Night Prowl: Go clubbing in a brothel at ‘Black Pagoda’

NIGHT PROWL Black Pagoda is impossible to pin down. Is it a go-go bar, a gentleman’s club, nightlife institution or just another seedy watering hole in a red light district? Depending on whom you ask, it’s probably all those and more, but now the venue is trying to build a reputation as an underground nightclub and Bangkok’s “it” destination for a groovy dance party.

Tucked in between a row of tired-looking titty bars washed in the fluorescent lights of a 24-hour Foodland on Patpong Soi 2, Black Pagoda roosts on the third floor of a dark industrial building. The stairwell is covered in graffiti with wild designs that are a far cry from Sukhumvit’s shiny chrome-and-glass elevators and red, faux-velvet ropes. The street art continues inside, set against a naughty Asian motif: “shoji” sliding doors reveal beds with sexy anime pillows and hanging kimonos. The bathrooms for both sexes are separated by glass visitors often never realize is partially transparent. It has a creepy, voyeuristic vibe for the women who can see rear-ends poised at urinals while the men watch them re-apply their lipstick.

Photo: Barbara Woolsey

In the main room, Black Pagoda’s working girls, clad in lace and cheap stilettos, writhe against their poles in front of floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass windows. It’s off the busy drag of Patpong’s street market on a soi mostly avoided by tourists – except for the horny ones. But since local party promoters have started throwing events at Black Pagoda, it’s become flooded with the city’s hip, twenty- to thirty-something expats at least once a month.

In Bangkok a fine line separates the hooker bars and nightclubs – and there’s always more than a few hookers in the nightclubs. But according to the man behind Black Pagoda, Baruch Messner, his bordello is no different than that. He’s just not being shy about it.

“If you go to a club on Sukhumvit Road, (prostitution) is still there but just a bit more posh,” said the middle-aged Austrian native. “This is the reality in Thailand, but it’s always been behind the curtain. It’s been my mission to kind of open this up and say, ‘Hookers are a part of clubbing.’ Here, you can go clubbing in a brothel.”

The concept started as a straightforward go-go bar three years ago, until Messner came along seven months later and pushed for live DJs to spin.

“I had to convince my partners,” said Messner, an art school graduate who studied sculpting and architecture. “Music is something that makes people feel good and happy … even my girls, they are always going up and down to the same songs. This gives them something which they can experience new.”

Photo: Barbara Woolsey

Raising the Shrine

Five years ago, it was just another broke-down Patpong building when Baruch’s elder brothersbought the location with another partner. They resurrected the eyesore into a fancy new nightclub called the Park Bridge – dismantling the old steel walkway and reinforcing it into a bridge with glass walls, as designed by his brother. On some nights, that platform was jammed full with around 400 hi-so Thais rubbing up against their own reflections.

Eventually the name was changed to Black Pagoda, after the tiered shape of the roof, and the owners adopted a simpler concept – changing the classy nightclub to a no-frills, no-gimmicks go-go bar (and the Messner brothers own many of them in Patpong, so as far as business goes, it’s a tested concept). Baruch came in and extended the space with another graffitied-up room with pool tables and neon lights and disco balls, complementing the “fishbowl” space of glass walls and stripper poles. He envisioned the addition as being perfect for smoky, sexy electronic dance parties, full of movement and mingling. He made some calls to DJ friends on Sukhumvit, and soon enough Duck & Noodle and Disco Robot started making events there, slating the bordello as Bangkok’s new “favorite mirror ball and red velvet-curtain sleaze joint.”

Photo: Mark Lopus

Clubbing in a Brothel

DJ Jaydubb’s first glimpse of Black Pagoda reminded him of a venue back home in Germany. “It was a small red light bar called Luna Bar with a pretty seedy history, but they turned it into a supercool small club,” he remembered. “For Pagoda, I imagined something similar … the only difference was that the seedy aspect of it was still operational.”

He went from scouting the venue for a private birthday party to throwing his Disco Robot series regularly there. The word slowly began to get out about a go-go bar playing noncommercial electronic music with a spacious dance floor.

“I did get a few people saying they would not set foot in such a place or come to Patpong … people that usually do not have a problem frequenting other mainstream clubs and bars where the main objective is not the music and the party but sex and vanity,” Jaydubb said. “But what’s great is that 99.99 percent of people that come to my party are there for the party and the music alone, and consider the reality of Pagoda’s normal raison d’être just a kooky addition to the vibe.”

The parties have indeed built a following of expat regulars from diverse backgrounds, including Cristina, a Portuguese graphic designer who says she wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else in Patpong.

“Somehow I have always connected old and slightly dirty places with good music,” she said. “Black Pagoda is no exception. I also enjoyed the crowd … there were some seedy foreigners who clearly were there just for the fact Black Pagoda is in Patpong, but there were people dancing, people who were there for music. It was very refreshing for Bangkok.”

“Walking up those stairs and being sandwiched by graffiti walls at either side makes such a cool start to the night,” said Tekayu, a Thai-born architect who grew up in the United Kingdom. “The walk up past those walls and into the club reminds me of the stories I’ve read about the first club nights in New York back in the ’70s.”

He heads out to the disco parties with a big group of friends including his girlfriend, and lesbian and gay pals who all feel at ease despite the bordello status.

“I still feel that clubs in Soi 11 are more catered towards the (hooker) scene rather than the Pagoda, which is ironic given both of the areas’ reputations,” he said. “Put it this way: you’d definitely have more chances of scoring with a hooker down in one of the clubs in Soi 11 than in the Pagoda when they are putting on an (event).”

Whatever the reason, Bangkok’s party crowd ate the concept right up. It took awhile, but Black Pagoda quickly gained a cheeky reputation for stretching parties into the after-hours, long after other clubs shut the lights. But that’s something Baruch says the venue is cooling down on.

“The soup is cooking hot in the moment in Bangkok, and really to label it as an after-hours overstretched the gummy band,” he related in a flurry of metaphor. “It went too popular the last year; word of mouth got around … so the last four months we slowed it down.”

Even if the parties don’t go past 4am any longer, the crowds are still coming. Black Pagoda regularly holds vinyl and hip-hop nights, house music with DJ Moudy on Saturdays, the disco parties and last November, had its biggest booking yet – New York Studio 54 DJ legend John Morales headlining for Disco Robot.  Morales was so impressed, he even came back and played again for New Year’s Eve.

According to Baruch, although his partners were impressed by the event’s success, he still finds himself having to prove the concept to them.

“My partners are more going towards go-go, but then the club scene is knocking on the door saying, ‘Your place is so nice and so great,’” he said. “Let’s just say I’m the one that’s appreciating that side more than just a simple go-go bar … so it’s like, give them a naughty event and give them a music event.”

Photo: Barbara Woolsey

House of Ill Repute

Black Pagoda doesn’t need to do electronic parties – it’s running very smoothly in the business of seduction. During high season, the go-go bar enjoys a steady stream clientele that’s around 70 percent to 80 percent expat. It’s a very international clientele – though dominated by Japanese – which pays anywhere from THB3,500 for a one-hour, in-house package with the resident ladies. The bar fine to take a girl out is THB900, and after that a private fee is discussed between both parties – it can range anywhere from THB 2,000 to 3,000 for a short time and THB 4,000 to 6,000 for the whole night, says Baruch.

The club also puts on a variety of sex-themed events including lesbian shows and stripteases. Last year, guests were treated to a titillating Halloween bash with girls dressed as “jack off lanterns” and “pants-dropping blowjob ghosts.” But the disco parties are definitely a special treat, says the owner.

“(The girls) are still working at these events,” he said. “It’s partying in a brothel, they’re joining the whole thing and yes, they do take care of customers if it’s wanted.”

Patpong is an area that’s definitely suffered as a “fun” destination. It has more of a dire, grubby reputation compared to the other red light districts like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza.

But Black Pagoda does function as a sort of time machine back to when the area was a fun place even for curious couples and casual connoisseurs of sleaze.

According to Baruch, Patpong is busier than ever, and he believes its historic, old-world charm is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Bangkok. That’s why he’s working on a new project in the same building as Black Pagoda, an after-hours nightclub with the same industrial design but an even better sound system.

“Naked flesh is too simple,” he said. “I love naked flesh, but there’s more to it. There’s more to the symphony of life and making a unique concept.”

This Friday, Black Pagoda hosts “One Night Love Affair,” a “melting pot of the most discerning house, techno and disco.” The party starts at 10pm and the door is THB250, including one drink. On Friday March 21, Disco Robot presents “Dicky Trisco” at the club, starting at 10pm. Tickets are THB400 and include one drink.

FIND IT:

Black Pagoda

Patpong, Soi 2, near BTS Sala Daeng

Photo: Barbara Woolsey

Photo: Mark Lopus

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