Although Bangkok often seems to cater to the inner philistine in all of us, the city is home to a diverse but low-key art scene. Add to this dance performances, live music and, yes, the infamous go-go bars, and you have a city whose entertainment scene spans from – in local parlance – lo-so (low society) to hi-so (high society).
Hollywood movies are released in Bangkok’s theatres in a relatively timely fashion. But as home-grown cinema grows bigger, more and more Thai films, often subtitled in English, fill the roster. Foreign films are sometimes altered by Thailand’s film censors before distribution; this usually involves obscuring nude scenes.
The shopping-centre cinemas have plush VIP options. Despite the heat and humidity on the streets, keep in mind that Bangkok’s movie theatres pump in the air-conditioning with such vigour that taking a jumper is an absolute necessity. Ticket prices range from 120B to 220B for regular seats, and more than 1000B for VIP seats.
Bangkok also hosts a handful of small annual film festivals, including the World Film Festival of Bangkok (www.worldfilmbkk.com; check the website for dates).
Over the last decade, choreographed stage shows featuring Broadway high kicks and lip-synched pop tunes performed by gà·teu·i (also spelt kàthoey) – Thai transgender and cross-dressing people – has become a 'must-do' fixture on the Bangkok tourist circuit.
Although technically illegal, prostitution is fully ‘out’ in Bangkok, and the influence of organised crime and lucrative kickbacks mean that it will be a long while before the existing laws are ever enforced. Yet despite the image presented by much of the Western media, the underlying atmosphere of Bangkok’s red-light districts is not one of illicitness and exploitation (although these do inevitably exist), but rather an aura of tackiness and boredom.
Patpong earned notoriety during the 1980s for its wild sex shows. Today it is more of a circus for curious spectators than sexual deviants. Soi Cowboy and Nana Entertainment Plaza are the real scenes of sex for hire. Not all of the sex business is geared towards Westerners: Th Thaniya, off Th Silom, is filled with massage parlours for Japanese expats and visitors, while the immense massage parlours outside central Bangkok service almost exclusively Thai customers.
As Thailand’s media capital, Bangkok is the centre of the Thai music industry, packaging and selling pop, crooners, lôok tûng (Thai-style country music) and the recent phenomenon of indie bands.
Music is a part of almost every Thai social gathering; the matriarchs and patriarchs like dinner with an easy-listening soundtrack – typically a Filipino band and a synthesiser. Patrons pass their request (on a napkin) up to the stage.
An indigenous rock style, pleng pêu·a chee·wít (songs for life), makes appearances at a dying breed of country-and-western bars decorated with buffalo horns and pictures of Native Americans. Several dedicated bars throughout the city feature blues and rock bands, but are relatively scant on live indie-scene performances. Up-and-coming garage bands occasionally pop up at free concerts where the kids hang out, often at Siam Square. For more subdued tastes, Bangkok also attracts grade-A jazz musicians to several hotel bars.
Bars and clubs with live music are allowed to stay open until 1am, but this is subject to police discretion. The drinking age is 20 years old.
Moo·ay tai (Thai Boxing)
Quintessentially Thai, almost anything goes in moo·ay tai (also spelt muay Thai), the martial art more commonly known elsewhere as Thai boxing or kickboxing. If you don’t mind the violence, a Thai-boxing match is well worth attending for the pure spectacle: the wild musical accompaniment, the ceremonial beginning of each match and the frenzied betting.
The best of the best fight at Bangkok’s two boxing stadiums. Built on royal land at the end of WWII, the art-deco-style Rajadamnern Stadium is the original and has a relatively formal atmosphere. The other main stage, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, has moved from its eponymous hood to a modern home north of Bangkok.
Admission fees vary according to seating. Ringside seats (from 2500B) are the most expensive and will be filled with subdued VIPs; tourists usually opt for the 2nd-class seats (from 1500B); diehard moo·ay tai fans bet and cheer from 3rd class (1000B). If you’re thinking these prices sound a bit steep for your average fight fan (taxi drivers are big fans and they make about 600B a day), then you’re right – foreigners pay several times what the Thais do.
We recommend the 2nd- or 3rd-class seats. The 2nd-class area is filled with numbers-runners who take bets from fans in rowdy 3rd class, which is fenced off from the rest of the stadium. Akin to a stock-exchange pit, hand signals communicate bets and odds fly between the areas. Most fans in 3rd class follow the match (or their bets) too closely to sit down, and we’ve seen stress levels rise to near-boiling point. It’s all very entertaining.
Most programs have eight to 10 fights of five rounds each. English-speaking ‘staff’ outside the stadium, who practically tackle you upon arrival, will hand you a fight roster and steer you to the foreigners’ ticket windows; they can also be helpful in telling you which fights are the best match-ups (some say that welterweights, between 61.2kg and 66.7kg, are the best). To avoid supporting scalpers, purchase your tickets from the ticket window or online, not from a person outside the stadium.
Traditional Theatre & Dance
The stage in Thailand typically hosts kŏhn performances, one of the six traditional dramatic forms. Performed only by men, kŏhn drama is based upon stories of the Ramakian, Thailand’s version of India’s epic Ramayana, and was traditionally staged only for royal audiences.
The less formal lá·kon dances, of which there are many dying subgenres, usually involve costumed dancers (of both sexes) performing elements of the Ramakian and traditional folk tales. If you hear the din of drums and percussion from a temple or shrine, follow the sound to see traditional lá·kon gâa bon (shrine dancing). At Lak Meuang and the Erawan Shrine, worshippers commission costumed troupes to perform dance movements that are similar to classical lá·kon, but not as refined.
Another option for viewing Thai classical dance is at a dinner theatre. Most dinner theatres in Bangkok are heavily promoted through hotels to an ever-changing clientele, so standards are poor to fair.
Need To Know
Live-music venues generally close by 1am. A complicated zoning system sees venues in designated ‘entertainment areas’ open until 2am, but even these are subject to police discretion.
Reservations are recommended for prominent theatre events. Tickets can often be purchased through Thai Ticket Major (www.thaiticketmajor.com).
To see what's on when you're in town, check local listings mags such as BK (www.bk.asia-city.com), Bangkok 101 (www.bangkok101.com) or the Bangkok Post's Friday supplement, Guru.