“Tom, Tom, where you go last night?” Ad Carabao sings in the opening lines of ‘Welcome to Thailand.’
“I love Meuang Thai. I like Patpong.”
The lyrics from to the 1987 song from the legendary Thai rock band Carabao is both an ode and criticism to the foreign fascination and participation in Thailand’s infamous commercial sex sector.
The song also highlights where it all started: Patpong.
Patpong, which connects Silom and Surawong road, emerged in the late 1960s as a rest and relaxation spot for foreign travellers and American servicemen during the Vietnam war.
It is hard to imagine but this strip of shophouses, night markets and gawking tourists was once a banana plantation and a key central business district area.
This logo of Patpong Co. Ltd, now hanging brightly in the second gallery room of the Patpong Museum, is unremarkable in and of itself. A bright blue sign with the company’s name and the company logo. But the story it tells has been immortalized in song, movies and popular culture for more than half a century.
Tun Phu, born in China’s Hainan Island in 1881, left China at 13 for Siam to pursue a better life.
The first-generation immigrant would adopt a Thai name, Poon Pat, to better acclimatize and integrate with his new surroundings. He met and married a Thai woman, Pian Chinprayoon, and moved to Saraburi province to start working on the rice fields like many of his fellow migrants at the time.
While working the fields, Poon Pat noticed how farmers were constantly complaining about substandard yields due to underground deposits of calcium carbonate – a key ingredient in the making of cement.
This discovery coincided with a royal decree to build Siam – and South East Asia’s – first cement and building material company, the Siam Cement Group (SCG).
Poon Pat established Thailand’s first cement plant in Saraburi and started selling to SCG and the business flourished.
For his achievements, Tun Poon was bestowed the title of Luang Patpongpanich by King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).
When World War II ended, Luang Patpongpanich, now a wealthy man, decided to purchase a green, shady plot in Bangkok for around 60,000 baht, which was around US$3,000 and considered very expensive at the time.
His intention was to build a family compound and connect Suriwong and Silom roads together with a new road.
The scion to a business empire
Udom Patpongpanich was like his father in many ways: brilliant, shrewd, and a visionary.
Having been educated in economics and commerce at the London School of Economics and later at the University of Minnesota. It was Udom who would play a vital role in the development of Patpong.
“He was a Chinese man with a Farang brain,” said Kriengsak Khasrithong, guest experience guide at the museum.
During his studies in the US when World War II broke out. Udom, along with many other US-educated Siamese students at the time, joined Seri Thai (Free Thai), an underground guerilla movement against the Japanese occupation.
He received training from the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) in Georgia and met in Sri Lanka an enterprising American named Jim Thompson, who would become a good friend and business partner.
Returning to Thailand at the end of the war, Udom found the new plot of land that his father had purchased. But Udom did not want it to merely be land that was saved for his father’s retirement, he wanted to turn into a central and international business hub. He would set up the Patpong Company to administer his vision.
“He wanted it to be Yaowarat, like Chinatown.” said Kriengsak, “He even fought with his father about it.”
While Poon Pat was away on holiday and against his wishes, Udom ordered the construction of the first road, Patpong 1, to be built — a 12 metre, dirt-packed road cutting through the plantation from Surawong to Silom canal.
Udom proceeded to build shophouses along the street, found tenants to rent out the buildings and went about transforming Patpong into a business district.
Udom’s connections, made through Seri Thai, would prove invaluable.
Many of Patpong’s early tenants were made through Udom’s connections. US companies including IBM, Caltex, Trans World Airlines, Air America, the US Information Service Library and the US Chamber of Commerce, along with a string of other European companies such as Air France, Shell, Dutch Airline KLM and Belgian airline Sabena found there to Patpong 1.
With the first street a resounding success, Patpong Road 2 was built with more shophouses, bars, and a growing red-light scene.
“I never meant, I never planned and I never thought that Patpong would be an entertainment area,” a 68-year-old Udom would admit in an interview for Asia Magazine in 1985. “Foreigners had to eat and they like to drink so people brought the booze in with them.”
“When Khun Udom’s father passed away in 1950, he started bringing in all his pals from abroad, including the CIA,” said Kriengsak.
Udom had many friends in the CIA, and Patpong was a key area for US intelligence operations in South East Asia.
“The (CIA) officers walking around Patpong were not the ordinary office workers,” Michael said, “They were like those spies you would see in James Bond movies.”
“Black ties, white shirts,” Kriengsak said, “In the evenings after their meetings on the Vietnam War, these guys would come down here for drinks. All of them were secret agents just walking around Patpong.”
At the height of the American involvement in Indochina, many names synonymous with the war in Vietnam and the illegal wars in Cambodia and Laos had offices on Patpong.
Air America, CIA safe-houses, all of them were located on the road.
“Air America, owned by the CIA, was operating here,” said Kriengsak, “The illegal dealings, the drug and weapon trafficking was planned in their headquarters on this road.”
Today, Patpong has some of Bangkok’s most valuable real estate and is still primarily owned by the Patpongpanich clan who collects rents from its tenants every year.
Although most of its classic staples have closed and much of that energy is now gone, the spirit of Patpong’s notorious era still lingers in the red-light haunts that line the street.
Surrounded by sky-walks, sky-trains, and sky-high buildings, Patpong remains distinctly undeveloped in the heart of Thailand’s CBD. But for those looking for a swing of the Bangkok vintage, the road still offers distant memories.
But maybe that’s not a coincidence.
Udom, reflecting on his legacy in an interview with Asia Magazine 10 years before his death in 1996, remembers that most of the tenants are his friends.