Sawadee Ka! (Hello)
After working in Bangkok for a number of years, I thought I'd offer some local knowledge to the bar scene in Bangkok. These are places that are a bit out of the norm so tourists (or locals) may not find without insider info, but are very enjoyable and well worth a visit.
Cheap Charlie's is my first offering. This is an extremely eccentric bar like nothing you will have ever experienced before.
The small, outside bar is quite literally set in the street, with a few rickety stools (one sturdy one in the shape of an extremely large 'lingam' and rather more interesting to sit on!!) plus a wobbly little wooden table. The bar looks like an old garden shed hung with an eclectic mix of things - including a cage with a bat and owl (not sure if they are still there- I haven't visited for a while.) The drinks are exceptionally cheap compared to all the other bars (used to be about .50p but now probably about £1.00 due to the poor exchange rate for British sterling) and hotels in the surrounding area so we used to start our evenings there before moving on to the usual partying haunts. Sometimes we've even ended up spending whole evenings there because it was so much fun.
So, if you don't mind the heat of Bangkok, and the shoving into each other when you have to get out of the way because a car decides to drive down the street (a good excuse to get close to someone you fancy though...) give it a try - it is popular with 'farangs' (foreigners) and always crowded on Friday and Saturday nights. You will find it up Sukhumvit Soi 11 - either get a taxi there or walk from Nana skytrain station. It is not far up the road, but off on the left down a side soi. Just keep a look out and you will be able to see it from Soi 11.
My next recommendation is a bar called Saxophone - A very large, dark atmospheric bar with a area downstairs for the live bands to play, and with an upper floor which also has views down onto the band.
This is an extremely popular bar with farangs and Thais alike, with live music played every night of the week. You will find it entertaining although it is best going a bit later as it tends to liven up later in the evening. There are usually two bands playing each night. A lot of the music is rock or blues and rock ballads are particularly popular with the Thais. Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' is a classic there, as is The Eagles' 'Hotel California'. Yes, some of the music is rather dated, but the atmosphere lends itself to the type of music being played and you forget time. Usually, the standard of the bands are really good with talented players. (Don't go there is you want clubbing - there are plenty of places to go dancing - which I may be able to review at another time.)
Drinks aren't cheap at Saxophone (about £3.00 - £4.00 for a beer or gin and tonic), but it is in the middle of a large city and prices are comparable to all the other bars. We found the most economical way to drink there is to buy and share a bottle of spirits (about £30.00), purchasing additional mixers and ice when required during the evening. (You may want to try the Thai whisky - Maekong or Songthep which is cheaper than imported spirits such as gin or vodka and quite pleasant mixed with coke and/or soda.) Basic bar snacks and Thai food are also sold there if you get peckish.
You will find it at Victory Monument - cheaper by by taxi if there are more than two of you, or take the Skytrain to Victory Monument station and just ask someone when you get there. It is well known by the locals.
This is my first review of bars, so I hope you find it useful or entertaining. I also hope if you go to Bangkok, you will visit these places and enjoy them as much as we have! Chok Dee! (Good Luck!)
I made several visits to Thailand when my husband was alive. He had got into the country on an RnR break from working in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s - rather than go home to London he was advised to spend the same number of flying hours travelling east by some of his workmates.
He was hooked and although his visits tailed off after we got together and we didn't actually go there together for the first time until 2005, he retained a deep fondness for the country, coupled with an equally deep frustration for the place too.
Bangkok is the country's capital and this city has become a popular stopover location on the way to Australia and must see destination for students on their gap year.
There is also, of course, a large number of sex tourists to the country, the vast majority of them men seeking to spend time with one of the numerous bar girls found in the city. Most of the bar girls are plucked from the backwards and rural north east of the country - a place sneered at by the country's Bangkok elite.
As a woman I had mixed feelings about these bar girls - some of them are hard nosed and mamasans in training, whereas others struggle to make a living in a very overcrowded marketplace.
Whenever we visited Thailand our time in Bangkok was kept to two nights at most - the stifling heat, gridlocked traffic and pollution were more than we could bear for much longer - but we always stayed there at the start of our holiday and spent the last two nights there, with the sandwich filling always comprising Koh Samui and sometimes some other less bustling locations.
At this juncture I have to declare we didn't go in search of high culture in Bangkok - so I can't tell you about the river market, the palace or any one of the numerous temples and buddhas to be seen in the city.
For us, Bangkok was about sleeping late, eating leisurely and cooling down at the pool and then going out in the evening as our daughter was cared for by a Thai babysitter in our hotel.
This was essential after our first night in Bangkok found us in Patpong, a notorious part of the city for bars and the numerous girls (and ladyboys) to be found there, with our daughter. This was a bad move as although bar girls will refrain from shouting "handsome man" if they see a man is with a woman, some of the men trying to get you into some of the less salubrious clubs are not quite so sensitive, even when a child is nearby.
As a result we found ourselves in a situation where my husband was given a piece of paper which had matchstick drawings of various different parts of a sex show with the name of each antic typed underneath. This is how I discovered exactly what Patpong Ping Pong was for instance, and that you can throw a dart from other parts of your body other than your hands if you really, really want to.
So despite great hilarity from my husband and myself over this, it wasn't really the sort of thing we wanted our daughter to experience again, and while the bar girls we saw that night adored her blonde hair and blue eyes, we never took her up that part of town again, and decided babysitters were the best bet for her if we wanted to go out at night.
The nightlife in Bangkok offers anything you want - there are pubs and bars, restaurants, clubs and the ubiquitious girly bars. here are Irish pubs, "British" pubs - which offer stodgy fare in a traditional style bar that is only tolerable due to the air conditioning being cranked up, and even German beer gardens. The nightlife here is varied and offers something for everyone - whether that be the lone sex tourist, the happy family (assuming you avoid Patpong), young travellers or groups of young men.
We had several nights out in the city and it was the nightlife that made the city fun for me - the stifling heat was unbearable most of the time and even the walk to and from the Skytrain to the air conditioned malls or the big Tesco-Lotus hypermarket used to drain me.
The balmy evenings however were far more fun - the heat, whilst still stifling, was far more bearable allowing us to explore the Sois off Sukhamvit Road, the main thoroughfare through central Bangkok.
The Sois are alleys which are mostly dead ends, although some do have through traffic and some even have the railway line to contend with. Most of these Sois are named with numbers or for nearby hotels, but the one we tended to find ourselves drawn to the most in the evening was Soi Cowboy.
" A little flesh, a little history"
Soi Cowboy wasn't originally called that of course - the name evolved from one of the first bars to open in there, which was called "The Country Roads". Opened by an American and pitching both the bar and the bar girls to US soldiers on RnR in Thailand, it became a huge hit, leading to more bars to open up on the Soi, and a name Thais associated with the USA becoming the official name of the street.
The Soi is located close to one of the biggest intersections in Bangkok - where Sukhamvit Road meets Ratchadaphisek, another major road in the city. Crossing this road is a feat in itself - drivers in Thailand tend not to care much for such formalities as red lights and pedestrian crossings are ignored with alarming regularity. There are pedestrian bridges dotted along Sukhamvit Road but sadly there isn't one spanning Ratchadaphisek.
The Country Roads bar is one of the more innocuous bars on Soi Cowboy and we would always start an evening there. The bar girls weren't so visible or pushy here, and there was invariably live music on offer. The quality of music was wildly variable - sometimes there would be bands comprising ageing American and British hippies which were surprisingly quite good, other times there would be wannabe singers performing on an open mic session.
The best, but only because he was so unintentionally bad, was a chap from Hong Kong who was a huge Elvis Presley fan and insisted on singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You", despite being unable to enunciate the letter "l" properly, putting my husband and I in mind of the classic "Only Fools and Horses" episode where the song "Crying" became "Cwying".
Soi Cowboy isn't a particularly long soi and unusually it isn't a dead end, so you can walk to the end and come out almost back on Sukhamvit Road. We used to enjoy walking the length of the soi and sitting at the quieter end outside, watching the world go by.
" One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble"
A regular sight would be drunken British young men falling out of tuktuks in a haze, their wallet significantly lighter than it was when they got in. Occasionally a couple of them would try to argue over the price of travelling in these tourist death traps, but mostly they were too drunk to care.
The mamasans would send their bar girls off in the direction of these drunks, and lots of insincere cries of "handsome man" and "you come with me" would ensue as they were dragged into some of the less salubrious establishments where their wallets would be lightened all the more.
Occasionally some animal magic would ensue, and my favourite memory of being in a bar in Soi Cowboy was when a dodgy looking Thai man appeared from the shadows with a baby elephant. For 50 baht you could buy some rather tired looking banana from this man and then feed the elephant.
Being a little tipsy I decided to feed the elephant and found it a quite enchanting experience and one I certainly will never forget.
Unfortunately for the man in charge of the elephant, out of nowhere a policeman appeared on a motorbike to put an end to proceedings. That he had "Metropolitan Police" embroidered on the back of his jacket merely added to the incongruity of the situation.
Of course one of the downsides about doing something illegal with a creature as large as a baby elephant is that you can hardly beat a hasty retreat, so our dodgy banana seller found himself banged to rights rather quickly and one can only hope the elephant went somewhere with a more regular feeding schedule.
Bangkok is also home to a lot of expats, and one group we used to see occasionally were the diplomatic brigade who could usually be spotted coming out of a diplomatic car and heading inside one of the girly bars that lined the Soi, usually wearing tuxedos and bow ties.
Expats seem drawn to the fake British and Irish bars and I remember visits to the London Bar which seemed to favour music from the classic rock era, played by competent Thai musicians and usually fronted by Filipinos, and several Irish bars which were just as gloomy as some of the real ones I have visited in my time.
" The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free"
The girly bars were not places we visited much. I remember going to a couple with my husband and my abiding memory was one of bored looking girls wearing fake leather and doing some half hearted pole dancing. The girls couldn't be nude - suggestive clothing was permitted but decency had to prevail at all times, so the favoured "uniform" was bikinis and thigh high boots.
We found ourselves sitting outside one of these bars on our last night in Bangkok and my husband and I found ourselves getting on famously with the Thai doorman, who spoke good English and was happy to bring our drinks to us. As time wore on however, nature called, and I had to ask him where I might find the ladies' toilet.
He looked a little nervous but said the toilets were straight ahead, pointing them out clearly to me inside the bar.
On the way out I saw him waving at me, guiding me out of the bar and trying to ensure I kept him in my line of vision. Having a bit of a drink in me, I couldn't understand why he was doing this, but I kept looking straight at him. However as I was halfway towards the front door a waitress walked in front of me and I found myself drawn to where she was going. I looked to the right and was met by the sight of dozens of nude bar girls dancing half heartedly beside the poles.
The doorman looked deflated when he realised I had seen what was going on inside. I told my husband it might be better if we finished our drinks and went elsewhere to save further embarrassment. My husband was quite shocked when I told him what I had seen - in all his numerous trips to Bangkok he had heard it happened, but never seen it. No doubt he was also a little disappointed that in all his visits in Bangkok he had never witnessed this himself!
" And if you're lucky then the god's a she"
Sitting outside in the streets watching the world go by in Bangkok you see the strangest sights. Men in wheelchairs being taken back to their cheap hotels by middle aged Thai women who are their "girlfriend" for the duration of their break and young Thai girls being berated or mocked by younger western men who have paid for their company.
Then there are the ladyboys who hang around outside their bar on the Soi, and from a distance it would be hard to spot they were anything but one hundred per cent female. Get a little closer and the voices, the way they walk and clearly visible Adam's Apples give the game away.
Dogs roam the streets too - stray dogs are a huge problem in Thailand - foraging for food amongst people who although poor, usually have some scraps to feed them. I remember once seeing a three legged stray dog out in the street - it seemed to have been adopted by a nearby hotel and one had to marvel at its survival skills.
When we were last in Bangkok there was a clampdown on bar closing hours and most bars had to shut at midnight. The resourceful Thais managed to overcome this ban by simply setting up "outside" bars on the street as midnight struck, and these bars, which comprised of what looked like air hostess trolleys, a few folding stools and a couple of umbrellas to ward off showers, were very popular.
And so we would head back to the hotel, still a little hot and bothered and probably slightly worse for wear, having had an evening that was bizarre, entertaining, highly amusing and overall a lot of fun.
Bangkok bars and nightlife certainly aren't for the faint of heart and you have to really enjoy pastimes such as serious people watching and have a like minded companion to fully appreciate it. You also have to have an open mind and be able to set any preconceptions you have about the city to one side.
Do that and you might just find yourself having one of the most memorable nights out in your life.
Being a by now inveterate explorer of bars in Bangkok, I would initially say that you should be aware that there are squillions of 'em scattered all around a city of 7 million people, but naturally with a concentration of the type favoured by ex pats and travellers around the city centre, notably Silom and Sikhumvit and the notorious 'Soi Cowboy' areas.
It would perhaps be wisest to proceed by clearly delineating the bars and pubs into 2 categories here: the 'go-go' or girlie type where more than just liquid and gastronomic refreshments might be available, and those that aren't. It depends on your appetities on which you choose.
For the first time visitor, I would tentatively suggest that you check out your hotel bar first, to appreciate the ambience of the place, then maybe set off out to widen your explorations. The taxis (usually a bright pink or red Toyota) with 'taxi meter' on the top are a favourite mode of transportation, but I would suggest that you agree the price with the driver prior to setting off, or insist on using the meter. Failing that, you may want to risk life and limb in a tuk - tuk, or on the back of a kamikaze moped in Bangkok's crowded and chaotic traffic, just to save a few Baht. Trust me - use the taxis.
So, to the bars; you may wish to try a couple I would suggest here, notably Bully's English pub (but heavily American influenced) on Sukhumvit between Sois 2 and 4, just around the corner from the J W Marriott hotel. Then, a few strides away on Soi 4, you will find a nice Irishey type bar called Hanrahan's. To get there, though, you will have to run the gauntlet of the ladies at Nana Hotel car park plying their trade across the road from the Nana 'entertainment center' (the wonderful Lucky Luke's bar not with standing) where all manner of exotic delights await the salivating consumer. So, if you want more specific details on certain bars, check out the websites.
Price wise, Bangkok is catching up with the west in terms of the cost of buying a beer amongst other considerations, and many places will charge you the equivalent of a couple of quid, about 100 Baht, to wet your whistle, so to speak.
By and large I find that Bangkok is a safe place to go out provided that you behave yourself and act sensible. Be aware though that the Tourist Police have been known to lift farangs (foreigners) and subject them to random blood tests. So, woe betide the unwary traveller found to have traces of drugs in their blood, even if they only indulged in the occasional spliff in the UK. They WILL have you for it; the Thais don't mess about where drugs are concerned, and the horror stories are quite true. So, if you DO partake, purge yourself before you go ...
But, all told, BKK is a wonderful place to visit; it's permanently warm, the people are quite wonderful, and the food is - well, yummy. Oh, try the fab local Singha beer; I do a lot when I'm there, and I've picked up a few bruises from kissing the tarmac to prove it, too ...
If you're off for a short break, backpacking, long holiday in Thailand, or just basically want to find out a bit more about what the local nightlife is like...here's a bit of Bangkok background. Bangkok is absolutely packed with bars, restaurants, and hotels, and it can be quite daunting getting into a cab (taxi drivers really are insane)and trying to decide on the best places to go. All you have to remember is to tell your taxi driver (this is all spelt phonetically): "Sawahdi krapp. Cee Lom Soi 4, cun krapp." This will tell the taxi driver to take you to the Silom area of downtown Bagkok - in particular the Soi 4 section. Now Soi 4 is an area of Bangkok where you'll find 2 gay bars but they cater for everyone. It is the best place in Bangkok to "people watch" and see all the sights (and there are loads) that the city has to offer. The 2 main bars down there are called "The Balcony" and "Telephone". In my opinion "Telephone" is the better of the two, and it's advisable to sit outside rather than opt to sit indoors. Other bars in the area (in fact you'll find them down Soi 6, just two street up) include "Muzzick" and "The Radio Bar". These are in the area called Patpong which is notorious for very dodgy live sex shows and go-go bars. The whole of Soi 6 as well is a mass of market stalls with people offering you anything from dried squid, to a fake Louis Vouton, or Burberry clothes, wallets and belts. "Muzzick" has a lot of very good local Thai bands performing on a regular basis, doing a lot of cover versions which are all in English. However if you want to see tribute acts taken to the extreme...nip over the road to "The Radio Bar" and see the Thai versions of Elvis and Tom Jones. They are excellent. Patpong and Silom are really night time bar areas and it's best to check them out when the market is up and running (6pm). I
f you're after a view to die for and drinks to make you feel like a real jetsetter...ask the cab driver to take you to "Sah Torn Tie, Western Banyin Tree Hotel, cun krapp!". It's a huge hotel and has one of the best bars and the best views of Bagkok on its 53rd floor. You can have some excellent cocktails and great service from the bar staff, but don't be put off that you're not a hotel resident, it's open to all. Just a quick warning about drinking from bottles or cans of beer/soft drinks in Thailand, always ask for a glass or a straw. Drinks are often stored in places where vermin can get to them and may be unhealthy for you to drink straight from the bottles or cans! Taxis: Never take a cab where the taxi driver offers you a price straight away. Say "No. bi meat-urr!" This is your way of saying "No, put the meter on!" Invariably you WILL be ripped off if they offer you a price and it shouldn't cost you more than 70/150 Thai Bhat (£1/£1.50) to get to the bars. Also...there is a fantastic restaurant in Bangkok called "Kuppa's". If I remember correctly it's near a place called Lumpinee Stadium and does the best coffee, main courses, and desserts than anywhere else in the world! Enjoy Bangkok, it's a fantastic city to be in and the best times to be had!