From Dusk to Dawn in the City of Angels
When the whistle blows, half-Windsors loosen, blue blazers are left on the backs of chairs, and Nine West heels are swapped for sandals. It’s a mad rush to automatic doors and BTS platforms. By the time Empire Tower has emptied, only one thing is left on anyone’s mind.
Bangkok is a city of eaters. So much so that it borders on the obsessive. In times of public protest, the people eat. In excruciating heat and monsoon rains, they move inside to canteens to chow down on som tam and sticky rice. And when the daily diaspora of office workers freshly off-the-clock begins at 6pm, collars blue and white are suddenly distinguished not by income bracket or accessories, but rather culinary tastes and distastes. Especially on Fridays.
A certain portion of the rank and file pool at public transport and pitch themselves with collective prowess onto trains, alighting independently at inner-city hubs and filling up at BBQ Plazas, mall bistros, and ramen joints. Others head home to primp for dinner dates at Bangkok’s upmarket offerings. More telling are the sidewalks, like those along Naradhiwas Road in Sathorn, where red folding tables bow under the weight of Leo bottles, ice buckets, and clay pots bubbling with herbs and broth. Each night, an olio of every working class migrates to these streetside mortars and pestles to feast on humble Isaan food with friends.
7.30pm: Saphan Taksin
A loud thump echoes. The sound that follows is jarring as a battered white ball scrapes across cobbled bricks. Scrich scrich scrich. Like ice being chipped off a car window. With a bladder filled with foam, a futsal ball is heavy and compact. So the ball doesn’t float or fly, but rather darts across the surface of the makeshift pitch and settles at the foot of a man wearing an apple red Wayne Rooney jersey who nudges it with his foot and scores. His team cheers.
The city is more active than its daytime façade suggests. It’s not uncommon to bear witness to pick-up basketball, acrobatic matches of takraw, and lemming-like dance aerobic sessions going on at night in the city’s parks—even its non-parks, like the asphalt in front of National Stadium. Sports and exercise tend to take place during the fleeting hours between work and bed, or work and play. Joggers trace complex loops on concrete paths in the dry and cool night air. Burly, often shirtless men pump rusty iron on public bench presses and squat racks. Couples go for walks along the river, watching hotel boats scuttle from shore to shore.
Yet it’s all a bit like theatre. During this recurring match beneath the Taksin Bridge, which happens nearly every day, security lights rain an incandescent white on the pitch, illuminating players scuffling up and down a stretch of riverside that can be terrifying late at night or early in the morning, when it’s dark and empty. But for a few hours, young and middle-aged men—high school students, tuk tuk drivers, security guards, even the odd foreigner—gather for a collective blowing off of steam as the night settles in to its skin.
8pm: Phrom Pong
Walk carefully past the go-go bars and massage parlours. Knock on the door just right. The Friese-Greene Club on Sukhumvit 22 is easy to miss. If you aren’t a member, you might not know it’s there, in a dead-end soi past the shell of the Queen’s Park Hotel. This secret-ish club celebrates nights differently than most. Movie-goers settle in early for beers and wine in the lounge. Some chat about news in the film industry. At 8pm, the show starts. A total of nine people can (and do) take a seat in comfy red chairs in the second-floor cinema, where independent, classic, and cult films are screened and afterward discussed over drinks.
For clock-punchers and early birds, the night provides release, the most obvious in the form of a bottle. But options do exist in the city—even when it seems they don’t. The Friese-Greene Club, as well as other places screening indie films, including JAM, Bangkok Open-Air Cinema Club, and the FCCT, offer intelligent ways to spend a night away from parties.
While the movie still screens in the FSG, a tiny venue in Sathorn fills with the crafty and curious. Until 9pm, the Joy Ruk Club (ruk as in “love”) offers classes focused on art and wellness. Weaving, watercolour painting, film, living an all-natural life—nearly every night, small groups get together and channel their artistic potential into projects. At the same time, photographers set up tripods on the Chong Nonsi Bridge, taking shots, destined for stock libraries, of the steely Empire Tower, front-lit by neon ads and stark white lights.
Creativity comes in many forms, none of which are bound by hours. Some writers notoriously stay up nights, scribbling away until dawn. In Phrom Pong every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night, new painters get their brushes wet at Paintbar Bangkok. Drawing classes, language exchanges, poetry slams, and club meet-ups happen at bars and cafés each night, the city’s subcultures shaping society from the foundation up after business hours.
11pm-1am: Thong Lo-Ekamai
In the city, you can’t read the stars, so you follow the light in the palm of your hand. Phones illuminate the way as text messages declare where to be now, where to go later. Selfies, black dresses and drinks, men with undercuts, friends using “party” as a verb. Thong Lo’s miracle mile of bars and clubs cater to the high society with house music and high-cost drinks.
Further down Thong Lo and Ekamai, however, places like Shades of Retro, J. Boroski, Tuba, Moose, and Rabbit Hole invite conversationalists, hipsters, and people with a thirst for well-crafted drinks. The hours pass, and still they remain seated, eating free popcorn or chatting with the bartender. This is where the night comes alive for many—even most.
But the bar scene in Bangkok has begun to form its own subcultures, too. Night prowlers now find their way to places like Studio Lam on Sukhumvit 51, where molam and various forms of funk take musical tastes beyond pop and hip hop and charting EDM. Taking Soi Ekamai across Petchburi Road leads to Parking Toys’ Watt, where local folk, synth, hard rock, and Thai roots bands play live all night, almost threatening to stay on stage until dawn. And in Chinatown’s Soi Nana, ya dong and luk krung are the weapons of choice at Tep Bar while 23 Bar blurs the lines between nightlife and art.
2.15am: Rama IV, Suan Phlu
Midnight is long gone, but the action is just beginning. At Too Fast to Sleep, a surprisingly packed house eschews pillows for papers and sets aside beer bottles for espressos. Students and bookworms and those just plain bored with nightlife turn their attention to work to finish.
Back behind Suan Phlu, another 24-hour café/entrepreneurial starting point called Think Tank suggests that the best ideas in Bangkok are not happening in an office, but rather in a much freer environment, where ideas can shift and bounce at any time of day. Co-working spaces are not on the rise; they’ve already risen. Start-ups such as GrabBike and HipFlat have changed the way the city considers fundamental things, like shopping and transport and property rental. Hierarchical structures have crumbled. The 9-5 shackles have been removed.
3am: Suan Phlu, Surasak
Complex and diverse, often separated by distance and industry, the city’s creative types come together most nights at Smalls. It’s as fitting an end-point for a late-night odyssey as any. Falling neatly between ramshackle shophouse and über-chic art bar, Smalls itself is run by a former photographer and a celebrated French artist and architect. Great ideas may or may not occur here—even when they do, they may never see the light of day—but the atmosphere speaks to the curious connection many artists share in their bohemian preferences and habits.
On the corner of Sathorn and Charoen Rat, chefs from upscale restaurants cap off another dinner service with their own dinner at a tumble-down Isaan place called Laab Ubol. Salt-coated fish reveals tender flesh. Som tam revives lost energy. The street chefs now serve the restaurant staff, turning the wheel over with a great meal for weary workers.
4.30am: Khlong Toey
The city’s cogs—those in full view but nevertheless reside on the margins—fire up their engines. Before sunrise, Khlong Toey market is crawling with food vendors, flower weavers, and tuk tuk drivers awaiting passengers. Vegetables and meat make for an awful smell this early, but the show goes on. By morning, this population of predawn rummagers will have cooked their curries, communed with dead, and steeled their souls for another 24 hours.
As the night owls return to roost, one day ends and another begins as the morning brings business from the streets to the skies. That’s the beauty of Bangkok, a colony of disparate minds and constant motion. And to truly understand it, you’ve got to stay awake.