It is already dark as the taxi turns into Padre Burgos Street. I am struck by the contrast between the shabby taxi – an aging Toyota Camry, the litter-strewn street, the child-beggars, and the luxury hotels which proliferate in this part of Metro Manila – for this is Makati, the central business district.
The taxi pulls up outside Oxford Suites. At 3,000 pesos a night, beyond the dreams of the average Filipino, but cheap by European standards. I ask the driver how much, and he replies, ‘700 pesos’. I scan the dashboard, but there is no sign of a meter, despite a sticker on the windscreen stating that the meter has been approved and officially sealed. I reach for my wallet, but honey ko stops me, leans into the front, and pulls away the cloth that the driver had used to conceal the meter. It says 90 pesos. She says a few sharp words in Tagalog and gives him 100. There is no fooling honey ko. She is no farmer’s daughter fresh from the province, but a born and bred Manila girl who is at least as streetwise as the driver.
I am impressed by Oxford Suites. The quality of the accommodation and service is second to none, my only complaint being that the hot water is not what I would call hot. But then, I have never stayed anywhere in the Phils where hot was as hot as I like it – and anyway, when I do manage to get hot bathwater, honey ko won’t get in with me. The room is quite large, elegantly decorated, and the bed is huge. Honey ko thinks it is like Cinderella’s palace – but then, she is used to sleeping on a mat in a shack squeezed up with about 10 other people.
Another thing I like about Oxford Suites is that it is slap bang in the middle of the bar area, the nearest bar being about 20 paces from the front door – not that we are here for the bars. We are here to visit the British Embassy to get a visa for honey ko, but since the bars are there, well…why not?
So after an excellent, and reasonably-priced, room service feast with two servings of rice for honey ko (she was extra hungry after the flight from Bohol), we shower, get changed and hit the bars. I had done a bit of online research, and as usual when it comes to info on nightlife in the Phils, found very little information. There is some information about Angeles City, but almost nothing about Makati. The only information I could find was out of date (see below). It wasn’t much, but it enabled me to draw up a list of bars as a starting point.
The bar area could best be described as ‘sparse Soi Cowboy’. It spreads to the north and south of Oxford Suites hotel along Padre Burgos Street, with a few more bars round the corner to the south on Makati Avenue. The bars are quite close together but are interspersed with other businesses, so there isn’t the same build-up of neon and atmosphere. It was Friday night at about 11.00 pm, but there weren’t that many people about; a few western men, and rather more freelancers and child beggars.
First stop was Flamingo which is on the corner of Padre Burgos Street and Makati Avenue. This was very similar to a typical Bangkok or Angeles City gogo bar. There was a central stage with a carousel in the middle where about 20 girls were dancing in bead-fringed bikinis. Honey ko was impressed with the costumes, and though I didn’t tell her so, I was impressed with the girls. All were good-looking – there were no fatties, oldies, or bad stretch marks. A few were stunning.
Next stop was Bar Bandido, which was back up Padre Burgos and not far from the hotel. I had read some good reports about this bar, so was surprised to find that at nearly midnight, there were only three girls on stage – a stage that would easily hold 30 girls – and not many more customers. Honey ko was surprised too. She told me that a few years ago the place used to be packed – both onstage and off. OK, the high season had only just begun, but I knew that it definitely had begun by the hike in hotel rates. By the time we left, there were six girls on stage – again, all good-lookers – but the huge stage looked empty and the whole place had a lifeless feeling.
Bottoms, just across the road, was also devoid of girls and customers, though as it is a smaller bar, this didn’t matter as much. 8 girls were dancing a routine on a small stage at the far end of the bar, and the place had a reasonably good atmosphere. Again, some of the girls were stunning. I began to realise that this is probably because if running costs are high and you can only afford a few girls, you will pick the very best. Unfortunately, both the bar owners and the girls try to pass their costs onto a diminishing number of customers. San Mig Light was, on average, 150 pesos a bottle (3 times the price of an ordinary bar) lady drinks 400 – 500, barfines 2,000, and the girl’s tip 5,000 if you are lucky.
Lack of publicity is another problem. Type ‘Bangkok bargirls’ into a search engine and you will find hundreds of web sites, several of which are very good, with detailed information and regular updates. Do the same for Manila and you will find almost nothing. The best I could find was http://www.angelescity.com/manila.html, though judging by the prices quoted, much of the information is years out of date.
While I was reflecting on these matters, honey ko was making other plans. She likes discos as much as I like gogo bars (and vice versa), and had spotted a place called The Bronx Basement Disco Bar right next door to Bottoms – so that’s where we went next (after pausing for a photo opportunity beside the statue of Arnold Shwarzernegger just outside the door).
We went down a flight of steps, past a statue of Marilyn Monroe, and sat down near the bar next to a statue of James Dean. In front of us was a small dance floor where a few couples were dancing, and behind it, three tiers of stages on which about 15 girls were dancing. Two things struck me as odd. Most of them were facing the same way – towards the bar, and most of them were wearing ordinary clothes, but with very short skirts. Honey ko also sensed that there was something unusual in the set up, as she was reluctant to get up and dance. As I watched, it began to dawn on me that this was more of a gogo bar than a disco, and that most of the girls were employed by the bar. Honey ko agreed, and said that the place was a gogo-disco.
Now that I had the place sussed I began to enjoy it, and found that it was possible for me to like discos after all. Some of the girls looked really sexy in their skimpy civvies. I recall one girl dancing on the second tier who had a demim jacket over a low-cut baby doll top and tight denim shorts. She looked sexier in that outfit than any of the bikini-clad dancers I had seen so far that evening. Nor was I the only one to think so, because before you could say ‘barfine’ she was joining a customer for a lady drink.
Looking back, this was the only bar in Makati that I actually found exciting. I would love to go again, and in the meantime have given it a provisional place (pending further investigation) in my ‘Gogo Hall of Fame’ which includes such gems as Baccara (Soi Cowboy), Superbaby (Pattaya), and Blue Nile (AC).
Next night honey ko phoned a friend (kaibigan) who knew Makati well and would act as our guide. She took us first to Wild West which is just around the corner from Flamingo on Makati Avenue. The place was narrow and dark with bar seating only, decorated to look like a Wild West saloon. It could have had atmosphere except that it lacked two vital ingredients: customers and girls. Granted, there were a few of both. Four girls did their best to fill a stage that would have held 20, and a few more customers looked on indifferently – but this was at 11 o’clock on Saturday night at the beginning of the high season.
Kaibigan seemed surprised to find it so quiet, but admitted she’d not been in there for a while. So after a round of San Mig Lights, she took us to Hollywood back on Padre Burgos Street. I saw at a glance that this was another gogo-disco. More gogo than disco because the girls wore bikini costumes. The disco part consisted of a small dance floor in front of the stage where a few customers were dancing. At the back of a bar was something else I had read about, but not noticed in the other bars: a number of tables surrounded by curtains. You can take a girl in there and draw the curtains (for a hefty charge) to enjoy her company in privacy. I never found out what the charge was, but it must have been high because although some of the customers were getting frisky with the girls, all the curtained booths were empty.
The three of us were amused when a customer walked in who had ‘newbie’ written all over him. Within seconds he was mobbed by a welcoming committee of five girls, and minutes later, five lady drinks were on his table. Kaibigan and Honey ko calculated that, including his own drink, his bill was already over 2,500 pesos. The girls worked the customer well, two of them removing their tops – much to his delight (and another round of lady drinks). I commented that I hoped he was on an expense account – but honey ko and kaibigan didn’t get that one. I would have loved to have stayed long enough to see him face the final bill, but it was time to move on. My aim was to see as many of the bars as possible, and the girls’ aim to get tanked up ready for the main event – a ‘real’ disco.
The newbie customer, and the couples dancing in front of the stage, gave Hollywood a bit of atmosphere, but it was still low key compared to the gogo bars in Pattaya or Angeles. The next bar, Mirrors, which is next door to The Bronx, seemed to epitomise what the Makati bars are all about these days.
The décor is high-tech with a laser light show. Five girls dance on a small recessed stage at the far end of the bar, their small number compensated for by choreographed dancing routines and stunning good looks set off by designer costumes. To one side is a glazed area for smokers (bars in Makati are officially ‘non-smoking’). However, nothing can compensate for the lack of customers. The bar seems reasonably full, though closer inspection reveals that more than half of the people are gogo girls awaiting their turn to go on stage.
As we leave the bar, I notice a sign for Tickles just across the road – a bar which received favourable reviews on the internet. But unfortunately it is past one o’clock, and the girls announce that it is disco time! Kaibigan leads the way to Manhatten on Makati Avenue, but after standing outside and debating it for a while, the girls decide to ‘go for gold’ and announce that we are going to the ‘Embassy’. I said that it wouldn’t be open at this time and that we’d sort out the visa on Monday, to which honey ko replied: ‘No, not that embassy!’ Apparently, Embassy is the number one disco in Makati and they don’t process visas there – I wonder if that counts as a ‘meaningful coincidence’?
It was a large building about 10 minutes taxi ride from Oxford Suites. Entrance 500 pesos which includes three drinks. A good price strategy for Manila – it keeps the riff raff out (along with their deadly weapons) and yet is quite reasonable (at least compared to gogo bar prices). It was just what honey ko likes best. Music with a bass beat that shakes the floor like an earthquake, mixed with weird car alarm sounds, strobe and laser lights, and hardly enough room to breathe. The crowd were mainly Filipino with just a few westerners, very few guys like me, and not much in the way of freelancers. At one point we were dancing near a group of western women. They took one look at this six-foot, overweight, aging guy, and the five-foot Barbie dolls I was dancing with and thought (I could see it in their eyes) ‘disgusting!’ I was delighted when, later on, I saw one of those women dancing with a Filipino toy boy. I tried to catch her eyes and give her a knowing smile – but she studiously avoided me.
We took it easy on Sunday, and went to sort out the visa on Monday, after which we went on to Cebu. I was glad to have seen a little of the Makati bars as I had always wanted to compare them with the bars in AC and Thailand. It’s not easy researching bars when you’re with a girl, and there were several others on my shortlist I didn’t get to see, especially Cathouse, Jools, Night Train, Rogues and Tickles. However, I saw enough to verify what I’d read – that the girls are of very high quality, but that prices are much higher in Makati than anywhere else, and that the Makati scene, sadly, is in decline through lack of customers.
The bottom line is that I was only there to get honey ko a visa. Unless you are in Makati for some other reason, it’s just not worth it. It’s much better to pay the 2000 pesos for a taxi to AC where you’ll get a much wider choice of girls, a much more exciting atmosphere and much better value for money.
© Bangkok Byron, 2007. All rights reserved by the author.