Sorry I haven’t written in a few days. I’m starting to come out of my holiday bliss and getting ready to jump on a jet back to reality.
I have to say that I’ve been really disappointed with Bangkok this trip. Not to say that I’ve had a bad time here. I’ve caught up with some old friends, met some new friends, and had a lot of fun hanging out. It’s just the sense that the entire city has slid further into the abyss of decay. Tourism has been off since the coup last year, foreign investors are holding off putting money into the country, and the interim government has not been all that effective in solving any major societal problems.
As selfish as it may sound that’s usually a good thing. It ups the ante. Anyplace other than Bangkok it would force businesses to become ultra-competitive. But in Bangkok it seems that their answer is just gouging each person that much more in order to make up for lower numbers.
Case in point is the infamous Patpong district. Once touted as the heart of nightlife in Bangkok today its bars struggle to pull in customers. When the Thai economy got whacked in 1997 Patpong responded by becoming even more greedy. Instead of becoming more competitive the bars just dug deeper into each customer’s pocket regardless of whether or not the long-term effect was to turn customers off.
After several decades of the second floor show scams, reports of foreigners being drugged and robbed in their hotel rooms, pushy waitresses, extra drinks being added to bills, bar staff demanding that you buy them a drink, and countless other annoyances tourists got the message and started taking their business elsewhere. Though I haven’t been to Patpong since my first trip here (our hotel was right across the street) reports are that they’ve finally gotten the message and now the bars offer some of the cheapest drink prices in town and are desperate to earn your business.
Unfortunately, now you see the same sort of thing happening in the other nightlife areas. I was headed back to my hotel one night after hitting a few nightclubs with friends and stopped off at the Beer Garden. I popped my head in and saw it was nearly deserted which was fine for me as I just wanted to grab a drink and relax a bit. The bartender came over and I ordered a Jack and coke. I watch as she measured out a shot of Jack Daniels and poured it into a glass. Then she just walks away and starts talking to one of the other bartenders. Then she walks out from behind the counter and goes in the back while my poor Jack Daniels sits there!
I had never seen anything like this before. How do you forget a drink midway into serving it? It’s not like the place was busy.
Someone I had talked to another night I was in there popped over and asked why I wasn’t drinking tonight. I could only shrug and motion to my half-completed drink and laugh. When the bartender came back my friend yelled at the bartender in Thai that she hadn’t served me yet and she came over, poured some coke into the glass, and served it to me without even the slightest acknowledgement of her blunder.
It turns out the bartender and my friend are friends so they start yapping away in Thai and as I’m watching the bartender it becomes obvious that she’s completely pissed out of her skull. My Thai isn’t great but even I could tell she was slurring in Thai. There was also the weaving back and forth, stumbling, eyes rolling back up in her head before she started to say something, and the classic inability to modulate the volume of her voice. This wasn’t tipsy; this was out and out drunk. If she was a friend and I saw her in this condition I would put her in a cab and send her home because she’s about as close to passed out as you can get. Instead the other staff just laughed and giggled when she would almost fall flat on her ass. And nobody seems to mind that she’s serving customers in this condition.
Her shouting was becoming like nails on a chalkboard to me as we were only three feet away from her yet she was yelling loud enough for people across the bar to hear. The only thought going through my head at this point was that I wanted to get the hell out of there as quick as possible without offending my friend.
I figure the best way to slip out would be to buy my friend a drink, finish up mine, and make my exit. I ask the bartender to get my friend a drink and she insists that I buy her one. I ask her “Why am I buying you a drink? Is it for forgetting my order or for you yelling in my ear for the last 15 minutes?” Again she demands that I buy her a drink too. I tell her no again and say that if she has anything more to drink she’s going to pass out and fall on the floor. Getting nowhere with me she turns around and makes two drinks, one for my friend and one for herself, and puts the tab for both drinks on my bill. I immediately grab the bill and tell her that I told her I wasn’t buying her a drink. She starts yelling at me that I must buy her a drink and getting surly (as if she hadn’t been surly before). I smile, pay the tab, and tell my friend that she might want to mention to the owner that that 100 baht drink the waitress forced me to buy just cost the bar a few thousand baht in business and walk out.
I could probably rattle off ten more incidents like the one above ranging from being overcharged for drinks to having a waitress purposely bump into me and scowl all night because I wouldn’t buy her a third drink. Bangkok’s unofficial motto used to be “Leave them with a smile on their face and their pockets empty,” while more and more it seems like the motto has become “Leave them with their pockets empty.”
I mean Nana Plaza is hurting right now. The tourist numbers haven’t been here this year and most locals will tell you that all the action has moved up the street. Some have even gone so far to say that Nana’s days are numbered and that they’re currently in a death spiral. Wouldn’t that seem like a time to cater to your customer to keep him from going elsewhere? Shouldn’t you be lowering your prices trying to draw in more business instead of jacking up the bill on your existing customers and then yelling at them when they have the audacity to question it?
It makes you wonder if these aren’t acts of desperation. I mean, Bangkok (and Thailand in general) has always had its scams and bill padding and such but I’ve never seen it so widespread (old Patpong being the exception). Places that used to be friendly places to chill out are now places where you watch every chit that goes in the cup to make sure they’re not pulling one over on you. Nobody seems to care if they are ruining business six months from now because they can’t see past today. Nobody is thinking about the tourists who will feel ripped off and go elsewhere or the ones who do come back to Bangkok but refuse to go back to those businesses.
In contrast, Phuket was exactly the opposite. And believe me, these guys have not had a lot of luck over the last few years. The tsunami, bird flu, earthquakes, and such seem to have plagued Phuket’s tourism industry for the last several years. Business is down this year too but they do cartwheels to make you happy. At several bars I normally hit up there I would turn around and find a drink sitting in front of me. When I would mention that I didn’t order a drink yet the mamasan would gesture that it was on the house from her. She didn’t owe me one. She did it simply because I was a good customer and they valued the business.
Compare that to the bar which is my usual starting and ending point in Bangkok when I’m out for a night on the town. I’ve spent lots of money in there over the years. All the staff know me, remember my name, and greet me with hugs every time I return. You know how many free drinks I’ve had in the three years I’ve been going there? One. And it wasn’t from the owner or from the manager; it was from one of the waitresses I’ll usually buy drinks for when I’m there. She said she was buying it because I always buy her a drink and nobody ever buys one for me. She’s a real sweetheart of a human being and someone who I’ve hung out with on her days off so I really appreciated the gesture. Some of the waitresses and even the owners could learn a thing or two from her.
But lest people get the impression that I’ve given up on Thailand; I haven’t. I’m just reflecting on how people react to adverse business conditions. I think it’s sad that some people will come here and get ripped off and won’t return which will only perpetuate the cycle causing people to cook up even more ways to rip off tourists. I wish they would take a lesson from Phuket instead of imitating Patpong and focus on showing people a better time rather than worrying about how they can cheat you out of an extra 20 baht.
I also wonder if it has anything to do with the type of people who run the places in Phuket vs. Bangkok. Phuket seems to be very much run by Westerners while BKK, at least by my perceptions, is run more by Thais. Obviously everything is staffed by Thais in both places but you’re more likely to see an Aussie or Brit sitting quietly in the back keeping an eye on things down in Phuket. Same with most of the hotels. Aussies, Brits or Germans own the places and keep an eye on things.
Paul at the Yorkshire Inn is a good example of that. He’s always there. He greets every guest when they arrive and every morning asks how things are going or if there’s anything you need. You can just tell by the way he runs his entire operation from selection of staff to pricing that the guy wants to earn your business. He wants return customers. He wants you to leave happy and tell your friends that it’s a great place to stay in Phuket.
Things seem to be a lot more cooperative down in Phuket as well. On several nights I’ve seen all the businesses on Soi Crocodile pool together and but on a free buffet to get traffic onto their soi. If they’ve ever done anything like that in BKK I haven’t seen or heard about it.
I’ll definitely be back though I’ll probably spend much less time in BKK next time and plan more time elsewhere in the country.
On a side note I saw my first police shakedown last night. On the corner of Asoke and Sukhumvit my friend Phil showed me this impromptu bar they set up for afterhours. Literally they just roll a mobile bar onto the sidewalk, dump some chairs and tables down and start serving booze right there. The lady who runs the place, Fa, was doing her thing when two of the boys in brown (the cops) walked up and started giving her a hassle. The cops walked off to another vendor on the street and Fa smiled and said they wanted money to let her operate here. The one cop came back and Fa handed him a fistful of notes and all was good with the world again.
On another side note, earlier in the evening I was at this pub and some Swiss guy came in and sat down near me watching the football match. We got to chatting and he was living in BKK now and was giving me some local gossip. I see this lady come out of one of the bars giving some guy an earful. She was definitely Thai and the guy was a Westerner so I thought it was your typical bar dispute. The guy ends up leaving and she goes back into the bar.
About an hour later she comes back out of the bar and heads straight over to me and the Swiss guy. She starts talking to me and her English is a few notches too good for her to be working the bars. I also notice for the first time that her clothes are not what you would see a waitress wearing even on her night off. They’re expensive and very trendy.
She’s very, very cute but also very, very drunk so I’m toying with her just a bit. When I ask her what she does she tells me she’s in the import/export business. I ask about her English and she says that she lives in New York. Now this is starting to get interesting. I ask where and she says White Plains and we talk a bit about the weather there and other meaningless chit chat.
She tries to talk to the Swiss guy and he will only respond back to her in Thai which she claims she doesn’t understand. She keeps talking to him in English and he keeps responding back in Thai. I ask her why she doesn’t understand Thai and all of a sudden her story starts to unravel. First she tries to turn it around and ask why I think she speaks Thai. I could only respond with “Come on, you’re not Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, we know that for sure. And your nose is about as Thai as you can get.” So she cops to being Thai but says that she doesn’t like to speak Thai.
Figuring one lie leads to another I ask her who the governor of New York is. She says Giuliani. There’s no way you live in White Plains and think Rudy Giuliani is the governor of the state. Lie number two but I don’t say anything. I think she’s trying to salvage the situation by wrapping her arms around my neck and saying that we should go find another bar to go drink at. This place is too boring and she wants to party.
There’s something definitely not right here. I can’t put my finger on it nor have I figured out what her angle is but going with her is the last thing I want to do regardless of how stunning she looks.
She moves one of her hands from my neck and starts stroking my arm. I look down and notice a big rock on her finger. I ask her why she isn’t out with her fiancÃ©e. She looks at me with a puzzled expression and she says she doesn’t even have a boyfriend. I say that he’s going to be awfully sorry to hear that since he spent so much money on her engagement ring. She quickly pulls her hand back like she had just touched a hot stove. She tries hiding her hand behind her back which seemed awfully silly to me as I had obviously already seen the thing.
First she said that it was just a normal ring and why can’t a girl wear a pretty ring. Then the story shifted to it was her mom’s and her father had given it to her when her mom died. The fact that whenever I tried to grab her hand so I could get a look at it she yanked it away and put it behind her back again told me this story was about as likely as her not speaking Thai.
By this point the whole scene has caught the attention of several of the waitresses who I can see are giggling at me having fun with this girl. I don’t know if they knew her or knew what she was up to but they seemed to think it was funny that I was taking the piss out of her.
But as much fun as it was, she was just way, way too pretty for me to trust myself if this kept going on any longer. At the end of the day, I’m still mortal and if a beautiful girl keeps telling a man enough lies he’ll eventually let himself believe them. I figured I was only a drink or two away from that point so I decided to end the game here rather than exploring where it was leading to.
I told her that she should leave by herself and that I didn’t want to go with her. Her look was priceless. Have drunk, half shocked. She said “You can’t be serious. You don’t want to go with me?” I told her that she had told one too many lies for the night and that I didn’t like talking with dishonest people. She challenged me asking what she had lied about. I told her that she lied about speaking Thai, she lied about the engagement ring, and she lied about living in New York. I guess she was conceding the other two when she only asked how I knew she didn’t live in New York. I told her Giuliani was the mayor of New York City and not the governor of the state. Again she asked if I was serious. “Okay so maybe I don’t live in New York but you’re not going to go out and party with me because I don’t know who the governor is? What are you some right-wing whacko who loves Giuliani?” I just waved bye-bye to her and after a few moments she stormed off.
My guess would be that the guy who she was giving an earful to earlier was her fiancÃ©e. They probably had some sort of fight and he took off rather than hear her drunken rant. Now she was probably looking to get back at him by bringing a guy home. Maybe part of the plan was to get caught. The way she kept stressing that we go to another bar and not just go back to her/my place left me thinking that she wanted to go wherever he went off to or a place she knew his friends would see her. Regardless, it wasn’t exactly the kind of drama I wanted to get myself involved in.