Ask people in Phuket if they know Poonsak Sanchan and the chances are that you’ll get blank looks. But ask them if they’ve heard of Daeng of The Boat Bar Disco & Cabaret in Patong, and most will know who you mean – Khun Daeng is one of the pioneer of Patong’s gay community.
Now 48, the Bangkok-born economics graduate of Thammasat University abandoned a high-profile international business life to move to Phuket and open a gay bar. Phuket.Com went to find out why.
Khun Daeng, The Boat Bar's Owner
After graduating from Thammasat University, Khun Daeng worked for an international courier company in Saudi Arabia, then Hong Kong and several other countries before coming back home to Thailand. He first visited Phuket about 17 years ago; at the time he was working for a tour company specializing in Japanese customers. “Yes, I speak Japanese and English – though nothing else,” he smiles.
Khun Daeng did not “come out” until he was 27, which is considered late, he says. Mainly this was because of his career, but he says now with hindsight, “Coming out late may have saved me from HIV. You have to understand that in Thailand back in those days, no one talk about safe sex. I don’t think the term even existed in this country at that time. I lost some friends to Aids because they didn’t know how to protect themselves,” he says.
The Boat Bar - Gay Friendly Bar
The Boat Bar is one of a handful of bars in Patong that attracts women and men, both gay and straight. Women feel safe there; they know they can come in for a drink or two and have a good time with friends without anyone bothering them. But the bar was originally aimed at the gay community. Bangkok had gay bars as long ago as 40 years, says Khun Daeng. But as recently as 15 years ago there was virtually nothing like that in Patong, he explains. “There was very little choice of night life for gay men in Phuket, so I decided to open a gay-friendly bar here just to have a place to hang out with friends.”
He opened the bar in 1994 with just 50,000 baht – an unthinkably small amount in today’s terms. “Never again will anyone be able to open a business in Patong with that number,” he grins. “The cost of living in Patong has always been higher than in other parts of Thailand. Here, a simple plate of fried rice usually costs 60 baht, where elsewhere it costs only 20 or 25 baht. I was very lucky to be able to open a bar in Patong on such a small outlay.”
Old Friends, Good Friends
“Being a bar owner can be tiring,” Khun Daeng admits. “My main role is as PR man. Because we have been open for a long time, we have a high number of repeat customers. In some cases, they come to the bar just to visit me. It is like having old friends visiting. If I’m not around, they may take just one drink and then move on. So I am always here.”
His work also necessarily involves drinking; Khun Daeng usually drinks four or five glasses of beer a night while entertaining his guests. “I try to stick with beer because it’s not as strong as spirits. I don’t touch alcohol during the day and I exercise religiously every day to keep myself going.”
His all-male staff help a great deal with the business – he has 12 working behind the bar and another ten in the cabaret show. He runs his business, he says, much like any other hotel or restaurant. As a result, some of the employees have been working at The Boat Bar for more than ten years. “They get good wages and tips, much like in any other good company. I don’t have a problem when it comes to staff but you have to understand that the nightlife business has a lot of details. It’s not simple,” he explains.
Celebrities and Wannabes
Top celebrities – fashion designers and movie stars – appear at his bar from time to time. “The real celebrities don’t want you to make a big thing of it. They just want to have a nice quiet time. They want to come and go as they please, and we respect that,” Khun Daeng says. He has also had a few customers who were famous in their own lunchtime. “I remember one time when some guys came in and were bragging about being world-famous DJs. They said they wanted to do a gig in The Boat Bar. So I let them try my equipment. They couldn’t even turn it on. It was all talk,” says Khun Daeng.
Whether customers are famous or not, however, the issue that most concerns him is their age – he has to be strict about not allowing underage drinkers in the bar. In Thailand, the minimum age for going into a bar or nightclub is 21.
Quality is the key
Life in Patong, Khun Daeng says, is changing; it is becoming more of a semi-big-city lifestyle, and visitors come to the town with certain expectations. One of those expectations is quality. “If a business doesn’t have that, it won’t survive long,” he notes. “There used to be some rather low-quality bars where they had katoey – ladyboys – dancing half naked in a bid to attract customers. That won’t work now.”
Competition can be tough and quality does not come cheap; to start any business in Patong, the first requirement is a hefty bank balance. But this is a good thing, Khun Daeng feels. “It gives tourists greater variety. They will have more and more choices. People with low budgets who open low-class businesses are fading away.”
The Boat Bar
- Opening Hours: from 21:00 to 03:00 every night.
- Location: Soi Royal Paradise Hotel, just off Rat-U-Thit 200 Pi Rd.