emails so I can run some in the Stick’s Inbox section the following week. Please don’t be shy to let me know what’s on your mind, whether you’re on the ground in Thailand or at home in Farangland. Anything Thailand-related I love to hear about. Do drop me an email!
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org