Welcome to Bangkok
Same same, but different. This Thailish T-shirt philosophy sums up Bangkok, a city where the familiar and the exotic collide like the flavours on a plate of pàt tai.
Until you’ve eaten on a Bangkok street, noodles mingling with your sweat amid a cloud of exhaust fumes, you haven’t actually eaten Thai food. It can be an intense mix: the base flavours – spicy, sour, sweet and salty – aren’t exactly meat and potatoes. But for adventurous foodies who don’t need white tablecloths, there’s probably no better dining destination in the world. And with immigration bringing every regional Thai and international cuisine to the capital, it’s also a truly diverse experience. And perhaps best of all, Bangkok has got to be one of the best-value dining destinations in the world.
The language barrier can seem huge, but it’s never prevented anybody from getting along with the Thai people. The capital’s cultural underpinnings are evident in virtually all facets of everyday life, and most enjoyably through its residents’ sense of fun (known in Thai as sà·nùk). In Bangkok, anything worth doing should have an element of sà·nùk. Ordering food, changing money and haggling at markets will usually involve a sense of playfulness – a dash of flirtation, perhaps – and a smile. It’s a language that doesn’t require words, and one that’s easy to learn.
With so much of its daily life conducted on the street, there are few cities in the world that reward exploration as handsomely as Bangkok does. Cap off an extended boat trip with a visit to a hidden market. A stroll off Banglamphu’s beaten track can lead to a conversation with a monk. Get lost in the tiny lanes of Chinatown and stumble upon a Chinese opera performance. Or after dark, let the BTS (Skytrain) escort you to Sukhumvit, where the local nightlife scene reveals a cosmopolitan and dynamic city.
It’s the contradictions that provide the City of Angels with its rich, multifaceted personality. Here, climate-controlled megamalls sit side by side with 200-year-old village homes; gold-spired temples share space with neon-lit strips of sleaze; slow-moving traffic is bypassed by long-tail boats plying the royal river; Buddhist monks dressed in robes shop for the latest smartphones; and streets lined with food carts are overlooked by restaurants perched on top of skyscrapers. And as Bangkok races towards the future, these contrasts will never stop supplying the city with its unique and ever-changing strain of Thai-ness.
Table of Contents
- 1. On the ground
- 2. Organize your time
- 3. Understand
Worth a Trip: Jouney to Amphawa
Amphawa is only 80km from Bangkok, but if you play your cards right, you can reach the town via a long journey involving trains, boats, a motorcycle ride and a short jaunt in the back of a truck. Why? Because sometimes the journey is just as interesting as the destination.
The adventure begins at Thonburi’s Wong Wian Yai train station. Just past the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle is a fairly ordinary food market that camouflages the unspectacular terminus of this commuter line. Hop on one of the hourly trains (10B, one hour, 5.30am to 8.10pm) to Samut Sakhon.
After 15 minutes on the rattling train, the city density yields to squat villages. From the window you can peek into homes, temples and shops built a carefully considered arm’s length from the passing trains. Further on, palm trees, patchwork rice fields and marshes filled with giant elephant ears and canna lilies line the route, punctuated by whistle-stop stations.
The backwater farms evaporate quickly as you enter Samut Sakhon, popularly known as Mahachai because it straddles the confluence of Mae Nam Tha Chin and Khlong Mahachai. This is a bustling port town, several kilometres upriver from the Gulf of Thailand, and the end of the first rail segment. Before the 17th century it was called Tha Jiin (Chinese Pier) because of the large number of Chinese junks that called here.
After working your way through one of the most hectic fresh markets in the country, you’ll come to a vast harbour clogged with water hyacinths and wooden fishing boats. A few rusty cannons pointing towards the river testify to the existence of the town’s crumbling fort, built to protect the kingdom from sea invaders.
Take the ferry across to Baan Laem (3B to 5B), where you’ll jockey for space with school teachers riding motorcycles and people running errands. If the infrequent 5B ferry hasn’t already deposited you there, take a motorcycle taxi (10B) for the 2km ride to Wat Chawng Lom, home to the Jao Mae Kuan Im Shrine, a 9m-high fountain in the shape of the Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Mercy that is popular with regional tour groups. Beside the shrine is Tha Chalong, a train stop with three daily departures for Samut Songkhram at 8.10am, 12.05pm and 4.40pm (10B, one hour). The train rambles out of the city on tracks that the surrounding forest threatens to engulf, and this little stretch of line genuinely feels a world away from the big smoke of Bangkok.
The jungle doesn’t last long, and any illusion that you’ve entered a parallel universe free of concrete is shattered as you enter Samut Songkhram. And to complete the seismic shift, you’ll emerge directly into a hubbub of hectic market stalls. Between train arrivals and departures these stalls are set up directly on the tracks and must be hurriedly cleared away when the train arrives – it’s quite an amazing scene.
Commonly known as Mae Klong, Samut Songkhram is a tidier version of Samut Sakhon and offers a great deal more as a destination. Owing to flat topography and abundant water sources, the area surrounding the provincial capital is well suited to the steady irrigation needed to grow guava, lychee and grapes. From Mae Klong Market pier (tâh đà·làht mâa glorng), you can charter a boat (1000B) or hop in a sŏrng·tăa·ou(passenger pick-up truck; 8B) near the market for the 10-minute ride to Amphawa.
Feature: Bangkok’s Green Lung
If you’ve been to any of Bangkok’s rooftop bars, you may have noticed the rural-looking zone just southeast of the city centre. Known in English as the Phrapradaeng Peninsula, the conspicuously green finger of land is surrounded on three sides by Mae Nam Chao Phraya, a feature that seems to have shielded it from development.
The Phrapradaeng Peninsula encompasses rural homes, orchards, canals and lots of wet, unruly jungle. Most people visit the peninsula for the Bang Nam Pheung Market, a fun, weekends-only market with an emphasis on food. While there, you can check out the wonderfully dilapidated, 250-year-old Wat Bang Nam Pheung Nok, a Buddhist temple.
For something more active, the area is on the itinerary of many Bangkok bike tours, which take advantage of the peninsula’s elevated walkways. Alternatively, there’s Si Nakhon Kheun Khan Park, a vast botanical park with a large lake and birdwatching tower.
If you’re really enjoying the Phrapradaeng Peninsula, you can extend your stay by overnighting at Bangkok Tree House, near Wat Bang Na Nork.
To get to Phrapradaeng, take the BTS to Bang Na and jump in a taxi for the short ride to the pier at Wat Bang Na Nork via Th Sanphawut. From there, take the river-crossing ferry (4B) followed by a short motorcycle taxi (10B) ride if you’re going to Bang Nam Pheung Market.
Seen all the big sights? Eaten enough pàt tai for a lifetime? When you’re done taking it all in, consider some of Bangkok’s more active pursuits. Massages and spa visits are justifiably a huge draw, but the city is also home to some great guided tours and courses, the latter in subjects ranging from Thai cookery to meditation.
Bangkok’s outer suburbs are well stocked with golf courses, with green fees ranging from 250B to 5000B, plus the customary 200B tip for caddies. The website Thai Golfer (www.thaigolfer.com) rates every course in Thailand (click through to ‘Course Reviews’).
Bangkok has plenty of gyms, ranging in style from long-running, open-air affairs in spaces such as Lumphini Park to ultramodern megagyms complete with high-tech equipment. Most large hotels have gyms and swimming pools, as do a growing number of small hotels.
Spas & Massage
According to the teachings of traditional Thai healing, the use of herbs and massage should be part of a regular health-and-beauty regimen, not just an excuse for pampering. In other words, you need no excuse to get a massage in Bangkok, and it’s just as well, because the city could mount a strong claim to being the massage capital of the world. Exactly what type of massage you’re after is another question. Variations range from store-front traditional Thai massage to an indulgent ‘spa experience’ with service and style. And even within the enormous spa category there are many options: there’s plenty of pampering going around, but some spas now focus more on the medical than the sensory, while plush resort-style spas offer a menu of appealing beauty treatments.
Types of Massage
The most common variety is traditional Thai massage (nôo·at păan boh·rahn). Although it sounds relaxing, at times it can seem more closely related to Thai boxing than to shiatsu. Thai massage is based on yogic techniques for general health, which involve pulling, stretching, bending and manipulating pressure points. If done well, a traditional massage will leave you sore but revitalised. Full-body massages usually include camphor-scented balms or herbal compresses. Note that ‘oil massage’ is sometimes taken as code for ‘sexy massage’. A foot massage is arguably (and it’s a strong argument) the best way to treat the leg-weariness of sightseeing.
Depending on the neighbourhood, prices for massages in small parlours are 200B to 350B for a foot massage and 300B to 600B for a full-body massage. Spa experiences start at about 1000B and climb like a Bangkok skyscraper.
Yoga & Pilates
Yoga studios – and enormous accompanying billboards of smiling gurus – have popped up faster than mushrooms at a Full Moon Party. Expect to pay about 500B for a one-off class.
Lumphini Park and Benjakiti Park host early-morning and late-evening runners. For something more social, one of Bangkok’s longest-running sports groups is the Hash House Harriers (www.bangkokhhh.com), which puts on weekly runs.
A bike path circles Benjakiti Park and cycling is allowed in Lumphini Park between 10am and 3pm. Cyclists also have their own hash, with the Bangkok Hash House Bikers (www.bangkokbikehash.org) meeting one Sunday a month for a 40km to 50km mountain-bike ride and post-ride refreshments
If your idea of the typical Bangkok hotel was influenced by The Hangover Part II, you’ll be relieved to learn that the city is home to a variety of modern hostels, guesthouses and hotels. To further improve matters, much of Bangkok’s accommodation offers excellent value and competition is so intense that fat discounts are almost always available. And the city is home to so many hotels that, apart from some of the smaller, boutique places, booking ahead isn’t generally required.
Wi-fi is nearly universal across the spectrum, but air-conditioning and lifts are not.
The cheapest hostels and guesthouses often share bathrooms and may not even supply a towel. Some remain fan-cooled or, in the case of dorms, will only run the air-con between certain hours. Wi-fi, if available, is typically free at budget places. If on offer, breakfast at most Bangkok hostels and budget hotels is little more than instant coffee and toast.
Increasingly, midrange has come to mean a private room with air-con, a fridge, hot water, TV and free wi-fi. It’s not uncommon for a room to boast all of these but lack a view or even windows. Breakfast can range from ‘buffets’ based around toast and oily fried eggs to healthier meals with yoghurt or tropical fruit.
Top-end hotels in Bangkok supply all the facilities you’d expect at this level. The more thoughtful places have amenities such as en suite, computers and free wi-fi; in other places, it’s not uncommon to have to pay a premium for the last of these. In sweaty Bangkok, pools are almost standard, not to mention fitness and business centres, restaurants and bars. Breakfast is often buffet-style.
If you’re planning on staying longer than a few days, or don’t need housekeeping, there are ample alternatives to the traditional hotel in Bangkok.
Airbnb (www.airbnb.com/s/Bangkok–Thailand) has heaps of listings in the city, ranging from condos and apartments to small hotels masquerading as condos and apartments. For something a bit more established there’s House by the Pond, an old-school-style Bangkok apartment that offers nightly, weekly and monthly stays.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a bit more money and don’t want to forgo the perks of staying at a hotel, a clever route is the ubiquitous serviced apartment. Bangkok is loaded with apartments that offer long-stay options with the benefits of a hotel (door attendants, cleaning, room service, laundry). But what few people realise is that most serviced apartments are happy to take short-term guests as well as longer stayers – and that by booking ahead you can get a luxury apartment with a lot more space and facilities (kitchen, washing machine, etc) than a hotel room for the same or less money. It’s really a great way to stay in town, especially if you’re a family who needs more space than two hotel rooms.
In Bangkok, this designation usually refers to any sort of budget accommodation rather than a room in a family home, although we use it to describe the latter. Guesthouses and similar budget hotels are generally found in somewhat inconveniently located corners of old Bangkok (Banglamphu, Chinatown and Thewet), which means that the money you’re saving in rent will probably go on taxi fares. Rates begin at about 500B.
Those counting every baht can get a dorm bed (or a closet-like room) with a shared bathroom for as little as 250B. The latest trend in Bangkok is slick ‘flashpacker’ hostels that blur the line between budget and midrange. A bed at these will cost between around 400B and 800B.
Feature: Bathroomless in Bangkok
If you’re on a shoestring budget, Bangkok has heaps of options for you, ranging from high-tech, pod-like dorm beds in a brand-new hostel to cosy bunk beds in a refurbished Chinatown shophouse. (And if you decide that you need a bit more privacy, nearly all of Bangkok’s hostels also offer private rooms.) And best of all, at the places listed here, we found the bathrooms to be clean and convenient – sharing will hardly feel like a compromise
The widest part of the accommodation spectrum, the term ‘hotel’ can mean a variety of things in Bangkok.
Bangkok’s midrange hotels often have all the appearance of a Western-style hotel, but without the predictability. If you’re on a lower-midrange budget, and don’t care much about aesthetics, some very acceptable rooms can be had for between 1200B and 2000B. If your budget is higher, it really pays to book ahead, as online discounts here can be substantial. You’ll find several midrange hotels along lower Th Sukhumvit, near Siam Sq and in Banglamphu.
Feature: Smaller Is Better
Although the big chains dominate the skyline, Bangkok is also home to several attractive hotels and guesthouses with fewer than 10 rooms.
Need to Know
- The best time to get a discount is outside of Bangkok’s peak seasons, which are from November to March and from July to August.
- Be sure to book ahead if you’re arriving during peak tourist season (from approximately November to February) and are keen on a smaller, boutique-type hotel.
- Tipping is generally not expected at Thai hotels, but a service charge of 10% is added to the bill at some midrange and most upscale places.
Nowhere else is the Thai reverence for food more evident than in Bangkok. To the outsider, the life of a Bangkokian appears to be a string of meals and snacks punctuated by the odd stab at work, not the other way around. If you can adjust your mental clock to this schedule, your visit will be a delicious one indeed.
The Flavours of Bangkok
The people of central Thailand are fond of sweet, savoury, herbal flavours, and many dishes include freshwater fish, pork, coconut milk and palm sugar – common ingredients in the central Thai plains. Because of the region’s proximity to the Gulf of Thailand, central Thai eateries, particularly those in Bangkok, also serve a wide variety of seafood.
Another significant influence on the city’s kitchens has come from the Bangkok-based royal court, which has been producing sophisticated and refined takes on central Thai dishes for nearly 300 years. Although originally only available within the palace walls, so-called ‘royal’ Thai dishes such as máh hór (a small dish combining mandarin, orange or pineapple and a sweet/savoury/peppery topping that includes pork, chicken, peanuts, sugar, peppercorns and coriander root) can be found in a few restaurants across the city.
Immigrants from southern China have been influencing Thai cuisine for centuries and it was most likely Chinese labourers and vendors who introduced the wok and several varieties of noodle dishes to Thailand. They have also influenced Bangkok’s cuisine in other ways; for example, beef is not widely eaten in Bangkok due to a Chinese-Buddhist teaching that forbids eating ‘large’ animals. Perhaps the most common Thai-Chinese dish in Bangkok is bà·mèe, wheat-and-egg noodles typically served with slices of barbecued pork.
Muslims are thought to have first visited Thailand during the late 14th century. Along with the Quran, they brought with them a meat- and dried-spice-based cuisine from their homelands in India and the Middle East. Nearly 700 years later, the impact of this culinary commerce can still be felt in Bangkok. While some Islamic-world-influenced dishes such as roh·đee (a fried bread similar to the Indian paratha) have changed little, if at all, others such as gaang mát·sà·màn (sometimes known as ‘Muslim curry’) are a unique blend of Thai and Indian/Middle Eastern cooking styles and ingredients.
The End of Street Food?
It was akin to announcing that Rome’s coliseum was going to be razed. In mid-2017, media outlets reported that food stalls and vendors were slated to be banned from the streets of Bangkok.
Locals and visitors were shocked and appalled. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) rushed into repair mode. Even Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt obligated to release a statement. Within days the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), the organisation which released the statement and the entity responsible for overseeing street vendors, backpedalled, claiming that it was misquoted and that it was simply planning to enforce already existing laws and regulations.
Yet in the months leading up to the debacle (Streetgate?), the BMA had cleared street vendors from some areas of the city, most notably along Soi 55, Th Sukhumvit (the street colloquially known as Thong Lo) and Th Suan Phlu, in efforts to clean up and unclog the city’s footpaths and streets.
What does this mean for the rest of Bangkok’s estimated 20,000 street vendors? As with many things in Thailand, the answer is unclear. At press time, the BMA had deployed a team of officers to enforce rules and regulations in Banglamphu and Chinatown, but remained vague about its plans to deal with street food in other parts of the city. For now, the situation appears to be at a stalemate, but other factors, including private development, have already done away with some of Bangkok’s most famous curbside eats and it seems likely that in the future the city’s streets may be cleaner and clearer, if a lot less delicious.
Where To Eat
During the last couple of decades, Thai food has become internationally famous and Bangkok is, not surprisingly, the best place in the world to eat it. From roadside stalls to restaurants with Michelin stars in their eyes, the whole spectrum of Thai food is available here. And more recent immigration to the city has resulted in a contemporary dining scene where options range from Korean to French, touching on just about everything in between.
Markets & Stalls
Open-air markets and food stalls are among the most popular dining spots for Thais, although in recent years the authorities have begun banning them from some parts of town. In the mornings, stalls selling coffee and Chinese-style doughnuts appear along busy commuter corridors. At lunchtime, diners might grab a plastic chair at yet another stall for a simple stir-fry or pick up a foam box of noodles to scoff down at the office. In Bangkok’s suburbs, night markets often spring up in the middle of town with a cluster of food vendors, metal tables and chairs, and some shopping as an after-dinner mint.
One of the most common types of restaurant in Bangkok – and, if you ask us, the most delicious – is the open-fronted hôrng tăa·ou (shophouse) restaurant. The cooks at these places have most likely been serving the same dish, or a limited repertoire of dishes, for several decades and really know what they’re doing. The food may cost slightly more than on the street, but the setting is usually more comfortable and hygienic, not to mention the fact that you’re eating a piece of history. While such restaurants rarely have English-language menus, you can usually point to a picture or dish.
At home, eating in a mall is generally a last resort. In Bangkok, it’s a destination. The city’s shopping-centre-based food courts bring together famous vendors and restaurants from across town in a setting that’s clean, convenient and provides English-language menus.
There are plenty of ráhn ah·hăhn (restaurants) in Bangkok. Lunchtime is the right time to point and eat at the ráhn kôw gaang (rice and curry shops), which sell a selection of pre-made dishes. The more generic ráhn ah·hăhn đahm sàng (made-to-order restaurants) can often be recognised by a display of raw ingredients – Chinese kale, tomatoes, chopped pork, fresh or dried fish, noodles, eggplant, spring onions – and offer a standard repertoire of Thai and Chinese–Thai dishes. As the name implies, the cooks will attempt to prepare any dish you can name – a potentially difficult operation if you can’t speak Thai.
Bangkok is home to dozens of upscale restaurants. For the most part, those serving Thai cuisine have adjusted their recipes to suit foreign palates – for more authentic food you’re much better off eating at the cheaper shophouse-style restaurants. On the other hand, upscale and hotel restaurants are probably the best places in Bangkok for authentic Western-style food. If these are outside your price range, you’ll be happy to know that there’s also a huge spread of midrange foreign restaurants in today’s Bangkok, many of them quite good.
For impromptu drinking and snacking, Bangkok also has an overabundance of modern cafes – including branches of several international chains. Most serve passable takes on Western-style coffee drinks, cakes and sweets.
Bangkok has a number of great cooking courses that are geared towards visitors wanting to re-create Thai cuisine at home.
- Or Tor Kor Market
- Nonthaburi Market
- Talat Mai
If you take pleasure in seeing food in its raw form, Bangkok is home to dozens of traditional-style wet markets, ranging from the grungy to the flashy; they can also be a good place to eat.
Need To Know
Restaurants serving Thai food are generally open from 10am to 8pm or 9pm. Foreign-cuisine restaurants tend to keep only lunch and dinner hours (ie 11am to 2pm and 6pm to 10pm).
Bangkok has passed a citywide ordinance banning street vendors from setting up shop on Mondays.
If you have a lot of friends in tow or will be dining at a formal restaurant (including hotel restaurants), reservations are recommended. Bookings are also recommended for Sunday brunches and dinner cruises. Otherwise, you shouldn’t have a problem scoring a table at the vast majority of restaurants in Bangkok.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that tipping is not obligatory in Thailand. Some people leave roughly 10% at any sit-down restaurant where someone fills their glass every time they take a sip; others don’t. Most upmarket restaurants will apply a 10% service charge to the bill.
1.5 Drinking & Nightlife
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.
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, involving everything from ping-pong balls and razors to midgets on motorbikes. 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 Stadiumis 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 taifans 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).