Bangkok Phil

A trip down memory lane

Some random observations on what Thailand was like for an expat in the 1990's

I came to Thailand in 1990 and when I look back on 30 years of living here, I still consider the 90's as my 'toughest' decade. 

Life in Bangkok has changed a lot but whether it's actually improved or not is open to debate.

Thailand expats always find plenty to moan about (me included!) but for those who were not around during the 90's, and for those who were and perhaps just fancy a reminisce, I put together a collection of random observations on Twitter, which many folks seemed to get a kick out of.

So let's take a walk down memory lane and after you've finished reading, you can judge for yourself - were things really better in the good old days? 

Thailand's roads have always been dangerous but in the days before social media, you only ever read about the most horrific collisions on the front page of the daily newspapers. 

Whenever there was a bad road accident in Thailand, usually involving a bus, the driver would always be reported as having 'fled the scene'. They generally never stuck around to see what damage they'd caused or for the cops to slap on the bracelets. 

Bangkok Post journalist, Roger Crutchley, told the wonderful story of one bus driver who upon discovering his brakes had failed, leaped from the cab and did a runner across the rice-fields, with the vehicle still moving. A rare example of a driver fleeing the scene before the accident even occurred.  

This was the decade of the Bangkok microbus - a large fleet of pink buses with about a 30-seat capacity. The microbuses were aimed at the more well-heeled commuters who had had enough of squeezing themselves on to packed non-aircon blue and green buses, especially during rush hour. 

For a flat fare of 20 baht for a single journey (quite expensive when you consider the regular buses were 2-3 baht) passengers could enjoy comfy seats, air-conditioning, a TV screen, and even an attractive hostess walking up and down the aisle selling snacks and sandwiches.

The service started well but the shine wore off within a couple of years. The hostess disappeared along with her sandwiches, the buses and the drivers' uniforms started to look distinctly shabby and finally the television sets packed up. 

My biggest gripe was that because there was no standing allowed on the microbus, the number of passengers the driver would let on board depended on the number of available seats. This system could only work if you had a first-come-first-served queue at each bus stop. That didn't happen so I regularly witnessed ugly scenes at Victory Monument as passengers who had been waiting a long time for the next bus, got into arguments with queue-jumpers.    

Like a horse with a broken neck, the Microbus system was eventually put out of its misery. 

If you had been living in Thailand for over six months (or it may have been three), whenever you left the country, you had to first obtain a pointless document called a 'tax clearance form'.  

Whether you had been working in Thailand or were just here on an extended holiday, you couldn't exit the country without this piece of paper.  

The tax clearance form could only be obtained from one place - a pokey office on the ground floor of a dingy building in Banglampoo, not far from the Democracy Monument. 

There was no queue system - just a handful of jaded and overworked civil servants sat behind grubby windows, all trying to keep the mob at bay. It was utter chaos and you dreaded going there. If you got there at 9.00 am and came away with your form before midday, you had done well. 

Almost every long-term expat you spoke to (certainly in the apartment building I lived in) was an English teacher, and to work at AUA on Ratchadamri Road was one of the most prestigious jobs. When you told a Thai person that you were a teacher at AUA, you commanded instant respect. AUA was by far the biggest player in the TEFL game, with the likes of Siam Computer and Language, ECC and British American also worth a mention.

A trip to either of the two McDonalds branches (opposite Patpong and near The Erawan Shrine) was a real treat! There was also the odd Popeyes, Wendys and Chesters Grill but of course there were nothing like the fast food options you have today.

It's hard to believe that Don Muang Airport was once Bangkok's one and only aviation hub, considering the chaotic terminal it's become today, but back then it actually coped very well. There always seemed to be plenty of space and a decent selection of eating options and check-in was never that time-consuming.  Of course this was well before low-cost airlines arrived on the scene. However, as Bob Van Es reminded me - "prior to the opening of the Don Muang Tollway, it could sometimes take three hours (or more) to get there, especially during the rainy season. Planning to actually make it for one’s flight was an art form"

And we paid a departure tax in those days as well. Was it about 200-250 Baht if I remember right? 

In those pre-internet days, the highlight of the week was the Saturday edition of the Bangkok Post and the Bernard Trink 'Night Owl' column. If you wanted to know which go-go bar was having a pig roast to celebrate the mamasan's birthday or what kind of beggar was the most common sight in Bangkok that week, Bernard was your man. 

Bernard had a unique style of writing. Prostitutes were 'demimondaines' and beggars were 'panhandlers'. Love him or hate him - he was required reading!

The main immigration office was in Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. Opposite the office was a row of shop-houses all rented by visa agents, who for a fee could get you whatever visa you wanted. Oh, those were the days!

If you wanted to phone home, you either went into a Sukhumwit Rd hotel to make an expensive international call or booked a phone booth at the central Post office on Charoenkrung Rd. I talk to my Mum on Skype and still can't believe how far we've come.

There wasn't a day went by when you didn't see a tourist wandering around clutching The Lonely Planet's 'South East Asia on a Shoestring' - a meaty tome that became known as 'the yellow bible'

There was something adventurous and exotic about a weekend in Hua Hin because so few people went there. You had a choice of 5 places to stay and 3 bars to drink in. By 10.00 pm you were in bed with a good book having completely exhausted Hua Hin's nightlife options.

The first branch of Boots opening in Bangkok was an unforgettable milestone. No longer would I have to ask relatives and friends to bring me life-saving cans of deodorant from the UK.   

Taxis didn't have meters so you had to negotiate fares, buses had passengers hanging out of the windows and there was no sky-train or metro system. If you made an appointment with someone, it was nothing for them to turn up 1-2 hours late. 

One of the hotel heavyweights was The Ambassador on Sukhumwit. This legendary hotel had a food court the size of Wembley Stadium. It was the first time I had experienced this strange Asian concept of buying coupons to order food - and I hated it. 

Soi Cowboy was where all the cash-strapped teachers and frugal expats went. Nana Plaza was a grubby, downmarket version of the Cowboy and Patpong was for tourists. There were other clusters of bars around town but most were a bit sad. Cowboy was the place!

You would spend a very pleasant hour browsing in a branch of Asia Books or negotiating the narrow aisles of the Elite Bookshop near Sukhumwit 33. I don't know how many years ago I bought my first Kindle but that was probably the last time I went into Asia Books. 

Chiang Mai was a place you had to experience once even though it meant enduring the 12-hour sleeper train. You booked into a cheap guest house, had a banana pancake and a fruit smoothie, hired a moped and pissed about in a few hill-tribe villages. Chiang Mai. Done!

Bobby's Arms in Patpong was the king of the Brit Pubs. In fact, other than the tiny Toby Jug on Silom Road, it's the only place I remember that offered proper fish and chips or sausage and mash. If you weren't a regular at Bobby's and had your own beer-glass behind the bar, you were an outsider and by and large ignored. I loathed the cliquishness of the place but loved the food.  

There were no 7-11s in them days (certainly not at the start of the decade), in fact one of the first mini-marts was Nud's on Sukhumwit Soi 22. I can't describe the joy of being able to buy a loaf of bread and a pack of 4 ham slices and devouring butterless ham sandwiches back at my bedsit. 

There were of course fewer movie theatres and they were nothing like the air-conditioned multiplexes of today. I used to go to Washington Square on Sukhumwit and half way through the film, the cinema cat would brush against your leg and you'd jump out of your skin.

Another character you often saw wandering around Sukhumwit in this era was a professional magician by the name of Dr Penguin (anyone remember him?) Clad in magician's cape and top hat, he would sometimes perform tricks in various bars.

You either drank Singha, Kloster or Amarit. Those were your three beer choices. However, if you ordered a Kloster, the rest of your drinking group considered you slightly weird. Amarit was much harder to find. You drank Singha. End of.  

Almost everyone did their visa run to Penang by overnight train. Then for a brief period, the sleepy town of Sungai Golok on the Malaysian border became a popular alternative. Hardly anyone went to the likes of Laos or Burma because getting the visa was far too much hassle and far too expensive.

As my old pal, Mike White, pointed out - "in those days, there seemed to be a snooker hall on every street corner".  And he's right. Thai superstar, James Wattana, reached about number four in the world rankings during this decade and really put snooker on the map.    

We wrote letters home. 

As Dr Jessica said - "I lived in Hat Yai in the mid-90s. Making a phone call home was an expensive ordeal, which made calling home a monthly treat. I used to write aerograms because email didn’t exist. Hatyai had one ATM at Central Department Store and luckily it always worked! (Not that I had money to withdraw?)

Were you around during the 90's? Perhaps even before that? If so, what are your memories?


Nice to look back on those days. I lived on Sathorn Neua for a year, back in 2000 (one of only a few people on the airliner on the infamour millennium night) and Bangkok sure has changed. I've been back for a vacation many times since 2000 and always surprised how fast everything has changed. Was just in BKK a couple weeks ago and surprised to see how much Silom has changed. The old Starbucks where I met you one day with a copy of an Edward Scissorhands soundtrack is long gone along with just about everything else.

By Bill Alexander, USA (6th January 2024)

Great memories, Phil. I recall most of what you wrote from those days. And I recall working with you at AUA. And quaffing more than a few beers with you at that watering hole in Lumpini Park and elsewhere. And with Mike White as well of course.

By Richard Lynch, Bangkok (4th November 2021)

Great review - I remember everything you mentioned - except the tax clearance certificate. The first buses I took were in 1990 and it was the aircon blue bus service from Bang Kapi to Mah Boonkrong. It was like a packed plane inside - 'fog' pouring out of the air vents, aircraft-style seating, curtains drawn, no real sensation of movement...hey, we weren't moving most of the time. Meanwhile, Srinakarin Road was one lane each way, instead of ten and the economy was still booming - until '97 and the East Asian Economic Crisis. Working at the old stock market down on Witthayu Road, I had a ringside seat, but that's another story.

By Gaz, Brisbane (18th July 2021)

A great read - many thanks!

By George, BKK (16th February 2020)

@Andy W. The hotel on Sukhumvit 3 was the Grace Hotel. My ex gf and I were always there after 4am on weekends.

By JayCee, Salaya (14th February 2020)

Im in SamPang bar while typing this so I'll keep short. I first came to Thailand in 1993. The thing I remember the most was the air. While exiting the plane my eyes immediately began to burn. The smell of fumes filled the air. I couldnt escape the smell or burning eyes for months. Coming from a pristine mountainous environment in the Appalaichian Mountains this was a shock a huge adjustment. I also remember all the street islands in Pin Klao were dirt. So, in Feb to May with the hot dry sun, anytime a bus or truck went by it kicked up a cloud of dirt. Traffic was terrible coming over the Pin Klao bridge. My wife tells me she is tired of communting 1 hour each day from Rama IX to Salaya. I tell her try 4 hours on-way from Klong Toey to Pin Klao. If I left my job after 5pm I would not get home until after 9:30. No over or underpasses and no skytrain or MRT. I also remember any display of affection in public was taboo, even holding hands. Not any more, I also remember all the skinny teen and young adult girls. No boob plastic surgery and no fast food. 99% of women were thin with no breasts, but that was nice.

By JayCee, Salaya (14th February 2020)

I came early 2000s... remember walking into Tops and seeing nothing but ground pork, soap and instant noodles. Nowadays Tops really is Tops.

By Lee Lepper, Thailand (14th February 2020)

Ask any Thai under 30 to imagine Bangkok before the skytrain, smartphones and facebook

By Pat, Bangkok (13th February 2020)

"Things are easier now but back then I had the energy to endure almost anything"

You and me both, Andy. I look back at that decade and wonder how I managed to get through it but you just got on with life didn't you? Every day was like an obstacle course to negotiate but you did it. It's definitely an age thing.

By Phil, Samut Prakarn (12th February 2020)

I look back on those days with fond memories, things are easier now but back then I had the energy to endure almost anything. "Live"English radio started in 1987 with 95.5 fm Radio Bangkok, being on the breakfast show back then was tremendous fun.

By Andy Francis, Bangkok (12th February 2020)

This is all quite sad. Really can't see much appeal here.

By Joe, San Francisco (11th February 2020)

A great read, but no mention of Cafe Thermae?

By Mark Andrew Newman, UnThailand (10th February 2020)

Wow! I just celebrated 30 years here last month too. You got off lightly with a cat in the cinema, there were rats in Mckenna!

By Clyde, Chiang Mai (10th February 2020)

Before the MRT opened I used to have to take the bus home from work on Ratchadapisek road to my apartment at the time in Pratunam and it would take up to 3 hours standing on a bus packed like a can of sardines. The bus would take 45 minutes to 1 hour to make the turn at the Rama IX intersection.

By Michael LaPalme, Bangkok (10th February 2020)

Thermae "cafe" after official hours.....and the 5 Baht train ride to Hualampang from're right!! ( After a risky crossing of the highway)...the funny looks you got from clerks, when you bought condoms.......the enormors size of the word 'VD Clinic" on every doctors outlet. Only matched by gasoline stations in size........
Loved the tiny little books the 'girlies' had and showed you after the first night....with green and sometimes red stamps of doctors check-ups
I am still around and like Thailand. And don't mind the governments. They always left us alone. Didn't they?

By mgd16, Koh Tao (18th October 2019)

Back in the day!!! Miss it. In Koh Samui the beach roads, were beach roads, just sand. Cruising down in Lamai on the bike through the sand.

By Hobie, Arizona (31st August 2019)

Arrived in Pattaya in ‘93. Lots of oil refineries and industries taking off on the Eastern Seaboard so lots of expat families arrived around then. Only 2 ATMs in town, usually one out of action and both would run out of money before long weekends. Foodland was the main supermarket and Mikes Shopping Mall was newly open and airconditioned. You could drive and park easily in all the sois off Beach Road. We went to A&W every week for a waffle! No international schools. DK bookshop was the only place with English language books. Our company suggested leaving 5 hours before a flight out of Don Muang and people still missed their flights!! No motorway or expressways and the drive to Bangkok was torturous. No coffee shops at service stations. We were so excited when Central Bangna was built as we could drive there for a day of shopping without having to brave the traffic into Bangkok. Pan Pan was our go-to place for pizza, cake and coffee. We were one of only 2 houses on the moobaan with a telephone connection so were listed as everyone’s emergency contact! Simpler times indeed.

By Karyn, Najomtien (21st August 2019)

The bowling alley at the Grace hotel is still there. I play ping pong there at times but nothing like the Grace of the 90s of course. Nana Disco and the parade at closing time.

By Brian, Bangkok (21st August 2019)

I remember being in the Toby Jug. I had only been in Bangkok a couple of days ('93) Some English guy got chatting to me said he was a doctor and worked at a local hospital. We had a few beers then he asked if I wanted to go to a bar he knew. I was drunk and thought why not. He led me through some sois to a gay go go bar. I made a swift getaway. Months later I read in the Trink column about the same guy leading unsuspecting tourists to clip joints. Those were the days.

By Mark, London (21st August 2019)

Great memories Phil funny mentioning Trink he inadvertently changed my life when answering a article in his column for News Readers at Media Plus ( 105 fm) in 1991 spending ten years working in Radio before reallocating back to work in broadcasting in the UK until retirement Funny old game

By Tim Barton, Bangkok (20th August 2019)

Ah yes, the idea that the 1990s were "the good ole days" makes me feel so old, they seem like recent times.

I first visited Thailand in the mid 80s and moved here in the late 90s. Some things have changed, others not so much. The availability of English language media, the internet and Western products and food makes Thailand and Bangkok seem a little less exotic in some ways, but in other ways makes them much more comfortable.

Ah, the memories.

Seems like I remember the departure tax being 300 Baht for a long time.
I remember everyone (Well, English speakers anyway) reading Trink (even those who claimed they hated what he stood for) and many an English teacher dreamed of replacing him when he retired or died.

Seems like Kloster was a bit more expensive then Singha (The idea of an extra five baht a bottle seems to have stuck in my memory), I don't remember thinking drinking it was weird, but maybe it could have been seen as a bit pretentious or effeminate, as if memory serves Kloster was a bit smoother and had slightly less alcohol than Singha. I only remember running across Amarit a few times and then each time I ordered it just for a bit of variety.

I spent a few months when I first moved here working at AUA, I don't remember it being considered that prestigious (and it surely did not pay very well) but maybe I was too much a noobie to know any better, but it sure was an interesting experience working there with a host of unforgettable characters in the teachers' lounge and a ton of students around all the time.

I also remember the grumpy old expats in the 80s and 90s sitting on their barstools, in teachers' lounges and anywhere else they could find an audience talking about how Thailand and Bangkok were going to hell in a hand basket and was nowhere nearly as fun and exciting as it used to be back in the 60s and 70s, and soon all the tourists and expats would be leaving for greener pastures.

Some things change quite a bit, others less so. It has been a fun ride so far; it will be interesting to see what happens next here.

By Jack, City of Angels (Angles) (20th August 2019)

Come on... Cafe Thermae, anyone?

The Star Wars bar of freaks. The girls sniffing out the Japanese tricks and openly sneering at the teachers pretending to be tourists for the night!

By Mark Andrew Newman, In my parlor, counting! (20th August 2019)

When the streets where flooded, which was often, you (at least I) would simply roll your pants up and carry on walking to your destination.

By Michael, Europe (20th August 2019)

I wasn't working but came in and out of East Asia when IT contracts ended.

Khao Sarn was absolutely dead evenings September and October.

Trading information on travel to Myanmar and Lao. I lived in Cambodia on and off 93-96.

Don Muang employee food court and b5 train to Hualalongpong. B5 to Khao Sarn by longtail.

That shopping center in ksr that failed - New World?

Book shops around KSR charging stupid prices for books.

Bottles of Sang Thip and buckets of ice...

Grace Hotel, Soi 0, Buckskin Joe's and of course Thermae 1 and 2.

I always liked Nana more than Cowboy in those days...

23.x thb to the USD.

Reminder when no one ride in blue AC busses bc it was too expensive. When BTS went in it was empty. Too expensive.

Siam Sq and MBK were highlights.

Old vintage cinemas.

Ekamai station was - way the hell out of town. Mor Chit was an adventure to get to.

I really didn't spend lots of time in BKK or Thailand. Cambodia was a trip to live and Myanmar and Lao were absolutely amazing.

Calling home was expensive and a total hassle. Writing postcards lol!!

2002-2007 lived in Pattaya most of the year. Far easier to get to from DMK and half the price. No cop hassles. 2008-9 planned the escape.

2014 been married a few years. Started teaching. First job top 5 Thai secondary.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (19th August 2019)

"Going bowling at the Arab hotel (can’t remember the name) on Sukhumvit Soi 3" - Andy W.

The Grace Hotel? Yes, I can remember that 'certain mate' getting into a brawl with a large Arab gentleman bowling in the next lane. He was always fine for the first three or four beers, but once they'd gone down, there was a certain level of 'babysitting' required for fear of what might happen next.

By Phil, Samut Prakarn (19th August 2019)

Going bowling at the Arab hotel (can’t remember the name) on Sukhumvit Soi 3 with my mate Phil and a few others on a Sunday, then going on a piss up in the Sukhumvit area. Bobby’s on a Saturday if I had any money, oh and trying to get a certain mate not to get into a scrap with every Tom, Dick or Somchai we came across!

By Andy W, All over the place (19th August 2019)

‘the good old days’
Good summary - I remember most of those things. I’d forgotten about the Toby Jug.

By Linda, Hatyai (19th August 2019)

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