Running down the colourful cocktail joints, craft beer bars, and super cool dives that make nights out in this city so special
Never has the question “Where should we go for drinks tonight?” been so difficult to answer. Not all that long ago, five-star hotels were the only place you could go in this town for a decent cocktail, and beer variety amounted to a handful of pretty much identical bland lagers with big game or mythical animals as logos. In fact, craft beer wasn’t even imported into Bangkok before 2012.
But times have changed. Now we have no less than two dozen bars serving craft beer brewed by Thai upstarts outside the country, and other beer geeks bringing world-famous brewers to our shores for meet and greets. We also have spirit purists who can recite recipes from the Savoy Book as if they were lines from the bible, or tell you the history of zeitgeist-defining cocktails like the Negroni and use that as justification for making your drinks stiffer and infusing their Campari with coffee beans.
And you, dear reader, probably know a thing or two more about what goes into your drinks, and can better appreciate the reasons you love that dark dingy dive, than ever before. Consumer knowledge is at an all-time high, say industry experts like Chennarong ‘Jan’ Bhumichitr, a senior brand ambassador at Diageo Moët Hennessey Thailand, who deserves some credit for helping to educate all of us. Diageo and other brands like it have invested serious time and energy into improving our collective knowledge of booze—that includes drinking responsibly.
All this growth has come at a cost, of course. Thong Lor has experienced more facelifts than a plastic surgeon, and trends tend to sweep through this city like a tornado. Just as you’re starting to understand all the fuss about chrysanthemum in your cocktails, it stops being cool. For a while, every new bar seemed to have “rustic and raw” interior design, then they didn’t, and then they did again. What are we supposed to be drinking now anyway—an Old Fashioned, or an IPA? Your head really starts spinning when you see a guy who was behind the bar at some lounge in Sathorn managing a different bar in Ekkamai the very next week.
With this in mind, let’s embark on a fool’s errand; accepting that this story can’t come close to being comprehensive. Some of the bars featured might shutter this year, and no doubt many bartenders will move on to greener pastures. But such is life. Right now, Bangkok truly is enjoying a golden age of nightlife, and we might as well cherish it in the moment.
Craft Beer Bars
On a rain- and beer-soaked evening in late 2012, Brew Beers & Ciders played host to the first Beervana pop-up event, marking the first time American craft beer had reached our shores for distribution. Sadly, that outlet of the Brew chain is gone now, but craft beer has only boomed since then. In supermarkets, Family Marts, and just about every new bar with beer—even gin joints like Teens of Thailand—you’ll find bottles of beer that were never available a few years ago. More impressively, greater Bangkok alone now boasts more than two dozen beer bars, from Bang Na to neighbouring Nonthaburi.
One such bar continues to blaze new trails. Over the past three years, Mikkeller Bangkok has consistently raised the bar for the beer scene. Occupying a beautifully renovated two-story townhouse on Ekkamai Soi 10, the bar boasts 30 taps that rotate each week, featuring beers, ciders—and even mead—that you won’t find elsewhere. That means cans of Double IPA from up-and-coming Norwegian brewery Lervig, marionberry mead from Superstition Meadery, and single kegs of beers that would be hard to find even in the country where they’re brewed, like AleSmith’s Thai Speedway Stout (an imperial stout made with lemongrass, ginger, chilies, and Thai herbs that, somewhat ironically, was not made with export to the Thai market in mind).
Husband-and-wife owners Jakob Rasmussen and Rutima Vaewvichit, who also run a craft beer and spirits importing company called Hopsession, often bring in famous brewers, including the bar’s namesake, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, for casual, off-the-cuff events that last long into the night.
“When we started doing Hopsession, we were a bit frustrated by all the generic beer bars back then that wanted to sell only beers they had heard of, beers that were available year round, and so on,” says Vaewvichit. “We opened Mikkeller [the first sole craft beer bar in Bangkok] to bring higher quality and more variety to people that maybe didn’t know much about craft beer.”
Canadian-run Hair of the Dog might be the polar opposite of Mikkeller in terms of design, but the bar, which could double as a set for a horror film, shares a serious penchant for beer. Actually, there are two branches of Hair of the Dog—the original occupies a narrow space above La Monita in Phloen Chit, and it feels decidedly more morgue-like than the spacious second outlet in Phrom Phong. Each has 13 taps—with at least one always pouring something heavy and extreme—as well as several fridges for drink-in or carry-out purchases. And the bar staff know what they’re talking about, so ask questions if you’re overwhelmed by the options.
One of the newer venues in town, Mash on Soi Convent has quickly established itself as a go-to bar, not just for the variety of high-quality beer—which includes some of the better cuts from the recent wave of Thai brewers who have gone overseas to brew legally. From the music to the minimal, marble-heavy design, this is one of the most attractive bars to open this year. It should have staying power, too. It’s a little more refined than the usual venues in this part of town, and having 16 taps certainly doesn’t hurt its cause. Mash should remain a popular spot for office workers and travellers long after the honeymoon has ended.
Another relatively new bar has brought craft beer to the Old Town. Pijiu, a cool, casual bar run by current and former Beervana employees, serves five beers on tap and many others by the bottle inside a handsome, heavily Chinese-themed shophouse on Soi Nana in Chinatown.
Wishbeer made the most of Bangkok’s burgeoning startup scene to develop a home delivery system for beer. Then, it added a bar and bottle shop in a renovated warehouse that’s almost hidden in plain sight, just off Sukhumvit Road in Phra Khanong, where good happy hours and frequent events, including launches of new beers from Thai brewers, draw big crowds.
Korean expat Ted Ahn turned a tiny storefront just outside MRT Petchaburi into a haven for beer geeks, and by the time this issue goes to print, he will have opened a second branch of his Changwon Express at Flow House. But now he’ll have triple the number of taps to work with, as this larger branch will pour a range of Thai and Western craft beer from up to 30 taps.
Thai Craft Beer Scene
Ever since Wichit Saiklao, better known as ‘Chit’, launched his brewing academy and dive bar—aptly entitled Chit Beer—on the bucolic island of Koh Kret in 2013, the number of Thai brewers in Bangkok has skyrocketed. Now, some are working within the laws to legally brew their beer. That means going abroad to brew, but still, within this legal climate, that’s a win.
“I just wanted to open a bar that served good beer for my community [Tha Sai],” explains Supapong ‘Toon’ Pruenglampoo, one of the 11 people behind the rising Thai-run beer brand called Sandport, which is a translation of Tha Sai. “But now [we see that] maybe our story, our passion, can influence people all over the world. It’s worth the risks we take.”
To try some of the fruits of this burgeoning movement, check out bottle shops like Bottles of Booze in Sathorn, where beers from Sandport, Yaksa, Ther, and more are available alongside big-name imports. It might require a bit of a trek to get to Sandport’s own bar, the Fellowship of Beer (out near Lak Si), but it’s a good place to clink glasses with aspiring Thai brewers. So is the weekends-only Chit Beer, of course, and Goldencoins in Ekkamai, where one of the former owners of much-loved, and now defunct, Let the Boy Die has opened his own bar with a similar concept—in both its design and rebellious spirit.
Speaking of rebellious, The Fat Cow in Lad Phrao and Dok Keaw House Bar on the periphery of Ari may fly under-the-radar, considering their locations, but both serve lots of lesser-known Thai-made beers—especially those that are still “underground”, if you catch the drift. If you’re curious, they’re definitely worth the trek. Rumour has it the old wooden house that Dok Keaw occupies is haunted, too.
Other good bets for great craft beer: O’Glee, Craft on 23, The Beer Bridge (Lang Suan), Beer Belly (Thong Lor), and House of Beers (Penny’s Balcony, Thong Lor).
The Cocktail Craze
Bangkok’s nightlife has always had a reputation for being free-wheeling, no-holds-barred. Much of that is its own fault, although movies like The Hangover Part 2 didn’t do the city any favours either. But while Hangover-like binge sessions rage on in the city’s backpacker ghettos, a new wave of bartenders in Thong Lor, Chinatown, and Sathorn has truly classed up the joint.
Thong Lor is the epicentre of this cocktail culture movement. Cocktail bars continue to establish themselves, even as the community develops at warp speed around them, but it all starts with Backstage Bar, a hideaway first opened in 2014. This is the place where many of the city’s bartenders confess to spending their time after hours, so you know it’s good. Expect drinks tailored to you with the benefit of the bar staff’s endless supply of creativity, while a “behind the curtains at the burlesque show” theme lightens the mood. It doesn’t hurt that pretty much all the bartenders aspire to ‘Diageo World Class’ status, either. In short, Backstage is a must for any cocktail lover.
Nearby you’ll find Rabbit Hole. Lacking obvious signage, this low-lit and handsomely designed “speakeasy” might be Bangkok’s answer to Singapore’s 38 HongKong Street: craft cocktails in a den of a bar, where boundaries are being pushed by the minute by folks like Suwincha ‘Cha Cha’ Singsuwan, arguably the most famous female bartender in Bangkok right now. Spirit forward drinks are the rule here, not the exception.
Newcomer Locker Room, also up the road, has thrown its hat in the ring for “Best Bar in Bangkok, All Categories”. It helps that this bar sees the union of Ronnaporn ‘Neung’ Kanivichaporn—co-owner of Backstage Bar, and one of the city’s top bar figures—with Colin Chia of Singapore’s Nutmeg & Clove, Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo’s Bar High Five, and Nick Wu of Taipei’s East End. This is bar royalty. That they pull off a “past-present-future” cocktail concept to perfection is no surprise. What is surprising is the somewhat hidden location behind new late-night-friendly mall JIA. Hint: look for the lockers.
But as these bars come, so do other institutions go. Chalk it up to development, or perhaps to a collective short attention span. In any case, places like Bronx Liquid Parlour—which was one of the most reliable cocktail bars in town in terms of both atmosphere and drinks—have served their last, while others have seen their star bartenders move on for reasons probably better left unstated. Case in point, the delightful Saimai Nantarat, who amicably left Bunker in Sathorn to lead the all-female bar crew at Highball. Fortunately, the prowess that made her famous in the first place is on equal display at this venue in Phrom Phong, where—you guessed it—creative spins on the simple but absolutely fantastic highball are the order.
While Thong Lor may be the beating heart of Bangkok’s cocktail culture, the movement is also in full swing on the other side of town. Teens of Thailand in Chinatown remains one of the city’s premier watering holes. It scores double for being a gin joint. Head bar man Niks Anuman-Rajadhon has been at this for a long time, and his “couldn’t care less” attitude toward things like advertising and awards means he runs the show his way. His way also happens to be the right way, for the record, so for the best G&Ts in town, go here.
But don’t stop at Teens. On the same street, Soi Nana, you’ll find Tep Bar, which infuses the whole cocktail experience with Thai heritage. The drinks are made with a kind of local hooch called ya dong that’s blended with herbs, fruits, and spices, while the music features live luk krung, the slow-building songs of the central region of Thailand. Even the design displays lots of golden touches.
Tep Bar is rightly a fan favourite, but the newer Ba Hao should join those ranks soon as well. The setting evokes Wong Kar-Wai’s film In the Mood for Love, with red neon tube lights and a light hand in the renovation of the shophouse it occupies. And the cocktails are done with a Thai-Chinese touch, making good use of ingredients like ginseng, herbal liqueur, and pickled plum.
Not all excellent cocktail bars are found in just these neighbourhoods. Vesper and Eat Me, both located in the Soi Convent area of Sathorn/Silom, are heavy hitters, as is Junker & Bar, a gin-focused dive on nearby Soi Suan Phlu. The Old Town has Ku Bar, a legitimate hideaway behind Brown Sugar, serving cocktails made with local goods. And Q&A Bar has become something of a gold standard for cocktail bars in Asoke (err, make that Bangkok). This hideaway comes by way of the Sugar Ray team, who are responsible for creating many of the best drink menus in the city.
Other great cocktail bars, or restaurants with great bars, include: FooJohn (in Talad Noi), Zuma (St. Regis Hotel), Vogue Lounge, Rarb (by Escapade), Freedbird, Bad Motel, Il Fumo, and The Speakeasy (Hotel Muse).
Dive & Live Music Bars
If you’ve ended up at Wong’s, your night has not gone according to plan. It’s the ultimate walk-of-shame bar, a dark, smoky pit with a floor so sticky it elicits visceral reactions, where music videos from the 80s and 90s with a kind of perverse appeal loop all night and the action doesn’t even get good until after 2am—when all the nearby clubs have closed. Butts of the standing tend to rest on the shoulders of the seated, and the toilet is a sight so frightening it’s better off just not being written about. Wong’s is at once hideous, probably in violation of whatever building codes exist in this city, and one of the greatest dive bars on the planet.
If the above sounds like it’s in your wheelhouse, you’re in good company. For as sophisticated and fantastic as the cocktail and craft beer bar scenes are nowadays, nothing beats a good dive, and Bangkok is blessed with some of the best. Shades of Retro is not Wong’s, to be clear, but it also isn’t Backstage Bar. It occupies a house filled with antiques and collectibles (it doubles as a vintage shop), is very dimly lit, and has what appears to be a half-completed bar shelf hanging on by a thread. So the ambiance leans toward “Uncle Jerry’s house, but without the weird smells”. But it also happens to be one of the most reliable and coolest bars in town, serving great cocktails and playing deep cuts on the speakers, and always offering a good time. This bar, in the bowels of Thong Lor, has been open for 17 years, and let’s hope it stays open at least another 17.
Also in a non-prime location in Thong Lor is Studio Lam. It’s tiny and cramped and somehow packs the people in for live sets from the likes of the Paradise Bangkok Molam Band (the owner is the highly respected Maft Sai, a founding member of the band and known crate-digger who also owns Zudrangma Records next door) and Rasmee. Crowds also come for the nightly run of DJs, who spin old and underground beats from across the world, especially Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. It’s the place to go for good roots music and is clearly a favourite of the city’s young and cultured socialites. It gets bonus points for serving an almost absurd range of ya dong, both neat and in fantastic cocktails.
Over in the Sathorn area, also in a non-prime location, is Jam. Since opening a few years ago, this bar has earned serious street cred for its promotion of the city’s independent artists—filmmakers, DJs, bands, photographers, writers… you name it. It doesn’t serve anything special from the bar, but you’re going here for the atmosphere anyway, or maybe to rub shoulders with fellow creative types. Check their Facebook page to see what events are going on each night.
Co-run by a Wisconsin native, Fatty’s Bar & Diner on Rama IX Road naturally specializes in staples of the American heartland, such as gut-busting and delicious burgers, cheese curds, and cold craft beer. But this dive is also one of the best places to see up-and-coming rock bands perform live. Punk, folk, hardcore, and more, the bar plays host to all kinds of sounds.
Saxophone is one of the oldest live music venues in town, still drawing crowds to that small soi beside the Victory Monument roundabout. Blues, ska, reggae, rock, and jazz make up the bill here. Settle in with mugs of beer and some spicy Thai salads, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a nice Friday night. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to start said night off at Raintree Pub, a 10-minute walk away in the same neighbourhood. At Raintree, Thai country and folk music fill a space that’s decorated with leather, buffalo horns, large wooden wagon wheels, and other Thai country-western memorabilia. It’s weird, sure, but it also highlights the true diversity of Thai culture.
For soul music the city’s specialist resides in Talad Noi. The always exciting Soulbar has been around a few years now, and is widely credited for being at the vanguard of the Chinatown revival. The space can only be described as intimate (it’s a renovated shophouse, after all), but that only adds to its appeal. The music here always delivers, especially on Wednesday and Friday, when Motherfunky and the Supergoods, respectively, hit the stage.
Finally, this feature would be incomplete without mentioning Smalls. Run by nightlife luminary David Jacobson, Smalls has been the favourite bar and meet-up place for the city’s creative types for years. Decorated with eclectic, original art, and serving consistently good drinks— barman Danny Yeung is an expert, if understated, mixmaster—this spot is one of Bangkok’s true gems. The bar also features excellent cutting-edge live jazz every Wednesday night, as well as a monthly Vietnamese Pho night. Its location on Suan Phlu gives it a sort of hideaway feel, too, as if this can somehow be your own secret spot (even if it is shared by a multitude of other in-the-know locals).
Some other wonderful dives and live music joints include: Black Cabin (see more on pg. 108), Hailiang, T-Rex, 12×12, Aderholt’s Annex at JUSMAG, Parking Toys’ Watt, and 23 Bar & Gallery.
Live music venue with a rock solid reputation
In 1987, eight years after Neil Young first sang “Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die”, Wannop Buranasitiporn opened Bangkok’s first venue dedicated purely to live rock music, simply named The Rock Pub. That venue, like Young, whose famous line was actually an expression of his fear of becoming obsolete, has endured perhaps far longer than Wannop ever imagined. Take the BTS to Ratchathewi, and there it still stands, a tribute to furious guitar solos and 250-bpm drum lines practically hidden in plain sight a few steps from Siam.
Six nights a week, The Rock Pub puts on shows dedicated to different strains of rock, from Nirvana-style grunge to Nu Metal, to Oasis-style rock, to punk. Over 30 years, the bar has survived a litany of national crises, including the Tom Yum Kung crisis in 1997 and too many political protests to count. About the only thing that has changed is the management. Since 2010, Wannop has settled into the background while his son, Nonthadet, who goes by ‘Tao’, has been running the show. Tao’s passion for rock music is palpable. He cites bringing some of his favourite artists, like the Deftones and Machinehead, to the bar for after-hours drinks as top memories. He plays in a metal band that caters to head-bangers, and he readily admits to loving rock “wholeheartedly”.
“For the first 10 or 12 years, the bar was packed every day,” explains Tao, who grew up frequently going to shows and playing with older musicians at the bar. “Rock was mainstream, people craved live music, and we had all the best bands. Today rock is second-tier.”
The Rock Pub’s continued popularity, then, is perhaps owed to Tao’s drive, although he credits word of mouth.
“The younger generation didn’t grow up with the Rock Pub. They don’t know what it is,” he explains. “People come to a show, experience the atmosphere, and then tell all their friends about it. Sometimes, like the Nu Metal nights, we’re sold out but people beg us to get in. This is not a normal bar. I think we’re the only place in town where every seat in the house faces the stage. The music here is not background—it’s everything.”
For fans of live rock shows, this timeless institution—and probably the most unique family business in town—still beckons. Tao and Wannop both hope to keep the show going for another 30 years so that future generations of rock fans have a place to gather. Channeling Neil Young, Wannop adds, “Rock may have changed, but it hasn’t died. It’s just adapted to changes. Rock never dies!”
The venerable bamboo gets a re-do
The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok (48 Oriental Avenue) has been involved with a lot of firsts in Thai history. It was the first hotel, located along the first paved road. It opened the first hotel spa, and it was the first place that some of the most eminent authors of their eras—Conrad, Greene, Maugham—would go to upon arrival in Bangkok.
The hotel also wears the crown of having the first jazz bar. The Bamboo Bar, which opened in 1953, can brag about a few firsts of its own. The bar has served the likes of Louis Armstrong, Eric Clapton, Audrey Hepburn, and Mick Jagger over the years. More recently, it has been named one of the 50 best bars in Asia. Not to mention it has pretty much always been the premier place for live jazz in Bangkok.
Today, the bar wears a slightly different look. In 2015, it underwent its first major update in almost 20 years. The hotel hired award-winning local design firm P49 to handle the renovations. Considering all the history hanging from the hotel’s neck, it was no easy task.
GM Amanda Hyndman has said the goal was to weave the past into the present. P49 managed to do that by restoring some of the bar’s original black rattan chairs and producing replicas of other furniture found in photos from the early 20th century. Other fixtures, like the apothecary-style bar, the curvaceous, Roaring 20s-style font chosen for the insignia, and a mirrored ceiling, express the duality going on here: colonial times meet the modern day. Likewise, the designers’ choice to use bamboo, Thai silk, and animal-print patterns has elevated the physical setting by adding an air of the exotic. Even if it’s your first time at the bar, the atmosphere should feel familiar, as if you were lost in a Graham Greene novel.
It’s not often that the renovation of a hotel bar merits so much attention. Then again, not every hotel is the Mandarin Oriental, and not every bar is Bamboo Bar.
NOTE: The bar’s amazing live jazz band, which always features a stellar line up of local and international talent, can be heard from 9pm till midnight Sunday to Thursday, and from 9pm till 1am Fridays and Saturdays.
By Craig Sauers