Nightlife in Bangkok is as varied as the different neighborhoods you’ll be exploring. From the Old City’s backpacker bars and local student hang outs to the chic international nightclubs in the central business area to quiet riverside bars where you can enjoy an icy-cold Chang beer while you watch life on the Chao Phraya float by, there’s a location to fit your mood any night of the week.
Despite being seemingly overrun by Western backpackers on extended vacations, the Old City, Bang Lamphu in particular, has some fun, vibrant bars featuring decent live music, cheap drinks, and friendly groups of Thai college students (thanks to its location right near Thammasat University). Khao San Road is literally packed with places to go out, although many of them will be packed with fellow foreigners getting drunk and listening to Western music.
The nightlife in downtown Bangkok tends to cater to a more upscale crowd, and here the scene is dominated by hotel bars and some live-music venues. However, Silom and Sathorn have a complete range of bars for the well-rounded drinker. You’ve got the infamous sex scene on Patpong, Irish and British pubs, fancy hotel bars and clubs, and small outdoor-table places all in between.
Start from the Silom subway station (or from the Sala Daeng Skytrain, which is right next to it) and then work your way west. On the south side of the street, almost under the Skytrain exit, you’ll often find mats laid out on the sidewalk at night once the pedestrian traffic has thinned out. These are places where you can take your shoes off and enjoy beer or whiskey in a setting that’s as urban rustic as it gets. When an elephant comes along the sidewalk and you’re on your fifth beer, you’ll wonder why someone’s not making a movie of your life right there on the spot. And who knows, maybe they are.
Accessing the nightlife scene in Chinatown is a bit harder for visitors. Most signs are purely in Thai or Chinese and waitstaff are not as accustomed to people speaking foreign languages as you’ll find in other parts of the city. The bars are also far less concentrated in this area than on Sukhumvit or Silom. But if you persist, the options include karaoke bars, all-night snooker, and all sorts of open-air restaurants.
Start on Yaowarat Road and work your way west down the road into the heart of it. Take time to venture off the main road to the backstreets, and ask local shopkeepers where you can find a beer or whiskey. You may be surprised when they offer up suggestions. Not a place for clubbing or for the typical bar scene, Yaowarat is more appropriate for night-time strolling punctuated by the occasional cocktail down a side alley.
Sukhumvit encompasses a huge variety of bars and clubs, ranging from the seedy bars of the Nana neighborhood on Soi 4 all the way up to the new trendy clubs on Ekamai on Soi 63 and the nightclub mecca Royal City Avenue (called RCA). There’s generally a bar within 50 feet of wherever you are, so the place is far too much to explore in one night—better to focus on one segment at a time.
It’s easy to divide the area by Skytrain stop. First you’ve got Nana, which as mentioned is home to a number of seedy places, but also offers more respectable places as well, especially down Soi 11 where you’ll find Bed Supper Club and other clubs. Then there’s Asoke, with some of the big hotel bars, Irish and British pubs, and plenty of local spots down the side streets. At the far end there’s Thong Lo and Ekamai, both of which tend to attract a hi-so (local slang for high-society or aspiring high-society) Thai and expat crowd.
Much of the city’s nightlife caters to an international crowd, but if you’re looking to see how local youth like to party, head out to RCA on Rama IX Road in the northern part of the Sukhumvit area, where thousands of college students and recent grads will be packed into the thumping-loud nightclubs that line the street. If your feet can bear being stepped on and your eardrums can bear the decibel level, the scores of slick nightclubs and thousands of kids all in one area is quite a scene to behold, especially at around 2 a.m. when all the clubs close and the crowds empty out.
The larger venues tend to focus on hip-hop and house music, but there are smaller clubs along the street offering a variety of different genres. Since the street is quite short, you can easily walk the whole length to see what you like, and then settle in.
From the drinking point of view, Thonburi is a little like Chinatown in that it’s not easy to find the places there, and they are fewer and farther between. But the upside of it is that you’ll definitely come back with some great and unexpected local experience if you persevere. The best way to start the real experience in fangthon (meaning, on the Thonburi side) is to cross the Pinklao Bridge and then explore the road that heads straight on from there. Within the first half mile you’ll find a number of drinking and eating places that feel a thousand miles away from Khao San Road, even though it’s barely a mile away.
Although the city has cleaned up its act a bit in recent years, there are still plenty of places where you’ll be able to witness the seediness that gave Bangkok its reputation, including Patpong in Silom and Nana in Sukhumvit. These places tend to cater to Western men, although women are welcome too.
What you spend on drinks will depend more on where you go than what you’re drinking. The same beer you’ll pay 200 baht for in your hotel bar will cost you as little as 50 baht if you drink it in one of the little shophouse bars on Phra Athit Road in Bang Lamphu. Nightclubs on Sukhumvit will generally charge admission of 500-700 baht, which will include a couple of drinks. After that, expect to spend around 200 baht for a beer and at least 250 baht for a cocktail. If the cover charge isn’t noted here, it’s free to get in, barring special events.
Bangkok’s reputation as a party town has been somewhat diminished in recent years with the advent of strict laws governing closing times. In Bangkok, most clubs and bars must close at 1 a.m. RCA, because it’s exclusively a nightclub neighborhood, stays open until 2 a.m. Generally these rules are strictly enforced, although there are some exceptions. If you can’t bear to go home after last call, hop into a taxi and ask the driver what’s still open. (Only do this if you’re not by yourself and you have some sense of the layout of the city.)
The legal age for entering a nightclub or bar is 20. Unless you look very young, you won’t be asked for identification at neighborhood bars, however some of the larger nightclubs, including all of the clubs at RCA and on Soi 11, require a government-issued ID (i.e., passport) regardless of how old you look. If you don’t have one, you will be turned away.
In Bangkok the distinction between bar, nightclub, and live-music venue is blurry and most places serving drinks will also have live music sometimes, even if it’s just one guy singing and strumming a guitar. Likewise, many places also offer full menus of Thai food for dinner in case you’re looking for a casual place to eat or just want a snack to go along with your beer.
Finally, remember that Bangkok is a fast-moving city, and the most popular nightclubs today may be old news next year. Make sure to check whether the place you are going is still open, as clubs and bars, especially, close or change names frequently.
© Suzanne Nam from Moon Bangkok, 5th Edition