Writer Brian Spencer entered our 'Subscribe and win!' newsletter competition. And guess what? He won. So we sent him on his dream trip and he reported back from the road. New York-based Brian's a well-travelled chap, having spent many years living in Bangkok, so we got him to recommend the city's best bars - the ones only the locals know about.
You'll have no trouble finding a bar in Bangkok - there are hundreds, maybe thousands - but most listings are dominated by expat-friendly pubs and upscale clubs that offer little to no immersion in the city's thriving nightlife culture. Sure, those places are great for meeting other travellers, but don't let your nights out begin and end on well-trodden (and overrated) Khao San Road or on touristy Sukhumvit. Go where the locals go and drink where the locals drink to absorb the full flavour of this fun-loving city's wild character.
Here are a few of my favourite places in Bangkok to down a cold bottle of Chang or sip on a glass of Thai-style whiskey and soda alongside a predominantly Thai - and always friendly - crowd.
Conveniently located right next to the Rachathewi BTS Skytrain station, Sawaree is fashionable - but not pretentious. It's often crowded (especially on weekends), but always inviting; in other words, it's just right. A tasty Thai food menu - watch out for the (very) spicy beef salad - complements a variety of tall, cold bottles of Thai beer, though you're just as likely to see small groups of twentysomethings sharing bottles of whiskey. Try to snag a prime table on the upstairs balcony to watch the madness of Thanon Phaya Thai whiz by in clouds of tuk-tuk smoke. Acoustic bands play regularly, and the sprawling CoCo Walk, famous for its communal hot pots, is adjacent.
Located directly next to the Rachathewi BTS Skytrain Station, across from the Asia Hotel.
Just around the corner from Sawaree, Jae On is an unassuming, family-run restaurant with a big heart and loyal clientele; during my time living in the city, this was my go-to spot for simple Isaan-style cuisine and chilly bottles of Chang or Leo. Pull up a white plastic chair at one of the folding metal tables that spill out onto the sidewalk, ask for a menu in English, and write your item numbers down on a pad of paper. Hot pots are most popular, but the grilled squid (#54), white mushroom salad (#102), and spicy minced pork salad (#7) are all highly recommended. Come with a group and wash your feast down with a shared three-litre tower of Thai suds.
Located on the corner of Soi 14 on Petchaburi Road, just past the intersection at Thanon Phaya Thai.
Sofa, So Good
Take a short walk down up-and-coming Soi Ari to find Sofa, So Good, which draws a young, hip crowd and specialises in Belgian ales and imported whiskeys. Like most bars in Bangkok there's a full menu available which, along with standard Thai pub grub, also includes more ambitious dishes like pork with blueberry sauce; check the blackboard on the outside patio for the sweets of the day. It can get loud indoors on busy weekend nights, so come on a clear weekday night during the dry season and grab a table on the lawn to catch an acoustic outdoor concert.
Located at Soi Ari 7, Phahon Yothin Road, off the Ari BTS Skytrain stop.
A visit to one of Bangkok's heaving German beer gardens should be at the top of your to-do list. Legendary Tawandang German Brewery on Rama 3 draws bigger crowds and features glitzier, more outrageous stage shows, but its sister establishment, the less-visited Tawandang Isaan, is well worth a visit too.
The food is delicious - honestly, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find any bad food at authentic Thai establishments in Bangkok - and the servers are friendly, attentive, and generally happy to see you're one of the small number of foreigners who find their way here. Plan on arriving between 9-10pm, ask for a seat towards the middle of the restaurant facing the stage, and get ready for some seriously entertaining Thai showmanship from a rotating cast of musicians belting out Thai rock ballads and traditional folk songs with a twist.
Located at 51/199-200 Moo 1 Khwaeng, Ladprao.
Look for twinkle lights, pseudo-beach decor - seashells, ivy, plastic lizards - and a blended drinks stand in front of this locals-only bar located on the south side of New Petchaburi Road, just a few blocks east from the daily night market outside the Pratunam shopping center. The beers are cheap, the welcoming staff is… eclectic (I once saw the owner shuffling around a nearby department store in his slippers), and the popular Thai-language karaoke booths behind the bar make for an amusing, muffled soundtrack.
No address available; located on New Petchaburi Road, not too far from the Pratunam shopping center.