Bangkok’s bars and clubs fight for survival in face of curfews | Travel

It’s barely midnight on Saturday, but the lights are already on, the DJ is packing up and stragglers are making their way towards the door. Since it opened in 2014, Dark Bar has been a key part of Bangkok’s underground electronic music scene. Despite its limited capacity and minimal decoration, it built up a loyal word-of-mouth following – until the start of this year, when police stormed in and imposed a curfew on the bar.

“It felt like the whole police station came in – more than 20 of them,” said owner Nod Tatong. Although police initially said the ban was temporary, after several months Tatong felt there was no end in sight and no way to make ends meet: “I kept asking, ‘When will this finish? I can’t survive.’ They kept saying, ‘Wait a bit.’ Finally, I gave up.”

After one last party, on 3 June, the closet-size club will shut for good. Nightlife venues in any city come and go but Bangkok’s have been hit hard since the military coup in 2014. The current midnight curfew applies only to the Khao San Road backpacker bar area and the more upscale Thonglor, and in the past few months the authorities have ordered some bars to close early with very little notice.

Between crackdowns and soaring rents, a number of small, independent clubs have gone. Last year saw the demise of Moose Bangkok, a stalwart of the local indie scene, and Overground Bar & Cafe, a low-key live music spot.

Dark Bar has been subject to a curfew imposed by police. Photograph: Benjamin Conan

“I opened Overground to support live performance, be it electronic, acoustic, spoken word or comedy,” owner Grahame Lynch wrote on Facebook. “Costs keep rising and income isn’t rising to match. The powers that be are actively hostile to the nightlife scene.”

On 31 March, approximately 10 bars and restaurants on Sukhumvit Soi 11, long one of the city’s nocturnal hubs, closed to make way for new apartments. Among these were Cheap Charlie’s, a dive bar that had been running for 35 years, and The Alchemist, run by former radio DJs Saloni Jirathaneswongse and Tapanee Manaves, and hosting local bands and open-mic nights.

“I guess my reaction was acceptance,” said Manaves. “We knew they were being approached to sell the land – it was the last big strip on Soi 11.”

The character of the street had been changing for several years, especially after Bed Supperclub (where acts ranged from performance artists to jazz musicians and big-name DJs) closed in 2013 to make way for a development that has yet to fully materialise.

Patrons at a busy Cheap Charlie's bar in Bangkok. The bar was among 10 to close in the city in March.

Cheap Charlie’s bar in Bangkok. Photograph: Alamy

For now, rents and relocation costs are prohibitively high, although Tapanee would not rule out trying to start something in the future. She points out that the changes are not all bad. The quality of the cocktails around town has never been higher, nor the diversity of offerings greater. “There are definitely more speakeasy-type bars, which is great, and also a lot of craft beer places popping up.”

Jirathaneswongse isn’t so positive. “No more bars for me,” she said. “All that hard work wasn’t worth the return on investment.” She’s planning to open an organic cafe.

Tatong also doubts whether she will keep trying in Bangkok: “I’ve lived here my whole life and it used to be different. I feel like they’re trying to make this city so clean, so boring. We can’t really do anything about it.”

These days, with many street food vendors evicted by the authorities, and bars closing early, even in popular areas such as Thonglor weekends are subdued. With a weary smile, Tatong adds: “I should just move to Berlin.”

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