BANGKOK – At first glance, it seemed like business as usual at Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy, a neon-lit alley lined with go-go bars and filled with people drinking and generally having a good time.
But this was all just part of a film set.
As filming wrapped up, the lights were turned off and the rolling shutter doors were pulled down, revealing the reality of the situation – Bangkok’s raucous parties are no more.
The usually bustling street, along with all the other bars, nightclubs and several other crowded venues in Bangkok, has been ordered shut by the government for two weeks starting on Wednesday (March 18) amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Thailand has 322 Covid-19 cases and one death as of Friday.
Mr Eric Reichhold, 32, from Germany, visited the street famous for its buzz with his girlfriend and was surprised to find only quiet.
“We didn’t know (about the closures). We wanted to check it out,” he said.
Just the night before, on Tuesday, the street was still somewhat lively. But customers were already prepared.
Sipping a Tiger beer in the alley on the last night before the shutdown, Mr Sergio Aragon, a 45-year-old Spanish IT consultant based in Bangkok, said he “will be fine” without a drink at the bar in the coming weeks.
“It’s a reasonable measure to take in the light of the circumstances. If the authorities in Thailand feel this is the right thing to do, I think it’s the thing we should all do,” he said.
Even before the shutdown was announced, the bands were playing and topless women dancing on stage to a declining number of customers amid the outbreak.
The poor business has left many of the daily-rated workers there with little income. But it’s something they just have to live with.
“I haven’t got a plan yet of what I’ll do, but I don’t think I’ll change jobs,” said Donut, a supervisor of hostesses at The Corner bar on Soi Cowboy.
Apart from bars and nightclubs, other venues ordered closed for at least two weeks are massage parlours, gyms, spas, boxing rings, horse racing tracks, cinemas and theatres in Bangkok and five adjacent provinces – Nakhon Pathom, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram.
For some workers catering to the evening crowds, it’s an opportunity to visit their home towns, although it was not what the government had in mind, as festivities for Songkran, the traditional Thai new year celebrated on April 13-15, were cancelled to prevent a mass exodus out of the capital.
Mr Thiraset Sopa, 49, a masseur at Thai Thai massage in Bangkok’s Silom district, is planning to travel some 130km back to his home town of Prachin Buri province.
He said: “The living costs in the provinces are lower than in the city.
“I’ll get something to do, maybe in services. Earning 200 baht (S$8.90) to 300 baht a day is okay, better than doing nothing.”
Despite the loss of regular income, many workers were in favour of the government measure.
“Honestly, I think it is a good idea. I’m scared of the disease, especially since most of our customers are foreigners,” said Mee, a 30-year-old lounge hostess in Soi Patpong, another well-known go-go bar area in Silom.
She will be helping her family in the northern province of Chiang Rai farm their rice and cabbage fields until she gets a call from the bar calling her back when it reopens. “Even if we open now, there’s hardly any tips for us,” added the hostess.
It’s not just entertainment spots that have been shut down. Schools and universities nationwide have also been shut and urged to conduct their lessons online instead.
The closure order followed jumps in the number of confirmed cases in the country since Sunday – 240 new cases in the past six days alone.
This is mainly due to an outbreak at Bangkok’s Lumphini Boxing Stadium that has spread to those at other boxing rings in and outside Bangkok. Two infected patients – a Hong Kong tourist and a Thai woman returning from South Korea – had partied at several bars and clubs in Bangkok, adding to the spread.
Thailand has yet to announce a lockdown but the country’s massive tourism and entertainment industries have been hit hard by the outbreak, with 1.5 trillion baht in losses expected.
“We’ll have to find a way to survive somehow,” said Donut of Soi Cowboy.