Christening the Cowboy
The name of the Soi can be accredited to the erstwhile and erudite writer, Mr. Bernard Trink, who bestowed this name in his newspaper column, The Night Owl after an effervescent bar owner who always wore a cowboy hat. Often and incorrectly stated as the pioneer behind the phenomenon that it is today – that honour goes to the Gold Label.
Opening in 1975 and cut from the same cloth as a Patpong go-go bar, Gold Label was owned by a US military man named Jim George. Utilising the traditional shop-house layout, Jim was able to mimic the successful Patpong bars by having a traditional bar downstairs, and the show bar upstairs. This was the only bar, albeit briefly and was known as Soi Gold Label for a few years. Within those few years and the disappearance of Gold Label, another US veteran had opened the Cowboy Bar.
By 1980, Gold Label had gone and Cowboy Bar was regarded as the leading establishment there. Originally, the Soi only aped Patpong in terms of services rendered. It was made up of single front shophouse bars that cared little about aesthetics. Mr. Edwards, aka “cowboy” had sold his bar during 1985 and moved to the bustling Washington Square complex. Within a couple of years, that too had gone and he’d moved on to Soi 22 to open a third.
This decade witnessed countless clusters of bars if not on, then close to the Sukhumvit Road. The insatiable demand from tourists was keenly met by both Thai and foreign-owned establishments. Typically shophouses, these clusters ran from Nana up to Soi 26. Soi Cowboy was full, Washington Square had massive potential owing to the number of lots available and bars were turning over and turning up practically everywhere.
Soi Cowboy was a typical ex-pat hangout; fewer frills than Patpong and Nana and selling cheaper drink than those hotspots. This was an arrangement that suited busy bar owners that didn’t need to up their standards and the strong flow of patrons that had very simple needs.
Land and property development in the vicinity of Soi Cowboy was delayed due to the 1997 crash so a strip, which ran parallel to Cowboy was rented out by a few nomadic looking bars. A couple of entrepreneurial locals literally knocked up some open-fronted bars made from bamboo, timber and simple roofing. They also created – and charged for – a simple car park.
This spit and sawdust cottage industry quickly flourished and developed into more permanent structures. It was named the Cowboy Annex, but while sharing the name and pulling punters from that well-established Soi it was a tempting punt for many interested foreigners that wanted to live that dream and own a little bar in paradise. The punt was indeed at half price rates, considering that the baht fell through the floor in 1997.
Convenience is crucial, and it was made so easy for wannabe bar owners that this became the fastest growing hotspot on Sukhumvit until they ran out of space. Due to the fact that five or six bars were popping up each month, they could not build them quick enough and almost fifty bars appeared quicker than you can say, “prefabricated housing”.
Naturally, Soi Cowboy had to get off its laurels, get back on the proverbial horse and up its game, so while the Noughties were an openly difficult and dark time for Nana Plaza, Cowboy got back into the game by of course copying success that it had witnessed elsewhere, namely Nana. In fact, since Patpong’s birth, there have been very few revolutionary inspirations from the foreign skin trade bars since. Equally due to the simple demands of the punter, it must be said.
Neighboring Clinton Plaza had, like its namesake, enjoyed a brief purple patch, though Bill did last a while longer that the Plaza. It was located between Soi 13 & 15, conceived by two ex-pats and although it was gone by 2003, successfully spawned a busy little plot consisting of a mix of twenty bars and go-gos. Most notably, the Doll House, which quickly relocated to Soi Cowboy after the demise of Clinton (the Plaza).
*This article is the 2nd of a 3 part series about Soi Cowboy