COVID-19 SPECIAL

Hit by Covid-19 pandemic, Bangkok nightlife pivots to local customers

Post-lockdown, Bangkok’s nightlife is slowly recovering. Bars and clubs that cater to locals are full, while those that target tourists are changing their business models.

BANGKOK - It's 10.30pm on a Tuesday night and the bar tables at Bangkok's Sugar Club are filling up. As the deejay turns up the volume and laser beams quiver overhead, two women in bikinis and face shields stride on stage. Strangers flirt.

Step onto the street outside in Sukhumvit Soi 11, however, and the party fizzles out. Empty bars blast music into the darkened thoroughfare that teemed with tourists before the pandemic.

Two months after Thailand allowed bars and clubs to reopen, Bangkok's nightlife is coming back from the dead. But the party capital, with establishments that cater to both the bawdy and sophisticated, is now grappling with bisecting fortunes.

Businesses that rely on Thai clientele are seeing crowds return. Those oriented towards tourists are desolate, or have simply closed down.

Before Thursday (Sept 3), when Thailand logged a case of community infection, the country had gone for 100 days without any community Covid-19 transmissions. There are so far more than 3,400 cases of infection and 58 deaths from the coronavirus. 

Wary of encountering a second wave of infections like Myanmar and Vietnam, the Thai government has shut its door on most tourists. It is still hoping to retain a slice of the long-stay market by experimenting with more relaxed quarantine requirements on the island of Phuket.

But the economic prognosis remains grim. The finance ministry expects the tourism-dependent Thai economy to shrink by 8.5 per cent this year.

One can hardly tell, judging by the revellers on a Monday night in Bangkok's Thonglor district, which caters to the Thai and expatriate markets.

Ainu, a Japanese-style bar with live music, was packed with locals.


Two months after Thailand allowed bars and clubs to reopen, Bangkok's nightlife is coming back from dead. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

"We are getting 100 per cent of our customers back, or maybe even more than before," said manager Sasitorn Thanawat. "People were all cooped up and fearful during the lockdown. Now they have returned to find happiness."

Just before nightspots were allowed to reopen, Thailand's Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration caused disquiet by proposing a long list of rules that required establishments to not just maintain distancing but also shut at midnight and stop guests from singing and dancing.

 
 

Operators, who argue that the rules are impractical, have quietly ignored some restrictions.

"After the first three weeks, everybody was trying to get back to normal," said Mr Sanga Ruangwattanakul, chairman of Khaosan Road Business Association. "We cannot operate entertainment establishments with this kind of practice."

Still, bars and clubs make staff wear masks and face shields, clean their hands with alcohol, take their guests' temperatures and limit capacities. Businesses owners interviewed say patrons walk away by themselves anyway when establishments get too crowded for comfort.


Inside Younger Bar and Cafe in Bangkok, which normally caters to expats. Its owner had to let go of three employees and stop serving food, to survive. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Panthera Group, which runs Sugar as well as Insanity - one of the largest clubs in Bangkok - has changed its business model to keep the latter going.

"With Sugar, a well-established brand in the Thai market, for the most part, we just opened the doors and people were there," said Panthera's marketing director, Mr Benjamin Baskins.

 
 

But Insanity was badly affected because half of its patrons before the pandemic were from Asian countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia. To attract more Thai clubbers, Panthera decided to tweak Insanity's music selection and lower prices by 30 to 50 per cent.

"We are after break-even," said Mr Baskins. "Our objective is making sure that our staff are back to work. We have settled on the fact that we are really not going to be in profit zone."


A busy eatery in Bangkok's Thonglor district, which is frequented by locals and expats. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Panthera is still betting on a big comeback by investing US$500,000 ($682,400) in upgrading the lighting within Insanity.

"We feel very bullish with regard to the return of Asia in particular," said Mr Baskins.

 
 

Sing Sing Theater, an upscale club which reopened its doors in late July but chose to operate four days a week instead of six, is running at full or nearly full capacity every night.

"We have not completely recovered," said general manager Jonathan Siksik. "However, we are optimistic that in the near future, the situation is going to get better."

Life needs to go back to normal, albeit with health precautions, he said. "Something has to be done in a way to keep the people happy and enjoy life and go out, because we are talking about a country which is famous for parties."