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Thai Nightlife Granted Cinderella Decree Reprieve

Thai Nightlife Granted Cinderella Decree Reprieve


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's bars, nightclubs, massage parlors and other adult entertainment places are thanking their lucky neon stars for permission to remain open past midnight.

Doom was supposed to come on March 1, after an increasingly puritanical government demanded most of this country's nightlife shut down at midnight, except for a handful of "entertainment zones" which could stay open until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., depending on their services.

Critics had dubbed that schedule as the "Cinderella decree".

Amid loud warnings of a dark, financial apocalypse -- including a drop in foreign tourism and a surge of unemployment among Thais -- government officials reluctantly reconsidered their "social order" crusade and cancelled the prim closing times.

Bar owners, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, prostitutes, tourists and others are cheering the change which was suddenly announced on March 1 while most were expecting bad news.

"Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has made a very sensible decision over this issue when the Thai government backed down," a European who manages a strip-tease bar said in an interview while asking to remain anonymous.

"The new Thai statement is that the midnight closing [rule] has been scrapped. This comes as tremendously good news, not only to bar owners but to hundreds of thousands of people who work in the night entertainment industry," the manager said.

Night entertainment in Thailand is much more than a successful, multi-million dollar, sex industry.

In most Thai cities and towns, all-year-round warm evenings also feature delicious dining, jazz nightclubs, outdoor "beer gardens", handicraft markets and places where parents can bring their children to experience tourist-friendly, sanitized fun after sunset.

Every night in Bangkok, international backpackers and hip, young Thais cram Khao San Road which is lined with shops, cafes, discos, internet booths and souvenir stalls catering mostly to international travelers.

Khao San Road has become one of the most crowded, multicultural neighborhoods in Asia, especially at night.

Slicker tourists wander Bangkok's upscale Sukhumvit Road which offers hedonistic and conventional nightlife above and below the belt.

Earlier this year, however, business leaders, tourists and others were shocked to discover Khao San and Sukhumvit were not in the new zones, and would be forced to shut at midnight -- blacking out two of the most popular, money-earning attractions Bangkok offered after dark.

Other night spots popular with foreigners seeking prostitutes, food and music -- such as Soi Cowboy and Nana Entertainment Plaza -- were also scheduled to shut at midnight.

"The Thai middle and upper classes appear to be so out of touch with what is happening in their own country, to their own people," the European manager said.

"They should go down and see hustling, bustling Khao San Road, full of tourists, visitors, backpackers and Thai students. It is vital to the Thai economy. And Sukhumvit Road is a hub of tourism.

"Everybody just wants to relax, have a drink, have a meal, late at night," he said.

In Thailand's big cities, many entertainment businesses traditionally remained open until 2 a.m., though occasionally were ordered to close at 1 a.m.

Under the now-shredded draft of the Entertainment Act planned for March 1, only three "zones" in Bangkok were awarded the right to party after midnight.

It included Patpong Road, one of the most famous streets in the world for commercial sex.

Patpong features an outdoor night market packed with tourists who are sandwiched between strip-tease bars, restaurants, shops, discos and massage parlors.

Two neon-lit roads favored by Thais seeking fun -- Ratchadaphisek and New Petchburi -- also won permission to stay open after midnight.

Places outside those three zones would have been forced to shut at midnight, affecting an estimated 70 percent of Bangkok's entertainment venues.

Many of those unfortunate establishments would also have been barred from opening until late in the afternoon or early evening, further squeezing their business hours to an unprofitable schedule.

"What kind, and class, of tourist does Thailand want to attract?" asked Frank Rockport in a letter published in the Bangkok Post.

"Seriously, my friends and I feel insulted being told that the only option we're given to enjoy a drink after dinner is the seedy and decrepit cesspit called Patpong.

"We can't go to the Grand Hyatt bar or any of the world-class pubs and bars elsewhere because some politicians want to send us to the prostitution-infested wasteland areas of Patpong and Rachada," Mr. Rockport wrote.

"Go to Singapore for a weekend! Or even Kuala Lumpur," suggested the Nation newspaper in a sarcastic story about "outsmarting the midnight crisis."

"As Bangkok tightens its grip, these world cities are loosening theirs," the Nation said.

Thai media castigated the no-fun lawmakers as "Thailiban".

In northern Thailand, Chiang Mai city was allowed to stay open to 1 a.m. -- or in some cases 2 a.m. -- as were some other special sites.

Thailand's debate about nightlife schedules and zoning came amid an overall tightening of this majority Buddhist nation's tolerance.

The new reprieve, meanwhile, allows all places inside and outside the zones to remain open until 1 a.m. or 2 p.m.

As of April 1, according to a published schedule, the new, countrywide stopwatch permits:
-- "Nightclubs and bars" to function from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
-- "Pubs, discotheques, cafes, restaurants with live bands and cabarets" to boogie from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
-- "Massage parlors" to rub people from 4 p.m. to midnight. -- "Lounges and tea houses" to open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to midnight.

All new entertainment venues which apply for licenses after Jan. 13, however, must shut at midnight if they are outside the zones.

"This measure can be considered a compromise," deputy Interior Minister Pracha Maleenond told reporters.

In Bangkok, the sex industry's nighttime cabaret acts have featured sex toys, lesbian shows and other live entertainment, but more recently go-go dancing by slightly more demure damsels in swimsuits appeared to be the norm.

*********

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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