Jennifer Gampell
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March 1, 2006

Letter From Bangkok

A long wooden table obstructs the entrance to Silom Soi 2, a narrow pedestrian alley lined with gay bars a few blocks from Bangkok's once-infamous red light district, Patpong. I'm going to D.J. Station, a local club where gays and straights alike gyrate to earsplitting rhythms on the cramped dance floor. Four burly men in jeans and T-shirts slouching at one end of the table point to a prominent sign written in Thai and ungrammatical English. No one under 20 can enter the soi (street) and everyone must present valid ID, which for non-Thais constitutes an original passport (no photocopies) or a driver's license.

Obviously over 20, I'm excluded from the ID formalities. "Have fun Auntie," one of the bouncers mutters in Thai as he waves me through the barricade, probably not realizing I understand him. A politer version of the ID checking process is repeated outside D.J.'s, where once again I'm whisked through. However, my 20-year-old Thai-English companion's valid British driver's license receives lengthy scrutiny before he is allowed inside.

Increasingly, going out on the town in Bangkok has become more of a hassle than checking in for an international flight. At least after clearing airport security and passport control, passengers can look forward to a smooth trip. But once inside the dwindling number of international-standard Bangkok night spots, patrons still face a potentially bumpy ride.

In early 2001 the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra began a "social order" campaign to clean up the country's risqué image and also to halt the supposed moral decay of its youth. (Mr. Thaksin dissolved Parliament on Feb. 24 and is acting as caretaker prime minister until new elections on April 2.) The two local English-language publications — The Nation and The Bangkok Post — periodically posit that the crackdown was inspired by unnamed prominent politicians who couldn't control their own pampered offspring. Long-ignored 1981 legislation outlining entertainment licensing categories was resuscitated, and contrary to the normally laissez-faire Thai attitude toward lawfulness, the regulations began to be enforced.

To change Bangkok's decades-old reputation as a 24-hour party center, in 2002 the Thaksin government created three "entertainment zones" in which drinking and dancing were allowed until 2 a.m. (According to one club owner, four years later nobody knows the precise boundaries because the zoning law was never made official.) Outside these zones, dancing was illegal and closing times were 1 a.m.

Of the trio of late-night zones, only Patpong would be familiar to visitors. Significantly cleaned up over the last five years, the strip is naughty only in so far as sanitized parodies of sex shows and hordes of stall vendors selling overpriced tourist schlock could be considered salacious. Apart from the long-running bar Tapas (Silom Soi 4) and D.J. Station, nothing in the Patpong area qualifies as a trendy dance club.

The second zone is Royal City Avenue, known as R.C.A., a strip of youth-oriented venues in central Bangkok catering primarily to Thais. Recently clubs like the huge concrete Astra have started to attract a crowd of expatriates in their 20's by importing hip D.J.'s (Amnesia Ibiza, Goldie and others). Even so, one night at the 15-year-old Zouk bar in Singapore provides more real action and excitement than you'd find in an entire week on R.C.A. The third zone, Ratchadapisek, is a four-lane suburban road popular with Thai businessmen seeking the kind of entertainment available at lavish multistoried massage parlors with names like Love Boat and Colonze.

At first, club owners and customers didn't take the new laws seriously. After all, this was Bangkok, where the police hung out drinking with foreigners until dawn and a few hundred surreptitious baht resolved most official problems. Besides, why would authorities undermine the urbane club scene developing in the Sukhumvit area? That scene was catalyzed by the 1999 opening of Q Bar, a "New York-style" lounge on Soi 11, followed by the raucous Ministry of Sound (Soi 12), the ultrachic Bed Supperclub (Soi 11) and the luxuriant Mystique (Soi 31). Elsewhere, new hotel bars like 87 (at the Conrad), Tantra (Pan Pacific) and Met Bar (Metropolitan) offered additional cosmopolitan choices.

But nothing deflates a thriving club scene like repeated unheralded visits by a local constabulary intent on upholding "social order." And that is exactly what has been happening over the last four years. Sometimes the raiding police are accompanied by local TV crews. Exits are barred, music grinds to sudden silence, lights flash on. Confused and scared patrons who a moment before were partying down are suddenly confronted by brown-uniformed police officers who demand to see their ID's, frisk them or occasionally force them to urinate in a cup to test for drug use. The raids often last far beyond the 1 or 2 a.m. closing hours. They have rarely netted any violators.

But these attempts to regulate Thai teenagers' behavior have severely limited the nocturnal activities of over-20 clubbers and have of course been devastating for the clubs they frequent. Ministry of Sound, Tantra and Mystique have closed, and 87 is dead. Only Q Bar and Bed Supperclub remain active, and David Jacobson, co-owner of Q Bar, says that they survive partly because no new international investors will risk coming onto such an unpredictable club scene to provide competition. "Bangkok is a dead town," he said. "It was one of the most fun places in Asia." In March Q Bar is opening a branch in Singapore where it can stay open 24/7, though closing hour will be 4 a.m.

Even Kurt Wachtveitl, general manager of the Oriental Hotel for 38 years, weighed in on local night life in a Jan. 13 interview in The Bangkok Post: "Wealthy people like to spend their money on things they enjoy, and they spend a lot of money. But they don't want to go to bed early! If Bangkok continues to be the kind of city that begins to look sleepy after midnight, it will be wasting all its advantages to the upscale foreign visitors. They'll go to Beijing, Shanghai and now Singapore."

Far from cleaning up the city's image, the social order campaign has spawned a sordid — and unregulated — after-hours scene that unfolds on steamy sidewalks and dark alleys behind second-story black-curtained windows. "You can't suppress people," David Jacobson said. "They want to have a good time. It's human nature."

An hour at smoky and cacophonic D.J. Station satisfies my dancing urges. Not ready to call it a night, however, I decamp to Rain Tree Pub & Restauant, a tiny bar near Victory Monument where Thai folksingers croon 1970's melodies known as "songs for life." I adore these rapidly vanishing examples of traditional Thai life and am having a fabulous time. Nonetheless, promptly at 1 a.m. the lights come on, the band packs up, and I'm out on the streets of Bangkok, all dressed up with no place to go.

Copyright 2006 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell