A few months ago, CheckInn 99 owner Chris Catto-Smith was making plans to open a hostel above his popular Sukhumvit Road cabaret bar. It seemed like a fitting expansion to a booming business that was about to celebrate its 60th birthday and had been honored twice on TripAdvisor’s annual list of the Top 20 Hidden Gems in the World.
Next thing he knew, he was holding a letter telling him he had 30 days to vacate the premises.
The last operating day for the oldest continuously operating nightlife venue in the city is July 1.
The back part of the building is to be demolished to make way for a “Middle Eastern trinket market.” The front part will be renovated to be part of a hotel lobby.
Though the bar has been open continuously since 1957, with Catto-Smith as owner since 2011, the building itself is much older. The section that will be destroyed dates back to 1897, when it was the site of the Bangkok Ice Works. The ice was stored in the cellar which, along with the ancient doors leading downstairs, still stands.
The ice works door that dates back to 1897.
What people don’t realize about CheckInn 99 is that, despite its enduring reputation as an old-school sexpat hangout, in the last five years, it’s quietly been catering to mature expat couples, performing arts fans and embassy families who enjoy live music seven nights a week alongside some of the same people that have been haunting the place for years.
The bar owner admits that, when he took over, CheckInn 99 had become dirty and rundown. “It wasn’t Western couple-friendly. It was an old hostess bar. There were still 35 hostesses working here. They were older, in their 40s and 50s. They had grown old with their customers.”
Some of the bar’s hostesses in the 80s
“The same customers came back over and over, it was like a rent-a-wife. Guys would come from Norway, set themselves up for sales meetings for a week and rent the Thai wife out for a week. It was that style. These were long-term customers. It had an element of sweetness,” he said.
Some of the bar’s hostesses in the 60s.
Catto-Smith never imagined that he and his wife would someday own the bar where they were regulars for 15 years. He came to Thailand as a logistics executive with IBM in the 90s and still works a full-time day job, as does his wife, immigration officer Jiraporn Sriharach, better known as “Mook” to bar patrons.
Since Catto-Smith took over, buying the then-rundown hostess bar for a paltry THB72,000, CheckInn 99 has been showing indie Thai movies, has a well-loved house band, and is standing-room-only for their Sunday jazz jams and annual collaboration with Bangkok Rising to host The Vagina Monologues. Their writers nights and live shows, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Moulin Rouge, have also packed the house in recent years.
When he took over the bar, it wasn’t busy. It had a talented Filipino family house band but they were at odds with the hostesses. He reinvented the space as a music bar and settled the aging hostesses elsewhere.
“At that time, some people came for the band, but they’d get hassled by the girls, Other people came for the girls, but the band was too noisy. Most of the hostesses worked here for 15 to 20 years. We put the women through hairdressing, massage or cooking school so that they could go on to other jobs.”
At the center of CheckInn 99 is the house band, Music of the Heart. The band is made up of a great-aunt, two nieces and a great niece. “We’ve got a fourth one training, a great-great-niece who’s 14-years-old. The two men in the band are cousins of the great aunt,” explained Catto-Smith.
Music of the Heart performing at CheckInn99.
To him, the saddest thing about the bar closing isn’t that he put his heart and soul into every inch of the place, it’s the reaction of the customers.
“What breaks my heart is that people who come back and visit, year after year, are going to walk up to that front entrance and not know where we went.”
The bar’s iconic awning, which is no longer there.
To many of his regulars and former regulars, the bar seemed like one bit of old Bangkok that would never go away. Past customers from around the world have written to Catto-Smith to say, “This is tragic,” and “Don’t let it end.”
He doesn’t plan to. He’s actively seeking a new venue closeby. He hopes for a place that would make a great performing arts venue, theater restaurant and indie movie house. But it won’t be the same.
“It’s impossible to recreate this. I’d be silly to try and make something that looks like this,” he said.
He describes the special appeal of the time capsule-like bar, whose decor has barely changed since the 60s, “It’s a place where you can be young. You talk about the sexpats but I don’t see that. I see people that can forget they’ve grown old. They can come in here with a young Thai girl. The Thai girl is happy as hell that she’s not with some young guy that’s gonna leave her and forget her after 10 weeks.”
“We aren’t ageist, we don’t judge. I get some pretty harsh comments on the forums or TripAdvisor, people saying ‘that’s disgusting’ about older foreign men and Thai women. They don’t understand about the exceptionally high rate of single Thai women, of single mothers that have been deserted by their partners of the same age. These older men are stable and more mature, financially secure and the girls are equally happy to have someone to spend their time with.
“This place provides a refuge for people. I try to not put all the pictures of old guys on our Facebook but I do add the ones with smiles on their faces. Here are guys, some of them like 72-years-old, and someone’s just given them a birthday cake. They are surrounded by friends. It’s like a lightning rod back to the times when they were happy. Some of them, even their kids don’t wish them a happy birthday anymore. But we do.”
At CheckInn 99 you see older expat couples enjoying a romantic slow dance next to working women that come in from nearby Nana Plaza to have a drink with a customer.
“This might not be the best thing to say, but I’m happy to provide a place where working girls can have a few hours of dignity with a customer. A lot of these guys that go into Nana Plaza are after companionship as much as a bonk. Most of them say to the girls, ‘Can we go out somewhere together?’ And this is a place where everyone is treated as equals. I know the girls, I ask them to introduce me and I talk to the guy they are with. He suddenly forgets where he was a half-hour before and it puts an element of dignity into his night.”
Catto-Smith can recount the history of the iconic bar off the top of his head.
Sukhumvit Road as is looked in the late 50s. This was taken from Soi 14, the CheckInn 99 building is ahead on the far right.
“When it was first open, as The Copacabana in 1957, it was an out-of-town fluff-and-tickle joint for expats and Peace Corps guys on assignment. It was a naughty place in the countryside back when the city center was Silom, Chinatown and Charoen Krung.
The Copa was an “out-of-town fluff-and-tickle” joint in the 50s.
“During the Vietnam War, it became a music bar. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope performed here and it still looks pretty much like it did then.
“For 30 years, following the end of the war, the place was owned by a group of Danish guys who operated it as a Scandinavian men’s club with hostesses. It was riotous. You had to be brought in by someone. The logistics crowd brought me in,” said Catto-Smith of his former colleagues.
“In those days, they had a dwarf doorman that was famous throughout the city. Samai worked here for 15 years. There were lots of rumors about him. That he’d been a porn star when he was younger but there’s nothing to substantiate it. He used to sit out front. Anyone that lived here before 2005 knew him. He died about six years ago.” -Chris Catto-Smith
Many people will be sad to see the old place go. “Places like this should be kept. I don’t even consider myself as owning this bar. It’s almost in trust. This building’s owner is so wealthy, he could have thought of the value that this place provides. There’s nowhere like this anymore.”
CheckInn99 is open 6:30pm-1:30am daily through July 1. They will host a special night of reminiscing on Sunday, June 26. Find out more on their Facebook page.
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