Some areas in capital cities develop their own unique character and begin to be viewed as separate to the surrounding areas. Sometimes this can be a ghetto or an area dominated by one ethnic group like for example China Town. In the case of Sukhumvit in Bangkok and Soho in London it is not socio-economics or ethnicity that makes these urban areas stand out but rather culture.
Jeffrey Bernard spent most his life in Soho. He moved there when he was 16 and remained there until his death at the age of 65 from diabetes. There is a story that his friend Ronnie Scott bought a car and invited Bernard to have a spin around London. Bernard hopped in. However, they soon encountered heavy traffic and headed straight back to Soho where they proceeded to get drunk.
Bernard was from the middle class. He started out doing kitchen and labouring jobs until he managed to get writing work reporting on the louche and bohemian aspects of the famous mile square. He knew writers, artists and poets including Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon. He also knew many of the prostitutes, drug dealers and other ‘low lifes’ of the area. When one of his benders overlapped with a deadline the Spectator filled the empty column space with the heading ‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell’.
Like Soho Sukhumvit has a notorious image as a place of prostitutes, brothels, sex shops, massage parlours and strip joints. Soho might have been gentrified since the turn of the century but the reputation persists.
I suspect there are plenty of people who live and work in Sukhumvit who like Jeffrey Bernard feel uncomfortable leaving the area. It is a place where you can find all the bars you would ever need. Many of the bars are run by ex-pats and become focal points for small communities of Sukhumvit denizens.
Most of these heavy drinkers, whore mongers (see Stickman) and business owners of Sukhumvit do not have any pretensions to being a poet, writer or artist. Neither do they espouse any bohemian ideals. That does not mean Sukhumvit is devoid of creativity. There is the Sombat Permboon Gallery on Soi 1. Moreover, some of the soi areas are popular with Thai students looking to let off steam and possibly talk politics and art. The arts scene in Thailand is not supported by mass media exposure or public funds. The talent might be there but the financial rewards are not.
Soho was also notorious as a place to find street dealers. These have mostly gone as much of the trade has moved online or at least off the street. There are sois in Sukhumvit (I am not going to say where) where plenty of street peddlers are open for business.
Soho and Sukhumvit are places where the illicit, illegal and immoral are available. The allure of this culture for Bernard Jeffreys made him and the area famous. I wonder when Sukhumvit will find an anti-hero to champion its cause. There is a good chance such a person would be a lady who once was a man.
The first time you visit the Sukhumvit area you can be disappointed with this famous part of Bangkok. The disadvantages of the area are almost instantly apparent, while it takes a bit of time to appreciate the advantages of the place. Sukhumvit is patronised by people from all over the world, who come for a variety of reasons. So what is it about Sukhumvit that keeps people coming back time again?
For the first time visitor to Bangkok who is keen to stay near the major tourist attractions Khao San is more convenient. For those looking for a decent hotel Silom has plenty of options. For those looking for a hotel with a special location there are boutique hotels along the river front.
In contrast, the Sukhumvit main thoroughfare is terribly congested both on the road and on the pavements. The present interim government are fighting a losing battle to stop the street vendors taking up half the pavement.
The annoyances of Sukhumvit don’t stop there. Recently municipal authorities have been hiding doorways in Sukhumvit to catch foreigners littering in order to demand ID and the payment of a disproportionate fine.
The pavements on the sois adjoining Sukhumvit are often broken up. Many of the narrow roads don’t have space for pedestrians. It is not an easy area for a young child to walk around.
Those drinking in Sukhumvit at night will notice the seedy side of the area quickly. There are numerous middle-aged (and older) white men being escorted by young Thai women. Soi Nana is only a short street but packed full of strip bars where flesh is for sale. In short, those with strong moral convictions might be upset by visiting Sukhumvit.
I will not attempt to defend Sukhumvit from any of the above allegations. The place is guilty as charged; however, there are some important redeeming features to Sukhumvit.
The first is modern conveniences. Khao San can be a pain to get to either using a slow ferry, a frightening tuk tuk or one of the avaricious taxi drivers that hang around the entry points to Khao San. In contrast Sukhumvit has sky trains (BTS), underground trains (MRT) as well as buses, taxis, motorbike taxis and tuk tuks. There is even a ferry stop (Sathorn Pier) in Sukhumvit that is a handy short walk from Saphan Taksin BTS. Also importantly, the airport train links to the BTS north-south line. You cannot get better connected than Sukhumvit.
Within a small area you have numerous small shops, fashion boutiques, food places, restaurants, spas, street vendors, street bars, pubs, clubs as well as large shopping malls. There is Terminal 21 and Rainhill Shopping Centre – two big shopping malls featuring exclusive boutiques and brand labels.
Sukhumvit is a culturally diverse place. Whereas you see mostly backpackers and Thais in Khao San, in Sukhumvit you spot backpackers, families as well as areas heavily populated with Koreans, Japanese and Arabians. You never have to walk far to find food from all over the world. There are enclaves in Sukhumvit where you could forget for a moment that you were in Thailand. It is this multi-cultural mix that is at the heart of what is enticing about Sukhumvit. It feels more like a modern capital city than other parts of Bangkok.
And don’t forget this is the part of Bangkok where you can sip a cocktail at 820 feet in the air at the Skybar at Lebua. This is the area you can find Michelin star quality food. Sukhumvit is where you can stay at memorable boutique hotels such as the Eugenia Hotel, Davis Hotel, MaDuZi, Praya Palazzo, Imm Fusion and Seven Hotel. It is the place of the best nightclubs, the most underground clubs and exclusive clubs. There are art galleries, designer shops, car shops, wine shops and of course loads of coffee shops.
Sukhumvit is in many ways the centre for sophistication and modern urban culture in Bangkok. It is where high society Thais go to play and spend money. It is also the destination of choice in Bangkok for many a well-heeled expat who can see where the money’s at.
And of course from the tourist’s point of view many of these activities and places of interest are not totally out of the budget. Food, drink and accommodation are very reasonably priced compared to London or Paris for example. Here is a good place to sample how the other half live.
The military government that took over on 22nd May, 2014 has set itself the task, it seems, of changing Thailand. They haven’t so much changed the law as gone about trying to enforce laws that have been on the statute books for a long time.
For those expats living in Sukhumvit and elsewhere in the Kingdom there has never been such a strong motivation to ‘go legal’. Thailand used to be famous for its informal attitude to its laws. In the 1980s Bangkok was notorious for its opium dens and under-age prostitution. That has largely gone. Nobody smokes weed in Khaosan anymore.
Now in 2014 the authorities are determined to remove the many foreigners who are living in Thailand while pretending to be either tourists or students. While many Thais felt that foreigners were moving in on certain sectors of the job market, many profited from providing ‘visa run’ services. This is when a foreigner has to cross a border in order to renew a visa.
It has always been the law that tourist visas are for tourists not for those living and working in Thailand. Immigration officers and those working in Thai consulates would often grimace and be difficult when issuing new visas but not a barrier to foreigners managing to stay in Thailand illegally.
The junta seems determined to stop this practice. Anyone entering Thailand by land or air with back-to-back visas in their passport will be questioned to determine whether they are really tourists. If they enter on a tourist visa the burden of proof will be on the foreigner to produce evidence such as onward ticket etc. to show they are really a tourist. Those entering on an education visa will be asked questions in Thai to see if they have really learnt any Thai.
Tour companies, dive schools and English schools are the main professions in Thailand which used the laxness of visa law enforcement to get cheap workers. It is hard to find Thai tour guides who speak Korean or Russian and so many have been employed illegally. Not enough Thais are dive instructors and even fewer can speak French, English, and Japanese etc. The same is true for English teachers – the best teachers have English as their native tongue.
Stopping these workers leaving and re-entering Thailand will destroy many businesses.
Few dive schools, tour companies and English schools have the capital to sponsor foreigners to get work visas as this means employing several Thais to each foreigner and paying tax.
Those that can go legit will have to raise their prices but will also have less competition.
Those people who have bought a lease on a bar and are working in their bar will have to either get married, go legit or leave. Those making an online income will have to get a retirement visa or move to Cambodia.
If you are living and working illegally in Sukhumvit we advise you to leave. If you are caught over staying more than 90 days from mid-August you are liable to do between 1 and 10 years in prison, as well as being blacklisted from entry to Thailand.
Legal practices and academic observers see the new enforcement policy of Thai law as not being like crack downs in the past. They mean business. Since it is a fair bet that the present junta will make sure the next elections return a government sympathetic to their cause, there is little hope things will go back to normal next year.
Just recently the government declared Chinese and Taiwanese will have visa fees waivered for 3 months. It is clear that short-stay, high paying tourists are welcome; foreigners eking a living in Thailand are not.