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Bangkok's Night Scene In Review

Bangkok's Darkest Year

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01 January 2004
William R. Morledge
Patpong's Show Bar resurgence
Rumor Of The Month Award
January's Follies in review



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         The year 2003 was far and away the most turbulent year in Bangkok's Night Entertainment history - bar none. Mafia Destruction, Foreign War, Pandemic Disease, International Terrorism, Police Corruption, Military Corruption, Political Corruption, Xenophobic Crackdowns - we were witness to the birth and death of entire Night Entertainment Areas.  It was as though all of Satan's Disciples took turns in dealing Bangkok's Night Scene a bad hand in an attempt to undermine this, the world's most vibrant Night Scene.  A brief review of the year 2003's goings-on will likely surprise even those of us who were here for the entire onslaught.

         SUKHUMVIT SQUARE - 26 JANUARY    Early in the morning of 26 January, Khun Chuwit, the owner of the land on which Sukhumvit Square Night Entertainment Area was built, contrived through his Mafia connections and shadow companies (Nickel, Sukhumvit Stars) to send in marauding paramilitary types to destroy every structure on the compound (approx. 150 tourist-oriented businesses).  Sixty of these structures were Pool Bars, A-Go-Go Bars, bar beers, lounges and specialty bars that comprised the Night Entertainment Area.  This lightning strike, abetted by yet-to-be-named traffic police units (National Police), commenced at 4:00 a.m. and was completed before dawn.   A major ancillary component of the blitzkrieg operation was the convoy of heavy construction equipment, materials, welding sets, generators and lighting tower sets as well as hundreds of massive concrete and steel sections of 'gulag wall', which were escorted through the streets of Bangkok.  Immediately subsequent to that, half of Sukhumvit Road was cordoned off of for three hours, while the destruction was in progress.  The public were outraged, and the Press kept the story on the front page for weeks.  The world-wide coverage gave Thailand a black eye vis-a-vis tourism, many potential tourists becoming apprehensive about travel to this 'lawless Thailand'.
         Although there is now no question as to who the guilty parties were in this unprecedented pillaging of private property, no arrests, other than those of underling scapegoats, have been made - the culprits remain free.  In spite of the Prime Minister's strongly expressed words that no Mafia would be allowed to operate on his watch, the Mafiosi walk free.  The National Police -who provided traffic assistance and later disavowed knowledge of any marauding convoys - walk free. The Military -who provided the engineering & construction capability and security- walk free.  And the shop owners who built businesses on this land remain uncompensated for their losses*.  (*Note : Khun Chuwit's Nickel Co did offer to make restitution, however, that was almost entirely for the benefit of the Press - the very best offers were for 10 cents on the dollar, most were much less than that, so most bar owners told him where he could stuff it.)
         Were it not so reprehensible, it would have been a most amusing spectacle to watch Vice Kingpin Khun Chuwit using the Media to manipulate the Prime Minister into deflecting his wrath instead onto his own police department, embroiling them in the biggest public scandal of their long and ignominious history.  The police, not wanting to take the brunt of the blame, implicated the Military Mafia, and it became a major catfight, devolving into a Mexican standoff, where the military and the police were trading threats as to who they would also implicate if anyone tried to fool with either of them.  And this is how the case rests - a Prime Minister incapable of taking action, and a cauldron of several major culprits -all guilty as sin.  And all waiting for the public interest to wane and the political necessity-to-act to fade away.  And most regrettably, it looks as though their wait is all but over.

         CLINTON PLAZA CLOSES - 07 JUNE 2003.     Clinton Plaza was one of Bangkok's primary Night Entertainment Areas for a period of almost five years.  It unceremoniously winked out of existence in June of 2003 after a long fight to stay 'alive'.  Unlike its neighbor, Sukhumvit Square across the street, it went out with a whimper and not a 'bang'  Nevertheless, it was a long, drawn-out whimper, sprinkled liberally with acrimonious meetings, lease disputes and court cases.  This dogfight dragged out for a full year before the final day, with reports of landowner threats to bar beer staff and a multitude of signs being posted around the compound forbidding entry onto the premises (ignored by clientele, bar management and staff alike).  Nevertheless, attrition and bar lease buy-outs finally played the upper hand, clearing the way for Clinton Plaza's physical demolition and the commencement of construction of a "5-star hotel".  Clinton's closure was remarkable in that it marked the second time in a single year that a major Night Entertainment Area had closed.  The only other instances on record for even a single closure of an expat-oriented Night Entertainment Area were The Golden Mile on Petchburi Road in the mid-'70's, and Klong Toey in the 1980's.

         WAR IN IRAQ - MARCH.     Just as the furor over Sukhumvit Square began to subside, Coalition Forces, led by the US and Britain, invaded Iraq in search of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.   As might be anticipated, an irrational, or rather, an exaggerated fear of the consequences gripped the world.  Thailand, being no exception, was -seriously- asking questions like, "What would happen if Iraq popped off a couple of chemical weapons in defense of the homeland - would the wind carry the poisonous chemicals to Thailand?"  While the real danger to Thailand was low, the perceived danger and subsequent travel warnings by participating Coalition countries was enough to bite into its projected tourism figures - likewise hurting the Night Entertainment Scene in equal measure.

         SARS PANDEMIC - APRIL thru JULY     No sooner had the fear and hyped repercussions of the Iraq War begun to die down, than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, more commonly remembered as SARS struck from out of the Middle Kingdom.  The virus responsible for the SARS was quickly determined to be a killer and was observed to propagate rapidly through an as-yet clearly defined vector, or vectors.  The potential for a mega-killer was clearly evident, and most nations in the world implemented severely restrictive travel and quarantine procedures.  Through a fortuitous overestimation of its virulence and a quick international response, the disease ceased its rapid spread, and died down almost completely after a brief 3- 4 month run.  Most countries lifted strict travel restrictions by mid-year, but not before the damage was done - tourism-wise.  Thailand, being no exception, had yet another (or rather, a continued) slump in its Night Entertainment Scene.

         INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM - MAY - AUGUST      Although the specter of International Terrorism became a 'reality' to the rest Southeast Asia in October 2002 (with the Bali Bombings), it somehow just wasn't 'real' to the Thai Government, which repeatedly protested that International Terrorism had not come to Thailand.   This didn't stop other countries from issuing travel warnings to their respective citizens.  This once again, cut into tourist and business travel to Thailand, thereby keeping the negative pressure on an already-suffering Bangkok Night Scene.  The Thai Government took these travel warnings as an affront, condemning those responsible for issuing such warnings.  As if this wasn't bad enough, the current Administration was not content to merely ignore sound intelligence to the contrary, they proceeded to go out of their way to refute it's validity.  The Government's view was that those foreign countries that would have the misguided gall to hurt Thailand's image in such an offhand manner were acting highly irresponsibly, and that this was tantamount to interfering in Thailand's internal affairs.  However, when Hambali, the senior Al Qaida terrorist leader in Southeast Asia was arrested in Thailand just two months ahead of Bangkok's APEC meeting, all those highly indignant defenders of Thai tourism vanished into the ether - International Terrorism had finally become a reality -even to these cretins.

         SOCIAL ORDER CAMPAIGN - JAN Thru DEC      The Government's Social Order Campaign has been in effect for two years, now.  It originally started out as a heavy-handed across the board crackdown on the Night Entertainment Scene - Minister Purachai spearheading the efforts.  The term "Social Order Campaign" is, and has been from the outset, a euphemism for the Government's anti-prostitution initiative.  It was born of the Government's exacerbated perception that Thailand was viewed by the world as a 'land of prostitutes'.  And it was actively nurtured by their self-serving desire to impress the voting public that they were taking all 'necessary action' to rid Thailand of this very same self-created chimera.  
         The Government quickly realized their original crackdown scheme was short-sighted and impractical in the extreme, not to say highly unpopular.  By way of 'saving face', they immediately and quietly commenced a series of mid-course corrections.  This resulted in a modified Social Order Campaign, which can best be described as "The Slow Squeeze".  This 'Slow Squeeze' allowed the Government to continue to claim 'progress', while maintaining their program of harassment and arbitrary punitive measures on the Nightlife Establishment.  (This lower profile allowing them to more easily deflect outside criticism.)  Regrettably, the new crackdown schema retains the time-honored scapegoating of foreign 'culprits' - partly because of an entrenched xenophobic paranoia and partly because they are easy, high-profile targets.
         The Government quickly realized their original crackdown scheme was short-sighted and impractical in the extreme, not to say highly unpopular.  By way of 'saving face', they immediately and quietly commenced a series of mid-course corrections.  This resulted in a modified Social Order Campaign, which can best be described as "The Slow Squeeze".  This 'Slow Squeeze' allowed the Government to continue to claim 'progress', while maintaining their program of harassment and arbitrary punitive measures on the Nightlife Establishment.  (This lower profile allowing them to more easily deflect outside criticism.)  Regrettably, the new crackdown schema retains the time-honored scapegoating of foreign 'culprits' - partly because of an entrenched xenophobic paranoia and partly because they are easy, high-profile targets.
         The year 2003, then, is best described as the year of the "Slow Squeeze".  This year concluding saw the Government applying an unrelenting 'shotgun' approach, using a variety of Night Entertainment crackdown tactics:  Venues with signs not reflecting their registered names were arbitrarily closed down.  Frequent snap-inspections of Night Entertainment Venues to check for 'underage' employees, which the local government has arbitrarily established at 18 years.  Lightning sweeps of Night Venues for dress-code violations - again violations that don't specifically contravene existing laws.  Any one of these 'violations' could mean a closure from periods ranging from a week to a month, depending on the whim of the local police department.                TOP 
        The most recent Social Order Crackdown tactic is the "Urine-Swoop"  (Soi Cowboy, 21 Nov, and Thermae Coffee Shop, 6 Dec).  Both urine-swoops involved large numbers of police officers cordoning off the Night Entertainment Areas/Venues and exacting mandatory urine samples from venue occupants.  In both Urine Swoops, women were detained for failing the 'purple piss test'.  In all cases, the women were released either immediately, or within 24 hours.  The reason: the "purple piss test" can be 'fooled' into a false-positive by other legal drugs.  This hasn't, however, stopped the harassment.  (Note: one of a total of two patrons detained in the Thermae urine-swoop was said to have questionable cigarettes in her possession.  She, however, was also back at the front of the Thermae the following night.)
         The current Social Order Crackdown shows no sign of dissipating - to the contrary, it appears to be gaining momentum as it continues to evolve.  His Excellency The Dr. and his paid minions have not yet come to grips with the oft-tabled 'legalizing of prostitution', neither are they nearer to making up their minds -one way or the other- on Night Entertainment zoning, nor have they fully mooted the proposed 10:00 PM Night Venue closing time.  But, rest assured, they are pursuing these questions with undiminished zeal.  Their decisions could be pivotal - will they persist in tightening the choke-chain on Thailand's most vibrant foreign exchange item?  Will they allow their pursuit of 'form-over-substance' virtue to drive their Nightlife Industry back into the dark ages, and prostitution back into the streets?

         IN SUMMARY, there is no guarantee that the dark clouds hanging over Bangkok's Night Entertainment Scene are clearing.  Nor are the signs particularly promising ; many of the above mentioned evils which made 2003 Bangkok's Darkest Year remain a real and present danger (to a greater or lesser degree).  Nevertheless, the fact that it is still pumping gives guarded optimism to some long-time residents (and first-time visitors) - they retain at least a modicum of hope that Bangkok's Night Entertainment Scene will survive, for the most part, intact.

"Rumor Of The Month" Award
'Where There's Smoke, There's Mirrors' Department

      "Rumor = chain-reaction speculation - no-fault confabulation...."    Nevertheless MIDNITE HOUR again presents the most outrageous / prevalent rumor to cross our desks this past month:

       "When the current lease holder at Soi Zero (Tobacco Road) is terminated in January 2004, the Government (owners) will close it down instead of reissuing new lease documents. "

MIDNITE HOUR includes as part of our Rumor Of The Month an ongoing evaluation as to the accuracy of said rumors since the inception of the award.

As of 01 January 2004, the Rumor Accuracy Quotient remains at -

January's Follies
begin here

      MIDNITE HOUR presents the NEWS on the Bangkok Night Scene; - the 'history-in-the-making' for all major Night Entertainment Areas  - for the month ending  1 JANUARY, 2004 :

           The Queen's Castle II show bar is up and running full-throttle as promised, if only a couple of months late.  Located. as before, above the SuperStar.  As to the renovations that were to have taken place since their closure at the end of last August, what renovations?  It looks exactly the same as it did four months ago.  No cover charge, no Pay-For-Show, ninety baht beers.  May the night-demons hector them less severely this time 'round.   PATPONG I  

           Also going full-tilt once again is the upstairs Supergirls show bar .  Advertising 'no cover charge', it would seem to be 'business as usual' - after a four month hiatus.  Welcome back to the night follies.   PATPONG I  

           The King's Group's upstairs disco King's Lounge on Soi Bookstore has been closed for several days - no explanation available.  The downstairs King's Corner door touts say it will be reopening any day now...   Let's go into a 'wait-and-see' mode on this one, as this venue doesn't have that great a track record.  The last time this happened was in June 2003.  They, then calling themselves Platinum, closed down for an entire month, reopening as the King's Lounge in July.     PATPONG I  

           Located on the 4th floor, Cosmo's stairwell, the Century has taken over the reins from the Baan Bua Luang Cafe.  This has the 'look-and-feel' of new wine in an old bottle (if we may paraphrase) - somehow, it's just got to be a hard-sell to get someone to walk up four floors in a dingy, poorly lit stairwell...  Nevertheless, we wish them well as they throw their hat in the ring.   PATPONG II  

           The two single-shophouse lounges that opened in October of last year (2002) adjacent to the Thai Room vanished in December, virtually overnight.  They had undergone several temporary closures, reopenings and name changes between them over the course of the last year.  Not long before their ultimate demise, they settled on the monikers New Lady and Kob's Place respectively.  A new Pool Bar has risen almost immediately from their ashes -and it's tentatively calling itself the Topless II Pool Bar.  --It hopes to have a sign up to that effect sometime later this January.  This is a branch of the Topless Pool Bar / Sports Bar, just across the lane; one can't help but wonder once again, just how many Pool Bars is one-too-many?  Nevertheless they seem to be doing a better business than their predecessors.  Welcome to the wolfpack.   PATPONG II  

           With the immense, almost overwhelming popularity of Pool Bars, one wonders why the Red Parrot (opened in October) isn't doing a land-office business.  With ten new pool tables, and (for a change) adequate space for them, and inexpensive rates, one would think the place would be packed out.  As it is, the management has several charming young door girls downstairs at street level in their Santa hats and foam rubber reindeer antlers beckoning customers upstairs for a drink ('tis the season, after all...)  Keep on keeping on.   PATPONG I & II  

           The newly renamed The Pink La Panthera is seeing just how close to the edge they can skate without falling off...  Forbidden to use the name, 'The Pink Panther', they have altered their sign which said same to read, The Pink La Panthera (as mentioned last month).  What goes unsaid is when the light is turned on in the sign, only 'The Pink Panther" part lights up.  They have also cleverly outsmarted the authorities once again by disguising the cartoon logo of the Pink Panther by putting a baseball cap on him.  Yes, well, let's see how long that lasts...   PATPONG II  

           The old Vixens / Rock Hard, which has occasionally been undergoing renovations, but has just mostly been standing idle since its closure in September of last year (2002) , is showing signs of activity once again.  If a brand-new paint-job -inside and out- is any indication, they might actually open before the cool (high) season ends...   NANA PLAZA  

           The Crown Group's elaborate and expensive renovations are now complete; the Lollipop now has the bar beer lounge outside, and the Voodoo now has the Pool Bar outside.  Neither place seems any the busier, now that the 'switch-em' has been completed - dare we wonder whose uncle-brother is a building contractor?     NANA PLAZA  

           It used to be called the Old Dutch Corner, but the new sign now advises of a subtle change to The Old Dutch - full stop.  However, nothing else has changed - the same good food and drink.  We wish you constancy.   SOI COWBOY  

For the first few months after the original July 2003 announcement that Cowboy Annex would close, the owner was letting attrition take its course; when a venue's lease expired, he would not renew.  The owner then commenced with the demolition of the empty bars; leaving the ones with valid leases to continue operating.  The final day was to be 30 December.  But he found himself ahead of his own headlights when Municipal Electricity cut the power to the compound, causing him to have to bring a generator in to service the remaining bars.  But more recently, he discovered that the paperwork for construction of the new structure on those lands was behind schedule, so he has instead been trying to cut his losses- he has allowed the bars whose leases were up before 30 December to stay on. City power was restored by the owner's initiative only this November, and the remaining lease holders are now no longer sure of when the 'last day' might be.  Nevertheless, all are certain they will be long-gone before the opening of the adjacent Subway station at the end of 2004.

            The Siamese Twins bar beer obviously has an honest cashier; not only have they taken over the adjoining bar beer area in the 8-Pak for their own pool table, they have opened another place (a lounge) of the same name about a hundred meters up on Soi 23.  Let the good times roll.   COWBOY ANNEX  

            The Richiy Bar Pool, closed last month, has reopened - it's single small pool table busy most of the time.  Welcome back to the tussle.   COWBOY ANNEX  

   SOI  DEAD  ARTISTS  (Soi 33)  
            At the rear of 33 Complex, the Anego has reopened as a lounge - restaurant (as anticipated last month).  As the name suggests, orientation Oriental.   --Or is it really going to be called the 'NEGO', as it's newest sign currently reads?  (   is suspected once again...)     SOI DEAD ARTISTS  

            The Hare & Hound seems to be busier outside on their front 'verandah' than they are inside.  --And they would be foolish not to take advantage of these seventy-degree evenings while they last.  A good pub menu says it all.     WASHINGTON SQ  

            The Nok Merry Bar 2, having relocated from Cowboy Annex this last August had, curiously, never put up a sign.  Until now, that is.  This go-round, they are going by just Nok Merry Bar, as can be found neatly decaled on the front door.  In that there was never a Nok Merry Bar ONE, all this seems to make sense.  The exclusively African clientele seem to have found a place to kick back, have a beer and shoot some pool.  Keep on pumping.     QUEENS PARK PLAZA  

   " 13  NIGHT  MARKET "  
            The outside neon sign may have changed to read Barber & Beauty Massage, but its the same old 13 Thai Traditional Massage inside.  Business as usual - same high ambiguity quotient .     "13 NIGHT MARKET"  

   The No-News-Is Good-News Dept. 
               SOI  KATOEY   
               TOBACCO  ROAD  (Soi Zero)   
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