Ah, behold the fearless feats of the Bangkok Post, bravely venturing into the sleaze safari that is lower Sukhumvit. Their recent piece, less of an exposé and more of a delayed awakening to the bustling nocturnal activities, has finally shed light on the circus that unfolds on these streets. My own escapades on New Year’s Eve, culminating in a drowsy amble around Nana, prompted me to share this gem. Amidst the chaos lies a curious dichotomy: a McDonald’s and a Subway, tirelessly doling out fast food to the weary souls of the night. I sought refuge in the fluorescent sanctuary of Subway after a skirmish with two rather fierce Ladyboys eyeing my wallet, only to realize its ambiance was more daunting than the estrogen-fueled rogues prowling outside.
For those who’ve braved these nocturnal haunts, the article may offer few surprises. Yet, it serves as a peek into the depths of vice and the omnipresent specter of corruption that fuels the mayhem. Ah, lower Sukhumvit, where even a midnight snack comes with a side of adventure and a sprinkle of danger.
It’s been described by both Thais and foreigners as shameful, a disgrace and embarrassing. And those are the words we can print. One of the most popular areas in Bangkok, the lower end of Sukhumvit Road undergoes a rapid transformation late every night when most of the bars and clubs are closing.
It changes from being a popular shopping and entertainment area into one of the world’s biggest open air flesh markets, where everything from girls to booze and illegal drugs are openly sold until the wee hours.
“You must come to see the place, especially after 2am when it degenerates into a total mess. Please go there and write what you have seen,” one disgusted Thai who owns a shop in the area told Spectrum.
Our investigation, which included interviews, pictures and videos, some taken with concealed cameras, revealed some very disturbing facts and some blatant violations of the law. This disregard for the law is happening in this area night after night, and no one appears to be making a serious effort to stop it.
Sukhumvit Road would surely hold the world record for the most illegal bars in one place. For about 500 metres on the popular road – from Soi 2 to Soi 15 – Spectrum counted 37 mobile bars, more than 204 tables and 1,180 chairs last Friday at 3am.
The second dubious world record could be for the largest number of ladyboys gathered in one place, with some serving drinks at the mobile bars, some just walking around alone, and others in groups on the footpath, shouting at passing foreigners: “I want to go with you.”
Another fact that has surprised many visitors to the area is the large number of foreign prostitutes there searching for customers, as well as the local variety. The ever increasing number of foreign prostitutes do a brisk business in the nearby discotheques and coffee shops as well as on the street.
They come from about 16 countries – Africa, Asia, the Middle East or the former states of the Soviet Union – and have been joined recently by transvestites from other parts of Asia and the Middle East. This may not be a world record, but it is a first for this country.
There are also hundreds of African men in the area late at night, and they gather in many places along the lower end of Sukhumvit Road, with some offering illegal drugs to foreigners, mainly in sois 3 and 13. This type of open drug dealing on the street is unprecedented in Thailand. Many of these African men are also involved in other illegal scams, especially ones relating to the US dollar. They also fight each other regularly on the streets, usually over business conflicts or over women.
Most foreigners holidaying in Thailand with their families only see the temples, enjoy the country’s natural beauty and its beaches and are in bed by midnight. But if they ventured out onto the lower end of Sukhumvit Road late at night, they would get a very different, and negative, impression of the country.
Many of the foreign men who frequent this area late at night come from countries in the Middle East, where most of what is available on the streets of Bangkok is banned, illegal, or both.
Most are on holidays and don’t have to wake up for work early in the morning, so they stay up all night looking for entertainment.
And when most of the mainstream entertainment venues close at 2am, they move to the many small mobile bars that spring up after hours on Sukhumvit Road. The late night mobile bars started appearing on Sukhumvit Road after a change in the closing hours laws several years ago.
The changes, some of which involved earlier closing hours, cut the income of a lot of entertainment venues in the area.
One foreigner who has owned bars in Soi Cowboy for many years told Spectrum. “When that guy in the government [former Interior Minister Purachai Piumsombun] changed the closing hours back in 2001, making us close earlier, we really suffered, and so did our staff,” he said.
“When the bars had to shut earlier, we lost that important last busy hour of trading, and our profits went down. The customers headed off looking for some illegal place to drink after hours where there were girls available, and they soon found it on the footpath on Sukhumvit Road. The girls who worked in bars like mine no longer had the late night venues like the Thermae to go to in the hope of finding a customer after work.
“After they closed the bars early, the girls just took to the streets. At least when they work in bars like mine, there are some controls and regulations, like regular health checks.
“What really annoyed me and most of the other bar owners was that we had to stop selling alcohol, while the other unlicensed places that sprung up on the streets can stay open all night.
“These days it seems more relaxed and the closing time has slipped back to 2am. People used to fly from Singapore to Bangkok for the nightlife, but now it’s the opposite way around. Singapore now has bars that open until the early hours.
“All the early closing and social order campaign did was to turn the lower end of Sukhumvit Road into a slum. That’s what it is. Now we still have to close at a certain time, we still have to have licences and face regular checks by the police, but there’s no checks or anything on these mobile bars. They wheel them out and put on the footpath on Sukhumvit late at night every night.”
His comments were echoed by Thai bar and pub owners who operate businesses along the lower end of Sukhumvit Road. One man who runs a well-known night spot that has been open for 40 years near Soi 15 said: “Before, I was able sell drinks until 6am. Everyone was inside, drinking and happy. Then in 2001 the government started to impose regulations and orders. For a short time we had to close at midnight, and this made things even worse because after midnight everyone moved to the street. The problems began and continues to now, as you can see.
“We are licenced to sell alcohol, we pay taxes to the state, we don’t allow under-age people to enter, we close according to the law, but we are losing money and going out of business because the mafia can sell all night on the street and undercut our prices. Their only overheads are the corruption money they pay someone. I know who it is, but won’t tell you for your own good.
“If Purachai could inspect Sukhumvit at night now – something he used to enjoy – he would most probably commit suicide. It is hard to imagine that this has been going on for years without anyone in the government making some serious efforts to stop it as laws and regulations are openly violated. What is happening on the street is a real shame for this country. Someone should take some drastic action.”
Pornchai, who has worked as a waiter at this well established bar, added: “I have been working here for 36 years, but now is the worst time ever. The mobile bars, all illegal, are taking our business by selling all night and cutting our prices. They can sell drinks cheaper because they only spend money on bribes to some officials. Their expenses are therefore much less than ours.”
He told Spectrum about one mobile bar frequented by Africans in Soi 13 where he said drugs are sold openly and where there are fights between the African dealers almost every night. About 20 Africans, some well dressed, were drinking there at 11pm when Spectrum visited. When one photo was taken, two Thai men immediately appeared and threatened the photographer, ordering him to leave, despite his valid argument that the footpath and road are public property where anyone can take a photo.
The same problem arose when taking pictures of the mobile bars. One bar owner who was selling alcohol on the footpath opposite Nana Post Office near Soi 4 appeared extremely irritated and shouted: “I control the footpath here. I own it. Get out!”
Later that night when Spectrum went back to the bar on Soi 13, about 80 Africans were drinking there, one group of them standing on the corner, attempting to chat with passing foreigners. Several foreigners told us the Africans were offering some shady business propositions and also drugs.
”They asked me how much money I have and how much I could invest with them,” said a man from Switzerland who did not want to be identified. Other Europeans said they were approached the same way.
One Thai vendor selling clothes near Soi 7 said: ”I have been selling here for almost 20 years but have never seen such corruption and disregard for the law as it is now. These mobile bars started to pop up a few years ago and now there are almost 40. Each pays someone 2,000 baht per day to stay open. I pay someone else only 1,000 baht for my space.
”Many Thai and foreign prostitutes frequent the area late at night, the Africans fight each other every night, especially in Soi 13. They sell marijuana, ice and cocaine. Many have no visas. They have a boss who is very powerful and controls many illegal activities, including the drug business. He knows some high-ranking Thai officials and is also well connected to his embassy.
”Not many policemen are seen here, except when the Africans fight, and then they will come. You will never see a high ranking policeman or other officials coming for an inspection. I suspect they don’t know what is going on here. In the past, police would arrest prostitutes who were looking for customers on the footpath, but not any more. That’s why there are so many now.
”We can’t blame only foreigners for these vices, but our people who allow it as well. The press doesn’t publish much about this problem. Our culture and dignity are destroyed here in front of us,” he said.
Another vendor selling hats in the next stall added: ”All the Thai people here don’t like it, but what can we do? How will this place look in the next five years? Are we going to become an African country? What are they coming here for? How can they stay here for a long time?”
This last question was partially answered by two Africans who approached the Spectrum team outside one mobile bar in Soi 3. One, who spoke perfect English, claimed to be a former pirate from Somalia who made a lot of money and came here to start a business. The other said he came from Sudan. He claimed to have been associated with terrorists in Sudan and said he had to leave.
”We do everything, except drugs,” the Somali said, with his Sudanese friend agreeing at the start of our 10-minute conversation. However, at the end of our chat, and after all their business propositions were rejected, they claimed to know someone who sells drugs, for either personal use or wholesale.
The Somali said they had to be careful after the police arrested several Africans at a small lane called ”Double White Hourse” off Soi 3 on Dec 12. He was referring to a raid made by the Narcotic Suppression Bureau and other agencies.
A visit to the lane, which is usually crowded with Africans after 10pm, found it almost deserted.
Several high-ranking officials from various embassies who live near the soi told Spectrum that while walking in the area at night they had been approached by African men who, after a short conversation, offered them drugs. This approach shocked many of the long-term embassy staff, as this had never happened in the past.
Back on Sukhumvit, the many foreign prostitutes, mainly from the former Soviet Union, were doing a brisk business, with dozens parading in provocative clothing from about 11.30pm on outside the coffee shop of a big hotel on Soi 3, which is their starting point before they move on to discos and other late night entertainment venues.
Several taxis were parked outside this hotel and often after the driver received a phone call, he would enter the coffee shop and get one or two of the foreign working girls and drive them to customers who stay in some of the big hotels in the district.
One taxi driver said the foreign girls charge 2,000-3,000 baht for a short time and 5,000-10,000 baht for an all night session. The taxi driver said he had an agreement with the staff of several big hotels, who call him when a guest wants ”company”. He and the hotel staff receive 500 baht each in commission.
During a conversation with several foreign working girls at the coffee shop, they revealed how they can stay in Thailand for many months, some even years.
They pay 5,000 baht each to a nearby travel agency which organises visa runs to Vientiane in Laos. One woman who had just returned from such a trip said the agency provided four vans which carried about 40 women. ”They collected our passports after arriving in Vientiane, where we spent one night in a cheap hotel, and returned them the next day with a Thai tourist visa. We can’t get these visas in Penang [Malaysia] or in Phnom Penh [Cambodia],” she said.
A ladyboy who was serving drinks at a mobile bar near Soi 11 said she and some of the other girls did not get paid to work at the bar, but used it to find customers to sleep with. However, several local prostitutes claimed that most of the ladyboys only pick up customers to steal their money.
The mobile bar business is well organised. The bars, chairs and tables are stored in many places along Sukhumvit Road during the day. The owners decorate the bars with colourful lights and have speakers blaring music. Bottles of alcohol are openly displayed. It takes only a few minutes to set one up.
However, some bars deliberately switch off the lights over the tables where their customers are drinking. Most of these bars move into their places after the street vendors leave about midnight. They become the second shift on the street.
As for hygiene, there is none. There are no public toilets in the area. Some customers relieve themselves where ever possible, making the whole area dirty and smelly. One enterprising local businessman in Soi 13 uses a pick-up truck with a mobile toilet on the back and charges five baht per person.
One friendly policeman from the local station who has been working in the area for many years was reluctant to say anything at first, but later opened up: ”Ten years ago it was very hard to open a bar, but now they are everywhere, not only the mobile ones.” He admitted that they are all illegal, but said his job was only to look after the traffic.
The policeman also mentioned that the punishment for selling liquor without a licence _ exactly what these mobile bars do every night _ is only a small fine not exceeding 500 baht for those selling local brews and not more than 2,000 baht for those selling imported brands.
”In case the bar gets raided again, the penalty would be same. Maybe if the punishment was higher, the bars might disappear. In a paradox, the ones who do possess a liquor licence and sell alcohol after midnight, when arrested, could face up to two years in jail or a fine not exceeding 4,000 baht or both, and their liquor licence could be suspended,” the policeman said.
”Considering the workload that the police have every night with more serious crimes, there’s really no time to tackle this type of offence,” he said.
After paying a fine, the bar can reopen, and if they are arrested again, even on same night, the penalty is the same.
”Maybe if the punishment was harsher, the bars might disappear,” he said.