Today is Chulalongkorn Day in Thailand. Which if you are in the kingdom right now, thanks to time zones, you’ve already discovered is one of those pesky Thai holidays that are meant to be celebrated dry. People talk about culture shock when visiting Thailand; I doubt there is anything quite as shocking to an American tourist than the idea you’d celebrate a holiday without getting drunk. We’re firm believers in the spirit of any holiday being celebrated with the spirits of your choice. Much in the same way that Aussies celebrate Monday. Or any other day of the week.
Being an experienced traveller to Thailand today, I can look down my nose at those poor slobs who bemoan the lack of liquid fun in Thai holidays. While each, as unpronounceable as the next, holds a special place in the hearts, minds, and morals of Buddhists, they are all celebrated on the message boards with the traditional post of someone whining about the lack of available booze. “You poor slobs,” I laugh. “Get your heads out of your bottle of gin and go honor the day with the locals.” That’s good, if not particularly polite, advice. Being in Thailand during a major holiday observance shouldn’t be viewed as one of Dante’s circles of hell. It’s an opportunity. Both to dry out your liver and to go watch the celebrations at a local wat. Not that that has always been the case for me. When you are a newbie to Thailand finding out you’ll have to spend one of the days of your holiday sober really puts a dampener on your vacation.
Back in my early days my favorite running partner for Thailand holidays was my buddy Dave, who was – and still is – a functioning alcoholic extraordinaire. I don’t think Dave has been sober since he turned 12. So, as you can imagine, he’s lots of fun to be around. As a travel partner he couldn’t be beat. Even back before the internet made exploring the world a breeze, anywhere we went in the world Dave knew what and where the hottest bars were before we even landed. It was his contribution to our travels. I’d book tickets, transpo, and hotels. Dave would have a list of every bar we needed to visit, categorized by those promising to be the most fun versus those more suited for getting a good buzz on. And Bangkok was no exception.
Patpong, of course, was easy. And we spent more nights getting blitzed in Thailand’s most famous red light district than anywhere else. But we also occasionally exchanged shot glasses for the pleasures of Nana and Soi Cowboy. Not that we only drank at seedy beer and gogo bars. That was our late-night entertainment. We’d start our nights off in the early afternoon – or morning as we called it – visiting one of the city’s popular watering holes that neglected to include naked flesh on their menu. Blues clubs, jazz clubs, or any bar with an extensive list of scotch were our favorites. Any bar we walked past, or any small, rickety, decrepit table squatting down some small dark soi being manned by a Thai or two with whiskey bottle in hand worked just as well.
Local clubs, which back then were still called discos, weren’t off our radar either. You can easily feel like a fish out of water the first time you walk into a local club in Bangkok. Thais have their own way of partying. But Dave’s DNA was familiar with any style of drinking and he immediately knew not only how and why to order a bottle, but the pros and cons of ordering a bottle of Johnnie Walker versus the local rot-gut named after and probably made with the waters of SE Asia’s most famous river. I hate to think about how many near empty bottles, level carefully marked and displaying our names, still sit on some dusty shelf of bars throughout Bangkok and its environs, waiting for our return. I’m sure those drinks not taken are cause for tears to spring in Dave’s eyes too. But the Thai clubs were always a blast. We spent a lot of nights partying with locals who didn’t speak our language any more than we spoke theirs. When you speak 80 proof, language is never a barrier.
Thais who make their living off touri appreciate those who spend freely. And when you are a functioning alcoholic, or travelling with one, spending freely is not optional. I suppose you could be miserly and only keep your own glass full, but half of the fun of partying is the camaraderie of those who you are helping to get as equally blitzed. Halfway through our inaugural trip to the kingdom we’d become fast friends with and the favorite customers of Somchai, a bartendress who worked at one of Patpong’s largest beer bars. She kept our glasses full, the ladyboys away, and taught us the finer skills of playing Connect 4. We put her kids through college and rebuilt half of her home village.
The night market was already in full swing in Patpong back then, but seedy still ruled the day. Guidebooks warned tourists away from Patpong instead of encouraging a visit like they do now. It was a different time, a different crowd. You never saw straight-laced couples with kids in tow wandering the sois. In fact, the only children you saw in Patpong back then were either beggars or for sale. We ignored those being trafficked, and quickly learned when money was at stake that any Thai child 8 years of age or older can drink a farang under the table any day of the week. Functioning alcoholic or not.
There were real bars in Patpong back then too. I mean drinking establishments as opposed to places peddling flesh disguised as a place peddling booze. Free-lancers were always part of the scene, far too many of whom were of the third gender, but between Dave’s love of booze and our obvious bromance most left us alone. Or scored a free drink and then left us alone. It made for a great night out of bar hopping; we’d start out at Somchai’s bar, have a few, wander a circuitous route up Patpong 1, down Patpong 2 hitting bar after bar with the occasional digression over to Soi Thaniya to laugh at the expression on the girls’ faces when we tried to enter one of the Japanese clubs, before heading back to spend more quality time with Somchai who often already had our next round poured and who more often than not quickly booted whatever unlucky farang who thought they’d found a place to drink off of the bar stools that had become our official home away from home in Bangkok. So you can imagine our shock when we attempted to start off our traditional pub crawl one night at Somchai’s bar when instead of shots of liquid gold she greeted us with a sorrowful, “No have!”
Huh. The problem with holidays in Thailand is that they are not those celebrated back in the States. They give a nod to our high days like Christmas, but that’s more about financial gain than it is about the holiday itself. Instead, they sneak their own in. Chulalongkorn Day, Makha Bucha Day . . . who in the hell knows what those are or when they occur? Much less why they exist. Most touri wouldn’t even know a holiday is being celebrated except all of a sudden, without warning, getting a drink in a town known for drinking is nigh impossible. And only a Buddhist would think the best way to celebrate a holiday is to lock up the liquor cabinet. For us it was a rude introduction to Thailand’s holiday customs. And Dave’s liver was not pleased.
But this is Thailand where rules are not made to be broken as much as they are made to be ignored. Somchai, with Papa’s retirement fund at stake, came to our rescue. After handling the pesky little matter of paying the bar fine on her behalf – a custom we’d become familiar with as we’d routinely off a handful of her bar mates at closing to go hit the after-hours clubs – she led us on her own version of touring Patpong, enriched with the local knowledge of which bars were serving up booze disguised as a cup of coffee. Or in local parlance, “Have!”
Have! and Not Have! were the first Thai words I learned.
I don’t remember which dive was the first where Somchai made a grand sweeping, welcoming motion with her arm while announcing, “Have!” but it didn’t matter. Dave’s system cried out for sustenance. And we toasted whatever in the hell that damn holiday was with camouflaged drinks before heading off to the next watering hole who honored cash above Buddha. As we approached each of our normal stops, with Dave displaying a hopeful look on his face, Somchai would grandly announce our chances. “Not Have!” was the more frequent assessment. “Have!” meant a round or two before playing another round of Have/Not Have. It turned out that for a dry holiday Patpong was quite damp.
As with most traumatic events in life, Not Have! quickly receded in our memories. Remembering bad times is never fun. Have! however became Dave’s new battle cry. Where once he’d mumble, “Let’s try this place” as we approached some new bar, after experiencing our first Thai holiday, anywhere in the world we traveled he’d instead let loose with the succinct and welcoming cry of, “Have!” It worked just as well when buying a six pack, or celebrating a successful take-off as soon as some unlucky flight attendant was given the green light for serving drinks.
We’d discovered the ping pong show bars of Patpong fairly early in our travels to Thailand, visited a few, and then crossed them off our list since they were more about selling pussy than selling liquor. The bars on Soi Cowboy were a bit less risque, selling lady drinks was a big part of their business. So those hit the mark even if your shot did come with a pair of tits. Eventually we discovered the gay gogo bars that offered a better vice than booze. In my opinion. Dave, who likes to claim he’s straight, wasn’t as thrilled with the boys on stage but since they too came with a drink he allowed me to indulge to my heart’s desire. On subsequent visits, as more and more gay gogo bars opened their doors, I co-opted his battle cry for my own. “Have!” took on a whole new meaning for me. And Bangkok was never the same again.
I’m an old hand at Bangkok and the pleasures it offers now. And Dave isn’t as free to travel as much as he once was. In the past, my liver just tagged along for the ride. So now when I find myself in Bangkok during a Buddhist holiday, I take it in stride and go find locals to celebrate their day with as Buddha and the government intended. Dave’s cry of “Have!” no longer echoes down the sois of Patpong. But it still does make a small entrance in my mind every time I walk onto Soi Twilight on the first night of my trip. Having a Buddhist holiday pop up in the middle of your vacation doesn’t have to be the end of your good times. But if you are smart, you’ll find out when they are and just avoid them like the plague.
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