Down at the Night Bazaar
A walk down memory lane
Some while back we started an occasional series of articles called “what happened to” reflecting on places and personalities from gay Chiang Mai of years gone by (read: “whatever happened to part 1 and other gay Chiang Mai history”). Despite having accumulated a wealth of material, we never got round to part 2 until last week when a walk down Loi Khro Road became a walk down memory lane and prompted this article.
Half way down Loi Khro is Paradise Bar run by Khun Lek and his wife. As some will recall, Paradise used to be a gay bar at “The Peak” until Lek seized the opportunity to move to Chiang Mai’s main tourist strip and become a regular bar around five years ago. It was great to sit and reminisce with Lek over a beer about the good old days at “The Peak”.
The Peak Gay Bars
For those who don’t know it, “The Peak” used to be a highlight of gay life in Chiang Mai, and for many Farangs (western foreigners), perhaps the highlight. “The Peak” was a pedestrian area with many small bars and restaurant units clustered around a climbing wall from which the name derived. It ran from the main night bazaar street (Chang Klan Road) through to Thapae Soi 1, alongside the Plaza shopping complex and Chiang Inn Hotel (Now the Dusit D2).
What was originally quite a macho environment with the Thai climbing fraternity mixing with their backpacker customers slowly changed as the first gay bars moved in. One of the earliest bars was Chez Nous bar, started by the charming and very friendly Khun Note (Lek’s brother in law). We understand Note is now happily married and living in Germany.
The “The Peak” grew up perhaps initially in juxtaposition to the nearby Snake Pit (AKA Gutter Alley) Bars, which were notorious for their underage boys and dodgy patronage. The Snake Pit (see later) apparently closed as a result of the Purachai social order crackdown, though a couple of the old bars survived and moved to what later became known as Chiang Mai’s “Sleaze Alley”. Back ten years or more Chiang Mai province was rumoured to be a hot bed of paedophilia as this 2004 article “Travelling into sinister territory” in “The Age” describes.
“The Peak” bars, in contrast started off as regular gay bars where Thai’ s and Farangs of all ages mixed freely and had fun together. Although there were always a few money boys around and some bars more commercial than others, back then it was still a good place to meet gay Thai guys who weren’t prostitutes (although in Thailand, particularly in tourist areas, that is possibly a relative concept). In it’s heyday around 2005 The Peak was home to a number of bars. Probably the most popular was Friendship Bar opened in 2004 by Madam Nui. Cupid Bar was staffed by a fun bunch of gay guys from Fang (Northern Chiang Mai province) including owners A and Jame, with Rung, Pong, Dtam and a few more.
After Note moved to Germany, Lek managed Chez Nous assisted by War. Lek was quite the business man having “Chez Nous”, then “Friends Bar” which War ran, before finally taking over “Paradise bar”. Lek also had a traditional style Thai restaurant across the Soi from Chez Nous bar. Meanwhile, War moved on to co-own Cupid Bar with A.
Boony ran the smallest and most commercial bar (can’t remember the name), which was often closed by 10 p.m. as all the boys had already scored tricks! This bar was subsequently taken over by Khun Dom who also opened another bar too. There was another good Thai food restaurant behind Chez Nous with a ladyboy cook as well as a short lived Mikes Burgers outlet.
A Later and popular arrival on the scene was “MTV bar” started by Mok of Classic House massage fame. Located next to Friendship Bar, the bars together formed a nucleus with a lot of customers in common. They will doubtless be remembered as the most fun bars, least stigmatised by prostitution and most popular with a crowd who wanted to have a drink and some fun.
A common theme, and successful business for some was getting Farangs to buy bars for their boyfriends. Chez Nous changed hands a couple of times in this way, before one enterprising guy called Dtom evicted his Farang. Paradise was originally started by an American whose personality was perhaps not conducive to running a hospitality business. After it’s inevitable closure Lek picked the place up for nothing and made it another success which he still has today, albeit no longer at “the Peak”.
The demise of “The Peak” started on 1 January 2008 when the climbing wall burnt down in a fire. Rumours of arson abounded, but whether they had any substance, or the theories that it was caused by a New Year’s firework were never confirmed. Thereafter, as the world economic crisis started to bite and customer numbers dwindled, there were constant rumours that the site was going to be re-developed. The bars experienced a slow and painful extinction before the lights finally went out in November 2009. The bulldozers rolled and the site was cleared but, as yet, no new development has appeared.
Way back when… The notorious “Snake Pit”
As mentioned above, a predecessor of “The Peak” was the “Snake Pit”. In his 2009 book Love in the Time of Money Thomas Shulich describes the “Snake Pit”: “in the heart of the Night Bazaar was a row of a half dozen gay bars, cynically referred to by some resident farang as the “Snake Pit.” For a decade from their opening in the early 1990s to their eviction in 2002 by police action as part of the national “social order” (jat rabiap snagkham) campaign, the Night Bazaar bars attracted a nightly crowd of gay tourists, resident farang, local youths looking to meet farang men, and some free lance prostitutes”. He comments on how the bars were frequently changing and that, “some of the names included Dragon Boy, Marlborough, Friendly 69, Jungle Bar, Happy Happy Bar etc.”.
Shulich goes on to describe in detail with anecdotal evidence the presence of underage hill tribe boys, the acceptance and encouragement of the situation by many farang and the indifference of the Police. Curiously, he uses the word “ephebephile” (see wikipeida: Ephebophilia ) to somehow justify this behavior as not being pedophilia (read more about gay Pedophilia in Chiang Mai).
One comment he makes about its “Closed Cliquish Nature” differentiates the “Snake Pit” bars from “The Peak” and is still largely true with the bars remaining at the Night Bazaar to this day. “Because the regular moneyboys who appear each night at the Night Bazaar bars formed close-knit cliques, each affiliated with a particular bar, any young Thai man who wandered in off the street would feel out of place and quickly leave”.
The Snake Pit was superseded by a row of bars behind the Chiang Inn which at that time was undergoing conversion to the D2 Hotel. These bars earned the collective nickname “Sleaze Alley”. Behind the smiles, many northern Thais, despite often coming from poor backgrounds themselves, are quite racist in their dislike of hill tribe people. There was therefore a stark difference between both the atmosphere and the clientele of the “The Peak” and “Sleaze Alley”. Whilst “the Peak” was mainly the domain of genuine gay Thai guys of varying ages, at “Sleaze Alley” the boys were almost exclusively straight hill tribe street kids, often without ID. More than a few were underage and the “Cliquish Nature” described above meant there were often gang fights among the boys, sometimes even in the bars themselves.
In her 2006 article for Chiang Mai’s “City Life” magazine, “The Other Side of the Coin – Male Prostitution in Chiang Mai” Cindy Tilney talks with some of the bar workers and observed the following about the activities at “Sleaze Alley” at that time: “Things work slightly differently here than at the go-go bars – though sex is just as easily available for purchase, not everybody sells it and those that do work on a freelance basis. “Many of these boys first come here selling flowers,” says Tua [a bar owner]. “They earn hardly anything in a day, and when they are offered 500 baht to give some guy a hand-job, they see it as easy money. Some of them start working in the sex trade as young as 10 or 11.”
In the early days of “Sleaze Alley” the two most popular and sleaziest bars were Cruise Bar and Cream Bar located opposite each other in the back of the alley. Cruise was owned by an affable yet astute straight Thai guy, whilst Cream bar had its origins in the old Snake Pit and continued with similar activities. Several other bars at the front of the alley were constantly changing.
Video clip showing the old Cruise bar
In common with “The Peak” and other gay venues in Chiang Mai, the economic downturn and changing social attitudes towards prostitution and pedophilia also had an impact on “Sleaze Alley” with a decrease in customers and also a change in the nature of some of the bars which adapted to fill a void after “The Peak” closed (Read more about the “final days of “Sleaze Alley”” By March 2012 there were only two bars left in Sleaze Alley, after others had moved to a nicer, less tainted location. Come 2013 it has died completely and is now closed.
The Night Bazaar
As with the bars, the Night Bazaar itself is a shadow of what it was ten years ago. Although still open for business, there are far fewer customers and the main Night Bazaar building is half closed, though the Kalare section across Chagklan Road seems to be more lively. Today’s more thrifty, discerning and demanding tourists are looking for a little more than overpriced tourist trinkets and the Sunday walking street market in particular has taken over as the focal point for the handicraft trade in Chiang Mai.
Whatever Happened Too….
Whilst reminiscing with Lek we were joined by a real blast from the past: Khun Loong from Cupid Bar at “The Peak” who was looking in fine form. Continuing the theme the next stop was to have a drink with Khun War, a previous owner at Cupid Bar, who now runs 2 Brothers Massage and Bar on Loi Khroh Road Soi 3A (Opposite the Muai Thai boxing bar complex). War was able to fill in a few gaps regarding “What happened to” some of the old guys. Sadly, the news wasn’t always good.
Madam Nui of Friendship bar now spends most of the year living in Italy with boyfriend Danny. Toi and Wut moved MTV bar to the boxing bar complex but it has now closed; they are still around town. As mentioned, Lek is still happily running the straight version of Paradise Bar on Loi Khroh road and Jacky of Chez Nous, Friendship and MTV bar fame touts for one of the girly bars down the road. Pui, of Friendship bar now runs Yokka Dok and some of the old Peak crowd can be found there from time to time. A of Cupid turned Kateoy (Lady boy) and is back in Fang, according to War, not in the best of health, and Jame is sadly no longer with us. Last we heard two of Paradise’s fem boys were happily living in Chiang Mai, both with French sponsors. Boony is living the high life in Isaan and we have no news of Dom.
Last but not least, Note a friendship bar stalwart, is now running Radchada Garden Café, often assisted by several of the other gay boys from that era who are now back from the army and still looking cute. Why not pop along to Radchada and say hello?
Finally, a week after world AIDS day, please stop and reflect for a moment on the consequences of this disease for more than a few of our friends from the good old days at “The Peak”. Both those still living with HIV and those who didn’t make it. Also, the life of a bar boy is not as much fun as many farang might perceive. It’s a short career often afflicted with alcohol, drugs and gambling abuse, or perhaps even a stay in jail. This lifestyle has taken a toll on many of our friends.
The Night Bazaar Bars – 2013
Last stop on the memory lane tour was the two remaining gay bars still located near the Night Bazaar. Secrets Bar and CU Bar took the opportunity to get out of “Sleaze Alley” and its associated reputation, moving to a nearby location in February 2012. They have now been joined at their new site adjacent to the main Night Bazaar building car park by a Thai food restaurant and bar “So Be It”.
Secrets has become much more of a friendly drinking bar for older ex-pats to socialise, and there are fewer boys around than in the past, though a handful of the old Akha hill tribe gang still turn up to play pool every night. We’d heard it can get quite busy, though on the night in question there were only two other farang customers at the bar, and one more playing pool. CU bar had maybe half a dozen customers and is more overtly commercial and slightly pushy with “boys” being directed to sit with lone customers. CU also has a small stage where the staff sometimes perform a little cabaret; nothing too raunchy though as these bars are outdoors in view of the street! As on all our recent visits (around 11.30p.m) So Be It has already closed for the night so as yet we are unable to provide a report.
One downside to these places is the communal bathroom which promised so much when the venues first moved here, but now leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness and maintenance.
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
It is a sign of the times: changing social attitudes and the growth of the internet, particularly social media as a means for gay people to meet each other. The one thing now missing from most of Chiang Mai’s farang oriented gay bars is younger Thai customers. Back ten years ago at “The Peak”, there were plenty of Thai gays who used to visit for some social interaction, both with each other and with farangs. Whereas now, the farang gay scene in Thailand has become almost synonymous with prostitution and most self-respecting Thai gays want no part of it for fear of being labelled as such. With the exception of a few hard core carpet bagger money boys, the occasional off duty massage boy and the trophy boyfriends of some of Chiang Mai’s older ex-pats, the bars now are almost devoid of real Thai gay guys. And the bar boys got of the bar and onto Grindr or Gay Romeo.
As the big yellow (and blue) taxis took away the boys (today’s money boys are too hi-so for songtheaws) Joni Mitchel’s lyrics came to mind:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
Indeed, the above holds true not just for Chiang Mai’s changing gay scene but for the massive development of Chiang Mai as a whole, talk about Pink Palaces!
If you have some interesting memories of the places mentioned why not leave a comment and tell us about them? Or perhaps you have some pictures from back in the old days to share?