Shame on you if you think Bangkok's only nightlife options include the word ‘go-go’. As in any big international city, the drinking and partying scene in Bangkok ranges from trashy to classy and touches on just about everything in between.
Bangkok is a party animal – even when on a tight leash. Way back in 2001, the Thaksin administration started enforcing closing times and curtailing other excesses that had previously made the city’s nightlife famous. Since his 2006 ousting, the laws have been increasingly circumvented or inconsistently enforced. Post the 2014 coup, there are indications that Bangkok is seeing something of a return to the 2001-era strictly enforced operating hours and zoning laws.
Bangkok’s watering holes cover the spectrum from English-style pubs where you can comfortably sit with a pint and the paper to chic dens where the fair and beautiful go to be seen, not imbibe. Perhaps most famously, Bangkok is also one of the few big cities in the world where nobody seems to mind if you slap a bar on top of a skyscraper (it’s worth noting that most rooftop bars enforce a dress code – no shorts or sandals). But many visitors associate Bangkok with the kind of bars that don't have an address – found just about everywhere in the city. Think streetside seating, plastic chairs, car exhaust and tasty dishes absent-mindedly nibbled between toasts.
Bangkok bars don’t have cover charges, but they do generally enforce closing time at midnight – sometimes earlier if they suspect trouble from the cops.
Bangkok's club scene is a fickle beast, and venues that were pulling in thousands a night just last year might be a vague memory this year. Clubs here also tend to heave on certain nights – Fridays and Saturdays, during a visit from a foreign DJ, or for a night dedicated to the music flavour of the month – then hibernate every other night.
What used to be a rotating cast of hot spots has slowed to a few standards on the sois off Th Sukhumvit, Th Silom, Th Ratchadaphisek and RCA/Royal City Ave – the city’s designated ‘entertainment zones’ – which qualify for the 2am closing time (at the time of research, some of the bigger places were stretching this to 3am). Most joints don’t begin filling up until midnight. Cover charges can run as high as 600B and usually include a drink or two. At the bigger places you’ll need ID to prove you’re legal (20 years old); they’ll card even the grey-haired.
If you find 2am too early to call it a night, don’t worry – Thais have found curiously creative methods of flouting closing times. Speakeasies have sprung up all over the city, so follow the crowds – few people will actually be heading home. Some places just remove the tables and let people drink on the floor (somehow this is an exemption), while other places serve beer in teapots.
Bangkok is justifiably renowned for its food and nightlife, but markedly less so for its beverages. Yet drinks are the glue that fuse these elements, and without them, that cabaret show would be markedly less entertaining.
People in Bangkok generally drink a lot – and a lot of the time, that means beer. Yet until recently, there was very little variety in the domestic beer scene.
Advertised with such slogans as ‘þrà·têht row, bee·a row’ (our land, our beer), the Singha label is considered the quintessential Thai beer by fa·ràng (Westerners) and locals alike. Pronounced sĭng and boasting 6% alcohol, this pilsner claims about half the domestic market. Singha’s biggest rival, Beer Chang, pumps the alcohol content up to 7%. Boon Rawd (the maker of Singha) responded with its own cheaper brand, Leo. Sporting a black-and-red leopard label, Leo costs only slightly more than Beer Chang but is similarly high in alcohol. Other Thai-brewed beers, all at the lower end of the price spectrum, include Cheers and Beer Thai. Also popular are foreign brands brewed under license in Thailand such as Asahi, Heineken, Kirin and San Miguel. A small trickle of domestic microbrews was appearing at the time of research, an indication that more variation in Thai beer brands is likely in the coming years.
Conversely, the selection of imported microbrews is astounding, with bottled and draught beers and ciders from across the world available in Bangkok. The city is now home to several pubs that specialise in imported beers, so if you're missing your local brew, it's entirely possible that you may be able to find it in Bangkok.
Thai Pilsner Primer
We relish the look of horror on the faces of Bangkok newbies when the waitress casually plunks several cubes of ice into their pilsners. Before you rule this supposed blasphemy out completely, there are a few reasons why we and the Thais actually prefer our beer on the rocks. Thai beer does not possess the most sophisticated bouquet in the world and is best drunk as cold as possible. The weather in Thailand is often extremely hot, so it makes sense to maintain your beer at maximum chill. And lastly, domestic brews are generally quite high in alcohol and the ice helps to dilute this, preventing dehydration and one of those infamous Beer Chang hangovers the next day. Taking these theories to the extreme, some places serve bee·a wún, ‘jelly beer’, beer that has been semifrozen until it reaches a deliciously slushy and refreshing consistency.
Rice Whisky, Whisky & Rum
Thai rice whisky has a sharp, sweet taste – not unlike rum – with an alcohol content of 35%. The most famous brand for many years was Mekong (pronounced mâa kŏng), but today there are domestic brands meant to appeal to the can’t-afford-Johnnie-Walker-yet set, including Blue Eagle, 100 Pipers and Spey Royal, each with a 40% alcohol content. Also popular is Sang Som, a domestic rum. In Thailand, booze typically comes in 750mL bottles called glom, or in 375mL flask-shaped bottles called baan.
Thais normally buy whisky by the bottle and drink it with ice, plenty of soda water and a splash of Coke. If you don’t finish your bottle, simply tell your waiter, who will write your name and the date on the bottle and keep it for your next visit.
Imported wine is subject to a litany of taxes, making Thailand among the most expensive places in the world to drink wine. A bottle typically costs 400% of its price back home, up to 600% in upmarket restaurants. Even domestic wines are subject to many of the same taxes, making them only marginally cheaper.
Need To Know
Most rooftop bars enforce a dress code – no shorts or sandals. This is also the case with many of Bangkok's dance clubs.
The drinking age in Thailand is 20, although it's only usually dance clubs that ask for ID.
Officially, Bangkok's bars and clubs close by midnight, a rule that's been enforced recently. A complicated zoning system sees venues in designated ‘entertainment areas’, including RCA/Royal City Ave, Th Silom and parts of Th Sukhumvit, open until 1am or 2am, but even these ‘later’ licences are subject to police whimsy.
To keep crowds interested, clubs host weekly theme parties and visiting DJs. To find out what's on, check out Dudesweet (www.dudesweet.org) and Paradise Bangkok (www.facebook.com/paradisebangkok), organisers of hugely popular monthly parties, or local listings such as BK (www.bk.asia-city.com), Bangkok 101 (www.bangkok101.com), the Bangkok Post's Friday supplement, Guru, or Siam2nite (www.siam2nite.com).
Smoking has been outlawed at all indoor (and some quasi-outdoor) entertainment places since 2008.