Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

Bars I Have Known - 7 January 2021

Bars can be a great way to meet people, find work, make contacts and get the low down on the local scene where ever you are. They can be melting pots and social intersections. You can meet all kinds of people in all kinds of bars. I have come across: the well-travelled, the educated, the literate, the well-heeled and those not, the working and those not, the musical and artistic, those connected into the local scene where you can find work, even housing and other of life’s basics. You may meet someone who goes on to be a friend for life or gain information to change your life. You can also meet the wanted and those keeping low profiles, and some you probably wish you hadn’t met and have little positive to offer, but generally speaking they are easy to spot and can be avoided.


Some of the bars I’ve come across in the last few years offering many of these are presented below chronically roughly in the order I discovered them.


The ‘world famous’ Trent House is two terraced houses knocked through on the corner of St. Thomas Crescent and Leazes Lane in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, not far from the famous St. James’s Park home of Newcastle United. The Trent is a favourite student bar packed at weekends with 20-somethings from the polytechnic and university surviving on stotties unless their parents have money. Newcastle University has seven bars on campus and more alcohol is consumed there than on any other campus in Britain. It’s the place to go to study mining engineering, “Coals to Newcastle” and all that. During the day the Trent is quiet. There’s a pool table from memory upstairs. The jukebox is great playing, back when I went there, mainly soul classics, end-to-end, through the entire catalogue without charge. Newcastle generally is a great city to go out in. It’s easy to spot the outsiders. In winter the local women walk about in miniskirts and thin tops sporting a tan whereas southerners are in overcoats, hats and scarves. As soon as Geordies find out you’re not from London, they invariably like you. The stairwell in the Trent is covered thick in gig posters. The toilets are small, in keeping with their household domestic origin. I was told of some graffiti in the ladies, ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’ after a popular tune, to which some wit had scrawled, ‘No thanks, I prefer a big juicy one’. Jools Holland, musician, television host, and vaudevillian ringmaster-in-chief  of the Tyne Tees-produced Channel Four programme, The Tube, a showcase for contemporary bands filmed live (1882-87), would make a regular appearance on a Friday after the show had finished. He would turn up with a minder, and seemed oblivious to the vitriol directed at him.


The Tyne is the coldest river in England, so don’t fall in. The Trent House is temporarily closed due to Covid.


Trekkers Hotel was on upper Cuba Street, the southern end, in Wellington, New Zealand’s little capital. The bar was downstairs on the ground floor in a building originally built by the Salvation Army as a People’s Palace, a grand Edwardian structure aimed at the urban poor. Later it went through a series of refits, add-ons and ownership, and Trekkers is no more. Back in the day it was something of a local for regulars for many inner-city patrons and those from houses on the winding streets along the hills and valleys within walking distance. There was the ubiquitous pool table, a combination of easy chairs and coffee tables and the high tables with bar stools found in traditional public bars. The clientele was eclectic, which was part of the appeal. Trekkers was in some ways the successor to the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel that champion of egalitarianism that helped make New Zealand attractive to those wanting to escape the stifling class-ridden society in Britain, but those who knew both would likely say Trekkers was a mere imitation (“The Duke” attracted the “job and finish” workers like dusties—rubbish workers or ‘garboes’ in the vernacular— posties, and cleaners; later public servants arrived along at the bar followed by academics from the university on this hill. Once, they tried putting in a jukebox, but the customers tossed it out the window, which may or may not have been open at the time). One night a week there was the poet’s evening coordinated by a Geordie from Seaton Sluice, a seaside village in Northumberland, so he wasn’t really from Newcastle at all, just sounded like he was. I don’t think they did food. Some Fridays the barman would lock the doors after closing and a few of the regulars got to stay later. I think there was some illicit substances smoked and the conversation was undoubtedly interesting. The bar attracted the unemployed, some students—older, quieter, more worldly, not the Jäger-bomb crowd—the retired and those in a range of employment. The conversation was more informed. The staff got to know who you were, and the regulars usually said hello. It was event-free, non-threatening, and you were free to drink alone or mix with others if you wanted. All up a good evening was usually to be had.


Trekkers Hotel – the bar has gone but the building is still there.


The Wunderbar on London Street in Lyttleton, Christchurch, in New Zealand’s gloriously scenic South Island has survived controversy, earthquake and Coronavirus. The bar’s self-styled moniker is as the “coolest little bar” in the country and it may have a point. It prides itself on oddity and being one of the most unique bars in New Zealand. People come just to see the infamous dolls heads and other strange items and antiques scattered throughout. The Wunderbar is a known music venue and holds regular comedy nights. Controversy transpired years back when the bar was found to have a tabletop football game featuring opposing teams of German guards and concentration camp inmates. Headlines quickly found them finding replacement teams more palatable for the public. Lyttleton is Christchurch’s port accessible through a tunnel from the city to the harbour, situated in a collapsed volcanic crater. Many of Lyttleton’s buildings were damaged in the big earthquake of 2011, though the tunnel escaped damage save for a single tile that fell off the wall, while wharves in the port were raised or lowered by several metres. Street signs are written in English and often Russian, the latter given all the sailors from that country based there. They take drinking to a whole new level. Sometimes they are found in the bars nearby, or when confined onboard and the vodka runs out, engine coolant has been known to be consumed, to the point of blindness in some cases and death in others. The Wunderbar attracts locals, sailors, fisherman, students and the curious.


The Wunderbar – is still on London Street going strong.


The Exchange Hotel in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, sits on the main road, Hannan Street, on the corner with Maritana Street, which heads towards the twin town of Boulder. “Kal’” as it’s known, is 6ookms east from Perth by rail or 2000kms west by road from Port Augusta. I’ve done both those trips – there and back. They built central Kalgoorlie in grand style on the back of a goldrush, the town’s reason for being. Despite its remoteness Kalgoorlie had early electric lighting and running trams. They built the main drag wide enough to turn around an entire camel-train, yes camels, imported from Afghanistan. There are rooms upstairs, an eatery called Paddys, and the main bar which resembles a cowboy-style saloon. The Exchange is a landmark, a colonial-era building built in 1900 made of brick complete with balustrade and gabled roof. It has survived boom, bust, riots, fire, and receivership. These days the building is listed on the State Heritage Register. Beer is drunk usually from cans served in koozies or ‘stubbie’ holders if a bottle, a kind of sleeve designed to keep the liquid colder longer. These are plucked from under piles of ice in open steel trays, like those used for fish, the wonder of electrical-powered refrigeration seemingly unable to get beer cold enough. I remember the Exchange well as it is the only hotel I stayed in where I managed to lock myself out of my room wearing only a towel. After brief panic, I found the in-house manager, in bed with one of the staff, to let me back into my room. I recall seeing an entire chapter of the Gypsey Jokers motorcycle club in the bar. Another time a crew of mainly Māori mine workers wearing New Zealand themed beer singlets were drinking along the bar, the town having a high proportion of Kiwis there for the work, if not the beer and the view. The view being that twice a day, at lunch time and later about 5pm, the staff, all women, got dressed up, or down, into lingerie as ‘Skimpies’. Political correctness seemingly not being part of Australian life hereabouts. Usually flown in from Perth for a month or two at a time, they can earn good money for being ogled at by mine workers. Most staff and clients are hard-boiled in any case and the bar staff can usually handle themselves. One I saw, who looked like Bo Derek from the movie “10” complete with the suede bikini and braided hair looking like she’d just spent a week sunbathing on Rottnest Island, was asked by a rugged scaffolder if she was clean shaved all over. “Yep” she replied eyeballing him, “sponsored by Gillette me, born with a razor in my hand”. Her rapier-like response stopped him cold. While he was still summoning up a reply, she motioned to the beer in front of him and asked if he wanted another, but I think he’d probably had enough.


The Exchange Hotel – the bar and the skimpies are still there.


Martini Pub was a Phnom Penh fixture, part of the triumvirate of establishment bars on a certain circuit, the others being Sharkys (still going) and the Walkabout (now history). It was on Street 95 near 390, just off Monivong Boulevard. The road was unpaved in keeping with its beginnings during the UNTAC-era when Cambodia was opening up to Westerners and civil war was still in the air. At that time, it was the biggest UN mission ever launched and all those personnel with their fat salaries and daily expenses needed somewhere to spend their loot. The local economy couldn’t cope, prices went up, inflation appeared, just what a war-ravaged people recovering from genocide need. A burgeoning hospitality sector sprang up. If you were ‘lonely, bored and hungry’  as the advert went, Martini was for you. It had a courtyard with tables and trees. Some of the interior reminded me of something you might find on a Greek Island, near a beach. They had pool tables, great music, some of it live, food even barbecue, and a nightclub come disco, all in the same place. People often said time passed quickly at Martini, hours went like minutes. The staff were great, very friendly and spoke amazingly good English. There were ‘taxi girls’ or freelance prostitutes, mainly Vietnamese but some Khmers. Martini attracted expats ‘barangs’, tourists of all descriptions and some on visa-runs from Thailand, teachers, NGO workers and even diplomatic staff escaping stuffy cocktail parties, as well as locals. Martini Bar wasn’t fussy. It was open to the wee hours. Transport was readily available from the motto and tuk-tuks who called Martini their patch. There were beggars. One guy got about on a small wooden trolley at near floor level. He powered by pushing himself along with his hands. He had no legs and his upper body was deformed. One suspects he was born with some physical disability rather than a landmine victim, like so many others. Tourists would decide to shout him time with one of the taxi girls giving him the equivalent of an average month’s wages for a Cambodian for just an hour. He would then, so it went, go home with said girl, they’d split the money and watch television until an acceptable time passed, and then come back and look for the next donor. It worked a treat. Apparently, he owned his own house paid for from his enterprise. Sadly, the bar started losing business. Revenue dropped. More bars opened up near Riverside along Street 136, dime a dozen. People stopped coming to Martini and stayed around their hotel within walking distance. Those that came didn’t spend much money like Chinese and Korean tourists who bought a bottle of water, wandered about for an hour and left spending next-to-nothing. The bar closed in 2015.


Martini Pub – now closed, though there are rumours another with the same name started up near Street 51, but it wouldn’t have the grit and feel of the original.


The Gecko Bar is near Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker mecca or ghetto, depending on your view of foreigner hotspots in tourist capitals. It borders an oasis, a temple and a monastery, on a quiet street largely devoid of cars, one of its appeals. The Gecko attracts an eclectic clientele, some of whom know the place having been before, some have heard about it or have read about it in some awful guidebook, while others are blissfully ignorant, and just drop in. Mostly, they are tourists, but there are expats domiciled in the Thai capital or elsewhere in Thailand or Southeast Asia, and who pop in for a cold beer reasonably priced, for food if it’s going, or the conversation with some interesting character you’re likely to meet there, or just people watching, probably my favourite Asia pastime. There is nothing fancy or pretentious about the Gecko. It has plastic tables and chairs. The beer comes in large bottles. You can get a glass handle and a bucket of ice if you want – a good idea as tropical heat quickly negates the benefits of refrigeration. Sometimes they have promotions with “beer girls” but that’s not really their thing. They do some food, breakfast, and lunch. Dinner can be had from the street vendors across the way and delivered to your table. That’s one of the great things about Asia, you can order from another establishment. One time they introduced music via a ghetto-blaster, but that was quickly shut down. The toilets have been described as “basic” squat holes with barely adequate privacy. Rats can be seen behind the stacks of empty crates – but they’re everywhere and don’t drink much, as someone said. The Gecko is family owned. Mama San can be found reclining on the floor of the family living room just through the ranch sliders. Every year the Gecko produces a t-shirt, black with the bar’s logo and name in white together with the year but despite my best efforts, even XXL doesn’t fit.
The Gecko Bar, on the corner of Soi Ram Butri and Chana Songkhram Alley between the busy thoroughfares of Phra Athit Road within spitting distance of the Chao Phraya River.

 

The Gecko Bar, Still going I’m assured, despite Covid.


Lily Bar is on De Tham near Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still call it Sai Gon (Saigon), and just down the same road from the Crazy Buffalo, the bigger, much brasher bar on the corner of Bui Vien, and decked out in Vietnam’s national colours. I was introduced to Lily Bar a few years back, and was told it was a gangster bar. There are in fact two Lily Bars. They sit opposite each other. My favourite spot is looking at the one next to the travel agent. Mama San, usually dressed in various nightwear, wanders between the two across the street in and out of the traffic. From a pocket she produces prodigious rolls of Vietnamese dong. Stoutly built and communicating in gruff tones, she reminds me of Saigon’s version of the Bond villainess, Rosa Klebb. Lily Bar is small, discreet, barely a doorway wide with just three tables outside. These are the best seats to be had where you can be entertained watching traffic. Countries where most people move about on two wheels are always far more interesting than those travelling in cars, that’s just boring. Beer, the sign says, it’s “Fxxxxxg Strong” is twice what it costs in restaurants nearby and they serve no food. Rather you can order in. Sometimes the ‘waiter’ arrives on a motorbike complete with the dishes held in one hand on a silver tray steering the bike through the city’s frantic traffic with the other. The bar appears to be owned by brothers there most days. They don’t drink alcohol, rather strong black iced coffee and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. Little is spoken. Inhaling is usually followed by coughing fits turning their eyes a watery red. They look like they’re either are, or were, handy welterweight boxers, being of that build, and are distinguished by heavy signet rings and assorted bling. Gangsters have an interesting history in Saigon. Once Binh Xuyen gangsters 40,000 strong and with their own army fought with authorities for control of the city. One day I was there some others turned up. They all looked similar with the oldest doing a good impression of a middle-aged Elvis, complete with sideburns. I go to Lily Bar every time I’m in Saigon. I think it was two years before one of the brothers looked at me and said “How are you?” it was more of a statement than a question.


Lily Bar on De Tham, near the Crazy Buffalo. Still there, I think, a survivor.

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