Ajarn Street

Phil's Memory Lane

Now you see it, now you don't.


The Bangkok Microbus

In the days when the skytrain and the subway system were mere figments of the imagination and something best left to other Asian cities, you had three options for getting from A to B. You either took your chances with a clapped-out old taxi or rode the public bus. Or you walked. 

Then along came the Bangkok microbus. A fleet of brand-new vehicles offering a stress-free alternative to hours spent squashed on a normal Thai bus with your nose pressed against a stranger's sweaty armpit and your bum in an office girl's packed lunch. Aimed primarily at the Thai middle-classes and the more discerning commuter, the Microbus had a strict no standing policy. If there were no free seats on board, the driver didn't stop, regardless of how many passengers at the bus stop gestured frantically or questioned the driver's parentage.

Inside, the buses were spotlessly clean. There was no chewing gum pressed against the underside of each seat and there were no crude drawings of schoolboy genitalia.  The driver wore something resembling a uniform and a TV screen showed educational programs and the odd pop music video. In the early days, the service even employed a dolly bird to hand you your ticket and then walk up and down the aisle with a tray of dainty sandwiches and sensibly priced snacks. This was bus travel as it was meant to be. The fare was set at 20 baht (a considerable sum at the time) and as my father would say - it kept out the riff-raff.

It's difficult to say exactly when the decline set in, but once they dispensed with the hostesses, it all went downhill pretty sharpish. The drivers - for so long the epitome of good manners and commendable standards - became tired of seeing their loutish bus-driving Thai counterparts have all the fun. The Microbus drivers were clearly missing out. They too wanted to be able to drop off passengers in the middle of a four-lane highway and to accelerate past a bus stop whenever they simply couldn't be arsed to stop.  

To woo back the commuters and arrest falling passenger numbers, the Microbus company reduced the fare from 25 baht to 20 baht and then as low as 15. In the end no one had a clue what the fare was. I remember asking one driver and he just shrugged his shoulders. The buses went from dusty to dirty to filthy. The TVs stopped working. Even the ticket machine was either broken and hanging off the door panel or would spew out a hundred tickets for each passenger. The end was nigh. 


Opening a fast-food franchise in Bangkok has always been a gamble, but few franchises came and went quite as spectacularly as Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain that specializes in shredded beef served over a bowl of rice. I've been in branches of Yoshinoya in Tokyo and they're generally busy. In Hong Kong, punters are queuing five deep at the counter and the assistants can barely cope. So what went wrong opening a Japanese restaurant in a city where come lunchtime in most Bangkok shopping malls, there isn't a spare seat in a Japanese restaurant anywhere?

I include Yoshinoya in this 'memory lane' section because one of the branches opened on Ramkhamhaeng Road near to a school I was working in at the time. Although the menu was limited, Yoshinoya made a refreshing change from the bland dishes served up at the local food court or heaven forbid, it beat taking the short walk to McDonalds and experiencing that overwhelming sense of gastronomic failure you get from ordering a Big Mac and fries.

Yoshinoya was always a 'teacher's special treat' though. Whereas a meal could be had for around 60 baht in McDonalds, Yoshinoya was charging a hefty hundred baht plus for its signature beef bowl. Teachers might have been stupid enough to pay that twice but not the frugal folks of Ramkhamhaeng. Within six months the restaurant had closed down and the other branch on Silom Road followed shortly after.

BTS Shuttle Bus

The idea was very simple - to have a small fleet of modern buses that would ferry skytrain passengers from outlying residential areas to the main skytrain stations, saving them both time and money and encouraging more and more people to let the train take the strain. It was a fine idea in principle but as is often the case in Thailand - the execution was lousy. I could see a huge flaw in the system from day one.

The service was basically free to all skytrain passengers on production of a pink ticket that you got from the ticket office at the station. The biggest problem the company faced was identifying who was a bona fide skytrain user and who wasn't. The system was a complete joke. All you had to do was ask the kindly lady at the ticket office for some BTS shuttle bus tickets and she would hand you a book of about fifty. And if there's a system to be abused, then Bangkokians will find a way to abuse it. Shuttle bus tickets got into the 'wrong hands' and the buses became a convenient free service for locals who had never been on the skytrain in their lives. It became the transportation of choice for street urchins and air-conditioned luxury travel for the mothers and fathers of street urchins. The rest as they say is history.

There is still sometimes a shuttle bus service that runs from BTS Onnud station to the BITEC exhibition centre in Bang Na. I never take the shuttle bus despite BITEC being fairly near where I live, but I do see passengers queuing for it. And there isn't a suit or briefcase in sight.   


I find the idea of a meal consisting of chicken and biscuits to be perplexing at the best of times, but Popeyes is clearly a very popular franchise restaurant in the US so who am I to rock the boat. Alas, if you open a fast food restaurant bang opposite Patpong, Bangkok's premier entertainment zone, with hundreds of pissed up foreigners all with a life-threatening case of the munchies - and your restaurant is still empty - then I guess you're in real trouble. Such was the case with Popeyes. You could go in any night of the week and have whole sections of the restaurant to yourself.

The odd adventurous Thai person would occasionally wander in, look at the menu, scratch their head in bewilderment and walk straight out. You could see them thinking "Ok the two pieces of chicken I get but what do I do with the biscuits or the scones? Is that meant to be dipped in the strawberry jam? Or perhaps you spread the jam all over the chicken?"

Didn't stand a chance.

The Tax Clearance System

If you think the whole Thailand visa conundrum is a headache now, just be glad that you weren't here in the 90's - and the days of the tax clearance system. If you had lived or stayed in Thailand for more than 90 days, you needed a tax clearance certificate to show immigration on departure at the airport. It was a piece of paper that the immigration officer took off you and filed in the nearest waste paper bin, so going to get the certificate at a pokey little building in Banglamphu became the ultimate fool's errand. 

The tax office had no queuing system. There was none of that civilized taking a ticket and sitting patiently until your number was called. There were just one or two windows behind which sat two stressed and harrassed-looking administration officers and it ended up as survival of the person with the sharpest elbows. The whole system was chaos. You dreaded a visit to the tax office in Banglampoo from the moment you arrived and filled out the usual badly designed form to the moment - probably an hour or two later - you squeezed yourself out of the door assaulting a dozen Arabs in the process.

When the tax clearance system was scrapped, foreign residents danced in the streets. I know I did. 

Washington Square Cinema

In the days before the Bangkok multiplex movie theaters, with their VIP love seats, touch screen booking and buckets of popcorn you can barely hold with both hands, moviegoers were severely limited in where to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. There was the Lido Siam Square with its screens the size of a large beach-towel and the clammy, cavernous Scala, also in Siam Square.

And then there was Washington Square Movie Theater between Sukhumwit 22 and 24. I've always retained a great fondness for the Washington ever since I took my Mom and Dad there to see Jurassic Park and they slept through the entire film. At one point my Dad's snoring even drowned out the dinosaur fights.

There was always something strangely reassuring about seeing a film at The Washington. Bangkok had nothing like the after-dark options it has now, and The Washington - hard though it is to believe now - still represented 'a decent night out' Was it having to step over the odd soi dog as the ticket queue shuffled forwards? Was it the unmistakeable waft of urine from the gent's toilets? Or was it the dampness of the battered red velvet seats? Who knows but I bet you miss all of that as much as I do. 

The evening would invariably start with a snifter or two at a neighboring Washington Square bar. I found an hour of listening to retired Texan oilheads berating the Thai bar staff and generally acting like a tit, the perfect hors d'oeuvre to an evening in front of the big screen. You just had to make sure you didn't arrive too early to purchase tickets at the box office.

This meant sitting on wooden benches in the non-air-conditioned waiting area waiting for the previous show to end. Once the moviegoers started filing out, you could stand up, readjust your clammy underpants and choose any of the seats not occupied by either a cat or a homeless person.

As more and more movie theaters opened up around the city, The Washington lost any appeal it had and was transformed into a transvestite cabaret.   

The Pizza Hut All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

It only lasted a couple of years but every Wednesday afternoon, all roads led to Pizza Hut for their weekly all-you-could-eat buffet for an unbelievable 75 baht per head. Nowadays that will barely get you a side order of onion rings but for 75 baht, in a three or four-hour window, you could sit with a group of your chums and all gorge yourself stupid, as the waitresses brought you unlimited pizza slices washed down with huge jugs of Pepsi. There was no catch. There was no membership card. You simply stuffed pizza down you until tomato and mozarella cheese leaked out of your ears.

But nothing good lasts forever. Groups of Thai teenagers and schoolkids bent the rules by craftily eating the pizza centres and leaving the substantial crusts on a communal plate. Pizza Hut was never going to stand for that. You might say the schoolkids ruined it for the rest of us. Yet another reason I've found to hate teenagers.

While we are on the delightful subject of all-you-can-eat and drink deals, let's give a special mention to Thai restaurant chain, Dailomon, and their magnanimous decision in the mid 1990's to run an all-you-can-drink beer promotion for just 99 baht. I shudder to think what the guy who dreamed up the promotion is doing now, but I'm guessing it involves touching shit with his bare hands.

One thing is for certain - he had no concept of just how much ale some foreigners can sup. And as the last German tourist staggered down the street before sunset, pausing only to empty the contents of his stomach in a small sub-soi, the Dailoman management team shook their heads and realised they had committed something akin to business suicide.    

If you have any more 'memory lane' contributions, please let me know.


Flyers pool bar, Sukhumvit, was next to Washington Square -Tower Records, Emporium
Big Johns, Thong Lor

By Pat, Falmouth, Cornwall (15th August 2011)

blue buses costing 2.5 baht
my old mate wong rip
visa runs every month usually on a train to butterworth and usually sitting next to geriatric coffin dodgers from pattaya
beef madras at the tamil nadu
500 baht all you can drink at the huntsman on mondays
titty twister & warblers!
345 baht to fly from chiang mai to mae hong son
banharn and chavolit as prime minister
thaksin when he was only a business man
when thai farmers bank were the best football team in asia
watching english football at bobby's arms - there was nowhere else
buying stars soccer to find out the football results from the night before
people just turning up looking for a job - none of this applying on line nonsense
no flyovers
mike's place in patpong. 35 baht during happy hour and still no bugger went there
paulaner brauhaus
waiting for sunrise at country road, soi cowboy
getting banned from the other office
taxis with no meters

By exiledgooner, Indonesia (21st May 2010)

The Cathouse in nana plaza had a '100-baht chang drinkathon' deal - twisted drunk!!! maybe they still do?? then you'd stagger through one of the curtains - and it was curtains - literally!

By Adamski M, (soon to be) Bangkok (3rd May 2010)

I used to enjoy evenings at Clinton Plaza, near to Sukhumvit Soi 15 and Thermae. Some relaxing beer bars, one or two with a pool table, and affordable drinks and fayre. The 'through-bar' Checkpoint charlie's was my favorite. Was that where the Bluesman and Soi Dogs came into being?

By Trevor, Pathumthani (1st April 2010)

Just a comment on the Tax clearance [scam].I lived in Pattaya for a couple of years in the early 90's.The officer there actually charged 500 bt for the clearance stamp.You took your passport in the morning and collected in the afternoon.There was always a pile of 30 or 40 passports .Said officer has a nice hotel in Pattaya needless to say. Not bad for a free service.

Phil says "yes, I remember that little business. I suppose it did save the guys in Pattaya the schlep up to Bangkok but five hundred baht was worth considerably more then. I think the bus to Bangkok was about 40 baht in those days. It was still a very nice little earner for the officers"

By ibark, krabi (26th February 2010)

I miss the Trink column in the Bangkok Post.Always a good read with many funny moments.Yes, it was a travelogue of the bars but you got to know special events---free food-happy hours etc. Plus the originator of T.i.T....

By ibark, krabi (25th February 2010)

Eating out with a magazine editor on Saturday night, she reminded me of Bangkok Metro and Farang! - two monthly what's on magazines that have both gone to the wall in the last few years. To be honest I've lost track of that kind of magazine. Every time I'm in Starbucks, I seem to pick up a copy of something with a new name.

By philip, (22nd February 2010)

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