The first reference in literature on the subject of "Nightlife" is found in the British East India Company documents (or a summary thereof found in the book, "British Intercourse With Siam in the 17th Century" by John Anderson, M.D., published first around 1889 and reprinted in 1981). The following quote from that book covers gambling and other vices in Bangkok in the year 1620:
"This vice (gambling), however, was not the only foible of those days, as is amply proved by references to lewdness, nameless diseases, drunkenness, and bastard children now and again cropping up in the correspondence of the (British East India) Company's servants. Morality may have had a lower standard in those days than it has now, but apart from any such consideration, these Englishmen in their Exile, their surroundings so different from those encompassing their lives in an English home, and the novel temptations to which they were exposed, lead charity to be merciful in judging them."
The abovementioned "novel temptations", at this time were focused around night time sampan visits to the ships at anchor in Bangkok. The ships had to lay anchor in Bangkok, as the river was too shallow to allow them to sail to the capital at Ayuthaya. By the way, these nightlife activities were going on as late as the 1960s and may still be going on. One had basically three choices, smuggle the girls onboard, go out in their sampans with them, or go ashore for a short time.
Another interesting tale in the history of Bangkok's nightlife goes back to the 1860s. Back then there was a lively little area in Plaplachai (in Chinatown). Yai Faeng was the famous madam back then, a Chinese woman as were almost all of her girls. She's famous for raising enough money among the "shady ladies" to build an entire Buddhist temple -- Wat Kanikaphol. You can see a bust of her in a niche there to this day. She and her gals also paid for another wat in Thonburi. Her house was in Soi Yai Fang and the locals still sometimes call the temple "Wat Mai Yai Faeng" (Madam Faeng's New Temple).
The farang oriented nightlife started roughly during the Vietnam war, late '60s - early '70s (Before this there were only some nightclubs around Democracy Monument, near the Sorng Daeng Restaurant). The action was still around New Petchburi Road, then called Petchburi Tat Mai or Petchburi Road Extension, aka 'The Golden Mile'. At its peak this 'mile' stretched from approximately Soi 3 to Soi Ekamai. There were bars (Jack's American Bar being one of them) and massage parlours all over that area, but lots of folks went to a sort of grungy area called Saphan Kwai (which by the way is still there, but has turned into a Thai nightlife area). There were also a couple of bars in the upper Sukhumvit area, called Gaysorn.
At the same time the Thai Yonoke was going strong across the street from Gaysorn, roughly where Sogo is now, and behind the old Erewan, the Nana Hotel was the scene. The (original) Thermae opened in 1965 and was always pumping all night long. It was never overshadowed by either the Grace (which didn't really take off until the 70's) or the Nana.
In the mid '70s Patpong started to get going. Early on there were just a handful of bars, most notably the Grand Prix and the Horny Toad next door. The Prix was the first go-go bar on Patpong (opened by an American named Rick Menard in '71/'72) and the second ever in Bangkok. (Nick Jero of Nick's No. 1 fame opened the first go-go bar around 1970, but it never really caught on. It lasted maybe a year.) There was also a great "show" bar near the old Peninsula Hotel. It had all kinds of checks to give warning if the police raided. The routine then was a girl danced to three songs: the first in a bikini, the second minus the top and the third "naked as she came." They showed blue movies on the wall at the same time. Each hour they had shows: gals with cucumbers and squash, the lesbian bit, etc.
After hours the Thai Yonoke Coffee Shop behind the old Erewan Hotel was the place to go. Bars had to close around midnight or 1am and any girl still looking for action went to the Thai Yonok. Another after hours place during this time was the Grace Hotel. The action moved to the Thermae in the '80s when the Grace turned into a Arab hangout and the Thai Yonok was closed down. The Thermae is still going strong today, although in a new location. The old Thermae was far different than the new one though, much smaller and more relaxed.
Soi Cowboy was started around the late '70s and quickly became the expats hang out, since Patpong drew the tourists and cost a bit more. Today it is still pretty much unchanged, a lot more relaxed and laid-back than the fast paced NEP and Patpong.
The myth that Cowboy started Soi Cowboy is proving most resilient. It is however, just that; a myth. The Cowboy Bar was one of the first bars on that soi when it opened in '76-'77, but there was another bar in the early '70s on Soi 23 which had a side entrance to what is now known as Soi Cowboy, and could probably lay a claim to being first. However the first bar to be truly located in the Soi, and the bar that started it all, was the Gold Label owned by an American called Jim George, which opened in 1975 ('73?) and lasted 2 or 3 years. It had up to three floors of activity in its heyday. It was located at the place where Baccara is now.
Bernard Trink is probably responsible for the name Soi Cowboy. In his weekly nightlife column he used to refer to the soi with 'behind the Shell station on Sukhumvit', but started using the name Soi Cowboy in early '79.
Around that same time the first katoey bar opened, the Zanzibar (formerly Gold Label). Like most katoey bars on Soi Cowboy since though, it did not last long.
The highway expansion in 1983 caused Soi Cowboy to be shortened by about one lane, which didn't affect any bars, as in those days, there were none on the Soi that close to Soi 21 (Soi Asoke). The widening of the road was caused when they 'overlaid' the Rachadapisek extension on top of Soi 21 - Rachadapisek being one of BKK's ring roads.
The extension however, did affect some bars. Across Sukhumvit from Soi 21 was Soi 16, and when they built the Rachadapisek extension past the Tobacco monopoly lakefront, they cut off the entire top of Soi 16 as well as widening Sukhumvit itself for about 100 meters each direction to facilitate turning into and out of Rachadapisek. This caused all of the shops to close down, and they all had to cut about 3 meters off the front of their buildings (and build new fronts on them). This caused the Rosemary 1 and Rosemary 2, the Three Roses, The Rainbow and the Sunshine to move out. These moved to Nana Plaza starting it all - before that there was just Lucky Luke's at the entrance (and it wasn't a hot scene), the pub Woodstock (which is still there, although it has move a bit further in), and a few restaurants and shops.
Nana Entertainment Plaza (NEP) has only been around since the early '80s. It took years to get going, but the night market at Patpong drove a lot of people to Nana in the early '90s. Since then it has expanded (and still does so), and has become Bangkok's number one (farang) entertainment area.
In the beginning there used to be a lot of Arabs. However, they found they weren't welcome rather quickly (by the mid-80s anyway), since so many of the patrons were workers on holiday from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis so restricted the expat workers there that the expat workers told the bar owners to keep all Arabs out. In roughly 1984 several bars had signs saying "No Arabs Allowed" on the door. The local expats didn't mind them, but the farangs from Saudi just did not want them around at all. And these farangs spend more money in a few weeks holiday than the locals would in a year.
At roughly the same time (1983) a dancer at Hollywood Royale (now Rainbow 2), called Jib, decided it was time to move up in the world. She bought a small place next to Hollywood Royale, brought a couple of girls with her from her old bar and started Pretty Lady (now Obsessions). This quickly turned into the raunchiest, and therefore most popular, bar in the plaza. A few years later she started Pretty Girl (recently renamed to Pretty Lady) and you can still find her there almost every night, sitting outside.
Until '96 the Plaza consisted basiscally of just two floors, the third being empty. This changed with Johnny taking a risk and opening in total 3 bars on the left side of this floor. A year or so later a disco, Masquerade, opened up on the opposite site, but this didn't catch on and soon disappeared. It has since been replaced by Carnival.
Around this time ('97/'98) the first outside bars started appearing in the, until then, parking lot inside the Plaza. Since then the expansion has spilled unto Soi 4 itself (and continues to do so) with the Golden Beerbar leading the way.
Late 1998 a new entertainment area opened up, Clinton Entertainment Plaza, right next to Thermae. When it opened it consisted of several open-air beerbars, which did not do too well. A year later things improved a bit when the first GoGo bar opened up, Flowers-a-Go-Go. This was followed in early/mid 2000 by several others, causing the open-air bars to slowly disappear.
At roughly the same time though, more and more beerbars started appearing at what has become known as Asoke Plaza, a piece of (previously) unused land on the corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke.
On a little side note, the shower shows which seem to be rather popular lately all started in a bar called the Lipstick on Patpong in late 1986. (The owners supposedly were a Thai brother and sister who had been educated in the States. Since they found there education still didn't get them any great jobs in Bangkok, they opened a couple of bars. Firecat was the first, Lipstick the second.)
Lipstick was actually designed to feature the shower bar at one end. Every evening the shower show went on several times, with the dancers soaping their body and gyrating erotically. Saturday nights were a treat, since the girls would also shampoo their hair. All the other shower shows have been copied from this one, with minor variations. By the way, the owners couldn't figure out how to put a shower in the older Firecat, so they put a bathtub on stage.
The last couple of years has seen another big increase in shows, and they are getting more outrageous. Shower shows are still the norm in most bars, but now they are usually followed by dildo shows. Carnival was the first bar to feature such a show during the tourist season of 1999/2000, and it has since been adopted by several of the other bars.
Late 2000 saw the practice of using live animals in the shows, with a girl inserting fish, a frog and even a bird up her pussy before 'spitting' them out again. This show was restricted to Hollywood 2 and Carousel though (both owned by the same person).
Due to the crackdown that started in 2001 though, all shows in NEP have been banned. Shows can still be found in Patpong and Soi Cowboy though.