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Bangkok's Night Scene In Review
Patpong - Legend and Myth
- - TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK
01 October 2003
William R. Morledge
Bad Bars -Go legit, or go bust.
Hua Hin -Special Report
October's Follies in review
This month, MIDNITE HOUR will put our jewelers' loupe on Bangkok's oldest surviving Night Entertainment Area, Patpong 1 (Patpong Road). We have noted that there is a widening disparity between Patpong 1-The Legend and Patpong 1-The Myth. A look into the root causes has proven most interesting.
First, a quick look back in time to the birth of Patpong-The Legend. In the early '60's, the privately owned Patpong Road already had a few Night Entertainment Venues, but it hadn't yet come into its own as a Night Entertainment AREA. By the mid-1960s, when the US military began to flock to Thailand on R&R in unprecedented numbers, Patpong Road did grow a little, but did not really hit 'critical mass', having been overshadowed by the explosive growth of New Petchburi Road's Golden Mile. It wasn't until the late 1960's that Patpong Road started to come into its own, growing slowly and steadily, rather than by leaps and bounds.
By the early 1970's, Petchburi Road's Golden Mile had plateaued. On the other hand, Patpong Road was growing slowly all the while, and was spreading to the adjoining soi, also owned by the Patpong family. Being 'under one roof' of the Patpong family, the two roads, now informally called Patpong 1 & 2, had the long-term advantage over their cross-town competition on Petchburi Road. The Patpong family had by this time, developed and begun implementation of a Night Entertainment Area 'master plan'.
This 'top-down' approach to establishing a Night Entertainment Area combined with the relative ease in obtaining the required entertainment licenses virtually assured Patpong 1's long-term success. At first glance, it might seem that entertainment licenses would be of little importance, but this was the era that ushered in the A-Go-Go bar, and obtaining the 'dancing license' was everything. Those new bars opening up on Patpong 1 seemed to have little or no trouble 'buying' a 'dancing license', due in part, to the influential Patpong family.
Petchburi Road's Night Entertainment Venues, however, operated under no such 'master plan' and bar owners had to deal individually with dozens of lessors on a hit-and-miss basis. As long as the money was pouring in at unprecedented rates, the Golden Mile phenomenon continued. But "nothing lasts forever"; the end of the Southeast Asian conflict in 1973 tipped the balance in favor of Patpong 1. With no more R&R troops swarming to Bangkok, Petchburi Road's Golden Mile began to evaporate rapidly. By mid-1975, only the Thai oriented Night Venues on the Golden Mile were still open - most of those being the giant 'fish-bowl' massage parlors. Once the influx of hard-spending G.I.s disappeared, individual property owners began searching for new tenants - ones that could pay the rent.
Patpong 1, it would seem, should have suffered the same fate. If the "G. I. Factor" were the only influence at play, Patpong 1 also should have withered in the tourist 'drought' of 1976. But there were several other factors at work which not only kept Patpong 1 alive, but actually caused it to continue to grow even more rapidly. By the 1980's it had, deservingly, started to become 'The Legend' :-
In addition to the previously mentioned Patpong 'master plan', Patpong 1 was receiving 'the right kind' of publicity from two sources. The local English language Press ( Bernard Trink's Night Owl page) was not only reaching a wide audience in-country, copies were being mailed to readers overseas. References to Patpong 1 also began appearing regularly in the various travellers' hand-books, such as the All Asia Guide, and others.
Although there were prominent Hollywood films made here before the 1980's (The Deer Hunter -1978), Hollywood 'rediscovered' Thailand during this period, filming several movies here, often using Patpong 1 as a backdrop for the Asian Nightlife Scenes. (Off Limits with Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines, and Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams, to name a couple.) The publicity surrounding the making of these films poured even more fuel on the fires of notoriety surrounding Patpong 1.
At this juncture Patpong 1's notoriety took another leap 'upward' with the popularization of the upstairs 'erotic show bars'. This brought even more tourists to Thailand in general, and to Patpong 1 in particular. Also, to make matters worse, by the end of the 1980's overseas 'sex tours' were becoming popular -- where overseas tour operators would arrange group tours to Thailand specifically to sample the sleazier side of it's Night Scene. First stop - Patpong 1.
Adding insult to injury, opportunistic "documentary" crews began to arrive, each hoping to find just one new element of sleaze, one part of even one quote which would sensationalize their material, thereby guaranteeing the 'success' of their article or film or video. Truths were stretched, single occurrences were presented as 'typical'. These so-called exposé documentaries were not only avidly 'consumed' worldwide, they, themselves received the 'bad-press' they so richly deserved.
The net effect of these influences brought to Patpong 1 an unprecedented level of world-wide notoriety. However, for thoroughness' sake, it should be noted that other Night Entertainment Areas in Thailand were also gaining international awareness (examples: Pattaya, and relative newcomers Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza). Nevertheless, for most of the '80's, it was Patpong 1 in particular that garnered the lion's share of the 'reputation'. Needless to say, this did little for The Legend; working wonders for The Myth, which, at this point was growing much more rapidly than The Legend ever had. The stories, repeated many times by Bangkok visitors on return to their home countries were becoming more than a little larger than life - no superlative was spared in describing its 'glories'. Patpong 1 was often not only described in writings and word-of-mouth as "the best" Night Entertainment Area in the world, it was said to be the likes of which the world had never seen. It was often reported to be the wildest. It was said to be the biggest; had the most beautiful hostesses, the best value for money, etc.
By late 1988, despite several written accounts claiming it had "hundreds of bars", Patpong 1 had grown to 47 Night Entertainment Venues. It appeared that both The Legend and The Myth would continue to grow indefinitely. The Patpong family, seeing an opportunity to make even more money, decided that could close the street off each night, making it a 'walking street'. They could then rent out one and two meter 'lots' to vendors of locally made handicraft, brick-a-brack, and goods with fake labels. By 1989, this idea had not only been implemented, but it had proven to be extremely successful - at least from a financial standpoint. A November 1989 account of this phenomenon imparts some of the original impressions of Patpong 1 and it's new Night Market.
As late as 1999 an article in a respectable travel publication rehashed yet again the oft-repeated 'Patpong Story' . The article's author, no newcomer to Thailand, advised one and all that Patpong 1 had "about a hundred bars", and was "still growing". But what are the facts? Where does The Myth stray from The Legend?
Let's have a look at some of the most common claims, then and now, as seen in print, or heard in conversation: Are they part of the Legend or part of the Myth?
Looking at the most obvious first: - Patpong 1 was, or is, the biggest Night Entertainment Area ever. Fact: Patpong 1 is 230 meters long, and at its very peak in 1988, had 47 Night Entertainment Venues. Even if we were to include the Patpong 2 bars, the combined total in their prime was 96 bars, many of which were Thai-oriented lounges. Every year since then, Patpong 1 has been getting smaller - i.e., fewer adult Night Entertainment Venues. By way of comparison, the Golden Mile on Petchburi Road stretched from the Come Prima Coffee Shop near the Soi 3 exit to just past the Thai Heaven, near the new Thonglor bridge (Sukhumvit Soi 55). No accurate count exists as to the total number of bars, lounges, massage parlors, 'coffee shops', special barber shops and dance halls on the Golden Mile, however there is unanimous agreement among those who visited (this writer included) that it dwarfed Patpong 1 and its sister soi. The Golden Mile was of an order of magnitude closer to Saigon's Plantation Road, that stretched from the Grey House at the top of Cach Mang past the end of Truong Minh Ky, encompassing Hundred-P Alley and the original Mitch & Nam's soul food restaurant. Also of nearly that magnitude but, again, larger than Patpong 1, was Manila's Ermita-Malate area with it's Mabini and M.H. Del Pilar streets running from Chaplin's at one end to the 'Australian Mafia' bars at the other.
Legend, or Myth? Patpong 1 was, or is, the wildest Night Entertainment Area of it's kind. Fact: It wasn't the "wildest" by a country mile. Close to home, the Klong Toey bars (the Mosquito Bar, the Venus Room, the Seaman's Mission, et al,) were far-and-away much more insane during the '60's and '70's. A little farther away from home, Oolongapo and the old Angeles City during the R&R years had Patpong 1, past or present, beat hands down. Historically, Shanghai prior to the turn-over, I-Tae-Won during and just after the Korean War, and the Cho Lon bars in Saigon during the Southeast Asian Conflict are just some of the examples of much wilder Night Entertainment Areas.
Legend, or Myth? Patpong 1 does, or did have the most beautiful hostesses, the friendliest. Each of you has your own subjective opinion on these matters, and it is not our intent to debate the issue. Our observations, also subjective, but at least of some empirical weight, are that nighttime revellers tend to remember "the first as the best" -- the 'best' in any category was where they first 'hit the scene', be it Shanghai, or Saigon's Tu-Do Street, or Ermita, etcetera. One chap recently allowed that the small beachfront bars in Punta Reines, Costa Rica were the world's best in all categories - as well as being the world's best-kept secret. As we said, very subjective.
Patpong 1, as depicted in virtually all recently published material, shows it to be a growing, thriving Night Entertainment Area of institutional proportion. Time for a reality check. At the time of the 1999 article mentioned above, which claimed there were '100 bars, and growing', there were exactly 31 bars, and shrinking. That is more than just an error due to rounding off. But what does Patpong 1 look like today? Each evening, the street still becomes a "refugee camp of migrant vendors and hawkers" and the stalls still "clog the street like a long, thin, garishly lit slum". But with the closure of three more bars in the last two months, Patpong 1 now has a grand total of 24 Night Entertainment Venues - almost exactly half the number it had in its 'prime', some fourteen years ago.
In that the adjacent Patpong 2 is maintaining its original stats, and in that the Patpong 1 contractions began immediately on the establishment of the Walking Street/Night Market, and in that there seems to be no let-up in Patpong 1's contractions, it would not be illogical to conclude that the birth of the latter is, in fact, killing off the former.
So, then, what does the future hold in store for Bangkok's longest surviving expat Night Entertainment Area? Almost two years ago, it was announced by the Government that Patpong was one of only three Night Entertainment Areas approved by the new Purachiian social order folk for continued operation. As much as we shuddered at this otherwise dire news, one would have thought it would have been a real shot in the arm for Patpong 1. Surely, this edict would reverse the rot, and Patpong 1 would experience a resurgence of Night Entertainment Venues. We were wrong; Patpong 1's contractions continued unabated.
The reality, then, is that Patpong 1 is in an unrelenting downward spiral. What are it's chances of survival? Were we to use a simple extrapolation, Patpong 1 would drop off the radar screen in another 5 to 7 years, unable to maintain "critical mass", and be at zero bars, no bars remaining whatsoever, in another fourteen years. But that is almost certainly too simplistic.
A more realistic scenario would be that it is likely to continue to contract over the next 5 - 7 years, leaving the Safari, the Madrid and the King's Group bars as a core, just barely squeaking by in terms of 'critical mass', due mainly to carry-over traffic from Patpong 2. Experience also tells us that there would probably be some residual nighttime activity for years to come, much as both the Ginza and I-Tae-Won still exist, albeit maintaining much smaller, much changed Night Entertainment profiles.
But rest assured, should Patpong 1 ever completely 'die' as a Night Entertainment Area, we would be there to give The Legend a final send-off, a full burial-with-honors. 'The Myth', after all, was not it's fault.
Hua Hin - Special report
Althouth Hua Hin is not on the MIDNITE HOUR beat, our historian Richard D. "Boge" Hartman was recently there to watch an elephant polo match (really), and said he just couldn't resist recording some "history-in-the-making". It's been a little over a year since we have reported on the Night Scene down there, so it will be interesting to see what has transpired Follows is Boge's unexpurgated text on his September 2003 visit.
PATPONG I After briefly closing late in August (as reported elsewhere in the Press), then reopening at the end of that month, the Queen's Castle II has finally closed it's doors for good. The street tout next door at the Camelot Castle loudly announces the girls have all moved to other Kings Group bars. He also quietly confides it will reopen as something entirely new in a couple of months...
The first thing one notices when walking past the now defunct Concert Bar is the absence of obnoxious street touts crowding the sidewalk and hassling passers-by from the doorway. Yet another 'pay for show' upstairs bar has taken down it's sign and stolen into the night. One has a difficult time ginning up any sympathy for the closing of what is generally referred to as a 'rip-off bar'. Apropos these 'dens of intimidation', if the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the New Social Order mob are really trying to improve Thailand's image........
PATPONG II The Baan Bua Luang Cafe, 4th floor, Cosmo's stairwell, was open in the sense that the door was blocked open, but there was nothing inside except the harsh glare of neon and up-tipped lounge chairs. We'll check back and see if this translates as "closed", or not.
Bobby has opened a small Pool Bar behind his Marco Polo, next to the Foodland. He's calling it Balls Joint Bar & Grill. May the night-gods smile favorably on his latest...
NANA PLAZA The new Erotica, 3rd & 4th floors, is the latest A-Go-Go bar to open here, and the latest to open with a see-thru mezzanine floor for 2-tier A-Go-Go dancing. However if they aren't going to have any dancers on the upper tier, it seems a huge investment gone to waste. Perhaps when they staff up to the advertised 100 dancers, they will put it to better use. Welcome to the sharkpool.
The ex-Hollywood Rock, now tentatively named Red Hot Pepper, is to open around Christmas-New Year. Why wait? Its neighbors are making a few bucks even during this unusually wet rainy season. Also, its rumored to be an A-Go-Go & Pool Bar. --Now we ( think we ) know...
Work seems to be at a standstill on renovations at the old Rock Hard / Vixens. No one is predicting a completion date. (?!)
SOI COWBOY The single-shophouse venue that has been a-building at the deep end of Piccolo Entertainment Beer Bar for the last two months has switched on the lights and rolled out the red carpet, er... red phone booth (no phone, just the booth), but lets not sweat the details. They are calling themselves Penny Black Pub & Restaurant. Welcome to the dogfight.
COWBOY ANNEX The Princess Bar has rolled its shutters down and padlocked them to the deck for the last time, it would seem. A longtime denizen of Cowboy Annex, it started out as Crazy Girls in May 2001, when it took over from the Tree Of Green barber / karaoke. As it struggled for an identity, it became the Crazy Girls 23 Bar the following month, only to change to the Princess 23 Bar in June. It dropped the "23" a year later, and decided on a Pool Bar format (open-sided). Its investors are well-heeled - look for it to open elsewhere.
Likewise, the Money Honey has beat a hasty retreat into oblivion this last month. New to the scene, it started out as the No Money No Honey in April this year, after taking over from Rin's Karaoke. RIP
In the 4-Pak, the unoccupied bar beer (formerly a Shagnasty's extension) has a brand new sign: Spanky's Bar 2. It looks like the Spanky's mob are angling for a residual unit to carry on after the demolition of their parent bar, Spanky's Bar 1, located a couple of shops deeper into the Annex Keep on rockin'.
In the adjacent 8-Pak, the bar that was most recently the Lucky Bar (2) has been demolished. In its place, the adjacent Siamese Twins has placed a small pool table. They seem to be keeping busy. I guess we call it a 7-Pak now...?
SOI DEAD ARTISTS Last month we noted that the Yokohama Japanese Club in the Peep Inn Complex was closed, but that it might have been temporary, due to a crack-down by the Authorities on legal names. That apparently was not the case; the Yokohama is gone for good - last month being its official Sayonara.
Opened in May of 2001, the Bar Za Bar / Shoku Sai on Sub-soi 4, is buttoned up tightly - no one in, on one out. Only darkness shines out from within. As everything is intact, let's give it a month to see if it reopens.
Likewise, the Cafe Buongiorno Bar & Restaurant -on Sub soi 5- breathes no more - the incessant rains obliterating its darkened structures. This restaurant was so deep into the soi, it was hard to find. Really. Something about location, location...
The moderately ambiguous massage, Sarinna / Pui has gone belly-up. With both next door neighbors also slightly ambiguous massage parlors, it may have found the competition to be a little too slippery.
SOI DEAD ARTISTS
QUEEN'S PARK PLAZA The Top Secret of Clinton Plaza origin is no longer a top secret, thanks to a brand-new back lit sign (their first), which now hangs prominently out front.
The surprise of surprises in the Plaza this month is the reopening of the air conditioned Nok Merry Bar 2, which closed down operations in Cowboy Annex in August. It remains a popular and exclusive redoubt for the African tourist. The manageress promises a new sign will be up any day now. Pool Bar remains the modus operandi. Welcome back to the slugfest.
The former 'Nice Easy' has become the Nice & Easy. But this wasn't a name change so much as correcting an earlier mistake made by the sign-gremlins. Same friendly service and staff. Keep on keeping on.
QUEEN'S PARK PLAZA
WASHINGTON SQUARE The Hare & Hound opened on 20 September; 5 days late, according to the contractor. Some of you might remember it in its previous incarnation as the New Hare & Hound Pub & Restaurant which sold out to the Doll House in October of 2001. Although only a shadow of its former Soi Cowboy self, it still serves up a good pub menu, having just acquired the old Ship's Inn cook. It also has a large projection screen for all you sports enthusiasts. Welcome back to the follies.
Furiously a-building next door to Bourbon Street is the Alpine Steak House, said to have plans for an interesting lounge. Look for it to roll out the red carpet by November.
SOI KATOEY The White Bar has changed monikers. It now goes by the name 'Velvet'. Other than a new awning, all else looks the same. Wish them well as they cast their dice against the unforgiving wall of chance.
Are Speed / Hip Hop R&B dead or just 'playing possum' - again? Although there's not much difference to the passing customer if he can't get in, is there? If they aren't in business to do business, they would be better off selling the place.
13 NIGHT MARKET The continuing musical chairs has made way for one new bar beer. The Tequila Bar finished renovations in the center section and moved out of the Walker's Bar area it was occupying for the last two months. Walker's Bar, instead of expanding back to its original configuration, leased the space to the new Red Dragon - welcome, and may the fates batter you less severely.
13 NIGHT MARKET
The No-News-Is Good-News Dept. ; TOBACCO ROAD (Soi Zero)