When most men think of the Bangkok red light district they imagine a place that's filled with exotic beauties and adult excitement, a place where the usual rules of social conduct don’t apply and where a man can get lost in an endless kaleidoscope of hedonistic excess… That was always my impression and the first time that I experienced it I found that my imagination wasn’t too far off the mark.
A few years ago Bangkok was like another world, it was cool, and any western man that had the gumption to venture there was a man that refused to conform to western sense and sensibilities.
Images of Vietnam servicemen resting up on R&R leave with a beer in one hand and parts of a sexy young thing in the other still get conjured up in my mind. A TV documentary from a few years back, profiling the Bangkok red light district and detailing it as a seedy underworld of sex and exploitation still lingers in my head, and I remember recalling one of the areas under the documentary’s spotlight being labelled as the seediest of the seedy… I also remember the warm sense of satisfaction I got in thinking “b****cks… that place is not seedy, it’s f***ing fantastic.”
The Hangover 2 film that featured part of the Bangkok red light district also captured my imagination… the “Bangkok has him now” statement that was repeated a few times in the film resonates with me; it’s the seductive image of a place where anything goes, and once you’ve experienced it you're forever smitten!
So, the question has to be asked, how does the modern Bangkok measure up as a place for party animals, and where are the best places to be found? Read on…
The first time that ever visited Soi Cowboy I have to say that I was left feeling distinctly underwhelmed but, to be fair to the place, my expectations were probably too high. If I’d accidentally stumbled across the soi whilst on a wander then I think I would probably have felt quite differently about it, and would have been more appreciative. The problem was that I’d been reading that it was the best venue in Bangkok and so I was expecting it to be bigger and better than Nana Plaza (see below); it’s actually quite small in comparison to the Plaza.
The “Hangover 2” film has done a lot to popularize Soi Cowboy with a few scenes shot on the soi, and there is also lot of Neon there if you like that sort of thing. Some of the best gogo bars are to be found here too, Baccara being the most notable.
If you are wondering how the soi got its name, it’s because of the cowboy hat wearing American who opened the first bar there back in the 1970's.
Patpong is the Bangkok red light district with the most history attached to it, and it is the place I always think of when I think of a Bangkok ping pong show or something similar. It’s the sort of place where you expect a few touts to hustle you upstairs to one of the lady shows and then charge you a fortune for a compulsory drink and so on. In fairness, these are all just preconceptions and the hassle factor here is not really all that different to the other areas.
Unfortunately, Patpong is a big disappointment to me these days; it is the smallest of the 3 red light areas and the market in the middle of the set up doesn’t do much to help the bar scene. I think that this is intentional because, over time, Patpong is declining as a naughty bar zone and sort of reinventing itself as a more mainstream destination. Its heyday was long ago, maybe the 1980's, and is now a mixture of all sorts of things. The variety may appeal to some, but to most people it will come across as being a bit of a mismatch… I mean who goes out intending to buy a shirt and watch a Bangkok ping pong show?
Patpong is unique in two other ways; firstly, it is built on privately owned land and secondly, it is located within a designated entertainment zone meaning that the bars there can stay open for an extra hour, until 2am.
The Nana Entertainment Plaza (NEP) dubs itself the world’s largest adult playground but, whilst there are lots of bars there, I don’t believe that this is a credible statement. For one thing, it is nowhere near the size of Pattaya’s Walking Street. It is a good spot regardless of the dubious size claim and personally I favour it as the best Bangkok red light district; the other two just aren’t big enough for my taste. The NEP was the focus of the TV documentary that I mentioned above, and I’ve had plenty of fun times there.
The NEP had a big facelift a few years back which has done a lot to spruce it up. It was a much needed renovation and it brought a completely different feel to the place. Different isn’t always better and the rough-as-nuts appeal that some may remember about the NEP has been replaced by a yellow paint job, improved lighting, removal of food stalls that used to clog up the entrance, and some new modern beer bars in the centre of the 3-storey courtyard. Gogo bars occupy all 3 storeys. A lot of the gogo bars have changed theme from one thing to another in search of that elusive winning business formula, but the gogo bar business model in the plaza is often described as “struggling” at best… and some would say that it’s totally broken.
The beer bars that line Soi Nana outside the NEP have also undergone a lot of renovation in recent years, and most are now as modern and trendy as you’ll find in a typical western city.
A lack of Thai girls entering the bar industry these days has hit hardest in the big city where alternative work and alternative means of meeting westerners (i.e. online dating) has taken its toll. It is no easy task to attract customers to a gogo bar if it doesn’t have a quality line up of ladies! The relative scarcity of available bar girls has meant that the prices asked by those that remain has soared in recent years. In summary, all three of these places still have their charms, but there is a feeling that some of the fun-factor has been lost. The Thai smiles have not deserted the place but they aren’t as ready as they once were and worse still, the Thai girls don’t offer the same sort of girlfriend experience that they once did – despite prices rising beyond all recognition.
I think that the last thing anyone would expect of Bangkok bars, given the “anything goes” perception that people tend to have, is that there would be closing times. Well, there are closing times, and they are enforced!
By 2 o’clock in the morning your night is over unless you
intend to drink in your hotel room; it’s a bit of a disappointment to be
honest. I appreciate that not everyone has quite the same drinking
mentality as myself and my fellow Englishmen, but I reserve the desire
to occasionally drink myself into oblivion. If I don’t wake up from time
to time in a strange bar with absolutely no idea of how I came to be
there, then that dispels the whole “anything goes” illusion for me!
The Bangkok red light district survives rather than thrives, that is the sort of impression that you get these days and especially so when comparing it to days gone by. Happily, there is a solution to this problem… its name is ‘Pattaya’, it’s less than 2-hours away by taxi, the prices are much lower, the Thai girls much friendlier, and the nightlife is second to none… but that’s a topic for another article.
(Many thanks to stickmanbangkok.com for providing the pictures for this article.)
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