Stick Returns Part 1: Sukhumvit Can Wait
I’ve finally made it back to Bangkok. It’s been more than three and a half years since I was in town and it’s good to be back. For a short time I wondered if I would make it back to Bangkok at all.
Thai Airways has yet to resume flights to New Zealand so I was facing a circuitous route to get to Bangkok. An hour’s flight from the provinces to Auckland, an 11-hour flight to Hong Kong and the final leg to Bangkok. 3 flights and 20-odd hours later I would finally be back in Bangkok.
The Napier to Auckland and Auckland to Hong Kong legs were uneventful. The last leg to Bangkok was delayed. Having been awake for close to 24 hours on the back of less than 4 hours’ sleep the previous night, I was not at my best. Who is on international flights?
So there I was at the gate, about to board the plane for the last leg of the journey. I scan my boarding pass and after a short delay, the machine returns a short, sharp beep. It’s not the same soft sound everyone around me is getting. A message pops up on the display that no-one wants to see. “You are unable to board.” The text is surrounded by bright red. Stop, don’t proceed. Around me, everyone else is getting the soft beep, the green light, the barrier opens and they head for the plane. Not me. I am going nowhere.
I try again. Same result. An attendant directs me to another lane. I scan my boarding pass. The same thing happens. Someone goes through the lane / scanner I was just at. Soft beep, green light and the barrier opens. Another person goes through that gate. They pass through. And another. It’s not the machine that’s the problem. It’s me.
I scan my boarding pass at yet another lane. I get the same message: “You are unable to board.” Something’s wrong.
One of the check-in staff comes over and takes me to their computer terminal. I can see the screen. Each passenger on the plane has a one-line entry with various information colour-coded next to their name. Everyone is coded green. Mine is red. Something is definitely wrong.
The check-in guy doesn’t know what the problem is. “You just go through”, he says, and leads me to bypass the boarding pass scanners.
I board the plane despite the computer system refusing permission for me to get on the flight. As far as I could see, no-one else got that message.
It would be another 45 minutes before the plane lifts off the ground and 2 and a half hours before we land in Bangkok. I’m tired and I want nothing more than to get a little sleep, even if it’s just a few minutes. But I can’t sleep. I try every trick to nod off, but my mind has kicked in to gear.
What was that error message all about? Why was my name colour-coded red?
The computer checks various things when you check in for an international flight. Are you on a no-fly list? What about Interpol wanted lists? The destination country is notified you’re on a flight about to depart for there and your name is run through various databases. Arrest warrant? Blacklisted? And so on. Why did I keep getting the error message saying I could not get on the flight? I mill over it – and I don’t come up with anything good.
Did I piss off the wrong person? Could there be an arrest warrant in my name? Extremely unlikely. Have I been blacklisted from Thailand? Even more unlikely. Could it be that when I rock up to Immigration, I get turned away and that denial of boarding at the gate in Hong Kong was Thai Immigration’s way of saying this one isn’t welcome?
I close my eyes and try to switch off but scenarios are running through my mind and I can’t completely block it out. Sleep doesn’t come.
The Thai Airways flight glides in to Suwannaphum Airport and the landing really is as smooth as silk. Will my entry to Thailand be as smooth?
There’s no-one at the air bridge holding a sign with my name. And neither is there anyone in a brown uniform.
Immigration is quiet with none of the lengthy queues that were common until recently. I rock up to the Immigration booth. It’s a female officer. Some foreigners in Thailand claim that female Immigration officers are the ones to avoid. I don’t buy that. She smiles. I smile. This is Thailand, everyone smiles. It’s a warm smile, well-meaning, welcoming. Fingerprints are scanned, I am photographed and my passport is stamped, “Welcome back”, she says. I silently curse Hong Kong Airport. One can do without any additional stress when travelling.
I have no idea what the issue was with boarding in Hong Kong. It is the past, I am back in Thailand and I expunge it from my mind. Time to enjoy a long-awaited and much-needed holiday.
If you thought I would be making a beeline for Sukhumvit and the bars, think again. My first few days back in Bangkok are spent far away from Sukhumvit. I make an exception on Friday night and spend a couple of hours roaming, checking places out and then a few hours on Soi Cowboy.
To many, Sukhumvit is not just the heart of Bangkok, Sukhumvit is Thailand. The taxi takes them to their hotel on Sukhumvit and for the next week or two they never stray far from the area. It seems to me like they miss out on so much, but if that’s what makes them happy then all power to them.
I’d had 3 long years to think about my next trip to Bangkok and I long ago reached the conclusion that Sukhumvit was not where I wanted to stay. I wanted a change of scenery. We pitched our tent a long way from Sukhumvit.
So many of you have told me that Bangkok is changing but I’m really not so sure. If you talk about bars and restaurants along Sukhumvit, yes, there has been a lot of turnover. But that’s really all cosmetic. The essence of Bangkok is still very much the same. I’ll go in to more detail over the coming weeks but for now, let’s just say that in terms of the general vibe, it feels much the same as when I was last in town. More high-rises. Lots of weed shops. A different mix of foreigners, but ultimately Bangkok is still very much Bangkok.
Most people are still very friendly. Most stuff is still cheap. It’s as hot and steamy as it has always been. The traffic is awful and driving standards aren’t much better. Distinctive smells are everywhere. Parhaps a bar you used to frequent has gone and Foodland no longer stocks your favourite brand of baked beans but that’s small stuff. Bangkok is still very much Bangkok.
I’ve only been back a few days, but my initial feelings are overwhelmingly positive. All the stuff I was told was bad from the deteriorating bar industry to every corner reeking of weed to Thais berating foreigners for not wearing masks is not what I have experienced at all. I’ll go in to much more detail about what I see over the coming weeks. It’s great to be back.
Last week’s photo was taken of The Park Silom building, on the corner of Silom Road and Soi Convent. Only three of you got it right. Where was this week’s photo taken? It is somewhere in Bangkok, but not what you’d call downtown.
Stick’s Inbox – The Best Emails From The Past Week
Bangkok, the twilight zone.
I arrived back in Bangkok on Friday, just in time for Saturday’s alcohol ban. I was honestly expecting this to be ignored by street sellers and the usual bars that flaunt any and all rules. However, it seemed like 100% compliance with the law, from what I saw. I took a walk around Nana and up to Asoke / Cowboy and there was nothing happening. A few smaller bars were open but no alcohol. Soi Cowboy was in total darkness. Girls and their potential customers were milling around a few places under the skywalk but there seemed to be little interaction. Maybe people just don’t make so many questionable decisions without booze? The clear winners were the weed shops which seemed to be thriving. It kind of feels like the twilight zone when you can’t get a drink in Bangkok but you can happily get high. Not to worry, blink and you missed it.
Back home after a month in Pattaya.
I’m back home in Canada after spending April in Thailand. I spent most of the time in Pattaya which was slightly cooler than downtown Bangkok. I stayed in my usual apartment and enjoyed my usual walking areas but the changes were shocking. You mentioned the end of a long-time soi 7 gogo that is to become another weed shop. Most shocking was how many there are now – and most when I walked by had no customers. Another shock was how many more Indian eateries there are now, many almost begging you to enter. Looking through the windows revealed empty tables. I swear that Indians are not eating at these places. Hopefully the saturation of weeds shops will end the hype. I just can’t see them all surviving. Yeah, it was too friggin’ hot there. Walking Street was busy with tour groups blindly following the flag. Treetown was very pretty with all the neon but the bars were hurting for trade the half dozen times I walked through. One of the factors may have been that there was not a looker to be seen – and I’m not that picky. Soi LK Metro was the opposite, just heaving with heaps of customers most nights. Outside of the gogo bars, not the youngest bunch of girls but they were busy with customers and seats were at a premium.
More Readers’ Emails
Scorching electricity bills.
I run a large hydroponic farm in Isaan. My monthly electricity bill went up from 40,000 baht a year ago to 87,000 baht last month with the same number of units used. Our local ice factory got a bill for 700,000 baht. Suan Siam, the theme park in Bangkok, announced that their bill was now over 5,000,000 baht, also more than double it used to be. The cost of electricity is now more than 6 baht per unit. In Vietnam, the cost is 2.8 baht per unit. What this will do to foreign investment is abundantly clear. You also have to wonder how many factories will pack up and leave for cheaper pastures.
Where rules are to be ignored.
My Thai Air Asia booking details state that I must wear a mask when checking in, throughout the flight and when collecting baggage. I asked on the Asean Now forum what people’s recent experience has been and, as usual in Thailand, the rules are only there to be ignored and are not enforced.
This Week’s News, Views & Gossip
Today is election day across the country as Thais head out to the polling booths. The banner above can be seen downtown with the English words Sex Worker, Sex Creator and Sex Toy. What’s that all about? The For The Nation Party wishes to make all of these legal.
I had planned to ease myself in to Bangkok with no plans to make it over to Sukhumvit for the first 4 or 5 days. But it didn’t last and mid-afternoon Friday I headed over to the heart of Sukhumvit to check things out. Spending a couple of hours wandering around the area late afternoon, I bumped in to just two people I know. If I had wandered Sukhumvit for that long in the past, I would have probably come across a dozen or so. I came across far fewer people I am familiar with which goes along with what I had heard about many expats moving on. Some have moved on from the bar scene and away from Sukhumvit, others have left Thailand and returned home.
A small sign at the entrance to Nana Plaza states bars open at 7 PM. That may well have been the case for some time, but it was new to me. That’s the sort of thing you discover when you’ve been away for so long. I was prevented from entering by security, which was a shame but at the end of the day they’re just doing their job. Of course, I was not there to spend money but to be nosey and take some photos. Up until my last visit to Bangkok 3+ years ago, there was usually a bar or two on the ground level open during the day, even if they seldom had customers. Now there are none.
With the recent news of the Biergarten’s imminent demise, I had to check it out. I planned to stay for a drink but 60 seconds was long enough. The 15 or so ladies present looked desperate. It felt darker inside than I remember it and not at all inviting. Stepping inside the Biergarten felt like entering a cave. I’d just walked past the soi 7 bar complex which late afternoon had a vibe. The neon was on, girls were calling out and music was playing. The Biergarten felt like a tomb.
Early evening, I parked myself at Sam’s 2000, and for the next hour I watched the world go by. Early evening, Cowboy was much quieter than it used to be. There was less activity on the soi and the expat regulars who for years were a fixture at some of the outside bars were nowhere to be seen.
As the sun dropped below the horizon to be replaced by flickering neon signs, most of which have seen better days, activity on Cowboy picked up. Come 10:00 PM and it felt like it was humming along nicely. It should be noted that a friend who is a regular on the soi tells me that it was quieter than it has been and bar trade is down markedly over the past month.
In fact trade has been so bad some nights recently that even the very best bars have seen visitor numbers plummet. You know things are bad when the owner of some of the most popular bars described trade this week as “brutal”. So why the disconnect between what I was seeing and what others are telling me. The explanation is simple. I was out on Friday night which is usually the busiest night of the week and this week it just so happened that the next day (last night) would see all the bars closed. So if you wanted to go out this weekend, it had to be Friday.
First chrome pole bar of the evening was Long Gun for old times’ sake as much as anything. That was a mistake. It’s hard to imagine a bar with worse music – and by this I mean in the history of the bar industry. I have no idea what they even call this style of music but I can’t imagine anyone other than gangsters listening to it. That it was being played at an ear-piercing volume just added to what can only be described as torment. I am loathe to suggest avoiding a bar but Long Gun’s music is so bad that it takes real willpower to stay. For you wannabe gangsters, it’s probably the closest thing to heaven you’ll find in Bangkok.
Someone has a sense of humour at Long Gun with signs announcing a 5,000 baht barfine. Translation: Anyone who takes photos in the bar will be fined 5,000 baht.
Speaking of signs, I noticed a couple of bars had signs saying no vaping AND no smoking. As the other half commented when I made it back at the end of the night, this is the first time she can remember when I did the round of the bars and returned without stinking of smoke. Tilac was one bar with such a sign. Maybe Dollhouse (?) was the other.
Speaking of Tilac, it continues with an all coyote line-up although you’d hardly know it with the current troop of coyotes (which once upon a time was the designation for ladies who could really dance) doing the Bangkok shuffle. Tilac’s once popular happy hour that ran for decades was done away with when the bar opened after the great Covid bar shut-down. What was once a nicely decked out bar that was always well maintained and spotlessly clean is in need of a refresh. From the dancers to the premises to the (still pleasant and affable) old service staff, Tilac just doesn’t have the vibrance of old.
It hasn’t been easy for owners, with Covid seeing bars closed for a lengthy period meaning no money to spend on maintenance. But Soi Cowboy really feels like it needs money invested in it. A number of bars on Soi Cowboy feel tired.
There are still a few empty spaces on Cowboy and it’s not a good look when you compare it with Nana Plaza where all the bars are operating in a blaze of bright, beautiful neon. Nana has a single landlord who manages the plaza and keeps on top of things. Bars on Cowboy are individually owned and without a “master landlord” running the soi, there seems to be no drive to get new leaseholders in or spruce up the soi.
Next stop was Suzie Wong which was streets ahead of Tilac and Long Gun. A nice line-up of attractive ladies and a good vibe with most seats taken. Suzie Wong was humming.
I’d heard good things about Dollhouse and was keen to check it out. Dollhouse is an old favourite and recent reports have been glowing. The winning formula remains with gogo dancing downstairs, birthday suits upstairs, all overseen by a foreign manager. If you liked Dollhouse in the past, you’ll love it now. Manager Dennis has a great team of fun-loving cuties with version 2023 more fun than version 2019. The music is a happy compromise between what the girls like and can dance to and what punters like listening to. Friendly ladies, many of whom are attractive, decent music and a good vibe, what more do you need? Despite an almost complete turnover of girls from pre-Covid and a new manager who is new to the gogo bar industry, Dollhouse remains a favourite amongst expats and visitors. It’s easy to see why.
A general observation from Soi Cowboy – and this is specific to Cowboy as I have yet to make it to Nana or Patpong. There are far fewer girls who are obviously taking ya ba (methamphetamine). Ok, so there might still be a number using the evil substance but there were few girls with the tell-tale signs of meth use.
I haven’t made it back to Nana Plaza but will do so over the next few days. Twister BKK in Nana Plaza threw a Pajama Party on Friday night complete with girls in sexy nighties. No one knew about the party in advance and many saw the balloons and still didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Why was that? Head honcho Tee doesn’t do any social media or photos. What a wasted opportunity.
Down in Pattaya, low season hit earlier than in Bangkok and slow business has claimed another victim: Dynamite Entertainment. The flash gogo / beer bar on the corner of Soi Buakhao and Soi Boomerang closed for good this past Friday. Popular manager Captain Hornbag confirmed the closing, saying the combination of location, the cost of agency girls and low season proved too much for the owners.
Pattaya bar bosses have long lamented the agency system in Pattaya, which has been much bigger in Sin City for the past 10 years or so than in Bangkok. One bar manager said this week that agency “sharks” have locked up all the young, thin attractive ladies. The only girls available for bars to hire directly in Pattaya are, he claims, older and, let’s say, less thin.
Dynamite’s closure also creates more questions about the viability of the entire Soi Boomerang area. Soi Buakhao has exploded as a nightlife area and has overflowed beyond Soi LK Metro. But Boomerang is a good walk from Soi LK Metro and the bars on the alley have been described as dumpy. How many of them will still be around come high season?
Also in Pattaya, Bliss A Gogo, jointly operated by the folks behind Fahrenheit / Shark and the owners of Palace, has been closed. All the ladies have moved to Pascha which is in a better location in the middle of Walking Street. That bar, too, is operated by the same people. Signage has been removed from Bliss, so it won’t be reopening under the same ownership.
Yet another gogo bar is trying its luck on Soi Diamond. Coke A Gogo – what a daft name – opened late last month in the spot that most recently was Hilton Club which, itself, only lasted a few weeks. One wonders if Coca-Cola would approve of a gogo bar named in its honour?
Also reopening this month was the original Windmill Club, which relocated across the way at the old Diamond A Gogo during renovations. The question of whether Windmill 2 would continue after Windmill 1 reopened was answered: Yes.
And, for those looking for something different, Crazy Russian Girls, closed since March, is also back in business. A few shopfronts away, Club 79 has opened in the spot that for a long time was the popular (until it wasn’t) Abbe’s Bar. That beer bar closed way back in November, 2016. Finally, on Soi 6, Panda A Gogo has reopened as just Panda with no more gogo. Just the usual Soi 6 tawdriness.
While it may not be popular among readers of this column, Bangkok’s RCA – Royal City Avenue – nightlife district has been an iconic location for young, urban Thais for years. The area attracted but a smattering of Caucasians. That said, I can remember stopping by in my late 20s with a friend of a similar age and we felt like we were the oldest guys there. Along with Patpong and Nana Plaza, it’s the only place in Bangkok that is legally zoned as an entertainment district – which means it is able to stay open until 2 AM. But it appears RCA may cease to exist after next year. As Dave the Rave reports this week, the land is owned by the State Railway of Thailand which has other plans for the site. The master lease expired last year and RCA has been operating on borrowed time since then, with some tenants already relocating. “The lease is set to expire, and although temporary extensions have been granted until the end of 2024, there will be no option for the same tenant to renew their contract,” an SRT official is quoted as saying. Read the full story here.
It’s not my thing but I stuck my head in a few weed stores to see what all the fuss is about. There are weed stores everywhere, but there is a marked difference in the way different shops are run. Some are beautifully done out, come across as professional operations with staff happy to engage with you, even when you tell them you’re just looking. In this respect, Wonderland and Cloud Nine both get full marks. In Weed Hub on Soi Cowboy on the other hand, the indifference couldn’t have been more stark. These stores are tourist attractions as much as anything. Some stores like Wonderland and Cloud Nine get that and encourage it. Some others don’t.
As for the streets reeking of weed like some people claim, while admittedly I have not been back long, I have yet to be overcome by the smell of weed. In fact I have not caught a whiff of it anywhere.
If you’ve been following the run up to Thailand’s general election which takes place today, you’ll be aware that a number of parties have pledged to reverse the decriminalisation of cannabis in Thailand. Whether any of the parties who made this pledge get in to power will be known soon – and whether they would actually go through with reversing decriminalisation, who knows? I’ve only been back a few days but this is a topic which gets emotions running hot amongst some expats. Some see weed stores as a blight on the landscape. Others talk of personal freedoms and the tax revenue gained. Me? Weed is not my thing but I was pleasantly surprised at how professional some stores were and how some people are genuinely passionate about it.
For some weeks already, fetish bars Demonia in Sukhumvit soi 33 and The Castle in Pattaya have run a promotion on Friday nights. 1,500 baht gets you free-flow drinks all night long. It has been a hit and very well supported. The price of drinks has been cited as a barrier for some to check out these unique venues, so if you’re curious this is your chance to try something new.
I have to comment on the mask situation, following on from a lot of emails and feedback from readers about mask use. Out and about during the day, most Thais wear masks, probably around 85% or so. Those not wearing masks are a real cross-section of society and I wouldn’t like to generalise and say who is and who is not wearing a mask. It seems to be a very individual thing with no rhyme nor reason to it. Most foreigners – Caucasian and others – are not wearing masks. Mask-wearing amongst foreigners would be perhaps 10 – 15%. I have not worn a mask once and don’t plan to do so. Not one person has looked at me funny for not wearing a mask and certainly no-one has sneered at me or anything like that.
International airfares remain stubbornly high and the conventional wisdom is that demand is high, flights are full and basic economics means that prices will go up. While many readers have told me their flight to Thailand was full with not even one empty seat, it wasn’t that way for me. The AKL to HKG flight was barely 60% full with empty seats everywhere. And the flight from HKG to BKK was about 75% full with plenty of empty seats too. So from my part of the world, at least, flights are not full – but airfares remain sky-high!
Is the Huntsman in the basement of The Landmark going to reopen? Rumours have it that management is considering it.
While customers aren’t allowed to take photos in the bars, there’s no shortage of quality photos of the girls and the bars in Bangkok, thanks to Digital-a-Go-Go. And, after a long trend where fewer and fewer girls were willing to pose for photos that end up on social media and websites like this, the tide may be turning or ebbing, ever so slowly. Digital-a-Go-Go reports that many bars now have no problems getting a good number of ladies to pose every month. Suzie Wong, Mandarin, Red Dragon and Billboard are among those that can have 10 or even 15 girls ready to model each month. A good part of it is the quality of the work. The girls see how great the photos come out and want to get their own. Some girls are even hiring Digital-a-Go-Go for private shoot sessions and, no, not that kind of “private”. These girls pay cash from their own pocket for their own photos. At places like Billboard and Butterflies, only a few girls were willing to pose six months ago but, as each round of pictures were put up on the video screens, more agreed to model because they saw the quality of the work and how customers responded to them. If you’re interested in having Digital-a-Go-Go shoot or market your bar (or restaurant / other business), they can be contacted at: Info@DigitalAGoGo.com.
A sure indicator of low season hitting in earnest is the end of Japan’s Golden Week and the departure of the herds of Japanese guys who filled the gogo bars before May 9. While bar owners are sad to see them go, service staff and security aren’t shedding many tears. The Japanese are infamous for being shutterbugs, sneaking photos inside gogo bars and packing hidden cameras in their omnipresent backpacks and shoulder bags. Door staff at Crazy House last week actually printed up and laminated a big colour sign saying “No Photos”. They stopped every Asian guy at the door, put the sign in their face and barked “No Photos!” loudly. Billboard – which has always had A4-sized “No Photos” signs posted around the bar – has printed and hung huge, banner-sized signs saying the same thing. People illicitly snapping photos in Billboard is a near daily occurrence.
It’s not that long ago when bar staff catching a customer taking photos in a bar would seize their cellphone and throw it out the door and over the balcony. The customer would be ejected. There were some nasty cases – and I remember one which made the Bangkok Post 20 odd years ago – where a fellow was caught secretly filming in a ground floor Nana Plaza bar (Pretty Lady, from memory). He was set upon by security and given a beating. That is less likely to happen these days and with top-line mobile phones costing well in excess of $1,000, landlords (and police) frown upon violence against tourists. When those secretly snapping get caught – usually by the girls caught in the lens – staff demand the phone owner deletes all the photos. And don’t think waitresses don’t know that deleted photos first go to a Recycled Bin: They make the shutterbug delete the photo and then empty the trash.
While some people lament some of the recent changes and crave the Bangkok of the past, there’s no doubt that the city has improved in so many ways. One of the things I distinctly remember from my first few years in Thailand was the frequent power cuts. It was especially bad during the rainy season. The power would often go out for an hour or two – and it always seemed to happen at the worst time. I can remember watching matches during the 1999 Rugby World Cup in my condo and boom, there’d be a loud bang, the neighbourhood would go dark and you’d miss the rest of the match. And there were plenty of times when you’d return to your condo building after a night out after a drink or two too many only to find the building in darkness – and the lifts not working. You’d work up a sweat taking the stairs up to your apartment and your lady du jour would be none too happy.
Thailand-Related News Article Links
The British father whose son was killed in a forest in Thailand lets his son’s killer know what he thinks of him.
Thailand is hoping to see arrivals from China reach 1 million per month by October.
A Brit is arrested after attacking a tuktuk driver in Phuket.
A Kiwi caught with drugs in Phuket complains about the conditions in his Phuket cell and the level of assistance provided by the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok.
Could the decriminalisation of cannabis in Thailand be repealed following today’s election?
Firebrand Chuwit’s new book looks at the demolition of Sukhumvit Square and corruption in Thai prisons amongst other controversial issues.
A South African falls after running out of a gogo bar in Pattaya without paying the bill.
It’s really good to be back in Bangkok. Many people had told me that the city has changed and I wouldn’t recognise it but to be frank, that is nonsense. Sure, plenty of businesses – including some old favourites – have closed, new buildings have shot up and some of the old characters have disappeared. But to me, it still feels very much like the same old Bangkok. The changes are largely cosmetic. The distinct impression I have is that the essence of Bangkok hasn’t changed at all. Bangkok has always been about the people and the vibe – and to me, so far at least, Bangkok is as much fun as ever.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : email@example.com