Is Their Death-Knell Finally Tolling?
Perhaps it’s not really so surprising. When Bangkok’s gay scene began to explode in the 1980s, about the only international gay guide with Asian listings in that pre-internet age was Spartacus. Never the most accurate and over-large to carry around, it at least provided some decent basic information.
So the relative trickle of visitors to gay Bangkok could sample the delights on display, often fully nude, of the original sleaze bar, Twilight, on what has since become known as Soi Twilight at the top of Suriwong Road at its junction with Rama 4. The small Apollo go-go Bar on Silom Soi 4 was up and running years before Telephone and Balcony started wooing punters just for drinks, snacks and a hint of a meat market in the same soi. The boys in both Twilight and Apollo would take off tier underwear soon after 9:00pm and dance naked.
Just around the corner off Rama 4 was the original My Way with perfectly lovely twinks strutting their stuff and entertaining us with real dancing around the two poles on which they’d show off their athletic prowess. Further afield, the still-running Inter Mustache’s House off Sukhumvit Soi 10 was pulling in the occasional tourist whilst mostly catering to Thais.
Soon others opened. The most popular in the eyes of many was Barbiery, on the second floor of a building just across Suriwong from Soi Twilight. At weekends Barbiery’s two small stages would host 60 or more boys, mostly twinks, all seemingly having a ball as they entertained an audience packed to the gunnels. As was the case in those far off days, there were frequently more Thais than tourists. But it didn’t matter. The boys, again often naked, were always having fun, the punters loved them and the bar and the shows were always slick, sexy and fabulous to watch with none of the programmed, lip-sync ladyboys, tied-off dicks, boredom and aggressively pushy mamasans that pass for a drink and a show in many present day go-go bars.
By the late-1980s the scene was expanding rapidly. In addition to bars, Bangkok discovered saunas – or saunas and massage spas discovered Bangkok! The ten-storey tall Obelisks with a jacuzzi on the roof, Volt off Asoke, The Beach, V Club and others quickly became popular.
Then one day around 1988 the bar (sic) was raised as Babylon opened its doors. Not in the present building but in the smaller one on the left as you turn off Sathorn Soi 1 into Soi Mozart. The queues each weekend meant only one thing. It would have to expand. And expand it did into its present luxurious premises not far down the same soi.
Others caught on to the need for a quality experience rather than merely a place for a grope and quick sex. Chakran with a Moroccan theme, a lovely pool, adjoining bar area, large dark steam room and huge jacuzzi off Soi Aree was particularly popular with Thais and visiting Asians, although as one who did visit quite a few times, western visitors usually had a great time there.
But I digress. Too much of that is now in the past. A distant past that those who were lucky enough to visit Bangkok look back on with rosy-tinted spectacles and broad smiles on their faces. Reality has now caught up with Bangkok. Sadly it does not bode well for the gay tourist!
More than a year ago on February 22, 2017 in the article Bangkok’s Soi Twilight Go-Go Bars to Close, we projected that closure would come eventually for four main reasons. Two much more pertinent ones have recently come to light that are an even bigger threat to Bangkok’s nightlife.
The first is a commercial real estate development. A huge swathe of Rama 4 from the expressway east of Sathorn down to the lovely Hualamphong Temple is to be raised for massive redevelopment. This includes the old Dusit Thani Hotel which will close its doors early next year. Construction is finally about to start on the site of the old Night Market at the bottom of Wireless Road and what had been the adjoining Thai Kick-Boxing Stadium.
As regular visitors will know, Soi Twilight is only a short block down from Rama 4. That block is definitely for the chop! All the entertainment venue owners have now been provided with notice terminating leases, although precisely when the end will come is unknown. There is speculation that one side of the soi will close in the near future; the other in the first half of 2019. Some owners are taking the initiative by trying to move now. The original Jupiter go-go bar down the soi from the Jim Thomson shop is now Moonlight Bangkok whose owner is rumoured to be the owner of Soi Twilight’s Hotmale. The German owner of Dreamboys, always popular now with Asian visitors, has said he will close the bar and retire next year.
The first casualty has been the ever-popular Dick’s Cafe in the middle of the soi which closed its doors after many regulars attended a last light ‘celebration’ on May 5th. There is no news yet if it will move to a new location.
A note for those who have not visited Bangkok for a year or two. Jupiter closed last year and has moved over to Silom Soi 4 where it has reopened as Jupiter 2018. Visitors claim the interior is much classier and drinks cheaper at around Bt. 250 to 300 – a good bit less than the outrageous prices now charged by the Soi Twilight. But the crowd seems to be different, too, with more westerners than the Asians who now are much more in evident in Soi Twilight. The boys on stage are generally tall, athletic, wearing jeans and perhaps a singlet, good-looking – and mostly straight. Perhaps that is one reason there are many more women in evidence in the audience. According to reports, tips of Bt. 1,000 notes are not uncommon. Several visitors have even commented that this is no longer a gay go-go bar at all.
More of a problem surely are the pronouncements by the government that the time has come for Thailand to change its image as a sex tourism destination. The spark was a comment from the Tourism Minister of Gambia who suggested that tourists should visit Thailand for sex, not Gambia! Funny, I would never in my wildest dreams have considered The Gambia as a sex tourist destination! Since then, though, there have been raids on gay and straight go-go bars in both Bangkok and Pattaya. To be fair one reason for the raids is to check on the Cambodians, Lao and Vietnamese who have increasingly replaced Thais in the bars. Most if not all have no work permits and disappear in a flash as soon as word of a police presence spreads.
It is not only the go-go bars that have seen raids. The popular gay sauna R3 near Rama 9 was raided on April 15. Frequented mostly by younger guys – if only because the entry fee was almost 4 times the price for over 50s – the raid was allegedly the result of a “tip-off”. Although no one was arrested, the owner was charged with running an entertainment venue without a permit and selling alcohol without a licence. But was it perhaps just another pointer to the government’s new policy?
Not that any of this government-speak is new. The rot set in in 2001 with the election of the first Thaksin government. Thaksin’s Interior Minister, Purachai Piumsombun, a puritanical and highly religious family-oriented individual, launched two Social Order Campaigns designed expressly to clean up Thailand’s image and restore traditional Thai “values”. Clearly Mr. Purachai was unaware that throughout the country it was and remains Thais themselves who mostly indulge in the often-covert sexual activities!
Purachai’s campaigns enforced existing laws much more strictly, reduced the massive corruption that had enabled nightlife establishments to prosper, banished Thailand’s many sexy photo magazines and restricted the areas and the hours in which nightlife venues could operate.
These social order initiatives were particularly popular with most Thais. After a flurry of action there was one amusing moment when the Minister himself led one raid on a gay sauna and was pictured in the media with a used condom – proof that sex took place inside, he claimed! As if most Thais had no clue as to what took place inside saunas!
This time, though, the campaign to clean up Thailand’s image seems more sustained. Perhaps it also has a greater chance of succeeding, given that many of Bangkok’s gay go-go bars have lost their appeal as that of the apps has gained ground and prices been hiked. Why pay up to Bt. 500 for a drink, the same for the drink of the boy of your choice, another 500 as an off fee and a further 1,500 or more as the short-time tip at the end. The total cost of visiting and using the go-go bars is considered too expensive for many. Even the experience has been greatly diminished. The fun element so evident in earlier years has largely disappeared. Obvious boredom up on many stages has become more or less standard.
Will we miss the bars? A few will, no doubt. But let’s face it. They have had their day, the owners have made their money and Thai boys are no longer anywhere near as interested in strutting their stuff up on-stage. If we could turn the clock back 30 years, the appeal would definitely still be there. Sadly, time does not stand still. Everything changes. That once far-off death-knell tolling for Bangkok’s gay go-go bars is now ringing in our ears.