Many a curious traveller has passed through the crowded alleys of the infamous Soi Cowboy (or Cowboy Road) for a taste of Southeast Asia’s most notorious street. No visit to Bangkok is complete without a tour of the ‘Soi’. So just what makes this particular little road worthy of its bold rep?
Located between Sukhumvit Soi 21 (also called Soi Asoke) and Soi 23, Soi cowboy is a surprisingly small street of about 45 bustling bars, and is located within walking distance from the Sheraton and the Millennium Hilton.
In early 1975, the street’s first lounge opened its doors. “The Gold Label” was a “seminal bar” in every sense; it was the first to target sex tourism. It was also the first multi-level bar, and the first “Go-Go and Show” bar . With the smashing success of The Gold Label, the Soi quickly developed a regular expatriate crowd. Within 3 years, The Gold Label faded from the scene and a number of smaller bars emerged in the typical Thai go-go style: women in bikinis serving alcohol outside and soliciting customers, with the interior often featuring a stage occupied by topless or fully nude men or women wearing numbers, a practice which remains technically illegal in Thailand. So what can one expect from soi cowboy?
For starters, expect to be surprised at its humble size. At first glance, the Soi appears to be little more than a blinking, crowded alley with a pseudo Las Vegas feel and a hodgepodge of foreigners wandering around like anxious kids in a candy store. There is often an elephant sauntering about with its mahout, adding to the cluttered, chaotic atmosphere that is characteristic of Thai nightlife. There are a growing number of establishments hidden in the many layers of bars and hostels -after all, size isn’t everything. The curiosity factor, and the communal knowledge that “mysterious things go on here”, warrants the hype surrounding the Soi.
You can also expect to be aggressively approached. We were greeted by a strong aroma of jet fuel and jasmine incense as we began our journey. This strange perfume was accompanied by a number of eager ladies and lady boys all urging us to sample their wares. It isn’t uncommon for bar workers to boldly approach potential patrons in the road (in some cases, dragging them inside or showing them their “stuff” in the least subtle manner possible), and the view alone is worth the visit. Ladies are often decked out in kitschy costumes and stage makeup (assisted by a makeup artist to ensure everyone looks their best), and bars often emulate pop culture themes such as the naughty school girl, emo-punk, S&M glamazon and girl-next-door cheerleader. Popular bars include Long Gun, Tilac, Baccara, Midnite bar, Our Place, Spice Girls, Dollhouse, Apache Coyote, Country Road and Kiss. The energy runs high, but it’s that strange sort of vibe that only sells in a place that caters to thrill seekers. This doesn’t prevent the Thais from adhering to their spiritual obligations; there are often shrines and spirit houses located inside establishments.
The first bar that caught our eye was Apache Coyote, a run of the mill go-go bar with a laid back feel and a few friendly expats willing to lend their advice between showings of ever-swaying girls in bikinis wriggling to Britney Spears and 2pac on stage. Drinks were 70 bhat (but be cautious of the definition of Happy hour, as it doesn’t mean much on this street), and ‘drinks for ladies’ went for a whopping 140 bhat. These prices are fairly typical on the street; liquor is pricey and doubles when a lady is involved as this is one of the means by which a bar generates revenue. The locals informed me that a regular pool tournament is held at Country Road Lounge (to be found at the Soi 23 end of the road on the right, facing the Sheraton) and they declared the best food on the Soi as being the fare of Dutch Food Adventure, a large, European/Western Restaurant that is first on the right as you enter the Soi from Sukhumvit. The food is relatively expensive and the menu is large and variable. We had a few shots of hard liqueur as it was tough to find much else, and headed to the Bar Kiss, with a few stops at the “sexy picture” slot games lining the strip, often being played by dancers on break.
One aspect present in every bar we visited was the bored and constantly moving sort of circus in progress, and one can’t help but feel sorry for the ever-wiggling ladies who dance for hours, waiting for their number to be called by a customer paying for their drink and company. After experiencing a number of these shows, I can safely say that one can expect the ladies to appear lacklustre and a little lost. My eye was consistently drawn to the girl on the stage who couldn’t stand being looked at (there was always at least one), and didn’t quite know how to move her body to meet the demands of the industry. This sort of girl is young, awkward in her own skin, and likely from a rural town in Northern Thailand, her insecurity laid bare to a crowd of adjudicators who see her as a product.
Toward the end of our Soi cowboy adventure, we met a German gentleman named Mike, a Lounge manager of 20 years. Mike told us that district sales are down 40% from the golden era in 2004 and that the scene is suffering terribly from recent airport shutdowns and political unrest. He worries about the future of nightlife business in Thailand. Is it worth the visit? Absolutely. With its mix of pretty young things in risqué attire, cheery bar conversation and liquor-induced drama, a trip to Soi Cowboy is an eye-opener, if only to help one appreciate the impact of its existence and significance in Thai tourism, an impact that is sobering. It’s a reality of life for the Thai people, often viewed with a pragmatic attitude. See it for yourself.
Note: In 2007, 14, 464,228 foreign visors spent about 16 million USD on prostitution, averaging USD 120 per day. Thailand ranks 3rd in the world for child prostitution and the economic value of the industry in 2007/2008 was estimated at a staggering USD 5 billion.
Statistics from Tourism Authority of Thailand