Thumbnail History - Soi Cowboy & Annex Entertainment Area
Updated April 2002
- Richard D. Hartman
The soi most people now know as "
" is a lane running parallel to Sukhumvit Road from Soi 21 through to Soi 23.    Despite its ideal location, no night entertainment establishments were in operation there during the U.S. military R&R years (1965-1973).    Prior to the opening of the first bar on that soi, the single-shophouse
on Soi 23, had a side door opening on to it.    And while the stray foreigner was warmly received into its darkened corners, the
was definitely a locals-only bar.    For these reasons, this original
can’t literally be said to be the first bar on the Soi, but it did portend of things to come.    Note:
would later open another bar (
, but that would be some years after another bar had “pioneered” the Soi.
Early in 1975, about one year before the last of the residual U.S. forces left Thailand, the Soi's first bar opened.    This bar, the
, opened with very little fanfare.    Although the bar was designed, built and managed to international standards by a U.S. military retiree,
(who still resides in Thailand), it still took several months of word-of-mouth advertising before it became known to the expatriate community.
was the “seminal bar” in every sense; aside from being the first bar on the Soi; it was the first bar aimed at expatriate custom; it was also the first double-shophouse wide bar, and it was also the first multi-story bar, and it was the first A-Go-Go and “Show” bar (later, upstairs), while downstairs, it remained a lounge.    But mainly, it was the bar that realized -and made others realize- that the Soi was an ideal location for a night entertainment area.    The
enjoyed an approximate three-year run of popularity.    At first, only the first and second floors were used, but for a brief period the third floor was opened to accommodate the custom.    The regular expatriate clientele treated it as if it were a best-kept secret - and for the most part, it was.    It has since been replaced by several other bars, the latest being the
Baccara Bluebird A-Go-Go
.    During those early years the
was not only the first, but for a long time the only bar, so naturally enough, the soi was referred to as
Soi Gold Label
But times were changing; within the next three years, the
would fade from the scene and a number of smaller, single-shophouse bars would open.    By 1978-1979 the Soi reached a nominal ‘critical mass”, and as time passed, it was becoming clear that the leader of this new pack was the
was opened by another then-recently retired US military veteran.    Everyone knew him, unsurprisingly, as
.    This upsurge in numbers of entertainment venues on the Soi and the resultant increase in popularity were not lost on
, then with the
.    The Soi was often mentioned in his weekly entertainment page.    He dubbed the soi,
and the name immediately ‘stuck’ - today you won’t find a taxi driver who doesn’t know where Soi “C’boi” is.    Only a few diehards remember it as
Soi Gold Label
(the man) ran a good bar, he almost immediately found himself in financial difficulties, and by the mid ‘80’s had sold the original
.    It became
Annie’s Cowboy Bar
, and then early in 1993 became
“Annie’s Cowboy Bar 1”
, with the added “1”.    In that there was no ‘Cowboy Bar 2’, this struck many of the Soi’s regulars as unusual.    But the other shoe finally dropped; two doors down
Annie’s Diner Lounge
and later that same year, it became
had two "Cowboy" bars for three years, but
eventually sold out and became the
Wet Lips Bar
survives today as
Cowboy 1 A-Go-Go
(the man) had been blooded but not humbled by his earlier business failure; shortly thereafter he opened his second
, this time in
.    But it wouldn't be long before he would find himself in financial trouble again, and sold out to the
Square One Pub
.    Not willing to call it quits, in 1988 he joined forces with another long-time resident,
to open the
New Cowboy Bar
on Sukhumvit Soi 22.    Alas,
(the man) once again found himself in financial difficulties, this time with his partner
, and left Thailand shortly thereafter.    Ironically, while often credited with pioneering
(he didn't) and for pioneering
(he didn't), his and Grant's
New Cowboy Bar
was the first Expat bar on Soi 22.
died a little more than a year later, but the
New Cowboy Bar
is still in operation today.
Initially, at least for the most part,
didn’t have the glamour of
Patpong I & II
, or later,
.    As late as the mid-1980s virtually all the bars were single shophouse wide, many reeking of stale beer and tobacco.    Understandably, prices remained generally more reasonable.    As a result, it was more an attraction to the foreign resident than the visitor.    The Soi’s image is slowly changing, however; over the last 15 years, more and more bars are following the lead of the trailblazing
.    Many bars are now 2 or 3 shophouses wide, and serve customers both upstairs & downstairs.    Several can hold their own, both in ambience and service, with the best of the
bars.    --Those immediately coming to mind are:
The Long Gun
has been a ‘constant’ on the night entertainment scene for two decades, maintaining an average of over 30 ‘night spot’ venues for most of that period.    The turn-over rate of old bars being sold and new bars being opened is not overly great and tends to follow the normal on-season, off-season fluctuations.    With the luster fading from both
, and barring implementation of the current government’s self-crippling Purachaiian zoning plan,
should survive indefinitely as a Night Entertainment Venue.
Long-time residents and return visitors each have their favorite “old”
bar.    The names we see cropping up most often as ‘favorites’ are the
, the relocated
Mitch & Nam’s
Soul Food Restaurant & Bar and
, each of which had its all-too-short heyday.    Regrettably, none of these is still remaining in business today.
In the years immediately preceding the 1997 economic collapse, several plots of land stretching from the Sukhumvit Road + Soi Asoke intersection through to Soi 23 were acquired ostensibly for redevelopment.    The crash of '97 put those plans on indefinite hold, but not before all the small shophouse type buildings had been demolished.    This created a large, vacant piece of land in the middle of a prime commercial area in the center of Bangkok.
This vacant land was accessible by vehicle from a driveway on Soi 23 located not more than 50 meters from the entrance to
.    Consequently, this land quickly became a convenient, if often muddy, parking lot for the nighttime visitors to 'The Soi'.
By 1998 its potential as an entertainment area was first realized, however investment and development were sporadic and minimal, to say the least; some enterprising locals had installed a makeshift drop bar across the driveway and began charging for parking.    Simultaneously, a few small shanty structures began to appear in and around the parking lot area at the rear.    These shanties were for the most part, constructed from cheap timber or bamboo, with thatched roofs.    They were usually open-fronted and/or open-sided, with mats on compacted dirt floors and were illuminated almost exclusively with long strings of multicolored Christmas lights.    They housed Thai-Isan restaurants, local bars and makeshift karaoke 'clubs' which sported a karaoke machine or sometimes just a television set with a karaoke VCR.    None of these grass-shack establishments did very well.    Most would stay open for a couple of months before fading away.    It was at this time that the area was first referred to as the '
That same year, 1998,
also saw two attempts at creating relatively large-scale open-air ‘beer gardens’.    Both were located at the front section facing Soi Asoke, and both tried the same format; they had live Thai bands, with dozens of folding metal tables and hundreds of collapsible chairs scattered throughout, serving Singh and Mehkong by the bottle.    Snacks could be ordered from any of several semi-resident pushcart vendors on the premises.    The ‘beer garden’ concept was doomed for two reasons; a scarcity of customers, and later that same year (with the exception of a small corner of land at the intersection) that area was usurped by the start of construction of the MRT Subway station.
By the middle of 1999, passers-by by could discern a flurry of minor construction projects at the intersection of Sukhumvit and Asoke.    Before the turn of the Millennium, four small ‘bar beer's’ had been completed.    These bars were the first to intentionally aim exclusively at foreign custom.    These “original four”,
Je Taime, Moon Light Bar, Siam Smile Bar,
were the seminal bars; the first to -figuratively- open their doors to the passing public and to set the tone of things to come.    All four were temporary wooden structures with thatched roofs.    They were open-fronted and the floors were loosely laid tile blocks covered with matting.    Additional tables were set outside.    Of these original bars, only
Siam Smile Bar
remain today, albiet much improved and expanded from their original configurations.
Immediately thereafter, a few small-time entrepreneurial foreigners started openly investing in some of the newly started establishments in
.    Not unpredictably, most of this outside money was supplied by Ferang men helping local girlfriends (and themselves) "get into the bar business".    This “foreign investment” together with the opening of the “original four” marked a significant point of departure from the original formula of Thai-owned establishments created for Thai clientele.    It had become abundantly clear that the main thrust of business, at least on the Asoke side, was shifting toward Thai/Ferang-owned establishments catering instead to the foreigner.    This shift in emphasis from "Thai" entertainment to "Ferang" entertainment is a critical step in any such undertaking; the unwritten and unbreakable rule is that Thais and Ferang don't, can't and won't drink and play together for very long.    Ultimately, neither party enjoys it and the system always breaks down.    This also marked the beginning of the end of the penny-ante straw-hut mentality that had gripped
up to this point.
It was in March 2000 that
reached a nominal critical mass with regard to foreign-oriented beer bars, with no less than 6 new bars opening that month alone, 5 of them being new:
The Boomerang, Ying Corner, Bourbon
.    That same month the front area of
started calling itself "
", and a makeshift Muay Thai boxing ring was erected.    But because of the seedier elements, the boxing ring was seen as a detriment to progress, and later that year it was taken down.    With its demise, the frantic pace of new construction returned to the front ‘
’ area.    By August, 2000 the number of open and thriving entertainment establishments in the front
section had grown to 19.    At that time,
was the fastest growing night entertainment area in Bangkok, averaging 2 to 3 new bars opening every month.
Meanwhile, the rear area near Soi 23 continued to serve as a parking lot, even as portions of it were being concreted over.    There was still the occasional local beer shanty to be found on the periphery, and there were also a couple of recently completed semi-permanent wooden structures at the far back facing onto Soi 23, but they were of the same 'karaoke bar' format, and appealed to only local clientele.    By July 2000, the concreting of the parking area in the rear section of
near Soi 23 had been completed, and a crash construction project was under way to complete 19 new bar beer-type structures in the fastest possible time.    What started out as 19 separate locations ended up as less, as some of the new venues are 2 or more wide.    There is nothing temporary about these structures; they are steel and pipe framed, with concrete floors and cement tile roofs.    Two similar steel frame structures on the north side at the entrance to the parking lot were built.    However, while the front
is oriented to entertaining the foreigner, many of the establishments in this rear area on the Soi 23 side remain geared to local customers only; it is uncertain what effect this uneasy mixture of Thai and foreign entertainment establishments will have on the Entertainment Area’s ability to draw a sustainable amount of foreign patronage.
is Bangkok's third stand-alone Ferang-oriented bar beer venue, and by mid-2000 it was already the largest.    Before New Year’s Day 2001,
opened, ushering in air conditioning; others are starting to follow suit.    The pace of bar building in
has not greatly lessened, but has shifted entirely to the back part of the Annex; no less than 3 separate beerbar clusters have opened inside that area; the last, a group of 4 which opened in March 2002.    However, unlike
, it is unlikely that the
will stand the test of time.    Not because of any lack of popularity, but rather because it now stands on prime Bangkok real estate which will inevitably be developed into more traditional commercial structures and businesses.
Bangkok Eyes / bangkokeyes.com
* With grateful acknowledgement to
for exclusive use of their historical database.