Owning a Bar on a Tropical Island – is it Really a Dream?

In a good year, in excess of four million people visit Phuket in Thailand. A lot of those visitors will love it. Some will love it so much that they want to live here.

Every year thousands of people come to Phuket hoping to set up a new life on a tropical island. Many of them need to make a living and quickly discover that employment opportunities for foreigners are very limited. So what are their options? Well one of the most likely avenues is to invest in your own business. And what is the easiest business to get into? Owning a bar.

To many people it sounds like a dream. A life on a tropical island, days by the beach and evenings partying in your bar. But does the reality match the dream?

It is something I considered doing when I first arrived in Phuket. I checked out the options; spoke with estate agents, bar owners, even bar girls. In the end, I decided it just wasn’t worth it.

I was new to Phuket and still naive to many of the pitfalls that await bar owners but even then, I could see there were so many problems with owning a bar in Phuket. To begin with, ‘owning a bar’ is a misnomer as you will almost certainly be leasing and probably at very unfavourable terms.

It is difficult to make a decent living from a bar and in fact most fail in the first two years. Even if your bar does make money, your working status will probably be illegal. The laws in Thailand are stacked against foreigners owning a small business.

As much as all these things concerned me, they were not my biggest concern. The biggest factor in turning me away from owning a bar was the lifestyle. I got to know quite a few bar owners and when I looked at their lives, I knew it wasn’t for me. It is just such a crap life.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a night on the beer. Even several nights on the beer. But having to do it every night at the same bar as a job? It would soon lose its charm not to mention the obvious health problems that go with such a lifestyle.

Since I made that decision to leave the bar business alone, there has not been one second when I have looked back and regretted it. I know plenty of bar owners and consider several to be friends but I never envy their lives. Recently, the untimely death of one of those friends really drove it home for me.

He was not yet 50 years old. He owned a bar in one of the sois (side streets) off Soi Bangla in Patong. He was a nice guy, easy going and easy to talk to. Although I saw him no more than once a week, we always enjoyed a good chat and he was one of my favourite bar owners.

Over the previous year, he had a few health problems. He had been in hospital several times and the advice from the doctors was plain and clear – stop drinking!

The problem is it is very difficult to stop drinking when you are a bar owner. The two things that bring customers to these small bars are the girls and the owner. And often the girls will not work very well if the owner is not there.

Regular customers like to have a chat with the owner. Often, if the owner is not there they will just move on to the next bar. Quite simply for these bars to work, the owner has to be there most of the time.

So couldn’t my friend have drunk soft drinks? Well he did that for a few days but the boredom got to him. You spend the evening sitting at your bar, bombarded with the deafening music that these bar complexes seem to think is a good drinking ambience. For a good part of the evening, you may not have any customers, but still you need to be there just in case. You can watch the TV but you can’t hear it. Your only company is the bar girls who are probably nagging for time off or free drink.

And when the customers do arrive, they want to get drunk and they want you to get drunk with them. Of course, it is okay for the customers. If they are on holiday, they are only doing it for two weeks before they return to their regular lives. The bar owner is doing it night-after-night, year-after-year.

They offer to buy you drinks and it is bad business not to accept. If you do keep your discipline and stay sober then the evening is insufferable. Drunks are very entertaining when you are drunk with them. When you are sober, there is nothing worse than trying to laugh at their inane ramblings.

So despite the doctor’s warnings, my friend was soon drinking again. It just goes with the territory of owning a bar; you are going to drink a lot.

It all caught up with my friend. He had a bad motorbike accident. He never drove drunk but motorbike accidents happen easily out here. He discharged himself from hospital too quickly, again ignoring doctor’s advice. His next boozing session was too much for a body that was tired of it. He passed away in his sleep.

The crazy thing is he didn’t even need the bar. He had worked hard in his home country and was in a position to retire. I and other friends had tried to persuade him to give it up. The problem was he was one of the few bar owners who was making a good profit and he found it hard to walk away from a good business. In the end he was too good at being a bar owner for his own good.

The strange thing is most of the people who buy into bars have come to Phuket for a better lifestyle. They want to live in a tropical island paradise. Phuket is their dream home and owning a bar is how they will fund their life here. The problem is owning a bar excludes them from enjoying the island.

Most bar owners wake up mid-afternoon with a hangover. They lounge around their budget apartment shaking off the hangover until it is time to go into the bar and start work again. They could do this anywhere. Phuket’s glorious beaches, islands and other tourist attractions are irrelevant to the bar owners because they hardly see them.

I know a couple of bar owners who did not even know there had been a tsunami until the evening when they set off to work. I know another who after three years in Phuket had not yet seen Phang Nga Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Nai Yang Beach, Nai Harn Beach, in fact anywhere more than a few kilometers from Patong.

I don’t want to totally put off potential bar owners. I just want to open their eyes to the sort of life they will be buying into. I think for the right type of character, under the right circumstances, it is an okay option. If you are young, you can handle this lifestyle much better. I know when I was in my twenties I did lots of boozing and was always able to shake it off ready for the next session. As you get older, your powers of recovery diminish.

For somebody who is looking for a couple of years partying and is willing to get in and out, owning a bar in Phuket is a decent option. If you have the sort of discipline where you can go to the bar and entertain customers without getting drunk every night, then maybe it is for you. But as a long-term source of income – for most people it is just not worth the sacrifice.

Another bar owner friend decided to sell up after a couple of years in the business. He was a young guy and his bar was making him a living. The problem was he had got to the stage where he hated his bar. He hated going to the same place night after night, he was sick and tired of dealing with bargirls and their petty squabbles and he was tired of feeling crap all the time.

So he sold up and got out with a nice little profit. It wasn’t until after he sold the bar that he discovered the reason why he felt crap all the time. It wasn’t just the hangovers; they were masking the real problem. He had Leukemia.

I’m not saying that owning a bar actually caused his Leukemia but it certainly did not help his body deal with it. What it did do was put him in a frame of mind where he thought it was normal to feel bad all the time and he accepted it. Fortunately, he got out in time, was diagnosed and returned to his home country where he was successfully treated.

He is now all clear and he hopes that one day he can move back to Thailand. At the moment, his regular check-ups prohibit that. He says that now he looks back at his time in Phuket and realises he was in a rut. He was making enough money to live but he couldn’t save anything. His life revolved around going to his bar every night so he was just not doing the things that drew him to Thailand in the first place. He would never return to the bar business in Patong.

So to recap. If you are thinking about becoming a bar owner in Patong, what can you expect? Well you will spend most nights sitting at your bar waiting for customers and listening to dreadful, loud music. You will struggle to make a worthwhile profit. You will have to deal with the antics of your bar girls. You can decide to either spend your evenings sober and bored or drunk and happy.

Assuming you go for the drunk and happy option (most bar owners do) you will eventually pay for it. I don’t know a single bar owner who looks like a picture of health. It is a demanding life and if you do it long term you are probably taking a few years off your life expectancy.

You could take the attitude that work is always crap. It is crap in your my home country so you might as well have crap work in Phuket. Well fair enough, as long as you go into the bar business with your eyes open and not with some rose-tinted vision of days by the beach and nights partying.

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