Diving headfirst into Bangkok’s deepest Dive Bars
Even when you can afford the high cost of signature cocktails, sometimes you just want something rough and ready. Some place where there’s no intricate bar menu to pour over, and no need to give your wardrobe a second thought.
Sometimes you need a dive bar.
Everyone has their own ideas about what watering holes deserve the hallowed title. A 1961 dictionary defined a dive as “a disreputable resort for drinking or entertainment.” In 2010, Playboy put forward this tight description: “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”
For us, a dive is the kind of place where people are escaping from the world rather than updating their Facebook status. It might have a long history, or it might have popped up last year.
Here are some spots in Bangkok that we think will satisfy most dive enthusiasts.
Ad Here the 13th
Yes, a dive bar can have live music. On Facebook it’s promoted as “Adhere,” which makes one think of glue, and once you’re in for the evening you may find yourself stuck fast to your seat listening to some of the finest live blues and R&B anywhere in the city. You’ll have to negotiate your way through the long narrow room, with a tiny stage wedged in against the left wall and rows of well-worn tables and chairs along the right, past several rows of vinyl album covers and street art to reach the bar at the back. Clientele is a mix of Thai artists and musos, international expats, and seasoned backpackers who have escaped nearby Khao San.
Samsen Rd, Soi 1, Banglamphu | 08 9769 4613
Bob Harley Bar
Popular with residents of Bangkok’s Udomsuk neighborhood, this hole-in-the-wall with the requisite Harley Davidson centrepiece is owned and operated by British writer Kristy Turner and her Thai partner. The fact that the bar moved from its original spot on a Ko Samet beach explains the reggae and ska tunes, along with the rastaman color scheme. On Wednesday nights, there’s a regular writers meet-up, hopefully of the Bukowski nature.
Udomsuk Soi 102 at Soi 56 | 08 5804 0451 | FB: bobharleybarbangkok
Popularly known as Cheap Charlie’s, this outdoor conglomeration of driftwood, Christmas lights, US license plates, a dysfunctional toy train, and Old West kitsch has been serving cheap beer and well drinks from the same spot on Sukhumvit Soi 11 since 1982, predating the soi’s dance club era by 20 years. A white line painted on the tarmac sets the boundary within which you are permitted to stand, and when it rains everyone huddles under the narrow roof that extends a few feet out from the bar. A closet-like WC offers a toilet, famed for the “no shit, only pee” sign on the door. The original Charlie, a Thai barman with a passion for Americana, passed away more than a decade ago, leaving his brother Sathit to soldier on.
When the topic of dive bars comes up in Bangkok, pretty much everyone thinks of Wong’s Place first. Pack dense smoke and unpredictable drunks into a narrow barroom decorated with proto-selfie Polaroids, posters, and magazine covers and you have Bangkok’s answer to Hamburg’s Café Lehmitz. Back in the 80s, when Khao San Road was yet barely known, the neighbourhood around the Malaysia Hotel on Soi Ngam Duphli was the city’s main backpacker centre. Two Chinese immigrant brothers, capitalizing on the steady influx of foreigners, and inspired by the success of the Blue Fox, the area’s first bar, opened Wong’s Place in 1987. Wongsie, the older of the two, ran the bar until he died from lung cancer in 2003, after which his younger brother, Sam, took over. Over the decades, the bar has managed to draw virtually every Bangkok barfly, from down-and-out English teachers to Thai celebrities and drag queens. Other than the crowd itself, entertainment focuses on the brothers’ vast collection of music videos (once VHS tapes, now CDs and hard drives), ranging from the 60s to present-day and screened all night long on a monitor over the bar. The hangover produced by an all-night bender at Wong’s is affectionately known as a Wongover.
27/3 Soi Si Bamphen, Rama IV Rd | 08 1901 0235
Skytrain Jazz Bar
A rooftop dive bar may sound like an oxymoron, but as soon as you mount the graffiti-laced cement stairway at ground level, all doubts vanish. Four flights later, you walk through an unmarked doorway into a barely organized jumble of rickety tables and chairs looking out over the BTS line near Victory Monument. Don’t expect to hear jazz. On the rare occasion when there’s live music, it’s supplied by homegrown indie bands. On weekends it’s completely packed out with Thais and expats enjoying what’s probably the only rooftop bar in the city with rock-bottom pricing.
46 Trok Rang Nam, Phayathai Rd | 08 9895 4299
23 Bar & Gallery
Ordinarily you wouldn’t pair an art gallery with a dive bar, but this place is a giant exception. For seven years, 23 Bar livened up Sukhumvit Soi 16 with its reasonably priced drinks, minimal décor, rootsy artwork, and a magnificent selection of rock ‘n’ roll recordings. The heart and soul of the bar is artist and rock DJ Mongkol Sanla, who moved shop to Soi Nana in Chinatown less than a year ago. Mongkol runs the bar as if every night were a house party, inviting guests for shots while dancing behind the bar to everything from grunge and psychedelia to Britpop. Like Wong’s Place, this is a bar you seldom leave sober.
92 Soi Nana, Charoen Krung Rd | 08 0264 4471
Almost all karaoke bars in Bangkok qualify as dives, in our opinion, as long as they aren’t staffed by slinky hostesses and the drinks are cheap. Jing Jok, one floor up from Top Charoen Optics and opposite J Avenue on Thonglor, qualifies with nightly all-you-can-drink specials. You’re charged by the hour at a rate of B600 for men and B400 for women, for local beers, wine, shots, and well drinks, including Chivas Regal and Jameson. The karaoke is pretty much do-it-yourself, aided when necessary by friendly staff, just the way we like it. There’s also snooker and darts for those who don’t croon.
Sukhumvit Soi 55, between Soi 14 and 16 | 09 9953 7973 | FB: jingjokbar
Our favorite karaoke dive is more Japanese than Thai or Western, but all nationalities are welcome to join the affable drunks who line the short bar every night. We have no idea where the name comes from, although a golf-cum-croquet sport called woodball is hugely popular in Taiwan. The original Woodball on Sukhumvit at the mouth of Soi 53 proved so popular that the Japanese management have opened three other branches. The formula is the same at all four: cheap and boozy bar downstairs, casual karaoke rooms upstairs, where you’ll find 130,000 songs to choose from. Plenty of regulars never make it upstairs.
2 Sukhumvit Soi 53, 0 2662 4549
2F 58/14, Soi Thaniya, Silom Rd, 0 2652 4936
595/15 Sukhumvit Soi 33/1, 08 9001 8532
167/4 Surawong Rd, 0 2634 2519