Genesis: Sukhumvit's Night Scene
Bangkok, 15 December 2002
William R. Morledge
This is a thumbnail history on the origins of Sukhumvit Road's Night Entertainment Scene, and how it came to be the major NIGHT ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT in Bangkok.
Up through the 1950's, Sukhumvit Road was significantly less developed than today; many properties facing Sukhumvit Road remained undeveloped. There were almost no buildings more than 3 storeys high and, for the most part, Bangkok's Buddhist temples were still 'properly' the tallest structures in the surrounding communities. This was still the era of the 'shophouse', and virtually all structures still had wooden shutters on the windows and doors. Bangkok's Entertainment Scene, modest by today's standards, was mostly centered in and around the New Road / Suriwong Road area.
In the mid-1960's things started to change rapidly. Bangkok was experiencing the first big building boom since World War II. Most of this new construction boom was directly attributable to the new war in Southeast Asia. In that decade, several medium-to-large 3-star hotels were built. Many of them 20 storeys or more, and several of them were leased by the US Government as "R&R" hotels, or BOQs & BEQs (Bachelor Officer's Quarters & Bachelor Enlisted-men's Quarters). Some of these BOQs/BEQs were in the Sukhumvit area; Long-time residents and return visitors may remember the BOQ/BEQs Windsor Hotel on Soi 20, and the Rajah Hotel on Soi 4 as examples of these. This was the decade which brought the Night Entertainment Scene to Sukhumvit Road.
Along with this flurry of construction of medium to large hotels was the wholesale construction of the giant, then-unheard-of multi-storey "fishbowl" massage parlors. While these massage parlors were scattered all over Bangkok, the largest concentration was to be found on the "Petchburi Tat Mai" Road, which was the then-new extension of Petchburi Road that ran southwest out of Pratu Nam. Many still refer to this area as Petchburi Tat Mai, or New Petchburi Road. Ostensibly built for Thai custom, timing for construction of these massage parlors couldn't have been better. With the new build-up of US military forces in the region, they found that their services attracted large numbers of Farang as well as locals. With large numbers of US G.I.s coming nightly to the New Petchburi Rd massage parlors, it is no wonder that a large number of bars also opened up there. From the mid-sixty's to the mid-seventy's this area, known as the Golden Mile, was the largest contiguous Night Entertainment Area Bangkok was to ever know. Its rapid growth and universal popularity tended to mute the development of other Night Entertainment Areas in other parts of Bangkok, including the Sukhumvit Road area. Nevertheless, Sukhumvit was following its own destiny in that regard.
The earlier mentioned BOQ/BEQs, and the other new hotels in the Sukhumvit area found they could attract a fair amount of late night custom at their own hotel coffee shops. Taking advantage of the fact that the bars and massage parlors had closing times between midnight and 2 a.m., and the coffee shops could stay open 24 hours as an adjunct to the hotel, they were able to pick up a significant amount of late night trade. But one of those late night hotel coffee shops became, for whatever mysterious reasons, the mecca of night time activity. The original Nana Hotel Coffee Shop was strategically located adjacent to, and actually jutted out into the hotel parking lot, and, being near the top of Soi 4, it was also 'on the way home' for those G.I.s returning to the Windsor. By the late 'sixty's, through word-of-mouth more than anything, it was standing room only after midnight.
Coinciding with this burst of popularity of the Nana Hotel Coffee Shop, the Thermae Massage Parlor, one of the new 'fishbowl' massage parlors located on Sukhumvit Soi 13, was employing the same strategy. While technically not a hotel, the Thermae was reportedly owned by influential Thai military persons and had, it seems, little trouble putting the fix in with the police to stay open all night. This basement coffee shop, originally intended for the use of the massage parlor and barber shop patrons became a second, even more popular nucleus of after hours activity. As a result, the late night reveller in the mid to late 1960's would often traverse this Nana-Thermae axis several times before dawn, either by walking, or if already 'legless', by tuk-tuk.
At this juncture, the westward extension of Sukhumvit Rd which became Ploenchit Road, was also affected by this '60's Night Entertainment boom. Gaysorn, with its warren of sois next to the President Hotel had a small number of very popular bars and restaurants. Across the street, near the original Erawan Hotel was the Thai Yonoke, another late night coffee shop which also enjoyed a degree of popularity in the 1960's, and into the 1970's.
With the rapid disappearance of the US military from Southeast Asia in the early 1970's (and therefore the disappearance of the R&R 'tourist'), Petchburi Road's Golden Mile bar scene all but dried up. One would have thought that the same fate would have befallen the Sukhumvit area's smaller G.I.-oriented Night Scene, but other, stronger market forces were at work.
Sukhumvit's R&R hotels were, after all, still hotels, and by the late Seventy's had made the transition to the tourism sector. The lion's share of those tourists were now from Europe; in particular, Germany. But most importantly, these hotels retained their 24-hour coffee shops. The Thermae Massage Parlor, with its subterranean Thermae Coffee Shop also continued to maintain its 'special status', so the Nana-Thermae axis still thrived. But there was a new player in town; on the other, northern side of Soi Nana, the Grace Hotel's recent expansion and the rapid popularization of its ground floor 24-hour coffee shop had already made it one of the "big dogs" on the Night Entertainment Scene. Sukhumvit's two-way Nana-Thermae axis had become a triangle, a 3-pronged axis that continued to rock and roll 'till the break of day.
With a plethora of new Sukhumvit bars to 'hit' in the evening, and the Nana-Thermae-Grace 3-way axis to keep them pumping after hours, nighttime revellers and night-crawlers no longer needed to leave the once 'barren' Sukhumvit area to experience Bangkok's notorious dusk 'till dawn entertainment scene.
As we witnessed the Golden Mile's fall as a significant Night Entertainment Area, we saw the rise of the Patpongs (Patpong 1 & 2 between Suriwong and Silom Rds). Although Patpong 1 had a couple of Night Entertainment Venues in the early '60's, and a relative groundswell of new bars in the late '60's, it didn't really explode as major Night Entertainment Areas until the 1970's. The Patpongs continued to expand as Bangkok's (and Asia's) top Night Entertainment Area well into the late 1980's. To this day, the Patpongs maintain their international reputation as a major Night Entertainment Area.) But the Patpongs were not alone in their phenominal growth in the 1970's. Sukhumvit Road's Night Scene was also exploding. However, the explosions were many, and all of them low-key.
The story of Sukhumvit's cluster-bomb of Night Scene explosions of the 1970's most readily starts with the Soi 16 bars. While all of these bars have since relocated, this was the spawning grounds of some of Bangkok's longest running expat bars: The Three Roses, Rosemary 1 & 2, Sunshine and Rainbow.
(Editor's Correction: The Sunshine relocated to Soi Cowboy; disregard the following in RED - which originally appeared in print : "Only the Sunshine no longer exists today.")
Another cluster of bars to open on Sukhumvit in this era was at Soi 29; the Dirty Old Man's Club, Dino's, the Papillon and the Hawaii. Yet another group of bars sprouted at the top of Soi 26 near the newly completed Chokechai Bldg (Bangkok's first skyscraper): the Trolley and the Harbor Light among the memorable. None of these areas of Sukhumvit has any significant expat Night Entertainment today, but each was a significant part of the fabric, part and parcel of Sukhumvit's Night Scene development.
The Gold Label bar opened without fanfare in 1975 on a small, unnamed sub-soi between Sukhumvit's Soi Asoke and Soi 23. With complete disregard for location, location, location, it was pretentious in the extreme, being an unheard of double-shophouse-wide AND 3 storeys high, sporting a chrome-and-mirror lounge dowsntairs, with A Go-Go and 'lie' shows upstairs. Nevertheless, it opened more than a few eyes in its brief 3-year lifespan; the little known sub-soi soon started to attract a slow-but-steady stream of other new bars, the most prominent being the Cowboy Bar. By the end of the Seventy's Sukhumvit's "Soi Cowboy" was on its way.
The 1980's saw no let-up in the explosive growth of Night Entertainment Venues and Areas along Sukhumvit Road. When the Rachadapisek Rd expansion caused Sukhumvit's Soi 16 bars to close, some of them sought new digs back in Soi 4, across the street from the Nana Hotel in a 3 storey shop complex. The Rosemary, the Three Roses and the Rainbow set up shop there in hopes of picking up some of the action from the adjacent Nana Hotel and the Rajah Hotel, a little deeper in the soi. They couldn't possibly have had any idea what they had started. This 3 storey shop complex has grown from 3 bars in 1981 to 37 tightly packed A Go-Go bars, lounges and bar beers. This shop complex, known for the last 10 years or so, as Nana Entertainment Plaza (or just 'Nana Plaza', or sometimes 'the Plaza', or Nana Entertainment Plaza, or just NEP) has more bars in it than Patpong 1 does today; the only limiting factor to the Plaza's further expansion is its physical size.
Sukhumvit's Washington Theater sits at the front of Washington Square and in past decades was a popular source of entertainment for the expats and tourists to Bangkok, being one of several then-new, large theaters showing English language films. Washington Square itself was a very large shophouse compound, which, by the 1980's started attracting attention as a potential Night Entertainment Area. Washington Square was ideally suited for this type of development. Having access to both Soi 22 and Sukhumvit Rd, it was a single, contiguous area, large enough to accomodate an almost limitless number of bars, and was set off the main street sufficiently to prevent it becoming an eyesore to the community. While theory is almost always different than the reality, several 'Western' bars and restauarants did open there in the 1980's, and today Washington Square ramains one of Sukhumvit's more viable, if smaller Night Entertainment Areas.
Sukhumvit's Soi 33 opened its first expat lounge, the Renoir in the late Eighty's. Several other bars followed almost immediately, each having an Impressionist artist's name. As a consequence, the soi has garnered the nickname; 'Soi Dead Artists', and is now a mini-entertainment center on its own, offering 30 lounges, pubs and bars, as well as numerous good restaurants to Bangkok's nighttime players.
The 1990's saw the cascade of new Night Entertainment Venues and Areas continue to proliferate along Sukhumvit Rd. Soi 22 saw the slow, but inexorable coming of Queen's Park Plaza, where a mixture of bar beers, pool bars, and lounges provides for the entertainment needs of the Queen's Park Hotel and a growing number of expat residents.
Clinton Plaza was another significant player in the Ninety's, having become an almost overnight sensation as Bangkok's newest A Go-Go scene. Due to a redevelopment project, what was once 'Clinton Plaza' has been reduced to a handful of outdoor bar beers; soon to be just another footnote in history. Nevertheless, it too, was a major 'contributor' to the ongoing patchwork-quilt history of Sukhumvit's Night Scene.
In the last days of the 1990's, in a ramshackle compound across from Clinton Plaza a small bar beer opened called Sweet Home Bar. That ramshackle compound was then called Thai Help Thai. Today it is called Sukhumvit Square. The newly opened Sweet Home Bar, was a one shophouse bar beer facing the main road, and opened just in time to still say it was 'born' in the last Millennium. At that time, Sukhumvit Square was mostly empty property which was slowly being covered with shantys selling all sorts of tourist-ware and Thai-made goods. Being the only place to stop on that side of the street for a cold beer, Sweet Home Bar became a quiet success. However, it went virtually unnoticed for almost 2 years, until the Happy Today group moved in and got things organized in a most substantial fashion. While 'bar beers' was originally the predominant theme, the trend is now changing to airconditioned venues. Sukhumvit Square has already built, and will soon open its first A Go-Go bar. At this juncture, the extent of development at Sukhumvit Square is much underestimated by non-patrons. All told, there are 50 venues; bar beers, indoor and outdoor Pool Bars, and airconditioned lounges and pubs. This makes it the biggest single Night Entertainment Area in Bangkok, and the new construction within hasn't even begun to slow down.
With 2 years of the new Millennium already behind us, the "00" decade, or the "Ought's", promises unabated development and expansion of Sukhumvit Road as Bangkok's premier Night Entertainment Area. And perhaps the most interesting recent development on Sukhumvit is right back at the source; on Soi Nana, where Sukhumvit's Night Scene began. What was once only a 2-hotel Soi erupted 21 years ago into a major Night Entertainment Area, with the addition of the earlier mentioned Nana Entertainment Plaza. Soi Nana's current renaissance, however, is on the main Soi, not inside the Nana Plaza. The Soi is offering an abundance of new pubs, pool bars, bar beers, beer gardens, discos, and massage parlors. In consideration of the existence of a couple of well-established restaurants, Soi Nana arguably offers more variety to Expat night revellers than any other area on Sukhumvit, any other area in Bangkok, and for that matter, in any other single Night Entertainment Area in Southeast Asia.
While not significant on their own, smaller clusters of Night Entertainment Venues are finding they can keep their heads above water in several of Sukhumvit's sois: Soi 26, Soi 24, Soi 8, Soi 18, Soi 7, Soi 11, Soi 19 and Soi 23. In future issues, Midnite Hour will visit those areas, and come back with detailed 'intelligence reports'.
© 2002, Bangkok Eyes / bangkokeyes.com
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