Bangkok, 01 August 2002
William R. Morledge
The 'bar beer' was an idea whose time was slow to come to Bangkok. The bar beer's beginnings in Thailand go back to the last half of the 1970's, when the so-called "German Wave" hit Thailand. The "German Wave" followed quickly on the departing heels of the "American Wave" of the mid-'60's, which was primarily the US Army on R&R and other military types assigned here in country.
The German Wave filled a much-needed tourism gap for Thailand, and as might be expected, they brought several changes to the Night Entertainment Scene. Among them were the 'biergarten's, or beer gardens, which were outdoor bar - restaurants which served German food and occasionally German beer. Popular at first only with the Germans, the biergartens soon became generally accepted. One of the first, and still the most well known in Bangkok was the Biergarten on Sukhumvit Soi 7. It has become a generic term; if someone says they are going to Soi 7, it is understood that they are going to the Biergarten; if they say they are going to the 'Beer Garden', it is understood they are going to the one on Soi 7.
Also new to Thailand on this '70's "German Wave" was the 'bar bier', or 'bar beer', or the open-sided bar. In that these German entrepeneurs were the 'first kids on the block' with this format, their term, "bar beer" has prevailed over the English language 'beer bar', although the latter is also encountered. The bar beer is traditionally a simple, open structure with a cashier working inside the bar counter, and hostesses both inside and outside the counter, conversing with the customers. There is almost never any dancing.
The bar beer style was eminently more suited to the beach scene, and took off almost immediately in Pattaya and was soon to follow suit in Patong (Phu Khet). Now, the bar beer format is the predominant style in Lamai Beach in Koh Samui, Soi Bintabat in Hua Hin, and virtually all of Thailand's popular beach towns. Probably because of the pollution and the heat, the idea was not initially popular in Bangkok, even though the biergarten concept took hold here almost immediately.
A dozen years after the first of the German tourists, businessmen and entrepeneurs arrived, a small cluster of bar beers arose Phoenix-like from, well, if not from the ashes, at least from the dust. In 1988, several bar beers were erected, mostly from scrap material, along the unused land adjacent to the railroad crossing at the top of Sukhumvit Road. This ramshackle collection of hovels had absolutely nothing going for it except 'stolen' electricity and a train that ran through the middle of it that one could reach out and touch. The bar beer area was largely a Thai undertaking, with occasional Farang financing, not unlike other Night Entertainment Areas. The outsider looking in would find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to stop and drink there, and would find it entirely incomprehensible that a raucous good time was obviously being had by all. This bar beer area was originally called Soi Rot Fai after the railroad line running through it. It was also often referred to as Tobacco Road, as the then-adjacent unpaved soi ran back to a large slum wedged between the railroad tracks and the rear wall of the Thai Tobacco Monopoly. The Tobacco Road Night Entertainment Area has had many names since; there is currently a sign in front which reads, "Soi Zero".
A testament to Tobacco Road's success is the much improved bar beer Night Entertainment Area still in operation there today. More importantly, it provided the much needed 'proof of concept'. But other bar beer Night Entertainment Areas were not quick to follow. During the building construction boom of the late '80's and early 'Bangkok's Finest's , cheap land was almost nonexistant. But the economic crash of '97 changed all that; developers were abandoning projects and vacating lands all over town. Bangkok was ripe for 'opportunistic' entrepenurial adventure; it wasn't long before large abandoned properties were being converted by local entrepeneurs to parking lots, 'talat-nat's, food centers and bar beers.
Bar beers, almost by definition are low budget concerns, at least during the initial ramp-up. So, it wouldn't suprise many of us that virtually all of the bar beer Night Entertainment Areas in existence in Bangkok today are "opportunistic" in their development strategies. That is to say, without having the absolute rock-bottom cheapest rental property available, these shoe-string entrepeneurs wouldn't have been able to get off the ground. A short list of Bangkok's surviving 'opportunistic' bar beer Night Entertainment Areas is shown here: Sukhumvit Square, Queen's Park Plaza, Cowboy Annex (Asoke Corner/Asoke Plaza), the earlier mentioned Tobacco Road (Soi Zero), and Clinton Plaza (yes, Clinton Plaza has degenerated to the bar beer area from whence it came).
The 'open-air' concept in general, and specifically the bar beer format have become a permanent part of Bangkok's Night Entertainment Scene. Even Bangkok's traditional Night Entertainment Areas have made concessions to the general 'open-air' format. Nana Plaza has several bar beers and even more 'hybrids' or, "Inside/Outside" bars. Soi Cowboy also has one bar beer and several 'hybrids'. Even the Patpongs now have several bars that are either 'hybrid' or entirely "open-sided".
A numerical review of Bangkok's 12 largest expat-oriented Night Entertainment Areas reveals a surprising statistic: The survey of 360 bars shows that 134, or 37.2 % are bar beers. And if the 'open-sided' bars and the "hybrids" are included in the total, the percentage of bars with the 'open-air' format jumps to 180, or exactly 50 %. With the ongoing spate of bar beer construction, the figure will have exceeded this amount by the time you read this in the Midnight Hour page.
The long-term prognosis for the bar beers, however, is not healthy. The worst of the '97 economic collapse appears to be behind us; and the original developers, or perhaps new developers will be keen on redeveloping those lands currently occupied by the 'opportunistic' newcomer bar beers. This resurgence in Bangkok's land redevelopment has already started; construction crews are already starting demolition works in Clinton Plaza. So, while the 'open-air' bar beer format remains popular with tourists and Farang residents alike, it is most probable that their numbers will decline drastically in the near future.
© 2002, Bangkok Eyes / bangkokeyes.com
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