In the mid-nineties I spent nearly six years in South East Asia, with my partner Angela Savage, mainly working as a journalist. This included a year living in Bangkok, the abbreviated Thai name for which, Krung Thep, literally means “City of Angels”.
I also made countless trips to the city to transit to other places, for visa runs and R & R breaks. There was the time I got thrown out of Vietnam for something I’d written and had to cool my heels there for several weeks. When my partner and I used to live in the Lao capital Vientiane we used to fly down specifically to buy English language fiction books.
Not that I ever needed much of a reason for a visit.
I loathed the Bangkok when I first visited it 1992, the pollution, the traffic and sheer, daunting bloody scale of the place. But when I left the region at the beginning of 1997, it was my favourite place. I loved the food, the people and the energy. I still like all these things, particularly the energy. New York? Bangkok’s the place that never sleeps unless it’s to grab a quick snooze on the back of a truck in slow moving traffic.
I’ve been back a few times since but never for more than a couple of days and usually with a very small child in tow. Until recently.
Bangkok’s a global city now. It was always an international hub. With Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma all closed or hard to get into, Bangkok was the region’s focal point, the place of choice for diplomats, journalists, spies, as well as that particular species of (mainly) male expat who figures the city will offer them a second, third, fourth, shot at life.
Bangkok still takes all comers, but now the Thais have joined the globalisation party and the internationals seem more likely to be a corporate hot shot than a journalist or spook. The whole feel of the place has changed, the sky train, the underground railway, the modern shopping malls and apartments that litter the city.
And with the changes, a lot of the places I used to hang out in have either gone, changed or are endangered.
Taksura, a favourite Thai restaurant near the Victory Monument, was demolished some years ago. It was an old wooden building with a beautiful garden, great Thai food and shelves groaning with Thai popular culture knick-knacks from the sixties and seventies.
The New Light Diner, an old US style diner in Siam Square with some of the best booth action in Bangkok, still stands. So does the art deco Scala Cinema. Built in 1967, it’s one of the last one-screen cinemas in Bangkok and the only one not situated in a mall. But reports of its imminent demise appear regularly on social media. Word is the owner of the land the cinema (and much of the Siam Square area) is on, Chulalongkorn University, wants to redevelop it. The lease is up in the near futue, then all bets could be off.
Lots of the old bars I used to hang out in are gone. One that remains, we used to simply refer to as ‘Wongs’. A cramped, hole in the wall dive, the bar is situated near Sathorn and Rama IV, near the equally seedy Malaysia Hotel.
It never got any points for cleanliness, but the beer was cheap, you served yourself, it had a great jukebox and a chain smoking multi-lingual barman, who we used to refer to as Wong, and who would often join us at the end of a long night’s drinking and play guitar. He died in 2003, and his brother, Sam, now reportedly runs it.
Happily, one of my favourite late night bar haunts, Check Inn 99, not only still exists, it appears to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts. They have jazz on a Sunday and a group of Bangkok-based crime writers recently held a well attended reading there.
Check Inn 99 is situated on Sukhumvit, just up from Nana Plaze and what is now a bustling Arab quarter, just next to a street stall that sells cheap Tasers and Viagra. The place sports great atmosphere, the best and hardest working Filipino house band in the city, and a historical lineage that goes right back to when Sukhumvit was a dirt road with rice paddies growing at the end of it.
One of the new owners, Chris Catto-Smith, has been knocking around Asia for a while himself and is good for a story or two about the establishment. There’s the one involving Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, another about Neil Davis, the famous Australian war cameraman who filed from a string of dangerous destinations only to die in September 1985, while filing a relatively minor Thai coup. But try as I might, I couldn’t unearth reliable details about the fate of the dwarf doorman who worked at the establishment for many years.
I still love bangkok, but as if to underscore the point about the changing face of the city, on my way out of town to the airport, the hotel driver tells me the long running hotel I’ve stayed in on many trips, The Federal on Sukhumvit Soi 11, is closing. The land has been bought and the new owner intends to build a large five star luxury hotel on it.
And as for the story about Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, you’ll just have to a visit Check Inn 99 and do some digging of your own. I’m not going to do all the work for you.