What happened to the famous Soi Cowboy after Covid-19 hit Thailand?
It’s a question being asked by night owls all over the world, many of whom will be desperate to find out if Bangkok’s honeypot survived the virus when the country reopens later this year.
Thursday was the first anniversary of Thailand’s first national lockdown on March 18. So it seemed a fitting time to get a review of Soi Cowboy’s rough ride through Covid from Thawatchai Tutthayayut – manager of Country Road music bar.
Known to friends and customers as Tee, Thawatchai has been a resident of the soi for over 40 years, witnessing its birth as a Bangkok attraction back in the 1970s.
He kicked off his Covid tale by recounting how last year’s travel ban had robbed Country Road and other Soi Cowboy businesses of the tourists they depend on. Country Road’s revenue has plummeted by over 70 per cent since the country was closed.
“What we earn nowadays is only enough for running costs – staff salary, electricity and water bills, and rent,” he said. The bar’s shareholders, him included, had to dip into their own savings to keep Country Road running in some months, he added.
Recalling the first lockdown, he said officials gave Soi Cowboy businesses just 24 hours notice to prepare for the shutdown on March 18.
It was downhill from there. To survive, Thawatchai rejigged Country Road’s costs, sending staff back to their hometowns on monthly pay of Bt5,000 for the four months of lockdown.
The good news is that almost all of Soi Cowboy’s bars were back in business as soon as restrictions lifted last year.
However, with so few customers visiting the neon-splashed alley, staying afloat remained a tough challenge.
“A bar might only sell three bottles of beer per day," Thawatchai said. "Some bars decided to operate from their entrances and keep their interiors shut to save on expenses.”
As revenue dropped, staff and musicians had to take a pay cut in the middle of last year, though they understood the bar had no other choice, he said.
Country Road managed to survive thanks to its landlord, who lowered the rent for several months. Other Soi Cowboy businesses got similar relief.
Thawatchai also had a special word of thanks for his regular customers – expats who braved the pandemic to visit the bar at least once a week.
“My friend’s bar lost around Bt300,000 a month” he said. “But we were lucky enough to have the expats.”
Asked about the second lockdown in December, Thawatchai said the situation was even worse than before. He and the shareholders are now sacrificing their savings to keep the bar open. Closing Country Road would put 20 staff out of work so it wasn’t an option, he added.
As far as Thawatchai is concerned, Thailand can’t reopen soon enough to foreign tourists. In the meantime, all he can do is stay patient and keep the business running to his best ability.
On the day The Nation visited, Country Road was advertising beer at just Bt80 per bottle. Other bars are using similar discount promotions in a bid to lure the trickle of customers on Soi Cowboy.
However, Thawatchai is optimistic that foreign tourists will flood back once the country reopens. He said his confidence came from old customers abroad who had contacted him or his staff personally over the past few months.
He added that some foreigners were even willing to endure the 14-day quarantine to visit Thailand. They might not have to for much longer, though.
A vaccine passport measure due to launch in April or May will reduce the number of days in quarantine for travellers to seven. After that, the government plans to reopen the country fully in October.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown have affected not just businesses that depend on foreigners, but also the small businesses that depend on the bars.
Soi Cowboy food vendor Boonma told us her earnings had dropped by 70 per cent during the pandemic, as many of her customers – Thai staff – had still not returned to the bars.