The days are numbered for the pedestrian friendly sub soi off Sukhumvit Soi 11
I can’t remember the first time I wandered up Sukhumvit Soi 11, but I know it was to stay at the legendary Federal Hotel. Of the many Western-style hotels that sprang up across Bangkok in the 1960s, principally to accommodate U.S. servicemen on leave from the Vietnam War, the Fed was considered the most venerable of them all. Built in the early 1960s, the modernist multi-storey hotel developed a loyal clientele that remained steady well after the end of the war in 1975, drawn by large guest rooms and an excellent 24-hour coffeeshop (complete with an anachronistic jukebox).
Bars, cafes, pharmacies, tailor shops, and massage parlors came up along the soi mainly to serve the relatively meager inflow and outflow of the hotel, and as other small hotels followed suit in the 1980s—particularly after the successful Amazing Thailand 1987 global ad campaign—Suk 11 (as it was known) became a popular niche for Bangkok tourism along Sukhumvit Road.
One of the earliest bars to stake a claim on the soi was Charlie’s Bar, more popularly known as Cheap Charlie’s. It occupies a highly visible spot just off Soi 11 at the entrance of a parallel sub-soi. The open-air bar was cobbled together from weathered wood scraps and discarded kitschy decorations in 1982 by Charlie Budkajang, using money he saved selling cigarettes along Soi 11, and funds from his brother Satit’s nearby auto repair business. After the brothers passed away, the bar was left to Satit’s son Ekkachai, who has spent virtually his entire life running it.
At the end of the 1990s and beginning of the early 2000s, dance clubs QBar and Bed Supper Club ushered in a new era of upscale nightlife down at the far end of Suk 11. Meanwhile Cheap Charlie’s served as a sentry for the narrow sub-soi on which it stands, which slowly changed into a haven for punters looking to escape from both the old sleaze and the new glitz of the main soi (Sukhumvit Soi 11 proper).
Mexican restaurant Charley Brown’s moved from Town-in-Town in north Bangkok to the Suk 11 sub-soi in 2003. At the time it was one of Bangkok’s only Mexican restaurants, and the new location proved to be popular with the Suk 11 nightlife crowd. It was soon followed by Moghul Room (Indian cuisine), Tapas Café (Spanish), Snapper (New Zealand-style seafood), and Pickled Liver (British), which was later replaced by Chez Pape (French). Two cozy bars, The Alchemist and Stash, took up residence closer to Cheap Charlie’s and are now packed most nights. Meanwhile, Suk 11 Hostel, virtually the only budget accommodations in the entire Sukhumvit area, spread out across two floors along the entire length of the sub-soi.
Peak popularity for the sub-soi is right now, and it’s easy to see why it took off. “The best thing about this little soi,” says Charley Brown’s owner Dave Bell, “is that it’s a quiet outdoor eating and drinking area right in the heart of the city. I don’t think there’s another location like it and it certainly doesn’t feel like downtown Bangkok.
I remember sitting out front of Chez Pape not long ago and thinking the same thing. With enough cheap wine in your belly, your fuzzed vision might even mistake it for a charmingly run-down Parisian neighbourhood.
When the Federal Hotel closed its doors at the end of 2013 to make way for real estate development, the writing was on the wall for Suk 11. QBar and Bed Supper Club shut down not long afterwards. Cheap Charlie’s owner Ekkachai says his father always knew this day would come. “It’s big money,” says the sun-and-monsoon-weathered bar owner.
Bell agrees. “Our landlords included a new clause in our last contract stating that if they sold the land, we would get a month’s notice. We all contested that and asked for a year, to which they eventually agreed.”
When developers discovered the low-density sub-soi, and a deal with the current landowners was made, Bell and the other business owners got ten months. In March 2017, all businesses in the sub-soi will vacate to make way for a large condo and/or hotel development. According to Ekkachai, a Thai holding company with foreign investors paid B2,000 million for a land parcel which includes the entire sub-soi as well as the west side of the parallel block on Sukhumvit Soi 11.
Cheap Charlie’s, Charley Brown’s, and most of the other businesses say they are looking for new premises elsewhere. Ekkachai says he’s looking for a place with a similar feel, and that the new Cheap Charlie’s will remain an outdoor bar.
“We haven’t chosen a new location yet,” says Bell. “We’re looking at the other side of Lumpini—Sathorn, Silom and Surawong roads, and hope to have chosen a building by the end of December. We’ve had a very good run here, but personally, I feel like Soi 11 has run its course. Without Bed or Qbar, and now with a further 13 businesses wiped out, it doesn’t have the same character. I even miss the VW cocktail vans that used to line the street. There were definitely too many of them, but now there are none, there’s less of a fun vibe.”
My advice?… enjoy this unique sub soi while you still can.