Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
BANGKOK It’s a shame, really, that this city’s “notorious
nightlife” has been publicized so profusely. After a day-long city
tour and ride on the khlongs, many visitors probably confine
themselves to their hotels for the night.
Actually, Bangkok nightlife is so extensive that prostitution
and sex shows occupy only a small drab corner. From all walks of
life, Thais take their food, fun, music, drinking, dancing and
conviviality very seriously. Nightlife venues run into the
So don’t conclude that the following glimpse of three very
different neighborhoods is in any way exhaustive. The surface has
been barely scratched.
What can be said is that these are three long-running
neighborhoods that will deliver sanuk (fun) wanderings and meetings
with ordinary, chatty Thai people.
Upper Silom Road
It’s impossible to pinpoint Bangkok’s coolest neighborhood. The
trendsetters are just too fickle.
But Silom Soi 2 and Silom Soi 4 two lanes branching off the east
end of Silom Road somehow endure while more fabulous spots are mere
memories. The two small lanes are great for people-watching and
gender guessing until the very wee hours.
The DJs’ themes at Speed Hip Hop R&B, on Soi 4, are
self-explanatory. Om is strictly trance. Telephone is the gay bar.
The nightly four-hour happy hour might explain two-storied Tapas’s
long run. The DJs there spin house, Latin, garage.
Jutting off the opposite side of Silom Road is Soi Convent and
Shenanigans. This Irish bar has a lock on the after-work expat
crowd and their Thai colleagues. Even a single woman can be sure of
a relaxed friendly welcome.
If you can’t stomach Irish food, Convent and its parallel
partner, Soi Saladaeng, host plenty of trendy little Thai and
Mediterranean restaurants. They’re often lodged in old
colonial-style houses. Exhibit number one: Anna’s Cafe on
Saladaeng. It has proved so popular that it has sprouted a second
branch on the same lane.
North of Silom and Lumpini Park, Sarasin Road and Soi Lang Suan
pull a slightly older, more casual crowd.
The venerable Brown Sugar features live rhythm- and-blues bands.
Spacious Ma Mao Ma Mao has three bands playing pop standards.
Next door, Zarazine pub alternates between DJ dance music and
live Thai and Western folk music. Around the corner on Lang Suan,
Round Midnight features mellow rock. Farther on, listen for Metal
Zone, the den where Satan worshippers congregate.
Whole Earth, one of the city’s few vegetarian restaurants, has
drawn diners to Lang Suan for 20 years. More recently, upmarket
restaurants have been multiplying with Italian cuisine leading the
Thais adore Italian food. It’s easy to see why. Thai and Italian
cuisines share many prime ingredients.
On Lang Suan alone, Italian restaurants include Airplane,
Calderazzo, Ma Be Ba, Pan Pan and White Heart. Thang Long is a
stylish Vietnamese restaurant of minimalist design. Le Lys serves
“royal Thai,” dishes that were once prepared only for the royal
Phra Athit Road
If you prefer more laid-back and very cheap, head for the funky
artsy pubs and cafes lining the east side of Phra Athit Road.
Although the riverside street is only a block from the budget
tourist enclave of Kaosan Road, it still attracts more Thais than
Most of the proprietors and clientele have ties to the two
nearby universities. The art for sale on many walls was created by
current Silpakorn University students.
Hemlock, the first drab shophouse to be transformed about a
decade ago, still boasts excellent, cheap and “ancient” Thai dishes
and a refined sound system.
Walk northward and you’ll come to the cozy haunts of Suntana,
ToSit, Indy, Dog Days (post your dog’s photo!), Apostrophe S and
Roti Mataba (Malay Muslim basics).
As Phra Athit morphs into Phra Sumen Road, there’s the reliable
pink-toned Joy Luck Club. But some of the Bohos are going
bourgeois. Note Pla’zzz (with a tree-shaded terrace), Primavera
(hardwood floors, Austrian baker) and Ricky’s Coffee Shop (Ching
The west side of Phra Athit is mostly occupied by a park and an
But then there’s a single seafood restaurant that old-timers
swear can’t be beaten by the upstarts. This is Ton Pho, which
consists of 60 tables on a rickety deck overlooking the Chao Phraya
River. The catfish salad and snakehead fish with curry paste have
been supped by prime ministers.
There’s not much point in detailing prices in Bangkok since
they’re so low by Western standards. At a clean, air-conditioned
mid-range restaurant, it’s hard to spend even 200 baht ($5) for a
meal. At the highest-end restaurants, with several courses and
dessert, one might clock up a $30 check.
What does mount quickly, though, is the cost of drinking
alcohol. A glass of local draft beer tends to run at least $2.
Because of very high import duties, wine and spirits cost at least
twice as much as in the United States. However, Thailand’s own rice
whiskey, Mekhong, runs cheaper than beer, especially if you buy a
Music clubs often have cover charges ranging between $5 and $10,
but they do include one or two drinks. At the trendiest clubs, such
as the Ministry of Sound on Sukhumvit Road, a visiting foreign DJ
might command a $20 cover charge.
Many restaurants and clubs in Thailand accept credit cards. That
doesn’t mean you should use them. In fact, you shouldn’t use a
credit card for purchases in shops, department stores, travel
agencies or most other venues in Thailand. It’s probably safe to
pay for a hotel bill or an airline ticket with one. The reason for
caution: Thais are justly infamous for innovations in credit card
fraud. You might not even discover until you and your card arrive
home that the card number has been used to charge thousands of
dollars in purchases.
The three-year-old monorail, known as the Skytrain or BTS,
operates from 6 a.m. until midnight. Saladaeng Station is very
close to upper Silom Road. Sarasin Road is best reached by the
Ratchadamri Station while northern Soi Lang Suan spots are closer
to Chidlom Station. Phra Athit Road is not near the Skytrain. It is
well served by the Phra Athit riverboat stop. It is also only about
a block from the Kaosan Road guesthouses and hotels. A few buses
run all night, but not many. Most have stopped running by midnight,
but they start up again by 6 a.m.
For a city of more than 8 million people, Bangkok is amazingly
safe at night for foreigners, probably because it’s a city that
never sleeps. Of course, there’s the occasional pickpocketing or
snatched gold necklace. But, aside from the red-light districts
catering to Western men, it’s rare to hear of a foreigner suffering
serious assaults or even a rude remark.
Numerous English-language monthlies purport to be city
entertainment guides. Only two magazines are worth a glance. Farang
is free. Metro costs the equivalent of $2.50. Ignore the articles
and hasten to the listings in the back of the magazines. Metro is a
superior guide to restaurants and art galleries. Farang is a hipper
guide to music venues. For late-breaking events, check out the
lifestyle pages of the two lively daily English-language
newspapers, The Nation and Bangkok Post, especially on Friday. Look
for art gallery shows, film festivals, street festivals and musical
For almost a decade, all taxis in Bangkok have been equipped
with meters. Some meters have been tampered with, but not many.
Although the three-wheeled tuk-tuks are cute, precarious and open
to the air, they’re not cheaper than taxis. Passengers must bargain
for the fare and very few foreigners are adept bargainers. In the
early-morning hours there are always taxis lingering around
nightspot areas such as Silom Soi 2, but the drivers may refuse to
use their meters and insist on bargaining for the fare.