Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been, Bangkok?
“Zombie Land”! “Will Pattaya Survive”? “Nana Plaza Deserted”!
I find new thumbnail exclamations like this every day on YouTube videos about Thailand’s suffering entertainment zones (a euphemism for red light districts). Sadly, I have a suspicion that folks longing for a return to the good old days in the above mentioned places may be disappointed.
Meanwhile, Thailand Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith (say that name three times fast) is promoting growth in digital, medical, robotics, aviation, logistics, biofuel and biochemical industries.
I try to avoid using internet memes and overused media phrases. I believe writers and video makers on digital media have an opportunity to present something new, ideas that are more grass roots and authentic than what the old time media crowd produces. A word that has come to epitomize a hackneyed, overused media word is “reset”. Some World Economic Forum whale talked about using the pandemic shutdown as a way to introduce his vision of a new world culture. He was not the first to use the reset concept. He was just a big old stereotype of a global elite. Klaus Schwab has now become a symbol of a globalist manipulator. And one can not read a news article or watch a news video without seeing the word“reset”. None-the-less, clarity demands I must use it here.
The first political leader I read about suggesting that the pandemic lockdown was an opportunity was Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Thailand Minister of Tourism and Sports. It was in May of 2020, at the apex of global COVID fear, when Phiphat made a public statement saying it would be a mistake to not use the pandemic shutdown in Thailand as an opportunity to reset the Thai tourism sector. I thought is was a rather crass thing to say at the time given the fear and suffering going on in Thailand and the World. It was also a signal to me that Thailand was going to use the crisis as an opportunity to speed up economic and social change they have been nudging the country towards for years. I suspect someone advised old Phiphat to tone down his rhetoric. He has not repeated his reset proclamation. But in the eleven months since the Tourism Minister suggested the pandemic shutdown was an opportunity, the Thai government and business leaders have produced plans and policies consistent with a reset.
Many older expats, retired guys living in Thailand, filter their view of Thailand through their own perspective. That is not unusual. Most people’s social perceptions are tacitly agreed upon within their own tribe. Such a focused point of view is very evident on many YouTube videos about Thailand. Even videos with a distinct subject such as a deserted beach, auto drifting events, farms, whatever, the folks making the video almost always show abandoned or faltering businesses that once served tourists. Other videos simply feature a walk or drive through deserted streets in places like Pattaya, Patpong, Patong and Nana Plaza, towns and plazas known for bawdy entertainment. Will these entertainment zones return to business as usual once tourism is again allowed on a large scale?
It is hard to say exactly what the bawdy side of Thai tourism will look like post pandemic. Last night, 31 March 21, I visited The New Yorker Cafe on a dead end lane off Sukhumvit Soi 22 in Bangkok. It is a colorful place. New Yorker Cafe patrons must walk a gauntlet of massage shops to get to the bar. Scores of massage ladies will assure passing gentlemen they are handsome as they pass by. Last night The New Yorker was hosting a barbecue and a meetup of crypto currency enthusiasts. A group of Thai bikers, with impressive Harley choppers parked in front of the bar, sat at the patio bar pouring their own whisky from a bottle and smoking cigarettes. Just inside is a room barely large enough to accommodate a pool table. The walls are decorated with Post Modern, Hollywood Chic artwork procured from artists at The Chattauchuk Weekend Market. The room adjacent to the pool table room is where you will find a few tables and another bar surrounded by more paintings.
The barbecue drew a mixed crowd. In addition to the Thai bikers and the thirty-something digital nomads talking crypto, were older expats all mixing congenially. Three cute Thai girls tended the bar and assisted serving patrons from a big buffet set up on the lane in front of the bar. A Thai guy happily managed a large grill.
Occasionally, one of the girls from the five massage shops on the lane would saunter into the bar. They stood out, dressed in cheap platform shoes with enormous heels. One lass wore a form fitting, calf length knitted dress with a slit up to her waist. Her presentation of self prompted a discussion at one table wondering if undies were present underneath the knit dress. The massage girls looked out of place. There were a handful of couples present amongst the crypto crowd and the older expats. One couple had their pre-teen daughter with them. Tennis, the proprietor told me on non-barbecue nights, the massage girls were less out of place.
Sitting at a table behind me were four guys talking about Bitcoin Cash, a crypto currency. The guy clearly leading the conversation looked barely old enough to be in a bar, early twenties I’d guess. He was a Frenchman, talking in English to a forty-something Chinese man wanting to get money out of China from his manufacturing business there. Sitting at the bar were a few more young techie types being polite although clearly not interested in the massage girl in the knit dress making overtures. Sitting on a classical French salon couch in the pool table room was a fifty-ish American bio-tech professional with a retired Brit and a banking executive all talking politics while saying they do not like to follow politics. Outside, on the veranda the Thai bikers poured themselves another round from their bottle of Johnny Walker Black. This was the closest in real life I had ever come to experiencing the Star Wars Cantina.
The inspiration for, and investor behind The New Yorker Cafe is a colorful old New Yorker retired from the movie business: Mr Guido. Guido confided to me that bar was busy tonight because they were giving away free food at the barbecue. The New Yorker also has a late night crowd of serious drinkers that have kept the business afloat, barely. Profit may one day materialize for the New Yorker Cafe. Currently, however, profit is a nuanced vapor. For many other such small enterprises in entertainment zones it is already too late. They’re gone. Will they come back?
There are many dynamics present; time will tell how Bangkok’s entertainment zone market unfolds post pandemic. But if Thailand really does want to upgrade the economic status of arriving visitors, all it takes is for Thailand to tweak its immigration rules. A story in the Bangkok Post today, 1 April 2021 titled: “Government lures wealthy foreigners” outlines how Thailand is seeking to put in place a “‘proactive economic plan’ aimed at drawing at least 1 million high-income foreign tourists…”.
In the same article the Bangkok Post quotes Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong: “Plans are to improve regulations on immigration and applications for visas and work permits for foreign experts to work in Thailand, such as improving the requirements for foreign expats to report their whereabouts every 90 days to authorities…”.
The highest level of Thailand’s governance is talking about rewriting the visa rule book.
Thais are not aggressive or confrontational. After living in Bangkok for five years, I have come to realize the notion of saving face is ingrained in the culture at all status levels. Government leaders would never proclaim that they are seeking to deter a certain class of foreigner from visiting. That would cause the foreigner to loose face. Instead they will quietly change the rules without fanfare. Based on many stories I have seen this past year, such as the Bangkok Post article above, I believe Thailand will be politely suggesting — by way of onerous visa requirements for low value travelers — that sex-pats on a budget and backpackers may want to consider alternative destinations. The Philippines and Cambodia are possibilities.
As for upsizing Thailand’s economy and global status, in the absence of a major disaster or political revolution, I think major growth and changes are eminent. Thailand has funded and built up a substantial bureaucracy designed to promote the EEC, The Eastern Economic Corridor. The EEC is working with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative creating infrastructure at a rapid pace. During the pandemic lockdowns, infrastructure projects were not suspended, they were accelerated. A new Bangkok rail terminal, The Bang Sue Grand Railway Station will open in April. Bang Sue station is the northern terminal of the EEC corridor that runs south to Pattaya and U-Tapao International Airport. Did you know Pattaya has an international airport?
Yup! And it’s getting an upgrade. Construction of a high speed rail from Bang Sue to Pattaya to U-Tapao Airport is underway. The EEC has many commercial purposes, upgrading shipping ports and such. But there is also much ado about promoting digital, biotech and other high-tech business growth (see the second paragraph in this essay). Thai telecom giant True currently employs over ten thousand people and sees itself as a Google competitor. A project to build a pier for cruise ships is underway in Pattaya as well. The thousands of Chinese tour groups getting off cruise ships will not be old time Pattaya Punters.
Asian women from poor regions have pursued men of means, both Asian and foreign, for as long as there have been men of means and poor women. There is a tacit acceptance of such behavior throughout Asia. I wrote a story and made a video on this subject earlier. I will link them below. For the point in this essay, once foreign men begin returning to Thailand, young women from the northern farm regions of Thailand will find them. But that does not necessarily hold promise for the old Thai entertainment zones. If the income level of arriving foreigners rises, and they change where they go for fun, the girls will catch on in a New York Minute. Their prices will rise adapting to the market. Thailand just might succeed in sequestering their entertainment zones areas less notable places similar to Geylang and Orchard Tower in Singapore or Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City.
I think Thailand is an exciting place to be now. There is an energy emerging here that was very much in evidence in Guido’s Star Wars Cantina, oops, sorry, that’s the New Yorker Cafe. I found it notable there were a dozen or more digital nomads from The US, Europe and China who cleared the hurdles and suffered a fourteen day quarantine to get into Thailand recently. Government and business big shots are greasing the skids for rapid growth in post pandemic Thailand. And the hip, young digerati are already arriving. Where is Bangkok going?
Pattaya, Patong, Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and the like? If they sold stock, I’d sell short.