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Soi Cowboy in Bangkok – Sin City, Thailand

Friday, February 26th, 2010

© 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind

We at SIAMPEDIA do not venture into the fields of promoting objectionable entertainment for adults. But we do also not close our eyes in the face of reality and visitor’s desires, when exploring the “City of Angels”. So please click elsewhere for a destination description, if prostitution bothers you and your type and focus of nightly entertainment is potentially found to be in other locations. Here we will try to give a short breakdown on one of the most famous redlight-districts in Asia:

It wasn’t until the mid 70’s, that this formerly insignificant short stretch of road in Bangkok was named “Soi Cowboy”.

It is located one block north of Sukhumvit Road between the Soi’s 21 and 23. Soi 21 is better known as Asoke Road. The great optional connections with the Skytrain (BTS) and the subway system (MRT), which care for easy access for all visitors are used by many. This in case, the visitors don’t stay right around the corner, where the “Grand Millennium” and other fine hotels offer luxury hotel rooms. A former USAF soldier by the name of T.G. Edwards, who listened to the nickname “Cowboy”, started the first bar in this road.

His tall frame and trademark Cowboy hat started a nightlife legacy in Bangkok. Soon, the Soi Cowboy competed with older red light quarters, namely the Patpong called area, which expatriates and informed tourists alike began to shun for it’s prices and sleaze factor. Patpong was a bit more difficult to access and the touts in Patpong were overly aggressive.

Soi Cowboy appeared to the tourists a bit more clean and classy, the early establishments here hired the best looking dancers and waitresses, mostly originating from the poorer Isaan provinces. Lao was more widespread, than Thai here, at least amongst the growing crowd of charming hostesses.

Other fellow foreigners followed Cowboy’s footprint and opened bars, where girls in sexy swimwear-style of costumes danced on chrome poles on a podium within. With prostitution being officially illegal and banned in Thailand;)

….the girls usually were available for a given period of time in the customer’s own accommodation, after the customer paid a “bar-fine” to the establishment.

Money is invested, where more money is to be made. So bar owners invested in ritzier furniture, mirrored walls and flashy neons on the outside. Soi Cowboy developed quick into a true magnet for mainly male single travelers and foreign residents. Local males were not admitted by most bars, unless they were in the company of a foreigner. Occasional scandals are a normality in every redlight-zone on this planet. Soi Cowboy had quite a few of police raids, bar-brawls and machete wielding motorcycle taxi drivers over the years.

Everything went well until Thaksin Shinawatra’s “Social Order Campaign” just after the Millennium disturbed the mushrooming growth of Soi Cowboy. It’s foreign shareholders were thorns in the flesh of local Thai pimps and bar owners from other amusement sectors within Bangkok. Rumors surfaced, that hard lobbying of those domestic redlight-lords was geared to eradicate Soi Cowboy as the prime entertainment area of the capital.

With their concept of better equipped bars, comfy seating and a constantly changing, but always stunning array of dancers; Soi Cowboy topped the statistics with the knowledgeable and informed crowd in Bangkok. Customer satisfaction, good air-conditioning and a strict control over rowdies and other annoyances helped Soi Cowboy to establish itself as a prime place for adult entertainment amongst foreigners.

The campaign peaked in reduced opening times, earlier closures and a much disputed smoking ban towards 2008.

Soi Cowboy was also ignored completely by the rulers and lawmakers, when they zoned the cities amusement districts. At least 40 bars and several other businesses, like restaurants, were threatened by new, restrictive and Government imposed rules. Those were Police enforced and fines for bars violating these were hefty. 1.000 bar girls and countless other owners and staff feared the dark clouds over their heads.

Soi Cowboy as a district for nighttime fun survived with clipped wings, the unjustly treatment as a non-entertainment area lost some of it’s clout with the Government in turmoil and Mr. Shinawatra as a fugitive and convicted person.

Newly opened establishments featured often a catchier facade, it became a custom for the owners to position some girls directly in front to attract pedestrians.

Soi Cowboy is and was a predominant red-light zone, but with its mix of GoGo-bars, Snooker-halls and Live-music-venues plus Eateries, it became an option for couples and groups of female fun-seekers as well. Females in general are welcomed guests in all establishments, although their main focus remained at all times on the unaccompanied male traveler.

Closing times were a constant issue, presently 01 A.M. or 02 A.M. are enforced. In old times, the action went much longer here, but the unfair zoning reduced this significantly.
Cross-dressers, drag-queens, Kathoeys or ladyboys in general are rather frequenting other locations like Patpong. Soi Cowboy always had a reputation for a heterosexually structured clientele. Although the occasional non-female actor in a bikini could be spotted.

There used to be a heavily frequented German style beerhouse with restaurant on the end of Soi Cowboy at Soi 23, but that has relocated to Sukhumvit Soi 11 meanwhile, into much larger premises (Old German Beerhouse). It left some vacuum here, but there are enough options available for hungry revelers.

Spice Girls came to fame shortly after its opening, when actor Nicolas Cage had sequences of the blockbuster movie hit “Bangkok Dangerous” filmed here. While some bars have a reputation for tricky girls, the frontally pictured ones have been visited by the author and no such tricking was witnessed.
In general, one seems safer with the larger establishments on Soi Cowboy.

Elephants are present on most days since T.G.Edwards pioneered this Soi. Walked or ridden by their “Mahouts”, helpers sell food for the pachyderms to bystanders and let you take a picture for a small fee. This form of exploitation is widespread in Bangkok, although yearly calls by the city administration for action against this exploitation remain notoriously unheard.

With Patpong being a center of thugs, pickpockets and bag snatchers, Soi Cowboy is relatively harmless and safe to visit.

While the closest BTS (Sky Train) station is called Asoke, the MRT (subway) equivalent near here, was named “Sukhumvit”!